Johanna Drucker (and
Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocations in Humanities Computing
With roots in computational linguistics, stylometrics, and other quantitative statistical methods for analyzing features of textual documents, humanities computing has had very little use for analytic tools with foundations in visual epistemology. In this respect humanities computing follows the text-based (dare I still say – logocentric?) approach typical of traditional humanities. "Digital" humanities are distinguished by the use of computational methods, of course, but they also make frequent use of visual means of information display (tables, graphs, and other forms of data presentation) that have become common in desktop and Web environments. Two significant challenges arise as a result of these developments. The first is to meet requirements that humanistic thought conform to the logical systematicity required by computational methods. The second is to overcome humanists' long-standing resistance (ranging from passively ignorant to actively hostile) to visual forms of knowledge production. Either by itself would raise a host of issues. But the addition of a third challenge – to engage computing to produce useful aesthetic provocations – pushes mathesis and graphesis into even more unfamiliar collaborations. Speculative approaches to digital humanities engage subjective and intuitive tools, including visual interfaces, as primary means of interpretation in computational environments. Most importantly, the speculative approach is premised on the idea that a work is constituted in an interpretation enacted by an interpreter. The computational processes that serve speculative inquiry must be dynamic and constitutive in their operation, not merely procedural and mechanistic.
To some extent these notions are a radical departure from established practices in digital humanities. As the articles in this volume attest, many of the practices in digital humanities are becoming standardized. Technical and practical environments have become more stable. So have procedures for developing meta-data, for content modeling, for document classification and organization, search instruments, and the various protocols of ordering, sorting, and accessing information in digital formats. In its broadest conceptualization, speculative computing is premised on the conviction that logical, systematic knowledge representation, adequate though it may be for many fields of inquiry, including many aspects of the humanities, is not sufficient for the interpretation of imaginative artifacts.
Intellectual debates, collateral but substantive, have arisen as digital humanists engage long-standing critical discussions of the "textual condition" in its material, graphical, bibliographical, semantic, and social dimensions. No task of information management is without its theoretical subtext, just as no act of instrumental application is without its ideological aspects. We know that the "technical" tasks we perform are themselves acts of interpretation. Intellectual decisions that enable even such fundamental activities as keyword searching are fraught with interpretative baggage. We know this – just as surely as we understand that the front page of any search engine (the world according to "Yahoo!") is as idiosyncratic as the Chinese Emperor's Encyclopedia famously conjured by Borges and commented upon by Foucault. Any "order of things" is always an expression of human foibles and quirks, however naturalized it appears at a particular cultural moment. We often pretend otherwise in order to enact the necessary day-to-day "job" in front of us, bracketing out the (sometimes egregious) assumptions that allow computational methods (such as markup or data models) to operate effectively.
Still, we didn't arrive at digital humanities naively. Though work in digital humanities has turned some relativists into pragmatists under pressure of technical exigencies, it has also reinvigorated our collective attention to the heart of our intellectual undertaking. As the applied knowledge of digital humanities becomes integrated into libraries and archives, providing the foundation for collection management and delivery systems, the ecological niche occupied by theory is called on to foster new self-reflective activity. We are not only able to use digital instruments to extend humanities research, but to reflect on the methods and premises that shape our approach to knowledge and our understanding of how interpretation is framed. Digital humanities projects are not simply mechanistic applications of technical knowledge, but occasions for critical self-consciousness.
Such assertions beg for substantiation. Can we demonstrate that humanities computing isn't "just" or "merely" a technical innovation, but a critical watershed as important as deconstruction, cultural studies, feminist thinking? To do so, we have to show that digital approaches don't simply provide objects of study in new formats, but shift the critical ground on which we conceptualize our activity. The challenge is to structure instruments that engage and enable these investigations, not only those that allow theoretically glossed discussion of them. From a distance, even a middle distance of practical engagement, much of what is currently done in digital humanities has the look of automation. Distinguished from augmentation by Douglas Engelbart, one of the pioneering figures of graphical interface design, automation suggests mechanistic application of technical knowledge according to invariant principles. Once put into motion, an automatic system operates, and its success or benefit depends on the original design. By contrast, Engelbart suggested that augmentation extends our intellectual and cognitive – even imaginative – capabilities through prosthetic means, enhancing the very capabilities according to which the operations we program into a computer can be conceived. Creating programs that have emergent properties, or that bootstrap their capabilities through feedback loops or other recursive structures, is one stream of research work. Creating digital environments that engage human capacities for subjective interpretation, interpellating the subjective into computational activity, is another.
Prevailing approaches to humanities computing tend to lock users into procedural strictures. Once determined, a data structure or content model becomes a template restricting interpretation. Not in your tag set? Not subject to hierarchical ordering? Too bad. Current methods don't allow much flexibility – a little like learning to dance by fitting your feet to footsteps molded into concrete. Speculative computing suggests that the concrete be replaced by plasticine that remains malleable, receptive to the trace of interpretative moves. Computational management of humanities documents requires that "content" has be subjected to analysis and then put into conformity with formal principles.
