I am spam

Green eggs and ham

Text by Hito Steyerl

Did you receive any spam mail today? Did it offer to  make you more buff, more wealthy, more endowed? Did you send it to "trash" straight away? Or did you stop for a second and take its proposal seriously? In this essay, the artist, filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl takes spam very seriously, and argues that its sum total - who produces it, whom it depicts and those it is aimed at - provides us with a searing portrait of who we are today: "potentially flawless… super skinny, armed with recession-proof college degrees, and always on time for service jobs, courtesy of replica watches." Spam's potent invisibility (it makes up for more than 75% of all emails sent but is hardly ever read by anyone) is its ultimate power; a power that is fuelled by and for the logic of late capitalism. Post-human technology (the "bots" who spew spam out at us every second of every day) for new human bodies founded on old human desires: to feel prettier, sexier, richer. Steyerl's spam stories are acute fables for our times, when what we want may bear little resemblance to what we need or who we really want to be. Shumon Basar

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Walter Benjamin described Paul Klee's famous watercolour Angelus Novus figure as a hapless creature, helplessly carried away by the storm of progress, while staring backward at the ever-growing rubble heap of history. Benjamin's aphorism is now well over-quoted, but it has a surprising consequence if we take its spatial arrangement seriously.

Because there is no rubble depicted in the drawing doesn't mean there is no rubble at all. Since the angel faces us as spectators, and - according to Benjamin - the rubble, the wreckage must be located in the drawing. The rubble is in our place. Or to take it further: we, the spectators, might actually be the rubble. We might be the debris of history, those who somehow made it intact but not unscathed through the 20th century. We have become discarded objects and useless commodities caught in the gaze of a shell-shocked angel who drags us along as it is blown into incertitude.

Yet the debris caught in the angel's stare might take on a different form today. Are rubble and wreckage not outdated notions for an age in which information can be copied without loss and is infinitely retrievable and restorable? What would refuse look like in a digital age that prides itself on the indestructibility and seamless reproducibility of its products, an age in which information presumably has become immune to the passing of time? Aren't the scars of history signs of an analogue age, one which is irrevocably over? Hasn't history itself been worn out?

History is not over. Its wreckage keeps on piling sky high. Moreover, digital technologies provide additional possibilities for the creative degradation of almost anything. They multiply options for destruction, corruption and debasement. They are great new tools for producing, cloning and copying historical debris. Amplified by political and social violence, digital technologies have become not only midwives of history but also its aesthetic surgeons.

Despite its apparently immaterial nature, digital wreckage remains firmly anchored within material reality. One of its contemporary manifestations is the toxic recycling town of Guiyu in China, where computer motherboards and hard disks are scavenged and the ground water is poisoned. In the digital age, debris is not only composed of destroyed buildings, torn concrete and decaying steel, although digitalised warfare, the computerisation of production and real estate speculation produce these items in abundance. Digital wreckage is both material and immaterial, it is data-based debris with a tangible physical component.

There is hardly any better example of such digital debris as spam. Far from being the exception in online communication, spam is actually the rule. Around 75% of today's email messages are spam. It forms the bulk of digital writing, its essence. And it 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.

To complete Benjamin's spatial equation: if the angel looks at us, we must be rubble. And if at present rubble means spam, this is the label that the angel bestows on us today.

You Shall Be Spam "Pharmacy 81% Replica 5.40% Enhancers 2.30% Phishing 2.30% Degrees 1.30% Casino 1% Weight Loss 0.40% Other 6.30%"

The contemporary use of the term "spam" for unwanted electronic bulk communication takes its cue from an appearance in a Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch from British television in 1970. This act is set in a cafe, where two customers ask for the breakfast menu:

A cafe. All the customers are Vikings. Mr and Mrs Bun enter downwards (on wires).

MAN: Morning.

WAITRESS: Morning.

MAN: Well, what you got?

WAITRESS: Well, there's egg and bacon; egg, sausage and bacon; egg and spam; egg, bacon and spam; egg, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon and spam; spam, sausage, spam, spam, spam, bacon, spam, tomato and spam; spam, spam, spam, egg and spam; (Vikings start singing in background) spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam and spam.

