Alan N. Shapiro, Hypermodernism, Hyperreality, Posthumanism

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“The Prisoner” as “The Hostage” and the Episode “A. B. and C.”, by Alan N. Shapiro

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The Prisoner as The Hostage and the Episode “A. B. and C.”

Alan N. Shapiro


I will relate The Prisoner to one specific key concept of the French media theorist Jean Baudrillard: his idea of the figure of the hostage as a crucial metaphor for understanding both the situation of our post-political world as we proceed further and further in history beyond the Second World War, and the situation of the individual consumer-citizen in the contemporary postmodern and cybernetic capitalist society. I am going to present an argument in twelve steps where I reinterpret The Prisoner as The Hostage.

Then I will also talk about one specific episode of The Prisoner called “A. B. and C.” “A. B. and C.,” which was first broadcast in the UK on 13 October 1967, features in its story a futuristic technology of an operational interface between the neurological – unconscious and involuntary – experience of dreaming and the ubiquitous and emblematic audiovisual display device of media culture that we call the screen. What I find to be especially interesting about the advanced science fictional technology presented in the episode “A. B. and C.” is that it is simulataneously a totalitarian Nazi-like police technology of torture, interrogation, surveillance and mind-control, and yet is at the same time a potential postmodern cyber-consumerist technology what I call the digital-neurological interface. This technology of, so to speak, the second wave of digitalization would successfully convert signals and information back-and-forth between the neurological data format and what we might call the digital multimedia data format. The coming to realization in the years ahead of such a technology will clearly enable widespread “killer applications” for so-called play, entertainment, pornography, and professional training in the consumer and educational markets. One can even speculate that the digital-neurological system depicted in “A. B. and C.” is an exemplary technology of what we today in 2019 call the approaching Fourth Industrial Revolution.

From Right-Wing to Left-Wing Anarchism

Seen through the interpretive lens of a certain modernist twentieth-century right-wing libertarianism (as this political worldview is called in America), which has its principal intellectual references a novelist like Ayn Rand and a political philosopher like Robert Nozick, The Prisoner has often been understood as representing allegorically the revolt of the courageous and disobeying individual against oppressive political institutions such as bureaucracy and the state. I propose instead the interpretive cultural and political theory of the hostage as elaborated by the postmodernist twenty-first century lefitist and anarchist-leaning thinker Jean Baudrillard as an alternative to the scenario of the heroic rebel struggling bravely against the powers-that-be that want to confine him as the prisoner.

It is interesting that the German producers of the German version of this pioneering and way-ahead-of-its-time 1960s ITV television series chose not to retain the original name of the show The Prisoner, but instead chose a different name: Number Six. In The Village of Mediterranean style yet unknown location to which he has been taken after having been kidnapped, the character played by creator, writer, director, producer and actor Patrick McGoohan has no name, but rather only a number. The same condition of “number-ization” (the French word for digitalization) is the case for all the residents of The Village, including those who work for the Village government or are in positions of authority. Perhaps we should take a cue from the German producers and question if The Prisoner is indeed the most appropriate name for the series. I propose instead to call this classic TV series constructed narratively around the predicament of the British James-Bond-like secret service or intelligence agent who has resigned: The Hostage.

Post-Political Terrorism

Terrorism is an omnipresent post-political or trans-political phenomenon in the contemporary world. The hostage, in a sense, is the twin or double or unwitting partner in which has become the media-attention-grabbing and high-stakes “blackmailing” reality-performance of the terrorist. Postmodern terrorists typically drive vehicles into crowds of pedestrians or carry out suicide bombings or open fire in civilian massacres in third-world countries. Some famous terrorist incidents since the 1960s have included the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, and the Sptember 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York City. Terror, writes Jean Baudrillard in his book Fatal Strategies, is the distorting mirror of the traditional political scene. Terrorism is the mode of disappearance of politics. It is what comes after politics. Terrorism is a kind of viral and radiating-in-all-directions violence that is more violent than the violence itself of classical conventional wars.

Terrorists usually take hostages in order to strengthen their negotiating or adversarial position vis-à-vis another more powerful party, such as a government or international relations nation-state opponent. This would be the straightforward or, for example, Wikipedia definition of the triangular terrorist-hostage-state relationship, which is formulated in ignorance of cultural theory. The hostage is seized by the criminal abductors in order to pressure the enemy in the “contest” to act in a certain insisted upon way according to the demands, under the threat of serious physical harm or fatal execution of the hostages that will come to pass after the deadline of an ultimatum has expired and the demands have not been met. Some famous hostage-taking incidents since the 1960s have included the 1972 Munich massacre when Palestinian terrorists captured and killed members of the Israeli Olympic team, the 1978 kidnapping of the former prime minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in Italy, the diplomatic standoff between America and the Islamic Revolutionary State during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981, the Lebanon hostage crisis of 1982 to 1992, and the Moscow theater hostage crisis of 2002 where 850 hostages were taken by Chechan separatists, and which ended with the deaths of at least 170 people.

