1964: Baudot, La machine à écrire

August 21st, 2008 — 06:25 pm

1964: Jean Baudot, a pioneering engineer-linguist, creates the first French machine-generated published poetry.

Published by the Editions du Jour in Montreal,”La machine à écrire mise en marche et programmée par Jean A. Baudot” (“A Writing Machine created and programmed by Jean A. Baudot”) is still circa 2008 available (mildewed and seemingly unread since 1976) in the Concordia library. A rough translation below (by myself) of Jean Baudot’s introduction reveals his language and concerns as strikingly contemporary and lucidly clear. Either time has stood still or it seems that new media evoked unresolved concerns early in its evolution.

In this preface to his pioneering work on human-machine creativity Jean Baudot, who was an engineer by training and became a linguist writing on formal grammars, writes about the ubiquity of computers, their capacity to emulate human tasks, and his goals.

Humans have always been attracted to automation. From the beginning of time, humans have invented devices to imitate and surpass human capacities. Most often these machines have reassured humans of some control over the material world.

Certainly a sense of domination is elicited when contemplating a machine performing a task previously only possible through labor. We find ourselves stronger and above all conscious of our privileged nature.

Technological development of recent decades has taught us to be astonished by the power of machines. We know that machines are work tools. Its with them that we progress.

In this domain , computers – loosely called electronic brains – play a major role. These utilities have invaded industry. Without them a big part of our scientific, industrial and commercial activities would be instantly paralyzed. In effect, computers, vast manipulators of data and info, can be utilized for executing very varied tasks. They are model students. It is sufficient to show them correctly, only one time, how to execute a task for them to accomplish it at often prodigious speeds. One such machine can learn a multitude of different tasks, and always remembers the particularities of each.

The phrases which appear in this volume ["La machine à écrire mise en marche et programmée par Jean A. Baudot" ] were composed by a computer. The texts are less a literary performance, but more the result of an experience which merits some interest. Composition is considered, without any doubt, as fundamentally human activity, it is therefore troubling to observe a machine functioning without any external intervention writing evocative phrases in a credible style. How can it be possible? It’s extremely simple. It is sufficient to teach the machine some grammatical rules, a foundation vocabulary and let it work. We assist then the works of a genuine robot which writes without comprehending what it says because it doesn’t know the sense of words. [...]

Our goal was to observe how a machine behaves after it has been taught a little grammar and has at its disposal a constrained lexicon (630 words approximately). In order to avoid introducing, consciously or unconsciously, bias taken in the choice of words placed at the disposition of the computer, we decided to extract a manual of French of the simplest level possible.

To that end we chose the manual of the 4th year actually used in our schools and entitled “My French Book” (Brothers of the Sacred Heart). The 630 corpus represents about half of the words utilized in the manual. All the words utilized are therefore simple and at the level of a 10 year olds vocabulary.

During the research, the machine having been appropriately programmed was left running overnight. Imagine our surprise the next morning to discover it had printed thousands of phrases and it seemed as if it could continue without stopping. This volume represents a ample of those phrase composed by automated processes. The phrases are reproduced as they appeared, even if sometimes the temptation was strong to modify them slightly.

I leave it to the reader, literrati or amateur of new styles, to their own conclusions.

Jean A. Baudot
Montréal, juin 1964
p.s. the reader, interested in the technique related to this automated process, will find some explanations in the appendix.

But what of the poetry created by Baudot’s machine? Baudot warns us to consider it as examples of a process not a literary exercise. And that is an appropriate warning because the text is only occasionally luminous and as fragmented as a drunk HD trying to smoothly waltz. It’s also a bit like a randomized scrabble board played by semi-literate spiders: the sentences are stiff formal aphorisms that never congeal into sustained impact. It possesses astonishingly readable basic grammar but is lacking in the subtle contours of emotional play and emotional taste of life. These are machine words. Fragments that suggest a state space of potentialities that marches and meanders toward automated plot-generators and Kurzweil’s Cybernetic Poet.

Shown to a Quebec visual-artist using the pretense that they were poems by a human, the language of the machine-generated poems immediately evoked Baudelaire and Alain Robbe-Grillet. The reader responded: “I don’t understand the juxtaposition of words… Other poetry has a flow that I can feel and understand. This I can’t.”