VIKINGS: Spam, spam, spam, spam, lovely spam, lovely spam.

WAITRESS (cont.): or lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a mornay sauce, garnished with truffle pâté, brandy, and with a fried egg on top, and spam.

WIFE: Have you got anything without spam?

WAITRESS: Well, there's spam, egg, sausage, and spam. That's not got much spam in it…

WIFE: I don't want any spam!

MAN: Shh dear, don't cause a fuss. I'll have your spam. I love it. I'm having spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam.

WAITRESS: Baked beans are off.

Spam inundates the plot and even the final credits of the show. It is a triumph of repetition, as cheerful as it is overwhelming.

In this act, spam initially refers to the canned meat of the same name. But this meaning is stretched to emphasise verbal reiteration and the uncontrolled replication of the term itself. It is this second meaning that came to be prominent in the realm of newly emergent online practices.

In the '80s, the term spam was literally used as an invasion strategy within MUD (multi-user dungeon) environments. People would type the word repeatedly to scroll other people's text off-screen.

"Sending an irritating, large, meaningless block of text in this way was called spamming. This was used as a tactic by insiders of a group that wanted to drive newcomers out of the room so the usual conversation could continue. It was also used to prevent members of rival groups from chatting… Star Wars fans often invaded Star Trek chat rooms, filling the space with blocks of text until the Trek fans left. This act, previously called flooding or trashing, came to be known as spamming."

Nowadays, spam has become more of a commercial calculus. Bulk email messages with commercial or fraudulent intent flood data connections worldwide and cause substantial economic damage by wasting time and effort. Even though the ratio of customers acquired through this process is minuscule, it is still a viable business. Needless to say, that effortless technological reproduction forms the economic framework of this venture. Spamming is the pointless repetition of something worthless and annoying, ad infinitum, to extract a tiny spark of value lying dormant within audiences.

Artificial Meat

Before "spam" the word became spam the object, it was already in existence. The item celebrated by Monty Python's Flying Circus was preceded by the famous brand of canned meat produced by Hormel Foods Corporation. Its dubious composition has earned it nicknames, ranging from "Specially Processed American Meats" to "Supply Pressed American Meat", "Something Posing As Meat", "Stuff, Pork and Ham" and "Spare Parts Animal Meat". Its elements look extremely suspicious; its essence is ersatz. And its cheapness allowed for inclusion into several post-war period meals.

Spam still is a cheap lower-class and army food staple. It presents an uncanny mix of the natural and synthetic. Both organic and deeply inauthentic, it is an industrial product with some remnants of nature. Meat that has been grinded so rigorously that is has leapt perhaps into another type of existence: a deeply phony foodstuff nutritious enough to enable military invasions and sheer subsistence.

Seen as incarnation of vitality, flesh is imbued with religious and even messianic discourse about redemption and liberation. It is a post-Nietzschean repository of pure positivity.

In contrast to the heroic description of living flesh, spam is just humble hybrid meat. It lacks the pompous attributes of flesh. It is modest and cheap, made of bits and pieces, which may be recycled and are staunchly inanimate. It is meat as commodity, and an affordable one. But this doesn't mean that it should be underestimated. For spam addresses the hybridised commodity aspect of forms of existence that span humans and machines, subjects and objects alike. It refers to objectified lives as well as to biological objects.

Spam has been through the meat grinder of industrial production. This is why its fabrication resonates with the industrial (or post-industrial) generation of populations worldwide, who also endured the mincer of repeated primordial accumulation. Cycles of debt bondage, subsequent exodus, draft into industrial labour and repeated rejection from it have forced people back into subsistence farming, only to re-emerge from tiny fields as post-Fordist service workers. Like their electronic spam message counterparts, these crowds form the vast majority of their kind but are considered superfluous, annoying and redundant. They are also assumed to replicate uncontrollably. These populations are spam, not flesh; made of a material that has been ground for generations by a never-ending onslaught of capital and repackaged in ever new, increasingly hybrid-like forms.

