Since the unexpected and shocking death of my friend Hannah Frank last week, I have been thinking a lot about the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” (Series 2, Episode 1, dir. Owen Harris, 2013). Since the time I first saw it, I’ve thought it was a very good slice of speculative fiction, but it was not until the past week that its insights into 21st century psychology truly hit me.
Genre fiction has long latched on to contemporary technologies as sources of uncanniness and anxiety, especially when it comes to mortality. Tom Gunning has traced the role of the telephone in turn-of-the-century thrillers from Andre de Lorde’s play Au Telephone (1901) to D. W. Griffith’s film The Lonely Villa (1908), noting how both use telephonic technology to highlight feelings of “distance and impotence” in the face of looming mortal danger.[i] Euguene Thacker dwells on the uncanny role media technologies often play in horror and weird fiction, their status as communication tools twisted in ways that render them susceptible to manipulation by invisible malevolent energies. This particular fascination runs deep through J-Horror, but Thacker points out that it suffused the twentieth century, also popping up in several episodes of The Twilight Zone.[ii]
In a sense, then, “Be Right Back” falls into a long and storied lineage, using technology as a way to think about our relation to mortality, and vice versa. It breaks decisively from this tradition, though, in that it doesn’t use death as a way to set up a thriller or a horror story. Instead, it is a story about mourning.
I’m not going to recount the plot of “Be Right Back” in great detail here. I’m still not in the headspace to do throughout analytical writing. Basically: it is about a woman whose husband dies, and who turns to technology to re-create a version of him. Eventually, there is an android involved, one molded to look exactly like him. But the first step is the creation of a chatterbot, the AI of which is programmed by analyzing his social media posts. This stepping-stone service promises that one’s loved ones can still be conversed with via Facebook messages or text chat after the death of their organic bodies. Their charm, warmth, and sense of humor will be catalogued and then painstakingly reproduced, allowing them to be conversed with forevermore.
As I said above, it has recently hit me how much this gets right about the fractured nature of human psychology in the contemporary era. I can accept that Hannah is dead, on an organic level. I can accept that I will never see her again, or talk to her again in person. I am an adult human being. I know what death is, and what to generally expect when it happens.
And yet, in addition to the physical, organic Hannah, there was also the electronic, online Hannah. A satellite Hannah, existing in words and images. And I have to admit that I’m just not wired to be able to say goodbye to that presence in the same way. No matter how much I accept the fact that I will never speak with Hannah or laugh with Hannah or hug Hannah again, I think it’s still going to be hard to fight the absentminded urge to text Hannah. To email her a link to something I think she’ll get a kick out of. To log on to Facebook and see what new cool thing she’s posted. I know how to mourn a person, but I am not yet psychologically equipped to mourn a social media feed.
I kept off of Facebook until March of 2015, when I finally started an account mainly for professional reasons. I wanted to cultivate a casual online presence to go with my professional one, to keep in touch with other media scholars, chatting about conferences, teaching, job posting, politics and the like. When I asked my friend and then-roommate Mikki Kressbach to show me the ropes, she told me I should just take a look at Hannah’s page. Hannah was a pro at keeping up a casual but professional presence on Facebook, she said.
And boy, was she ever right. Hannah wielded Facebook like a genuine educational platform. Her timeline was filled with images and GIFs, little things she had notice, posted to fascinate her readers and leave them in awe of her fastidious viewing practices. As Tien-Tien Jong put it, “Her creativity and energy was everywhere, even in her procrastination.” Hannah showed a more incisive eye in her Facebook feed than most film scholars do across multiple books.
Sometimes, she could be show-off-y, in the best sense. Other times, she was simply celebratory, as when she would bring together her diverse interests in commercial animation and experimental filmmaking.
I have already noted Hannah’s generosity. It extended to her social media presence, as well. If you recommended a film to Hannah via a Facebook comment, she wouldn’t just reply and say that she watched it, and enjoyed it. She would reply—within 24 hours!—with a GIF she made of the exact moment you were talking about, now preserved in a digitally shareable format.
Hannah would post delightful updates from her current scholarships, little things she had noted, liked, and wanted to share—in the genuine sense of someone just completely nerding out over her work, and never in the performative sense seen so often by other academics on Facebook.
I feel like one mark of a truly generous person is that they are always entirely confident in asking things of others. They can sense out the moral equilibrium of a situation well, and never trip over themselves when making requests. In addition to sharing scholarship, Hannah would regularly crowdsource research questions via Facebook, or shoot over a request in a text. The reward for participating was never a simple “please” and “thank you,” but instead the sharing of extra knowledge and trivia. She remained a font of knowledge, even when addressing her own knowledge gaps.
When she shared her creative work, it never felt like raw self-promotion. Her videos and short looping animations were strange, funny, and obsessive enough that they always seemed to be an extension of Hannah’s humor and general temperament.
In various memorials that have been shared over the past week, many have praised Hannah’s humor. I have to admit that Hannah didn’t make me laugh that often in person. It was in textual form that her wit really shone through. Anyone who read her academic work doubtlessly knew this, and anyone who held a conversation with her via text messaging knew it, too. There was something about her deadpan silliness that translated exceptionally well to textual exchange.
And, as seriously as she took teaching, regularly posting syllabi and discussing pedagogy on Facebook, she wasn’t above being silly in that area, as well.
Here’s to the digital version of you, Hannah. It remains to be seen whether I’ll ever be able to completely shake the feeling that you’re still in there, somewhere, humming along the fiber-optic cables. I could never in a million years hope to have as captivating a social media presence as you did, despite Mikki’s recommendation. And, now that you’re gone, social media is never going to feel quite the same for me, again.
[i]. Gunning, Tom. “Heard Over the Phone: The Lonely Villa and the de Lorde Tradition of the Terrors of Technology.” In Screen Histories: A Screen Reader. Ed. Annette Kuhn and Jackie Stacey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
[ii]. Thacker, Eugene. “Dark Media.” In Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation. Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.