Reading Machines Reading Machines: 100 Trillion Poems and the Scaling of Possibility

In Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism, Stephen Ramsay alludes to Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (100,000,000,000,000 Poems), which consists of 10 sonnets (14 lines each), where each line is interchangable with the same-numbered line from any other of the sonnets. Ramsay explains:

“If there are ten possibilities for the first line, and any one of those lines may be followed by one of ten additional lines, it follows that the number of posssible combinations is (or 102 = 100). Since that number will increase by a factor of ten with each additional line, a fourteen-line poem becomes, in its potential state, the Cartesian product of its sets: i.e., 1014 (100 trillion) possibilities. Queneau determined that a person reading the book twenty-four hours a day would need 190,258,751 years to finish it…” (26)

With its “generative qualities” (Ramsay 28), Queneau’s book seems the perfect monument for Ramsay’s proposal for a textual criticism that blurs boundaries with artistic reinvention and opens texts up to imaginative possibilities and potentialities. He sees algorithms as a way of doing this, and argues that all textual criticism, as a process of rewriting and transforming, has already done this anyway, rhetorically and methodologically, but it just hasn’t been transparent about it, and as a result has restricted possibilities for reading.

But for me Queneau’s book equally stands in for Ramsay’s haziness in defining “possibilities” and “potentialities” beyond idealistic hurrahs. I’m on board with Ramsay’s algorithmic criticism, but I’m not convinced by its unbridled veneration of the possible or potential.

Compare the description of Queneau’s book given by Christian Bök’s dissertation:

“a single reader, reading one [sonnet] a second, must survive for more than a thousand millennia in order to read every poem. Such a book remains inscrutable not because of its illegibility but because of its potentiality. Such a book…deals with the as if of what is possible in virtuality but impossible in actuality” (78)

Both Ramsay and Bök praise Queneau’s book for exceeding the reading capacities of a human life, as a measure of its awesome potential. And yet at the same time, both writers measure the human’s failure to match that potential by a standard of completeness: “read every poem” (Bök) or to “finish it” (Ramsay). This is the human impossibility by which they measure a text’s adequate degree of critical possibility. But this measure of possibility collapses in the face of Ramsay’s own proposed reading method, not to mention Bök’s comparison of Queneau’s book to a “literary computer” (78). For, while the human cannot read this book one hundred trillion times, couldn’t a computer?! “A single [human] reader…must survive for more than a thousand millennia in order to read every poem” but a computer could read the book’s one hundred trillion poems in a matter of minutes or seconds. In fact, it could do even better: it could read the book’s one hundred trillion poems one hundred trillion times. Or more.

This fact quintessentially illustrates reading’s scalability: there can be no distinction between “close” or “distant” in reading Queneau’s book. Even a close reading requires the methods of distant reading. For, what hermeneutic claims about “meaning” can we make for a book for which we have time to read maybe only 10 out of 100,000,000,000,000 of its pages, and only once? We need more readings of more pages, for which we need a computer. Of course, from a poststructuralist perspective, every book is more than the sum of its visible pages – we are always already reading only a small percentage of “possibilities.” But Queneau’s book explicitly makes this a problem – of quantification. It suggests maybe we must turn to statistics, to take a sample size to represent a larger population. The poststructuralism in me says that this would make the mistake (“scientistic,” Ramsay would call it) of treating the work as a potential whole, when in fact every text is inexhaustible. But perhaps that should be revised to something like: every text is inexhaustible, on an infinite timeline. Reading is always going to be incomplete, but to read at all requires some limited sample space of assumed stability. Therefore, as the computer’s speed demonstrates, Queneau’s book is only relatively massive. Our computer’s reading of it would be no different from reading “one” sonnet, for example Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1, one hundred trillion times, or conducting an aggregate study of a hundred trillion academic articles on Sonnet 1 (if such a collection existed). But it would also only be marginally different from reading Sonnet 1 only once. For who is to define the upper limit on Sonnet 1s, if the limit is always going to be relative to our allotted sample space? The New Critics would define one reading of sonnet one as “complete” – a ratio of 1 reading to 1 sonnet (just as, according to Bök and Ramsay’s definition of “completeness”, one sonnet of Queneau’s one hundred trillion would be a complete reading of that one sonnet). Poststructuralists would say no reading is ever complete: 1:n, where n approaches infinity (n possible versions of sonnet 1). But what’s more difficult are the scales in-between, and the serious questions Queneau’s book raises about how we read and what we read for.

To illustrate, consider a simple deformance of Queneau’s text: what if we read each line as interchangeable with every other line, instead of with only every other line in that position (e.g. line 1)? This would result in even more possible sonnets – Bök and Ramsay could praise generative, life-exceeding, hyper-actual, hypothetical possibilities to exponentially greater degrees! But the marginal shift in rhetoric such a deformance enacts suggests that these extra possibilities wouldn’t tell us much more about anything. And the computer could still read them.

