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Nonsense/Unsense and the Loss of the Body

September 30, 2011

Jean-Jacques Lecercle in Philosophy Through the Looking Glass argues that Nonsense is a somatically driven utterance vis a vis the lens of Lewis Carroll, Antonin Artaud, and various others all of whom had bodies. Before I go into detail about this awesome book, I really want to sketch out vector of discourse here that I think is omni-relevant to general things involving Gnoetry, Nonsense, and embodiment.

Firstly, the “body” has the role of generating what Lecercle calls nonsense but for the purposes of contradistinction, I will call Unsense. This is largely because, as Lecercle argues, the mechanism of its production is a preconscious, somatic reaction, (think Kristeva’s chora). An example would be a scream.

In this sense, and I think in many others, Gnoetry (or text generation for literary purposes) represents a “disembodied” literature, which has at its lower bound disembodied non-sense. Even the name Gnoetry (false derivation) evokes the concept of Gnosis and Gnostics who believed their bodies were the prison of their spirits.

Now, it is not that the body is necessarily absent in Gnoetics. It may just be reassigned.

The questions then are:

What role could a disembodied poetics play as a cultural commentary?

Why is it interesting or useful to do this, and where would the effect of it be most fully realized?

What is taking the place of the body’s role as Lecercle defines it?

These are the sorts of questions I want to ponder moving forward from Simanowski and Death of Author style critiques. Death now becomes the loss of the body. The algorithm/system/mechanism/script inherits its place.

Here are some unsupervised generations. I want to think this through more clearly, go back to Lecercle, a bunch of other stuff, then angle it toward being something I could use for DHQ. Any thoughts on this?


better she #PRES_3S straight through \n

my #N+ then #PRES_3P \n

with a #A #N \n

I am a #N of #N, #N and #N \n

with a #N ‘s #N \n

at a #N that #PRES_3S its own #N \n

and #PRES_3S beyond the #N+ \n

of its own #N \n


better she wastes straight through

my wavers then disintegrate

with a beheld grain

I am a vacillation of radioactivity, grace and shake

with a face ‘s prohibition

at a revelation that buys its own thing evaded

and debases beyond the forgivenesses

of its own sacredness

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 2, 2011 3:23 pm

    Some great ideas. Look forward to reading more.

    Regarding embodiment, I believe there is a school of thought in cognitive linguistics that argues that because fMRI data shows language processing related to sensorimotor activity are active in both doing an action and talking about an action, truly meaningful language can only occur if the language representations are grounded in an intelligent system’s sensorimotor systems. So if you had a robot that understood the word “throw”, for example, its language representation of the word “throw” would have to use its sensorimotor components that it used for throwing. Otherwise, it’s not truly using language meaningfully (or at least meaningfully in the same way that a human does.) I’m not sure I agree with that notion, just pointing it out because it meshes well with your notion of poetry generation as a disembodied act.

    As far as the generation example: one thing it highlights for me is the extent to which expected sentence patterns constrain the extent to which the generated output is nonsensical. For example, the pattern “with a #N ‘s #N” produces the sentence “with a face ‘s prohibition” which is literally nonsensical but works poetically, but a pattern like “a with’s #N #N” is likely to produce something nonsensical in a qualitatively different way. (Not necessarily worse, of course, if you use the effect well.)

    Also, I think you should consider the extent to which you use the term “Gnoetry” to refer to poetry generation in general.

    • Your Infinite Monkeys example uses human-authored templates which are stochastically populated by a human-authored language resource ordered by part-of-speech.
    • Gnoetry uses human parameters to populate an ordered word set consistent with a given corpus’ n-gram word usage, and the initial word set is usually then partially re-populated given a human user’s editorial judgments.

    Humans and automation are interacting in several very different ways in both of these examples. The exact ways this happens may be important to the qualities of sense and nonsense in poetry generation. (Remember that you and I are familiar with these distinctions but most people who come across poetry generation are not; it’s the sort of thing I’m trying to highlight in my still-in-progress taxonomy paper.)

    P.S. a minor issue: I personally like the word “unsense” because it recalls the German word “unsinn” (nonsense) used by Wittgenstein. However, there is a confounding sense to the word: “unsensed” as in “not sensed” (which would produce a verb form “unsense”) which I believe is sometimes used in philosophy. Not a big deal.

  2. eRoGK7 permalink*
    October 2, 2011 11:19 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this post now for a few days, trying to figure out how I might respond to the issue of “disembodied poetics.” My response will be primarily an experiential one based in my own years spent writing poetry with first a simple Markov chaining program and then Gnoetry.

    The Death of the Author was not really in my mind when I started out with writing with programs, but a fascination with nonsense or unsense certainly were, and the experience of a writing disconnected from the body and self and ego was certainly very attractive to me several years ago (and to a lesser extent still is). My first break from the traditional methods of writing poetry came when I received some spam e-mails that contained nothing other than nonsense. Only the e-mail headers contained any pharmaceutical or sex product information. There was the impression when reading these that a human being had very little to do with how these spam texts came out, and that made it even more exciting to me. That a computer could do such things had not been on my mind until then, and nothing was really the same after that.

    I had my brother, a programmer, write a program for me that would give me similar type output to interact with and sculpt into a poem most to my liking. This was mchain, a python and then C++ shell program that ran a simple Markov chaining algorithm whatever text was put into it.

    To get more to the point, there was always something liberating about beginning the writing process or even having the entire writing process be based on text and ideas that did not originate from me and my experience. There was something very Other about this, that I was only partially responsible for it, that it was not wholly connect to me, my imagination, my ego, my self, my body.