Much of the intellectual charge of digital humanities has come from the confrontation between the seemingly ambiguous nature of imaginative artifacts and the requirements for formal dis-ambiguation essential for data structures and schema. The requirement that a work of fiction or poetry be understood as an "ordered hierarchy of content objects" (Allen Renear's oft-cited phrase of principles underlying the Text Encoding Initiative) raises issues, as Jerome McGann has pointed out. Productive as these exchanges have been, they haven't made the shrug of resignation that accompanies acceptance of such procedures and presses them into practice into anything more than a futile protest against the Leviathan of standardization. Alternatives are clearly needed, not merely objections. The problems are not just with ordered hierarchies, but with the assumption that an artifact is a stable, constant object for empirical observation, rather than a work produced through interpretation.
Speculative computing is an experiment designed to explore alternative approaches. On a technical level, the challenge is to change the sequence of events through which the process of "dis-ambiguation" occurs. Interpretation of subjective activity can be formalized concurrent with its production – at least, that is the design principle we have used as the basis of Temporal Modeling.
By creating a constrained visual interface, Temporal Modeling puts subjective interpretation within the system, rather than outside it. The subjective, intuitive interpretation is captured and then formalized into a structured data scheme, rather than the other way around. The interface gives rise to XML exported in a form that can be used to design a document type definition (DTD) or to be transformed through use of Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformation (XSLT) or other manipulations. A description of the technical parameters that realize these conceptual premises is described in the case study below. The project is grounded on convictions that subjective approaches to knowledge representation can function with an intellectual rigor comparable to that usually claimed by more overtly formal systems of thought. This experimental approach has potential to expand humanities computing in theoretical scope and practical application.
Our path into the "speculative" has been charted by means of aesthetic exploration, emphasizing visual means of interpretation. These are informed by the history of aesthetics in descriptive and generative approaches, as well as by the anomalous principles of 'pataphysics, that invention of the late nineteenth-century French poet-philosopher Alfred Jarry. An outline of these aesthetic, literary, and critical traditions, and their role in the ongoing development of digital humanities, forms the first part of this chapter. This is followed by a discussion of the project that demonstrates the working viability of the precepts of speculative computing, Temporal Modeling. I invited Bethany Nowviskie to author this final section, since the conceptual and technical development of this research project has proceeded largely under her intellectual guidance.
Aesthetics and Digital Humanities
The history of aesthetics is populated chiefly by descriptive approaches. These are concerned with truth value, the specificity of individual media and activity "proper" to their form, the development of taste and knowledge, and the capacity of aesthetics to contribute to moral improvement – and, of course, notions of beauty and the aesthetic experience. These concerns are useful in assessing the aesthetic capabilities of digital media – as well as visual forms of knowledge production – even if only because of the peculiar prejudices such traditional approaches have instilled in our common understanding. For instance, long-standing tensions between images and text-based forms of knowledge production still plague humanist inquiry. A disposition against visual epistemology is deeply rooted in conceptions of image and word within their morally and theoretically charged history in Western philosophy. A schematic review of such key traditional issues provides a useful preface to understanding current concerns, particularly as visual tools become integrated into digital contexts as primary instruments of humanities activity.
Fundamental distinctions differentiate descriptive modes from the intellectual traditions that inform our project: generative aesthetics, 'pataphysics, speculative thought, and quantum poetics. Generative approaches are concerned with the creation of form, rather than its assessment on grounds of truth, purity, epistemological, cognitive, or formal value. Speculative aesthetics is a rubric hatched for our specific purposes, and incorporates emergent and dynamic principles into interface design while also making a place for subjectivity within the computational environment. 'Pataphysics inverts the scientific method, proceeding from and sustaining exceptions and unique cases, while quantum methods insist on conditions of indeterminacy as that which is intervened in any interpretative act. Dynamic and productive with respect to the subject-object dialectic of perception and cognition, the quantum extensions of speculative aesthetics have implications for applied and theoretical dimensions of computational humanities.
Before plunging into the vertiginous world of speculative and ';pataphysical endeavors, some frameworks of traditional aesthetics provide useful points of departure for understanding the difficulties of introducing visual means of knowledge representation into digital humanities contexts. To reiterate, the themes of descriptive aesthetics that are most potently brought to bear on digital images are: truth value, "purity" or capabilities of a medium, the cognitive values of aesthetics, and the moral improvement aesthetic experience supposedly fosters. Debates about beauty I shall leave aside, except in so far as they touch on questions of utility, and the commonplace distinction between applied and artistic activity.
The emphasis placed on the distinction between truth-value and imitation in classical philosophy persists in contemporary suspicions of digital images. The simulacral representations that circulate in cyberspace (including digital displays of information in visual form) are so many removes from "truth" that they would be charged with multiple counts of aesthetic violation in any Socratic court. Platonic hierarchies, and their negative stigmatization of images as mere imitations of illusions, are famously entrenched in Western thought. Whether we consider the virtual image to be a thing-in-itself, with ontological status as a first-order imitation, or as a mimetic form and thus yet another remove from those Ideas whose truth we attempt to ascertain, hardly matters. The fixed hierarchy assesses aesthetic judgment against a well-marked scale of authenticity.