One of Baudrillard’s main points in his writings about terrorism, hostages, and the media is that the entire globalized system of postmodern post-politics and cybernetic capitalism today is terrorist, and we are all hostages. The scenario of the TV show called The Hostage (my rename of The Prisoner) takes place in the classic context of the 1960s Cold War: the capitalist democracies of America and the UK versus the communist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. All citizens lived under the constant threat of the potential annihilation of all of humanity and of the entire planet that the stockpiled nuclear weapons which were possessed by both sides represented. We were all held hostage during the Cold War, terrorized by the menace of the possible apocalyptic end that hung over us.

“We’re all pawns, my dear”

What is the definition of the situation of the hostage? “Neither dead nor alive, the hostage is suspended by an incalculable outcome,” writes Baudrillard. The hostage has no control over what is going to happen to him, no control over his own destiny, which has been taken out of his hands. He is a pawn – in the sense of the game of chess – who is used and instrumentalized by the post-political actors who are managing more powerful forces, resources, and institutions with much greater outcomes at stake than the question of whether the person who has been taken hostage is to live or die. The hostage is mere fodder in the negotiations and contested struggles between powerful strategically competing actors. A crucial moment in the first episode of The Hostage called “Arrival” is when the character of the elderly ex-Admiral, seated at his usual position in front of a chessboard at an outdoor table in the patio area overlooking the stationary boat that never leaves its docking position and goes nowhere, says wryly to the female character Number Nine (Number Six turned upside down), who has just betrayed Number Six by promising him a supposed escape from The Village via helicopter which was, in fact, a ploy by the authorities to try to “break him” psychologically through frustration: “We’re all pawns, my dear.”

“Whole peoples can serve as hostages to their leaders,” writes Baudrillard in Fatal Strategies. “The German people were destined for death by Hitler if he was not victorious… In nuclear strategy, civilian populations and great urban centers are used as hostages by military high commands: their death and destruction serve as a dissuasive argument… We now live in a state of permanent suspense and emergency whose symbol is the nuclear bomb.”

“We want information”

I will now lay out the twelve steps of my logical argument for my renaming of The Prisoner as The Hostage. My thesis is that this intellectually brilliant TV show of seventeen episodes illustrates that the terrorists and the state (as the primary example of two parties engaged in the tension of a hostage-taking situation, but one could just as well consider a standoff between two states, such as that between America and Iran in 1979 and since) are one single system. They are complicit and are one and the same constellation. They are dependent on each other for their mutually perpetuating existence. As a powerful metaphor, the Village Authorities are both the takers of the hostage Number Six and those to whom the demands –whose fulfillment would allegedly lead to the release of the hostage – are made. But it is actually not the case that the demands could ever be met, and therefore there is actually no way that the hostage Number Six could ever be freed.

Step One of my argument: In the famous and iconic opening dialogue between Number Six and Number Two that occurs as part of the opening sequence of fifteen of the seventeen episodes of the show, Number Two tells Number Six that what the Village Authorities are interested in obtaining is information:

Number Six: Where am I?

Number Two: In the Village.

Six: What do you want?

Two: Information.

Six: Whose side are you on?

Two: That would be telling. We want information…information… information!!!

Six: You won’t get it!

The usual interpretation of this segment of dialogue is that the Village Authorities are seeking information from Number Six in the sense of a specific content of information. They want the information in the specific context of the question of why did Number Six resign his position as a secret service intelligence agent. To which side or “major player” in the Cold War did he defect? To which party offering a large sum of money or other rewards did he “sell out”? According to my reading, however, when Number Six replies “You won’t get it!,” what he is implying is a deconstruction or critique of the very concept of information as the Village Authorities have defined it. This concept is, as Number Six is pointing out, invalid, because there exists no information in the sense of an actual content which would in fact satisfy the Authorites to the extent that they would then release the hostage.

