The Imipolex question was planted for him by somebody, back at the Casino Hermann Goering, with hopes it would flower into a full Imipolectique with its own potency in the Zone.
—THOMAS PYNCHON, Gravity’s Rainbow
Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth.
—MARSHALL MCLUHAN, Understanding Media
THE STATUS of Pynchon’s masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow as an epitome of postmodernism is well established. “If Thomas Pynchon didn’t already exist in secrecy, he would have to be invented in order to verify postmodernism,” writes Kittler.1 Insofar as we should now ironize postmodern indeterminacy, the impulse follows from features Kittler spotlights here, the Pynchonian sense that verification is preprogrammed remotely by fabrications and functionaries. Against the new realist uncriticality, Pynchon might help us investigate a durable literary–historical interface between epistemological confidence and ontological confusion that may have been baked into media modernity all along. This chapter looks at the hidden phenomenology of technical images of alternative modernity in Spoilers, Triggers, Black Boxes. I’m not only interested in discussing what Kittler calls “electomystical” currents but also in situating Pynchonian modernism in an expanded account of meaning of material in inhumanist modernity. This modernity depends on the disruptions of cause/effect facilitated by the technical image, the dark phenomenology of programs, and the real abstractions of hidden metadata. Compressed into black boxes and conditioned by Imipolex G—the spoiler becomes the trigger, reorienting modernity to a hidden administrative program of the apparatus, operating like the camera shutter release or a V2 rocket launch protocol, transforming signs into signals and communications into risk calculations. Beyond the zero is the Golem of inhuman automatization, a style of management as more metadata—more potential indexes—that’s smaller, less graspable, and more controlled.
Imipolex G. Spoiler alert: I’m going to tell you all about it. “The material of the future,” it’s at once a Nazi polymer and a MacGuffin that’s linked somehow—by time-based proximity—to the central hermeneutic enigma of Gravity’s Rainbow. Imipolex G was used to condition the erections of Tyrone Slothrop—you may or may not already know this: he’s the pseudo-protagonist of Pynchon’s mega-novel—so as to anticipate, guide, and perhaps even remotely trigger the ballistic trajectory of Nazi rockets. Eventually (right before the end of the book, that is), someone else—not Slothrop, who’s still MIA—but another person, will get encapsulated in Imipolex, black-boxed in the nose-cone compartment of Rocket 00000, erected on the V-2 launch pad, and then rocket-launched. Like Schrodinger’s cat, for a given observer, the body hovers in-form, in a suspended state between input and output, simultaneously alive and dead, between remote detonation and telematic control, as if to herald one of the new weapons of control Gilles Deleuze foretells in his famous postscript: the human body becoming form factor for data throughput, becoming technical, recording hidden information for invisible ledgers. The spoiler is the ontically indeterminate given. It’s all here: the spoiler, the trigger, the black box, bio-imipolectique ready made for the postontological Zone. The nested file structure is the human form plasticized in a rocket enclosure.
In his S/Z—his decantation of Balzac’s novella Sarrasine into what he calls 561 lexia, 561 miniaturized units of rereading—Barthes insists that the program runs on “homeopathic rhythm.”2 This homeopathic rhythm—the minute microdose of harm that triggers a critical immune response—alternates between witnessing and forgetting: “Forgetting meanings is not a matter for excuses, an unfortunate defect in performance; it is an affirmative value, a way of asserting the irresponsibility of the text, the pluralism of systems (if I closed their list, I would inevitably reconstitute a singular, theological meaning): it is precisely because I forget that I read.”3 The recognition that all that is has already happened is “significant data,” means that the conditions are already in-formed for processing. It’s programmed, in other words, and, as such, the world of textuality is a kind of shipping manifest of spoilers; the “galaxy of signifiers” present themselves as a reflexively and informationally securitized universe.4 Barthes’s recipe is, in effect, to pasteurize—which is not to say homogenize—to prevent spoiling from mattering.
