8 | DNA, Found Scores, Machine Writing &

Other Post-Literature Literatures

 

This anthology began with Duchamp’s ready-mades— his urinal, snow shovels, and other found objects— and has invoked them throughout as a point of contact with conceptual art. So it seems fitting to return to found textual objects at the end as a way to ask, as David Antin might, if you find a piece of writing in the street, how do you know if it’s a poem or not? Related questions have motivated much of what we call literary history, as well as the history of literary reading or reception: the questions of what is literary, what is not, and how we tell the difference.

 

From the first Homo sapien who ever came across a pretty seashell and took it back to the cave to show to others, people have transformed found objects into art. During the Renaissance, people assembled elaborate collections of found objects, things like a unicorn’s horn or stone fish (which we would recognize as a narwhal’s tusk and fish fossil), in order to inspire wonder. For wonder is, as everyone knows, the first step to philosophy. And there’s something of these early motivations in Lydia Davis, for example, holding up a peculiar proposition as a found textual object, calling our attention to its beauty and/or oddity. Her story “Information from the North Concerning the Ice,” for example, is reproduced here in its entirety: “Each seal uses many blowholes and each blowhole is used by many seals.” The ways by which others have used found objects to tap into the zeitgeist of their moment have come out of other motivations: the “up yours” to the art world Duchamp intended with his urinal— along with its proclamation that anything put into an art gallery (or anthology?) is art; or the never-ending attempt to capture the thing itself, the reality outside of artifice; and perhaps most recently, an articulation of the pressure placed upon humanist ideals (such as the uniqueness of the individual, or individual genius) by the ascendency of big data, surveillance, and the proliferation of writing by both humans and machines. If Language Poetry can be seen as an assault on the lyric “I,” Post-Literature Literature can be seen as one outcome. The motives behind both modes of writing are not mutually exclusive, or even unrelated.

 

As Heidegger might have put it, a hammer that is used as a hammer is just a hammer, but a broken hammer is a poem: In giving up its functionality it takes on the potential to be a rhetorical or philosophic object or conceptual art, just as no one today reads Galen’s medical advice except as history or literature. Consider for example, Graham Rawle’s magisterial Woman’s World, a collage novel composed entirely of fragments from last century’s women’s magazines that asks us to see these pieces as nonfiction mini-documents, but also, when collaged, as art: a critique of gender stereotypes that is also a poignant romance. It is the res, the thing itself, that draws us to many found texts: the snippet of speech as heard in the street that Joyce incorporated into Ulysses, words that were not spoken as metaphor or artifice— words not trying to be anything but themselves— just as the shout that R. Henry Nigl came across in the street (and that opens this anthology) was first and foremost an unmediated shout. Trying to capture the thing itself is behind Gertrude Stein’s adventures in language but it also lies behind Rev. Robert Shield’s obsessive recording of every moment of his day, typing up an account of his every action for over 30 years: a record of life that grew to fill some 94 boxes and is now housed at Washington State University. Found textual objects like these are poems in praise of flatness. They resolutely try to present the land itself instead of presenting us with a landscape painting. These texts also depend on the reader to both see how they are themselves, and how, once cut off from their normal use, they are no longer themselves. Or they are still themselves, but what they say has changed. Sound poet cris cheek sometimes demonstrates the fact that anything can be read as a score: the crack along the linoleum of a floor, for example, or the dimpled pattern of a brick. Likewise, much postliterary literature is premised on the belief that anything can be considered literature: from pop-song lyrics to fan fiction to pornography to tweets to menus to software commands to the 1s and 0s of the computer chip that reads these commands....

 

Concomitant with this explosion of potential literary objects has been the flood of information we add to every time we make a phone call, use a charge card, or just live: a profusion of digital traces that evermore sophisticated analytic tools and computing power make available to anyone with a mind to mine it for useful patterns. As computer scientist Arvind Narayanan puts it, the will and ability to construct digital portraits of each other has made being anonymous “algorithmically impossible.” And has, in the process, altered the conception of the self: it has made “natural” a posthuman sense of self in which humanist ideals such as privacy and uniqueness are eclipsed by a growing blur between the individual and the collective. Obviously, a sense of “self as pattern” has ramifications for how we read and write that are as profound as the influence of Freud on the ways in which modernist literature was both interpreted and written. Compare, for example, the intensely emotional and personal poetry of Romanticism to Jhave’s Spreeder: a program that can generate over 4,000 poems an hour by sampling the poetry of others.

