ISHMAEL, buoyant on Queequeg’s coffin.
Mrs. Ramsey won’t make it to the lighthouse.
Reader, she married him. Caddy gets away, but a magazine picture found by the county librarian shows her with a Nazi in a car in Paris.
In the mirror Benjy sees nothing. Neither does Jake.
Gatsby is dead, still floating in the deep end. As is Joe Gillis.
Iago did it. Demand nothing of him: what you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak. Hamlet didn’t do anything. Eventually, the negative state is important. Everyone else either did it or didn’t. Sort of. They may have forgotten. Rosebud is a sled. The Maltese Falcon is fake. Time and tide wait for no man. Neither do blood, chocolate, grass stains, lipstick, beef fat, a gangrenous scratch—all the spoiling things. The pizza is on the roof. The briefcase is the protagonist. So is the photograph in the Collector’s Guide to Plastic Purses. Godot never arrives, but keep the meeting.
King Kong Theory boils down to “Beauty and/or 30-caliber Vickers twin-mounted machineguns.”1 Reader, Slothrop is still missing in the zone.
“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless”—the writer’s spoiling words can’t be trusted. “That’s how you know when it starts.”2 In the beginning was the pun. The world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.
In the end, entropy triumphs. Information, eaten by chatter. Comment sections get more and more toxic, best to avoid them: lie down where all the ladders start in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. In the destructive element immerse . . . the spoiling gestures. Reader, the narrator did it, but there’s still insufficient information for a meaningful answer.
Old Yeller got rabies.
Cue up the emoji: the celestial parrot descends; Invisible man living on in the grid; Yoda and Chewbacca are old friends. The arc of the galaxy bends toward Vader. The circle is now complete, the mausoleum of all hope and desire, well before it is dreamed of; see Reddit. More human than human, a thing arrives from the future thinking it’s human. The small baby dies, predeceasing the rest. “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions. . . . [Other people’s babies are] often noted to not be of interest.”3 Dorrit remains perpetually little. Your friends will save you from the Goblin Market. The nurse recognizes Odysseus by his scar. Oedipus solves the riddle. Medea deserves her revenge, and we deserve to die. Huck goes to hell. Miss Quinten, too. The hunger artist is lost in the straw. Bartley prefers not to. Tess is raped. 124 is spiteful; so, too, Jean Grey. Your parents, they fuck you up. They may not mean to, but they do. A mad woman upstairs in the attic, she’s from the Caribbean, runs the Bates Motel.
The original Final Girl now has a daughter and a granddaughter; their basement is fully prepped and weaponized.
Michael tries to get out, but they drag him back in. Walter gets what’s coming, Carl gets bit, no one knows about Tony. Yes, Game of Thrones’ Final Season Will Kill Multiple Characters.4 There’s a small chance an asteroid will smack into Earth in 2135.5 On June 25, 2195, a plenary at the university will make some remarks about Gilead at a symposium. Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.6 In the long run we are all dead. But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task, if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past, the ocean is flat again.7 Enlightenment is Totalitarian. Cells interlinked within cells interlinked within one stem. And, dreadfully distinct against the dark, a tall white fountain played.8
Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way: the thesis, in miniaturized form, is that spoilers resemble triggers. And vice versa. I mean, reductio absurdum, the premature end is already preprogrammed in, the mechanism always ready to go. The trip wire is set.
It isn’t narrative. The spoiler is even less than that. It’s a switch, a flop, a knee jerk, an impedance mechanism made operational for a connected world charged with specific knowledge sequencing problems. The inevitability of information has changed the critical quality of modernity, leaving us with an acute, diexic vertigo, a technical feeling here that, out there, no surprises are left. The background, foregrounding itself. Take the famous story of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hitchcock didn’t want audiences to spoil it—namely, the reveal that dutiful psychopath and taxidermied mother are one and the same, spoil it for everyone else, that is, for the uninitiated to follow. Theater lobbies were filled with cautionary placards.9 The Spoiler Alert encloses a world—a Weltanschauung, really—supersaturated with tacit, nondisclosure agreements, legally meaningless pseudo-contracts about hidden knowledge—we simultaneously didn’t agree to and acutely experience as betrayals of virtuous stupidities.
