This is the second of the 2 main questions I presented at the Open Knowledge 1.0 last Saturday in Limehouse Townhall in London.
The second question came up when I thought about the possibilities of linking collaboration and infinity with the practice of literary creation.
Authors are about the most individual workers on earth – apart from collaborating with their editors, they only ask others to read and comment on their texts. They decide on which comments they accept. It is a very intimate process. You don’t just ask anyone to revise your text, only people you trust and you choose because of their vision of life, on art, on society, etc. It could be an interesting experiment to try to write a community novel but I believe it is not more than a very fun game to play. If your interest is aroused, I can refer to a Penguin experiment. It was called ‘amillionpenguins’. Apparently, an infinite number of people can only write a comedy together. The meta-discussions about writing, terrorism, rules were the most interesting part of the experiment.
The beauty of writing lies within the individual process of creating a world. The author forges flexible ideas by means of the unflexibility of words. It is a work of precision and a maximum of control. Authors like it because writing a story is somewhat like playing god. You only let go of control when you think the story has the maturity to live on its own.
Yet, as much as I like the individual writing process, I do feel the desire to collaborate and to engage with other authors, without having to silence my own voice. Each collaboration has its ‘melting’ moments that are very rich experiences.
My desire to collaborate is embedded in the need for different perspectives. Each individual tells a story in a different way, depending on visions, gender, origins, language, beliefs. Where the media increasingly fewer times present different focuses on the same fact, literature plays with multiplicity at all times. Words and combination of words are not univocal. They become less of stumbling blocks when you have an idea of who is talking.
Rewriting a text in different ways makes you look differently at the text. Raymond Queneau did the exercise in 1947 with Exercices de style. He wrote the same story over and over again, 99 times, each version with a different style or perspective. Each style connects with a different context, that of fashionable Paris, the administrative world or the classic sonnets.
The story of Excercices de style is very simple: a young man with a long neck and a hat boards a crowded bus in Paris. He shouts at people when his feet get trampled on as they get on and off the bus. When he sees a free seat, he speeds towards it. Two hours later the same young man meets a friend at the station of St Lazare. His friend tells him his coat could need an extra button.
The ingredients of the story are equal to those of most of the daily posts on blogs: 1 principal character, 2 side-characters, 2 actions, 1 afternoon, 1 public space. It would be interesting to ask different persons to rewrite the same text and see what happens. You could pass the story form hand to hand, asking to rewrite it again and again, by a pornwriter, a feminist, an African storyteller, an administrative employee, a poet, a theatre maker, a president, etc. You could try to find a way to recollect the stories and present them. Each focus would be like another filter on the same text. Every version will connect to different contexts, the text being a networked text. And the combination of all different versions will have the effect of a kaleidoscope, an embodied illusion of a collective view.
It’s always pleasant to think technology could facilitate this. This exercise is hard to ‘machinalize’, because vision and perspective are still very futuristic ideas for AI. But it could be interesting to look into the ‘machinalization’ progress to be able to rewrite texts with styles of authors who are not there anymore; for instance to be able to give a Dostoiewskian style to a sf-story, or a biblical style.
A Belgian theatre company developed this idea for an installation some years ago. It was called the ‘Text Degenerator’. The idea was simple: every visitor could enter a message and choose to ‘translate’ it to a certain style. There were different options: biblical, style, pornographic, the style of a flamboyant Flemish author etcetera. It was great.
They developed the installation with the head of Computerlinguistics at the University of Antwerp (Walter Daelemans & Guy De Pauw). It was a time-consuming process. For each style they made lists of words that are defined as being proper to that style. If you ‘think’ porn, there are easily five words you can think of that you wouldn’t find in any other context. One of the modules of the machine would then analyze the sentences and would replace your words with words of the list. The more words you accept to replace, the less recognizable your text becomes. They encountered some problems: e.g. it takes 2 or 3 seconds to analyze a sentence. It takes a lot of time to differentiate the words that specify a certain style. And they needed too much server space to have this installation online.
My question is how we can link this restyling-procedure to online open texts and use online open texts as infinite sources of regeneration. Imagine you write a text about something that surprised you today. You surf to the Gutenberg Project and a smart piece of software rewrites your text in Alice-in-Wonderland-style. Or you choose to sample your text with the words of Shakespeare. The idea could be a great tool for getting in touch with unusual words in contemporary contexts, revise the significance of ancient words.
The disadvantage is that – if it were be possible to create such a filter – it will always be a filter. This means that it will be based on previous formatting and playing with clichés. It would only be interesting to use if it also includes the observation of the words that are filtered and those that are not. You could compare it to the filters widely used on the net (to prevent porn or terrorism). But in whatever way you would use it, I think it would be great as another tool to confront your own text with different eyes, as well as to have an original way to look into texts that belong to history.
Atomisation and linking are two keywords in this project. Atomisation is a necessary condition for collaborating. The need for links I feel is the need for collectivity that can be found in connecting texts, connecting perspectives and personalities or connecting formats. How this has to be done concretely, I don’t know. Hopefully the future will tell!