The Writing Machine
from The Voyage to Laputa
by Jonathan Swift

Poetry written by chance represents a form of automatic scription that displaces the agency of the author onto a system of impersonal, if not mechanical, procedures, the likes of which call to mind the satiric fantasy of Swift, who imagines “a project for improving speculative knowledge by […] mechanical operations” so that even “the most ignorant person […] may write books […] without the least assistance from genius or study.” Swift describes a framework of wire axles, upon which wood cubes swivel, their numerous facets covered by square pieces of paper with all the words of the language imprinted upon them in all their moods and cases, but without any order, so that anyone turning the handles on the edge of the frame might alter the old sequence of recorded thinking and thus evoke a new locution. Swift describes a kind of mechanical pixelboard that subdivides the blank space of the page into a striated gridwork of cells, each one occupied by its own unique module of chance—a lone cube “about the bigness of a die,” upon which might depend the poetic fate of a single word. Such a machine synchronizes thousands upon thousands of cast dice in order to orchestrate the manifestation, if not the disappearance, of their “broken sentences,” each word extracted from a grammatical series of coherent points and then implanted into a statistical series of isolated events. Each word thus plays host to a set of potential surprises, upon which a writer might gamble a career….
Swift may lampoon the irrationality of such randomized literature and its mechanized authorship; nevertheless, his satiric fantasy does effectively reconfigure the idea of the page itself, modernizing it, so that the page is no longer a static canvas, but a moving screen—a churning, volatile surface, across which the haphazard spectacle of writing finds itself revised and effaced ad infinitum. Swift almost seems to imply that, once science has invented a machine capable of replacing the writer (in the same way that machines have already begun to replace other forms of manual labour), the writer might have little choice but to invent a device that can launch a stochastic program in order to document a contingent outcome. When machines begin to reveal the stylistic constants of our human poets, we might even begin to emulate these idiosyncrasies of diction and grammar, thereby manufacturing an automatic, but convincing, facsimile that might conceivably extend the career of a writer into the afterlife of postmortem creativity. Such a machine might record the lingual fallout from a discharge of random forces otherwise restrained and redirected within language itself; hence, the reader in the future might no longer judge a poem for the stateliness of its expression, but might rather judge the work for the uncanniness of its production. No longer can the reader ask: “How expressive or how persuasive is this composition?”—instead, the reader must ask: “How surprising or how disturbing is this coincidence?”

Originally Published: November 28th, 2007

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...

  1. November 28, 2007
     Joseph Hutchison

    I've been alternately annoyed and amused by Bök's past postings, but now I see that I'm meant to be only amused. It–his blog, I mean–is all Swiftian satire!
    What a relief to discover this. Now I don't have to get exercised over his fuzzy language. In the past, his bizarre statement that we readers today judge poems on the "stateliness" of their expression, while future readers might judge them on "uncanniness of ... production," might have driven me to distraction. But knowing it's all a joke keeps my blood pressure under control. And when he impishly shifts this past/future construct into the present–"no longer can the reader ask," etc.–I no longer need to grind my teeth at his irrational rhetoric: I can simply muster a wry smile.
    The best aspect of my discovery is that I'm prepared for his next foray into pseudo-intellectual humor. If, as seems likely, he next imagines the inventor of a machine that eats Irish children and claims that this–somehow–is the next step in poetic evolution, I won't be repulsed or angered: I'll grant him the wink and the nod he seems to be looking for.
    Thanks for all the fish, Christian!

  2. January 18, 2008
     Don Share

    I've enjoyed thinking about the use of Swift in this post, and it helps me realize just how old - even quaint - it is to employ [psuedo?]-scientific metaphors to express ideas about the production of poetry. Steve Burt, I believe, has commented on this in another thread here, and Jane has nicely called this a para-fable.
    But what's fascinating is that we still seem to be particularly tethered to late 19th-century and early 20th century positivist ideas about technology and metaphor, e.g., Pound's view (ca. 1910) that poetry is (as Patricia Hutchins put it) "a kind of inspired mathematics, which gives us equations," etc. EP would come to see the poet as "steam gauge, voltometer, a set of pipes for thermometric and barometric divination." In writing about the troubadours, he even refers to "hyper-scientific precision as a touchstone."
    Eliot, as everyone is tired of hearing, employed the incorectly formulated figure of the chemical "catalyst" at around the same time:
    "When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged."
    Etc. Whether his chemistry holds up or not I'll leave to others, but I can't think the analogy expressed in these particular words means much to anyone now.
    These (in)famous examples, and there must be others you all can mention here, show that nothing dates more quickly than the scientific, especially in the clutches of poets who, forgivably enough, do not have the training to understand it properly in the first place. That's the price we pay for buying into what seems, at a given moment, to be "modern." This does not mean that poets (or anyone else) ought to ignore or be ignorant of science, and I'm no "Luddite" (I wish there were a more up-to-date moniker for the backward!); quite the opposite, yet I suppose even the more enlightened among us will continue to talk about the sun setting when they're waxing metaphorical.