These alienated responses resonate with experiments done by linguists in natural language: humans cannot learn artificial languages without effort. Generative grammar suggests a neurological foundation etched into synaptic circuitry that predisposes us to syntactical conjunctions and organic morphemes. Extrapolating, perhaps there is a neurological parser for art, a dendrite module for meaning, a cluster coiled into a knot experienced as soul. Similar speculations have motivated the search for the neuronal correlate of consciousness by Christof Koch and Francis Crick.

In one of the appendices to La machine à écrire the quebec poet-troubadour Felix Leclerc points out a crucial ongoing often-repeated unresolved challenge to computational creativity:

“Ask it [the computer] to be numbers, that’s reasoning, it will be it, but to be heart, I don’t believe it.” ~ “Demandez-lui d’être chiffre, c’est-à-dire raison, elle le sera, mais d’être coeur, je ne le crois pas.” [p.75]

Subtle contextual connectivity, the sinew of narrative, the sinuous twisting truth of lived emotional reality, the ache and ebb of our tidal hormonal interiorities: even contemporary computer-created art lacks this sensitivity. The reason remains the same as what Baudot clearly states: computers are not aware of meaning, the computer “doesn’t know the sense of words. “. (Human meaning at least.) Lack of flow remains a central flaw. Here are a few sentences in both english and french from page 45 of “La machine à écrire”:

La vacance et un mari oublieront des fillettes. ~ The holiday and husband will forget girls.

Une peur cultive un serpent. ~ Fear cultivates a snake.

The meanings that emerge from these phrases are imported by the reader: snake and fear accidentally bumping against each other in the archetypal basement provoke a tiny spark. The result is unintended and so resists integration into a sustained sense of the work as art. One could argue that decades of artists following in the footsteps of John Cage have elaborated complex strategies for including process and contingency into art-making. But behind those products, the human artist acts as conceptual filter, explicating and enriching approaches to accidents by placing them through discourse within historical context.

Baudot’s work is contextually a process-artwork that highlights the dilemma of meaning. When computers become conscious of meaning (which involves all the attendant emergent psychic tendrils of purpose intuition and need) then perhaps machine-created art will become meaningful in a way capable of sustained emotive interest rather than intellectual curiosity. As it is Baudot’s work is a crucial preliminary step which anticipates the core of generative poetics practice as it has continued for the intervening 4 decades since 1964: grammars and recombinant structure.

One tendency of contemporary computer-created art-work is to circumvent or sublimate this deficiency of meaning flow (and the lack of an ineffable taste of an auteur’s predelictions in machine-created output) by investigating low-fi DIY aesthetics and conceptual interventions in the hope of distracting viewers from the essential reality that emotional depth remains computationally intractable.

1963: Marc Adrain, Text I

August 20th, 2008 — 12:03 pm

Marc Adrian was one of the artists featured in the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibit at ICA in 1974. Prior to this he had constructed films which were based on procedural workings (what he called “methodic inventionism”).

His method eventually expanded into working with text processed by computers. He is considered one of the pioneers of film structuralism; yet also can be considered one of the forerunners of kinetic poetry; the image in Cybernetic Serendipity echoes the Flash-based work that has proliferated in the last decade. Funkhouser discusses the “fluid aesthetic quality”[1] of Adrian’s work and states:

Adrian’ piece is important for several reasons. The ‘computer texts’ are among the first examples of works presented with unconventional ‘syntax’, permutation and aleatoric reordering of pieces of language. [1]

Adrian’s earliest film using text and this hybrid method of computers and film was Text I. 1963, 35mm, b&w/so, 154sec

“The films TEXT I and TEXT II are a mere permutation; TEXT I results from a memory program of a computer. The words were chosen by the challenge that they can be read in English and German alike with no change of meaning.” [2]

Marc Adrian - Computer Poems. [3


1. Funkhouser, C. T. 2007. Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms. 1st ed. University Alabama Press. pg. 95.

2. Canyon Cinema: The Films of Marc Adrian. Available at: http://www.canyoncinema.com/A/Adrian.html [Accessed August 23, 2008].

2. Reichardt, Jasia, and Institute of Contemporary Arts (London, England). 1969. Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts. New York: Praeger. pg. 53.

1963: Clair Philippy ’150 words a minute’

August 20th, 2008 — 12:21 am

Funkhouser’s timeline includes: “Clair Philippy (USA), “blank verse at the rate of 150 words a minute” 5 poems published in Electronic Age.”

Only a few feeble trickle references exist to this work online. No residue of the actual output exists. Time has coherently erased all but the shadow of it’s existence.

