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SPAM Digest #1 (Sept 2018)

A quick list of the editors’ current favourite critical essays, post-internet think pieces, and literature reviews that have influenced the way we think about contemporary poetics, technology and storytelling.


 ‘Human Sacrifice’, by Alexandra Molotkow, Real Life Mag 

A brief moral genealogy of reality TV spectatorship sketched through the short life of The Anna Nicole Show (2002-2004); Molotkow reflects on the hatred of the talentless and contempt for the desperate as a ultimate re-inscription of class dynamics; on the erotic appeal of the fallen beauty; on how the lines between compassion and cruelty come blurred, when those between life and entertainment seem to be disappearing.

‘Reality television remade spectatorship in the likeness of a relationship: You loved your favorite contestants like friends and hated your least favorite like enemies — the thrill of a reality villain was the permission to hate a “real” person and not just a character in fiction.’
‘What many of us are looking for, at least sometimes, is a quick hit of relatability, the ambient sense that other people exist. This isn’t necessarily bad. It cuts to the chase of what we so often ask of art, and people are just as interesting as anything they might produce — a personality itself can be read as a work of art, producing the same range of joys and intriguing discomforts. But real and imagined people demand different moral configurations, and observing a life as theater can create a narrative riptide on reality.’



It was actually an ex-navy friend who recommended this article to me, and the nautical vibes seemed appropriate, given our current SPAM theme is CRUISE LINER. Wilson’s article glosses a recent project by Berlin-based sound artist Andrew Pekler: an ‘interactive online map called Phantom Islands, which combines the histories of islands that were once found on nautical maps with speculative sounds from each of the 27 locations’. These ‘Phantom Islands’, as Pekler puts it, were charted through history by ocean explorers, but their actual existence ‘has never been ultimately verified’.  

For anyone intrigued by ethnomusicology (soundscapes are here selected with an ethnographer’s ear and knowledge of island history), object-oriented ‘art’ (one could argue Pekler’s project enacts a form of tuning to nonhuman scales, scapes and ontologies) or simply wanting to play around with a synesthetically satisfying map, Phantom Islands is definitely worth your time.

There’s something seductive and ultimately metamodern about this project: its oscillation between fact and fiction; a New Aesthetic, intermedial playfulness and sincere commitment to probing the strange aporia of these places. A sort of sonic psychocartography, combining the analogue ‘hardware’ of the map with the interactive, ‘soft’ subtleties of scroll, click, veer and zoom. It recalls childhood afternoons consumed by the thalassic, open-world vistas of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002), where every cel-shaded island was mapped out on a gridded ‘Great Sea’, sparkling with unique music, sidequests, enemies and secret items. Browsing The Wind Waker’s world, or (in Cruise Mode), the clean white grids of Pekler’s map, you find yourself phasing in and out of the mirage-like isles of geologic and mythical history. I’m made nostalgic for the days when the internet was envisioned as a sort of frontier, this sprawling terrain to be ‘surfed’.

As well as pleasure, there’s a profound melancholy to the project: it doesn’t steer us towards the dramatic sublime but rather encourages an introspective, ‘slow’ experience of personal discovery, a glide over several haecceities. Maybe it’s because, as Malachy Tallack puts it in his 2016 book The Undiscovered Islands, ‘Islands […] are perfect metaphors for other worlds and afterlives. They are separate and yet connected; they are distant and yet tangible. The sea of death is cluttered with imaginary islands’. I’ve never thought of webpages or online archives as islands until now, but something about that sense of myth or fiction pervading the ‘real’ of the present is oddly comforting. The narrative vignettes and sound clips which accompany the islands of Pekler’s map give the reassurance of presence, even in the space of speculation, in the lack of evidential presence. If, as Tallack puts it, ‘invention’ arises from our desire to fill a ‘terrifying’ absence, then ‘sometimes that desire gives us back the absences we sought to fill’. It seems to me he could be describing a phenomenology of the open internet, the para-reality of endless text and images still sloshing and jostling against the smooth interface of Web 2.0. The haunted archives of yesteryear, preserved on some ad-riddled, lost domain. The splintered archipelagos of our virtual identities, the desiring production of feedback loops.