From a theological perspective, images are subject to negative judgment except when they serve as instruments of meditation, as material forms whose properties function as a first rung on the long ladder towards enlightenment. Such attitudes are characterized by a disregard for embodied intelligence and of the positive capacities of sensory perception. Denigrating the epistemological capacity of visualization, they assume that art and artifice are debased from the outset – as deceptive, indulgent acts of hubris – or worse, temptations to sinful sensuality. But if images are necessarily inferior to some "Idea" whose pale shadow they represent, digital images are redeemed only when they bring the ideal form of data into presentation. The difficulty of such reasoning, however, is that it collapses into questions about what form data has in a disembodied condition.
Aristotle's concern with bow things are made, not just how "truthful" they are, suggested that it was necessary to pay attention to the properties particular to each medium. The idea of a "proper" character for poetry was opposed to – or at least distinct from – that of visual forms. Likewise, sculpture was distinguished from painting, and so on, in an approach dependent on the specificity of media and their identifying properties. This notion of "propriety" led to differentiation among aesthetic forms on the basis of media, providing a philosophical foundation for distinctions that resonate throughout literary and visual studies. Investigation of the distinct properties of media was formulated most famously in the modern era by Gotthold Lessing (Laocoon, 1766). The value judgments that lurk in his distinctions continue to surface in disciplinary and critical activity to the present day. Such boundaries are well policed. But "new media" challenge these distinctions through the use of meta-technologies and inter-media sensibility. In addition, artistic practices forged from conceptual, procedural, and computational realms can't be well accommodated by aesthetic structures with "purist" underpinnings. If a data file can be input from a typewriter keyboard and output as musical notes then the idea of the "purity" of media seems irrelevant.
Critics trained in or focused on the modern tradition (in its twentieth-century form and reaching back into eighteenth-century aesthetics) have difficulty letting go of the longstanding distinction between textual and visual forms of representation – as well as of the hierarchy that places text above image. The disjunct between literary and visual modernism, the very premise of an autonomous visuality freed of literary and textual referents, continues to position these approaches to knowledge representation within separate domains. The consequences are profound. Intellectual training in the humanities only rarely includes skills in interpretation of images or media in any but the most thematic or iconographic terms. The idea that visual representation has the capacity to serve as a primary tool of knowledge production is an almost foreign notion to most humanists. Add to this that many latter-day formalists conceive of digital objects as "immaterial" and the complicated legacy of hierarchical aesthetics becomes a very real obstacle to be overcome. Naivety aside (digital artifacts are highly, complexly material), these habits of thought work against conceptualizing a visual approach to digital humanities. Nonetheless, visualization tools have long been a part of the analysis of statistical methods in digital humanities. So long as these are kept in their place, a secondary and subservient "display" of information, their dubious character is at least held in check. Other conceptual difficulties arise when visual interfaces are used to create, rather than merely present, information.
In a ideologically grounded aesthetics, forms of creative expression are understood to participate in spiritual evolution, moral improvement – or its opposite.
Whether staged as cultural or individual improvements in character through exposure to the "best that has been thought" embodied in the artifacts of high, fine art, the idea lingers: the arts, visual, musical, or poetical, somehow contribute to moral improvement. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, and Walter Pater all reinforced this sermon on moral uplift in the nineteenth century. Even now the humanities and fine arts often find themselves justified on these grounds. The links among ideas of progress and the application of "digital" technology to humanities continue to be plagued by pernicious notions of improvement.
Hegel wrote a fine script for the progressive history of aesthetic forms. The cultural authority of technology is insidiously bound to such teleologies – especially when it becomes interlinked with the place granted to instrumental rationality in modern culture. The speculative approach, which interjects a long-repressed streak of subjective ambiguity, threatens the idea that digital representations present a perfect match of idea and form.
But Hegel's dialectic provides a benefit. It reorients our understanding of aesthetic form, pivoting it away from the classical conception of static, fixed ideal. The interaction of thesis and antithesis in Hegelian principles provides a dynamic basis for thinking about transformation and change – but within a structure of progress towards an Absolute. Hegel believed that art was concerned "with the liberation of the mind and spirit from the content and forms of finitude" (Hegel 1975) that would compensate for the "bitter labour of knowledge" (ibid.). Aesthetic experience, presumably, follows this visionary path. If an aesthetic mode could manage to manifest ideal thought, presumably in the form of "pure data" – and give it perfect form through technological means, then descriptive aesthetics would have in its sights a sense of teleological completion. Mind, reason, aesthetic expression – all would align. But evidence that humankind has reached a pinnacle of spiritual perfection in this barely new millennium is in short supply. In this era following post-structuralism, and influenced by a generation of deconstruction and post-colonial theory, we can't really still imagine we are making "progress." Still, the idea that digital technology provides a high point of human intelligence, or other characterizations of its capabilities in superlative terms, persists.
Eighteenth-century aestheticians placed attention on the nature of subjective experience, rather than remaining focused on standards of harmonious perfection for objectified forms. In discussions of taste, subjective opinion comes to the fore. Well suited to an era of careful cultivation of elite sensibility, this discussion of taste and refinement emphasizes the idea of expertise. Connoisseurship is the epitome of knowledge created through systematic refining of sensation. Alexander Baumgarten sought in aesthetic experience the perfection proper to thought. He conceived that the object of aesthetics was "to analyse the faculty of knowledge" (Baumgarten 1735, sections 115–16; Beardsley 1966: 157) or "to investigate the kind of perfection proper to perception which is a lower level of cognition but autonomous and possessed of its own laws" (ibid.). The final phrase resonates profoundly, granting aesthetics a substantive, rather than trivial, role. But aesthetic sensibilities – and objects – were distinguished from those of tecbne or utility. The class divide of laborer and intellectual aesthete is reinforced in this distinction. The legacy of this attitude persists most perniciously, and the idea of the aesthetic function of utilitarian objects is as bracketed in digital environments as it is in the well-marked domains of applied and "pure" arts.
