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Reading and Weaving
“Far from being the exception in online communication, spam is actually the rule. […] It forms the bulk of digital writing, in essence. And it, too, has a firm grasp on reality. Far from being secondary and accidental, spam is a substantial expression of a period that has elevated superfluity into one of its guiding principles.”
- Hito Steyerl, “Digital Debris: Spam and Scam”
Securelist provides quarterly spam and phishing reports each year, and their reported average percentage of spam in email traffic for April-September 2015 was 54.19%. Considering how far computer literacy has come, it is almost unbelievable that spam e-mails are still circulating – who could be clicking these links, sharing their credit card and social insurance numbers? But, as Michael Specter points out, “it costs a pittance to send a million messages—or even a billion—and recipients almost always spend more than the sender.” Spam’s bar for success is so low that “[e]ven though the number of customers acquired through this process is extremely small, it is still a viable business.”
What kind of wares are these spam messages peddling? “Most products marketed via e-spam are supposed to enhance bodily appearance, performance and/or health.” See the classics: Viagra, porn websites, diet pills. My inbox has been filling up recently with invitations to ridiculously fake-seeming hookup websites. Steyerl calls spam email a “post-carnal” form, like the processed ham after which it is named. Both “deal with the production of enhanced, altered, artificial, processed, upgraded as well as degraded forms of flesh.” If we are looking for illustrations of the body overlapping with the digital, pornographic spam seems to fit the bill. “Email spam is a format that attempts to act on bodies,” Steyerl adds. Unfortunately, all too often and all too obviously, the bodies exploited are women’s. “The use, consumption, and circulation of their sexualized bodies underwrite the organization and the reproduction of the social order.”
However, Susanna Paasonen’s essay, “Irregular Fantasies, Anomalous Uses: Pornography Spam as Boundary Work,” offers some different insights into the ways that porn spam denaturalizes sexual norms through “hyperbole, excess, and exaggeration.” She begins by noting that,
“pornography is […] virtually absent from public discourses on the information society, whereas in scholarly debates on online cultures it is regarded as little more than an anomaly or a social problem associated with addiction and lack of control. The aversion toward pornography is telling of values and norms attached to the Internet as a medium, and the kinds of normative models applied to its users.”
Porn is not how the scholars want to see their Internet. Yet, “[a]bundant already on Usenet, pornography has been part and parcel of the Web ever since it was first launched.” Sexually explicit content has existed in most forms of media across long spans of time and place. The Internet has been an enormous platform for the profiting off and pirating of this content as pornography. As we have been examining binaries and overlaps, Paasonen’s description of pornography spam as “simultaneously mainstream and marginal, popular and unpopular, generic and exceptional,” is of note. Porn spam can be a (graphic) daily reminder of the abjection of carnal impulses, precisely at the times when we don’t want to think about our bodies’ shameful realnesses.
Shame around sex and pornography is built into the way we speak about it. Again, we see a separation of mind and body, in which the body is a source of disgust, to be dissociated with at all costs.
“Disgust in particular involves the separation of the lower and the higher, the self and the other – a marking of both boundaries of culture and the self. The terminology of filth and smut widely circulated in relation to pornography works to mark not only pornographic texts but also bodies, orifices, and organs exhibited as disgusting. Some of this disgust leaks out toward people using pornography who, in the context of debates on online porn, are regarded as marginal actors, recurrently marked as the wrong kind of Internet user, an addict or potential pervert – even if the actual number of pornography users defies the category of being marginal.”
The porn spam collected by Paasonen with her “scavenger methodology” contained text and images, ripe with hyperbole and wildly creative euphemisms. They linked through to websites selling sex pills, sex gadgets, or porn. Since undertaking my own spam collection nine months ago, every porn spam I have received has been of a different sort than Paasonen’s. They contain no images, only garbled and symbol-laden text, and an oddly named woman (eg. kinky Cynthy C.) invites me, Sophia Borowska, to check out her profile on such-and-such a website. To FŬĈK!¡
If, as Finn Brunton says, “spamming is the project of leveraging information technology to exploit existing gatherings of attention,” then this type of spam seems to reflect the massive new popularity of social media, online dating, and cam girls. Spammers “show the rest of the online population the network’s new capabilities, the new forms of attention and community experience, which we have not yet fully understood.” Spam awkwardly and pretty hilariously illustrates the most popular uses of the Internet at any given time for its own profit, changing strategies as collective attentions shift. Like Facebook’s interface, spam e-mails now address me personally, by name, mimicking a friendly interpersonal experience.
Though spammers’ strategies for grabbing attention and bypassing filters change quickly and ingeniously, the content of porn spam never seems to develop with our evolving views of gender and sexuality. “Pornography conventions are slow to change and they are recycled with considerable vigor,” constantly reinforcing a clear-cut and genital gender division. Men and women perform their usual roles of active and passive, dominant and submissive. Sadie Plant argues that most of the sex that makes its way onto the Internet “is clearly designed to reproduce and amplify the most clichéd associations with straight male sex.” Although the spam messages I’m receiving are addressed to me, most of them are formulated for a heterosexual male reader. “Hallo my lّovely peckَer!! i jusْt want NSA s3x without all the drama .. are u down? i can’t stop touching mًy pu$$y and need a real c@ck now ;-) My screenname is Kellyann84”. OK, calm down Kellyann…
Considering the way markets might open up if spammers tried something else, it’s a bit surprising that they don’t seem to do so. But it’s probably best not to try to get inside a spammer’s head. In Brunton’s Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, one antispam warrior says, “To recognize individual spam features you have to try to get into the mind of the spammer, and frankly I want to spend as little time inside the minds of spammers as possible.” He continues, “To really understand the spamming process, you have to run an emulation of the spammer in your mind and in your code, and the sleaziness that entails is degrading.”
