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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 alt.music 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

24 Comments

  1. Boing Boing wrote:

    Mark Dery on spam literature

    Culture critic Mark Dery has posted his funny, short, sharp take on the Dada-esque poetry that emerges from spammers’ attempts to beat filters by throwing random words in the email. From Mark’s blog post: …If Marcel Duchamp had lived to read spam, th…

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  2. Tim Holt wrote:

    Spam’s an excellent source of poetic verse as well. I’ve got a few on http://www.vintnerd.com

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 3:04 pm | Permalink
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    Nitpicky, yes, but Wilco’s three word combination is not random:
    http://www.ee.pdx.edu/~sheaj/icao.html

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 3:10 pm | Permalink
  4. Michael Spears wrote:

    You mentioned Christian Bok in your post. Here is a paper by him on a similar topic.
    http://www.ubu.com/papers/object/03_bok.pdf

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  5. En Coli wrote:

    Very insightful, even for a cultural critic. Oh yeah, Kurt Schwitters, the Dada dissident and founder of the one-man Merz movement wrote poetry compiled from found sources of text, this was around 1917. More contemporary artists have been using the script generated text of email spam as a source of material for a few years now.
    Anyways, thanks for obvious observations, you’re a real visionary

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  6. Shocho wrote:

    Lovely article. I’ve been constructing some as well, here is my first:
    http://thehellbox.blogspot.com/2005/08/poem-about-allan.html

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 3:28 pm | Permalink
  7. M. Dery wrote:

    Persnickety, yes, but I never said _Yankee Hotel Foxtrot_ was “random”; I said the words were *unrelated*, which they are. Yeah, I know the title’s provenance: A spook chanting “radio phonetics,” or strings of (coded?) words into the ether, from Irdial Records’ _Conet Project_. But the words are either part of an acronym or some more obscure code, and bear no relationship to one another, at least none I can discern. Can you?

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  8. jesse wrote:

    yes, I have been an admirer and collector dada-esque spam for a while. its great when trying to come up with titles for band names, albums, and songs

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  9. Rob Read wrote:

    I’ve been trimming at the ‘kudzu’ for awhile now with my Daily Treated Spam – I modify by omission of letters and words to get to a ‘poam’ every day, sent out to a bunch of recipients. Perhaps the only place on the net where people sign up to get spam on purpose – http://www.dailytreatedspam.com

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  10. Run into several of these myself – spam poetry is the word/music of this generation…
    http://www.livejournal.com/users/thedarkbackward

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  11. Kim Cascone wrote:

    great article…
    also, check out the spoetry list:
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/spoetrycollectors/

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  12. M. Dery wrote:

    Thanks for the kudos, all, and especially for the awesome references, a dataphile’s wet dream of intertextual connections. Supercool.

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  13. rob wrote:

    You must get a better class of 419ers. None of my spam is ever that interesting.

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 6:35 pm | Permalink
  14. bodo peeters wrote:

    Wilco’s title Hotel Yankee Foxtrot actually came from a so-called ‘number station’
    http://www.irdial.com/conet.htm
    great source for more dadaist poetry!

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 6:39 pm | Permalink
  15. fústar wrote:

    Being a cautious sort, I rarely open such gnomic spam messages at all, choosing instead to scan the subject lines before marking them for deletion.
    Can’t say that the ones I receive are as avant-garde as yours Mark…they seem, rather, to target my (perceived) insecurities. “behungforladies” they advise (aiming spam missiles at the groin), or (perhaps sincerely) they tell me that I will soon “enjoyTheBenefits”. More ambiguously, I’m informed that I’ll “havethemsoon” (is this good?), and that I am a mere click away from “theUltimateSourceofFun”.
    Woo hoo!