All this information at our fingertips—in your hands already, in fact—you might not need to heed any of it. Just sit inertly at your desk like the guy in that Melville story, Googling nothing. A simple machine in which output seems programmed, everyone agrees in advance that the affective-aesthetic access to input today is unprecedented. Why does it stress us out so much? Music, for instance: “Listening to music on streaming platforms ultimately reminds us that there are lifetimes upon lifetimes of recorded sound that we won’t live long enough to hear.”10 Nothing is spared anymore. Everything spoils everything now. When there is no longer room for the Nothing, even the Nothing is spoiled, in so many words.
This regime of compulsory stupidity isn’t new; it’s hardwired. Spoilers and triggers have secret affinities. One of the first recorded instances of the actual phrase “Spoiler Alert,” from a parody feature in National Lampoon in 1971, confirms a shared provenance in insurance:
In more tranquil times, Americans loving nothing better than curling up with a blood-chilling whodunit or trooping off to the cinema to feast on spine-tingling thrillers, weird science fiction tales and hair-raising war adventure. Nowadays, however, with the country a seething caldron of racial, political and moral conflict, the average American has more excitement in his daily life than he can healthily handle. [A]s a public service, [this warning presents] a selection of “spoilers” guaranteed to reduce the risk of unsettling and possibly dangerous suspense. We ask that you read this over several times and, if possible, commit them to memory before you venture into the actual book or late night movie. Remember, the life you save may be your own.11
“My old woman is a flea bag and yours is a stinking polecat,” but, to spoil the Flannery O’Connor story in question, this man is not a Misfit.12 There are others.
Culture—the sine qua non of literary humanism—may be, after all, little more than an elaborate cover story for the far more pervasive disposition to stay oblivious as long as possible.13 An unsolicited package shows up outside the apartment of a husband and wife in Richard Matheson’s story “Button, Button” (“The letter was in plain view the whole time”14).15 Inside the package, they find a mysterious gadget, a push-button fastened to wooden box covered by a small, glass dome. Later that day, the scheme is explained: “If you push the button . . . somewhere in the world someone you don’t know will die. In return for which you will receive a payment of $50,000.” They argue about it. Is it only some sick joke? The money could mean “that trip to Europe” they always talked about; that “cottage on the island”; “a nicer apartment, nicer furniture, nicer clothes, a car”; the financial means “to finally have a baby.” Could they live themselves if they did it, if doing it meant the death for “some old Chinese peasant ten thousand miles away?”16 “Some diseased native in the Congo?” “A baby boy in Pennsylvania?” “Some beautiful little girl on the next block?” All the racist moves. She wants to. He doesn’t. Eventually, he leaves the apartment, and, on a whim, she presses it anyway, and someone is indeed killed. The victim, in fact, turns out to be (who else?) the husband (someone shoved him on the subway track across town), and she learns that she is the named beneficiary of his insurance policy. She now stands to receive the amount of $50,000.
Spoiler: . . .
As omnipotent, mimetic cost/benefit machine that triggers a calculation and executes a command, the button is the ultimate memeplex (meme + complex) of the spoiler-as-surprise, memoplexy designating as a mechanism of parole-as-control. A spoiling meme: your meme sauce is weak. Enter the memeplex. About the word—and its cognates (“memoplectic”—“memoplexy”)—Richard Dawkins did much to operationalize the root word meme following an analogy with gene—proposing meme (rhymes with cream, he says) as a unit of replication, a self-reproducing cultural gene. Calls for a human menome project, culturnomics, Digital Humanics, and so on, operationalize a tendentious analogy for various Big Data deliverables.17
What gets sometimes lost is not only that the derivation of meme itself comes as a back-formation from mimesis—mimetic, mimicry, imitation—but also the sense of mimicry as a given life-form dependent on mimetic data transmission of/to its environment. The memeplex is another word for what Vilém Flusser would call the technical image.18 Without forgetting a sense of the operation of mimicry degree zero, it is also worth noting a biopolitical sense from medicine of mimesis as the visible manifestation of a hidden pathogen not actually present at all. The point of the suffix -plex is less the notion that memes cluster together to reproduce themselves (alibi: memes are the sex organs of trolls) than the sense that -plex denotes a frayed thread—a frayed mimetic wire, as it were.19 Seriality condensed into technical images. What we’re looking at here is not a flattened version of the base/superstructure model—a sentence freighted with precautionary subordinate clauses. Rather, the suffix illustrates a complex, recursively overdetermined horizon, an exploding schematic drawing of the invisible line connecting subjects and objects, present futures (tipping the planes of abstraction on their edges, as it were). Or, perhaps, we might understand the spoiler memeplex in infrastructural terms as a diagram of ruined mediation, a complex wire sparking on both ends. Its etymology denotes both twisting together and encircling or encompassing, multiple parts entwined into a difficult to separate whole, suggestively raising the problem of asymmetry, in which smaller or larger symmetries may or may not be apparent at different scales.
