The Prosthetic Imagination

Prosthetic HeartI was just over at my other blog, Mindless Carnage & Wonder At Death, mulling over one of the titles of blogs that I’ve recently added to my blogroll: The prosthetic imagination. It is a place for, as the blog explains, “Jim Carpenter’s ruminations on computational art and the art of computer programming.” That’s right up my alley these days, now that I’m writing more and more often with the help of a computer program. I’m also beginning to wonder, though, how much that program may be serving as a prosthetic, and what it might be replacing.

I guess this is a reaction I’m having to a post I read on The prosthetic imagination when I was over there earlier today. In the post etc4, the title of which refers to the author’s own poetry generating program, Carpenter wrote the following:

My goals in the etc project include making software whose first draft is the final draft. Since Charles Hartman, folks in this field have held that their generated poetry was a dropping off point, that the work wanted a human touch. But the problem with that approach is that it gives the human-centric critics, with their socially constructed and entrenched intelligism, what they see as a reason to dismiss us. The argument goes that if a piece requires editing, the machine isn’t really doing the work. I’ve been working to get there. And I’m reasonably satisfied with etc3’s results.

One note I might make, first, is that it is a rare thing for any writer that the “first draft is the final draft.” It might be an even more interesting thing if a program could in some way revise it’s own work, although the complexity of such a thing is so beyond my understanding that I am having difficulty completing this sentence. I think, too, that the argument you speak of, “that if a piece requires editing, the machine isn’t really doing the work,” is a completely ignorant and unfair one to make about any artistic work. A poem is not a weld made by some programmed robotic arm, and a poem generating program is not simply assembling the same thing over and over, completing some single repetitive assembly line task.

Also, I’ve never read the phrase “human-centric critics” before, but I’m delighted to have it ready at my disposal now. It’s conception signifies for me that, at least for some in the field of poetry, computers have become such an important tool that a term like that has become necessary.

Diagram - Prosthetic HeartGetting back to what bothered me, at first it was about what has become a common assumption for me, that the “generated poetry was a dropping off point, that the work wanted a human touch.” For the mchain program, which uses an algorithm to produce Markov chains from text–something that must seem extremely crude to those working in the field of computational creativity–I think a “human touch” is a necessary thing. But I’m all for anything to do with Artificial Intelligence, even if it leads to the creation of intelligent programs that can write amazing poems or novels. I don’t feel any sense of competition rising about such a creation. At the very least, it can teach us humans more about our own “intelligence” and creativity; and maybe even something about what we call soul, spirit, heart or essence: as you prefer.

No, what is bothering me is what has brought me to post this on both of my blogs, to bring my two halves back together for a moment. I like the idea of calling my use of the mchain “prosthetic,” although it is not much different in essence than using any number of poetic techniques for separating the poet a bit from his text. But what would happen if I no longer felt content with simply writing a poem out of my own, … what? mind? imagination? words? That comes back to the question of whether any of these things are really mine at all. And the threat of calling it prosthetic is that I might want, as I am feeling now, “my own” imagination back, or whatever part of it was replaced by the mchain.

It seems that the last few times that I really felt something coming out of me that I wrote straight down in my own words, it was a reaction to something intensely moving about the state of the world today: you know, the one that’s burning out of control all around us? The last time that I can recall a very strong NEED to write something, it was a reaction to some things that Patricia Henley read about child soldiers, and some of the realities of war that we so often filter out of our daily news, or just don’t mention.

I notice from time to time, being the observant and informed kind of fellow that I am, just how desensitized I am to almost everything going on these days. Terrible things are occurring so often that it is just no big deal, it is nothing new to me; and it so often seems that nothing can be done about it, as everybody else is either ignorant about it or feeling impotent too. I’ve gotten worked up so many times about some of the more terrible crimes of our government, global institutions, and corporations, etc., that more bad news doesn’t seem to affect me much at all. And it doesn’t help that there doesn’t seem to be any kind of possible action at my disposal to take against it that has not already been co-opted or effectively marginalized.

So, is it this desensitazation that draws me to the “prosthetic” mchain program? Is it some sort of “awakening” about my relationship to the rest of the world that draws “real,” “human” poems out of me? Is the mchain program, as my graphics sprinkled throughout this post suggest, something analogous to an artificial heart? I’ll just say no to that right now. First, I would never assume that, being a white male that has hardly left the Midwest and has never left the US, I have established any kind of real, deep emotional connection to the rest of the world. Second, I’m being far too much of a human-centric critic of my own work for my own good. And this attitude displays, for all to see, my own lack of understanding about what I’m doing, about what poetry is, and about what really motivates me to do whatever it is that I do. But this is as close as I can get to my feelings on this subject. And that’s where I’ll have to stop for now.


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