Katherine N. Hayles’s Virtual Bodies and Black Mirror’s “USS Callister”

In an effort to physicalize Katherine N. Hayles’s abstracted theories regarding the posthuman and virtuality, I’d like to closely examine one of the episodes from the most recent season of Black Mirror, “U.S.S. Callister” against Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Infomatics. Before reading any further, please be aware that there will be spoilers! If you haven’t yet watched this episode, please do yourself a favor, load up Netflix and enjoy this dark send-up of toxic nerd culture. Once you’re done, please come back here. 



Ok. I assume that if you’ve made it this far, you’ve either watched “U.S.S. Callister” or you don’t really care about it being spoiled (you should still watch it later). Either way, welcome aboard.

“U.S.S. Callister” is an episode of Black Mirror, co-written by creator Charlie Brooker and William Bridges, and directed by Toby Haynes. It features Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), a quietly angry “nice guy” coder and co-creator of a popular virtual reality game known as Infinity. In order to seek revenge on all who “wrong” him in real life, Daly uploads their consciousnesses into his own custom build of the game, “U.S.S. Callister.”1 His custom build is designed to simulate his favorite television series, Star Fleet where he can play tyrannical captain to the unfortunate consciousnesses trapped within the system. 2 Unlike the other members of his crew who are nothing more than pure information uploaded into the game, Daly must plug into the game through electrodes attached to his cranium.

The first chapter of Hayles’s How we Became Posthuman opens with Hayles sharing that the idea for this book began after she read Hans Moravec’s Mind Children. According to Hayles, reading about the potential future ability to “download human consciousness into a computer” was “a roboticist’s dream that struck me as a nightmare.” 3 Moving from this dream/nightmare, Hayles explains that her goal in writing this book is to prevent the repeated erasure of the body in discussions about cybernetics. 4 In working towards this goal, Hayles covers a number of concepts, erasures, and introduces multiple key concepts. For the purposes of this blog post, I will focus on remediation, the separation of information from materiality, and flickering signifiers.

Remediation and the Necessity of a Medium

Hayles insists throughout chapters one and two of How we Became Posthuman that “abstracting information from a material base is an imaginary act.” 5 In other words, information requires a medium in order for the information to exist. At the start of chapter one, Hayles asks, “Even assuming such a separation (mind from body) was possible, how could anyone think that consciousness in an entirely different medium would remain unchanged, as if it had no connection with embodiment?” 6 Pointing to Star Trek’s “Beam me up, Scotty,” Hayles posits that belief in the possibility of information to circulate unchanged across different mediums is popularly accepted within our current culture. A similar version of the Star Trek dematerializing/rematerializing technology discussed by Hayles appears in “U.S.S. Callister,” however, it takes on a different form because the characters aboard the USS Callister are themselves informational code rather than material bodies. Therefore, when they “dematerialize,” what is actually happening is a brief disappearance of the character’s signifier before it reappears elsewhere in the program. The remediation of this technology results in a more horrifying tone: In Star Trek, teleportation is familiar, but for the recently uploaded consciousness of Nanette Cole, her dematerialization is both unfamiliar and a reminder that she is no longer an embodied creature.

The USS Callister program is itself a remediation of Daly’s favorite television show, Star Fleet, which is a remediation of Star Trek. We can see the obvious nod to Star Trek in the show’s brightly lit opening scenes and costumes. Unlike the rest of the episode, this opening bit is filmed in fullscreen rather than widescreen and takes on a retro-future vibe. The common joke within the Star Trek fandom that red shirts always die is referenced here as well: the only two characters donning red uniforms undergo brutal transformations.

The ship is also a remediation of Daly’s work environment. As noted in Cynthia Davidson’s slideshow on avatars and cyborgs, self-identity is often played with online. In virtual simulations, the player can create a self that is better able to connect with others, has more power, etc. In his real life, working at Callister, Inc., Daly may co-own the company, but he is helplessly unable to talk to women, manage his employees or demand respect from the other owner. Aboard the USS Callister, he is remediated into the captain of the ship,  feared by the crew members, all of whom are the uploaded consciousnesses of his coworkers and employees.

Hayles was right to question whether information can remain unchanged once it has been remediated. The uploaded consciousnesses of Daly’s employees and co-owner are separated from their material body and are now made of nothing more than information. Their virtual signifiers look almost exactly like their real bodies (they call themselves “digital clones” or “copies”), but there are some major changes to their virtual bodies (avatars?) which I will discuss later. Through their remediation into pure code, these consciousnesses undergo personality changes. Co-owner of Callister, Inc., Walton, is now a terrified subordinate of Daly, while Cole transforms from the nice fan-girl/victim of a toxic work environment into a rebel hacker able to lead the others in a plot against Daly.

