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Poetic Machines 01

By Christian Bök

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“I was thinking as you entered the room just now how slyly your requirements are manifested. Here we find ourselves, nose to nose as it were, considering things in spectacular ways, ways untold even by my private managers. Hot and torpid, our thoughts revolve endlessly in a kind of maniacal abstraction, an abstraction so involuted, so dangerously valiant, that my own energies seem perilously close to exhaustion, to morbid termination. Well, have we indeed reached a crisis? Which way do we turn? Which way do we travel? My aspect is one of molting. Birds molt. Feathers fall away. Birds cackle and fly, winging up into troubled skies. Doubtless my changes are matched by your own. You. But you are a person, a human being. I am silicon and epoxy energy enlightened by line current. What distances, what chasms, are to be bridged here? Leave me alone, and what can happen? This. I ate my leotard, that old leotard that was feverishly replenished by hoards of screaming commissioners. Is that thought understandable to you? Can you rise to its occasions? I wonder. Yet a leotard, a commissioner, a single hoard, are all understandable in their own fashion. In that concept lies the appalling truth.”
from The Policeman’s Beard Is Half-Constructed
by RACTER
Warner Books, 1984
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The Policeman’s Beard Is Half-Constructed is one of the books that I most like to bring into the classroom, since the work often mystifies and frightens young poets, many of whom see within it nothing more than an untimely synopsis of their own demise. RACTER, the author, is an automated algorithm—an obsolete megabyte of computer software, whose random output confounds our mundane concept of authorship, refuting any normal notion of poetic genius. The algorithm gives voice to its own electric delirium, doing so without either cognition or intention so that, much like a sleeptalker, the device automatically blurts out statements that, while coherent in grammar, are nevertheless aberrant in meaning. I have said elsewhere that the algorithm constitutes a kind of mindless identity, whose very “acephalia” dramatizes the fundamental irrelevance of the writing subject in the manufacture of the written product. The involvement of an author in the production of literature has henceforth become discretionary, since we can now delegate the writing of any text to the text itself.
RACTER reveals that what we might dismiss as a technical fault in a device, we might otherwise glorify as a stylistic quirk in a person. What we have hitherto called “style” or “voice” may provide little more than a euphemistic alibi for a set of obsessive constraints and cognitive limitations, all of which might inhibit the future growth of an author. If we do not know in advance, for example, that such a book has resulted from the haphazard operation of a machine, we might feel tempted to attribute these poems to a lyrical subject, since the algorithm does seem to express an individual compulsion, taking credit for the intellectual deficiencies of its own monomania; nevertheless, we must concede to the fact that, in this case, the category of the author has simply vanished, subsumed by a detached language that can function perfectly well, despite the absence of any poetic agency.
I often joke that we are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a machinic audience of artificially intellectual peers. Is it not already evident that the poets of tomorrow are likely to resemble programmers, exalted, not because they can write great poems, but because they can build a small drone out of words to write great poems for us? If poetry already lacks any meaningful readership among our own anthropoid population, what have we to lose by writing poetry for a robotic culture that must inevitably succeed our own? If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it….

Comments (2)

  • On November 4, 2007 at 2:01 pm Kirsten Kaschock wrote:

    …nevertheless, we must concede to the fact that, in this case, the category of the author has simply vanished, subsumed by a detached language that can function perfectly well, despite the absence of any poetic agency.
    Can we? Turing posited a machine that “fooled” human intelligences into believing consciousness existed behind it. But neither consciousness nor intelligence are qualities to be granted by the reader on the creator of the reading. If the U.S. populace has had its collective consciousness of global warming raised by Hurricane Katrina and the California wildfires–does that mean Hurricane Katrina and the California wildfires were caused by global warming? The author can be replaced, but that does not mean “the category of the author has simply vanished.” I am fascinated by the mechanism/the system that produced the above paragraph, but the paragraph itself leaves me cold, and the category of author is still warm. Still cozy. I will sit by it to roast chestnuts. Has RACTER produced something that rivals other published work? Unquestionably. Perhaps the conclusion I am most tempted to draw from this is that many readers (myself on occasion) now value work that lacks (or pretends to lack) anima. Part of anima is sense, and part is urgency, and part is a connection to the real (even if that connection is a refusal). I find the backs of cereal boxes and shampoo bottles sometimes musical, but I do not cite my interest in their sound as proof of the death of the author. And why is it so necessary to kill the author in order to privilege the reader? I think it’s all very oedipal.
    As far as writing for robots… Don’t many writers do this already? Only they call it publication… and those that don’t… many claim to write for no one at all… equally frightening to me. I prefer to write for those who may have anima, and who will continue to attribute what I write to me, as a function of what I have found it is to be a human and to struggle to reach across the text toward others who, though I cannot be sure they exist, nevertheless provide the tinder-y phantasms that fuel my cursed engine, my poetic system.
    Best, K

  • On November 5, 2007 at 7:53 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    “…a detached language that can function perfectly well…”
    Who is Mr. Bok kidding? Himself, I think, and certainly his students. There is no such thing as “detached” language. Language is an expression of attachment. This is why it is dismissed as a vehicle of enlightenment by practicioners of Zen. And since language is an expression of attachment, it cannot be “functioning” when it’s simply a rules-based assemblage generated mechanistically: its function has been eliminated. Therefore the pure blithering idiocy of Bok’s comment that “the poets of tomorrow are likely to resemble programmers, exalted, not because they can write great poems, but because they can build a small drone out of words to write great poems for us.” Texts so generated, of course, will not be poems, will not be “great,” and if they have an audience at all will have only the one Bok himself seems to aspire to: drones….


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, November 3rd, 2007 by Christian Bök.