Queneau’s book is, as Ramsay suggests, generative. In this sense, the content is less important than the mechanism: 10^14 times less important, perhaps. But then the possibilities, potentialities, and virtualities with which Ramsay and Bök characterize it maybe aren’t that important either. Not as important as the particularities and actualities of one or more readings through it. Reading it poem by poem, as Ramsay and Bök grandiosely metaphorize a hypothetical human reader as doing, is just one algorithm of reading it. Isn’t this precisely the kind of limited, unconscious algorithm Ramsay wants to shift us away from?! Essentially, Queneau’s book is a database, and a database can provide different answers based on different queries. So the question is, given a computer that can read it as much as we want and in many ways, what queries might we ask of this text?

I’m interested in feedback as I’m thinking about elaborating this post into my research paper, which would involve placing Queneau’s book into a MySQL database in order to experiment with this kind of “brute force” reading, as I’ve called it earlier, and to inquire further into how it challenges our assumptions, methods, and goals as readers.

Works Cited

Bök, Christian. ’Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002. Print.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print.

Reading Machines Reading Machines: 100 Trillion Poems and the Scaling of Possibility

5 thoughts on “Reading Machines Reading Machines: 100 Trillion Poems and the Scaling of Possibility

  1. This sounds like a great project. I don’t know how helpful this will be, but your post brings to mind an experience I once had at a year-end reading party for an undergraduate creative writing class. The party was hosted by the professor, at his house, in a shoe-box living room. Food, drink, music, chatter. After about an hour of social lubrication, the readings began — each student was given the opportunity to recite a selection of material they had written throughout the semester. It wasn’t mandatory, and I remember a number of us were rather nervous about opening up in front of our peers. This was a first-year creative writing class, and I’ll risk to guess that most of the students had never read in front of an audience. So it felt like a big thing. For me at least. It was massive. The professor even set up a microphone in the corner of the room, so we had to stand. Under a light bulb. While people watched. And listened. And interpreted.

    We put our names in a hat, the professor gave it a shake and, alas, my name was drawn. Even though I was surrounded by friends and had a belly full of beer, I was really nervous.

    In the few seconds before I stood up, I remember becoming frustrated. I didn’t understand why the professor had made everything so formal. Why the microphone and music stand? Why the light bulb dangling overhead? Why the seating? There were only ten of us — did the couches really have to be replaced with two rows of five plastic chairs? Couldn’t we just sit in the living room and read from the couch? It all felt really produced and fake. It all felt unnecessary.

    As these thoughts rolled through my mind, the professor approached the microphone and introduced me. Only he didn’t really introduce me. He opened a really big NHL encyclopedia to a random page and, in a warm, soft tone, read: “Daren James Puppa — born March 23, 1965 in Kirkland Lake, Ontario — is a former professional ice hockey goaltender. During his career he played for the Buffalo Sabres, Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Puppa started his professional career in 1985, splitting time between the Buffalo Sabres and the AHL’s Rochester Americans.”

    Everyone laughed. I stood up and walked to the front of the room. And suddenly everything shattered. Everything I assumed about “the poetry reading” fell apart. The seats, the microphone, the music stand, the audience, the light bulb — it all became slant, part of something bigger, out of control, beyond me, as far out as the life of a retired NHL goaltender. The night fractured and opened. It became a kind of mechanism — and so did poetry and the way I think about reading and writing in general.

    It was a weird, wonderful night.

    I don’t really have a clear understanding of how this relates to your post. It just kind of surfaced. Maybe it has something to do with your notion of “how we read and what we read for,” which changed for me that night. Maybe it has to do with your idea that “the content is less important than the mechanism,” because on that night I realized that interpretation is kind of like poetry — a tiny, intricate machine, with countless parts, and each time I shift my perspective or change my query, the gears slide and new possibilities are generated. So it seems that content and mechanism are constantly at work, jostling, making plays. As you say, “reading is always going to be incomplete, but to read at all requires limited sample space of assumed stability.” You’re absolutely right. There’s no standing still, no illusive whole. Just constant motion, anxiety, and imagination swerving within the limits of thought and action. It seems to me that Queneau’s poem — like my professor’s reading event — is one example of how a text’s mechanisms can perform its theoretical/philosophical claims.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing your weird, wonderful – and yet instantly recognizable academic and “poetryworld” – experience!!! I’ve been to fewer poetry readings than one might “expect” of an English academic who on more occasions than I would care to admit has felt compelled to produce poetry, but I’ve been to enough to know that practically every time I do attend one, I too have had trouble buying into the cultural mechanism of it. (An “outsider” who came along with me once, asked , “Why does their voice change when they start reading their poems?” She wasn’t being ironic, she was genuinely just asking about it because she “didn’t know anything about poetry”. How insightful that comment was.) One exception was a spoken word / slam poetry session I went to, where the readers and audience were very lively, interactive, and engaged, whereas at more usual poetry readings it can all too often feel like an audience politely applauding a narcissist’s latest indulgence in an echo chamber. I’m also reminded of Martin Spinelli’s session on Radio Radio with BuffFluxus, an improvisational sound poetry group who at one or more points in the interview criticize the poetry reading on similar points as you do – which I imagine is all the more evident to someone who has studied the audioforms of the form.

