Farinsky Blog Post 1: Combinatory Writing
Combinatory texts such as Taroko Gorge by Nick Monfort are similar in code construction to Mad Libs stories. There are defined variables which randomly propagate words from defined arrays in an established, looping sequence once the program executes. The structure, color, font, and text size are all dictated within the opening lines of code below the header. The code also includes lines modifying the names on the far right column.
The text is both meaningless, and meaningful to the right mindset. From a pure programming perspective this is simply a program executing lines of code as planed by the programmer. However, human nature often finds creativity and meaning in places apparently devoid of such on the surface. Depending on the iteration of the code the lines within the program sound mysterious and elevated in a manner expected from prose or other poetry.
There is certainly a strong argument for the original Taroko Gorge to be included as digital literature because of it’s unique output, code structure, and clear evolution from similar programs in the genre. It is harder for me to personally agree that the other struck-through versions are also “literature” because in any other setting the high levels of similarity would be considered plagiarism.
One of the modern miracles of computer science is the strong push for open-source projects- projects that allow others to see, use, and modify existing lines of code for a separate project often with the only requirement being a credit to the original creator. Momentous amounts of work have benefited from pooling the collective knowledge base this collaboration of creators has communally built. However, is simply changing the words within a defined variable array really unique work? Does adding an image, changing the color scheme, or the time between publishing lines make the hypothetical edition different enough to be considered a unique work from the original? Is the copying only adding noise or adding to the genre of digital literature?
Even if one only considers the original work worthy of the title: “literature”, does it make the copy-cats not worth archiving? Digital literature is unique that it is constantly evolving in a very traceable way. With the rise of the internet, and corresponding platforms, directed for creative literature historians have the opportunity to catalog very distinct steps in the creation, or ignoring of, genre conventions. We can look at a network of similar programs and see exactly how the source codes are the same or divergent. This gives rise to the question of how can we tell what is significant though which is an entirely new dilemma considering in print the origins of “traditional” literature are very limited due to time or disasters.
The idea of word substitution in print or online is not something new- but creators such as Nick Monfort clearly deserve credit for creating a program which emulates human poetics in a more, and more human sounding manner.