Anomalous Assemblages: A Review of The Spam Book

On: September 17, 2009
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About John Haltiwanger
An underliner. An intensifier. A meanderer. A walker in betweens. The gross product of the souls of forebears sliced into ribbons and blown into a clay him. A poetic impulse. An open source advocate. A master of ceremonies. A writer of codes. An interface fiend philandering among operating sytems. Creative nonfiction research artist. Textual mystic. Frequently explicit Function 'popular education' enumerated 03.03-12.6 TESC (Evergreen) WA NW US. Political economics, systems administration, cultural studies, writing, ethnomusicology, computer programming, web design, etc. All part of a balanced liberal arts degree. Socialist high school founded by feminists with a farm (Putney) 01-02 VT NE US. Deserter of West Chester PA. 16 year old proto Perl monger. 26 year old Ruby excavator. New new media student, old new media sponge. Mondo minded year 2000 Millenial Generation American. Of a rare form. Eagerly chewing electronic book reviews, ctheories, and autonomedias independent of any formal Media scholastics. Before the field had a name in my mind. Chasing a thing called 'software studies' through the tubes, across the Atlantic, and into a Nederlands classroom. Playfully aware that this bio, like the medium it exists in, like the life it describes, remains malleable. Yet static in its own right.


The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn and Other Anomalies From the Dark Side of Digital Culture (Hampton Press, 2009), edited by Jussi Parikka and Tony D. Sampson, uses a relatively unique approach to add to the discourse surrounding critical understanding of the Internet and its cultural impact. Indeed several articles openly wonder whether there is any longer a separation between the two where the networked societies are concerned. It’s most radical departure from the existing discourse is a readjustment of our understanding of the anomaly. Using the example of spam, Parikka and Sampson show that ‘anomalous’ is not a simple synonym for the rare. How could spam be an anomaly with such a definition, given that up to 40% of daily email traffic may be spam? Their response is an evolution of our understanding of anomalies, since “within the composite mixture of the everyday and the anomalous even the fixed notion that the normal is opposed to the abnormal is increasingly difficult to reconcile.” Instead they propose “a condition akin to a horro autotoxicus of the digital network, the capacity of the network to propagate its own imperfections, exceeds the metaphor with natural unity.”

The book is notable not simply for its re-figuring of the anomalous, but also for its strides away from the representational analysis so common in (new) media theory. In this way it could be classified in a similar vein to Software Studies: A Lexicon (and, in spirit and topological focus, to The Exploit). One example of this is the wholesale rejection of the traditional metaphorical relationship of the computer virus to the biological virus. Another is the move from essentialism to a theory of assemblage and topology. Rather than classify the anomalous as “outside a series” and analyzing the representational qualities of such deviation, they propose that “accidents are not simply sporadic breakdowns in social structure or cultural identity, but express the topological features of the social and cultural usage of media technologies.” Topological thinking, then, moves beyond such distinctions as “good” or “bad” and instead focuses on the actual interactions of assemblages within the topology of the network.

The book is divided into four sections and a coda. The first, “Contagion” contains essays that concern themselves with the contagious aspects of overlapping assemblages. In “Mutant and Viral,” John Johnston delivers a history of the artificial life (ALife) academic discipline and goes on to critique their rejection of the computer virus as a study-able object. This is a paradoxical situation, as computer viruses are perhaps the most successful forms of ALife in existence. While early theorists such as Fred Cohen long ago theorized the possibility of positive viruses, the anti-virus industry has instead relied heavily on importing immunological and epidemiological metaphors and techniques from biology in their approach to dealing with computer viruses. Johnston concludes that while a swarm intelligence of beneficent viruses may be the best approach to ‘immunization,’ the shift to “an ecosystem that cannot function unless given more life-like capacities that will put it outside of our control” is a large intellectual and cultural leap that is not without it’s own dangers.

Following this line of thinking, Roberta Bruini states “it is inevitable to reinterpret viruses as potential producers of creative outcomes, rather than just threats.” Her essay “Unpredictable Legacies,” discusses the seemingly boundless spread of the viral. Rather than remaining only within the domain of biological or computer viruses, the viral “concept” has spread to such diverse fields as marketing and resistance tactics. The idea that (some of) the very properties of a virus are themselves viral (in that these properties infect and change un-related assemblages) is a powerful recursive property that may lead to changes in the way we view even old phenonema. For instance, does global capitalism exhibit viral properties? If so, what impact should such an interpretation have on the formation and execution of resistance? Not all, or even most, of the properties of the virus are present in the viral, yet are the properties that do carry over susceptible to similar resistance modes or does each incarnation of the viral in an assemblage require unique tactics?

