The Literature of Totality

I remember reading about how the advent of computers into math had changed what it meant to prove a theorem. If you could reduce a problem down to a mere few billion possible cases, then you could just have a machine check all of them, and bing: there’s your answer. They all pass, or you’ve found your counterexample. No need for tiresome decomposing of a problem down to a tractable human scale. (One response: “Well, that just proves it wasn’t an interesting problem after all”)

There’s a recent Katie Rose Pipkin interview, where she crystallizes something I’ve felt about my work in procedural art.

“To expand; the goal of work-by-generation is a fundamentally similar, but shifted process from that of work-by-hand; rather than identifying and chasing the qualities of a singular desired artwork, one instead defines ranges of interesting permutations, their interpersonal interactions, how one ruleset speaks to another. Here, the cartographer draws the cliffs that contain a sea of one hundred thousand artworks. And then one searches for the most beautiful piece of coral inside of their waters.

So, I suppose this is where bots are truly interesting to me. Because this kind of making (the looking for the best moment in a sea of automated possibilities) is a methodology of construction that feels, in some ways, new.”

When working on a bot in Tracery, it feels like building poetry, but poetry comprised of possibilities and probabilities. You’re not just sculpting a phrase, but the shape of all possible phrases. Where are the contours? What’s the worst case? I don’t know if it’s a new process, but it’s one I find very invigorating.

There’s an idea, most famously associated with Borges, that the idea of a story can be enough, without needing the substance. Why build the Library of Babel, when there’s a perfectly good construction of it in the mind of a reader? But I’m not sure this is true. For me, there’s an excitement about the knowledge that all of the permutations exist, or are in the process of coming into existence, or are not, but could be. The joke is better if the library exists.

But the library cannot literally exist. In all of these cases, a crucial part of the work is the part of the work that does not exist, that will not exist. It’s a rare generated text that, explored deeply enough, does not end up eventually comprehensible, predictable, understood (if only in it’s formlessness). It’s entropy is exhausted, and we are left with a sketch of the full shape and texture of it’s possibilities. It hangs inside our head, filleted and diagrammed. We can see the shape of the cliffs.

That’s okay. That’s maybe the point. If the task of the procedural writer is to sketch the parameters and constraints of the eventual outputs, maybe it’s the task of the reader to sample those outputs and feel the grain within them, feel the shape of the hole the puddle fills.

24 December 2015