In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer give us not Oedipus and his eponymous complex but Oedipus the humanist inside the spoiler memeplex, spoiling the eternal recurrence of the same. By solving the riddle of the Sphinx, he ruins not only mythology but also the riddle itself. The humanist spoiler: the trigger is man. How to insure what follows?20 One example is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Wife’s Story” (“My own dear love, turned in the hateful one”). It spoils the standard werewolf fable: your husband, the father of your children, is really a dangerous monster—a wolf that transforms into man.21 But, surprise: you’re not a victim, you’re a she-wolf, a member of a salubrious pack; so, you and your rapacious sisters flip the script and destroy him!
What walks on hind legs during the daytime, then, is the spoiler itself. Totalizing is one thing, totaling is another, but here’s what spoils it: the two are twinned, intertwined, coarticulated. Totalizing, as Horkheimer and Adorno put it, is part of the modernity program: “private vices are the anticipatory historiography of public virtues in the totalitarian era.” Totaling—in the sense of indemnity from damage—provides a temporal loop hole for criticality in the memeplex. In its conflation of totaling and totality, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis might be understood as a contribution to the Ur-theory of memoplectics. Edward Said describes Auerbachian method as a kind of finding aid for its own critical method, “an optic, for seeing and then articulating reality.”22 Concerning the spoiler, it’s literally the mechanism for totaling both the magic lantern and camera obscura as one gadget, in the sense of the multimedia Gesamtkunstwerk imagined by Friedrich Kittler, rendering something from the outside (from the background of “lived experience”23) into the foreground as compressed, inverted fragment:
on the one hand fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, “background” quality, multiplicity of meanings and the universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.24
Sequencing is ruined. Auerbach’s discussion of Gargantua and Pantagruel, in particular, concerns entering the grotesque, cavernous mouth of the giant, which means entering into a media enclosure. Inside, there are cabbages. Astounded by the enormity of this total world, the narrator notices a peasant diligently planting said cabbages. What are you doing here? the narrator asks.
For Auerbach, mimesis breaks the brain–blood barrier of foregrounded creatural life and backgrounded grandiosity of humanism. The spoiler memeplex is a form of motiveless malignity, a groundless grievance against a literary-aesthetic affect/effect that seems to throw up on us in the most mundane, inopportune ways possible. Auerbach zooms in on Emma Bovary’s spoiled meal, bitterness spilling out on her plate along with revolting chunks of boiled beef:
It was above all at mealtimes that she could bear it no longer, in that little room on the ground floor, with the smoking stove, the creaking door, the oozing walls, the damp floor-tiles; all the bitterness of life seemed to be served to her on her plate, and, with the steam from the boiled beef, there rose from the depths of her soul other exhalations as it were of disgust. Charles was a slow eater; she would nibble a few hazel-nuts, or else, leaning on her elbow, would amuse herself making marks on the oilcloth with the point of her table-knife.25
Nothing happens! It’s ruining her life!!!
For Auerbach, reality is precarious, a world filled with stimuli, bite-size castoffs of aesthetic integrity—a scar, a cabbage, a plate of boiled beef—that resequence/reorient a certain experience of reality. The spoiler is a bug that’s a feature. When it comes to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the triggering feature is a brown stocking (Auerbach: “realistic depth is achieved in every individual occurrence, for example the measuring of the stocking”26). Hovering over the entire episode is the future fact that Mrs. Ramsey’s trip to the lighthouse is never going to happen (she is going to die). Here, not only do we have the spoiling words of tiresome Mr. Ramsey but also a discouraging forecast supplied by an actual, bona-fide expert in future conditions, a meteorologist.
