Posted in E-Lit Assignments

Meaning and Structure in BOTS

When I initially started looking through the different bots, I didn’t feel like there was anything especially literary or special about them. A bot that is basically a teenage boy spurting out nonsensical euphemisms for sex acts? Anthropomorphizing a lost buoy out at sea by giving it the voice of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick? Creating weird formations that are interpreted as constellations? What is this and why is it literature? As I contemplated this, the two things I focused in on the most were the meanings found in the text and the creation of the structure of the pieces.

Though I knew coding was involved with the bots creative process, Iwas still under the misconception that there was little structure in the way they were creating ‘literature.’ “So the bot gets lucky and creates things with some syntactic structure and vague semantic significance,” I thought. “A monkey throwing slips of paper with poetic lines in the air could do the same thing.” But when I looked deeper, I saw that the process was quite a bit more advanced than that of said hypothetical monkey.

The key to getting a better understanding of this was when I discovered the word ‘Oulipo’ in connection to a few of the bots. Poetryfoundation.org defines it this way:

“An acronym for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature), a group of writers and mathematicians formed in France in 1960 by poet Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais. Unlike the Dada and surrealist movements, OuLiPo rejects spontaneous chance and the subconscious as sources of literary creativity. Instead, the group emphasizes systematic, self-restricting means of making texts.” (n.d.)

In light of this definition, I could see that the literary process of the bots is a result of a systematic formula, i.e. code. So, though random in combinations, the products are still contained within an organized structure; @_LostBuoy_ can only combine it’s weather data and lines from Moby Dick to create; @poem_exe can only draw from A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems and create something that has some kind of reference to the seasons. To me this makes the process seem slightly more literary because there is a method to the madness. The bots are programed to create work that is somewhat syntactic in nature so that we can identify their products as ‘poem’ or even just ‘sentence’. But, as I am learning in Linguistics, syntax doesn’t always mean semantics. We can have a perfectly syntactic sentence that means absolutely nothing. We can ALSO find semantic significance in a sentence that is ungrammatical, which bodes well for some of the nonsense these bots create (I’m looking at you ROM TXT). But, for something to be considered literature, it needs to have some level of semantics to go with syntax – the bots have structure, but do they create meaning?

Thinking about meaning was the most intriguing part of going through BOTS for me. I felt like the nature of the bots’ literary productions creates so many questions around meaning – what happens when you take something that was intended to mean one thing, and put it in a context that completely changes that meaning? Can the result of randomness really be called meaningful? Who is the meaning maker – the bot or the reader? In the midst of this questioning, I discovered a term in poem.exe creator Liam Cooke’s description that was fascinating to me both on a psychological level and on a literary level: ‘apophenia.’

After a quick read through in Wikipedia (2020, September 20), I learned that apophenia is basically when we connect things that are unrelated and drawing errant meanings from said connections. The distinguishing feature of apophenia is that the meaning and connections are not actually related in the way we believe they are; in other words, we are literally being delusional. And on every practical level, there IS a delusional feeling to the bots’ strange mash ups and the meaning we seem to draw from their random connections. Take the how 2 sext bot.

What do sexting and the wiki articles have to do with each other? Outside of there probably being a wiki article on how to sext, nothing. Sexting has its own contextual meaning and wiki articles have theirs; not only that, the two have totally different audiences and purposes in mind! So, what does that say about the nature of meaning when we take the wiki articles and place them into the context of sexting, transforming their original intention and meaning?

I don’t have an answer to that yet, but I am excited to be left with such big questions – especially from something as silly and strange as a Twitter bot.

I started my exploration of BOTS with very low expectations. In fact, I had a difficult time understanding how it was e-lit in some ways because it didn’t feel literary or as if I was really navigating in anyway, I was more of a passive observer. But as I came to understand the generative nature of bots, and saw the underlying questions they stir up about meaning and creation, I found this to be yet another enriching e-lit experience. I am coming away from this piece with a more technical understanding of e-lit and it makes me excited to continue to see other pieces and how they might shed light on the questions this one created for me.

References

Apophenia. (2020, September 20). in Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophenia

Electronic Literature Collection Vol. 3. (2016, February). BOTS. https://collection.eliterature.org/3/collection-bots.html

Poetry Foundation. (n.d.). Glossary of Poetic Terms: Oulipo. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/oulipo

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