by Justin Clemens


Although I’d intended to move onto a rather different topic with this, my final post for the Southerly blog, I’ve found myself stuck on the problem of poetry and computing I briefly discussed last week. Although my thinking on this remains pretty infantile, I would want to say that there is an irreconcilable difference between language and information. To commit the unforgivable gaffe of auto-citation: ‘If almost all inherited elements of human communication have now been decisively reconfigured by the new technologies, this is on the basis of essentially technical, trans-human routines of “information-as-code” not “language-as-symbolic-exchange.”’[1] Whatever ‘language’ is, it must be built on sets of irreducible ontological differences that it simultaneously undermines: for example, between signifier and signified, between signs and things, between different languages, between competence and performance, and so on. ‘Information,’ however, is the Great Leveller, founded on an absolute flattening of such differences, or, rather, that which renders these differences derivative and partial. The key to the New Jerusalem is not ontological disjunction, but technical modulation.[2] The message is this: we live in the era of the expropriation of language and life by technical devices, rendering our own continued existence moot.[3]

Strangely enough, literary romantic modernity was characterized not simply by a passion for subjective expressionism, but by what seems to be its precise opposite: an obsession with impersonal algorithmic creation. The mad German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who nobody could accuse of not being the very epitome of Romanticism, desired that poetry be elevated to a mechane (craft), and complained of the contemporaneous lack of ‘lawful calculation and other procedures through which beauty is brought out.’[4] Edgar Allan Poe explained his recipe for the writing of ‘The Raven’ in entirely technical terms.[5] And it wasn’t just radical groupuscules who enjoyed the automatisms: if the Surrealists were big on it, so was Georgie Hyde-Lees, the wife of W.B. Yeats. Examples are legion, but the point is not simply that there’s an august lineage of algorithmic experimentation in verse, but that the current epoch outsources, technicizes, and banalizes the theme. There is at least a quadruple assault:

  • no creator, but sets of impersonal processes;
  • no meaning, just combinations of letters;
  • no reading, just scanning or decoding;
  • no effect, just more bumpf to add to the unlimited excess of representations.[6]

Nor is that exciting and interesting things aren’t being done. Take Jonathan Basile, who recently recreated J.L. Borges’ Universal Library as a website.[7] The text you are now reading — as indeed all possible others — must be squirrelled away somewhere in its virtual stacks. For over two decades, the independent games developer Mez Breeze has been writing ‘mezangelle,’ a form of hybrid poetry drawing on programming code and online environments.[8] For his part, Christian Bök has pursued his incredible The Xenotext Experiment, which seeks to encode a poem into the extremophilic bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans.[9] And alongside the emergence of spoems, flarf, and conceptual poetry, there’s the attempt to write poetry that works simultaneously as poetry and as code. As Roopika Risam puts it: ‘In recent years, growing interest has emerged in the relationship between poetry and computer code. A higher brow version of ASCII art, code poems draw on programming languages like Java or C++ for their formal inspiration.’[10] Whereas I find many of these projects fascinating, I can’t abide the booster rhetoric that occasionally accompanies such attempts; for instance, the claims that such works ‘challenge the hegemony of natural languages’ or ‘break down old binaries’ or ‘are accelerating the post-human condition.’[11]

Marcel Duchamp loved word-games, especially puns and anagrams. Depending on how one enumerates or illiterates these things, potentially most of his oeuvre is comprised of such punagrams. They don’t tend to be good. Here’s one: Etrangler l’étranger (Strangle the stranger). Here’s another: Ruiner, uriner (Ruined, urined). Here’s yet another: Anémic cinéma (as it sounds), which became the title of a short film made with Man Ray and Marc Allégret.[12] Then there’s the notorious ‘rectified readymade’ of the Mona Lisa postcard, on which Duchamp scribbled a Dali-esque moustache and little beard, and inscribed the letters L.H.O.O.Q., which, when pronounced phonetically, become Elle a chaud au cul (She has a hot arse). He did it in English too: ‘Oh! do shit again!… Oh! douche it again!…’[13] Oh! Duchamp again!…. Why would ‘the most intelligent man of the twentieth century,’ as André Breton once called him, expend so much energy tarrying with such low forms?