As a form of ‘interactive’ geography, Phantom Islands reminds us that our conceptions of ‘world’, Other or ipseity itself are bound to slippage, the ambient addictions of browsing a set of imagined striations. Best to enjoy that, while we (physically) still can.  

The Phantom Islands project:



‘Funks of Ambivalence: On Flarf’, by Andrew Epstein, LA Review of Books

Flarf’s controversy is no secret within the poetry world. What started as protest poetry, in the manner of pirate radio – a way of ‘hacking’ the internet by mining and reassembling its linguistic fragments – soon sank in a cesspool of suspicion about plagiarism, appropriation and writerly privilege. Well, not exactly ‘sank’, because sank implies a kind of closure, when actually flarf still floats around – the poetic plastic that won’t quite biodegrade, even in these times of lyric revival.

Having recently published Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (2016), Epstein is well-versed in tracing how poetic form variously attempts to render, illumine or escape the experiential debris of daily life. Here reviewing a recent anthology, published by Edge Books in 2017 (Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf), Epstein maps out the emergence of flarf in the context of both the poetry establishment and the internet’s structural history, honing in on the use of search engines and data trawling as modes of playful aesthetic resistance. He quotes Gary Sullivan (a founding flarfer), who describes ‘flarf’ as both a neologism for ‘a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness’ and verb, meaning ‘to bring out the inherent awfulness, etc., of some pre-existing text’.

A good review perhaps brings something extra to the text it feeds on, and Epstein succeeds in supplementing Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf’s lack in the critical department. As Epstein puts it, the anthology is ‘completely devoid of scholarly apparatus’. What might be ‘more a bid for canonization, an enshrinement of a now-defunct avant-garde’ nevertheless requires a bit of aesthetic and political contextualisation, which Epstein’s piece usefully gestures towards. As post-internet poets, self-identified or otherwise, we’re all guilty of getting a little too flarfy at times, fooling around with discursive detritus online. It’s commentary like Epstein’s that sets all this appropriation in its necessary social contexts – from gender to race, ethnicity, class and sexuality.

Epstein’s upshot is that the ‘antics’ of flarf retain the potential for cultural resistance, but that flarf should not be considered solely in a dematerialised junkspace of recycled ‘play’. Rather, we should be reading flarf alongside certain contemporary poets (Epstein names a few), who digest its playful ‘tactics’ for a more substantial sociopolitical aesthetics, and what’s more acknowledge the extent to which flarf has become the condition of all information dissemination, both online and IRL. As he puts it, paraphrasing Man Ray’s chiastic assessment of Dada’s survival: ‘Flarf cannot live in America. All America is Flarf, and will not tolerate a rival’. In an era of reality-breakdown and disorientating news dissemination, conducted over the famously elliptical medium of Twitter, presided upon by the US President himself, this seems about right.   



‘The Irrelevant and the Contemporary’ by DannyPenny, The New Enquiry

‘Post-Internet Poetry Comes of Age’, by Kenneth Goldsmith, The New Yorker

So why is post-internet poetry #trending?

Over the past few years, the art world has been throwing around the term “post-Internet” to describe the practices of artists who use the Web as the basis for their work but don’t make a big deal about it. For these artists, unlike those of previous generations, the Web is just another medium, like painting or sculpture. We’re beginning to see a similar turn in poetry.

Is it fair to say that successful post-internet poems should not merely “update confessional poetry for the age of mass surveillance"? That Poems that want to mirror or deconstruct the experience of living on the internet need a poetics that address that experience on a structural and material rather than semantic level? What is the result of such poetry? Poems that are “boring to be around”? Or poems that are at once organic and mechanical, personal and, in a sense, objective? Why is it that a mining, massaging, and reworking of found online texts into something personal appears to be fuelling some of the more adventurous poetry being written today? See what Kenneth Goldsmith and Danny Penny have to say.



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