Yet, these spoiling words—the predicted extinctions of language and desire—are not sufficient to ruin the day. (Spoiler: it’s not just the weather . . .) What pierces subjective reverie in Woolf is the accelerating effect of a young child sharply told by his mother to be still (as she holds a sock up to his fidgeting leg). Mrs. Ramsey is trying to measure and resize the garment she plans to alter and bring as a gift for the lighthouse keeper’s son. What happens next is quite telling for spoilers as such: in an instant, the background suddenly becomes foregrounded. The data—the tacit givens—include discarded objects and refuse of the current occupants becoming inescapably present: not perspective as framed by the window, looking across water to the lighthouse, not the anticipated completion of Lily Briscoe’s painting with a flick of the wrist, but the actual ruined futurity manifest in a summer house as currently occupied: “if every door in a house is left perpetually open, and no lockmaker in the whole of Scotland can mend a bolt, things must spoil.” Reality is eventually totaled by entropy: “Everything is getting spoiled,” because “everything goes to ruin.”27 Or, the reverse, is getting becomes goes to.
Trigger warnings are also memoplectic. The debate in all its reified totality is a discourse rather than a discussion/dialogue, a series of pseudo-propositions about arresting at the threshold of risky metadata. The metadata are, in somewhat circular fashion, the contents, “subjects frequently identified as triggers” to include “abuse, rape, self-injurious behaviors, eating disorders, drug and alcohol addiction, suicide.”28 These matters of concern are condensed into the smallest visible black box of facticity as presuppositional mimesis. The proleptic verbal prohibition equals danger ahead—a force field of control paradigmatically associated with the kind of captive audiences and required readings of classrooms, or, more broadly, with the total, compulsory connectivity associated with a new human Right to be connected to everything—online. Perversely, the other side of this memeplex is a crypto-libertarian idea of total freedom, a freedom-from-warning, not least, presented as the domain of pure kairotic decision as a necessary condition of ruinous adulthood, spoiled enlightenment, and so forth. Why won’t humans wake up to feel their existential peril? What is preloaded is human being itself with requisite vulnerabilities—a factory fill, as it were, of harmful aesthetic data about harm. The enviable recourse to the phrase adult material indicates not protecting a naive ear or an innocuous eye but indemnifying various repeated sensible and sensory experiences from risk as the ruinous condition of adulthood.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, #spoiler tags are a thing:
Furthermore, algorithms are being researched and developed for eliminating exposure to spoilers in data feeds.30 The aim isn’t simply alerting users to the existence of spoilers per se but filtering them out altogether from a given ego feed. First, determine the channel selected for transmitting spoiling content to a user; second, mark the content presented on a comparison with automatically generated metadata sets associated with the totality of experienced and unexperienced metadata; third, determine that any new requested future content exclude spoiler content based on one or more criteria to include known and unknown spoiler metadata. The entertainment integrity of full episodes—entire seasons, entire social networks—hangs in the balance. For the desired program, requested content equals both the spoiler and the spoiler alert. For the program, there is no functional difference—just as with spoilers and spoiler alerts, so, too, triggers and warnings against them.
Not so much with fires and fire alarms, for instance, but this you probably knew already.
The spoiler doesn’t miniaturize the text in the form of a summary—a precis, an abstract, Cliff’s Notes—as much as it signals new technical sensitivity to activated sensibilities, alerting readers of spoilers ahead that can be spoiled and withholding from them what they are. “Nonreading is not a badge of shame, but the way of the future”—who now would bother with such statements besides an English professor?31 The way of the future belongs to . . . plastics, ancient aliens, robotic overlords, DH . . . To this end, there’s a certain, apposite technical image ubiquitous online these days. Think of it as something like the Divine Trigger. It gets appended to various professionally sponsored tech think-pieces and prognostications with titles like Human Intelligence vs. Artificial Intelligence: Who’ll Be the Winner? Privacy Tech; Turning STEM to STEAM; Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement; You too can clone yourself; and so on.32
Computer, find me a “royalty-free” “licensable” version of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, in which Adam himself is a replicant.33
What we have in this image is the awkward, physically impossible handshake between the human and the machine. One hand, the right one, extending leftward, is flesh. The other, the left, is metallic, with a nonhuman wrist articulated with some kind of robotic joinery. The space between these hands sparks, suggesting that right and left can’t meet in a gesture of mutual recognition—no paradigmatic handshake of solidarity, no amorous embrace—but only as an instance of input impedance, a formative short-circuit.
It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker.
