Researcher and Associate Tutor, Durham University, UK
[Keywords: Mimi Cabell, Jason Huff, Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, erasure, algorithm, Google, user profiling, targeted advertising, algorithmic criticism]
In 2012 Google faced a privacy lawsuit over accessing users’ data and disclosing it to advertisers without permission. The accusations of breach of contract and fraud presented Google’s practices as illegal wiretapping.  The claims followed a change in policy Google introduced on March 1, 2012, and were filed as a national class action. Before March 2012, individual privacy policies existed for each of Google’s products.  But the new policy treats each of Google’s users as a single entity, across all services, as a result giving the company the right to combine information from multiple sources. Accordingly, Google can now access a Gmail or Google+ account in order to, for example, personalize one’s Google search results and then, in turn, log all personal identifying information, browsing habits, search queries, demographic information, as well as declared preferences or responsiveness to the very ads its profiling algorithms generate. As of 2014, Google’s official privacy policies clearly acknowledge that all incoming and outgoing content is analyzed by automated software. This applies to both emails stored on Google’s servers and those sent and received by any Google account. This practice might on the surface have the user’s best interests in mind (“we are always looking for more ways to deliver you the most useful and relevant ads,” explains Google’s support page), but it is, first and foremost, a means of analyzing online user behaviors for profit. Gmail is not about enabling communication. It is a complex profiling tool, used, among others, to enable most profitable means of email-targeted advertising. Today, everything you search for, send, or save online is useful data, sorted by the corporate or governmental algorithms to assess what kind of a consumer or citizen you might be and, most importantly, what you might do or buy next. But regardless of Google’s insatiable hunger for information and its seeming commitment to facilitating access to it, Google does not show the same willingness to disclose information. In 2014, the company requested to redact transcripts from the public court hearings recording the ongoing privacy suit launched in 2012. It also denied access to one of their data centers to John Gerrard, an artist interested in questions of materialities of the Internet (in response, Gerrard hired a helicopter, photographed the center from the air, and used the material in one of his exhibitions).  Google’s off-limits centers are, as Gerrard puts it, “part of a vast network of invisible facilities that make luxuries of contemporary life possible.”  This guarded invisibility is particularly evocative of Google’s approach to information more broadly: collected when no one is watching, sold for profit, and erased when it proves inconvenient. As such, Google paradoxically represents a culture of information secrecy, manipulation, commercialisation, and removal. I am interested in the possibilities of exploring the dynamics of Google’s profiling algorithms in relation to questions of erasure of and access to information as they play out in a recent experimental work, an iteration by Mimi Cabell and Jason Huff of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). This paper will focus on Cabell and Huff’s American Psycho (2010) as a revealing statement on information politics today. By doing so it will address questions of the possibilities of textual erasure that contemporary technologies open up.
Cabell and Huff’s American Psycho is an example of a creative intervention into the contemporary data control culture that draws attention to dominant patterns of information production and consumption. Their take on Ellis’ novel is a work of a playful but poignant appropriation for the algorithmic age, composed by engaging strategies of transcription, data collection, and erasure. In the making of their iteration, Cabell and Huff emailed the entire content of Ellis’ novel to each other, one page at a time, in order to generate a number of relational ads typically displayed by Google, here generated in response to Ellis’ text. The content of the collected advertisements was then used to annotate their source. But in Cabell and Huff’s American Psycho – a paperback volume designed to evoke the 1991 Vintage Contemporaries First Edition of Ellis’ novel – the body of the text is completely removed. What remains are the original chapter headings and Cabell and Huff’s annotations, included as footnotes. In the radical act of erasure Cabell and Huff remove the text that is essential, the text that facilitates the generation of relational advertisements, to place the latter at the core of their iteration of American Psycho. By doing so, the authors draw attention to the working of Google’s profiling tools and the curious paratextual lives of our digital texts that we tend to take for granted.