In what is arguably the most influential work in modern aesthetics, Immanuel Kant elevated the role of aesthetics – but at a price. The Critique of Judgment (1790), known as the "third" critique – since it bridged the first and second critiques of Pure Reason (knowledge) and Practical Reason (sensation) – contained an outline of aesthetics as the understanding of design, order, and form. But this understanding was meant as the apperception of "Purposiveness without purpose." In other words, appreciation of design outside of utility was the goal of aesthetics. Knowledge seeking must be "free", disinterested, without end, aim, he asserted. In his system of three modes of consciousness – knowledge, desire, and feeling (Pure Reason, Practical Reason, and Judgment) – Kant positioned aesthetics between knowledge and desire, between pure and practical reasons. Aesthetic judgment served as a bridge between mind and sense. But what about the function of emergent and participatory subjectivity? Subjectivity that affects the system of judgment? These are alien notions. For the Enlightenment thinker, the objects under observation and the mind of the observer interact from autonomous realms of stability. We cannot look to Kant for anticipation of a "quantum" aesthetics in which conditions exist in indeterminacy until intervened by a participatory sentience.
In summary, we can see that traditional aesthetics bequeaths intellectual parameters on which we can distinguish degrees of truth, imitation, refinement, taste, and even the "special powers of each medium" that are contributing strains to understanding the knowledge-production aspects of visual aesthetics in digital media. But none provide a foundation for a generative approach, let alone a quantum and/or speculative one.
For all their differences these approaches share a common characteristic. They are all descriptive systems. They assume that form pre-exists the act of apprehension, that aesthetic objects are independent of subjective perception – and vice versa. They assume stable, static relations between knowledge and its representation – even if epistemes change (e.g., Hegel's dialectical forms evolve, but they do not depend on contingent circumstances of apperception in order to come into being). The very foundations of digital media, however, are procedural, generative, and iterative in ways that bring these issues to the fore. We can transfer the insights gleaned from our understanding of digital artifacts onto traditional documents – and we should – just as similar insights could have arisen from non-digital practices. The speculative approach is not specific to digital practices – nor are generative methods. Both, however, are premised very differently from that of formal, rational, empirical, or classical aesthetics.
The Jewish ecstatic traditions of gematria (a method of interpretation of letter patterns in sacred texts) and Kabala (with its inducement of trance conditions through repetitive cornbinatoric meditation) provide precedents for enacting and understanding generative practices. Secular literary and artistic traditions have also drawn on permutational, cornbinatoric, and other programmed means of production. Aleatory procedures (seemingly at odds with formal constraints of a "program" but incorporated into instructions and procedures) have been used to generate imaginative and aesthetic works for more than a century, in accord with the enigmatic cautions uttered by Stephane Mallarme that the "throw of the dice would never abolish chance." In each of the domains just cited, aesthetic production engages with non-rational systems of thought – whether mystical, heretical, secular, or irreverent. Among these, twentieth-century developments in generative aesthetics have a specific place and relevance for digital humanities.
"Generative aesthetics" is the phrase used by the German mathematician and visual poet Max Sense to designate works created using algorithmic processes and computational means for their production. "The system of generative aesthetics aims at a numerical and operational description of characteristics of aesthetic structures", Sense wrote in his prescription for a generative aesthetics in the early 1960s (Sense 1971: 57). Algorith-mically generated computations would give rise to datasets in turn expressed in visual or other output displays. Sense's formalist bias is evident. He focused on the description of formal properties of visual images, looking for a match between their appearance and the instructions that bring them into being. They were evidence of the elegance and formal beauty of algorithms. They also demonstrated the ability of a "machine" to produce aesthetically harmonious images. His rational, mathematical disposition succeeded in further distancing subjectivity from art, suggesting that form exists independent of any viewer or artist. Sense's systematic means preclude subjectivity. But his essay marks an important milestone in the history of aesthetics, articulating as it does a procedural approach to form giving that is compatible with computational methods.
Whether such work has any capacity to become emergent at a level beyond the programmed processes of its original conception is another question. Procedural approaches are limited because they focus on calculation (manipulation of quantifiable parameters) rather than symbolic properties of computing (manipulation at the level of represented information), thus remaining mechanistic in conception and execution. Reconceptualizing the mathematical premises of cornbinatoric and permutational processes so they work at the level of symbolic, even semantic and expressive levels, is crucial to the extension of generative aesthetics into speculative, pataphysical, or quantum approaches.
