Terror TV and Person of Interest

Curator's Note

According to Fabrizio Cilento, “Post-9/11 cinema emphasizes how the liberal capitalist system elevates the process itself to a dominant value independent of any particular goal and of any positive sociopolitical value.” Person of Interest (POI) certainly partakes of this procedural logic, fetishizing the processes of data mining and visual surveillance that enable our heroes to rescue would-be victims of violence. Like other proceduralist heroes, the protagonists of Person of Interest are myopic and almost pathologically anti-social in their obsessive goal-direction. And, as I argued in my “In Focus” piece, the show’s emphasis on the ubiquity and inescapability of surveillance is anything but sanguine. I came to that conclusion before I had seen the fifth and final season, however. The arc of season five depicts the final confrontation between The Machine and Samaritan, two artificial super-intelligences that seek to govern humanity, albeit by different means. At the beginning of the season, Samaritan has the upper hand, and the opening monologue uses visual and aural “glitches” to convey the implications of this turn. “You asked for [this]” Greer’s ominous voice breaks in to remind us, just as we witness the digital reclassification of our “heroes” from “assets” to “threats.” It is a disturbing entrée that forces viewers to look upon the old world with new eyes. Yet, the episodes themselves work to recuperate this fear and reassert the benevolence of an automated security regime. They achieve this by first feminizing The Machine, then sentimentalizing its procedural routines, which are coded as more-human-than-human. The Machine literally spends the last two episodes in Root/Amy Acker drag recounting its moral education and teaching its human agents lessons in the nobility of sacrifice. Ugh! These patterns are not unique to POI, but are part and parcel of recent counter-terrorist procedurals, from Covert Affairs and Homeland to Zero Dark Thirty and The Good Kill. As Rebecca Adelman argues (in a soon-to-be published essay called “Imperial Cry-Faces”), the feminization of security agents enables the affective labor of security to be written on the body and played for pathos. The tears, troubles and laments of these female agents do not signify true remorse, however. We don’t feel bad about these actions; we feel bad around them, and the upshot of this performance of moral upset is to renew a set of practices that ought to provoke outrage.

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