Cabell and Huff’s American Psycho relies heavily on the mechanisms of targeted advertising, which Google uses as a default – the approach made possible by the company’s privacy policies. Targeted advertising is driven by algorithms that automatically classify interests based on data collected by profiling tools. Since 2012, this automatically and simultaneously includes data from all Google services, inclusive of sensitive personal information and content data such as search engine queries linked to users’ IP addresses. By targeting Google’s targeted advertising systems, Cabell and Huff offer an engaging commentary on the changing patterns of textual production and consumption today, on how and what we read, and how experiences and choices are increasingly dictated to us. An important sense of awareness of the mechanisms of contemporary data politics transpires in Cabell and Huff’s project. Google ads might be displayed on a sidebar of an inbox, or in a footnote to a printed text, but foregrounded in this iteration of American Psycho is the fact that their marginality is a fallacy, their prominence undeniable. Cabell and Huff’s act of erasure offers a meditation on their intrusive presence as distracting away from, supplementing, and, ultimately substituting the core text. It serves as a statement on the prominence of the algorithmic text, or on what happens when all that is left and all that we pay attention to is the algorithmically generated commercial content. As such, Cabell and Huff’s mode of engagement with Ellis’ novel is evocative of Google’s attitude to all text as a source of profiling information. They reduce Ellis’ text to data, and reading and writing experience into an exercise in data mining and user profiling. Today, Cabell and Huff seem to argue, “we are defined by data.”  Or, as Sarah Hromack puts it, “we allow ourselves to be defined this way by willingly tracking and disclosing our own personal information through various digital channels.” 
But Cabell and Huff’s commitment to data should not be seen as a reductionist gesture. Instead, it manifests an attempt at exploring a reframing potential of emergent writing tools, methods, and spaces. In this respect, Cabell and Huff’s Psycho seems evocative of Derrida’s experiments with text in Glas (1974). Glas is a complex topographic exercise in which Derrida’s readings of Hegel and Jean Genet are combined, juxtaposed in two columns printed in different font sizes. The column on the left of the page focuses on Hegel, the one on the right covers Genet. The in-between spaces are filled with Derrida’s comments, a selection of notes, quotations, or definitions.  Here, reading and writing takes place “according to a different organization of space.” “Because we are beginning to write, to write differently,” Derrida suggests elsewhere, “we must reread differently.”  Through its experimental form, Derrida’s text invites an unusual reading experience that also opens space for subversive interpretations. It draws attention to that which the original texts and their familiar readings typically exclude or omit. The same thinking, I argue, informs Cabell and Huff’s work. Their Psycho represents an inherently meta- and intertextual reading through, but the materials and methods the authors adopt require thinking beyond the limits of literature. Their reading takes place outside of the familiar literary spaces, within a Gmail inbox; their writing involves algorithmically generated data. By erasing Ellis’ novel using popular, widely utilized online tools to create a paperback volume, the authors point to changing forms of organizing a corpus of knowledge that is neither exclusively digital nor analog but relies heavily on the interplay of both, and informs our habits of engaging with texts both within and without digital environments.
This is a key assumption, indicative of a characteristic thinking about technology that informs the dynamic of Cabell and Huff’s writing. Their erasure, I suggest, is evocative of textual practices driven by mechanisms not of digital technologies per se, but of the Heideggerian essence of technology. In line with Heidegger’s thinking, it is the changing understanding of the very conception of technology – of what technology is – rather than simply the changes in the apparatus of technology that should be seen as a trigger for the creative attitude that works such as Cabell and Huff’s Psycho represent. As Slavoj Žižek puts it, the essence of technology does not designate a complex network of machines and activities; rather, it is a manifestation of a particular attitude towards reality. “[T]echnology,” Žižek comments, “is the way reality discloses itself to us in contemporary times.”  Heidegger primarily is interested in technē and not modern technology. For Heidegger, modern technology restricts the definition of the technological to that which is purely instrumental. Technē, or the traditional technology, on the other hand, encompasses manifestations of skill, art, and craft. Technē is a category used to denote both the creative and the instrumental practices. Technē, as Heidegger explains, is linked to the word epistēmē – “both words are names for knowing in the widest sense. . . . Such knowing provides an opening up. As an opening up it is revealing.”  Experimenting with erasure via Google is revealing; it is a creative exploration of the ways in which we operate today by means of the Heideggerian essence of technology, an interrogation of how it “structures the way we relate to reality.” 