Information Vs. Materiality and Flickering Signifiers

Embodiment and disembodiment is present throughout “U.S.S. Callister.” In the “real world” scenes, information is constantly flowing through and connecting with the material world. The soft glow of digital lights, ear pieces, electronic sounds, and ever-present monitors are visible in almost every shot. Most importantly, perhaps, human DNA is also present within the “real” world. According to the logic of “U.S.S. Callister,” Daly is able to upload the consciousnesses of others in order to create digital clones using their DNA. While uploading Cole into his program, we see a collection of 0s and 1s as well as GATTACA strands alongside each other on his computer monitor. Hayles classifies DNA as a form of information rather than embodiment, however, DNA strands are the building blocks/code which creates the human body. Is this not another form of embodiment? In “U.S.S. Callister,” DNA fits Hayles’s reading of DNA as information, however, it also claims that consciousness is embedded within DNA strands. This pushes against Hayles’s concept that consciousness is also directly tied to embodiment. The media which houses information directly informs its expression.

In Daly’s program, however, the information simply allows him to house multiple consciousnesses within his computer program. The DNA (maybe) has nothing to do with the avatars connected to each consciousness, as Daly manipulates their signifiers at will. For example, in order to adhere to Star Fleet’s “PG universe,” all avatars within the program have no genitals or anuses. When Daly wants to punish the uploaded consciousnesses for not playing along with his game, he transforms their signifier into something monstrous. For not going to her “station” on the ship, Cole briefly looses her face. Most are simply “monsterfied” and are turned into a variety of space beasts. Even when they are transformed into these bizarre avatars, their consciousness remains unchanged. When the team comes across Jeanette “from marketing,” she is in the form of a monster, yet they are able to sit and chat with her about how she’s “been doing” and “how “great” she looks. This is part of the dreadfulness of the punishment: once assigned to your avatar, you remain eternally represented as such until Daly chooses to change it. Additionally, the uploaded consciousnesses are still able to feel, sense, and experience a wide assortment of pain despite not having a material body. Hayles’s concept of “flickering signifiers,” or signifiers that, due to their immateriality and digital existence, are constantly prone to sudden changes and dispersions 7 may be helpful to consider here. Just as digital text can be lost (and therefore non-existant), the digital clones exist only through their avatars within the game. These signifiers are mutated rather than castrated, as are Lacan’s “floating signifiers.”  The signified consciousnesses in “U.S.S. Callister” are both castrated and are prone to mutation. As of right now, I’m not sure what to make of this, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Cole: “…this has to be a dream.”

Walton: “It’s more like an eternal-waking nightmare.”

Overall, “U.S.S. Callister” seems to make an argument against the myth of complete disembodiment similar to that presented by Hayles. Rather than viewing disembodiment as a dream of eternal life and endless freedom, it becomes a nightmare of digital enslavement. Daly constantly threatens the digital clones with the punishment of eternal life, and many of them beg for death. With this in mind, the tone of the episode’s conclusion becomes clouded. (Clone) Cole is able to take control of the ship with the help of the other digital clones while Daly is distracted. They drive the ship into the firewall of an update patch (depicted as a wormhole within the game). They assume that the firewall will delete everything attached to the rogue game, including themselves. Cole notes that they would be deleted, and therefore “dead,” but “we’d be free.” This contrasts heavily with the “dream” of the disembodiment myth as described by Hayles, which claims that virtuality will allow for greater freedom to explore new spaces and live eternal life. Once the digital clones drive through the wormhole, however, they find themselves still sentient, existing in “the cloud.” Despite the fact that they are still trapped within a Star Trek – esque digital universe (although it now presents itself as more like The Next Generation rather than the original series) for eternity, the crew of clones are all smiles. Even Cole seems invigorated by the “freedom” they have to explore the digital universe forever. While the tone of the ending of “U.S.S. Callister” feels happy and triumphant, perhaps it really isn’t. I suspect that this is yet another disturbing ending to an episode of Black Mirror, however, as Hayles argues, our cultural belief in virtuality and disembodiment allows us to view this as a happy ending.

Anyway… sorry this post was so long! There is SO MUCH going on in this episode, but I didn’t realize that until I started writing… now that I think about it, there is so much more that I can say about “U.S.S. Callister” and Hayles, but I’ll stop my post here.


1. How do you reading the ending of “U.S.S. Callister”? Is this another dystopia of Black Mirror or does it offer a more utopian alternative to Hayles’s reading?

2. Can we view this episode as subversive? Does it provide viewers with an alternative to virtual disembodiment?

3. As I stated earlier, the flickering signifiers of the digital clones are both castrated and mutated by Daly throughout the episode. What can we make of this in relation to Hayles’s reading off mutation and castration? I feel like there is something to be said about this, but I haven’t been able to piece it together for myself yet. If I come up with something over the next few days, I’ll update my ideas here.

