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The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

Author: joe

Thursday, 28 April, 2011 - 23:33

Earlier this week I presented a paper at the Narrative Research Group Symposium on 'Nonhuman Narratives', at Bournemouth Unversity. It was a day filled with very interesting papers ranging through the posthuman and nonhuman, the monstrous and inhuman, and the nonhuman animal. The text of my paper is copied below, but I wanted to make a few remarks about the paper and the symposium first.

As usual, I found it incredibly difficult to compress the things I wanted to discuss into a 20 minute talk. I'd have liked to have talked more about the practice-led side of the ideas that provoked the paper, discussed a wider range of 'flat ontologists' (e.g. Jane Bennet, as Anat Pick suggested in the Q&A following my talk), and I'd have liked to have gone on to explore both playful and serious consequences of machine agency, from Ted Nelson's Computer Lib / Dream Machines to Kevin Kelly's arguments for The Technium.

The huge depth of subjects from the day make it impossible to sum up or do justice to the ideas, but I want to pick out a couple of insights from the day that really got me thinking.

David Herman talked about understanding (and writing, in graphic form) animal narratives, which was derived from a post-Cartesian approach to mind influenced by Uexküll's idea of an animal's 'Umwelt'. This hinged on a conception of mind as distributed in the environment, rather than sealed inside a thinking being (reminding me, incidentally, of the work of my colleague Dr Paul Stevens), thus permitting questions such as 'what's it like' to be a dog, mollusc, even doorknob. In particular I was intrigued by a remark in the Q&A following David's talk in which he suggested that because mind is a phenomenon distributed through body, environment and institution, we therefore do have access to it. Access to mind! - literally mind-blowing.

Anat Pick's talk, which examined Robert Bresson's portrayal of the donkey Balthazar, offered a way of thinking about determinism and agency that I'm not familiar with, but that I found really intriguing. The tension here is less determinism 'vs' agency, and more determinism 'and' grace; grace in the face of the necessity of the world which involves a form of assent, but is neither mere acceptance, nor does it preclude the resistance of persecution. In the Q&A she cited a Spinozan approach to understanding the necessities inherent in a deterministic universe, which then enables an agent to act within those necessities. I will have to learn Spinoza...

Finally an interesting phenomenon on the day was the frequent dismantling of binary oppositions. In the summary, it was noted that many tensions were explored in the day - human and nonhuman, humane and inhuman, normal and other, known and unknown - but that the categories kept breaking down. In the case of my talk for example, taking a relatively uncontroversial interpretation of nonhuman and following the logical paths such notions suggested, ended in dissolving the distinctions entirely. Human and nonhuman writers are indistinguishable; human and nonhuman texts are too...

I think of this as the inevitable consequence of any dialectic: the definition of a category depends on the splitting off of that category from it's other; it is as though we halve an apple, and are then surprised that the one half is very much the same as the other half... To define good, we create the not-good in the image of the good. Arbitrary categories are susceptible to and dissolve under systematic analysis. The difficulty (even impossibility) is in finding non-arbitrary distinctions. Humans are animals, humans make machines in their own image, monstrous killers are humans; the challenge thrown up by the dissolution of firm distinctions are all ethical: why might eating animals be morally different to cannibalism? what happens when you recognise nonhumans as 'persons'? does dehumanising serial killers absolve the social realms in which they occur from any blame? There may well be a boundary between human and nonhuman, but it is not necessarily where we conventionally think it is.

So I'm grateful to Bronwen Thomas and Julia Round for organising the day, Einar Thorsen for live-blogging it, and to the other speakers and participants for their ideas and openness. I am however, sad that no-one seemed to recognise the opening slide I used. While I was preparing the presentation, I woke in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep, going over and over in my mind the ideas I had for the contents of this paper; my mind had been possessed by a parasite, and as its host I was powerless to resist it. I lay there and remembered an album cover from 1981: The Police, 'Ghost in the machine'. I was barely 10 when I acquired the vinyl LP, and it fascinated me - the songs' lyrics about spirits in the material world, the ethereal synthesisers, the images of circuit boards on the inner sleeve. So I got up at 5 in the morning and went downstairs and pulled out my 30-year-old record, amazingly still unscratched, and played it, and felt a strange mixture of sadness and pleasure that none of my machine collaborators were scrobbling it to last.fm...

The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

While I was preparing this paper, the 11-year-old I live with asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was preparing a presentation about how great machines are at telling stories. "How can machines tell stories?" he asked incredulously. I realised that should have been my title! I originally chose to reference E. M Forster's short story, 'The Machine Stops' in my title because I think it is necessary to invoke at once the dystopian vision that the idea of storytelling machines conjures. The idea of sentient machines - which surely they must be to compose tales - is popularly horrific, alienating, and dangerous. Intelligent machines always turn out to be evil. Often popular adaptations of this trope present clear lines between human and nonhuman 'intelligences', thereby permitting a war between them in which the happy outcome is the one in which the unfeeling machines are vanquished.

Forster's story is dystopian and has the contours of such an ethical boundary, but is more subtle, exploring the way in which the humans who inhabit the machine world are shaped by its demands and imperatives. A transgressing wanderer reaches close to the surface of the subterranean world of the machines, and later reports:

"There was a ladder, made of some primӕval metal. The light from the railway fell upon its lowest rungs, and I saw that it led straight upwards out of the rubble at the bottom of the shaft. Perhaps our ancestors ran up and down it a dozen times daily, in their building. As I climbed, the rough edges cut through my gloves so that my hands bled. The light helped me for a little, and then came darkness and, worse still, silence which pierced my ears like a sword. The Machine hums! Did you know that? Its hum penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts. Who knows! I was getting beyond its power. Then I thought: "This silence means that I am doing wrong." But I heard voices in the silence, and again they strengthened me." He laughed. "I had need of them. The next moment I cracked my head against something."
 
