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Some Conceptual Literature on Twitter

By Christian Bök

Jokingly, I have argued that, all too soon (if not now), human poets may find themselves competing with machines for aesthetic attention from audiences, particularly when an automated algorithm, like @horse_ebooks on Twitter, can write surreal, poetic statements, all of which have begun to take on the oracular overtone of a poetic genre (one whose burgeoning readership now exceeds 65,000 followers—far more than the number of people who might typically purchase a volume of poetry, written by a human author). If nothing else, such machines provide an unexamined, but exploitable, resource for the production of poetry. I am, again, going to point to some more examples of “conceptualism in the wild,” concentrating upon a handful of cases that have recently captured my attention on Twitter (where I point to stuff that appeals to my most idiosyncratic level of geekiness).

@horse_ebooks: A glass of water on the edge of a playing card!

@nickmofo (a digital scholar at MIT) has been tweeting, according to a rule of palindromic disquisition, in which the order of words in each tweet is completely reversible, preserving the initial meaning (or initial phonics) of the tweet itself—for example: a sentence, like “feel a cop cop a feel,” showcases an improbability in its syntax (but nevertheless communicates sense). The author is relentless in his willingness to compose sentences under this constraint, and the sheer scale of output provides fodder for poets, who might use these sentences as a potential reservoir of inspiration for even more exploratory palindromes (arranged into larger, artful structures).

@nickmofo: Theatre complex stages complex theatre.

@lipogrammatical is one of many sites on Twitter, where a user broadcasts sentences that have suppressed one or more letters—and in this case, Anton Vowl (a character from the novel La Disparition by Georges Perec) has suppressed the letter E in all tweets, creating lines that, although meaningful, begin to take on the literary cadences of hints for crosswords. Rather than requote, line by line, the English edition of La Disparition (thereby repeating a usual trope of citation on Twitter), these tweets attempt to comment upon themselves, discussing their relationship to the lipogram (a rule no less vexatious, in its adopted bondage, than the given limit of 140 characters).

@lipogrammatical: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”—JFK

@lowflyingrocks is a robot that reports everyday about the diameter (and distance) of meteoroids, which have made nearby passes through the orbital pathway of the Earth. While Kenneth Goldsmith might publish, as poetry, a daily array of weather reports from New York City, this automated tickertape of tweets has extended such aesthetic reportage about the climate into the regime of outer space itself (where forecasts about rogue comets and solar flares are undoubtedly going to become newsworthy throughout this century, as we mature into an orbital species with a constant presence of spacefaring businessmen, travelling to their branch plants in the void).

@lowflyingrocks: 2012 FP35, ~7m-16m in diameter, just passed the Earth at 14km/s, missing by ~one hundred and sixty-five thousand km.

@markovchocolate is an algorithm that scours descriptions of chocolate online, regenerating these statements through a probabilistic analysis of semantic sequence in order to produce lines of poetry, relentlessly focused on the lexicon for such candies. The robot reveals that chocolate has its own poetic subset of characterizations (in the same way that descriptions of fine wine among oenophiles might begin to partake of an exalted, figural discourse, whose metaphors must be constantly reinvented, until they become totally baroque). The lushness of the vocabulary alone might provide fodder for any poet willing to transcribe the most evocative sentences from such a feed.

@markovchocolate: Praline with fleur de champagne, enveloped in dark chocolate on crisp, puffed rice.

@cmunell is an artificial intelligence, currently immersing itself in a study of language by teaching itself to read the Internet, finding correlations among categories so as to build a probabilistic, epistemological model of the world. The computer tweets the facts that it has learned from users of the Web, and our feedback corrects its misconceptions; hence, the inferences of the machine improve. The automated lyricism of its refrain, “I think,” seems uncanny—especially when the machine is mistaken in its autodidactic presumptions, resulting in an anomalous, metaphoric error. A poet might easily create lyrics by sifting through the weirder outputs from this device.

@cmunell: I think “Ernest Hemingway” is a #Female.

@pentametron is an algorithm that surveys Twitter, retweeting any sentences that conform to the rhythm of iambic pentameter. The robot collates the results into Flarfy sonnets (some of which are delightful in their zaniness—because, of course, they are the inadvertent byproducts of unpoetic activity), but unlike the work of Flarf poets, who must resort to the handicraft of attentive selection in each Google search, the tweets automate this process, eliminating the weak link of the poet from such creative activity. The tools of industrial production have thus transformed the sonnet itself into a kind of fungible commodity, as disposable as any styrofoam container—only more surreal).

@pentametron: Forever wishing for a money tree.


Posted in Featured Blogger on Friday, April 20th, 2012 by Christian Bök.