BCNM at ELO 2018

20 Aug, 2018

BCNM at ELO 2018

It was exciting to see the fantastic BCNM contributions to this year's Electronic Literature Organization conference, Mind the Gap, held in Montréal from August 13th to 17th. The conference seeks to think about e-lit in a digital culture, both through explorations and interventions.

Alex Saum-Pascual participated in the bleuOrange Performance Evening with her e-lit #Selfiepoetry on August 14th. You can check out her #SelfiePoetry series on her website here.

Alex also participated in a discussion on "The Infinite Question: Borges and E-Lit" with Élika Ortega as part of a panel on Reading E-Lit: Contemporary Issues.

Abstract below:

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges has been styled as one of the precursors of electronic literature, and his influence has been explored in a multitude of projects, especially when referring to the development of hypertextual structures (Manovich) or posthumanist theories (Herbretcher, Callus). Rather than tracing Borges’s overall influence in electronic literature, this talk presents a series of recent works of e-lit that that engage with Borges's particular figures of infinity as described in The Library of Babel (1941), The Aleph (1949), and The Book of Sand (1975). In each of these works, Borges’s figures of the infinite can be conceptualized as their own media object/process, inasmuch as they shape the limits (or lack thereof) and the form of their own particular “infinite”--very much in the same way that the media configurations of a work of electronic literature. Within this framework, Nick Montfort’s Taroko Gorge and Dan Waber’s Sestinas are presented as generativist works with the potential to run forever. Matt Schneider’s Babelling Borges is read as a looping Twitter bot whose loops signal infinity as a conceptual motif, in a similar manner to the multilingual looping translations we see in Luis Sarmiento’s Babel’s Monkeys. Laura McGee’s Infinite Notebook opens up the reading canvas to a rhetoric of zooming in and out as a way of navigating infinity in spatial terms. Finally, David Hirmes’s Infinite Wonder, Infinite Pity, and Jim Andrews’s Globebop take these explorations into the vastness of social media mining as apps that serve as windows into the universal--like the original Aleph.

Although all these e-lit examples are different in terms of computation, interface and interactivity, they all engage directly and indirectly in a dialogue with Borges’s figures of infinity by enacting them structurally, but also conceptually—that is by the process they unfold and the output they produce, either computationally by means of non-stop algorithms or other mechanisms, or collectively and socially by drawing on our ever growing electronic output. Further, the impossibility of ever reading them completely highlights both the instantiation of Borges's media figures and the enactment of our reading, determined not by the bounds of the literary work, but by our own human-machinic condition: human exhaustion as well as the material conditions of the machine (electricity, connectivity, obsolescence, etc.). Borges sustains that literature embodied in the library will endure illuminated and infinite, independent to--and extending beyond--human life. But he also gives back a certain degree of agency to the reader, however, offering her the capacity to stop, forget, and begin to read again. Thus, it is reading what draws the boundaries of the infinite, negotiates the possible, and in a way keeps it under control. At the same time, it is the infinity of these works of e-lit what suggest their potential long-term relevance beyond machine lifespan and hardware and software obsolescence.

This talk is part of the larger No Legacy project that explores the use of computational and digital technologies in literary production in the networked world and its material connections with 20th-century Latin American and Spanish technologized approaches to literature like Futurism, Concretism, Creationism, Stridentism, Magical Realism, and others.

Alum Kyle Booten participated in the exhibition, Mind the Gap, on August 13th with his project Gymnasion, which reimagines rhetorical education by using machine learning to train and test humans. In the first mini-game, “Speed of Breath,” the user motivates a character to run by sending him inspirational messages. These are assessed by a statistical model trained to distinguish inspiring from non-inspiring quotations. The more inspiring and rapid-fire the messages, the faster the character sprints. “Manual Style Transfer” tasks the user with rewriting a sentence so that it sounds as if it were written by Whitman (according to a model trained for authorship identification) while retaining its meaning (according to Word Mover’s Distance, a metric of semantic similarity [Kusner et al., 2015]). A data visualization guides the user’s progress.

Kyle also presented "Reading with Swarm" as part of Machine Reading: Literary "Deformance," Electronic Literature, and the Digital Humanities on August 14th.

Abstract below:

Statistical machine reading is often implicitly pitted against human reading. My paper complicates this distinction by combining the swarmic potential of crowdsourced literature with the interpretive power of machine reading.

"Swarm Reading" describes a set of interpretive tactics that combine crowdsourced and algorithmic readings in order to facilitate the interpretation not of a vast collection of texts ("distant reading") but of a single text. Swarm Readings consists of two steps: First I crowdsource a large number of textual "deformances." In the simplest version, I enlist a small swarm of as many as 300 Amazon Mturk crowdworkers to fill in one or more missing words from a poem in a way that best completes the text according to their judgment. I then submit these deformances to modes of machine reading developed to statistically analyze and represent these rewritings. One technique transforms a collection of deformances into an interactive network visualization, linking together those guesses that are semantically-similar according to a word2vec language model; this gives an overall sense of the swarm's semantic tendencies. Another technique produces a data animation in which the poem "degrades" from the swarmic consensus to the semantic outliers.

In my paper I consider how such paratexts can facilitate a new kind of hermeneutics---one that is statistical but not positivist. An individual reader may rewrite a poem herself before quite literally measuring her version against and within a swarm of possibilities. I theorize this mode of reading in light of Bernard Stiegler's concept of "transindividuation." The paper concludes by exploring how Swarm Reading can serve not just a hermeneutic function but also an editorial one, organizing and combining the poetic labor of crowdsourced poets and forming new texts according to different "objective functions" qua reading strategies.

For more information on the conference, visit the ELO website.