In Michelangelo’s version of the encounter, the human hand waits listlessly for divine jump-start, attached to body posed as if it does not yet know what it is to be turned on or off. Despite the wild power imbalance—listless flesh, on your left, omnipotence, on your right—the original version of origin par excellence is sparkless. The incremental distance implies an infinite reach of transcendent connectivity. As Robert Hertz notes in his 1909 treatise on hands: “To the right hand go honours, flattering designations, prerogatives: it acts, orders, and takes. The left hand, on the contrary, is despised and reduced to the role of a humble auxiliary: by itself it can do nothing; it helps, it supports, it holds.”34 The valuation is unfair. Both lefties and righties hold and take.
The artificial hand is another matter, indexing not connection per se but the immanence of disconnection in the very technical condition of having a hand. The hand itself is a maladroit form of original, auxiliary on/off functionality. One finger is part of an actual hand, the other is an actual switch, but the lingering issue is, which one? The spark is no longer implied, intimated in the mirroring of one hand (divine, active, creative, dexterous) with the other (auxiliary, passive, instrumental, sinister), but what must be made literal, visualized, reverse-engineered, programmed, triggered, in effect, is a kind of damaged circuitry of the human body. Or, to borrow from a recent tweet, once the things you owned, owned you; now the things you use (that you hold, that you ask for help and support), use you. What’s handy—Zuhandigkeit (ready-to-handedness, to use Martin Heidegger’s coinage)—spoils hands qua hands. It’s getting harder to grasp. The left takes charge, the right points, holds the book, the telephone, ham-fisted, the match, the warm gun; the trigger finger, pressing an elevator button.
“They programmed you to think you were a human with a surgically attached computer for a hand.” From a speaker in the artificial left hand attached to the protagonist, this sentence comes right after he learns he is in fact a human-looking automaton. It happens in the penultimate scene of a classic 1964 episode of The Outer Limits, “Demon with a Glass Hand,” written by Harlan Ellison.35 Mr. Trent is the eponymous Demon—more like Maxwell’s thermodynamic particle sorter or the Socratic guidance and interruption system than one of the diabolical monsters more familiar from the series. The Outer Limits ran for two seasons and was scripted by some speculative fiction heavyweights. It followed an anthology structure, each episode framed by a message, a certain cybernetic conceit about the spoiling word that has particular resonance for this episode:
There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear.36
The program controls you, and, we repeat, there’s nothing wrong with your set.
In fact, the last uncomfortable glance from Trent’s would-be human love interest—Consuelo—is what’s just wrong. The spoiling gesture, even more specifically, is marked by her hand withdrawing from his, an awkward gesture that simultaneously mirrors the co-created sympathy and repulsion on her face. Spoiler alert: stimulus aversion, automatic repulsion from functional automation, is the gesture that is most relevantly human. Consuelo exits the uncanny valley, scampering down the steps of the same building featured in Blade Runner, trailed only by biomechanical ennui. Robot-Trent faces a spoiled millennium’s worth of tedium, waiting until the time arrives to execute his program, upload the data payload, and reboot humanity. We at last understand what the series narrator meant at the start when he cryptically compared the protagonist to the immortal Gilgamesh, a point reiterated at the end: “Like the Eternal Man of Babylonian legend, like Gilgamesh, one thousand plus two hundred years stretches before Trent. Without love. Without friendship. Alone; neither man nor machine, Waiting. Waiting for the day he will be called to free the humans who gave him mobility. Movement, but not life.”