Thinking of time spent reading S/Z, perhaps, Boris Groys writes that “the pleasure of textuality” works like “a nice vacation experience”: “for along with the subject, every imminent danger—and thus any ontological inquietude—vanishes as well. [It] is a benevolent sea where no sharks lurk, no storms need be anticipated, no underwater rocks obstruct the path, and the water temperature remains constant.”5 Notionally, it might be more accurate to imagine a deep where all the sharks are tagged and counted, skies where all the weather patterns are already forecast, ocean floors that come with high-def topographical resolution, and so on, and yet nothing physically touched by humans. In short, this understanding of textuality resolves a certain impasse about sequencing signifier/signified by emphasizing new forms of onto-plasticity between background and foreground, what Groys calls “the discourse of flowing sense.” The materiality of signs and the signlike markup of everything depend on the hidden topologies of invisible ledgers, hidden databases that “[consider] ordinary things and archival things to be interconnected via a play of differences.”6 In this context, S/Z is more than a chestnut of the poststructuralist era. Rather, it marks a place-holder for an epochal shift in the noösphere, all signs becoming plastic, informed as technical triggers for inhuman flows of processing. Authors no longer find their reward in touching attentive readers—Groys says—but in disarming them for unspoiled encounters with ubiquitous signification, visible copies of an invisible god of Big Data. “The data-verse,” he writes, “neutralizes every possible rejection by leaving a space for the other, as the saying goes—or, to put it differently, by not annoying potential readers unnecessarily.”7 One does not touch the signifier as much as live inside as its trigger and/or to disarm its effects.
Let’s compare Pynchon’s own ideas about triggers, programs, and control. Before becoming a novelist, young Pynchon wrote memos for the Boeing corporation concerning the safe handling of missiles: “Good safety practices . . . are redundant,” he notes. “You might say one of the objectives of the safety movement . . . is to generate codes from tests, studies of human reactions, statistical data, near misses, everything we can get, to prevent future tragedies from ever happening.”8 Every safety protocol is generated—preceded, in effect—by the accidents it aims to prevent. The accident occasions the safety protocol—plasticizes it beyond the zero, to return to Slothrop. What the phrase beyond the zero means is that Pavlovian conditioning eventually transduces the stimulus. The triggered response anticipates and obviates its own mechanism as safety protocol. First, you set an alarm clock; the alarm means “wake up”; eventually, you wake up before the alarm. You are programmed for the clock—the human becoming alarm. It’s alarming. The reader of S/Z expects castration, and that’s castrating. The reader of GR expects the in-formation of Tyrone Slothrop, and without his body, someone else has to be produced, substituted, seconded, as it were. In this case, it’s a human body becoming the technical material of the future.
In addition to a requisite complement of S&M symbolism—specially selected for the extraordinary occasion by the villainous Blicero—the sacrificial victim is physically formed into 00000 (“made ready for Death”) as a technical object (“metal bondage” in P’s phrase). Stuffed inside an Imipolex outfit inside the V-2, the test subject is plugged in as just another obscure technical component “among the fuel, oxidizer, live-steam lines, thrust frame, compressed air battery, exhaust bellow, decomposer tanks, and vents—with one of those valves, the right one, the true clitoris, routed directly into the nervous system of the 00000.”9 The rocket-passenger test subject is duly given a quantum of life support (“vaporized oxygen”) to live, a window of heat-resistant “artificial sapphire” to see, and a “data-link” feeding a one-way telematic signal from ground control to hear. In a section called “Hardware,” the precise circuitry of this communication system is left obscure. To convey “multiplexed error corrections” to the radio guidance system below, all that matters until ballistic apex is the bare life-form, the window to look through, and possibly a remote-controlled hard-on. Humans being the sex organs of machines, indeed. Concerning output, Pynchon makes only this much explicit: “The exact moment of his death will never be known.”10 It is less that the test subject be given a working button to press than that he ends up becoming a button, the very digital switch between life and nonlife. He is technical, empirical, and decisive, as Flusser would say.