The Machine Stops, (Forster, 1909)

I love the idea that the all-pervasive rumble of the machine is so constitutive of life that it withdraws from consciousness even as it guides our thoughts, and I'm going to return to the idea that how we think is shaped by the machines we live with. First though, I'm going to quickly talk about some work I've been doing with the digital writer, Tim Wright. In a project called 'Hauntology', we've been exploring how we can create interactive and participatory narratives using a combination of poetry, software, antique objects and digital sensors and circuits - and increasingly now - walking. In one piece, a chest of drawers was 'haunted' by the spirits of its previous owners. A user could access snippets of their lives by interacting with the chest of drawers and objects on and in it, as well as eventually 'haunting' it themselves with the sounds they left behind for the next users to hear.

We're currently exploring how we can use an old wooden box, wired up with an audio device and some sensors, to act as the focal device for a walking, talking, poetic experience based on the poetry of Thomas Hardy and the geography of the outskirts of Dorchester. In this we are trying to compose a narrative experience which is absorbing, authentic, haunting and provocative - out of antique bric-a-brac, digital sensors and media, physical space, sounds, smells, scenes, embodied and interpersonal interactions, and both reading and writing poetry. To this end I've been experimenting with wiring electronic devices into old wooden boxes.

One of the things I've noticed about the process is the feeling that the electronic systems and circuits, and the antique wooden boxes and drawers, are all exerting their own influence on the proceedings. They only allow certain sorts of behaviours and affordances to get the go-ahead. At first I thought this is an artefact of my own imprecision and inexperience. The further I get, though, the more I'm sure that the objects I work with have intentions of their own. Just as a sculptor seeks to find the form already within the matter at hand, as if discovering the spirit in the material, so I am collaborating with the devices I coerce and adapt to perform as they want to, as though I am obeying a ghost in their machine.

I'm now afraid that I'm sounding crazy, so I want to run through a quick and very partial history of writers collaborating with devices, to see if I'm alone in my craziness. I'm thinking here about the production of textual artefacts through the action of some sort of device - something I'm therefore going to call a device-oriented narrative - produced by some sort of rule or algorithm or heuristic process. I think this is a fairly good, low-level definition of a 'writing machine' - an apparatus or assemblage which performs some sort of function on the raw materials of textual production.

Here's an example of an electronically produced poem:

"Sentences begins.
money must
Sentences
Parsing
Sentences
Sentences
Sentences for love forsaken."
 
Sentences, (Hartman and Kenner, 1995)

Nick Montfort explains the provenance of this piece of text, taken from a book by Hartman and Kenner, "Sentences":

"To write Sentences, Hartman and Kenner took 457 19th-century "Sentences for Analysis and Parsing, Thayer Street Grammar School" and providentially generated an intermediate text, using Claude Shannon's Markov chain technique as implemented in TRAVESTY by Hugh Kenner and Joseph O'Rourke. The resulting text was corrected and used as input to Hartman's program DIASTEXT, which carried out diastic selection as developed by Jackson Mac Low."
 
Sentences in 1k, Grand Text Auto, (Montfort, 2008)

I don't want to dwell on the detail of the particular processes that were used to produce these texts - just to note that Montfort's description illustrates very clearly the notion that a non-trivial operation has been performed to produce the work: the raw input is worked on in some way to produce a text at the end. In this case at least two sets of iterative actions were performed on the input to produce strangely evocative words. This therefore is a machine text.

I want to draw a distinction here from what Espen Aarseth has refered to as a 'cybertext' - a text which requires work on the part of the reader to traverse it. I want to think of texts which require some act of delegation by the writer to a machine to produce them. We could get horribly metaphysical about what constitutes mechanism, machinism and what does not. Is a pen a machine? A typewriter? While it is tempting to say that in the term 'machine' I exclude devices which merely reproduce mechanical extensions of the writer's actions, this may become a moot point as we proceed. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman in 1999, deals with the difference, for example, between a typewriter and a computer by noting the non-linear disruption that occurs when dematerialisation is introduced into the machinic action. I want to avoid this distinction, as there are perfectly good examples of writerly delegation that can occur within entirely material parameters.

I'm going to go with Richard Sennet's understanding of the machine in 'The Craftsman' of 2008, which I read as an intermediary device between the hand of the craftsman and the work itself, which effects some non-trivial transformation. This allows me to include devices such as horoscopes and Tarot cards, runes and tea-leaves, dice and difference engines, as well as electronic circuits, random algorithms, neural networks and artificial intelligences.

As the inclusion of Tarot hints, divination or possession by a deus ex machina seems to have a provenance in machine thinking. The 'I-Ching' was not only a repository of confucian wisdom, but a device for answering questions. Aarseth describes it thus:

"The I Ching is made up of sixty-four symbols, or hexagrams, which are the binary combinations of six whole or broken ("changing") lines [...] A hexagram [...] contains a main text and six small ones, one for each line. By manipulating three coins or forty-nine yarrow stalks according to a randomizing principle, the texts of two hexagrams are combined, producing one out of 4,096 possible texts. This contains the answer to a question the user has written down in advance (e.g., "How much rice should I plant this year?")."
 