Neither replicant nor terminator, Trent arrives from a ruined future as an ambient program. Like Socrates’s Daemon, he affects interruptions, and, like Maxwell’s, entropic sorting. “The ‘Man/machine’ relationship was reversed,” writes Flusser, a reorientation he already observes at effect paradigmatically in the workings of the camera: “Man did not use machines any more but was used by them. He became a relatively intelligent slave of relatively stupid machines.”37 (“The camera dictates a particular and specific coordination of eye and hand, of intention and act, of theory and practice.”38) With tech as pervasive, animate platform—at our fingertips, as it were—humans become occasions for button-pushing, keystrokes, and swiping gestures on assorted interfaces:
What is immediately striking about it all is that the keys operate in a time unrelated to everyday human time, a time that follows another set of standards. For the keys move in the infinitesimal universe of particles, in the realm of the infinitely small, where time ignites like lightning. The second thing about keys is that being infinitely small by human standards, they can also cross over into the gigantic. One flick of the light switch crosses from the universe of electrons into the area in which man is the measure of all things. And one flick of another switch can explode a mountain or finish humanity off.39
In other words, our hero, the “last man on the earth of the future, the last hope of earth,” is the command line itself, the spoiling word made artificial flesh.40 His light-bright glass hand—sheathing variously miniscule blinking and whirring components, conspicuous for the minute clicking of little wheels associated with time—processes data, computes probabilities, and speaks instructions, using the classic question/answer interface. It “knows everything.” Not incidentally, it makes it easy to find Trent when he removes a camouflaging glove in dark alleys and running around in the noir-style steampunk innards of the Bradbury making cat and mouse chase with the aliens from the future, the Kyben (low-budget special effects mark them with pantyhose caps and eyes smudged with ashen fluff). The hand is missing some fingers and carries a glitch—the human-machine rounding error, which spuriously partitions the human from the machine. Like a semiconductor, the flow of information moves in one direction only: “I don’t know who I am, or where I’ve been, or where I’m going. Someone wiped my memories clean, and they tracked me down and tried to kill me. Why? Who are you? . . . And then the hand—my hand—told me what to do.” Trent has a need-to-know relationship with his hand. It communicates bits of information as missing components are recovered and installed (fingers = upgrades), until the voice tells him . . . that he isn’t human after all (= only an instrument), a time capsule containing all future humans compressed into data form.
Fittingly, this knowledge is hidden in his (synthetic) body—held back, as it happens, beyond our grasp—until the final (now spoiled) reveal. The Automaton from after the extinction event is wholly realized, but with functionality self-withheld. Even then, there remains but one last question: Where is everyone? Where are the billions of humans hiding from the future? Answer: the solenoid within Mr. Trent that “holds all knowledge” holds in suspension as “electrical impulses” on “a thin strand of gold-copper alloy wire.” This message from the future termination point is akin to the Bottle City of Kandor in Superman comics. In effect, this data file makes Trent himself the technical parcel—the black box, the animate spoiler alert, the memeplex—that prematurely realizes what Flusser calls the universe of technical images, the “future society [that] synthesizes electronic images” as data.41 Spoiler: rather than surrender the humans of the future to alien invaders, the leaders of the future spoiled it with a radioactive plague and “translated” themselves into the present on a zip file borne by an android. The spoiler effect is another fantastic, telematic chiasmus in which a maximalist quantity of ungraspable informationalism is translated into a series of minimal, miniaturized traumatic switches to be flicked, touched, tickled by gestures, which, as the hand says, is but “a commonplace means of preserving life” in the future. The latest in advanced data storage demands knowing as little as possible—to borrow from the boilerplate appended to so many spoiler alerts online. Click away now! The finger presses the button, but the inevitable extinction event is the real Master, the canceled future hidden all over the place in the present. “You may never get to touch the Master,” writes Pynchon, “but you can tickle his creatures”—another paranoid message in a bottle, put to sea as well by Pynchon as by Vilém Flusser or Harlan Ellison.42
Programmed Algorithms replacing Literary Culture, what emerges is a phenomenology of technical images and miniaturized decisions, ubiquitous triggers—glitches, twitches, switches—minimal machines loaded with maximum potential energy, ready to be stupidly discharged, activated, sprung loose, when least expected. Spoiler: Chekhov’s gun. What did you expect anyway?
The warning is, expect it everywhere—Harlan Ellison’s zip-gun, for instance, which he details in his literary autobiography Memos from Purgatory, recounting his research among teenage hoods in New York City in the 1950s:
The tube-rod in a coffee percolator is the barrel. Did you know it’s exactly right for a .22 calibre slug? Or perhaps it’s not the stem from a coffee pot. Perhaps it’s a snapped-off car radio antenna. Either one will do the job. They mount it on a block of wood for a grip, with friction tape, and then they rig a rubber-band-and-metal-firing-pin device that will drive the .22 bullet down that percolator stem or antenna shell, and kill another teen-ager. What they don’t bother to tell you is that a zip-gun is the most inaccurate, poorly-designed, dangerous weapon of the streets. Not only dangerous to the victim, but equally dangerous to the assailant, for too often the zip will explode in the firer’s hand, too often the inaccuracy of the homemade handgun will cause an innocent bystander to be shot.43
Moving from zip-guns to The Outer Limits, miniaturized decision menaces everyone, everywhere: the glass hand, the bent twig, the elevator button, the passport photo, the lock, the wire, the doorknob, the trigger, the radioactive disease unleashed in the future, the solenoid, even the binary appearance of alien invaders, the Kyben. Their medallions anchor them in the present, Trent learns. It is “as if time were a rubber band,” one explains (as Trent tortures him). They exist in the now on “an end stretched out tight.” Once this link is broken, “they snap back up to the [foreclosed] future.”44 In effect, they exist precariously as an on/off switch, which, when pressed, finishes them off. Trent, too: the “human” right hand holds the gun, turns the doorknobs, presses the elevator button to speed down to the lobby to retrieve something vital from the mail slot. It yanks the chain that snuffs out the Kyben. Tellingly, the left hand—the glass hand—does not grasp at all. As a universal computer, it encloses the sum of all knowledge with the glitch that it carries no capacity for disclosing it. It holds nothing, yet withholds all. The proliferation of switches manages time until the extinction event and then flips the reboot switch on humanity. (The time-traveling paradox would seem to demand that Mr. Trent wait out the radioactive plague Primer-style in a storage locker.)