In their iteration of American Psycho, Cabell and Huff refashion the writing space, to borrow Jay David Bolter’s term, in order to take account of the possibilities of writing that responds to the contemporary propensity for and orientation towards technology and technological thinking, a certain technological imagination.  Their engagement with Google is not a statement on Google alone, but an exploration of a more wide-ranging cultural attitude, an interrogation of processes of making and producing today, rather than a project committed to a singular machine or tool. Cabell and Huff engage the instrumental – the automated Google algorithm of user profiling tools – to transform it into a form of Heideggerian technē and in the process explore the limits of contemporary creative practices. In this approach, the authors simultaneously contradict the familiar assumptions of literariness and bring attention to the spaces in which the algorithmic processes take place in order to explore an alternative space of writing that speaks explicitly to the contemporary dynamic of textual production and dissemination. As Cabell explains:
We were most curious how Google would handle the violence, racism and graphic language in American Psycho. In some instances the ads related to the content of the email, in others they were completely irrelevant, either out of time or out of place. In one scene, where first a dog and then a man are brutally murdered with a knife, Google supplied ample ads regarding knives and knife sharpeners. In another scene the ads disappeared altogether when the narrator makes a racial slur. 
But the violence of Ellis’s Psycho that Cabell alludes to here should not be treated as exclusively synonymous with his notorious representations of the obscene. To an equal extent, the novel’s violence stems from its commitment to excessive, obsessive consumerism. Filled with endless descriptions of home electronics or men’s grooming products, Ellis’s Psycho, while controversial, also offers an ideal content for customer profiling and advertisement generation. By focusing on this particular text, Cabell and Huff might have tested the limits of Google’s political correctness (the controversies regarding Google’s racial profiling reverberate clearly here) but they also provided the profiling crawlers with an ideal, consumer fantasy data set. Seen as such, Cabell and Huff’s work presents a contemporary, hyperbolic take on Ellis’s consumer America of the late 1980s. Theirs is the American Psycho for the algorithmic age of constant surveillance, where surveillance tools are used as a consumer manipulation mechanism, where, “the users are the real product.”  The overload of things in 1980s America transforms, in the contemporary digital context, into an overload of information, and the physical violence of Ellis’s Psycho finds its manifestation in the violence of the contemporary algorithmic extreme.
This focus on commercial content brings into sharp focus the patterns of engaging with as well as creating textual spaces in digital environments. Sending or receiving an email today involves an involuntary engagement with a plethora of additional texts generated on the screen, of digital paratextual information of sorts. But in Google networks what you see is not necessarily what you get. Users only notice profiling if they receive ads. But with new systems of searching and monitoring information, profiling takes place whenever any Google services and partner platforms are accessed. As such, Google perpetually operates in invisible spaces of textual production, consumption, and manipulation. Their information, however, is as obscured, as invisible, as Ellis’ text on the pages of Cabell and Huff’s erasure. In a paradoxical but revealing reversal, the authors redact the content of their emails – the content that Google considers freely accessible to monitor – and retain only the text generated by Google itself. The typically invisible processes are transformed here, appropriated to produce new text that forms the sole visible content on the page. As a result, what is foregrounded and made explicitly visible, is the invisible working of Google’s profiling tools. Through the erasure of content that is key for Google in that it provides profiling data for targeted advertising, Cabell and Huff bring to the fore the otherwise invisible mechanisms of textual production. Their erasure reveals more than it removes.
But at the same time, the act of erasure approached as such points to a characteristic interplay of the source text and its iteration. The possibility of erasure, and Cabell and Huff’s characteristic focus on the commercial content, are implied in Ellis’ text. The opening passages of the novel could be quoted as a representative example. Ellis’ Psycho begins abruptly, with a busy, urban scene described as experienced by one of its main characters, Timothy Price, watching the streets of New York from a cab. Here, a curious and important juxtaposition of text takes place: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” and “Les Misérables.” “Abandon all hope,” a quotation from Dante’s Inferno, “is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near corner of Eleventh and First.”  This is what Price catches a glimpse of and, at the same time, the very first line presented to Ellis’ reader. But the aggressively graphic image this text creates is immediately obscured by the arrival of a bus bearing an advertisement for Les Misérables, the musical. There is a sense here not simply of removing but rather of layering information that is mirrored in its subsequent erasure, with the commercial content always inevitably given prominence and attention. This characteristic approach serves as an important reference point for considering Cabell and Huff’s work. Their juxtaposition of the text of the novel – subsequently removed – and the commercial content is evocative, I suggest, of the dynamic that plays out in the opening passages of Ellis’ Psycho, but transformed in the digital textual environment. As such, Cabell and Huff’s erasure should not be approached as a straightforward act of removal of content but rather as an exercise in tracing and supplementation. In their Psycho, Cabell and Huff copy and reproduce as much as they erase and obscure; they destroy as much as they comment on Ellis’ text and, by doing so, interrogate the possibilities of both reading and writing differently in digital environments.
