This short article written by the staff writers of the satirical newspaper The Onion, was published in response to a mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, 2015. Published on the same day of the event, the brief article appears in the News in Brief portion of the online newspaper, by itself an ironic counterpoint to what made headlines and got live coverage in other news media sites. The article’s placement and brevity are only the beginning of the irony, which deepens as it offers some basic factual details about the shooting, a vox populi quote in which someone expresses sadness and powerlessness to make any change, and some statistical data on how regularly this happens in the United States of America. All by itself, the article satirizes those who cannot conceive of gun control as an option while using irony to encourage Americans to take action.
But that is only a portion of a larger rhetorical strategy based on computational logic.
Barbosa’s theoretical-practical trilogy closes with Máquinas Pensantes: Aforismos Gerados por Computador [Thinking Machines: Computer-Generated Aphorisms] (1988), as it can be understood as the third volume of A Literatura Cibernética. Here, the author presents a long series of literary aphorisms, in which the generation of texts is said to be “computer-assisted” (Computer-Assisted Literature) in BASIC language. The “A” series (Re-text program) deals with combinatorial “re-textualizações” [re-textualizations] (1988: 59) of a fragment (“matrix-text”) by Nietzsche and the “B” series (Acaso program), which had been partially published in the Jornal de Notícias (1984), draws upon the conceptual model created by Melo e Castro’s poem “Tudo Pode Ser Dito Num Poema” [Everything Can Be Said in a Poem], included in Álea e Vazio [Chance and Void] (1971). Melo e Castro himself would write an early review on the aphorisms, in the Colóquio Letras (1986) literary magazine, revealing Barbosa’s outputs as undeniable literary productions. Finally, the “C” series (Afor-A and Afor-B programs) comprises reformulations of traditional Portuguese aphorisms, which result in new interpretations, sometimes ironic, sometimes surreal.
One of the most important features of these three volumes is the highlight given to computer code – showing the importance of programming for Pedro Barbosa – inasmuch as in the end section of each volume the author publishes all the source codes, which today becomes a rich and open archaeological finding, insofar it documents the coding practice and it enables further critical and creative analysis.
In A Literatura Cibernética 2: Um Sintetizador de Narrativas [Cybernetic Literature 2: A Narrative Synthesizer] (1980), Pedro Barbosa advocates the same analytical perspective of literary machines, which he had begun in the first volume. Influenced by Max Bense and Abraham Moles, the author develops the idea of “artificial text,” which would be later challenged by E. M. de Melo e Castro (1987), in the sense that Castro’s transmedia stance considers that all texts, produced over time with the aid of various technological tools, are always artificial.
Note from the Publisher: Herberto Helder passed away on Monday, March 23, 2015. To honor his poetic legacy, we wish to celebrate one of his works with this entry by Álvaro Seiça.
Herberto Helder is one of the most consistent and innovative Portuguese poets of the second half of the 20th century. Even if his later œuvre has been marked by a traditional experimentalist reworking of crafted language, whose poiesis engages with a very idiosyncratic vocabulary, one should not forget Helder’s eclectic trajectory. Having been influenced by, among other movements, Surrealism and international avant-garde experimentalism, Herberto Helder was, firstly together with António Aragão (1964), and secondly with Aragão and E. M. de Melo e Castro (1966), the editor of two important anthologies or cadernos (chapbooks), Poesia Experimental 1 [Experimental Poetry 1] and Poesia Experimental 2 [Experimental Poetry 2]. Both these anthologies opened up most of the major pathways of literary and artistic experimentalism in the 1960s, from which the PO.EX (Experimental POetry) movement emerged. Several genres, formal and thematic threads were originally tried out in these two anthologies and further work of the movement, namely concrete and visual poetry, ‘film poetry,’ sound poetry, ‘object-poetry,’ ‘poetic action’ and happening. As Helder points out in the first editorial (“Introdução”) of the cadernos:
Pedro Barbosa’s pioneering work introduced computer-generated literature (CGL) in Portugal in 1975. Having worked with Abraham A. Moles at the University of Strasbourg, Barbosa published three theoretical-practical volumes of his programming experiences with the FORTRAN and BASIC languages. These volumes deal with combinatorics and randomness, developing algorithms able to ally computing and literary production, bearing in mind a perspective of computational text theory.
According to the author, A Literatura Cibernética 1: Autopoemas Gerados por Computador [Cybernetic Literature 1: Computer-Generated Autopoems] is an “esboço de uma teoria, toda uma prática, dois métodos e dois programas, que irão facultar a qualquer leitor, interessado e imaginoso, a confecção de poemas automáticos à razão de 5200 versos por hora: no espaço intraorgânico de qualquer computador!” [outline of a theory, an entire practice, two methods and two programs, which will provide any interested and imaginative reader with the possibility of making automatic poems at the rate of 5200 verses per hour: in the intraorganic space of any computer!] (1977: 8) These “auto-texts,” or “computer-generated autopoems,” hitherto open up a new field of literary theory in the Portuguese context – the direct junction of literature and computation, of writer and programmer. Barbosa’s autopoems were programmed in FORTRAN, ALGOL and NEAT during 1975-76 (Permuta program, Iserve subprogram, and Texal program, Aletor subprogram), using an Elliot/NCR 4130 (a machine introduced in the 1960s in the UK), in collaboration with Azevedo Machado, engineer at the Laboratório de Cálculo Automático [Laboratory of Automatic Calculus] (LACA), at the Faculty of Sciences from the University of Porto.
