Spam's Off Dear!

By Ben Pritchett, 27 May 2010

Nothing like as bland or homogenised as its namesake, The Spam Book, with its forays into the anomalous 'dark side' of digital networks, provides some nourishing food for thought. Review by Ben Pritchett


For a collection of essays called The Spam Book, this volume does not waste much time sifting through spam. The title is a throwaway gimmick intended to give a light-hearted twist to the book's subject matter, ‘the dark side' of digital culture. It announces a divergence in tone from prevalent right-wing scaremongering about media effects, and instead asserts an aim not only to affirm the errors, aberrations and misfirings of the internet, but also to laugh along with them. This is an amusing approach, and while it is not maintained consistently throughout the book, the stylistic playfulness comes across particularly strongly in the more theoretical chapters co-authored by Fuller and Goffey, and by Galloway and Thacker, which don't develop arguments so much as spew out critical-theoretical ‘stratagems' and jeux d'esprit. Nietzsche once wrote that ‘nature shoots the philosopher at mankind like an arrow; she does not aim, but hopes that the arrow will stick somewhere'; in a muckier vein, the The Spam Book's scattergun approach to theory recalls the ‘effect of dropping a can of Spam into a fan, and filling the surrounding space with meat' (OED).

Image: Still from Monty Python's Spam Sketch

Perhaps inevitably then, despite the many philosophical and theoretical sources cited by the book's various contributors, the overall thematic does not conduce to systematic analytical rigour, and indeed the attempt by several of the contributors to squeeze a reference to ‘spam' into their essays leads to a certain category error. It takes until the coda by Galloway and Thacker, before ‘junk', ‘trash' and ‘spam' are finally (idiosyncratically but convincingly) distinguished from each other. However, all the writers seem to have missed some very basic observations, in favour of more recondite speculations.

It is necessary to state the obvious here, then: ‘spam', as an ultimate commodity (spiced canned meat), immortalised in Monty Python's infamous sketch, calls to mind a homogeneous flood of undifferentiated matter. Spam-in-itself is not generative or lively; it is dull and inert. But this book is less interested in bland homogeneity than in heterogeneity - the ‘anomalies' of the subtitle. The false conjunction posited between ‘spam' and the ‘anomalous' breeds an infertile kind of confusion. Whereas ‘spam' evokes the levelling down effects of mass production, anomalies are creative results of the random encounters enabled by collective living. These are two distinct themes in Modernist cultural theory - if they were classically exemplified on the Fordist production line and in the chaotic metropolis, the internet is home to both. Of course, only in abstraction can we isolate one tendency from its obverse (both were effects of capitalist industrialisation), but nevertheless, it is vital to realise that we are discussing two essentially different polarities of large agglomerations (whether of people, objects, or something in between). Although he doesn't use the words ‘spam' and ‘anomaly' in this context, Sampson clearly distinguishes the two trends in his chapter on ‘Universal Contagion': reactive, molar crowds as theorised by Le Bon, and creative, molecular crowds as theorised by Tarde. What is humorous about the Monty Python sketch, is the absurd way in which it inverts a piece of common knowledge: the notion that spam is boring - not bad in the sense of evil, malignant, naughty or mischievous, but simply tedious. The editors of this book seem to feel, on the contrary, that the Pythons discovered the true, deliriously funny essence of spam.

One thankless task that the book charges its contributors with, then, is to redeem ‘spam' as a productive anomaly. However the two direct engagements with electronic spam (in its basic sense) are not developed at great length, and are not particularly convincing. First there is the suggestion (made both in the editors' introduction, and by Galloway and Thacker,) that the text automatically generated by spambots approaches the status of Dadaist and Surrealist poetry. I would have relished a literary stylistic attempt to convince me of this, but the remarks are superficial and don't really demonstrate a familiarity with the textual techniques of either avant-gardists or spam programmers. The second argument appears in Susanna Paasonen's essay analysing unsolicited junk emails that advertise pornography. The problem here is that her study ultimately reverts to the level of content - out of hundreds of emails, she chooses two examples which seem particularly subversive of heterosexual norms. However, she might have made the same point by looking at the porn sites directly - when she gets down to a close look at the images' distinctive qualities, the fact that they were conveyed to her by email becomes largely irrelevant.