    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 9:03 pm | Permalink
  16. peter krapp wrote:

    http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/w/wilco-yankee.shtml:
    “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or YHF is a high-traffic station on the network of short-wave radio stations operated by Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. These stations have played an essential role in allowing Mossad to communicate with agents by broadcasting one-way transmissions usually identified with a tactical call-sign consisting of three phonetic letters, such as “Charlie India Oscar” or “Echo Zulu India”. Although the broadcast voice is always female, it’s not an actual person but a speech synthesizer — automatic machines do the actual announcing, sending out a seemingly endless stream of rota-styled messages.
    Back when Wilco were promoting Summerteeth, Jeff Tweedy’s interest in short-wave radio came up in an interview with Stephen Dowling of Music 365 — in fact, he had a four-cd set of nothing but recorded transmissions intercepted from worldwide intelligence agencies. As Tweedy explained: “I got this record of all Morse code last year and I swear to God I listened to it more than any other record. . . . Well, it’s actually number stations on short wave radio that have existed since World War II. There are hundreds of them owned and run by intelligence agencies and they still for some reason transfer code . . . and lots of it is people reading out numbers”. Then Dowling threw in Tweedy’s monotone impersonation of a transmission: “four . . . 21 . . . 17″.
    (A much less enthusiastic Jay Bennett added, “I remember that car ride to Chicago where you played it. For the first 20 minutes it was like ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. And then after two hours. . . .”)
    Traces of Tweedy’s radio fixation cropped up on Summerteeth; with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it’s center stage. (And Wilco can’t miss the irony of Reprise wanting a more “radio-friendly record” when they’ve been handed an album built on the notion of radio’s subversive potential.) Permeating YHF are the sounds of short-wave radio — including a synthesized female voice repeating “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” — but we’ll get to that later.
    On YHF, Wilco use short-wave radio as a metaphor for communication in a relationship. Short-wave radio allows people to speak who are not in physical proximity, but there’s no guarantee that the coded messages will be received successfully, and atmospheric interference is a given. People involved in a relationship often find their communication imperfect and cryptic, not unlike the experience of those relying on radio. After all, language itself is inherently flawed, inaccurate, and misread — a code often misinterpreted; further complicating matters are external distortions and distractions — a metaphoric radio static. With all of this interference, can we ever succeed in communicating with someone else?”
    This article was originally published by PopMatters in the fall of 2001. We are republishing it in the wake of the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on Nonesuch Records in the US on 23 April 2002 and in the UK on 22 April 2002.

    Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 1:12 am | Permalink
  17. endwar wrote:

    I’ll plug my little entry in the burgeoning field of spamlit, a chapbook published by my micropress IZEN entitled Machine Language (5.5″x8.5″, 32 pages, $5 — email me at endwar70@hotmail.com). It differs from the efforts of Rob Read and Cecil Touchon (among many others) in that i did only minimal editing of the most interesting selections i received and added an explanatory introductory essay. The selections to some extent were meant to illustrate the various categories of messages i was seeing. What i did, similar to the examples in Mark’s blog entry here, was to select what appeared to be the computer generated cut-up texts embedded in these emails.
    To recap the essay, which makes a point similar to the Christian Bok essay mentioned in another comment (thanks for the link!), i say that spam email messages consist of two parts, a text that contains the sales pitch (buy our pills / you’ve been accepted for a mortgage / check out the porn) and a second part, which i’ve called the paratext, which consists of (typically) randomly selected/generated text designed to convince the machines receiving the email that this message is not spam. So in a sense, the paratext is actually a message from one computer to another and has nothing to do with human communication, except insofar as the filters on the receiving machine are designed to detect human communication.
    I suspect that the random texts are generated from some source texts (e.g. blog postings, news articles on Harry Potter, excerpts of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, minutes of Parliament, etc.) and rearranged using some sort of Markov chain algorithm (anybody here ever play with the Babble! program?).
    There has also been some evolution in the structure of these paratexts — some of the earlier examples i’ve seen were random strings of characters, then random strings with spaces approximating normal word lenghts, then word-length strings incorporating larger numbers of vowels so as to generate strings that might be humanly pronounceable. Then the Markov chain texts started appearing. Most recently i’ve seen porn spams that include texts that are sales pitches for porn sites written by people who are obviously non-native English speakers interleaved with inspirational/motivational quotes (often on the subject of moral values) — These are particularly interesting because of the tension between the text and paratext (examples of these are to new to be in my book, unfortunately).
    I could go on about various obfuscation schemes that have been used to disguise the texts — obvious misspellings (e.g. “lowwest pricees”, “Vaigkra”), added punctuation, spaces, and characters (e.g. “fr’ee”, “V1agra”, “$ale$”), spelling the words in large fonts made from punctuation marks (always a disaster when email is displayed in a proportional font), or putting parts of words on one line and other parts of the words on another line with spaces in between so that you have to read up and down while reading across, (e.g. : first line: “Vi ra”, second line: ” ag “, etc., which is a real mess when the linebreaks don’t work right). Also, the sales pitch can be embedded in an attached picture with a link.
    For camouflaging paratext from the human reader, i have seen the use of 1 point text and text colored to match background.
    BTW, the presence of random words in subject lines is obviously so that a major mail server won’t see the same message going to every address in the book — a mail will go to say a dozen addresses, then the subject line will morph for the next batch, and so on. And sometimes the whole line is changed and sometimes just part (usually beginning and/or end). And again, initially it was a random string that later became pronounceable strings and finally recognizable words.

    Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 4:01 am | Permalink
  18. M. Dery wrote:

    Fascinating. So what’s the purpose of those brain-scrambling wads of Burroughsian cut-up that appear, increasingly, at the end of spams? To foil spamkilling programs, obviously, but how, exactly? What I’m most interested in is: What do spamcoders *call* those nonsensical end graphs, in the argot of their trade? And how are they generated? With an automated algorithm, as you suggest? If so, how are the source materials chosen, I wonder? It’s the inexplicably odd choice of sources, juxtaposing high and low culture, that make some of these graphs so weird.

    Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  19. m wrote:

    If X number of spambots are constantly sending out X amount of spam to X number of people, does that mean that someone somewhere is getting spam e-mails in which the letters have randomly organized themselves into one of Shakespeare’s sonnets? Or a more contemporary work? If so, is that spammer then infringing on someone’s copyright? Maybe a limited dictionary to draw from prevents this – the closest one might get is probably something like “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows out outrageous Viagra.”

    Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  20. See also “A Verse to Spam” [pun intended]
    http://spamwars.com/archives/2005/07/a_verse_to_spam.html

    Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  21. M. Dery wrote:

    I’m going to leave the Cialis spam up, as a droll rejoinder to M’s post. Uncanny how he invoked Viagra, and the Net answered with a Viagra spam. (“Ask and it shall be given…”)
    Danny Goodman: Thanks for the link; fascinating. BTW, as the author of the book _Spam Wars_, can you tell me what spamcoders call that hunk of cut-up prose they tack onto the end of a spam? It’s machine-generated, obviously, but how do they choose the sources for their gobbledygook?

    Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  22. escha wrote:

    I enjoyed this article Mark. My only small quibble is in the use of Duchamp to exemplify this kind of random ‘poetry’ – firstly he never aligned himself with Dadaism, but more importantly Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara (who invented the ‘cut-up’ method) were the authors of chance and nonsense poetry in the Dada movement.

    Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  23. M. Dery wrote:

    Well, Duchamp never aligned himself with *anything*. He maintained a droll, lofty distance from all the -isms that tried to claim him. But that shouldn’t stop any critic who wants to stamp Duchamp with the impress of a given sensibility. Calvin Tompkins claims him, alternately, as a Dadaist, a Surrealist, a progenitor of Cage’s aleatoric experiments, the founding father of op art, and the John the Baptist of ’70s conceptualism. In Duchamp, we can find premonitions of practically every major postwar movement, from Fluxus to appropriation art. Point taken about Ball and Tzara, although I was referring to Duchamp’s readymades. Then, too, it bears pointing out that Duchamp was a great collector of “nonsensical” (to use your term) found phrases; Jerome Rothenberg grants him seminal status in his book _Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant Garde Poetry 1914-1945_, which includes a number of Duchamp’s mosaics of sentence fragments and found phrases.

    Monday, January 23, 2006 at 12:21 am | Permalink
  24. Spam as muse wrote:

    Ever feel compelled to correct/edit the broken english in spam? The first spam i received with the automated gibberish triggered some kind of urgent need to make the text make sense. I appended each of the disjointed phrases with something to make the sentence fragment complete.
    Example:
    Original: You are always missing reading..
    Revised: You are always missing reading..when you’re alone on a desert island with nothing to look at except for the shifting sand and your own skin peel off your body from sun and wind burn.
    Full post:
    http://aubrew.blogspot.com/2005/11/spam-literature.html

    Tuesday, January 24, 2006 at 8:31 pm | Permalink