To the viewers of the show, it becomes abundantly clear on a number of occasions (already in the opening sequence when Number Six returns to his home in London and packs his vacation travel brochures into his suitcase, and also in the episode “A. B. and C.”) that Number Six resigned his post in order to go on vacation. He was fed up with the whole thing and decided to drop out. His motivation was the personal circumstance of what we might today call stress or burnout. This fact is made evident by the narrative conclusion of “A. B. and C.” Even the extreme psychological mind-control technique that reaches into the deepest levels of his subconscious cannot uncover any other motivation for his resigning than the desire to go on holiday. No matter how many times throughout the seventeen-episode series it becomes crystal clear also to the Authorities themselves that Number Six had no other motivation whatsoever beyond burnout and his wish going on holiday, they still refuse to accept that fact. They are not interested in the truth. The only answer which hypothetically could satisfy them would be one which would correspond to what they want to hear. Probably such an answer will never come. This state of things is reminiscent of the contemporary sociological situation of the state and the capitalist-consumer society making endless demands of their citizens which the latter can never adequately satisfy. We are endlessly in debt financially, for example, and can never catch up with the credit system, never stop working every day, and never be released from our fundamental condition of indebtedness.

Deconstructing James Bond

Step Two: The Village is undoubtedly a joint venture financed and managed by both sides in the Cold War, holding as hostages former intelligence agents and high-ranking military officers of the state security operations of both the Western bloc and the Eastern bloc. The word telling – spoken by Number Two in the iconic opening dialogue in response to the question “Whose side are you on?” has three meanings in English: (1) as a verb, meaning to recite or recount, as in “telling a story”; (2) as a verb, meaning to confess what one really thinks or to reveal the truth about a situation – this would be the obvious interpretation of the utterance; and (3) as an adjective, meaning something that would be very significant and carry a great weight of explanation. In the initial episode “Arrival,” one of the first Village residents whom Number Six meets upon his arrival there is the female driver of the taxi (which resembles a golf cart) who speaks to him briefly in French (because it “is international”) and tells him that it is very common in The Village to meet Poles or Czechs. The character Nadia in the episode “The Chimes of Big Ben” tells Number Six that she is Estonian, yet she has an ethnic Russian name and speaks perfect Russian. There are many indications throughout the series that The Village is indeed a facility shared by the mega-power or mega-state – the “one unified system” – that is running both sides of the Cold War.

Step Three: One can say that the Second World War was still a classical Hot War. World War II was fought with tanks and aerial bombs and large armies of infantry soldiers. The many deaths were visible. Step Four: The Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, by contrast, was in many ways a simulation, a fake, a deterrence of the populations on both sides from achieving certain states of awareness about what was going on. The media-consuming public on both sides had to be convinced of the alleged “reality” of this alleged “war.” Death and destruction were not visible, or were confined to satellite or proxy conflicts like the “space race” or the undeclared war in Vietnam, or were virtualized in the permanent threat of the nuclear holocaust which might occur. Step Five: The novelistic and cinematic figure of the M16 British spy James Bond was a perfect symbol of this simulation or “fake” mise-en-scène. The new currency of the Cold War was espionage, information, and the clever tricks and heroics and martial arts skills of the secret agents. Bond was a “one-man army.” He was himself the war.

Step Six: We know that it was essentially Patrick McGoohan’s intention to “critique” the myth of the James Bond-like character, a major example of which was John Drake, whom McGoohan himself had played in Danger Man, the TV series in which he had starred in the early 1960s, and on the early conception of which James Bond author Ian Fleming had collaborated. McGoohan had already evolved the John Drake character in some significant non-James-Bond-like directions: Drake did not use firearms nor did he kiss women. There is a controversy among fans of The Prisoner as to whether or not Number Six is John Drake. Step Seven: My contention is that Patrick McGoohan, with his creation of The Prisoner, not only succeeded in satirically deconstructing the systematic and ideological functioning of the Cold War, but was also brilliantly prescient in enacting a science fictional commentary on what I would call the post-1970 configuration of terrorists, hostages and the state which would become the dominant mode of post-politics (a few years after the broadcasting of The Prisoner) in our media-saturated globalized world, and which still has the ring of truth today.