The most exhaustive article in terms of an explicitly topological approach is Sampson’s “How Networks Become Viral,” where he demonstrates that the architecture of the internet is not an democratically distributed network, nor is it a random network. Random topology was considered a given in distributed networks, inherited from both Cold War logic and bio/imunnological models (courtesy of the antivirus industry). In fact the network exhibits a scale-free topology in which nodes are governed by a power law: the familiar long-tail writ large across the interlinking of the internet. In such an “aristocratic connectivity,” the most popular (promiscuous) nodes are the most effective at disseminating contagion. The network is robust, yet fragile, tending toward both stability and instability at the same time. The universality of scale-free topologies, exhibited from the physical to the cultural layers, should dramatically change the emerging topological form of analysis, which so far has been rooted in the distributed network model as understood by Galloway.

The second section, “Bad Objects,” introduces the idea that “the mode of a bad object is not grounded in traditional ideas of territorial boundaries, but is instead found in the vectors of movements in a topology.” This transition from territorial boundaries to vectors of movements is later reflected in Richard Rogers’ exploration of the transition from old media style censorship (single book/single cite) to new media style censorship (observing what is done to supersede the censors in order to then censor that technique).

Within this second section can be found Parikka’s “Archives of Software,” which concerns itself with the representation of the virus. The media feel the need to have a visual “face” for the virus, leading to a feedback loop that affects the public perception and understanding of viruses. However, the most significant contribution of this essay is the understanding of the operating system as an archival framework.

We could, then, consider Windows as an archival framework of
contemporary network culture that organizes materials (texts,
images, etc.), channels users, and pilots the uses and
potentials of network culture. Windows operating system
(connected to the corporation and its networks) is an archival
machine in the sense that it controls large parts of what can
be said, shown, and heard in the contemporary digital culture.

From this he proposes a tactical an-archeology “not targeting operating systems or certain corporations as such but exposing the principles of how digital culture is framed through micropolitics of code.” There is clearly a lot of room to explore such micropolitics, however I wouldn’t mind Parikka being a little more clear on his own personal vision of these micropolitics. For instance, do Galloway and Thacker’s fork bombs fall under this category? Or does Parikka have something less “explosive” in mind? Perhaps he just means the subtle arranging of the user’s experience by code, following Software Studies’ understanding that the shape of the tool determines the shape of the outcome. Either way, this tactical an-archeology could prove quite powerful if it becomes more clearly codified.

The third section, “Pornography,” begins with an interesting cultural analysis of pornographic spam emails by Susanna Paasonen, “Irregular Fantasies, Anomalous Uses.” Perhaps the first boundary work to be conducted through spam, Paasonen demonstrates that, while the popular analysis of online porn is dedicated to alternative and niche genres, the heteronormative porn world is increasingly contradictory. By critically examining two porn spams, one advertising “huge penises” (here meaning anomalously large, making intercourse, in Paasonen’s words, “improbable”) and the other “fucking machines,” Paasonen reasons that “a reading of the more anomalous spam examples suggests that the body of straight pornography tends to leak toward fetishes and paraphilias in ways that work to unravel the over-arching notion of the mainstream or the straight.” That is, if heteropornography is the domain of the normal, than the tendency to advertise huge cocks “would seem to point to a degree of inner incoherence.” Even more striking, however, is the embodiment of the “normal” sexual ideal for a male to be a machine in the DIY “fuck machines” advertised in the second spam example.

This ideal of man-as-sexual-machine existed in the ideal of “fascist warrior,” as Katrien Jacobs points out in “Make Porn, Not War.” In her paper Jacobs proposes “rather than relishing a numb or helpless attitude toward pornography excess, or making simplified disavowels of the niche groups of sexism and violence, we can explore our morphing bodily sensations.” This is mirrored by Paasonen’s experience that by archiving and researching the porn spams she received her attitude towards them changed from annoyance and distaste to an anticipatory interest.