Flusser connects this sense of reductio absurdum of the human test subject to making decision automatic—a conjunction of making and letting which he connects to the zero-dimensionality of programs. Ground zero, in effect, is the onto-miniaturization of a finger about to press a button snapping a picture. Here’s Flusser, again:
[Tools] extend their reach further into the natural world and tear objects from it more powerfully and more quickly than the body could do on its own. They simulate the organ they are extended from: An arrow simulates the fingers, a hammer the fist, a pick the toe. They are “empirical.” With the Industrial Revolution, however, tools were no longer limited to empirical simulations; they grasped hold of scientific theories: They became “technical.” As a result, they became stronger, bigger and more expensive, their works became cheaper and more numerous, and from then on they were called “machines.” Is the camera then a machine because it appears to simulate the eye and in the process reaches back to a theory of optics? A “seeing machine”? Ultimately, there is a final decision taken in the act of photography: pressing the shutter release—just like the American President ultimately pressing the red button. In reality, however, these final decisions are only the last of a series of part-decisions resembling grains of sand: in the case of the American President, the final straw that breaks the camel’s back: a quantum-decision. As consequently, no decision is really “decisive,” but part of a series of clear and distinct quantum-decisions, likewise only a series of photographs can testify to the photographer’s intention. For no single photograph is actually decisive; even the “final decision” finds itself reduced to a grain in the photograph.11
Let’s turn to the famous line from Foucault’s conception of biopolitics to try to highlight what I see as the biopolitical implications of the spoiler, or, perhaps, better to say the spoiler implicit in biopolitics: Foucault says in Society Must Be Defended “that one of the greatest transformations political right underwent in the nineteenth century was precisely that . . . to take life or let live . . . came to be complemented by a new right which does not erase the old right but which does penetrate it, permeate it. This is the right, or rather precisely the opposite right. It is the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die. The right of sovereignty was the right to take life or let live. And then this new right is established: the right to make live and to let die.”12 To make live and let die. Highlight a few things about this idea as a hidden program or command line in which control replaces discipline. It represents a glitch in the program of modernity, a substitution with a vital, viral-like character, not replacement per se but complementation, penetration, and permeation—in effect, spoiler as platform. That the near-inversion is a kind of broken chiasmus—a crossing over to unsafety from life to death—is noteworthy. The old right of sovereign power: to take life, let live. A new one: make live, let die. As taking turns into making, letting suddenly gets a necro- or thanatopolitical spin. The verb form is proposed, in effect, as the horizon of politics. Power and right, the old, disciplinary way; sovereignty and security, the new protocols of control, leave death off the ledger, as it were, but simultaneously weaponize control. Consequently, life is spoiled by its administration. Freedom from administration is an impossible condition.
If the French offers a somewhat different valence, it’s only because the sense of spoilage is more acute: faire vivre et laisser mourir. Not take life and let live but not live and let live either. Foucault’s formula ironizes laissez-faire—the neoliberal dream of neglect as markets in control. Letting it all go—total flexibility—means subjectivization to, and as, harm and hazard: to be let in, to be allowed inside, that is, is to live, whereas to be left out, outside, is to die. It’s not just a matter of space. Time, temporality, and tenses matter here, too. To let links etymologically not only to leave behind and to leave out but also to be late and to be last. Those who come last will be left in precarious conditions. I’ll try to give biopolitics a more Flusserian spin. Flusser’s Post-History gives a media-theoretical version of the biopolitical spoiler effect. Roughly speaking, posthistory for Flusser signals the advent of the biopolitical apparatus as a programmed reality. It isn’t the End of History in the Fukuyama sense—the end of ideology and triumph of free market liberalism—although there may be something of a shared genealogy between Foucault, Flusser, and Fukuyama. (Spoiler: inherited strains of Nietzsche.) The rise of the algorithms means the end of surprises such as democratic or industrial progress or revolutionary outcomes. Plug in, turn on, tune out is his version of make live and let die. Spoiling the present with the future means that programs have reoriented temporality—the future programming the present. Considering Foucault in this connection, make live is not just about an administrative program for what is living but also takes on the phonemic slippage of live and live, suggesting the oft repeated injunction to “go live.” We’re doing it live! Relatedly, to let die suggests a modern condition where to lift a finger marks the ultimate form of political decision-making. To go live is to hook up to a network of administration—biopolitical life support, in so many words, passports, visas, biometric data: to hook up to a control panel that powers life, securitizes it, makes it safe from risk, adds redundancies. Let alone signals neglect as a form of control—to let alone is not to lift a finger. The let die means that humans die without lifting a finger, without others batting an eye, without twitch or gesture: administration of life, consequent death.