Every cultural precursor is at similar risk of oblivion. Clair Philippy totters on that precipice; time will soon erase and etch him/her. Yet the fragment that remains is alluring: blank verse at the rate of 150 words a minute. A wind-up doll of Wallace Stevens regurgitating culturally-rich automated modernism. Extreme muse potency. Algorithmic genius. The inspired machine that converts all flesh-body-based authors into obsolete anachronisms has its roots in this elusive speed. As if poetry were a car that eats epiphanies; authorship becomes a race to vomit verses.

The fastest typist in the world operates at precisely the same speed as Philippy’s 1963 computer poet: 150 words a minute. Given Moore’s law, an intevening 40+ years of IC development and algorithm evolution, virtuosic contemporary computers beat this record with ease. Think ethernet: gigabits of data sloshing around LANs. Mouthfuls of words as massive as blue whales stuffed with krill. As of Sept. 2007, a self-claimed freestylin rap record by Paul Singh (on youtube) is 456 syllables in 53 seconds. Human just cn’t keep up w/t cuttin corners. Txt mssg dsnt approx cyber speed.

The only evolutionary advantage of flesh is our capacity to problem solve and create meaning. Meaning unfortunately is probably only interpretable by us: in other words, it may be that meaning is bio-computer specific. Slugs and dwarf stars just won’t understand human poetry; they might have their own.

One future implication is that as computers evolve aesthetic appreciatory capacities and autonomy, they will write rapid opuses specifically for self-consumption. Blanched cutups of populist culture tossed in a salad of post-modern aphorisms and assembly code, delivered in binary belches. Ruminating on us: the parasitic termites on its skin.

Mammalian brains demand information in a very narrow bandwidth; consciousness can only tolerate a few bits per second; its read-write memory latency demands it. In the same way that our diet is a narrow subset of available matter, brains are cognitively niched. We graze on information at rates that our arcanely slow by cybernetic standards. Other cognitive things will have alternate criteria for success. All definitions or worth or value are arbitrary contingent user-reader-dependent glimpses toward a taxonomy. Digital poetics is a wind-swept web of potential interpretations, traps and slouches in bifurcating fibre.

In this case, Clair Philippy signals the birth of the generative methodology school: poet-programmer frankensteins into programmed-poet. The machine speaks. We are watching its lips but nothing is moving. We are batching its blips but something becomes variation. We are building its sentences with arrays and randomization. Allison Knowles (House of Dust) and Jean A. Baudot are early members of this tradition.

Kurzweil and haiku generators are the middle era. In the same way that the sestina is a simple numeric parlour game played by polymath poets, algorithms can omulate poetic pattern. And if that is possible then its possible the traditional poem subject ‘soul’ may take the form of digital algorithm juggling. As Douglas R. Hofstadter points out:

If a person’s soul is truly a pattern, then it can be realized in different media. Wherever that pattern exists in a sufficiently fine-grained way, then it is, by my definition, the soul itself and not some kind of “mere simulation” of it.

So digital poetry is poetry. Soul word number recursive riff. Poem GUI. Computer writers. Digital authors.

1962: R.M. Worthy, Auto-Beatnik

July 18th, 2008 — 12:57 pm

Reports vary on where it was first popularized (Funkhouser says Time magazine, a blog suggests Horizon magazine) but sometime in 1962, a subdivision of a computer company called the Laboratory for Automata Research of the Librascope Division of General Precision, Inc led by R.M. Worthy had their research popularized.

“Librascope engineers, concerned with the problem of effective communication with machines in simple English, first ‘fed’ an LGP 30 computer with thirty-two grammatical patterns and an 850-word vocabulary, allowing it to select at random from the words and patterns to form sentences. The results included “Roses” and “Children”. Then Worthy and his men shifted to a more advanced RPC 4000, fed with a store of about 3,500 words and 128 sentence structures, which produced … more advanced poems.” Here are some selected works by the “Auto-Beatnik”, that “cool calculator” …


Few fingers go like narrow laughs.
An ear won’t keep few fishes,
Who is that rose in that blind house?
And all slim, gracious, blind planes are coming,
They cry badly along a rose,
To leap is stuffy, to crawl was tender.