Generative aesthetics has a different lineage than that of traditional aesthetics. Here the key points of reference would not be Baumgarten and Kant, Hegel and Walter Pater, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, or Theodor Adorno – but the generative morphology of the fifth-century bc Sanskrit grammarian Panini, the rational calculus of Leibniz, the visionary work of Charles Babbage, George Boole, Alan Turing, Herbert Simon, and Marvin Minsky. Other important contributions come from the traditions of self-consciously procedural poetics and art such as that of Lautreamont, Duchamp, Cage, Lewitt, Maciu-nas, Stockhausen, and so on. The keyword vocabulary in this approach would not consist of beauty, truth, mimesis, taste, and form – but of emergent, autopoietic, generative, iterative, algorithmic, speculative, and so on.
The intellectual tradition of generative aesthetics inspired artists working in conceptual and procedural approaches throughout the twentieth century. Earlier precedents can be found, but Dada strategies of composition made chance operations a crucial element of poetic and visual art. The working methods of Marcel Duchamp provide ample testimony to the success of this experiment. Duchamp's exemplary "unfinished" piece, The Large Glass, records a sequence of representations created through actions put into play to create tangible traces of abstract thought. Duchamp precipitated form from such activity into material residue, rather than addressing the formal parameters of artistic form-giving according to traditional notions of beauty (proportion, harmony, or truth, for instance). He marked a radical departure from even the innovative visual means of earlier avant-garde visual traditions (Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, and so forth). For all their conceptual invention, these were still bound up with visual styles.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many works characteristic of these approaches were instruction-based. Composer John Cage made extensive use of chance operations, establishing his visual scores as points of departure for improvisational response, rather than as prescriptive guidelines for replication of ideal forms of musical works. Fluxus artists such as George Brecht, George Maciunas, Robert Whitman, or Alison Knowles drew on some of the conceptual parameters invoked by Dada artists a generation earlier.
The decades of the 1950s and 1960s are peopled with individuals prone to such inspired imaginings: Herbert Franke and Melvin Pruitt, Jascia Reichardt, and the heterogeneous research teams at Bell Labs such as Kenneth Knowlton, Leon Harmon, and dozens of other artists, worked in robotics, electronics, video, visual and audio signal processing, or the use of new technology that engaged combinatoric or permutational methods for production of poetry, prose, music, or other works. The legacy of this work remains active. Digital art-making exists in all disciplines and genres, often hybridized with traditional approaches in ways that integrate procedural methods and material production.
One of the most sustained and significant projects in this spirit is Harold Cohen's Aaron project. As a demonstration of artificial aesthetics, an attempt to encode artistic creativity in several levels of instructions, Aaron is a highly developed instance of generative work. Aaron was first conceived in 1973, and not surprisingly its first iteration corresponded to artificial vision research at the time. The conviction that perceptual processes, if sufficiently understood, would provide a basis for computational models predominated in research done by such pioneers as David Marr in the 1970s. Only as this work progressed did researchers realize that perceptual processing of visual information had to be accompanied by higher-order cognitive representations. Merely understanding "perception" was inadequate. Cognitive schemata possessed of the capacity for emerging complexity must also be factored into the explanation of the way vision worked.
Aaron reached a temporary impasse when it became clear that the methods of generating shape and form within its programs had to be informed by such world-based knowledge as the fact that tree trunks were thicker at the bottom than at the top. Vision, cognition, and representation were all engaged in a dialogue of percepts and concepts. Programming these into Aaron's operation pushed the project towards increasingly sophisticated AI research. Aaron did not simulate sensory perceptual processing (with its own complex mechanisms of sorting, classifying, actively seeking stimuli as well as responding to them), but the cognitive representations of "intellectualized" knowledge about visual forms and their production developed for Aaron made a dramatic demonstration of generative aesthetics. Aaron was designed to create original expressive artifacts – new works of art. Because such projects have come into being as generative machines before our very eyes, through well-recorded stages, they have shown us more and more precisely just how that constitutive activity of cognitive function can be conceived.
'Pataphysical Sensibilities and Quantum Methods
Before returning to speculative computing, and to the case study of this chapter, a note about 'pataphysics is in order. I introduced 'pataphysics almost in passing in the introduction above, not to diminish the impact of slipping this peculiar gorilla into the chorus, but because I want to suggest that it offers an imaginative fillip to speculative computing, rather than the other way around.
An invention of the late nineteenth-century French physicist poet Alfred Jarry, 'pataphysics is a science of unique solutions, of exceptions. 'Pataphysics celebrates the idiosyncratic and particular within the world of phenomena, thus providing a framework for an aesthetics of specificity within generative practice. (This contrasts with Sense's generative approach, which appears content with generalities of conception and formal execution.)
The original founder of 'pataphysics, Alfred Jarry, declared the principles for the new science in the fantastic pages of his novel Dr Faustroll, 'Patapbysicien: "Faustroll defined the universe as that which is the exception to oneself." In his introduction to Dr Faustroll Roger Shattuck described the three basic principles of Jarry's belief system: clinamen, syzygy, and ethernity. Shattuck wrote: "Clinamen, an infinitesimal and fortuitous swerve in the motion of an atom, formed the basis of Lucretius's theory of matter and was invoked by Lord Kelvin when he proposed his 'kinetic theory of matter.' To Jarry in 1898 it signified the very principle of creation, of reality as an exception rather than the rule." Just as Jarry was proposing this suggestive reconceptualization of physics, his contemporary Stephane Mallarme was calling the bluff on the end game to metaphysics. Peter Burger suggests that Mallarme's conception of "the absolute" coincides with a conception of aesthetic pleasure conceived of as a technological game, driven by a non-existent mechanism. The substantive manifestation in poetic form shows the workings of the mechanism as it enacts, unfolds. Generative and speculative aesthetics are anticipated in the conceptualization of Mallarme's approach.