In other words:
“Those who seek to substitute their own models for others (for example by shouting ‘Hare Krishna’) will find such exotic models have been caught by the very models to be substitute,” as Flusser writes.13 For him, posthistory is an algorithm, a trap “to catch the world” by making it informational. Garbage in, garbage out, the human is bracketed inside. This brings to mind a nugget from Tim Morton’s Ecological Thought about the hypothetical Tibetan astronaut. For Morton, it is clearly an astro-naught—nihilo ad astra: “Tibetans [accustomed to high-altitude existence] would make the best space pilots,” he muses, “especially on long space missions. They would need to learn to operate the equipment. Tibetan culture is all about space. All kinds of images entice us to think big. One image of enlightened mind is that it’s like space.” Morton’s Blicero-like disregard for the Tibetan stranger caught up in a space program is notable. Thinking thinks big—ecologically, that is—by launching the valuable other beyond the zero into the void: “When we think of indigenous cultures,” he writes, “we tend to impose a Western ideology of localism and ‘small is beautiful’ onto them. In the case of at least one culture—nomadic Tibetans—this is a big mistake. Should we wish to send astronauts to Mars, we could do worse than train Tibetans and other indigenous people for the ride. They would only have to learn to push a few buttons. The very people we think of as small may think the biggest of all.” This notwithstanding, the idea of the Tibetan astronaut pushing a button, executing a command line, is worth pausing over.
Thinking big and thinking small are really two sides of the same switch for the media-theoretical account of a biopolitical program I’m describing. We might think of it as inhuman acting at scale. For Flusser, miniaturization is as vexed as gigantomachy:
The defenders of miniaturization [as] alternative technique [he writes] believe that they are fighting the alienating megalomania of apparatus, and that they are returning to human dimensions. If the small action group, the small business, the individual wind-turbine, the ecological vegetable plot, the cooperative family, seem for them a return to more adequate human proportions, then they are mistaken. The tiny is even less human than the gigantic. The gigantic may be at least “admired,” but the tiny disappears from view, it is “worthless.” The “small man” and “self-management” are even less human than the “big men” and the multinationals. Never before has man ceased to be the “measure of all things” so radically as with miniaturization. In miniaturization, man becomes a particle, “information data,” “bit,” or worthless entity.14
Programs, he writes, are like tiny “imprints.” They no longer come ready loaded with immutable ideals or improvable forms but comprise immaterial formats.15 The temptation to think thinking without a thinker—or, in Tim Morton’s vein, to think a cosmological garden without a cosmological gardener—misses its own epiphenomenal entailment as part of a pernicious shift toward biopolitical programing.16 Programs themselves take a command that owes nothing to the transcendental or creative genius: “They are the result of [piecework]—minute combinations of ‘bits’ done by programmers, systems analysts and other similar anonymous functionaries.” No divine images or mosaic vision of a cosmos, they function more like ideograms, Flusser writes. Morton’s blind-spot is that ground control doesn’t need indigenous cosmonauts in its capsule. Not as ecological witnesses at least. Taking a page from his conception of ecological thought—the idea of thinking of interconnectedness as a kind of mesh-ware—the biopolitical becomes thinkable when life becomes program, “when scientific interest established itself over animate things (botanics and zoology) [when] it became apparent that animate things may be quantified just like all other things, but that as it was done, something essential escaped through the intervals.”17 The consequent decentering of the human ruins other world-pictures (or models, as VF calls them) by spoiling the big heroic dimensions of history, such as Virtue, Nature, Reason, and Progress.