4. Are the signifiers of the digital clones “avatars” or something else? The clones’ signifiers are completely under the control of Daly, so I’m hesitant to call them avatars.

5.What’s up with feminism constantly being attached to these sorts of discussions of virtual disembodiment? Many critics have connected “U.S.S. Callister” to toxic masculinity in nerd culture and the workplace, as well as to the recent #timesup movement. By the end of the episode, we see a female hacker (who even in the digital world has to prove her worth and capabilities to her male counterparts) become captain of the ship.

  1. The word “wrong” is in quotes here because very minor offense are deemed worthy of punishment. For example, the receptionist is uploaded into the system because she “didn’t smile enough,” while the intern finds himself trapped on the USS Callister because he messed up Daly’s sandwich order.
  2.  Star Fleet is purposefully similar to the original series of Star Trek
  3. pp. 1.
  4. pp. 5
  5. pp.13
  6. pp. 1
  7. pp. 30
This entry was posted in Digital Rhetoric, Horror, Television and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Katherine N. Hayles’s Virtual Bodies and Black Mirror’s “USS Callister”

  1. Jon Heggestad says:

    3. You wrote, “The signified consciousnesses in ‘U.S.S. Callister’ are both castrated and are prone to mutation. As of right now, I’m not sure what to make of this, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.” This reminded me of Hayles parting call-to-action: to “put an interpretive spin on [our embodied virtualities]—one that opens up the possibilities of seeing pattern and presence as complementary rather than antagonistic” (49). If virtual selves are both castrated and mutated, is shows how pattern and presence are working together. (Although here, it’s all negative, isn’t it? It’s actually randomness and absence that are working together… but at least they’re cooperating.)

    • I’m sorry your comments were lost! I hope that doesn’t happen to me right now…

      I really love your third point. If absence and randomness are working together here, it could be something positive (as you said, at least they’re working together), but it also appears to be all negative. By the end of the episode, however, they are no longer castrated and are instead “mutated” into sleeker, more futuristic versions of themselves. Maybe the castration in Daly’s program is part of its nod to the “PG” days of past media?

  2. Jon Heggestad says:

    Sad. I had three points, and two got deleted. Ha. The first two were shorter:
    1. I loved this post, and I wrote about an episode of Black Mirror this week, too.
    2. Thinking about your fourth question that you raised, I think the term that you offer elsewhere (in place of avatar) works well: “consciousness.” I wrote more about this idea of digital consciousnesses, but I’m too despondent about losing my earlier version of this comment that I can’t go on. Bless.

  3. Vivien Abraham says:

    Hi Caitlin, this post was interesting and thought-provoking. To respond to your question 4: if the definition of “avatar” is a digital image, then I think that these remediated forms may assume that name on face value. However, these differ firstly because as you indicate, the person represented by the avatar is usually in control of the appearance of their own signifier. I would also observe that as computer users, we recognize avatars by appearance. But there is something else going on in this episode, specifically the example of Jeanette, who is easily recognized by her teammates within the system, even though she looks nothing like herself. This indicates that for the crew, her signifier is something other than visual. Might they be recognizing her consciousness? In any case, the indication is that these signifiers consist of an element unrecognized by the human viewer, and have a deeper meaning that the word “avatar” can provide.

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this “avatar” question. Although the digital clones don’t control their appearances (until the very end), the programmer (Daly) does possess this ability. Maybe these still count as avatars, in the way that computer icons can also be considered avatars? The uploaded consciousnesses are nothing more than a collection of digital information, and therefore would not have control of their avatars in the game- they are now part of the game!
      I’m not sure about how they recognize Jeanette, or how they’re able to hold a conversation with her (she grunts inaudibly, yet they seem to understand her). Maybe you’re right- there’s something happening here that we, the human viewers, cannot see.

  4. Caterina Reed says:

    Hi Caitlin,

    Sad to say, I have not yet watched Black Mirror (though my sister tells me that I should). I will definitely add this show to my watchlist 🙂 In any case, when I read your post, I immediately thought of one of my childhood favorites – “Scooby Doo and the Cyber Chase.” The Mystery gang are accidentally hit by a laser and end up in the virtual world where they meet up with their “virtual counterparts.” The only reason they were investigating near the laser in the first place is because a “Phantom Virus” left the digital world and was beamed out of the game and takes a real world form. It is a silly example, but I felt slightly relevant in the way that the digital world can make a real impact on the “real” world.