    I agree that interpretation and poetry are alike, and love your description of the textual machine. It’s funny how even though this poststructuralist perspective, if we want to call it that, has been around for decades, the basic veneration of the single output (whether poem or interpretive paper) that presents itself as stable and complete has remained venerated and normal. Like, even when a poem is linguistically challenging, and can produce multiple interpretations, it’s still just one output of a larger set of possibilities, and it’s that output that’s made important; the mechanism, I don’t think, has ever been as much the focus of poetic or interpretive inquiries. Computers and the methodologies and theories surrounding them provide an avenue to consider the mechanism, which as Queneau’s poem makes clear, starts to appear more interesting than any singular output when, as you say, those gears and queries can always be shifted. It also brings us to the question why? Why this output? With Turing’s machines, the answer was clear: to find, say, the answer to a mathematical question. Hermeneutics gets suspicious when we start to ask “why”; we don’t like to impose too much purpose on poetry, which is often framed as beyond use or purpose. But when you start to see through to the mechanism, as you did in your experience, and so many poems or interpretations start to sound the same, we want to know why we’re reading this particular 1 out of 10o trillion poems. Which query did we (or the surrounding community) “ask” to bring us here? Was anyone even conscious of their asking it, or that it could be asked differently? Thanks again for your comment, I really appreciate it.


  3. I’ve tried so hard to really enjoy myself at poetry readings — and I’ve been to a lot — but usually walk away feeling like a snob. There are a good number of exceptions, but most of the time I leave feeling somehow disappointed, as if something hadn’t been fulfilled. But what exactly am I expecting? Why do I go? What is a poetry reading supposed to do? Are they publicity events? Second-rate comedy routines? Displays of technological virtuosity? Are they supposed to be fun?

    “Why does their voice change when they start reading their poems?”

    I call it poet voice. As if there’s a particular way one should *sound* to play poet properly. I went to an open-mic night in Kelowna a few years ago, and had the absolute pleasure of watching my friend grow increasingly frustrated by poet voice, how everyone sounded the same, poems folding sonically, one into the next, to the point that she finally just broke, opened her binder, took out the syllabus from her third-year sociology class, and read it in a most fantastic poet metric, her eyes cutting the page, generating lines at random. She didn’t introduce the “poem” or explain anything, didn’t even really say hello, just jumped right in. And the audience loved it. Gentle claps and assuring nods. She did good. Burroughs would’ve been proud.

    Like I said, I’m a snob. But I think it’s worth asking: what are we doing when we *listen* to poetry? what’s being communicated? what *machines* are at work in time and space? what does it mean to record a live poetry reading? I think it’s these sorts of questions that lead us toward thinking about the poetry reading itself — and the longer series of which they’re often part of — as objects of literary study.

    Here’s an excerpt from Muriel Rukesyer’s introductory remarks in 1969, at Sir George Williams University in Montréal.

    “Why do people come and listen to poems? . . . Alright, it’s partly out of curiosity and looking at the person and I go to see what is that breathing behind, what is that heartbeat, the breathing goes against the heartbeat and these rhythms are set up, and the involuntary muscles and you see the person do it but beyond that, something is what we call shared, something is arrived at, we come to something with almost unmediated, that is the poem among us, between us, there, we’re reaching each other, you’re giving me whatever silence you are giving me and it comes to me with great strength, your silence . . . So this mediation, it is not a description, it is not only the music and it, although certainly the reinforcement of sound. The sound climbing up and finally reaching a place, the last word, the sound that begins with the first breathing, the breath of the title.”

    There are a lot of “whats” and “somethings” in Rukeyser’s remarks. Absolutely nothing is cleared up. In answering her own question, she somehow distances herself from it. She un-answers it. She opens it. So maybe we can think of her gesture as one of the key functions of the poetry reading, that is, its dependence on shared interpretive space, an aural field between speaker and audience, mouth and ear, where possibilities dissolve possibilities. If that’s the case, then I suppose it makes sense to feel unravelled after a reading event, sometimes downright nauseous.

    Thanks for the Radio Radio reference. It sounds right up my alley. I’ll be sure to check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kudos to the cut-up syllabus!

    The poetry reading is certainly an object worth taking a wide-angle lens on – it’s one of the only recorded avenues we have for analyzing poetry’s words as they interact culturally, whereas it’s (even today) difficult to assess a population of silent readers and casual conversations about books. The poetry-reading text circulates and produces instant reactions, and as you suggest the reason why each individual has been attracted there is not obvious and could be quite diverse. And when you look at that machine, the text becomes just one component in it – something focusing too much on the text itself misses out on, even when one makes interpretive leaps to contextualize it. Network analysis, acoustics, book sales – so many aspects you could take for understanding that interactive cultural object.

    Liked by 1 person

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