Cybertext, (Aarseth, 1997)

From a European, humanist point of view, there is no particularly significant difference between a blind algorithm and the pronouncements of oracles and fortune-tellers - both are equally meaningless, and in the post-Enlightenment mind it is difficult to think otherwise. Educated people are supposed to scorn horoscopes and prophecies. Yet this adoption of a rational, materialistic ontology doesn't extend to our celebration of the transcendence of human agency and intelligence, with which we persevere in cherishing against the blind heuristic principle of automatons.

The automative principle of composition is evident in the work of Raymond Roussel, such as in Locus Solus from 1914. Although after his death he inspired the OuLiPo writers and the nouveau roman, during his lifetime, after some initial popularity amongst the surrealists, he was largely ridiculed and certainly critically panned. His works are very unusual, as can be gleaned from this account of his composition technique from John Ashbery:

"Sometimes he would take a phrase containing two words, each of which had a double meaning, and use the least likely ones as the nucleus of a story. Thus the phrase 'maison á espagnolettes' ("house with window latches") served as the basis for an episode in Impressions of Africa about a house (a royal family or house) descended from a pair of Spanish twin girls. [...]
 
"Just as the mechanical task of finding a rhyme sometimes inspires a poet to write a great line, [...] "rhymes for events" helped him to utilise his unconscious mind. "
 
'Introduction' to Raymond Roussel, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, (Ashbery, 1995 [1962])

The French surrealist writer Michel Leiris suggested that Roussel is tapping into an ancient tradition of eliciting myths from words, seeking out the 'disease of language', which is the source of mythology or collective unconscious." (ibid) Here, though Leiris is still perhaps seeking to legitimise the text for its inner human truth, its interpretation of the human unconscious. The text may be unconventionally produced, but its defender still seeks to recuperate it into the realm of human desires, motives and meanings, against the criticism that the work is a joke of no obvious inherent merit.

Similar recuperations might be made of other device-oriented narratives. In the 1920s the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, cited by Burroughs and Gysin later as an inspiration for their employment of the composition algorithm called 'the cut-up', apparently started a riot by pulling a poem out of a hat. In his dada manifesto, his wrote:

"TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
 
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are - an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
 
dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, (Tristan Tzara, 1920)

It is difficult not to see the dada movement and Burroughs' later adoption of the cut-up as much a political gesture as one of literary exploration - though this was certainly an ingredient in Burroughs' extensive use of it throughout novels like The Soft Machine, Cities of the Red Night and others. Burroughs describes it in 1961:

"The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and , still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passersby and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident [...]
 
Take any poet or writer you fancy. Here, say, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like."
 
The cut-up method of Brion Gysin, (Burroughs, 1961)

The casual abundance of poetry produced this way directly challenges the idea that a specially gifted and inspired writer is the essential ingredient in the writing - all that is necessary is a heuristic device and some raw materials on which to act. The results are often extremely powerful, as any reading from Burroughs' work will attest:

"Pan God of Panic piping blue notes through empty streets as the berserk time machine twisted a tornado of years and centuries - Wind through dusty offices and archives - Board Books scattered to rubbish heaps of the earth - Symbol books of the all-powerful board that had controlled thought feeling and movement of a planet from birth to death with iron claws of pain and pleasure - The whole structure of reality went up in silent explosions - Paper moon and muslin trees and in the black silver sky great rents as the cover of the world rained down - Biologic film went up.. . "raining dinosaurs" "It sometimes happens. . .just an old showman" Death takes over the game so many actors buildings and stars laid flat pieces of finance over the golf course summer afternoons bare feet waiting for rain smell of sickness in the room Switzerland Panama machine guns in Bagdad rising from the typewriter pieces of finance on the evening wind tin shares Buenos Aires Mr. Martin smiles old names waiting sad old tune haunted the last human attic."
 
The Soft Machine, (Burroughs, 1961)

The production of literary texts through machinic devices seems to proliferate in the middle of the 20th century. Writers like Barthelme, Beckett, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Robbe-Grillet, Perec and Calvino all produce texts which can be said to have been written with the aid of a heuristic device in the tradition of Roussel and Tzara. Often they are consciously political - David Porush in his work on cybernetic texts named after Burrough's novel, The Soft Machine, argues that such fiction:

"...far from being representative of a class of fiction in its decadence, is the most meaningful and hopeful sort of fiction. It cannot as a body be understood without constant reference to its source in a highly technologised society. For that very reason, however, it has the power to invent a new way of seeing, it offers a new language, and along the way it tells a fine, often amusing, often grim story about how far along we are."
 
The Soft Machine, (David Porush, 1985)

This odd combination of decadence and Brechtian self-reference and estrangement is also reminiscent of the flâneur and the psychogeographic movement: Benjamin's flâneur walked, either to revel in decadence, or to ambiguate the scopic regimes of the city's imperative to consume. No doubt, as in the situationist dérive and later psychogeographic texts and actions, there is an important emancipatory element: situationists walked to resist a 'world moving away in to representation'. The algorithmic obedience of tracing out a route that is arbitrarily pre/pro-scribed, but through the elective and playful devices of our own choosing, is actually, (ironically), a way to reassert the agency of the human and the individual against a machinic world of capital and convention.

However I'd like to go much further than Porush goes. He argues that one of the tropes of cybernetic fiction is that of self-dismantling. This is a deconstructive move, and resonates with the late 20th century concerns of continental philosophy, which seeks to dislodge the layers of meaning that stratify human existence in order to bring to notice the complex shifting network of linguistic and textual currents which inform our lives and institutions. However, I'd like to go further than seeing cybernetic texts and device-oriented narratives as merely deconstructive.

