- Spoiler Alert: A Critical Guide by Aaron Jaffe
Published as part of Minnesota's "Forerunners" series—a project designed to deliver "thought-in-process" scholarship—this fascinating little book about the Internet discusses deep and learned theory in speculative style. Aaron Jaffe, whose previous work runs the gamut from a detailed monograph on modernism and celebrity to The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies (and who co-curated an entire festival about the "Dude"), makes rare light (but dizzying) work of a subject often handled with heft and/or specialist smugness.1
In chapters on data and (in)humanism, pop culture and its online consumption, and Thomas Pynchon and deep space now, Jaffe explores our twenty-first century virtual reality as a landscape of continually thwarted expectation. The "spoiler" of his title (as in that vital bit of information given away to the viewer or reader before they've even started), and the "alert" a reviewer announces before they reveal it, are metaphors for a digital world inured against surprise. Permanently, "compulsorily" connected to each other, and enslaved to the total need and accessibility of information, humans, he says, are losing the ability to feel anything as new, surprising, shocking, or exhilarating. Information (from the novel to the movie to the news event) now comes to us pre-spoiled by the "technical feeling here that, out there, no surprises are left," and by the sense of "lifetimes upon lifetimes" of content "that we won't live long enough" to experience (Jaffe, 4; Chris Richards quoted in Jaffe, 4).
In happy proof of itself, the premise isn't entirely new. The book works openly from the same crib sheets as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Erich Auerbach and—most prominently—the media theorists Vilém Flusser and Siegfried Zielinski. We might add Mark Fischer to the mix here, though he doesn't get a mention. What Jaffe shares with these thinkers is a sense of thought, emotion, and instinct in obedience to machine—and in "the critical quality of modernity" in human life as jilted permanently by that imbalanced relationship (4). For Jaffe, via Flusser, we are "functionaries" of the apparatuses we believe we are using (56). What he shares with Flusser, and Zielinski too—and not, categorically, with the Frankfurt School—is an enjoyable sense of whimsy in the delivery of this catastrophic news.
Making imaginative use of Horkheimer and Adorno's enlightenment as totalizing mass deception, and of Auerbach's Mimesis, he has us swallowed whole in the giant's mouth of our new "media enclosure," grotesquely "astounded by the enormity of this total world" (9). The spoiler, he says—and the warning that accompanies it—represent a larger intervention in the limited good than mimesis has ever afforded. They are a symptomatic and very particular "form of motiveless malignity," built into the Internet program and thereby our interaction with it (10). If, as Auerbach put it, art can "break the blood/brain barrier between" our "creatural" real lives and our humanist ideals, the impulse to spoil is mundanely, banally destructive—"a groundless grievance against a literary-aesthetic affect/effect that seems to throw up on us in the most mundane, inopportune ways possible" (10). Unfashionably for a modernist scholar—but not the media theorists he's sourcing—Jaffe seeks to redress rather than simply comment on the rules of cultural engagement, counseling a return to "critical suspicion" about information in an age that often dismisses this as elitist. If none of us can escape our "hardwired compulsory stupidity," he says, at least we can strain to understand its workings, and "to learn"—as he puts it in his final pages—"to exist online and be offline" (Jaffe, 5; Zielinski quoted in Jaffe, 86).
Beginning with an epigraph from William Faulkner on the futile human effort to master time, and a first page that spans from Herman Melville through Godot to French femme rebel Virginie Despentes, Jaffe holds true to his own joke introductory "Content Warning," that the "variety of content subjects … may induce...