Sorry, you cannot drop out

Step Eight: With respect to the triangular arrangement of terrorists, hostages and the state, I have already expounded on the Wikipedia-style definition of demands, ultimatum, deadline, and repercussions if the demands are not met. Step Nine: I have already explained  that, according to the cultural theory of a thinker like Baudrillard, the terrorists and the state are all one unified system and are dependent on each other. The state justifies its repressive security measures imposed on the entire population with the excuse of citing the dangers posed by the terrorists. Some more “conspiracy”-minded theories go even further than Baudrillard and suggest that, in some circumstances, it is the state which finances and superintends the activities of the terrorists. The character of Number Six in effect places into question the rules of this entire unified system, with his desire to simply “go on vacation.” The intelligence agency and the Village government tell him, in effect: “No, you cannot do that. You cannot simply drop out. It is not allowed.” Not only are both sides part of one single system, but if you choose to leave one side, then it must absolutely be the case that you have “gone over” to the other side, to the supposed – constructed or simulated – “enemy,” even if you have not. The fiction of the enemy must, at all costs, be maintained. And you will be held hostage to preserve the illusion of the antagonism. You must stay in The Village until you make up a convincing story which satisfies us.

Step Ten: As I have already elucidated, during the Cold War, we were all held hostage by the threat and fear of the total destruction of nuclear war. Step Eleven: In the generalized sense of our rights and responsibilities as consumer-citizens, we are all in the situation of hostages. Endless demands are made of the citizens which they can never meet. We are all hostages of that statistical and formal cybernetic model known as “the social” which insists that we permanently participate, self-regulate, keep ourselves secure and insured, manage our own identity, and micro-administer our own money, health, and desires.

Trump Holds the World Hostage

Step Twelve: The so-called “real” demands are in fact a simulation. The current Reality TV simulated “president” of the United States “Donald Trump” takes this logic to some extreme consequences. As the president who has eliminated any separation between politics and the media of Reality TV, one of Trump’s primary interests is the creation or staging of “photo ops” where he can look good to his supporters and potential voters, and make them feel that he has accomplished something. Thus Trump is keenly interested in bringing about the release of hostages who are American citizens and who have been held captive in foreign countries such as North Korea, China, Afghanistan, and Venezuela. Then Trump can appear on TV with a big smiling grin on his face, his trophy ex-fashion model wife at his side, and adorned by the accessory of the grateful freed hostage. Trump is even willing to pay money to get the hostage released, as was the case with Otto Warmbier and North Korea, or to make other secret promises to the adversarial party. This leads to Trump becoming part of a self-perpetuating system of terrorism. Knowing that Trump is eager to stage these spectacular TV moments of tears and joy, the terrorists or the foreign powers are encouraged to engage in the taking of yet more hostages.

Some commentators have pointed out that The Village in The Prisoner is a perfect metaphor for the current situation in Great Britain of the “Brexit.” The provincialism of the highly successful neo-fascist populist-nationalist movements such as Trumpism and Brexit are holding the broad cosmopolitan swathes of the populations of their respective countries hostage, not allowing them to move forward in solving major problems like climate change and mass automation-generated unemployment, due to the nostalgia felt by the sympathisers of these populist movements for “making their nation or race great again.”

“You won’t get it”

To conclude, I return now to my exegesis of the episode of The Prisoner called “A. B. and C.” We see at the beginning of the episode that the terrorism of The Village extends also to the upper echelons of the Village power hierarchy. Number Two (played by Colin Gordon) is himself terrorized by Number One, from whom he receives threatening phone calls expressing the impatience of those at the highest level of power of The Village to see Number Six psychologically broken and the “information” acquired. Number Fourteen (played by Sheila Allen), the female scientist and medical doctor who has developed the technological machine to control a patient’s noctural dreams and project them onto a screen, is terrorized by Number Two. At one point, he says that the machine is going to be administered on her if the extraction of information from Number Six does not succeed. The scene of Numbers Two and Fourteen deciding step-by-step what to do as the procedure on Number Six’s unconscious mind proceeds is a classic moment of interaction between the hyper-aggressive Nazi commanding officer and the sadistic Nazi doctor.

The dream scene that is to be implanted into the subconscious mind of Number Six is a nighttime party in Paris at the home of a wealthy female host named Madame Engadine. Number Six is to meet a succession of three persons (the foreign agents A. B. and C) whom he knew in real life before his abduction, and who are all candidates for being someone to whom he might have “sold out,” or who might now be able to extract the “information” from him. The party was a real event in his recent past life, and Number Six had, in fact, spoken with all three of those individuals on the night of the real-life party. The three dream interventions are going to take place on three successive nights, with Number Six returning to a normal awake state on the two days following the first and second interventions. In order to put him into a deep sleep where he will experience the manipulable dream-state, a drug is administered to him in his tea just before going to bed. The sleeping Number Six is brought to the Doctor’s laboratory, injected with a special drug, and connected to the machine. His ongoing dream is then displayed on a TV- or computer-monitor-like screen.