Consider that, even though we accept the premise of the intentional fallacy, we still privilege human intentionality as both qualitatively different from and somehow better than the nonhuman world of relations. So, even though we accept the notion that a text might be a device which can surrender novel meanings and effects which the author didn't intentionally encode there, we still find it hard to accept that an algorithmically generated text could offer anything of equal value: note that we still conventionally attribute the richness of a text, and its capacity for renewed interpretation, to the skill of its author - to have written something that 'transcends' the finitude of its human creator.

As I've suggested, we have tended to think of automatically produced texts as somehow lesser than those originated by acts of human imagination alone. It is with this tendency that we also consider the possibility of artificial intelligence as a watershed: the achievement of machine consciousness will be equivalent to lifting those machines up to some lofty, hard-to-reach transcendental threshold which makes them finally equal to humans. I'd prefer to see the problem from the other side, and wonder what it is we think is so different about human agency that separates us from the rest of the universe. This is not to reduce humans to mindlessness; Zizek puts it:

"It is here that the "reductionist" project goes wrong: the problem is not how to reduce mind to neuronal "material" processes [...] but, rather, to grasp how mind can emerge only through being embedded in the network of social relations and material supplements. In other words, the true problem is not "How, if at all, could machines IMITATE the human mind?," but, "How does the very identity of human mind rely on external mechanical supplements? How does it incorporate machines?"
 
Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze, (Zizek, 2008)

This is not just deconstruction (in which a philosophy of consciousness gives way to a philosophy of linguistics and signification), but a shift towards "placing humans and nonhumans on an equal footing". To go further then, we have to re-equate humans with the menagerie of other things in the world, the nonhuman - what object-oriented ontologists have called a flat ontology.

Levi Bryant has outlined a book-project called The Domestication of Humans in which he considers the way that plants and microbes have transformed human beings:

"The whole point of such a project, of course, is to develop enhanced techniques for thinking in terms of flat ontology. When posing questions in the humanities our tendency is to think in terms of unilateral determination. We talk about humans structuring reality through their perceptions, concepts, and signs, treating the process of structuration as proceeding from the human towards a sort of gooey chaos that then gets structured by the human. Flat ontology calls for bilateral determination, where determination doesn't simply run from human to world, but where all sorts of other entities structure humans and societies as well."
 
The Domestication of Humans, (Bryant, 2010)

Bryant derives this notion of a flat ontology alongside Graham Harman, who in turn cites Latour's Irreductions as a breakthrough in terms of escaping the realm of the human. Adrift on a sea of other agents and irreducible entities, Harman argues that we should start to rethink the bustling nature of the world of objects, amongst whom the human object is a mere one among many:

"Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of "access" to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines.
 
"All of these entities roam across the cosmos, inflicting blessings and punishments on everything they touch, perishing without a trace or spreading their powers further, as if a million animals had broken free from a zoo in some Tibetan cosmology."
 
Object Oriented Philosophy, (Harman, 1999)

Andrew Pickering considers the consequences of putting human and nonhuman agency on the same footing. His work The Mangle of Practice from 1995 looks at the way that scientific work proceeds in practice, and argues that far from being the logical, deductive unfolding of evidential knowledge, this picture is a retrospective portrait imposed on a messy sequence of stumbling events in which human goals have strived and struggled with the material agency of machinic experimentation. Work of this kind (and I argue that there is a direct parallel here to the way that writers write and texts are produced) is the product of a mangling of ideas and forces, machines and hunches, objects and products. This is a dance of agency between the human and nonhuman, in which such apparently crucial phenomena as human intentionality emerge from the interplay of possibilities and events, "brought to heel by the cultures in which they are situated":

"Scientists do not simply fix their goals once and for all and stick to them, come what may. In the struggles with material agency that I call tuning, plans and goals are at stake and liable to revision. And thus the intentional character of human agency has a further aspect of temporal emergence, being reconfigured itself in the real time of practice, as well as a further aspect of intertwining with material agency, being reciprocally redefined with the contours of material agency in tuning."
 
The Mangle of Practice, (Pickering, 1995)

So I want to conclude by suggesting that I was right to feel that my machines are trying to have their own way. Me and my machines are, to use Pickering's terms, tuning each other to our own 'agenda'. We are both devices which perform machinic captures of input material and transform them into artefacts which, in Tzara's phrase, resemble ourselves. So the computers, circuits, dice, algorithms, typewriters, pens - and even the words themselves - are cybernetic machines with which we are forced into collaboration and partnership, rather than mastery.

Italo Calvino confirms this from his own experience of writing:

"Literature as I knew it was a constant series of attempts to make one word stay put after another by following certain definite rules; or more often, rules that were neither definite nor definable, but that might be extracted from a series of examples, or rules made up for the occasion - that is to say, derived from the rules followed by other writers. [...] The "I" of the author is dissolved in the writing. [...] Writers, as they have always been up to now, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. [...] And so the author vanishes - that spoiled child of ignorance - to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works."
 