The three chapters on pornography in this collection are attempts at applying a ‘non-representational' theoretical paradigm to a genre of media which would seem inevitably to lend itself to a representational analysis. As such they are a testing ground to see how far the guiding philosophical premises of The Spam Book can be stretched. Within the post-structuralist problematic of libidinal economy, most explicitly laid out in Dougal Phillips' essay, the moment of ‘representation' corresponds to, and is displaced by, that of ‘distribution', lifted from the economic triad of production, distribution and consumption. Distribution is the phase during which products are inscribed on a surface that is available to conscious perception. Bearing this in mind, a particular bias of the outlook of all three writers on pornography in this volume becomes clear - they openly avow their rejection of the concept of representation, in favour of notions of distribution and consumption, but they do not see the same need to justify their omission of the category of production.

Phillips takes the consumerist, future anterior perspective on representation to a hyperbolic extreme, asking, after Lyotard and Baudrillard, whether desire will persist after the sun has exploded and humanity is extinct... (The answer is, apparently, that desire will carry on, but pornography will not, although such a scenario is more than our all-too-human minds could comprehend). The sun's eventual devouring of the earth in a ball of fire is a perfect image of anti-humanist consumerism. Needless to say, an active socialist politics focussing on the mundane material realities of production can find little foothold in the analytical framework shared by these writers. Ironically enough, the website Fucking Machines, which particularly intrigues Paasonen, belongs to the company, whose ‘values' page proudly advertises a commitment to occupational health and safety regulations. Such information on workplace conditions might be valuable to socialist feminist debates on the politics of pornography, but it is not available to Paasonen, because her methodology focuses on ‘found objects' and she passively resists taking any research initiative beyond studying emails as they appear in her inbox.


Image: NSFW, dude!

Katrien Jacobs argues that S&M, in porn and in practice, is a good way of reclaiming non-normative forms of sexuality that have been exploited by the political right, for example by the military torturers in the Abu Ghraib pictures. This is a suggestive thought, which merits further investigation. It is unfortunate that Jacobs' theoretical bases are somewhat shaky. In her argument in favour of sadomasochistic performances, she references Deleuze's Coldness and Cruelty; a baffling move because much of that book is dedicated to proving that there is no formal unity between sadism and masochism, and that ‘sadomasochism' is a syndrome that blurs and arbitrarily unites radically dissimilar symptoms. This reference is not, however, the linchpin of Jacobs' argument, which finally hinges on the findings of a series of ethnographic interviews that she conducted exploring DIY web culture.

Jacobs' theoretical blindspot is of a piece with the general lack of acknowledgement of psychoanalysis in The Spam Book; neither Freud nor Lacan gets discussed in any depth. This omission is ultimately carried through to the extent that Galloway and Thacker use Donald Rumsfeld's frankly facile coinage of ‘the unknown unknown' in place of the more nuanced concepts of the (political) unconscious developed by Freud and his followers. This move is particularly odd, as the Rumsfeld quotation seems to have been introduced into cultural theory by Slavoj Žižek, in a discussion of Abu Ghraib.i Rather than celebrating Rumsfeld's amateur philosophising, Žižek noted that Rumsfeld's three-part sequence (known known, known unknown, unknown unknown), omits the logical fourth term - the ‘unknown known', which corresponds to the Freudian unconscious. In this particular instance, the ‘unknown known' that Žižek highlighted was the authorities' repressed knowledge of the obscene Abu Ghraib scandal. Without Žižek's twist, The Spam Book's invocation of Rumsfeld seems complicit in a comparable wilful blindness towards the insights of psychoanalysis. Freud should be a primary place to turn in any theoretical analysis of the censorship of ‘bad objects', which is a theme central to parts II and IV of The Spam Book - ‘bad object' itself being an unattributed borrowing from Melanie Klein.

Lacking a Freudian framework, the chapters on censorship are indeed the most straightforwardly empirical in The Spam Book. In some respects, this is refreshing. As a reader with a background in the humanities, it was in these chapters that I felt most strongly I was being introduced to aspects of the internet of which I had previously been unaware. Greg Elmer's chapter looks at the political ramifications of the use of the robot.txt protocol to hide web-pages from inclusion in search databases, and Richard Rogers' chapter explains international research methods for monitoring state censorship of the internet. Both contributions give an insight into specific techniques by which little explored areas of the net can be mapped with deliberateness and consistency. They are also the most obviously ‘political' parts of the book, after Jacobs' discussion of Abu Ghraib. (The use of illustrations in Rogers' chapter was somewhat frustrating, however, because the diagrams consisted mainly of text that was too small to read.)