    In regards to point #5, as we all know, shows such as Black Mirror reflect what is going on in our current history. I do believe that it is a commentary on all of the abuse and harassment cases that are coming to light now. I do like the fact that there is a female hacker as captain at the end. This episode provides a commentary that in Daly’s desire for revenge, he actually makes his situation worse for himself (a “nightmare”) and literally becomes trapped by his own desire to control others. I have more ideas, but I’ll have to return~

    • Ha! I’ll have to find that Scooby-Doo episode. Surprisingly, this is the second Scooby Doo episode recommended to me this week based on my research interests.

      I really like your reading of Daly inadvertently creating and trapping himself in his own nightmare. Throughout the episode, the digital clones describe the program as Daly’s “dream” and their “nightmare,” and Daly as an “asshole god.” He has complete control as both the captain of the ship and developer of the program. As the story’s heroine, Cole sneers at this idea, stating that “he’s a coder, not a god.” It definitely reminded me a lot of the power wielded and abused by figures like Weinstein- but these figures can always be brought down. This is especially clear based on Cole’s ominous past work environment and boss about whom she is unable to describe beyond the word “toxic.”

  5. Cynthia Davidson says:

    Such a great, great example/episode, Caitlin. I don’t have time to do it justice right now (on my way to another class) but I’m going to finish watching it before our class. There are so many ways to approach this episode. As for what you said about castration versus mutation, I think back to Hayles’ example of THE FLY–where she describes how Jeff Goldblum’s character hardly notices that his penis fell off because everything else is mutating (he puts it in a jar, like a memorial shrine to an earlier age, or a Boy Scout badge in a scrapbook). But I would like to hear more about what you’re relating to Freudian theory here in the episode. Blackmail is certainly a theme in the Black Mirror episode, and the simulation of blackmail is no less real to the copies of the employees that live on the spaceship.

    • Thanks for the response!
      I was thinking about Hayles’s THE FLY example because it really helps to complicate this episode. Although they all experience mutation and fear the ever-present threat of more extreme mutation, they also react to the loss of their genitals. Walton desperately smacks his “mound” while they explain their frustration at no longer being able to engage in sexual activity; Upon discovering her own castration, Cole declares that, “stealing my pussy is a red-fucking-line.” Also, even though this castration has happened, gender is still present for the digital clones and Daly within the game. Only the female crew-members are expected to kiss Daly (but there is “never any tongue,” so no penetration) and Cole is able to use her body to seduce Daly on a distant planet in the digital galaxy.

      The simulation of blackmail is very real to the digital clones. Even though he knows that it is not really his son in the game, Walton is “broken” by Daly after being forced to watch the signifier of his son compress in space (“…they freeze and crack like a porcelain doll”). Later, they threaten the real Cole by claiming that they will disseminate her nude photos if she doesn’t follow their instructions. I guess the digital clones treat blackmail so seriously because they also view their own experience as real. Viewed as mutants rather than castrated beings, their information is present, there is no risk of it disappearing. Rather, this information and the attached signifier has mutated. They still view their “real” selves as themselves. For example, when Cole first meets the digital clones, they are all eager to learn what they look like on the outside (Walton asks, “Did you see me? Did I look thin? Like, wheat-grass-yoga thin?”) and when deciding how to get her “real” self to cooperate, Cole says that “I would do anything to make sure those pictures don’t get out.” Hayles describes something similar to this as part of the posthuman condition: “…an ‘I’ transformed into a ‘we’ of autonomous agents operating together to make a self” (6).

  6. Ryan Stears says:

    Hey, Caitlin– I honestly started watching “Black Mirror” a few days ago, and I thought the first episode was extremely bizarre. However, after reading this post and upon further reflection, I cannot wait to continue watching.
    Your remediation analysis makes me think of Stephen Spielberg’s upcoming film, “Ready Player One.” The film deals centers on Wade Watts’ journey to find an “Easter egg” in a virtual reality game called the OASIS that was planted by the deceased inventor of the game. See the trailer here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSp1dM2Vj48. As you can see by the trailer, the film is, ironically, one giant Easter egg, as it is a remediation to 1980s and 90s sci-fi films and video games (did you catch the DeLorean in the trailer?). I can’t wait to nerd out when I see the film. Ha ha!

    • Hi, Ryan- yes, I’ve seen the trailer for READY PLAYER ONE and I’m pretty excited to watch it. I’m really fascinated by the fact that the 1980’s is the decade our current media seems to constantly want to exploit for nostalgia. Perhaps this is simply because that generation is consuming these products, but I feel like it’s gone beyond that – commercials, movies, Stranger Things, IT, etc…. I suspect this may have something to do with the introduction of neoliberalism to American via the Reagan administration of the 1980’s, but I may also be a bit paranoid. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.