Cybernetics and Ghosts, (Calvino, 1967)

Bibliography

Forster, E. M., 1909, The Machine Stops [Online: http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html]

Hartman, C. O. & Kenner, H., Sentences, Sun and Moon Press, New American Poetry Series: 18, 1995

Montfort, N., 2008, 'Sentences in 1k', Grand Text Auto [Online: http://grandtextauto.org/2008/12/31/sentences-in-1k/]

Aarseth, E., 1997, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Baltimore: JHUP

Hayles, N. K., 1999. How We Became Posthuman, Chicago: UCP

Sennett, R., 2008, The Craftsman, London: Allen Lane

Roussel, R., 1914, Locus Solus, [Online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19149/19149-h/19149-h.htm]

Ashbery, J., 1995 [1962], 'Introduction' in Roussel, R., 1995, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change

Leiris, M., 1987, Roussel l'ingénue, Paris: Fata Morgana

Tzara, T., 1920, dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, [Online: http://www.391.org/manifestos/19201212tristantzara_dmonflabl.htm]

Burroughs, W. S., 1961, 'The cut-up method of Brion Gysin' in The Third Mind, New York: The Viking Press

Burroughs, W. S., 1966 [1961], The Soft Machine, Paris: Olympia Press

Porush, D., 1985, The Soft Machine, New York: Methuen

Zizek, S., 2008, Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze [Online: http://www.lacan.com/zizsalsation.html]

Bryant, L., 2010, 'The Domestication of Humans', Larval Subjects [Online: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/the-domestication-of-humans/]

Harman, G., 2010, 'Object-Oriented Philosophy' in Towards Speculative Realism, Ropley: Zero Books

Pickering, A., 1995, The Mangle of Practice, London: Duke

Calvino, I., 1997 [1967], 'Cybernetics & Ghosts', in The Literature Machine, London: Vintage

Tim Wright, digital writer / cross-platform produce [Online: http://timwright.typepad.com

Categories: machine, writing, digital, text, paper, academic, cybertext, device-oriented, narrative, research, Forster, Hartman, Kenner, Montfort, Aarseth, Hayles, Roussel, Ashbery, Leiris, Tzara, Burroughs, Porush, Zizek, Bryant, Harman, Pickering, Calvino,
Comments: 2

That thing about academia

Author: joe

Tuesday, 02 February, 2010 - 20:38

So I've been trying to work out how to develop the theme I started a week or two ago about how academia seems always to avoid, escape and devalue "practice" even as it strives to be the only institution that might legitimise that "practice". It was a long-winded post about complicated academic language, written with complicated academic language.

I enjoyed the response I got to a subsequent post - a thought experiment inspired by real events - in which I tried to write some powerful ideas down in a more direct, earthy way. One such response was - "Joe, are you in love?". And I thought - that's how we should write!

Sod the technical jargon: when we write, we should try to be understood as lovers, as wells of passion for what we do - our action in the world should be the force that drives the green fuse through the veil of symbols with which we obscure the world when we write in academic language. If I write about my work, why would I not want my reader to wonder - "is he in love?"

Categories: language, writing, academia, practice, love,
Comments: 0

On blogging

Author: joe

Thursday, 12 February, 2009 - 16:39

I was recently invited to say a few brief words about the value of blogging. The event was a conference of uni staff who are taking part in a 'research-enhancement' programme of activities with a view to developing their research careers.

Not that I know much about research careers - I have cunningly managed to avoid disturbing anyone at the uni who keeps track of people's research activity. No journal papers, no conference papers, nothing that carries any esteem indicators whatsoever. I earn no esteem.

But anyway, I do write a blog, but more importantly have used blogging in teaching for four years now, so did have a couple of things to say about it. We ask students to start a blog when they begin the course, though we don't make it compulsory via assessment. I think it is important to make things elective, since incentivisation usually encourages instrumentality. (And only a cynic would note that this is the story of HE generally...)

Since the blogs aren't compulsory, you quickly find that the 'participation pyramid' (the imbalance between contributors and lurkers) which we see on sites like Wikipedia also characterises student participation. I increasingly think it is important to accept and allow such inequalities in uptake. By making things compulsory you infantilise the activities and the participants, and so those who would have contributed anyway get less benefit (who benefits from being infantilised?) and those who are compelled to join in do so in a tokenistic way. Ultimately, we want to encourage responsibility and independence, and micro-managing everyone's participation in various activities undermines that very aim.

Those who do participate voluntarily go on to experience many of the useful outcomes of writing in public. Of course, sometimes the writing is a whinging stream of consciousness, but actually this is a tiny part of it. More often, students write about the progress of their group work, or they articulate their desire to be better organised; sometimes they mull over the consequences of postmodern thought on their own dearly-held beliefs. I have read students link their own ideas to the Zapatistas, or share design ideas with clients. They write commentaries on oddities they have found in the wilds of the web, or they talk about the distresses and calamities of everyday life in eloquent ways. The range of subjects are fantastically kaleidoscopic, and it is, dare I say it, a little patronising to suggest it is simply an opportunity to whinge.

Just the act of writing (and especially in public) has many meta-cognitive benefits. Formless ideas are given form through writing. Feelings find expression. Thoughts which struggle to make sense become more sensible when we force ourselves to interpret them through language. There is something transformative and risky about writing ideas down and sharing them with others.

Jeremy Crampton, a Foucault scholar who keeps a blog, writes about Levy Bryant, a philosopher and author, and his blog, Larval Subjects, a blog I enjoy hugely. These thoughts capture the relationship between articulation and actualisation.

Larval subjects. Larvae are creatures in a process of becoming or development that have not yet actualized themselves in a specific form. This space is a space for the incubation of philosophical larvae that are yet without determinate positions or commitments but which are in a process of unfolding.

