Sunday, November 8, 2009

Math Abdicates the Ego

There's this French club, founded in the 60's, for writers, The Oulipo, where artists developed all these weird constraints and limitations in order to help their writing find a new or bizarre voice. Members include Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau. Oulipo stands for “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle/Potential Literature Workshop.” They were fans of things like lipograms (works excluding such and such letter [lipogram in e, lipogram in g]), palindromes, Snowball (A poem in which each line is a single word, and each successive word is one letter longer) and, my personal favorite, the n+7. This is a poem in which the author takes an old poem and replaces each noun with a noun seven dictionary entries away form the first. For example:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.


To see a Worm in a Grampus of Sandblast
And a Hebe in a Wild Flu
Hold inflow in the palsy of your hangar
And Ethos in an housefly.

I find something really fascinating about this technique in that there is nothing the author adds to the poem whatsoever, outside of implementing the function. Some results are really astounding, but mostly the technique pumps out lines of poetry (or potential prose) that are mathematical functions that are, in the realm of art, beyond chaotic. It's brilliant, really. The process yield's strange, original lines that only a computing machine could create. I'm reminded of Deep Blue versus Kasparov. This was the fateful chess match between the world champion and the IBM computer. Kasparov claimed that the computer used moves that no one could have predicted: moves that were so strange and bizarre that it was nearly impossible to play as he ever had before. Maybe the age of artistic computers isn't so far off. Our art may be made up of simpler functions than we think.

Considering the beautiful world of fractals and other indifferent, mathematical art, maybe it is time for us to make some room for the robot da Vinchi?

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