The Spam Book is fairly weak on questions concerning the economic and material infrastructure that makes the internet possible, but the first section, on ‘Contagion', is strong on the question of the internal informational architecture of the web itself, analysing the particular topologies of networked spaces. It took me a while to grasp the logic behind this section, since the heading ‘Contagion' seemed a secondary concern for a chapter that ultimately focussed on the production of space. In fact, this counter-intuitive framing of the subject is particularly useful - the paradigm here is one of process ontology, whereby a network is not identified with its physical infrastructure, but shown to be continually produced and transformed through the making and breaking of links, in dynamic processes of interaction. The network, in this sense, does not carry contagion, but is constituted by the flows of contagion, ‘a heterogeneous compositional force endemic to the network'. This theme opens up questions as to which biological concepts are most helpful in mapping the internet - the polemical thrust of the book is to reject images of functional organic completeness in favour of viral proliferation and productive malfunction. In a reflexive folding back of this argument, John Johnston's chapter touches upon the significance of computer viruses for research into biological life through digital modelling.

I was also particularly intrigued by Luciani Parisi's chapter on ‘Extensive Abstraction in Digital Architecture', which draws from D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's book of mathematical biology, On Growth and Form (published in 1917). That text was the subject of an exhibition by Richard Hamilton back in 1951, before his turn towards Pop Art, which augured the contemporary art world's increasing preoccupation with commodified images and images of commodities. Alongside the chapters by Johnston and Sampson, Parisi's emphasis on biological processes of morphogenesis suggests that the problematic of The Spam Book is as much pre- or non-representational as it is post-representational.

The chapters by Roberta Buiani and Jussi Parikka share a Foucauldian concern with the constitutive influence that the discourse of ‘the viral' has on the ways in which viruses are produced and handled. There was some overlap, verging on redundancy, between these two chapters in terms of their common concerns and approach. Buiani's contribution displays a certain naivety towards the mystifying influence of capitalism on the discourse of ‘the viral', and a concomitant over-optimism about the effectiveness of artistic interventions to challenge capitalist interests. The adjective ‘viral' in viral marketing is often cynically deployed to confer a veneer of naturalness and spontaneity on marketing schemes that are highly conceived with clear strategic aims, and I baulked at Buiani's inference that Starbucks' and McDonald's franchising systems appear ‘to have drawn inspiration from viral replication', and are ‘witnesses of a newly distributed postcapitalist structure'. On the contrary, these business practices are blatant examples of economic and cultural imperialism, dumping low grade homogeneous products to replace local singularity. To reiterate the elided difference in The Spam Book's title: Starbucks and McDonald's are ‘spam', whereas viruses are ‘anomalies'. Parikka's chapter more lucidly situated the position of the virus in the capitalist system, stressing the antagonism between viruses and corporate homogenisation - the monoculture of big capitalist firms in fact provides viruses with a particularly vulnerable target, as shown by the many attacks made against Microsoft, ‘the digital equivalent of McDonalds'.

Image: Crib sheet for viral marketing remedial class

Of all the writers featured in this collection, Steve Goodman, in his chapter on ‘Digital Glitches', is perhaps the most generous towards his human subjects, as he explicitly credits individual cultural producers with a high level of self-awareness and reflexivity in theorising their own practice. He discusses the glitch musical genres and record companies that directly drew influence from post-structuralist philosophy, most notably the Frankfurt-based label Mille Plateaux, founded by Achim Szepanski. In this style of music, digital errors are deliberately incorporated into the texture of the sound, challenging the metaphysical binary of substance and accident. Partly as a result of reading this chapter, I was particularly sensitive to various typos throughout The Spam Book, most prominently on the contents pages, where one page number is omitted, and another is erroneously repeated. I wonder if this was deliberately done to make the reader stop and think about the productive nature of errors, but it would be more apposite if it were a genuine mistake.

The Spam Book, given its actual focus on anomalies, does not do exactly what it says on the tin. In order to come up with a coherent theory of spam, we might need to return to the insights into the culture industry developed by the Frankfurt school, over hastily dismissed in The Spam Book's introduction. But if the book is sometimes irritating, it is no less thought provoking for all that, and serves up a number of unexpected and stimulating insights - less a can of spam then, than a curate's egg.

Ben Pritchett <PritchettBen AT> will be beginning a Spam PhD in History of Art with the Open Spam University in October 2010


The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn, and Other Anomalies from the Dark Side of Digital Culture (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc., 2009)

Ed. by Jussi Parrikka and Tony D. Sampson, with a forward by Sadie Plant