Italo Calvino and the Style of a Literary Automaton

What would be the style of a literary automaton? I believe that its true vocation would be for classicism. The test of a poetic-electronic machine would be its ability to produce traditional works, poems with closed metrical forms, novels that follow all the rules. In this sense the use so far made of machines by the literary avant-garde is still too human. Especially in Italy, the machine used in these experiments is an instrument of chance, of the destructuralization of form, of protest against every habitual logical connection. I would therefore say that it is still an entirely lyrical instrument, serving a typical human need: the production of disorder. The true literature machine will be one that itself feels the need to produce disorder, as a reaction against its preceding production of order, a machine that will produce avant-garde work to free its circuits when they are choked by too long a production of classicism. In fact, given that developments in cybernetics lean toward machines capable of learning, of changing their own programs, of developing their own sensibilities and their own needs, nothing prevents us from foreseeing a literature machine that at a certain point feels unsatisfied with its own traditionalism and starts to propose new ways of writing, mining its own codes completely upside down. To gratify critics who look for similarities between things literary and things historical, sociological, or economic, the machine could correlate its own changes of style to the variations in certain statistical indices of production, or income, or military expenditure, or the distribution of decision-making powers. That indeed will be the literature that corresponds perfectly to a theoretical hypothesis: it will, at last, be the literature.

Italo Calvino – The Literature Machine


An earlier version of the cover.

I’m currently looking for some quotes to preface my upcoming semi-automated Donald Trump book. I notice how Calvino stresses formal aspects of literature here. And yet he imbues his envisaged literature machines with feelings and needs. There is a leap in this from mechanism to experience.

There is, he reminds us, an historical difficulty in giving accounts of who or what the ‘I’ is in authorship. There is also an obvious rule-boundedness to human activities. The author he projects between these poles is aware of his death as an author because he is conscious of his machine-likeness.

I like the hybridity to that. And the not professing to know what that altered consciousness will be, where it will reside; nor is there the sense that the eternal symbiosis between humans and tools will change, even if it changes in ways hard to fathom.

The observant visitor may have noticed that that the Trump book was originally going to be set in an imaginary Calvino world!

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8 Responses to Italo Calvino and the Style of a Literary Automaton

  1. I guess the idea of a machine following rules appealed to Calvino as a member of OuLiPo!


  2. Ste J says:

    You make it sound like some Literary Terminator which would be intriguing, a machine defining its own rules. The idea of feeding it classic works throughout the ages and asking to predict the next evolution would perhaps allow us to (if I am to carry on down the Sci-Fi route) our own future through a reading of these styles. I sometimes imagine my spellchecker sighing and saying it could write better than I can.


    • Jeff says:

      I don’t personally refer to The Terminator because it has a lazy narrative in which machines and humans are only conceivable in conflict. Unrealistic and unimaginative stuff. I find myself saying these days that ‘the world is going to be taken over by machines – please wait.’
      Not sure I understand what you mean in your second sentence. Calvino claimed that the disorderly effects of machinic invention could arise from its dissatisfaction with classics – a Romanticist notion of course. Quite how it will, according to his combinatorial notion of machinic literature, experience emotions, I don’t see. One read I have lined up is John Searle’s arguments against computer sentience – his Chinese Room thesis about the limitations of a symbolic intelligence.
      It’s something I have sympathy with. What I want to look closely at is the idea that digital processes have an intelligent world-view that’s impossible for humans to fathom precisely because it’s symbolic – this I think Searle refutes somehow.
      In the end, code is a tool for me. But it’s a mysterious tool.


  3. I once had a project task where we had to write a program using Prolog that could produce rhyming couplets, and it worked pretty well. It produced some results that were more original than some of the Trump’s families’ speeches.


    • Jeff says:

      Oh-ho! Very good. Maybe my book will end up a presidential resource then?
      I take it that the program involved groups of look-up tables in arrays? I’ve had many thoughts on producing output that has clear patterns.


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