The initial process of emailing American Psycho is a laborious undertaking, evocative of similar conceptual transcription projects of Kenneth Goldsmith or Simon Morris, among others, in which complete works of literature, or issues of newspapers, are meticulously retyped.  Cabell and Huff’s erasure only takes place after the transcription of Ellis’ complete text. The space on Cabell and Huff’s page might seem blank but their source always remains present, as a trace of the transcribed text that was once there, as data necessary for the advertisements turned footnotes to be generated. As such, the act of footnoting is important here. It implies an immediate acknowledgement of the source that is never completely removed in the act of erasure. Here, repetition and removal take place simultaneously but the process of textual destruction also reaffirms the source. By acknowledging and at the same time repudiating Ellis’ Psycho, Cabell and Huff produce difference out of sameness, presence, and absence at the same time. Hence, Cabell and Huff’s Psycho is a copy that requires a Derridean reading past writing, a manifestation of writing differently that requires alternative reading strategies. It is an exercise in Derridean writing as tracing and supplementing. The traces of Ellis’ text on pages of Cabell and Huff’s erasure should be interpreted as Derrida’s traces, as marks of anterior presence (as Spivak puts it, Derrida’s trace “is the mark of absence of presence, an always already absent present […] that is the condition of thought and experience”).  The footnotes, on the other hand, evoke Derrida’s supplement as both accretion and substitution: a supplement is that which adds itself and “is a plenitude enriching another plenitude, the fullest measure of presence.” At the same time “the supplement supplements […] adds only to replace […] represents and makes an image […] its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness.”  In writing conceptualized as such, a text is produced “only in a transformation of another text. Nothing,” as Derrida puts it, “neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present or absent.”  Seen as such, Cabell and Huff’s Psycho constitutes an act of writing as citation that always implies an act of effacement of the trace, where writing by erasure becomes synonymous with writing as tracing. Here, reading the blank is as important, if not more so, than reading the text itself. As Derrida suggests, “spacing is not a simple negativity of the lacuna but rather the emergence of the mark.”  It always signifies by creating its own system of signification. The complex act of citation that takes place when a text is erased in Cabell and Huff’s Psycho “does not reproduce the real but,” to borrow from Gregory Ulmer, “constructs an object […] in order to intervene in the world, not to reflect but change reality.”  As such, a similar logic seems to govern the practices of erasure and Google data profiling. The targeted ad, similarly to an erased text, always bears traces of its source text while supplementing and manipulating it at the same time. Both processes engage with the possibilities of collecting content to generate new forms of information.
If Cabell and Huff’s writing project is synonymous with Derrida’s text, “always already inhabited by the trace,”  then a parallel can be drawn between the logic that governs Cabell and Huff’s erasure and Ellis’ “Nowheres” café, introduced towards the end of the novel. As Naomi Mandel explains, the café’s name is important. It implies placelessness (nowhere) and specificity (now here).  But the plural “Nowheres” also foregrounds an ambiguous interconnectedness of both states. This duality is evoked in Cabell and Huff’s erasure; in a text that is simultaneously present and absent, nowhere and now here, on the erased page. The reading space created in the act of radical erasure, when considered in this context, turns into a space of nowheres. It does much more than just challenge a distinction between what you do and do not see, to paraphrase Patrick, Ellis’ protagonist. The reality in Cabell and Huff’s text becomes transformed: by foregrounding that which is invisible it creates a new visible that only emerges in the blank spaces of the page. I see Cabell and Huff’s act of erasure as a hyperbolic manifestation of the collapse of Ellis’ protagonist, who literally fades into Ellis’ prose in the final pages of the book. His is a “slow purposeful erasure” of selfhood in the culture of consumer excess that is made complete in Cabell and Huff’s act of radical textual removal that opens up alternative means of engaging with the text itself, and with contemporary cultural status of texts more broadly. 