“A” worked for the British secret service and became a defector. During the first night of the dream-state, Number Six refuses to “sell his secrets” to A. Then A kidnaps him, but Number Six escapes from A and from his henchmen. The next day, the awake Number Six sees Number Fourteen buying flowers outside his apartment. He also sees an incision mark on his right wrist. A few minutes later, he sits down at the outdoor café at Number Fourteen’s table and engages in conversation with her. He begins to form a suspicion that something manipulative is going on. In the second controlled dream later that night, the female spy “B” asks Number Six about his intentions after resigning, and where he plans to go. He declines to answer her. Number Fourteen then uses technology of the dream-machine to speak directly to Number Six in the dream “Virtual Reality” (VR), talking through the mouth of the female foreign agent. Some “bad guy” characters in the dream are going to shoot “B” if Number Six does not share the “information,” but he remains indifferent to her pleas to save her life.

The Mirror of Seduction

During the day after the second night, dim memories of the experiment becoming more vivid incite Number Six to follow Number Fourteen first around The Village and then into the woods, where he eventually discovers her secret laboratory. He finds a way to get inside the building through an air duct just as Number Fourteen is departing the premises after a quick stop in the lab room to check out a few things and retrieve some papers. Entering that room where the two-way audio-visual output and input of his dreams has been taking place, Number Six quickly achieves a workable understanding of how the machine operates, and devises a plan to turn the procedure around against his interrogators. He discharges most of the final drug injection from its syringe and hypodermic needle into tissue paper, and dilutes what remains with water. Then he returns to his ironically sign-designated “Private” Village residence and fakes drinking the knockout tea and falling into a drug-induced deep sleep.

Returning to the Parisian party for the third time in the dream-state, but this time more in control of the dream, Number Six nonetheless has a strange surreal encounter with a mirror, bringing to our attention philosophically the complex and confusing relationship between reality and dream, or between self-identity and the mirror-image. A mysterious blonde woman at the party hands him a valuable earring to use to bet on the number six at roulette. “Number Six,” she says to him enigmatically, “I’m sure it’s your lucky number.” This woman character is played by the actress Georgina Cookson, who also has the lead role as Mrs. Butterworth in London and Number Two in The Village in the episode “Many Happy Returns.” Her brief yet stunningly important appearance in “A. B. and C.” is a priceless intertextual reference.

“He was going on holiday”

The roulette wheel spins and the winning number six comes up. Instead of thirty-five earrings or a large pile of chips, Number Six receives as his winnings a large metal key to an unknown door. It is one of two matching keys, and its companion is in the possession of Madame Engadine, who now appears for a short time to be the foreign agent spy to whom Six is going to betray his country. Madame Engadine drives with him in her car to a castle outside of Paris. There Number Six is going to meet with the elegant Frenchwoman’s boss, whom she herself has never seen in the flesh. Number Fourteen, observing the unfolding events on the screen in the lab, decides to call Engadine’s boss “D.” In the dream-slash-VR, Number Six enters the castle and finds himself standing on a street in the dark night, even though the sunlight of dawn had already emerged on the near side of the castle entrance. Six then encounters “D” at a close physical proximity that would be face-to-face, except for the fact that “D”’s face is hidden under a black mask. Knowing that the scene is being observed by the Village Authorities, Six tears off “D”’s mask forcefully to reveal that he is (the about to be ex-) Number Two.

The corporeal Number Two who is watching on the screen is driven to despair by this startling, macabre and comedic revelation. The character played by Patrick McGoohan has gained full control of the dream-state and has rewritten the narrative to suit his own strategic ends. Still inside the dream, and carrying in his hand the envelope that supposedly has inside of it the “valuable information” that is perhaps vital to British and American national security, Number Six returns to The Village and to the laboratory. Hearing a bang on the lab entrance door which is, in fact, emanating from the audio of the Virtual Reality, Numbers Two and Fourteen turn their heads in fear towards the real door, then turn back to the virtual door image, then look back for an instant to the real door, then gaze at the screen image again. The dream-yet-conscious version of Number Six confronts the dream version of Number Two and Number Fourteen. He hands the envelope to Number Two, which the latter believes contains the crucial information that will, at this point, save his own life from the ultimate punishment at the hands of Number One for Two’s failure to “crack” Six. Instead the envelope contains only vacation travel brochures of Italy and Greece. “He was going on holiday,” says Number Fourteen. “I wasn’t selling out,” says Number Six. “That wasn’t the reason I resigned.”

Number Two is psychologically broken and devastated. An ominous alarm sound is emitted by the hyper-designed orange phone. Number Two knows that it is Number One calling.

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