Electronic spam highlights the speculative dimension of these bodies. It is painfully obvious that most products marketed via e-spam are supposed to enhance bodily appearance, performance and/or health. Email spam is a format that attempts to act on bodies: by cashing in on role models of uniformly drugged, enhanced, super-slim, super-active and super-horny people wearing replica watches so as to be on time for their service jobs. More than 65% of email spam pushes anti-depressants and Viagra - or fake pills boasting the same effects - thus selling fantasies of perfectly exploitable bodies; coveted production tools for superfluous crowds. Both forms of spam are post-carnal: they deal with the production of enhanced, altered, artificial, processed, upgraded as well as degraded forms of flesh.

Even electronic spam has unexpected affinities to social composition. Indeed, it was initially explicitly defined as a res publica, a public thing.

Spam- - in its different versions - is thus resolutely public. It is always made from several sources: things and bodies, letters, metals, colours and proteins. Its element is commonality; a mix of components animate and inanimate, impure as a mongrel.

The Spam of the Earth:
Withdrawal from Representation

Dense clusters of radio waves emit from this planet every second. Letters and snapshots, intimate and official communications, TV broadcasts and text messages form a tectonic architecture of the desires and fears of our times. In a hundred thousand years, extraterrestrial forms of intelligence may incredulously sift through our wireless communications. Imagine their perplexity when they actually consider the material. Because a huge percentage of this is spam. Any archaeologist, forensic or historian will look at our legacy, a true portrait of our times and selves. Imagine a human reconstruction made from this digital rubble. Chances are, it would look like image spam.

Image spam is one of the many dark matters of the digital world; spam tries to avoid detection by filters by presenting its message as an image file. An inordinate amount of these images float around, desperately vying for human attention. They advertise pharmaceuticals, replica items, body enhancements, penny stocks and academic degrees. According to the pictures dispersed via image spam, humanity consists of scantily dressed degree-holders with jolly smiles enhanced by orthodontic braces. Image spam is our message to the future.

In terms of sheer quantity, image spam outnumbers the human population by far. It has formed a silent majority. But who are the people portrayed in this type of accelerated advertisement? And what could their images tell potential extraterrestrial recipients about contemporary humanity?

From the perspective of image spam, people are as Hegel put it, "perfectible". This is the contemporary family of men and women: a bunch of people on knock-off antidepressants, fitted with enhanced body parts. They are the dream team of hyper-capitalism.

Is this how we really look? Well, no. Image spam might tell us a lot about "ideal" humans, but not by showing actual humans: quite the contrary. The models in image spam are PhotoShopped replicas, too improved to be true. A reserve army of digitally enhanced creatures who resemble the minor demons and angels of mystic speculation, luring, pushing and blackmailing people into the profane rapture of consumption.

Image spam is addressed to people who do not look like those in the ads: they are neither skinny nor have recession-proof degrees. They are those whose organic substance is far from perfect from a neoliberal point of view. People who might open their inboxes every day waiting for a miracle, or a rainbow at the other end of permanent crisis and hardship. Image spam is addressed to the vast majority of humankind, but it does not show them. It does not represent those who are considered expendable and superfluous - just like spam itself; it speaks to them.

The image of humanity articulated in image spam thus has actually nothing to do with it. It is an accurate portrayal of what humanity is actually not; a negative image.

Mimicry and Enchantment

I have noted that many people have started actively avoiding photographic or moving-image representations, surreptitiously taking their distance from the camera lens. Whether it is camera-free zones in gated communities or elitist techno clubs, someone declining interviews, Greek anarchists smashing cameras, or looters destroying LCD TVs, people have started to actively/ passively refuse constantly being monitored, recorded, identified, photographed, scanned and taped. Within a fully immersive media landscape, pictorial representation - which was seen as a prerogative and a political privilege for a long time - feels more like a threat.

There are many reasons for this. The numbing presence of trash talk and game shows has led to a situation in which TV has become a medium inextricably linked to the parading and ridiculing of lower classes.