Larval Subjects


This captures the spirit of not knowing where you're going when you set out, a kind of lostness. [...] But there is something experimental to blogging, as a technology of the self. recall Foucault's comments about the pointlessness of writing a book if you already know what you're going to say.

Foucault Blog


Writing moves our ideas along, and develops them, determines and exposes their form and offers the potential for them to be further shaped and worked. This is true even if you write your diary in an underground cave, burn it and lock the ashes in an iron vault which you sink in an abyss (or write it in Blackboard). It is even more true if you do it in the open, out in the wild, and use the writing of your ideas to send out taproots seeking out people with similar interests, who can respond to you constructively, or people who couldn't disagree more, who will tell you exactly why your ideas stink. It is the ultimate in peer-review.

The objection raised to this is often that you shouldn't write about your research publicly in a blog because people will steal ideas from you, or you'll struggle to publish it in a journal later because it will already be in the public domain. I think both of these objections highlight the two main things that are wrong with academia. There are no ideas that can't be improved by being exposed to criticism, and the desperate need to retain ownership and exclusivity over ideas is, it seems to me, antithetical to the premise of education.

So, in the 30-or-so seconds I spoke at the mini-conference, I didn't manage to say quite all of those things, but those are the things I meant.

Categories: blogging, writing, meta-cognitive, articulation, learning, education, research, pedagogy,
Comments: 4

The Transitive Author

Author: joe

Sunday, 08 June, 2008 - 21:00

I've had (this isn't meant to sound as confessional as it does) Roland Barthes on my mind recently. Earlier in the year a student quoted some of him at me in an essay, and I'm afraid I don't think they really grappled with the sense of the text (note I'm not saying they 'interpreted it incorrectly'!) - it was more of a quote-shoe-in to tick the theory box. But the quote - a line I've often glanced over and left behind as I engage in the tmesis of excavating a Barthes text - has kept coming back to me in the form of the question I wrote on the student's paper - 'What do you think Barthes is getting at here?'

Barthes opens The Death of the Author with some introductory questions which help to frame his exercise - he wonders, when a writer writes, whose is the voice? A question that arises because, according to B., writing is 'the destruction of every voice [... writing ...] is the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the identity of the very body writing'. Fine. I love this, and the rest of the essay explores this counterintuitive insight so interestingly that it has made its way into every cultural studies curriculum that ever made a student's life misery. But I find myself returning to the start of the second paragraph - which our friend the student earlier quoted:

No doubt it has always been that way. As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.
 
[The Death of the Author]

Leaving aside the discussion of the historicity of the 'idea of the author', and the Foucault debate, and all that, I'm persistently drawn to, and dwell on, that word: intransitively.

To narrate a fact intransitively is to narrate a fact no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To narrate a fact transitively is to narrate a fact with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality.
Write with purpose, with an object.
A subject acting on an object.
To narrate a fact intransitively is to speak no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak intransitively is to speak without purpose, without object.
 
[Joe's head, a lot, recently]

Of course, I can understand that B. at this point heads off into his own particular intentional use of 'intransitively' - that is that 'the claim to decipher a text is ... quite futile'. Indeed, the entire business of dwelling on 'what Barthes is getting at' has a bottomless irony which peered into too long gets quite vertiginous. But I am a human being - indeed, I am an impure thinker - and when addressed by a speaker, even if it is across the sea of the 'starred text', the chasm of decades and the incommensurability of two different native tongues, I first reply: 'what do you mean?'

So the word 'intransitively' follows me around. The author speaks without intention in the way that the dead speak to the living - either through the reconstruction of the memories of the living, or in the cynical charlatanism of the medium/critic. But I read transitivity differently (as, I think Barthes would agree, is my right). To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality. To speak transitively is to not only want to change the world, but to attempt to do so. I saw a quote by Hunter S Thompson on, of all places, a Facebook profile, which captured that intention:

Although I don't feel that it is at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I'll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in the sudden outbursts of frustrated violence.
 
[Apparently this comes from The Proud Highway]

But even when writing is not a valve for pent-up rage, who pretends to speak without the intention of changing the world? A dissertation I marked recently also indirectly stabbed at this idea: do documentaries effect social change? Of course it is an impossible question to answer, but it provokes the thought that the documentary form covers a spectrum of approaches - and the approach that pretends to 'reflect' reality, and offer an 'intransitive' factual window onto reality is only the most dishonest form.

A colleague of mine recently gave a seminar on his work. Trevor Hearing explores the documentary film form as a way of engaging in scholarly work - to use film-making both as a research tool, and as a way of communicating academic knowledge. It forces recognition of a dialectic between film and text - the practice of visual 'story-telling' versus the abstract, supposedly 'factual', textual form, and this reveals the hidden values of each. The very things that Trevor's films are made of are human actions and interactions and their interface with the documents, visual, textual, and filmic, that human beings by their very productive nature leave behind them.

But again, what Trevor's stimulating and fascinating work illuminates is the dishonesty of that peculiarly academic practice of writing papers in which the author 'disappears'. The stock comment to write on student essays is often 'try to write less subjectively - be more objective...' - or - 'try not to write in the first person...' what other perspective do we actually expect people to write from? Where is this mythical third person position whence the academic writes? In fact, the academic paper is a worked and reworked artefact, painstakingly laboured over by a human being, in a chair, with a tilting head, and a breathing, aching body. That disappearing 'I' is a fiction. If Trevor's film had so many edits as that supposedly free-standing, evidence-based, objective - intransitive - academic paper, the cuts would leap out of the screen and reek of manipulation. The emphasis on, not the disappearance of, the author is what makes Trevor's film so much more meaningful.