The results might have made Kenneth Patchen snort with derision or weep with praise at the small vulnerable baby spirit being born. Perhaps André Breton posthumously realized that Soluble Fish is now computational, the human brain only a snail sneeze in a rapid fire automation of erratic digital misnomers and binary one-liners. Intriguingly, these poems came out of a lab; art-research and the synthesis of artist-scientist in computation contexts have roots here. For some reason I am reminded that Wallace Stephens worked for the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company, that the bohemian Charles Bukowski model of the renegade outsider addicted to Dionysian excess is balanced by the sturdy steady crew-cut managerial-poet persona with a tender incisive eye and sensitivity to linguistics. To that dichotomy can be now added the third aspect: the digital servant faithfully working its way through algorithms, a bit like an autistic savant, capable of replicating great feats of memory yet incapable of distinguishing relevancy or value. Meaning still relies on the intuitive input of the reader.

Nevertheless, note that the machine is ‘fed’; and note also how little it takes to grow a poem: 32 sentence structures, 850 words. Similarly, DNA codon triplets are built from base pairs of 4 elements; combinatorial complexity is the foundation of life.

Evolutionary language mutations expand the chain-link jewelry of existence.

If you are curious, read more Auto-Beatnik examples.

1961: Balestrini’s Tape Mark poems

July 17th, 2008 — 05:02 pm

According to Funkhouser (p. 12 & 41, PDP), in1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibited (experimental Italian poet) Nanni Balestrini’s 1961 Tape Mark poems . Virtually no reference to Balestrini currently exists online, except for a wikipedia entry (in italian) and this poster of the exhibit catalog:

Cybernetic Serenditpity 1968

Cybernetic Serendipity, ICA London August 2nd to October 20th, 1968

Baletsrini’s poems (cited in Funkhouser (p.41) from the exhibit catalog translated by Edwin Morgan) are remarkably readable. Computationally collaged from 3 different writers, Balestrini’s Tape Mark poems traverse a strangely sensual meridian:

Hair between lips, they all return
to their roots in the blinding fireball
I envision their return, until he moves his fingers
slowly, and although things flourish
takes on the well known mushroom shape endeavouring
to grasp while the multitude of things come into being.

It’s poetry that slips in and out of effectiveness. As I read it the first 4 lines cohere voluptuously, then the fifth strikes an infertile mechanistic tangent that might have been solved by a human emotional-editorial eye. Funkhouser attributes their effectiveness to the use of literary phrases as the unit. These units resonate and conjoin as do other human cultural artifacts, cohering according to the skill and sensitivity of the writer. In this case the writer was a hybrid: a computer algorithmically solving rules, and a human (Balestrini) tuning and feeding those algorithms.

It suggests what many others have already suggested: that computers can offer creative trampolines, variational exploration machines that create trajectories from which the poet can select possible paths. It also clearly delineates the eerie capacity of the human mind to impose order, pattern and meaning onto mangled heaps of language.

From the LANGUAGE poets to OULIPO and the DadaEngine (and other more contemporary combinatorial permutating word-salads) a lot of poems owe their origin to the same impulse that inspired Balestrini. Language can be algorithmically cut: digital and analog each have strengths.

Exquisite corpse cpu.

1960: Brion Gysin, I AM THAT I AM

July 16th, 2008 — 05:49 pm

There is minor irony that the second historical figure in a lineage of digital poetry is a painter: Brion Gysin. [Sources: Prehistoric Digital Poetry (pg.39) and Kostelanetz's Text-Sound Texts]

Cohort of William Burroughs and narcotic doyen of a furtive circle of eccentric lunatics, Gysin combined surrealist techniques and Dadaist recipes with digital algorithms (programmed by Ian Somerville in 1960 ) to create permutational poetry based around the phrase I AM THAT I AM


Echoes of the hypnotic reveries of the theosophist charismatics and the chanting of the bedouin transplanted into computational form show an early resonance between rhythmic repetitions designed to either numb the mind or open it inexplicably into trance and esoteric meaning structures inherent withinn the syntactical synew of language itself. Gysin theorized in his 1960 essay entitled Cut-Ups Self-Explained:

Writing is fifty years behind painting. I propose to apply the painters’ techniques to writing; things as simple and immediate as collage or montage. Cut right through the pages of any book or newsprint… lengthwise, for example, and shuffle the columns of text. Put them together at hazard and read the newly constituted message. Do it for yourself. Use any system which suggests itself to you. Take your own words or the words said to be “the very own words” of anyone else living or dead. You’ll soon see that words don’t belong to anyone. Words have a vitality of their own and you or anybody else can make them gush into action.

