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Spam Lit

If only Tristan Tzara had lived to read spambot subject lines, some boiler-room hacker’s idea of a foolproof strategy for bluffing your way past spam-killer defenses. “Be godparent or osteology,” admonishes today’s first hunk of junk mail, a Dadaist ultimatum if ever there was one. What mental-ward wisdom hides in this love-it-or-leave-it, my-way-or-the-highway dualism? Does it mean: If you’re not part of a social network, bound by family ties, you’ve got one foot in the boneyard? “Riddle and barbecue,” another spam subject line advises, sounding like a ’50s cookbook for patio Daddy-o’s who want to be the life of the garden party, even while grilling. “Ragweed conjunct Sherlocke,” reads another, cryptically. A reference to Conan Doyle’s mythical detective? If so, why ye olde terminal “e”?

Intriguingly, this last one makes use of the market-tested formula of stringing together three unrelated words to generate a record title or bandname guaranteed to inspire hours of beer-bong explication de texte, as in Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or The Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion Technician or Independent Worm Saloon or the Mother of Them All, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. Do spambot programmers in offshore sweatshops have a secret sweet spot for the Captain? Or is there a neurocognitive reason for our requirement that three’s the magic number when it comes to dream-logic word games? I’ve archived mails with Beefheartian subject lines such as “biracial Auerbach crankshaft,” “boil longleg Kant” (those of us with little patience for the bewigged old dear couldn’t agree more) and the painful-sounding “hardwood pancreatic departure,” whose message begins on an exuberant note (“cowpony joyful plexiglas biz”) but ends, dejectedly, “casino tulane cattlemen denebola colorado skim cried allegro discernible florican abbas binaural cathedral brace.”

By contrast, there are sweetly elegiac subject lines, such as “Bette, in daydream epoch.” Read with a little poetic license, this spam subject line evokes with admirable economy the image of big-eyed Bette Davis in mid-reverie, lost in the ever-expanding moment of a sudden, Proustian recollection. No idea what to make of the paragraph tacked onto the end of this mail, a bit of free-associated absurdism—and a further attempt to defeat spam-sniffing programs—that rivals anything written by the Language poet Jackson MacLow:

with a squint who had no other merit than smelling like a stanhope coneflower
has increased upon him since I first came here He is often very nervous or I fancy so It is not fancy

Much ink has been shed about the irretrievable loss of gigabytes of writerly correspondence, now that we live in the Age of the Recycle Bin, when time is the scarcest commodity and spam overgrows our Inboxes like so much kudzu. Literary scholars mourn the passing of the letter as a literary art form, and note what a loss it would have been had, say, Robert Browning vaporized his wife Elizabeth Barrett’s overheated e-mails with a single, irrevocable mouseclick.

Perhaps. But they’re missing the riches under their noses, the inexhaustible fund of literary innovation and mass-psychological free association that is spam. An MRI of the mass mind, spam at its best gives voice to the dream life of consumer culture, and gives the Dadaists and the Burroughsian cut-up squad a run for their money when it comes to machine-age avant-gardism.

(Why not a Turing test for experimental lit? Who will code the first Deep Blue to win the prestigious $40,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, awarded in 2002 to the experimental poet Christian Bok for his Eunoia, a collection of poems in which each chapter is composed entirely of words of a single vowel.)

And speaking of Dadaists, if Marcel Duchamp had lived to read spam, the man who nonchalantly proclaimed snowshovels and hatracks “found” sculptures would surely have edited a Library of America anthology of spam, the signature genre of our times (not to mention our only truly new literary form, one written increasingly by machines). Printed, as always, on acid-free paper and set in Galliard type, bound in the finest binding cloth, and topped off with a ribbon marker, the better to mark memorable passages, such a volume would be grist for a million dissertation mills:

automat see ammonia try petrifaction in capistrano be mosaic!
algorithmic or gregory try attack the stool on checkerberry it cedric
not bullhead or duke and bankruptcy not mint some reinstate may vice
some conflagrate on cell, alsop on cycad be haphazard a locomotive may
moss it moose, corrugate be discussion it’s chunky be equatorial on
layup be lawbreaking it intelligible on hemorrhoid a despond some conley, coronado try. Not, go here

martini it metabolite it andrei a angeles but roustabout in betony in
resignation in anxiety, dreamboat and progress may conspire on
offsetting a khan the reptile see petrify in forsake it grizzly not
monkeyflower! choral it algonquin some selves it elmsford see lew not
anastasia be coequal some bankrupt in ethnic a purgative not bridal on
chimera and ammonia be cliffhang! began or kickback be amalgam or
tycoon! Not, go here