PRINT October 2009


Graham Parker’s Fair Use

IN 1929, WALTER BENJAMIN observed that language as employed by Surrealism betrayed a deep tie to the day’s means of mechanical production and reproduction—seeming itself “only where sound and image, image and sound, interpenetrated with automatic precision and such felicity that no chink was left for the penny-in-the-slot called ‘meaning.’” For almost a decade, artist Graham Parker has sought to describe a similar relationship between language and automation in our own time by delineating the form of one of its most indigent packages. Like a digital lumpen, he has been hoarding spam through deliberately vulnerable e-mail accounts. His recently published Fair Use: Notes from Spam, consisting of five booklets collected in a slipcase and illustrated with reproductions of his own work in various media, cuts some paths through this storehouse of junk letters. What readers find is a dexterous attempt to circumscribe the babble of spam as it mutates in tandem and tension with automated filtration systems designed to regulate the distribution of content.

Each slender volume in Fair Use is imprinted with a title, geographic locale (or locales), and date, effectively establishing spatiotemporal coordinates for a shifting narrative about the movements of capital and information. Parker’s booklets connect situations as far-ranging as impoverished scammers in the contemporary slums of Lagos and the railway-stop three-card-monte cons of nineteenth-century Cheyenne, Wyoming. This transit between places and times finds a textual analogy in Fair Use’s stylistic mobility: The work is at its best when Parker’s loquacious presentation of data (both original and appropriated text) is regulated by marked changes in writing style, from historical vignette (“Spectres of Marks: Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1867”) to first-person quasi-diary (“Narrow Gauge: Portbou, 1940”) to droll, almost burlesque third-person narration (“419 [occasional 420]: Reston, Virginia & Lagos, Nigeria, 2005”). These variations in style move between encrypted ciphers and meticulous historical research, as when Parker offers a superb analysis of the imbrications of computer technology and oil drilling in Nigeria through the lens of neoliberal economic deregulation. Although Fair Use is stylistically fragmented, the kind of reading it prescribes nevertheless depends on shared motifs and structuring themes. Throughout, readers are alerted to historical shifts in techniques developed for the transport of goods and services, which carry with them attendant forms of delinquency. (For instance, Parker is keen on the expansion of railroad systems, the vicissitudes of which feature in several volumes.) Parker develops these various links as allegorical depositories for broader desires to bypass the mandate of social-filtration systems, whether these be state law enforcement or Bayesian software filters. With a strong sense of self-reflexivity, he describes the thematic kernel binding these historical and stylistic peregrinations: “Spam takes its place in a long line of delinquent readings of transport potential. There’s something here too about spam’s ability to move with very little friction wherever information goes.”

Yet from the perspective of this foreclosure, Fair Use paradoxically suggests unprecedented interpenetrations between language and juridical principles. On a banal level, this manifests in the capacity to judge the validity of information from the receiving end. Parker’s booklets act as manuals in this regard: lessons in the con’s rhetoric that inculcate its fundamental dependency on the material organization of the social. (As Parker writes: “On the one hand, this is language as a pure act of persuasion . . . [whereas] on the other, the subject being persuaded segues from human to algorithmic filter without warning.”) More insidious, however, Fair Use implies the extent to which the task of judgment is automated by the operating system, which points to sophisticated forms of technological surveillance. That language transmitted over our wires is often stored in government servers provides us with evidence of a presumption of guilt that pervades the circuitry of social communication.

That Parker’s work organizes a guilty language suggests that spam invests Surrealism’s excluded coin of meaning in the con: The extracted “I” functions as a lure for the dupe of language. Indeed, one of Parker’s strongest stagings of spam’s logic takes place in “Petrol Liar” as a scene of consent. (Note that antispam groups are adamant about spam’s technical definition being a matter of consent rather than content.) “The con had taken place when I’d legitimized the [con man’s] intervention in the first place,” Parker writes. “The content was perhaps incidental—I’d sold myself to it already. It is what it is.” Parker’s confessed complicity with this empty tautology points to spam’s guilty language as the purest product of the filter: The silent work of automated judgment is given voice in the conning language of spam. If spam’s chatter is today’s most recent shame of language (to paraphrase Maurice Blanchot), perhaps it is because that shameful language is intrinsic to the law of the filter itself.

Sam Lewitt is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.


Graham Parker, Fair Use: Notes from Spam (London: Book Works, 2009), 144 pages.