The diminution of the individual against the backdrop of the machine and the Noachian flood of text enabled by the machine seems to be at least partially the impetus behind the number of authors who have abandoned writing altogether, and merely represent “found” text. Within this exponentially growing corpus of work we can count: David Buuck’s “United 93” (a representation of the transcript from the black-box flight recorder aboard the flight that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on 9/11); Counterpath Press’s publication, as poetry, of Let Her Speak: Transcript of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s June 25, 2013, Filibuster of the Texas State Senate (which is just what its long title says — a transcript of the words Senator Davis said during the 11 hours she occupied the podium in the Texas State House in order to use up the time allotted for voting before a bill restricting women’s access to health clinics could be passed); Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (an 800-page retyping of one day’s New York Times newspaper); Kent Johnson’s Day (an appropriation of Goldsmith’s Day that Johnson created by placing a sticker bearing his name over the name of Goldsmith on copies of the book). Towering above these pranks and gestures is Vanessa Place’s Tragodía, which presents unaltered found text, a set of court documents in sexual abuse cases, as a prose-poem trilogy: Statement of Facts; Statement of the Case; and Argument.

 

Considered together and in contrast to the emphasis on the “I” in lyric poetry, this is a body of writing in which the erasure of the individual is, in fact, a value to be aspired to. That is, writing that is informed by a posthuman ethos is at odds with an ethos based upon the uniqueness of the individual, and its cousins, especially originality, and is pursued through strategies that include appropriation as creation and/or the repurposing of texts. To this body of work we can add the number of works in which authorship has been surrendered to an algorithm. It includes post-literature literature that is partially generated by the computer though published in print, e.g., Flarf, or Google-sculpting, in which words harvested from the web are collaged into poetry. Nick Thurston’s Of The Subcontract, Or Principles of Poetic Right is a volume of 100 poems that he “wrote” by subcontracting the actual writing and selection through Amazon.com’s crowdsourcing platform Mechanical Turk. “Build an engine with words. Let it make you speak,” reads the epigram to Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry’s poetry generator Apostrophe Engine. In Perl poetry, such as Nick Montfort’s “ppg256-1,” human language is translated into a programming language in a way that allows the poem to simultaneously “mean” in two worlds: that of humans, and that of the machine.

Phillip M. Parker alone has written over 200,000 books, ranging from poetry to food security. Or rather, his machines have. As he explains, the process his software used to write over 1.3 million poems is an algorithm that employs graph theory and a metric for linguistic differences across word strings in other poems. When we log into an online bookstore or airline reservation system, we communicate with machine writers that compose more text than could be read in multiple human lifetimes, and is, in fact, mostly read by other machines. Yet the poetics of these machine authors is antique when compared to Artificial Intelligence systems designed to process natural language, such as Watson, the IBM system that defeated two former champions of the quiz show Jeopardy. The AI that your Gmail uses to complete your sentences is a harbinger of far more powerful AI networks like Open AI's GPT-3, which can perform the "author function" for many writing tasks, composing everything from tweets to poems to novels to other computer programs. Likewise, see Christian Bök’s "Xenotext Experiment": a plan to compose poetry through self-replicating DNA, and which could be generating poems long after humans have ceased to exist. But if a poem is written and there’s no human left to read it, is it still a poem? If a computer plays chess (or Jeopardy) against a human are they playing the same game? Judged by the traditional standards of lyric poetry, current machine poetry is almost uniformly awful. But to judge it this way is to overlook the raison d’être of the machine poem. The same could be said of the bio-poems Eduardo Kac proposes to write by editing the DNA of organisms to create living “poems” that are expressed as plants or animals.

The last commercial telegram was sent on July 15, 2013. The last commercial novel has probably already gone out of print, if by "novel" we mean those long prose works as they were thought of for most of their history, written, printed, and distributed without the aid of a computer, and sold in bookstores. From clay tablets to the printing press, from the printing press to the telegraph, from the telegraph to today, questions posed by writing technologies and the texts that authors have created with them have always gone beyond the academic. Once again we are relearning how writing technologies always have and always will reconfigure the world. And its literature.