In an odd little book titled Les noms indistincts, Jean-Claude Milner, acerbic French linguist and political commentator, has emphasized the constitutive play in all languages between homonymy and synonymy.[14] Taking both terms in a loose yet technical acceptation, homonymy concerns the sensory similitude of two different words, synonymy a similitude in sense between two different words.[15] In the first case, the same material is divided in meaning; in the latter, different materials are unified by meaning. Here’s a diagram, with homonymy on the left, synonymy on the right (sg = signifier, sd = signified, but let’s not get too hung up on these terms here):


The pun is perhaps the most familiar instance of the operations of homonymy in everyday life; the thesaurus, of synonymy. What interests Milner is that, at rare and hazardous moments, homonymy can debouch to synonymy, in a kind of internal short-circuiting of language itself. Such an event paradoxically discriminates indiscernibles in and as the binding of disparities. Here’s another diagram for you, of what I’ll call synomonymy:


What I want to convey with this diagram is how an event of synomonymy creates an inter-dimensional ‘plane’ which enables previously discriminated terms to cross and communicate in a new distribution of the sensible (to use Jacques Rancière’s phrase, if here in a radically different sense).[16]

Lits et ratures, Duchamp also writes, thereby decomposing the French for Littérature into something like ‘Beds and erasures.’ Superbly translated by Elmer Peterson as Litter erasure, you can start to see Duchamp’s jeux d’esprit less as occasional libidinal emissions and more as an ongoing minimalist experiment with the basic components of communication itself.[17] It’s as if he seeks to localize the nomadic non-place at which homonymy and synonymy cross, to unleash maximal effects from minimal events in a kind of synomonymy. In this case, the genre of literature starts to literally unmake itself with its own name: who’s lying in those beds? are they asleep or awake, alone or with others, masturbating or snoring? are the makers the bodies that are rubbing together or which have been rubbed out or are rubbing themselves out? It’s kinda lame and kinda conceptual, all at once.

You can perhaps also see how Duchamp became the most influential artist of the last century, despite his own well-known infirmity of (traditional) artistic talent. If it is now clear that his influence on subsequent art has been more profound than Picasso’s, this is partially because he’s also one of the first and most radical auto-deskillers of modernity, a peripatetic prophet of precarity. What can art be made out of? Anything. Where can it be found? Anywhere. Who can make art? Anyone — no, anything! The possibility of the full automation of art immediately arises: it can be made by machine, by chance processes, by simply moving stuff from one place to another. But this possibility simultaneously threatens the consistency of the concept and practice of ‘art’ tout court, if it doesn’t do away with it altogether. If, on the one hand, Duchamp utterly reconceives the materials, forms, practices and contexts of art according to this practice of synomonymy, on the other he anticipates in his life and work the contemporary problems of deskilled and deracinated cognitive labour.

The potential irrelevance of the artist of course gets a guernsey from all sorts of places. The OuLiPo collective — founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, and counting Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Jacques Roubaud amongst their number — were especially hot for radicalizing the routines of algorithmic writing. OuLiPo is an abbreviation of Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, the Workshop of Potential Literature (which also goes quite nicely into English as WoPoLi). It is possibly the word ‘potential’ that needs the most attention here. As Queneau himself said, ‘this word must be understood in a variety of senses.’[18] For instance, as Roubaud & Marcel Bénabou somewhere put it, potential certainly signifies that literature can be produced in unlimited quantities until the end of the universe, even in the absence of any particular species to do it. But ‘potential’ can also mean: ‘inactual’ or ‘not-actualized,’ perhaps even ‘un-actualizable.’ What could it mean to produce infinite quantities of something that can’t be? And where, exactly, could such infinite potential reside or take place? As is well known, it was through the thematization and radicalization of the use of constraints that OuLiPo flourished.[19]

Queneau himself is famous for a whole series of incredible intellectual feats, not least the transcription and assemblage of one of the most influential works of philosophy of the 20th century, Alexandre Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel.[20] In addition to much else, Queneau is the creator of Cent mille milliards de poèmes, glossed by Beverly Charles Rowe, one of his most inventive translators, as follows. The book

is derived from a set of ten basic sonnets. In his book, published in 1961, they are printed on card with each line on a separated strip, like a heads-bodies-and-legs book. All ten sonnets have the same rhyme scheme and employ the same rhyme sounds. As a result, any line from a sonnet can be combined with any from the other nine, giving 1014 (=100,000,000,000,000) different poems. Working twenty-four hours a day, it would take you some 140,000,000 years to read them all. [21]

In other words, Queneau has written an enormous number of poems that he did not write. The relation between ‘constraint’ and ‘potential’ is pushed to an extreme. But it occurs as a practice which machines themselves do not (yet) do themselves, precisely because it bears on what I’ve been calling synomonymy. Such constraint-laden creation involves writing as a kind of partnership with the Other, that is, with the Other of constraint. If we are indeed in an epoch of the literally unreadable, in which all that is written melts into wifi, perhaps the true hegemon is not ‘natural language’ or ‘binaries’ as such, nor even the law of non-contradiction, inscribed in our universal machines at the most fundamental level, but a lack of a lack of constraint.[22]

Yet as Perec, perhaps the greatest of all the Oulipians, objects:

When you set up a system of constraints, you have to have anti-constraint in it. You must — and it’s very important — you must destroy the system of constraints. It mustn’t be rigid, it has to have some play, it has to creak a bit; the system mustn’t be entirely coherent: the clinamen in Epicurus’s atomic theory; the world works because there was an imbalance at the start.[23]