What has any of this to do with computing?
Without 'pataphysical and speculative capabilities, instrumental reason locks computing into engineering problem-solving logical sensibility, programs that only work within the already defined parameters. The binarism between reason and its opposite, endemic to Western thought, founds scientific inquiry into truth on an empirical method. Pledged to rational systematic consistency, this binarism finds an unambiguous articulation in Book X of Plato's Republic. "The better part of the soul is that which trusts to measure and calculation." The poet and visual artist "implant an evil constitution" – indulging the "irrational nature" which is "very far removed from the true." Ancient words, they prejudice the current condition in which the cultural authority of the computer derives from its relation to symbolic logic at the expense of those inventions and sensibilities that characterize imaginative thought. By contrast, speculative approaches seek to create parameter-shifting, open-ended, inventive capabilities – humanistic and imaginative by nature and disposition. Quantum methods extend these principles. Simply stated, quantum interpretation notes that all situations are in a condition of indeterminacy distributed across a range of probability until they are intervened by observation. The goal of 'pataphysical and speculative computing is to keep digital humanities from falling into mere technical application of standard practices (either administered/info management or engineering/statistical calculations). To do so requires finding ways to implement imaginative operations.
Speculative Computing and the Use of Aesthetic Provocation
Visual or graphic design has played almost no part in humanities computing, except for the organized display of already structured information. Why should this be necessary? Or continue to be true? What are the possibilities of integrating subjective perspectives into the process of digital humanities. And though emergent systems for dynamic interface are not realizable, they are certainly conceivable. Such perspectives differentiate speculative approaches from generative ones.
The attitude that pervades information design as a field is almost entirely subsumed by notions that data pre-exist display, and that the task of visual form-giving is merely to turn a cognitive exercise into a perceptual one. While the value of intelligent information design in the interpretation of statistical data can't be overestimated, and dismissing the importance of this activity would be ridiculous, the limits of this approach also have to be pointed out. Why? Because they circumscribe the condition of knowledge in their apparent suggestion that information exists independently of visual presentation and just waits for the "best" form in which it can be represented. Many of the digital humanists I've encountered treat graphic design as a kind of accessorizing exercise, a dressing-up of information for public presentation after the real work of analysis has been put into the content model, data structure, or processing algorithm. Arguing against this attitude requires rethinking of the way embodiment gives rise to information in a primary sense. It also requires recognition that embodiment is not a static or objective process, but one that is dynamic and subjective.
Speculative computing is a technical term, fully compatible with the mechanistic reason of technological operations. It refers to the anticipation of probable outcomes along possible forward branches in the processing of data. Speculation is used to maximize efficient performance. By calculating the most likely next steps, it speeds up processing. Unused paths are discarded as new possibilities are calculated. Speculation doesn't eliminate options, but, as in any instance of gambling, the process weights the likelihood of one path over another in advance of its occurrence. Speculation is a mathematical operation unrelated to metaphysics or narrative theory, grounded in probability and statistical assessments. Logic-based, and quantitative, the process is pure tecbne, applied knowledge, highly crafted, and utterly remote from any notion of poiesis or aesthetic expression. Metaphorically, speculation invokes notions of possible worlds spiraling outward from every node in the processing chain, vivid as the rings of radio signals in the old RKO studios film logo. To a narratologist, the process suggests the garden of forking paths, a way to read computing as a tale structured by nodes and branches.
The phrase "speculative computing" resonates with suggestive possibilities, conjuring images of unlikely outcomes and surprise events, imaginative leaps across the circuits that comprise the electronic synapses of digital technology. The question that hangs in that splendid interval is a fundamental one for many areas of computing application: can the logic-based procedures of computational method be used to produce an aesthetic provocation? We know, of course, that the logic of computing methods does not in any way preclude their being used for illogical ends – or for the processing of information that is unsystematic, silly, trivial, or in any other way outside the bounds of logical function. Very few fully logical or formally systematic forms of knowledge exist in human thought beyond those few branches of mathematics or calculation grounded in unambiguous procedures. Can speculation engage these formalized models of human imagination at the level of computational processing? To include an intuitive site for processing subjective interpretation into formal means rather than circumscribing it from the outset? If so, what might those outcomes look like and suggest to the humanities scholar engaged with the use of digital tools? Does the computer have the capacity to generate a provocative aesthetic artifact?
Speculative computing extends the recognition that interpretation takes place from inside a system, rather than from outside. Speculative approaches make it possible for subjective interpretation to have a role in shaping the processes, not just the structures, of digital humanities. When this occurs, outcomes go beyond descriptive, generative, or predictive approaches to become speculative. New knowledge can be created.
These are big claims. Can they be substantiated?
Temporal Modeling is a time machine for humanities computing. Not only does it take time and the temporal relations inherent in humanities data as its computational and aesthetic domain, enabling the production and manipulation of elaborate, subjectively inflected timelines, but it also allows its users to intervene in and alter the conventional interpretative sequence of visual thinking in digital humanities.