Degrading indeed. “If pornography is considered as one of the lowest and generic forms of popular culture, then pornography spam […] would be the lowest of the low.”46 It really doesn’t provide the most flattering picture of humanity. A huge percentage of “pictures inadvertently sent off into deep space” is represented by spam. Hito Steyerl imagines that, if aliens were trying to reconstruct an image of the human form from our digital debris, “chances are, it would looks like Image Spam.”
Porn spam is embarrassing, and represents the worst of Western constructions of gender and sexuality, in addition to consumer culture. So why use it as a subject for a series of lovingly crafted hand weavings? I’m interested in examining porn spam both for the content and the email medium itself. But perhaps most importantly, I’m interested in porn spam’s purported status as anomaly, an anomaly I would like to read in correlation to weaving. “Anomaly is antithetical to regularity, the norm and the same old thing: Residing in between categories and breaking against them, it is also dangerous to a degree. The notion of anomaly is an analytical tool for considering the logics of classification, and the kinds of norms they give shape to.” Here the anomaly is in-between states, dangerous to clear-cut categorization because it reveals illogical logics. Sounds like another parergon. Spam as parergon to healthy, functioning systems of online communication again reveals a lack. It shoves in our faces “the massive, unwieldy universe of online pornography […], where excess itself is the order of the day,” using the disembodied platform of email. It also reveals a lack of control, if even the world’s most powerful corporations like Google can’t keep spam out of our inboxes.
The Internet started out as a military platform, and while still in the hands of the few developed into “a modern dream for a completely homogeneous and controllable space.” Spammers and scammers ingeniously squirm through the cracks, and – when they succeed – reveal to us and remind us of the systems of control that mediate our online experiences. Bewildering as it is, spam wouldn’t be working so hard to take advantage of Internet users if it were no longer a profitable enterprise. Getting a spam email brings awareness to this other side of the Internet, a post-carnal or extra-carnal fringe. This is a side where gender binaries, body negativity, loneliness, and shame are flagrantly and hyperbolically exploited, “luring, pushing, and blackmailing people into the profane rapture of consumption.” Paasonen concludes that:
“pornography spam enables a point of entrance to examining boundary work concerning pornography, the Internet, their uses, and e-mail as a communication medium. The sheer mass of bulk e-mail points to a gap between the ideal of e-mail as a fast and flexible communication tool, and the actual experiences of its usage. Although Internet research tends to focus on more ‘regular’ uses and exchanges, a shift in perspective toward examples deemed less desirable helps to investigate the medium through a wider spectrum of practices and experiences that cannot be reduced to the logics of ideal functionality and smooth progress proffered by corporate business rhetoric. Furthermore, they complicate the notion and possibility of control – be this over the medium, personal e-mail correspondence, or affective and libidinal relations to pornographic texts.”
Porn spam reveals “a lack in the object that it supplements,” and therefore “its supplementarity is subversive, and the supplemented object [(email)] turns out to be knowable only through its supplement [(spam)].” Brunton illustrates how real the effects of spam are on what we continue to call real life.
“Spam has changed laws and communities at the points of friction where the network’s capacities rub against prior orders of work and governance. It has changed our language, economics, and culture and exerted a profound effect on our technologies. It has subtly—and not so subtly—deformed the shape of life online, pulling it into new arrangements that make no more sense than the movement of the galaxies unless you allow for the mass of all the dark matter.”
This dark matter, the “negative shape” of “people gathering on computer networks,” behaves similarly to weaving because in both instances, the form changes with and also affects its ergon. Developments in weaving lead to arguments of high art versus mass-produced design. Anni Albers’ weavings influence modernist painting traditions. Yves Saint Laurent creates the Mondrian dresses. Textiles remain somewhere uncomfortable between painting and decoration. Weaving imitates art, art imitates weaving, weaving is art, and art is commodity. We’re dealing with blurry lines, which make the parergon impossible to extract from the ergon. “What constitutes […] parerga is not simply their exteriority as surplus, it is the internal structural link which rivets them to the lack in the interior of the ergon. And this lack would be constitutive of the very unity of the ergon. Without this lack, the ergon would have no need of a parergon. The ergon’s lack is the lack of a parergon.”
25. Steyerl, “Digital Debris,” 111.
26. “Spam and phishing in Q3 2015,” Securelist, accessed February 25, 2016, https://securelist.com/analysis/quarterly-spam-reports/72724/spam-and-phishing-in-q3-2015/
27. Michael Specter, “Damn Spam,” New Yorker, August 6, 2007, newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/06/damn-spam.
28. Steyerl, “Digital Debris,” 111.
29. Ibid., 114.
33. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 36.
34. Susanna Paasonen, “Irregular Fantasies, Anomalous Uses: Pornography Spam as Boundary Work,” in The Spam Book, 172.
35. Ibid., 168.
36. Ibid., 167.
38. Paasonen, “Irregular Fantasies,” 169.
40. Brunton, Spam, xvi.
41. Ibid., 198.
42. Paasonen, “Irregular Fantasies,” 172.
43. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 181.
44. Brunton, Spam, 134.
46. Paasonen, “Irregular Fantasies,” 170.
47. Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 161.
49. Paasonen, “Irregular Fantasies,” 168-9.
50. Phillips, “Can Desire Go On Without a Body?” 195.
51. Tiziana Terrvanova, “Network Dynamics,” in Networks, 90.
52. Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, 161.
53. Paasonen, “Irregular Fantasies,” 178-9.
54. Golan, Muralnomad, 202.
55. Brunton, Spam, xiii-xiv.
56. Ibid., xvi.
57. Derrida, The Truth in Painting, 59-60.
Figure 3. Screenshot from my personal email account, showing a pornographic litspam email. See weaving here.