Poetic Machines 06
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?”
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...