The Temporal Modeling environment, under ongoing development at SpecLab (University of Virginia), embodies a reversal of the increasingly familiar practice of generating visualizations algorithmically from marked or structured data, data that have already been modeled and made to conform to a logical system. The aesthetic provocations Johanna Drucker describes are most typically understood to exist at the edges or termini of humanities computing projects. These are the graphs and charts we generate from large bodies of data according to strict, pre-defined procedures for knowledge representation, and which often enchant us with their ability to reveal hidden patterns and augment our understanding of encoded material. They are, however, fundamentally static and (as they depend on structured data and defined constraints) predictable, and we are hard-pressed to argue that they instantiate any truly new perspective on the data they reflect. Why, given the fresh possibilities for graphesis the computer affords, should we be content with an after-the-fact analysis of algorithmically produced representations alone? Temporal Modeling suggests a new ordering of aesthetic provocation, algorithmic process, and hermen-eutic understanding in the work of digital humanities, a methodological reversal which makes visualization a procedure rather than a product and integrates interpretation into digitization in a concrete way.
How concrete? The Temporal Modeling tools incorporate an intuitive kind of sketching – within a loosely constrained but highly defined visual environment – into the earliest phases of content modeling, thereby letting visualization drive the intellectual work of data organization and interpretation in the context of temporal relations. Aesthetic provocation becomes dynamic, part of a complex dialogue in which the user is required to respond to visualizations in kind. Response in kind, that is, in the visual language of the Temporal Modeling toolset, opens up new ways of thinking about digital objects, about the relation of image to information, and about the subjective position of any interpreter within a seemingly logical or analytic system. Our chief innovation is the translation of user gestures and image-orderings that arise from this iterative dialogue into an accurate and expressive XML schema, which can be exported to other systems, transformed using XSLT, and even employed as a document type definition (DTD) in conventional data-markup practices. The sketching or composition environment in which this rich data capture takes place (the Temporal Modeling PlaySpace) is closely wedded to a sister-environment, the DisplaySpace. There, we provide a set of filters and interactive tools for the manipulation and display of more familiar, algorithmically generated visualizations, derivative from PlaySpace schemata or the already-encoded data structures of established humanities computing projects. Like the PlaySpace, though, the Temporal Modeling DisplaySpace emphasizes the flux and subjectivity common to both our human perception of time and our facility for interpretation in the humanities. We have not rejected display in favor of the playful engagement our composition environment fosters; instead, we hope to show that a new, procedural understanding of graphic knowledge enhances and even transfigures visualization in the older modes.
Our work in building the PlaySpace, with which we began the project in the Summer of 2001 and which now nears completion, has required a constant articulation of its distinction from the DisplaySpace – the implementation of which forms the next phase of Temporal Modeling. What quality of appearance or use distinguishes a display tool from an editing tool? At their heart, the mechanisms and processes of the PlaySpace are bound up in: the positioning of temporal objects (such as events, intervals, and points in time) on the axis of a timeline; the labeling of those objects using text, color, size, and quality; the relation of objects to specific temporal granularities (the standards by which we mark hours, seasons, aeons); and, in complex interaction, the relation of objects to each other. Each of these interpretative actions – the specification of objects and orderings, their explication and interrelation – additionally involves a practice we designate inflection. Inflection is the graphic manifestation of subjective and interpretative positioning toward a temporal object or (in a sometimes startling display of warping and adjustment) to a region of time. This positioning can be on the part of the prime interpreter, the user of the PlaySpace, or inflections can be employed to represent and theorize external subjectivities: the implied interpretative standpoint of a character in a work of fiction, for instance, or of an historical figure, movement, or Zeitgeist. The energies of the PlaySpace are all bound up in enabling understanding through iterative visual construction in an editing environment that implies infinite visual breadth and depth. In contrast, the DisplaySpace channels energy into iterative visual reflection by providing a responsive, richly-layered surface in which subjectivity and inflection in temporal relations are not fashioned but may be reconfigured.
I want to focus here on some specific qualities and tools of Temporal Modeling, especially as they relate to the embeddedness of subjectivity, uncertainty, and interpretation in every act of representation, which we take as a special province of speculative computing. Our very process of design self-consciously embodies this orientation toward information and software engineering. We make every effort to work from imagery as much as from ontology, coupling our research efforts in the philosophy and data-driven classification of temporal relations with the intuitive and experimental work of artists of whom we asked questions such as: "What does a slow day look like?" or "How might you paint anticipation or regret?" As our underlying architecture became more stable and we began to assemble a preliminary notation system for temporal objects and inflections, we made a practice of asking of each sketch we floated, "What does this imply?" and "What relationships might it express?" No visual impulse was dismissed out of hand; instead, we retained each evocative image, frequently finding use for it later, when our iterative process of development had revealed more about its implications in context.
