Saturday, December 26, 2015

And I Nearly Spoiled Myself

"If you don't want to negate the proairetic code, look away now."

One of the things I'd like to write, although it's a bit down the list, is something academic on literary critical terms which are used by SFF fans and writers but don't have wide circulation within academia. Any suggestions, by the way? Reboot, genderflip, relatable, squee, fangirl/fanboy, awesome, a thing. (Maybe even problematic, which has different nuance in academic contexts).

But for me the most intriguing term is spoiler. Academics don't use the term much. Or at least, it can be something of a boundary-stone, a word that suggests that the writer isn't in full scholarly mode.

What's the first spoiler you can remember? I remember mine very clearly. It was inflicted on me by my high school English teacher about sixteen or seventeen years ago. I could actually deduct weregild stars from him now if I wanted to. In our first class on Measure for Measure, he explained the entire plot of the play.

No spoiler alert, you guys.

The pedagogy behind it was quite sensible, and he was quite open about it: Shakespeare's language is difficult to understand. We were about to slowly read through the play over the course of the term, and it would be best if we were thinking about detailed meaning line-by-line -- well, some lines -- not getting distracted by detecting, assembling, remembering and/or anticipating the play's plot.

There was what I now suspect to be a faint air of New Criticism about this teaching tactic: as if the plot structure was really a bit like a biographical sketch, something pupils would seize on as an external proxy for the play itself; and/or something that would license all kinds of tangential rants about "issues arising" from the play, instead of the play itself. But damn, I still felt the dismay of luminosity extinguished. And I still think I must have been on to something.

You can spoil a joke. Why shouldn't you be able to spoil a play? (See Note 1).

Adam Roberts's meticulous Force Awakens review awakens with a brief meditation on spoilers. Critics such as Roberts, Key and Peele, and Portlandia must also be on to something. Spoiler panic is not just a techno-sociological trend driven by the shift from simultaneous broadcasts to on-demand webcasting, more intense fandom connectivity, and algorithmically curated social media intent on surfacing "content" it tactlessly imagines is "relevant" to you.

Spoiler panic does tell us something important -- spoiler alert, I don't know quite what it is! -- about this cultural moment, and about the virtues and vices of cultural production and consumption. It reflects, perhaps, certain mutations in what Barthes called the proairetic and the hermeneutic codes. It reflects certain rebalancings and redivisions of how we do collective imaginings: what kinds of things we expect to be imagined/hoped/desired/feared/etc. for us so, that we can imagine/hope/desire/fear/etc. certain other kinds of interwoven things.

I suspect, for instance, that it indicates shifts in how we react to character death. But park that for now.

The hunch I want to follow here is this. I suspect that spoiler panic indicates shifts in where we tolerate certain kinds of -- for want of a better term -- recreational avant-gardeism. Formal innovation, as well as political content, and satiric relief, are largely outsourced to post-post production. The Force Awakens and then The Farce Awakens: with a big cultural-economic event like a new Star Wars, the primary cultural producers of the event have a stake in providing appropriate grist to the mills of secondary tier of freelance remixers, parodists, shippers, pundits, curators, conspiracy theorists, fansplainers, Photoshoppers and general meme-makers. Maybe Star Wars: The Force Awakens is actually one of the weirdest and creative and most risky and hit-and-miss Star Wars yet, but only if you count the post-post production. Of course, we tend not to count it, so we're probably left just making the assessment that The Force Awakens is stylish but derivative. We don't really have a critical vocabulary for how well it handles the knowledge that it will also be derived from.

I am interested in that post-post production space, of course, including the role that spoilers play in managing it. But lots of people are talking about Internet culture and remix culture. And what I'm actually more interested in is what spoilers might reveal about changes within that traditional production space. How the productive responsibilities and affordances and pitfalls are altered for J. J. Abrams et al. by the presence of an "audience" whose cultural fruitfulness matches or overpowers their own. (See Note 2).

After all, we would probably be skeptical of a big budget movie like The Force Awakens if it started trying to do the things that the secondary, symbiotic cultural producers are so good at doing. It would be a bit Jar-Jarring, really. There is already a kind of expertise or at least proficiency implied whenever a cultural producer recognizes where their remit ends, and crowdcomplexification starts. So I'm interested in how, if you're a big cultural producer, in order to plant the right seeds, you need to cultivate knowledge of what's growing there already.

Or in other words.

How does the spoiler relate to the anti-spoiler -- to those fragments of prior knowledge that supply, rather than stifle, the audience's pleasure and other libidinal investments? It's as if a spoiler is a subatomic particle which implies another kind of particle, the anti-spoiler, whose existence has yet to be experimentally proven.

Could we say that, if this is a cultural moment where the influence of spoilers is weirdly gigantic within consumption, it is also a cultural moment where the influence of anti-spoilers is weirdly gigantic in production? The Marvel Cinematic Universe is partly an enormous exercise in quasi-improvisational foreshadowing, AKA, the mass production of anti-spoilers. The importance of anti-spoilers is also particularly clear with Abrams et al. -- goodness, this has just turned into another fucking Star Wars post hasn't it, ha ha! -- because Abrams et al. had an unusually narrowly circumscribed forest in which to hunt for anti-spoilers: it is about 70% Episodes IV, V and VI; 10% Episodes I, II and III; 10% EU and SW fandom penumbra; 10% Misc. Essentially the first three Star Wars movies contain anti-spoilers for The Force Awakens.