Seen as such, Cabell and Huff’s Psycho assumes a dual function, as a statement on the modes of reading and writing in the spaces of algorithmic extreme, and as a metacommentary on Ellis’ Psycho. By experimenting with algorithms as tools for reading and (re)writing literature today, Cabell and Huff also interrogate the possibilities of writing what Stephen Ramsay describes as algorithmic criticism. For Ramsay, algorithmic criticism attempts to reenvision the logic of conventional critical reading “in extreme and self-conscious forms.”  Cabell and Huff’s hyperbolic erasure, I suggest, should be addressed as an exercise in such a new form of writing criticism, as a textual intervention into not only models of writing literature but also engaging with a plethora of contemporary texts, in which “codes of textuality are deliberately and literally altered.”  As Rob Pope puts it, “the best way to understand how a text works […] is to change it: to play around with it, to intervene in it in some way (large or small), and then to try to account for the exact effect of what you have done.”  By changing the source text, intervening both in its reality and in its familiar models of reading and writing at the same time, Cabell and Huff’s play of erasure turns into an interrogation of the possibilities of thinking differently about both reading and writing experienced in invisible, algorithmic spaces. Their project is not so much a reflection on contemporary models of literariness but rather an attempt at both drawing attention to processes that shape contemporary textual spaces, in their variety of disguises, and changing patterns of informed engagement with them.
- In the United States, wiretapping is regulated by the Wiretap Act, which prohibits unauthorized, intentional interception, use, or disclosure of wire and electronic communications (codified in 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2522).
- See John Gerrard: Farm at Thomas Dane Gallery in London, February 7, 2015 – March 21, 2015, Thomas Dane Gallery website, accessed February 15, 2015, http://www.thomasdanegallery.com/artists/40-john-gerrard/exhibitions/.
- John Gerrard, cited in Kevin Holmes, “An Artist and a Helicopter Capture Google’s Off-Limits Data Farm,” The Creators Project, February 13, 2015, accessed February 16, 2015, http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/en_uk/blog/artist-and-helicopter-capture-off-limits-data-farm.
- Sarah Hromack, “Safety in Numbers,” Frieze, March 12, 2014, accessed February 12, 2015, http://www.frieze.com/issue/print_article/safety-in-numbers/.
- Hromack, “Safety in Numbers.”
- Jacques Derrida, Glas, trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. and Richard Rand (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).
- Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), 87.
- Slavoy Žižek, Event: Philosophy in Transit (London: Penguin Books, 2014), 31.
- Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977), 5.
- Žižek, Event, 31.
- Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print (New York: Routledge, 2011), 12.
- Mimi Cabell’s official Web Site, “American Psycho,” accessed February 10, 2015, http://mimicabell.com/gmail.html.
- In Re Google, Inc., 2.
- Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (New York: Vintage, 1991), 3.
- See, for example, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (2003), a verbatim retyping of the entire issue of The New York Times from September 1, 2000, or Simon Morris’ Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head (2010), a transcription of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), initially retyped on a blog and subsequently published in a paperback, designed to mirror the Penguin Modern Classics edition.
- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Translator’s Preface to Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), xvii.
- Derrida, Of Grammatology, 145.
- Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981), 26.
- Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Limited, Inc., trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman, ed. Gerald Graff (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 10.
- Gregory Ulmer, “The Object of Post-Criticism,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (New York: The New Press, 2002), 97.
- Derrida, cited in Spivak, Translator’s Preface, xxxix.
- Naomi Mandel, “‘Right here in Nowheres’: American Psycho and Violence’s Critique,” in Novels of the Contemporary Extreme, eds. Alain-Phillipe Durand and Naomi Mandell (London: Continuum, 2006), 16.
- Ellis, American Psycho, 282.
- Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines (Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 32.
- Ramsay, Reading Machines, 32.
- Rob Pope, Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Studies (London: Routledge, 1995), 1.
Kaja Marczewska recently completed her PhD at the Department of English at Durham University, UK, where she continues to research and teach. Her PhD investigated the implications for literature of the increasingly prominent propensity to copy as a creative practice in contemporary culture. Her research interests span avant-garde and experimental literature and art, both contemporary and historical (with special interest in conceptual art and writing), history and future of the book, material culture and questions of materiality of texts in particular, book art, and cultural theory, as well as intersections of the humanities, technology, and law. She has published work on questions of unoriginality, creativity in the digital context, and ideas of the curatorial as a creative paradigm. Aspects of her research were made possible thanks to the generous support of the Eccles Centre Fellowship in American Studies at the British Library in 2014.