Additionally, in mainstream media, people are often caught in the act of vanishing, whether it be in life-threatening situations, extreme emergency and peril, warfare and disaster, or in the constant stream of live broadcasts from conflict zones around the world. If people aren't trapped within natural or man-made disasters, they seem to physically vanish, as anorexic beauty standards imply. People are emaciated or made to shrink or downsize.

Thus the zone of corporate representation is largely one of exception, which seems dangerous to enter: you may be derided, tested, stressed or even starved or killed. Rather than representing people, it exemplifies the vanishing of the people: its gradual disappearance. And why wouldn't the people be vanishing, given the countless acts of aggression and invasion performed against them in mainstream media, but also in reality?

Social media and cellphone cameras have created a zone of mutual mass surveillance, which adds to the ubiquitous urban networks of control, such as CCTV, cellphone GPS tracking and face-recognition software. On top of institutional surveillance, people are now also routinely surveilling each other by taking countless pictures and publishing them close to real time.

We entered an era of mass paparazzi, of the peak-o-sphere and exhibitionist voyeurism. The flare of photographic flashlights turns people into victims, celebrities, or both. As we register at cash tills, ATMs and other checkpoints - as our cellphones reveal our slightest movements and snapshots are tagged with GPS coordinates - we end up represented to pieces.

Crisis of Representation

We are in a very different situation from how we used to look at images: as more or less accurate representations of something or someone in public. In an age of unrepresentable people and an overpopulation of images, this relation is irrevocably altered.

Image spam circulates endlessly without ever being seen by a human eye. It is made by machines, sent by bots, and caught by spam filters, which are becoming as potent as anti-immigration walls and barriers. The plastic people shown in it remain unseen. They are treated like digital scum, and thus paradoxically end up on a similar level to that of the low-res people they appeal to. This is how it is different from any other kind of representational dummies, which inhabit the world of visibility and high-end representation. Creatures of image spam get treated as lumpen data, avatars of the conmen who are indeed behind their creation. If Jean Genet were still alive, he would have praised the gorgeous hoodlums, tricksters, prostitutes and fake dentists of image spam.

Any people can only be represented visually in negative form. This negative cannot be developed under any circumstance, since a magical process will ensure that all you are ever going to see in the positive is a bunch of populist substitutes and impostors, enhanced crash-test dummies trying to claim legitimacy. The image of the people as a nation, or culture, is precisely that: a compressed stereotype for ideological gain. Image Spam is the true avatar of the people. A negative image with absolutely no pretence to originality.

This doesn't mean that who or what is being shown in images doesn't matter. This relation is far from being one-dimensional. Image spam's generic cast is not the people, and the better for it. Rather, the subjects of image spam stand in for the people as negative substitutes and absorb the flak of the limelight on their behalf. On one hand, they embody all the vices and virtues (or, vices-as-virtues) of the present economic paradigm. On the other, they often remain invisible, because hardly anybody actually looks at them.

What are the people in image spam up to, if nobody is looking?

They are double agents, inhabiting both the realms of over- and invisibility. This may be the reason why they are continuously smiling but not saying anything. They know that their frozen poses and vanishing features are actually providing cover for people to go off the record in the meantime. Whatever this is, they will not give us away, ever. And for this, they deserve our love and admiration.

This text is an abridged compilation taken from Hito Steyerl's spam trilogy. Part one, Spam and the Angel of History, appeared in October, no 138 (Fall 2011), along with part two, Letter to an Unknown Woman: Romance Scams and Epistolary Affect. Part three was published in e-flux journal, Issue 32 (February 2012), titled Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation. This last piece was presented at the "The Human Snapshot" conference, organised by Tirdad Zolghadr and Tom Keenan at the Luma Foundation in Arles, July 2-4, 2011. The writer would like to thank Ariella Azoulay, George Baker, Phil Collins, David Joselit, Imri Kahn, Rabih Mroué, and the many others who sparked or catalysed various ideas within the series.


  • Spam – Hito Steyerl