The permutated poems set the words spinning off on their own; echoing out as the words of a potent phrase are permutated into an expanding ripple of meanings which they did not seem to be capable of when they were struck into that phrase.

The poets are supposed to liberate the words – not to chain them in phrases. Who told poets they were supposed to think? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing. Poets have no words “of their own.” Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody. “Your very own words,” indeed! And who are you?

1959 : Theo Lutz, Stochastic Text

July 16th, 2008 — 04:29 pm

In 1959, on a Zuse Z22 computer Theo Lutz inserted sixteen chapter titles and subjects from Kafka’s The Castle into a database and programmed them to recombine into phrases joined by grammatical glue. As with most of the early references on this site, this reference appears courtesy of C. Funkhouser who cites Lutz (on pg. 37 of Prehistoric Digital Poetics) as potentially the first known practitioner of contemporary digital poetry.

Not every look is near. No village is late.
A castle is free and every farmer is distant…

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 Porfyrius’ Carmen XXV from the fourth century A.D.”.)

Lutz’s 1959 essay is remarkable in that it recognizes the problem of meaning as being central and even suggests a potential probablistic pathway toward resolution:

It seems to be very significant that it is possible to change the underlying word quantity into a “word field” using an assigned probability matrix, and to require the machine to print only those sentences where a probability exists between the subject and the predicate which exceeds a certain value. In this way it is possible to produce a text which is “meaningful” in relation to the underlying matrix.

One predominant domain of AI research follows this thread suggested by Lutz: statistical probability. In addition Lutz’ notion implies the matrice of language is analogous to a network and that proximal sets may evoke meaningful relations, or perhaps that meaning is a pathway between mathematically linked nodes. All of these notions are still currently active as research paths.

Aside: as any archaeologist knows, the dilemna with time is it corrodes, then eradicates all traces. The www may grant the illusion of anti-amnesia but googling Theo Lutz, the first entry that arises is a german website with a copy of Lutz’s original 1959 essay. As Ollivier Dyens, often points out the internet is centripetal: so I moved sideways; I did not go directly to the essay on Theo as any sane medieval scholar would do; instead, I went to have a look at the host site: www.netzliteratur.net . From there, in the first article I opened that was in English (a very sassy and witty 2003 dig at Lev Manovich’s idea of 6 as a good number for multitasking: ‘Multitasking as Avant-garde – or who is the Processor?’ by Johannes Auer ) I encountered 3 out of the 6 links she had used to demo her sardonic point to be dead.

The internet although interconnected like a body sheds skin like a body, leaving a detritus of disconnected tissue and historical dead-ends. Even memory diffused and redundant within a modularized network has limits.

1721: Jonathan Swift’s writing Engine

July 15th, 2008 — 06:40 pm

It might seem astonishing that as early as 1959, computers were ubiquitous and automated creative writing was being explored but as Jean Baudot mentions in 1964, humans have always been concerned with automation.

In the historical context of occidental literature, consider the following excerpt from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (Book III, Chapter 5) written in 1721 which describes an automated writing machine. This excerpt is reputedly based on Raymond Llull Ars Magna, a combinatorial method for debating theology. Swift’s imaginative and accurate depiction of physical array systems proves that artists often explore technological potentials before implementation occurs. Inspiration precedes implementation yet accurately depicts the methodology utilized in many computational art-works.

We crossed a walk to the other part of the academy, where, as I have already said, the projectors in speculative learning resided.

The first professor I saw, was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, “Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.”

He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”

I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, “if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine;” the form and contrivance of which I desired leave to delineate on paper, as in the figure here annexed. I told him, “although it were the custom of our learned in Europe to steal inventions from each other, who had thereby at least this advantage, that it became a controversy which was the right owner; yet I would take such caution, that he should have the honour entire, without a rival.”

(Book III, Chapter 5)

Swift’s entire passage is a subtle multi-faceted meditation on the folly of creativity, the absurdity of ownership, the power of algorithms and their limits.

Compare the mechanistic and materialist dig that Swift makes about intellectual theft at the end of the preceding passage with Brion Gysin’s proclamation on non-ownership of words:

“The poets are supposed to liberate the words – not to chain them in phrases. Who told poets they were supposed to think? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing. Poets have no words “of their own.” Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody. “Your very own words,” indeed! And who are you?”

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

July 14th, 2008 — 03:03 pm

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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