    As far as nonsense goes, or unsense, this is what I consider as the starting point for writing with Gnoetry, etc., but less so the endpoint. There is always some kind of sense that I want to achieve through interacting with the output, and there is usually some initial sense to which source texts I work with. This is still, though, a sense that it is only partially mine, or an internal one, and belongs to both myself and the program/source texts. Pattern recognition is a big part of the composition process as well as the sense that I arrive at a “finished” poem. This is some kind of sense making for sure, though more based on effect and intuition than a need to create a poem that embodies my ideas, my experience, etc. There is something very outside and external about it all which remains very appealing to me.

    That’s all I’ve got as a response for now. Maybe I’ll think of something more later.

  3. October 3, 2011 12:47 am

    To get more to the point, there was always something liberating about beginning the writing process or even having the entire writing process be based on text and ideas that did not originate from me and my experience. There was something very Other about this, that I was only partially responsible for it, that it was not wholly connect to me, my imagination, my ego, my self, my body.

    Yeah, funny, I feel the same way. For me, writing non-computational fiction and poetry is kind of a struggle, but I find it easier to write computational poetry… even though the computational poetry requires more work up front! (i.e. programming, and imagining new techniques.) Yet the computer poetry often turns out as personal as the fiction.

  4. October 3, 2011 11:25 am

    Thanks guys for the thoughtful commentary.

    @Edde – If we don’t want to use Gnoetry as a coverall name, then we should come up with something that isn’t “computational poetry” because it sounds wooden and stale. Maybe we could make a poll and brainstorm ideas. As for unsense I’m stealing it. My appropriation is a good distinction to make I think. I must read through the cognitive theory stuff, thanks for the link. It will come in handy.

    @eRoGK7 & edde

    The ego-stuff never weighed on me heavily. However, even before I started doing CG stuff, I would turn on the radio, the television, have four books open in front of me, and the internet going. I would let my eyes flutter about and inundate my senses with language picking up bits and pieces everywhere in a flash. Other methods included using iTunes lists to pull up fragments or books on my shelf, things I overheard other people saying in coffee shops or on the bus. For me, I think, writing is a special kind of listening. It is not (as it is often called) “uncreative,” but it is a reactive, trigger based creativity. More to come, a lot of work to do. Will comment on Lecercle as I go, since I think he’s pivotal to this discourse.

    At any rate, how do we respond to indifference toward our work or the idea that because it is “systems based” or “mechanical” it is also “soulless?” To me this is a major hurdle to overcome.

  5. October 6, 2011 3:00 am

    If we don’t want to use Gnoetry as a coverall name, then we should come up with something that isn’t “computational poetry” because it sounds wooden and stale.

    omfg! My kid’s right! I AM old and uncool!

    Well. I guess I like the term “poetry generation” because I associate it with “natural language generation”, a term I first came across while developing dialogue managers for artificial intelligence agents in immersive virtual reality environments, which I thought was pretty cool. And in fact AI/NLP is a field where concepts, models, and algorithms are loci of excitement. From this perspective, the idea of doing natural language generation (which is generally pretty structured and limited) on poetry (which is generally pretty loose and open-ended) is very exciting.

    But I realize not everyone comes from an AI/NLP background; for people used to names like “‘Pataphysics”, “Oulipo”, and “Flarf”, something a little flashier might be better. You may want to consider something like “Post-Gnoetic” to reference the fact that you are influenced to some extent by Gnoetry.

    Except for those of us who aren’t. I really like the fact that we come from different backgrounds, and are united just by our love of using computers to generate poetry. In an upcoming issue of Journal of Electronic Publishing I have an article (which most of you have seen in early draft) in which I trace four traditions of poetry generation:

    1. Poetic – people like Mac Low and Hartman, who are primarily interested in writing good poetry
    2. Oulipo – influenced by the French academics who are interested in novel constraints and methods of automation
    3. Programming – “hackers” and recreational programmers who are interested in developing interesting programs
    4. Research – researchers who are exploring issues in language and cognition (both scientific and literary theoretic)

    All of these are equally valid, and people can be in more than one category to different degrees. I’m interested in all 4. Dave, you seem interested in at least 1,3, and 4. Gnoets seem interested mainly in 1 and 4. But the point is that each tradition uses different terminology which can be used to describe what we do.

    1. The poetic tradition may use the term aleatory and draw comparisons to the Surrealist, Flarf, and Conceptual traditions.
    2. The Oulipo tradition may use the term combinatorial and frame the use of corpora as a constraint (i.e. only using words in a given text.)
    3. The programming tradition may use the term stochastic, and focus on the affordances provided by the interface and the way it is used to explore the data: Gnoetry may be conceived as supervised heuristic search of a bigram model’s state space, where human decisions are the heuristics.
    4. Research from the scientific tradition may think of poetry generators as a long-term project towards modeling the creative process by determining which parts can be automated. Research from the literary theoretic tradition may think of poetry generation in the terms you describe above.

    Because these different traditions emphasize different histories and different aspects of the activity, they are likely to require different names for the activity.

    CONCLUSION: I propose that I will keep using terms like “poetry generation” because from my tradition it’s appropriate and pretty exciting. You’re each welcome to come up with whatever terms you want. If that’s a little confusing to newcomers, well, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. We are, after all, pretty accessible otherwise: most our poems are text-only (i.e. requiring no plug-ins like animated poetry does) and most of our generators are extremely easy to use. If the theoretical terminology we use is a little redundant and requires a little more thought, well that’s because we’re exploiting a rich tangle of traditions.

  6. October 6, 2011 5:24 pm

    There is a lot of good information provided in that post. My expertise theoretically is literary theory. I’d like to learn more about AI and NLP. Great post, very informative.

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