In this way, the necessity of a special feature of the Temporal Modeling Project was impressed on us: a capacity for expansion and adjustment. The objects, actions, and relations defined by our schemata and programming are not married inextricably with certain graphics and on-screen animations or display modes. Just as we have provided tools for captioning and coloring (and the ability to regularize custom-made systems with legends and labels), we have also made possible the upload and substitution of user-made standard vector graphics (SVG) for the generic notation systems we've devised. This is more than mere window-dressing. Our intense methodological emphasis on the importance of visual understanding allows the substitution of a single set of graphics (representing inflections for, say, mood or foreshadowing) to alter radically the statements made possible by Temporal Modeling's loose grammar. Users are invited to intervene in the interpretative processes enabled by our tool almost at its root level.
A similar sensibility governs the output of a session in the PlaySpace environment. PlaySpace visualizations consist of objects and inflections in relation to each other and (optionally) to the metric of one or more temporal axes. The editing process involves the placement and manipulation of these graphics on a series of user-generated, transparent layers, which enable groupings and operations on groups (such as zooms, granularity adjustments, panning and positioning, simple overlays, and changes in intensity or alpha-value) meant to enhance experimentation and iterative information design inside the visual field. When the user is satisfied that a particular on-screen configuration represents an understanding of his data worth preserving, he may elect to save his work as a model. This means that the PlaySpace will remember both the positioning of graphic notations on-screen and the underlying data model (in the form of an XML schema) that these positions express. This data model can then be exported and used elsewhere or even edited outside the PlaySpace and uploaded again for visual application. Most interesting is the way in which transparent editing layers function in the definition of PlaySpace models. The process of saving a model requires that the user identify those layers belonging to a particular, nameable interpretation of his material. This means that a single PlaySpace session (which can support the creation of as many layers as hardware limitations make feasible) might embed dozens of different interpretative models: some of which are radical departures from a norm; some of which differ from each other by a small, yet significant, margin; and some of which are old friends, imported into the PlaySpace from past sessions, from collections of instructional models representing conventional understandings of history or fiction, or from the efforts of colleagues working in collaboration on research problems in time and temporal relations. A model is an interpretative expression of a particular dataset. More importantly, it is what the interpreter says it is at any given point in time. We find the flexibility inherent in this mode of operation akin to the intuitive and analytical work of the traditional humanities at its best.
Our policies of welcoming (and anticipating) the upload of user-designed graphic notation and of enforcing the formalization of interpretative models in the loosest terms possible are examples of Temporal Modeling's encouragement of hermeneutic practice in computational contexts. In some sense, this practice is still external to the visual environment we have built, even as it forms an integral part of the methodology Temporal Modeling is designed to reinforce. I wish to close here with a description of a new and exciting tool for encoding interpretation and subjectivity within the designed Temporal Modeling environment: a mechanism we call the nowslider.
"Nowsliding" is a neologism for a practice all of us do constantly – on which, in fact, our understanding of ourselves and our lives depends. Nowsliding is the subjective positioning of the self along a temporal axis and in relation to the points, events, intervals, and inflections through which we classify experience and make time meaningful. You nowslide when you picture your world at the present moment and, some ticks of the clock later, again at another ever-evolving present. You nowslide, too, when you imagine and project the future or interpret and recall the past. Our toolset allows a graphic literaliza-tion of this subjective positioning and temporal imagining, in the shape of configurable, evolving timelines whose content and form at any given "moment" are dependent on the position of a sliding icon, representative of the subjective viewpoint. Multiple independent or interdependent points of view are possible within the context of a single set of data, and the visual quality of nowsliding may be specified in the construction of a particular model.
At present, two display modes for the nowslider are in development. The first is a catastrophic mode, in which new axial iterations (or imagined past- and future-lines) spring in a tree structure from well-defined instances on a primary temporal axis. In this way, PlaySpace users can express the human tendency to re-evaluate the past or make predictions about the future in the face of sudden, perspective-altering events. New subjective positions on the primary axis of time (and new happenings) can provoke more iterations, which do not supplant past imaginings or interpretations, but rather co-exist with them, attached as they are to a different temporal locus. In this way, timelines are made to bristle with possibility, while still preserving a distinct chronology and single path. Our nowsliders also function in a continuous mode – distinct from catastrophism – in which past and future iterations fade in and out, change in position or quality, appear or disappear, all within the primary axis of the subjective viewpoint. No new lines are spawned; instead, this mode presents time as a continuum of interpretation, in which past and present are in constant flux and their shape and very content are dependent on the interpretative pressure of the now.
Our taking of temporal subjectivity and the shaping force of interpretation as the content and overarching theme of the PlaySpace and DisplaySpace environments we have built is meant to reinforce the goal of the Temporal Modeling tools and, by extension, of speculative computing. Our goal is to place the hermeneut inside a visual and algorithmic system, where his or her very presence alters an otherwise mechanistic process at the quantum level. Humanists are already skilled at the abstract classification and encoding that data modeling requires. We understand algorithmic work and can appreciate the transformative and revelatory power of visual and structural deformance. We at least think we know what to do with a picture or a graph. What we haven't yet tried in a rigorous and systematic way is the injection of the subjective positioning any act of interpretation both requires and embodies into a computational, self-consciously visual environment. If speculative computing has a contribution to make to the methods and outcomes of digital humanities, this is it.
1 This section was co-authored with Bethany Nowviskie.
References for Further Reading
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Temporal Modeling is freely available at http://www.speculativecomputing.org, and is delivered to the Web using XML-enabled Macromedia Flash MX and Zope, an object-oriented open-source application server.