I was fascinated — and delighted — that no sooner did I post a poem yesterday that expressed a mood of gloom, when a comment appeared that rewrote the poem ever so slightly, so that it expressed a mood of hope. This act of rewriting was an implicit assertion that my original poem (or any original work) was merely one fixed point in a universe of potential creations.
Intrigued by this manifesto of remix, I then wrote a third poem as an answering comment, which expressed yet another mood, which got me thinking how the space of potential works can in some ways be more interesting than the written canon.
Coincidentally, an article in today’s New York Times featured an examination of the trend toward the use of deliberate and unapologetic appropriation in literature. The article even quotes James Joyce’s memorable line “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.”
There is a tension here, of course, between those who see appropriation as an aesthetic right, and those who claim ownership over their original works, viewing unauthorized appropriation as theft of property. Of course there are powerful arguments on both sides. As with most interesting debates, god is in the details.
But suppose content creators were to fling open the doors. Suppose we started designing literature to be a target for remix and appropriation, from the ground up. We could, in fact, develop software that would enable this process. Suppose my goal was to write not a single original poem, but rather a procedural universe of poems for you to use — a kind of “generative oracle of poetry” (Goop). Readers could request different moods, and out of the Goop would emerge variants of the core poetic idea that expressed correspondent shades of emotion.
The concept of procedural literature is certainly not new. The OuLiPo movement — founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais — looks at any given creative work as merely one instance of a set of generator rules and constraints to create potential literature. In this view, the true original work lies in the creation of this underlying set of rules and constraints.
But I think such ideas will continue to be of only limited interest if such poetic oracles are one-offs, with each writer’s work existing in its own isolated universe. Suppose there were a coherent OuLiPo universe, in which many Goops were naturally linked. My generative creation could deliberately incorporate the generative power of yours, so that anyone who sought to pull out a customized result from my poetic musings would find echoes of your muse nestled within.
This way of doing things is very familiar to software designers. Generally speaking, each of us does not implement our own version of a high dimensional matrix inverter, or Voronoi diagram builder, or 3D physics simulator (unless we are doing it for practice and self-education, as one might, say, build a cigar box banjo as a craft exercise).
Perhaps it is time, given the rapidly increasing power and accessibility of computers, to apply the general ethos of communities of shared OuLiPo to prose and poetry. Collaborative building and sharing of libraries for algorithmic expression have become a mainstay of scientific progress. Why shouldn’t the arts community benefit from such twenty first century tools?