The last piece in this section, “Can Desire Go On Without a Body?” by Dougal Phillips, is a thought-piece on Lyotard’s libidinal economy. Phillips asserts that Lyotard’s model allows us to “replace the moralistic obscenity at the heart of pornography with a more ambivalent figure of a self-perpetuating, obesely swelling energy stemming from the intersection of desire and the screen,” making the reorientation of our attitudes towards pornography a common thread between all three articles. Not only that but Phillips sees a libidinal exchange in the P2P file sharing of pornography (and, I presume, file sharing in general). While this essay still strikes me somewhat as some interesting ideas wrapped in mental masturbation, the implications of some of those ideas have refused to stop developing in my head since reading it. I will need to investigate Lyotard more deeply before I can offer a proper critique, however.

The fourth section, “Censored,” contains useful methodologies for investigating censorship in repressive regimes (Rogers) and an investigation of the politics of search engine exclusion (Elmer). Their work in exposing contemporary practices of censorship, as well as the implications of an “anomalous space” of un-indexed information, comprises a wake up call. The kind of investigation that Roger’s utilizes in probing what information is and is not available in censored countries should definitely be extended into the realm of the search engine exclusion, regardless of the (to some) gray legal space in which un-indexed information exists. This is demonstrated by the Bush White Houses attempt to exclude pages with the word ‘Iraq’ in them from search engine indexing, allowing for the rewriting of history, for instance when a press release titled “Bush Declares End to Combat Operations in Iraq” was changed to “Bush Declares End to Major Combat Operations in Iraq.” Google would never have caught this shift, however, since it followed the White House’s instructions not to index that file. While the search engine increasingly becomes our means of accessing information on the Web, what is and is not excluded from search engine indexing takes on huge political implications.

The final section, “Coda,” presents “On Narcolepsy” by Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker. It fits well as an end-cap to The Spam Book, though those familiar with The Exploit will recognize the majority of the text. Still, this remixed micro-instantation of that book does contain much of relevance to the discussed material, and perhaps its familiarity has led me to forget the original impact of such statements as “Meaning is a data conversion.” In terms of the new, Galloway and Thacker discuss narcoleptic writing and then ponder the question “Is there a narcolepsis to software? Is there a ‘dreaming’ to the algorithm? Is there a ’sleep-writing’ that is an unintended byproduct of computers?” This line of thinking, unfortunately, is not followed for long, as they deviate to discussing the properties of spam as “an excess of signification, a signification without sense, precisely the noise that signifies nothing–except its own generativity.” Then it’s on to discussing the Bio-molecular Transport Protocol, the rewindability of spaces, and the resistance tactic of non-existence. Though I myself was initially quite disappointed at the lack of new material (and the chance to see Galloway and Thacker constrained by the format of a short essay), I expect these passages would have a significant impact on the first time reader.

Strangely missing from The Spam Book is any extensive discussion of the “bad object” of pirated material (though copyright infringement plays a small role in Phillips’ survey of a porn sharing community). Furthermore, the absence was a silent one, without explanation of the exclusion. The lack of investigation into pirate assemblages and topologies represents a missed opportunity here.

In a different vein, but something I’d also like to explore: is it possible to invert Rogers’ technique of dynamic URL sampling into a technique to mine out under-linked objects in the network? Is there not a real potential that at least some under-linked objects present useful information? At the very least it seems like another potential avenue for boundary work.

While each of the articles in this book deserve a thousand or more words on their own, by providing a selective overview I hope to have demonstrated some of the textual fluidity within this collection. Indeed it reflects the editors’ focus on overlapping assemblages in that common threads abound while approaches, and even disciplines, differ wildly. The ambivalent approach of assemblage and topology permeates these essays, even if most of the articles do not even explicitly use such terms. In this way, the collection does a great deal to justify this approach. By reconfiguring the expectations and experience of “bad objects” away from their representations and into the domain of their actuality, The Spam Book hopefully signals the beginning of a sea change among theoretical approaches within new media circles.

[Note: Unfortunately both the preface by Sadie Plant and the essay by Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey entitled “Towards an Evil Media Studies” was not included in the stack of papers constituting my (preview) edition of this book. These pieces may have had an impact on my opinions, were they available.]

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