Random—or Aleatory—Verse?

“Love Begins a Future: An Anthology of Google Voice Transcriptions Formatted and Annotated as Poetry” from 3quarksdaily (8 Feb. 2010) [silently edited]:

Google recently introduced Google Voice, which routes calls among different lines, performs other screening and call handling tasks, and automatically generates a written record of each phone message using voice transcription software. . . . I’m not going to complain about the transcription software’s high error rates, although lots of people do. […] I’ve noticed something about these Google Voice transcriptions: I see an authorial sensibility taking form, like a face emerging from a cloud bank. These transcriptions can be read as poetry.

Since the transcript/poem often bears little resemblance to the actual words spoken, who are the real authors—the Voice, the callers, or some synergistic combination of forces beyond our limited understanding?

Here: Decide for yourself.

Whatever This Is (Caller: My friend Christina)

Hey mister
it’s Christina
just left you a message and then
I got your message and realized
you’re stuck out

but I’ll try you.

But yeah, just trying to be tomorrow
(if you get the chance)
And if you’re a few Karen in China the next day
Council lot more
eating minnows on the step
and give me a little

I’ll be hanging around then and I am
whatever this is.

Editor’s note: The “Hey, Mister” is not something Christina would say, so that must be the Voice talking. The reference to Asia’s Karen minority is a surprising inclusion. “Eating minnows on the step” could therefore a reference to that region’s politics, since Mao said a revolutionary must swim among the people like a fish.

The Maoists thought they were ushering in a new future. But don’t we all just “try to be tomorrow” when we “get the chance”? I attribute much of this piece to the Voice, although “whatever this is” is resonant with Christina’s sense of irony.

We might be tempted to describe the procedure by which this poetry was generated as random, but, strictly speaking, it’s not—because the input from which the poetry is generated is semiotically (syntactically, semantically and pragmatically) standard and the output lexically so. The input is semiotically standard because the input is normal speech, the output lexically so because it relies on standard dictionaries for its “translations.”

Neither is the procedure of random poetry generators, in which the output is generated by a mathematical process called a Markov chain, a discrete random process with the Markov property (i.e., one that can exist in various states but changes in discrete steps [“transitions”], with the next step in the chain [the “transition probabilities”] dependent only on the current state of the system, not on the state of the system at previous steps):

Where X1X2X3, … is a series of random variables,

Pr(Xn+1 = x|Xn = xn,…,X1 = x1,X00) = Pr(Xn+1 = x|Xn = xn).

In order to produce an output that lexically and semiotically resembles standard language, certain linguistic parameters or “rules” about the syntagmatic/combinative → (word order [transitions]) and paradigmatic/selective relationships ↓ (word choice, i.e., parts of speech [transition probabilities]) of words might be defined with Markov chains. Here’s one from Language is a Virus (very much in the spirit of William Burroughs, the genius loci of the site):

Strange and damp among the shadows

Quite glowing beyond the shadows
I see evil spells beyond the fire
Alack! The devil will vanish
All peaceful on the dreamscape
I destroy dark virgins beyond the fire
Dig it! The inspiration keeps going
Strange and damp among the shadows
I smell desirous goats about the virgin
Ahhh! The day is good
wary curious
blurring at the edges
memories of water
In whose eyes
the victim
forget to go home
when the world was new

It would be more adequate to describe such procedures as aleatory (“of uncertain outcome,” lit. “depending on the throw of a die,” 1690s, from L. aleatorius, from aleator “a dice player,” from alea “a die, the dice”) in that they introduce chance or indeterminacy into the compositional process. To go one step further, they might well be seen as aleatory-materialist procedures that embody “the primacy of materiality over everything else, including the aleatory,” to use Althusser’s term from “Philosophy and Marxism” (Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-87, ed. François Matheron and Olivier Corpet [Verso, 2006] 262-63 [251-89]). For him,

what culminates in materialism . . . —the primacy of the Friends of the Earth over the Friends of the Forms, according to Plato—is aleatory materialism, required to think the openness of the world towards the event, the as-yet-unimaginable, and also all living practice, politics included. (264)

Indeed (Badiou would say Friends of the Void, no doubt). Such procedures allow matter to deform form (rather than vice versa, as is the practice of poetasters).

Ahhh, Earth! And more: “Full of merit, yet poetically, man dwells on this earth . . . [Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch wohnet / Der Mensch auf dieser Erde].”


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