330 A.D. : Florian Cramer & the roots of Permutations

Florian Cramer is the preeminent theorist of permutation literary arts. In numerous essays and programming works he has researched and investigated the roots of generative literary practice to an ancestry that predates modernism and the dadaist by millennium. As shown by Cramer, lured by the confluence of geometry, numbers and words, ancient alchemists and esoteric practitioners established systemic models for generative literature long before the computer came along. Florian Cramer summarizes his work:

The website (http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~cantsin/index.cgi) consists of a number of server-side computer programs written in the Perl programming language, each of them reconstructing – and thereby re-inventing – one of a few dozens of combinatory poems written between 330 A.D. and today by, among others, Optatianus Porphyrius, Jean Meschinot, Julius Caesar Scaliger, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, Quirinus Kuhlmann and Tristan Tzara. Although it is difficult to distinguish a combinatory literature from other forms of literature ever since linguistics defined language as a combinatory system itself, combinatory poetry nevertheless could be formally defined as a literature that openly exposes and addresses its combinatorics by changing and permuting its text according to fixed rules, like in anagrams, proteus poems and cut-ups. Frequently, written combinatory literature does not denote the generated text itself, but only a set of formal instructions with perhaps one sample permutation. Since the poems of Scaliger, Harsdörffer, Kuhlmann and Tzara fall into this category, they turn into something profoundly different as soon as their algorithms are being transscribed from book pages into computer software. The website therefore is an open experiment for finding out what might be lost and gained from such a transscription. Permutations is, in my view, not an art project, but rather pataphysics and gay philology.1

Speculatively extrapolating from Cramer’s research, it is possible to see life itself as an enormous combinatorial literature. Indeed the gnostic model of demiurges (sub-gods) capable of delineating rules for universe creation rests upon a similar cosmology. From the Biblical ‘In the beginning there was the word….’ through DNA research into the modeling of life from codons, the idea of existence itself as a latticed intersection of stored strings, poetry capable of provoking life, is a prevalent reoccurring model.

When viewed through this poetic lens, posthuman debates about how humans will gain mastery over genetically modeling of lifeforms, and arguments over autonomy of lifeforms, are analogous to disputes between literary schools. A vibrant ecosystem of computationally generated microorganisms assembled by nanobots may someday constitute a viable field for meta-poetic play. Eduardo Kac’s progenitors may auto-assemble bacterial poems.

As it is Cramer (in agreement with Funkhouser and Glazier) emphasizes what is often repeated in digital poetic debates that digital poetry must utilize the unique capacities of the medium:

Any concept of digital literature which does not reflect language combinatorics and algorithmically processed language is severely restrained.

I feel that this canonical attitude is debatable since there are a couple of unresolved problems involved. The first problem is that combinatorics is often referred to as constraint-based language, and yet the fault Cramer sees with non-combinatoric work is that it will be restrained. Restraint and constraint verge on synonymous; so both ways of practice (combinatorial and non-combinatorial) involve limitation. Perhaps restraint and constraint constitute mutually beneficial aspects of divergent artists practices each with inherent limitations and strengths, rather than inferior/superior strands. Combinatorics exposes the mechanistic pattern-based linguistic roots of poetry; corporal poetics exposes its capacity to explore affect, flow, taste and emotional contortions. The second paradox is that Cramer’s research demonstrates that combinatorial practices predate the computer by millennium: therefore combinatorial and algorithmic processes are not unique to computational media; computational media merely facilitates the ease with which variations can be generated. Implementation becomes significantly easier.

In fact an argument could be made that there is no unique capacity computers offer. Everything from algorithms, coding, networks and replication has antecedents in biology. Human technology is just a feeble attempt at emulating organic process. This liberates artists to play with computational media without constraining themselves by formal requirements in order to ensure the validity of their work. Validity in this context is a socially-dependent feedback mechanism that establishes temporary nodes of arbitrary valuation.


Cramer, Florian. “Combinatory Poetry and Literature in the Internet.” Available at: http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~cantsin/homepage/writings/net_literature/permutations/kassel_2000/combinatory_poetry.html [Accessed August 29, 2008].

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One Response to “330 A.D. : Florian Cramer & the roots of Permutations”

  1. Digital Poetry Overview » Blog Archive » 1959 : Theo Lutz, Stochastic Text

    [...] It seems appropriate to hail Lutz as the first computational-poet (for now: until the archives yield a new figure, until new research reveals that Allan Turing was composing love letters in a basement lab using algorithms as a teenager; or that Ada Lovelace had a functioning Difference Engine; or perhaps as many speculative fiction writers might remind us, some alien civilizations predate our human computer generation by eons; or as Florian Cramer writes: “The oldest permutational text adapted in Permutations is Optatianus Po….) [...]