One of the strange ironies of knowledge is that the practices and the discourses are so often at odds with each other. Science stakes a claim to be a 'descriptive' practice - that is, its methods produce descriptions of the world - reflections if you will. This is at the heart of the scientific claim on truth - that language can be bent into a form that faithfully describes and corresponds to brute reality - that language can be made intransitive but faithful. Actually, the real products of sciences are the world-changing technologies that every minute break the human connection to the past. And these extensions of man are made precisely because that linguistic practice is so very transitive, so very laden with rhetorical, persuasive action, discursive power, intention. With our knowledge, constructed as it is from experience and language, we act irreversibly.

I seem to have used Barthes' Death of the Author to argue in favour of the reappearance of the author. Blimey. But then, he is dead.

Categories: barthes, author, post-structuralism, knowledge, transitive, intransitive, writing, truth, science,
Comments: 0

Practice-based Research

Author: joe

Monday, 19 December, 2005 - 16:03

This entry is written to address and extend Cath's previous post about theory and practice, and also to reflect on a seminar I attended last week about Practice-based Research.

What are theory and practice?


What Cath has outlined is a common way of looking at what are considered to be two ontologically different activities: creativity and reflection. Creativity is often also called art, practice, production. Reflection is often called research, theory, analysis, criticism. The former is often aligned with imagination, emotion, and that part of human existence which is thought of as 'unrationisable'. The latter is often aligned with systematic thinking, reason, what is 'rationisable'.

There is a lot of merit in thinking of them as ontologically different activities. Artists often consider themselves to be drawing on ineffable, inscrutable, undescribable inspiration. Theorists, in contrast, consider themselves to be engaged in the pursuit of analysing and describing phenomena. You could go so far as to say that the practice of art is based on subjectivity, while theory is based on the pursuit of objectivity.

Since the two activities can be understood in such mutually exclusive terms, it is understandable that individuals see themselves as primarily interested in one or the other. Hence arise compromises in the academic environment: practitioners are goaded into engaging with theory, with the encouragement that a 'critical awareness' will support their practice. And we're all familiar with the reverse situation, where 'academics' are accused of being out of touch with 'the real world' because they deal with abstractions rather than 'production' or 'industry'.

Theory and practice are the same


In the middle of this dichotomy are academic departments like my own which are trying to 'unite' theory and practice in teaching and learning. Rather than having separate strands, some of which address theory issues, while others address production and practice, a new program of teaching has been designed to integrate both.

The discourse on this approach tends to run along the lines of 'diminishing the divide between theory and practice', 'demonstrating the relevance of theory to practice', or 'showing that theory and practice are parts of the same process'. (Interestingly, while there has been a lot of such discourse, there has been very little about how the teaching of theory and practice are integrated. This is left to the discretion of clumps of individual teachers to decide).

The strengths of this approach range over a number of areas: the learning experience for an undergraduate is improved because

The teaching experience can be better because:


However, there is a major weakness to this approach too. This is the danger that theory is taught merely as it serves the objectives of production - theory in effect becomes subservient to practice. This in itself is not the bad thing: any practitioner who engages with theory will tell you that it informs their work. The bad thing flows from this new emphasis.

Theory and practice are not the same


When theory is cherry-picked as it seems to be relevant to practice, it loses its own logic.

For example: I am currently involved in teaching a unit called 'Narratives', which follows on from a unit called 'Images', and which leads into a unit called 'Audiences'; the students are learning Interactive Media. Some of the key ideas that are associated with this 'Narratives' unit inlcude the idea that 'narrativisation' is something that we all do all the time - it's not something that only people we call story-tellers do; that narratives encode, reinforce and query the cultural values we live with; and that the idea that a magician-like author creates a narrative for a reader to correctly interpret is problematic. Key 'theorists' here include Barthes and Foucault, whose dialogic works in the 60s and 70s blew apart notions of what an author is, what a text is, and what a reader is.

Previously, critical thought in the literary tradition of F.R Leavis and others, saw the work of correctly interpreting a text by an author as an exercise in acquiring enough erudition in the field of the text, the author and their period. Such acquired learning then gave that reader the ability to hand down to the rest of us, with less erudition, what this author was really trying to do. AB&F (After Barthes and Foucault), the author and the reader become fused, and the text becomes a hot, creative space where creative, interpretative acts occur. The erudite reader no longer is entitled to a 'correct' reading: the erudite reader simply has a different reading. Every reader, regardless of education and erudition, creates the 'writerly' text as they engage in the creative, productive act of reading. This was revolutionary and profoundly anti-elitist.

In the necessity-driven context of short weekly seminars delivering theory and practice designed to demonstrate their relevance to each other, the revolutionary nature of these ideas is in danger of being lost, and the notions of readerly and writerly texts become simply parts of a vocabulary necessary for assessment. What is the point of talking about the writerly text if there is no understanding of the fact that the writerly text is above all a political idea, rather than a literary one?