Spoiling is a platform, a programmatic glitch, and spoilers have ontically traceable data exhaust. Here, in this narrow sense, is the first spoiler alert, then, by internet consensus, at least:
uicsovax!hamilton Jun 8 00:47:00 1982
regarding Spock’s parting gesture to McCoy, it wouldn’t surprize me if that’s how they bring him back (if they do); but then, i have a low opinion of ST’s script(s). Spock’s farewell to Kirk sounded pretty final to me.
Behind glass, Spock is insulated in the stupidity feedback machine, in which the supposed finality of his death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) from radiation poisoning instigates the requisite suspicion from one Wayne Hamilton. However perceptive and perspicuous this one fan’s response to the parting gesture (uploaded data per Vulcan mind-meld into McCoy’s brain-cloud), there’s no way Hamilton can know the answer one way or another, two years before Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) confirms the hunch. Tellingly, the fact that one viewer might correctly intuit Spock’s inevitable resurrection (I guessed it!) is ascribed to a critical failure of writing. Yet the viewer at once flags a constitutive lack of surprise as well as a regulative, troll-like desire to ruin the experience of others (you didn’t!) on borrowed moral authority from those who suffer programs and glitches.
Trigger warnings may or may not signal the same human/machine feedback problem as spoiler alerts, but wired backward. A wreck (not-) watched in reverse. (I think they do/they are, but if you think ab initio that they do not, stop reading now.) The fanlore wiki—which I report on good authority is not a reputable academic source—notes that an “early use of the term was on alt.tv.x-files.creative” in 1998: “I do not like rape stories. I do not read them. Luckily, they do not trigger me (though I’m sure they do others), but I don’t like them. I would like to have been warned about this before I started.”46 Dostoevsky would not give up for anything his triggers and the seizures they auratically anticipated: “I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life.”47 Nietzsche saw a horse being whipped in the streets of Turin and never recovered.48 One thing is clear: preemptive signaling—alerts and warnings as aesthetic-affective boundary setting—is our new platform for experience and the wholesale wreckage of categories and criteria.
The fanlore wiki provides an excellent example of the complex logomachy hidden in this circuitry from an early trigger warning:
I tend to argue passionately in favor of no warnings, or generalized warnings . . . and warn more specifically anyway. But I’m never sure where the line is. If I have a story that’s got no “obvious” triggers (rape, incest, death, etc.) but the lead character is, say, a bigoted asshole, do I warn people that his attitudes are offensive? Or if I’m writing from the perspective of a mentally ill character, do I warn people that *that* might upset them (and yes, both of these examples are taken from stuff I’ve actually written in other fandoms). I mean, I know for a fact that that *would* wreck the story for many folks out there. Is it common courtesy, or is it political correctness? Where’s the line?49
These are epiphenomenal demons of Moore’s law: packets of seriality confounded by ubiquity; replay culture, streaming, and DVRs; the endless online chattersphere; USENET, the undead zone of comments sections, online fora, fandom, trolls, and bots. The sudden appearance of terrible future knowledge seems to confound present stupidities from all directions. This platform that is alarmed—altered and warned—has means and agencies. More circumspectly, they are the technical side effects of the enormous capacities of storage, information readily available at bargain-basement prices, well before our current moment.
We now return control of your television set to you. Until next week at the same time, when the control voice will take you to the Outer Limits.