Tuesday, June 26, 2007

word machine...


the first professor i saw was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. after salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said perhaps i might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge by practical and mechanical operations. but the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness, and he flattered himself that a more noble exalted thought never sprang in any other man's head. everyone knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas by his contrivance, the most ignorant person at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, may write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematics and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study. he then led me to the frame, about the sides whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. it was twenty foot square placed in the middle of the room. the superficies were composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. they were all linked together by slender wires. these bits of wood were covered on every square with papers pasted on them, and on these papers were written all the words of their language in their several moods, tenses, and declensions, but without any order. the professor then desired me to observe, for he was going to set his engine at work. the pupils at his command took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame, and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. he then commanded six and thirty of the lads to read the several lines softly as they appeared upon the frame: and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys who were scribes. this work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down...

jonathan swift, from "gulliver's travels", 1726, by way of "cybernetics, art and ideas", 1971.

swift's word machine certainly suggests the working process of the computer, as well as a chance compositional process worthy of cage, as well as the surrealist's adventures in automatic writing and found poetry.

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