Theory is pointless


There is a rather lovely irony in theory AB&F: interpretation is subjective, but no less valid for being so. One does not need to be educated to have valid interpretations of texts. You don't have to know the theory of the writerly text to be constantly producing it. The 'message' of theory today is that you don't need to learn theory. There has been a simultaneous development in critical writing of, on the one hand, work that is impenetrable to lay-people because of the accumulation of jargon and technical mumbo-jumbo, while on the other hand, a message that argues that it is not necessary to become better educated and more learned in order to have valid, productive responses to cultural artefacts. Theory in this reading has become a prank on those who pursue it, and it is therefore no suprise that theorists' writing has developed this shroud in order to conceal the vacuum within. It is admittedly a difficult problem: how, as a member of a segment of the population which has been lucky enough to attain such a brilliant level of learning, do you then preach that such learning is not necessary? When you want to argue that becoming erudite is just an elitist plot, how do you say so without seeming to pull up the ladder to education behind you? If there is no right or wrong, just a lot of discourse, what is the point of anything at all? Who cares whether someone's understanding of the writerly text is political or literary when either interpretation is equally valid?

Theory is not pointless


It may be inevitable that once-revolutionary ideas eventually become obvious and assumed. New generations grow up in cultures where what once seemed earth-shattering is now common sense; they in turn go on to produce new ground-breaking, earth-shattering ideas. The point of critical theory (as opposed to 'being to a theorist'), though, is not to believe the message of theory, but to examine and question obvious, common sense ideas and assumptions. There was an earth-shattering point when mankind began making marks on objects in order to communicate with absent people, yet today we can take it for granted. By engaging with the historicity of that moment, we can enter a place where it seems suddenly remarkable to be a human being, and that the world we live in becomes an amazing organic product of countless revolutionary things which seem now to have disappeared behind the everyday surface of life. On a smaller but more pressing level, questioning the assumptions about the way of the world is a necessary social act in a global culture which is marked by war, immoral economic inequity and cultural conflict on an unprecedented scale.

The pursuit of critical thinking and theory as an end in itself, then, has the strength of allowing all events, developments and works to be seen as political acts, precisely because theory tries to contextualise and historicise those acts, events, developments and works, and shed light on the social and political relations that combine to create that history. This is reason enough that theory should be considered separately to practice, since an artist trying to analyse and compensate for all of the cultural assumptions that may go into producing the work will end in a paralysis of self-censorship.

Theory kills practice


One thing which seemed to emerge from the seminar on Practice-based Research I attended last week was the idea that the creative act in practice, and the systematic thought in theory, are mutually incompatible. In romantic literary terms, we might say that the creative act is inspired by a muse - an unknowable goddess - who provokes, or even produces the creative drive in the artist. In modern language, we might say that art is the product of a creative act of the imagination, which is yet to be deciphered in evolutionary, biological or functional terms. Were the muse to be 'understood', or 'theorised', she would no longer be an inspiring goddess; were the imagination to be deterministically mapped, it would no longer be the magical source of our creativity.

I woud refute this idea for a number of reasons:

Theory is a practice


A tacit assumption that seemed to be at work in the Practice-based Research seminar was the idea that theory is a necessary but unpleasant activity. The seminar appeared to be a long apology for theory. Perhaps this is a reflection of the stereotyped view of theory as a Casaubon activity, dry, solitary, monotonous, incorporating 'bean-counting', dealing with abstractions and generally joyless. It's about spending too much time reading books and writing papers no-one reads.

I suppose that an artist, in the creation of an artefact, even if the motivation is pure self-expression, would acknowledge that at some point the work is destined to be recieved by an audience. And I also supppose that the artist would grant that when an audience enters into a relationship with the work, they too engage in a creative act of interpretation, empathy, outrage, emotion, revulsion, agreement, and reflection.

The act of reading requires the reader to enter into just such an act of creativity, with all the interpretative possibilities that offers. The practice of theory is about engaging in that creative act. And just as an artist would acknowledge that their output enters into a dialogue with other work and doesn't exist in isolation, so the practice of theory is about entering into a dialogue. Writing is a productive, transformational activity, regardless of whether it is conceived in advance as a piece of literary art or a piece of critical writing.

While I was writing this, my computer crashed and I had to start all over again. The content I rewrote was not the same as the first version. I could write this a hundred times, and every time it would be produced differently, precisely because the act of writing is creative and spontaneous.

Traditional Academia


The final thing I want to write about was the presentation of research in humanities as distinct from research in more traditionally academic subjects. Clearly there is a complex problem arising from the history of academia, and the perception that social science research is 'soft' science. There is also a reverse problem, where the humanities see traditional areas like scientific research as having an unwarranted dominance over the arts. Scientific methodologies get described as 'bean-counting' and are accused of being 'patriarchal'.

Partly this is because of the post-structuralist purgatory that has emerged in humanities, where the scientific method is simply seen as a discursive tool by which vast swathes of dead white males rule the world, and a technocratic hegemony reinforces its hold on cultural development. The scientific response certainly ought to be: show us where your theories predict reproducible phenomena, rather than haranguing us from the sidelines with philosophical contortionism.

More fundamentally, however, I think there is a misconception here that only creative arts engage in practice during research. I can't think of a single field of enquiry where the researchers in the field wouldn't argue that what they do is a creative practice. It's actually monumental arrogance to claim that the creative act is the domain of art, while other kinds of knowledge don't involve imagination and creativity. However, it is not so obvious that the arts education system is providing students with the same theoretical rigour provided by sciences.

Coda


One only has to look at the rise of creationism, intelligent design, fundamentalism, the increasing mistrust of science in issues of public health and the decline in uptake of science education to see that an anti-Enlightenment sentiment is gaining ground. What part do people (humanities graduates?) working in the creative industries today play in that?

Categories: research, humanities, practice, art, science, theory, creativity, elitism, writing, postmodernism, post-structuralism,
Comments: 1