Lecture: Introduction to Week 12

“In an age when the computer itself has gone from being a cold arbiter of numerical facts to being a platform for social networking and self-expression, we may well wonder whether those new kinds of critical acts are in fact already implicit in the many interfaces that seek only to facilitate thought, self-expression, and community. As with such recent inventions, the transforming effect will come through ‘the change of scale, or pace, or pattern that it introduces into human affairs’ (McLuhan 81). Once those changes are acknowledged, the bare facts of the tools themselves will seem, like the technical details of automobiles or telephone, not to be the main thing at all. In this sense, algorithmic criticism looks forward not to the widespread acknowledgement of its utility but to the day when ‘algorithmic criticism’ seems an odd a term as library-based criticism.’ For by then we will have understood computer-based criticism to be what it has always been: human-based criticism with computers.” Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism, 81

Contrainte. The usual French word for the basic element in Oulipian practice has been variously translated in this volume as constraint, restriction, restrictive form, and other comparable terms. All these expressions denote the strict and clearly definable rule, method, procedure, or structure that generates every work that can be properly called Oulipian.” –Oulipo Compendium, 131

The OED definition of algorithm.
The OED definition of algorithm.

Our focus this week might best be summed up by the question, “What does it mean to read and write algorithmically?”

Algorithm, as we can see from the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the domain of mathematics, with an emphasis on using a procedure or set of rules to solve problems, and has been applied to computing and to other formalized step-by-step protocols.

So, for one to read and/or write algorithmically, we might say that one would need to use a formalized set of rules with the intent of solving a problem or obtaining a specific result. And that brings us to the three sets of readings for this week: The final two chapters of Stephan Ramsay’s Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism, the Oulipo readings, and the Twitter bot readings.

Ramsay, in his exploration of how we might use computers for interpretive purposes, that is, to aid us in literacy criticism, we find him this week returning to the concept of pataphysics, which was the subject of the chapter “Potential Literature.” In short, the chapter “Patacomputing” is about using the algorithmic processes of computers to see texts differently, which, in turn, can lead to new ways of reading them.

By now, the Oulipo and their interest in potential literature should familiar to us. We’ve read about them in Ramsay‘s and Hayles‘s books, we’ve encountered them in previous lectures, and we’ve even read a few of their works. As a group dedicated to potential literature, the goal of the Oulipo “is to invent (or reinvent) restrictions of a formal nature (contraintes)2 and propose them to enthusiasts interested in composing literature” (“Introduction Jaques Roubaud The Oulipo and Combinatory Art (1991),” 38).3 As Jean Lescure explains – quoting Oulipo co-founder François Le Lionnais in the “Brief History of the Oulipo,” the Ouliop sought “new forms and structures that may be used by writers any way they see fit” (176). These new forms and new structures are themselves a kind of algorithm, a procedure or set of rules used to solve a problem, the problem being, according to Raymond Queneau, Oulipo’s other co-founder, the ability to “escape from that which is called inspiration” (Lescure 176).

If Ramsay’s Reading Machines is a search for an algorithmic form of reading and the Oulipo’s various contraintes are forms of algorithmic writing, then we might say that the creation and deployment of Twitter bots, including any number of literary Twitter bots, might be seen as a form of algorithmic reading and writing. Consider, for example, Ingrid Lunden’s description of how Ranjit Bhatnagar created the Twitter bot “Pentametron”: 

After that, he wrote a program to search for tweets that were written in iambic pentameter (10 beats to the line in a heartbeat rhythm), by referencing every word in each tweet received against the CMU Pronouncing Dictionary, an online resource produced by Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science that identifies the stresses in words. […].

At that point he refined Pentametron to search for tweets that fit the meter and feet but also rhymed with each other, and when two were found, it would retweet them in a couplet. “To get a rhyme you throw away 100 lines that are in pentameter that don’t rhyme,” he notes.

We see here Bhatnagar writing a computer program to read and analyze existing tweets in order to select those which meet a specific criteria, and then to combine them those tweets and send them out on Twitter as a rhyming couplet of iambic pentameter. In short, the Pentametron Twitter bot engages in a form of algorithmic reading in order to find the source material to be combined as per a specific set of contraintes to perform an act of algorithmic writing.

  1. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 1964. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994
  2. From the Oulipo Compendium: “The usual French word for the basic element in Oulipian practice has been variously translated in this volume as constraint, restriction, restrictive form, and other comparable terms. All these expressions denote the strict and clearly definable rule, method, procedure, or structure that generates every work that can be properly called Oulipian.”
  3. Oulipo Compendium. Compiled by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie. London: Atlas Press, 1998.

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