Slothrop seeks the information about the rocket he already has: that the rocket informs him, and he informs it, but what the human knows is functionally immaterial. It never matters. The telematic era is a crisis for the functionaries; engineer and surgeon alike become test subjects. Flusser discusses the example of the civic engineer who “knows that the precision with which he calculates the bridge is a problem. And he knows that the bridge will have effects upon the situation that are not quantifiable: aesthetic effects, for instance. He knows that the bridge will change the lives of men. But as a functionary of the road’s construction apparatus he does not see himself obliged” to lift a finger for these lives. For our bogus technocratic overlords—the Know-It-Alls, as one recent book names them—research is “not done for the sake of academic curiosity and public betterment but for the creation of successful corporations.”18
The resonance here is that embodied information for telematic test subjects is strictly inhuman. The proverbial rocket scientist becomes the non plus ultra of intelligence, but, as Pynchon shows, the functionary is but “programmed to program,” in Flusser’s words. The idea of a technical platform for a telematic society—the internet, in so many words—“oscillate[s] between cinema and supermarket.”19 Its space is not ruled by experts but populated by data: “we are all pieces in a game, inside which we oscillate rhythmically.” The players of the game become chess pieces (think the Imipolex “white knight, molded out of plastic”).20 When setting up the game, Flusser notes, it makes no difference to distinguish players and pieces: “The transcoding and irradiation of messages results in the transformation of the original structure: the trees work linearly, the media, multidimensionally. If we admit that linearity is the structure of history [one thing after another], the media present themselves as post-historical communication. They are black boxes that have history as input and post-history as output. They are programmed to transcode history into post-history, events into programs.”21 Connectivity itself, in other words, is black-boxed inside the program. The platform neutralizes events at all scales: holiday traffic jams in the so-called developed world mirror overloaded trucks of monocultural produce on the margins; social mobility mirrors urban gigantism; inexorable advancement of a global south means permanent migrancy. Flusser’s account emphasizes what Foucault calls “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.”22 The migrations of populations signal an openness, a functional lassitude about collective death. Migrants occupy not palaces but slums or stateless refugee camps. To be permanently “undergoing development,” he notes, is the fate of the defeated, and the long trend of the migration of peoples bends the right to live toward population replacement by the unborn. These future people are more capable of being “defeated faster” and being “better programmed” as precarious outsiders whose own “children [will have barely] managed to survive.”23
For the functionary, the platform is reality proper. The functionary expects rights—user privileges, in effect—within the program. The vector of signification is inverted: the concrete person, the passport receiver, is the one that signifies the passport. Reality is the passport; the person gives “meaning” to the passport in the codified world. Black-boxed in this apparatus, Flusser writes, Kulturkritik is an anachronism: “Apparatus always functions increasingly independently from their programmer’s intentions. And apparatus that are programmed by other apparatus emerge with increasing frequency. Programmers do not own the decisions made automatically.” Inside the V-2, “all function according to an inertia inherent to them and such functionality escapes, from a certain point, the control of the initial programmers. In a final analysis such apparatus function, all of them, toward the annihilation of all their functionaries, including their programmers.”24 For Flusser, like Agamben and many others, the zero hour of the Program is Auschwitz: “Apparatus spring, just like mushrooms after a Nazi rain, from the ground that has become rotten,” he writes. Auschwitz is the “shipwreck” of all categories, the “revolutionary event” that overthrew “culture with program.”25 Heroic efforts to think big—moonshots, cracking the genomic code, thinking cosmic interconnectivity—only cover up a compulsion to repeat a programmatic turn with alibies that retain its catastrophic form. This is the meaning of Zwölfkinder, where Pynchon is anticipating Bansky’s Dismaland. The finger is raised, as if touching the end of a divine fuse; the button initiates life, tangling a subject in time, space, matter, and archival traces. The exact moment of information will never be known. The verb to touch means first a blind contact, in the hope of finding something by chance: a heuristic method.