In A Literatura Cibernética 1, Barbosa compiled a selection of textual outcomes generated with his programs: the permutational poems and the random poems. On the one hand, the permutational poems include “Poema de Computador” [Computer Poem], “25 de Novembro” [November 25], “Verão” [Summer], “Silêncios” [Silences], “Cansaço das Palavras” [The Weariness of Words] and the subtitled poems “trovas electrónicas” [electronic ballads], “Porto” and “Aveiro” (8! = 40,320 permutations, 576 verses, running time: 6’ 54’’), exchanging the morphemes “na” (in), “da” (of), “sem” (without), “uma” (a/the) and the lexemes “água” (water), “ria” (estuary/river), “tristeza” (sadness) and “alegria” (happiness). Aveiro, a city famous for its water channels, is portrayed with the opposites “sadness/happiness” and “water/river,” to the extent that the noun “ria,” when a verb, means “laughed,” giving rise to its opposite, “mágoa” (sorrow), through the rhymed interplay with “água” (water). On the other hand, the random poems appropriate, remix and rewrite poems by other poets. Here, one finds the “Transformação” [Transformation] series, with “Camões e As Voltas que o Computador (lhe) Dá” [Camões and the Turns the Computer Gives (It)], which rewrites a Renaissance text (“classic”) with several random transformations of Luís de Camões’s Os Lusíadas [The Lusiads] (1572), and “É Preciso Dizer…” [One Needs to Say…], an appropriation and re-creation of Mário Cesariny’s surrealist poem (“contemporary”) “Exercício Espiritual” [Spiritual Exercise] (1956), in which Barbosa extends the ironic and surrealist practice of the initial lexicon of nouns.
What surfaces from the resulting versions of the poems, in addition to the achieved syntactic accuracy and the meticulous encoding work, is a luminous mark of criticism, irony and parody, both to the current state of the official literary canon, and, above all, to the climate of oppression and fear (“medo”) inflicted by the long dictatorship, which was still being felt. Conversely, questioning the perpetuation of a political, social and cultural lie (“mentira”) was the likely path to be renewed by the recent establishment of the Portuguese democracy – history (“história”) as continuity and revolution (“revolução”) in the confrontation between human and machine.
This trio of bots by Mark Sample present riffs on three of the most famous poems of the early Twentieth Century: William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just to Say,” and Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” The bots generate new versions of the poems by randomly altering most of the open word classes while keeping the basic syntax, meter and lineation intact, tweeting a new mutation once every two hours (though at the time of writing @DependsUponBot has been inactive since December 2014, for reasons unknown —editor’s note: it has now resumed operations). To my mind, the pleasure of these bots’ tweets lies in the discrepancy between the familiarity of the syntactical structure and the limit-case absurdity of the randomly generated content. For example, the sublime juxtaposition Pound presents the reader –
This bot is “brute-forcing an episode from [Thomas Pynchon’s novel] Gravity’s Rainbow” by tweeting the words “you never did the Kenosha kid” with different punctuation every two hours. The bot description links to a Language Log entry that explains the episode– basically about a man who, under the effects of sodium amytal, goes on “an obsessive meditation on alternative possible analyses of the six-word sequence ‘you never did the kenosha kid.'” Inspired by the algorithm described here, Darius Kazemi created a bot that seeks all the possible combinations of that word sequence with punctuation (and appropriate capitalization). The result is a tour-de-brute-force of different syntactic structures and meanings that can emerge from this simple string of words. Try reading the following tweets out loud.
This bot tirelessly carries out a task too large for it to complete within a human lifetime: it explores an idea posed by Jorge Luis Borges in his story “The Library of Babel” of an infinite library full of books that contain a different combination of 23 letters and punctuation marks. “Each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters” (Schneider quotes Borges in the bot’s description). With this bot, Schneider illustrates the concept of this library via Twitter’s own constraints by tweeting 140 characters randomly chosen from 23 alphabetic characters, punctuation marks, and spaces. The result is pure language noise. . . or is it?
On Tuesday, February 4, 2013, Facebook released a generated video titled “A Look Back” to commemorate their 10th anniversary.
A Look Back is an experience that compiles your highlights since joining Facebook. Depending on how long you’ve been on Facebook and how much you’ve shared, you’ll see a movie, a collection of photos or a thank you card (link).
For those who have share plenty, this work assembles images and status updates from your Facebook feed and arranges them to be displayed on a video template that organizes them into several topics, to be described below. One could see this generated movie is a kind of Hallmark ecard from Facebook to you, designed to please you with pretty music and images you’re most likely to enjoy. And at that level, the work is a likeable bauble, as enjoyable and forgettable as a well chosen greeting card or something you’ve “liked” on Facebook. But part of its interest is in how effectively Facebook is able to use its metadata to mine its user’s database and generate a a surprisingly effective customized experience that could be considered an unexpected e-poem.