One way of thinking about the anti-spoiler is, of course, as a constituent of genre literacy -- perhaps a little like what TV Tropes calls a "trope." A trope is an atom of culture. Just because it's citational doesn't mean it's trite. It could be trite, of course. But it doesn't necessarily have to get subverted, "averted" or "lampshaded" to avoid that triteness -- the way it works as an ingredient is highly relational, depending on how all the other ingredients fit around it, as well as the minutiae of its own execution.

Spoilers, like anti-spoilers, and perhaps also like "tropes," have a peculiar aura of apodicticity. When they've happened, they've happened. You can't unknow a spoiler, can you? And you can't degrade the validity of a semiotic code: it's there, "behind" the pattern of more or less valid meanings, structuring meaning in the first place. Here's a little discussion I had once with Sam (whose Guilty But Insane is a spoiler-respecting academic book about crime fiction, btw) which is still totally a running joke with us:

"And at the end she's dead. Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead!"
"-- haven't seen it --"
"... or is she?!"

Suggestion for a First World Problem charity: Fake Spoilers Society. They go around spreading their damn beautiful fake spoilers till they're really, really prevalent. So if you've picked up a spoiler somewhere, you have the glimmer of hope it's one of the fake ones.

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Some final thoughts / questions.

Is "buzz," whether deliberately marketed or not, another kind of anti-spoiler? How about the salt-sugar/sugar dialectic of popcorn and fizzy drinks?

Does "spoiler" relate at all to the notion of spoiling a child or a pet, perhaps via treating it with a kind of supposedly pathological sensitivity?

Is literary criticism, insofar as it is meant to illuminate and/or enrich its objects, a kind of post factum anti-spoiler?

What's the difference between a fake spoiler and an anti-spoiler? And can you have a fake anti-spoiler and/or an anti-anti-spoiler? What is the ultimate Antman ante-despoiler? What is the good life?

If an anti-spoiler is a kind of knowledge, maybe a spoiler is actually some kind of loss or lack of knowledge? It is a tempting thought. To be able to do something is a kind of knowledge, a savoir faire. To be able to enjoy a book is surely a kind of knowledge. Why is it that certain people can re-read and re-read certain books, and be entirely invested and immersed in them, despite knowing everything down to a fine grain?

Spoilers as illocutionary acts?

I have been saying "we" a lot. Perhaps readers are individuated by what counts as a spoiler. I mean, they definitely are: but perhaps that's a good way of individuating them, a way which maps instructively onto the categories of intersectional analysis: class, gender, et al. This what starts to get the discussion a little political. What is the relationship between possessing an armamentarium of anti-spoilers -- all that prior tacit knowledge which turns on the pleasure tap, which helps the text to just flow over you -- and the inalienable, constitutive experience which we try to recognize by honoring people's self-identification with larger groups? And what is the relationship between a spoiler and a GamerGate bro's experience of a woman or a person of color in a particular role "spoiling" a game for him?

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Note 1: Hypothesis. Spoilers are real. Exposure to one typically quite short text (the spoiler) can render a reader who was previously capable of fully realizing part or all of a second typically longer narrative text (the book or movie or whatever) in some sense incapable. Why, how, what are the implications? By repute, stories are rather toward the "immortal" end of the spectrum. Does this fragility of fruitful relationships between text and reader actually require us to re-assess what is going on when a story is read, or when someone is absorbed or enchanted by it? Are spoilers real because learning is dialectically implicated with stupefaction, as explored by Natalie Pollard and Keston Sutherland and others? And if spoilers are real, how good are we at recognizing them? Could we be systematically mistaken about them in some ways? How reliable an instrument is introspection? When someone tells you something that "sounds like a spoiler" while insisting it isn't, how do you feel about it, and what happens to your experience of the text? How do spoilers fit in with Kant's suggestion about the universal communicability of aesthetic judgment? If you can't prove to me that Jessica Jones is boring by rational argument, but you can actually make it boring for me, and you and I share a structure which makes it possible for you to do that, what would Kant make of that? How do spoilers relate to, for instance, eye-gouging?

Note 2: These are such crude distinctions. What I'm really interested in is how "suitability for the remix-o-sphere" plays out at as a quality of the interface between the text and the audience in the first instance, rather than (or as well as) how a movie literally begins to accumulate all kinds of interesting detritus. And how "suitability for the remix-o-sphere" takes on an ethical dimension, something to do with exemplifying the virtues of public speech. Maybe something to do with sovereignty. Hmm. Captain America: Civil War drops in 2016. Carl Schmitt, as far as I am aware, did not argue that the Sovereign is "he who decides the spoiler." Perhaps the circumstances of the contemporary large cultural producer, mindful of its hyperproductive prosumers, can be considered a kind of sovereignty, with a Hobbesy/Schmitty vibe to it: Marvel and/or Disney and/or Whoever is the sovereign insofar as it decides the exception, making slight, lumbering veers from established tropes, ideally to keep one particular version of the peace, and ensure the collective prosperity of innumerable private actors. Marvel and/or Disney and/or Whoever is the sovereign insofar as it decides the spoiler: what goes in the trailer is by definition a "glimpse" not a "spoiler." If you feel it spoiled the movie for you personally, you can't appeal to Heaven for legitimacy: although if everybody agrees, you could maybe reboot your fandom's social contract.

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