Every three hours, this bot tweets approximately 100 characters (about 20 words) of language written by William Blake, but not exactly. The tweets are recognizably Blake’s, but there’s something odd about them, as if he was performing some kind of automatic writing or Surrealist automatism to compose those texts. He wasn’t, but in a way this bot is doing it for him, to show us some of the underlying structures William Blake’s poetry and prose.
André Breton defined Surrealism as “pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by the reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation.” The Surrealists were interested in finding an artistic expression that revealed a higher reality than our bourgeois consciousness would allow.
“BillBlakeBot” uses a markov chain generator that analyzes the David Erdman revised edition of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1988) to determine the statistical likelihood that a word will follow another. It then uses that lexicon and probabilities to generate phrases and sentences that mimic Blake’s style, even if the results don’t make sense. Roger Whitson discusses his bot and markov chains in great detail in this ICR 2013 presentation, concluding with some provocative questions:
I think it adds another level to what it means to “read” Blake. Can we read these tweets as having relevance to Blake’s work? Is it simply nonsense? Literally, it might be, but I feel algorithms like this one complicate some of those questions in fascinating ways.
When we read Blake’s texts, we read the results of hours of carefully crafted language, revised and edited exhaustively before etching them in copper plates to produce his famous illuminated books. These texts are the result of very conscious and deliberate creative process applied to his mystical visions and other sources of inspiration. To use a markov chain generator to cut across his life’s oeuvre reveals patterns of style that Blake was probably unaware of. Beyond its utility as form of distant reading, its poetic output is worth reading closely to analyze the textures of Blake’s language beyond semantics. @autoblake gives us access to a surreal Blake, of interest to scholars and enthusiasts alike.
pangs of adoration. The Lovers night bears on my pure transparent breast. The Eagles at her house arriv'd.
— BillBlakeBot (@autoblake) June 2, 2014
Coda: Interested in creating a Twitter bot from your favorite author’s work? Roger Whitson published the source code in GitHub.
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