glass art with water; green glow predominates, while blue streams converge on glass half-sphere in center
19
Jul
2015

What is Generative Literature? Introducing “The Generative Literature Project”

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Written by and
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Reviewed by Chris Friend and Robin Wharton
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In the dark @MakerFaire 2014” by Steve Jurvetson; CC BY 2.0

Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing is our experiment in longer-form work related to critical, digital pedagogy. For the past year and a half, Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing has been providing editorial and technical support to the Generative Literature Project, which is producing a crowdsourced, gamified digital novel about a murder. Once a week for the next several weeks, Hybrid Pedagogy will publish updates and reflections about the project collaboratively authored by several of the student and instructor participants. In this first installment, Mia Zamora and Matthew Jacobi provide an introduction to the project and discuss how it is “generative” as that term has been understood with literary studies.

There is much buzz (and perhaps, confusion) about the notion of “generative literature.”  It is indeed a specific form of literature which challenges some aspects of classical literature.  Frequently associated with the power of the machine (read computer), generative literature is often understood as the production of continuously changing literary texts by means of some set of rules and/or the use of algorithms. From Sanchtv, CC BY-NC-ND Our computers are most certainly capable of generating unexpected ambiguous lexia. There is no doubt today that machines have the capability of producing provocative text (think twitterbots, stir fry mash-ups, digital mad libs). Philip Galanter defined generative art as “any art practice where the artist uses a system, such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, which is set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to, or resulting in, a completed work of art.”

As much as a definition of generative art may be helpful to consider, perhaps it is the word “generative” itself that offers particular insight.  What is key here is the relationship between traditional forms of authorship and more recent computational writing practices. Origin map of “genius" As Daniel Howe and Braxton Soderman have written in the “Aesthetics of Generative Literature”, “generative” is etymologically connected to words such as “genius” and “engine,” both of which stem from the notion of begetting or engendering. The word genius derives from the Latin gignere, “to beget.” The word also carried the meaning of a guiding spirit, present with every individual from birth: literally, a spark of the divine. The word engine derives from Old French engin, from the Latin ingenium, which is also the root of the word ingenious.  “Engine” was originally a term for any mechanical device that converts force into motion.

Indeed, it seems that in the last half of the 20th century we have witnessed the waning of the notion of “genius” (i.e. natural individual talent, ingenuity, innate ability) and the waxing of the power of “the engine” (i.e. the prominent digital landscape with its search engines, game engines, physics engines, poetry engines, etc.) To wit, we no longer consult a librarian with a question, indeed, we no longer even Ask Jeeves, we simply “Google it.”  While combinatorial generative art systems are as old as art itself, contemporary generative art practices tend to adopt the inherent complexity of computational capability.  Whether machine driven or otherwise, there is no doubt that any generative literary creation is about a change in the dynamics of the author-reader relationship.  Generative literature provides a marked departure from a narrative tradition wherein intuition and emergence remain fundamental to the genius-as-author model.  The seminal 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland BarthesLa mort de l’auteur, argues against traditional literary criticism’s practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated.  Rather, generative literature prompts us to re-consider the notion of authorship in more expansive terms as it yields a new kind of “aesthetics of surprise”.  Here, the generating “system” yields unforeseen and unanticipated text that a reader must navigate/interact with/explicate in order to determine overall narrative meaning.  The death of the (primary) author indeed.

One exciting new attempt at harnessing these hallmark qualities of generative literature is a collaborative writing experiment, conceived by Michelle Kassorla and Frederick Cope, and currently being supported by Hybrid Pedagogy entitled the Generative Literature Project. Chalk outline with “Crime scene” police tape The premise of this innovative writing experiment is a creative constraint (limitation) which forces the writer(s) to direct writing toward a particular purpose.  The Generative Literature Project is a crowdsourced gamified digital novel about a murder. The idea of a generative novel is one that can be traced to the OuliPo group (Ouvroir delittérature potentielle) in France.  According to the OuliPo website, the generative writer is “[tooltip title=”un rat qui construit lui-même le labyrinthe dont il se propose de sortir” placement=”” link=””]A rat who builds the maze he wishes to escape[/tooltip].” In this understanding of art and literature, the idea of creation, especially literary creation, is one of wordplay and gameplay.  The generative novel is, in itself, a game — one of interplay among people, cultures, and institutions.  It is an open-ended enterprise which in many ways ensures new and unexpected results.

During the first phase of the Generative Literature Project, nine writing professors and their students— from the US, The Marshall Islands, and Puerto Rico — completed a series of digitized artifactsTheopolis College Logo about nine “distinguished alumni” of the fictional “Theopolis College,” a highly competitive Liberal Arts College that exists in the leafy suburb of the fictional town of Theopolis. The project is a cyber “who dunnit” — a networked Agatha Christie-style mystery puzzle.  Student writers will create the clues and red-herrings, the motives and alibis of each of these nine renowned Theopolis College alumni.  The diverse #GenLit writers are ultimately a dispersed collective of co-authors.  And they are also digital alchemists breathing life into their fictional characters on the internet in social media spaces, on twitter, and in the many digital artifacts that leave traces along the way.

By this currently accepted definition, the Generative Literature Project does not immediately appear to fit into “what is generative.” However, by simply substituting the inherent randomness of human interaction and imagination for the workings of a machine, an author can create a deep and expansive piece of literature that is truly generative in nature. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons The traditional image of “the engine”, is a complex algorithm or some Daedalian mechanism, taking an author’s work along a course at once synthetic and natural, to some unimagined end.  Metaphorically, a creator drops a paper boat into the mechanism of this man-made river, and we marvel at all of the different ways the water can throw the boat ashore, or pull it under. While the implication is that this process must involve a human inventor and a mechanical process, in practice it does not preclude further human interaction. In the forthcoming Generative Literature Project, the lines of algorithmic code, or the gears and valves of the machine have simply been replaced by dispersed asynchronous student writers in varying social media spaces. In this experiment in what is “generative”, the work of “the engine” is instead being done by the near-limitless variability of an assortment of human minds with the addition of digital tools and virtual communities.  The Generative Literature Project ultimately foregrounds new narrative possibilities thanks to digitally mediated writing, moments of genuine surprise, and a new kind of aesthetics of the unexpected. As groups of students in classrooms around the globe collaborate on this experiment in narrative, expression, and cooperation, the very understanding of what it means to create is changing, and a new generation of writers and instructors is coming to the fore. The Generative Literature Project provides a pedagogical space for students and instructors alike to explore their own notions of how they create, and what it means to make something. From here, it is our goal not just to illustrate how these concepts have played out in a real life learning environment, but to highlight the impactful learning outcomes that have been the result of our foray into generative literature.


This article is the first in a series of reports on the Generative Literature Project, sponsored by Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing.

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