The clinamen withdraws from as it establishes the system of the cosmos. The latter may indeed be algorithmic, but, as Alain Badiou explains: ‘the clinamen is outside time; it is not in the chain of effects. Every effect is submitted to the law. The clinamen has neither past (nothing engages it), nor future (there is no longer a trace of it), nor present (it has neither place nor moment). It only takes place to disappear, it is its own disappearance.’[24]

Perhaps this is one paradigmatic modality of contemporary poetry against technics: to radicalize technics to the point where the potentiality of disappearance is actualized. Against the levelling of all existence to that of informatics, poetry survives by unleashing the anti-constraint of a vanishing synomonymy, the flash of an unmodulable ontological disjunction.

Photo credit: Justin Clemens

[1] J. Clemens, ‘Boom Boom,’ Australian Humanities Review, No. 58 (2015), p. 114.
[2] Sorry, but here’s an even more reprehensible instance of self-reference: J. Clemens and A. Nash, ‘Being and Media: digital ontology after the event of the end of media,’ Fibreculture, No. 24 (2015), pp. 6-32.
[3] If the literature on the ‘post-human’ is by now enormous, a useful brief of some central issues remains A. Arike, ‘What Are Humans For? Art in the Age of Post-Human Development,’ Leonardo, Vol. 34, No. 5 (2001), pp. 447-451; see also A. Ireland, ‘Catastrophe by default: Artificial Intelligence and the end of humanity,’ Accessed 24 August.
[4] F. Hölderlin, ‘Remarks on Oedipus,’ in J.M. Bernstein (ed.), Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003), p. 194.
[5] E.A. Poe, ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ Graham’s Magazine, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4 (April 1846), pp. 163-167.
[6] For a very interesting and accessible survey of the history of the study of combinatorial objects — ‘a comparatively new area of discrete mathematics’ — see J. Berstel and D. Perrin, ‘The origins of combinatorics on words,’ European Journal of Combinatorics, No. 28 (2007), pp. 996-1022. What is crucial to note with regards to combinatorics is that it deals only with laws pertaining to transformations upon letters themselves, that is, the ‘words’ it examines are purely planar insofar as they don’t involve any function of enunciation at all. The quite astonishing results that such combinatorics generate — such as the relations between ‘avoidable’ and ‘unavoidable’ regularities in finite or infinite strings of symbols from finite alphabets, or various theorems in symbolic dynamics —  doesn’t touch on the uses of language as game or name or reference.
[7] The site is at: Accessed 23 August 2015.
Basile gives a clear account of the project here: Accessed 23 August 2015.
An interview with Basile is available here: Accessed 23 August 2015.
[8] See the excellent review by R. Raley, ‘Interferences’: Accessed 23 August 2015. Also R. Risam: Accessed 23 August 2015.
[9] See a recent report from Bök himself here: Accessed 23 August 2015.
[10] See Accessed 23 August 2015.
[11] A savage critique of some of the claims made by the conceptual poets has been leveled by M. Yankelevich, ‘The Gray Area: An Open Letter to Marjorie Perloff,’ LARB, 13 July 2012, Accessed 23 August 2015. Or, as Astrid Lorange recently proposed to me regarding, not conceptual poetry per se, but a particular ‘cell’ of a few of the best-known conceptual poets: ‘we should reject some of their gestures, as ones that are either at best boring and false, and at worse deeply offensive.’ As she added: ‘What are the stakes for the renunciation of my authorship in this gesture, and does that sort of betray a position of relative power in my position being conceptually rich?’ Interview with A. Lorange for ‘Australian Poetry Today,’ 9 July 2015.
[12] Now of course available on YouTube here: Accessed 20 August 2015.
[13] See M. Duchamp, The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. M. Sanouillet and E. Peterson (New York: Da Capo, 1989), e.g., pp. 105-119.
[14] See J.-C. Milner, Les noms indistincts (Paris: Seuil, 1983), esp. Ch. 5. Or, as Giorgio Agamben puts it in a section entitled precisely ‘Homonymy’: ‘Even if we can completely distinguish a shoe from the term “shoe,” it is still much more difficult to distinguish a shoe from its being-called-(shoe), from its being-in-language. Being-called or being-in-language is the non-predicative property par excellence that belongs to each member of a class and at the same time makes its belonging an aporia,’ The Coming Community, trans. M. Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 73.
[15] In fact, this is preposterously simplified, not least because the real scholars of homonymy and synonymy refuse to oppose them in such a symmetrical fashion. For an excellent brief introduction to some of the complexities of the ancient philosophical relationship between homonymy and synonymy, see B. Cassin and I. Rosier-Catach, ‘Homonyme’ in B. Cassin (ed.), Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: dictionnaire des intraduisibles (Paris: Seuil/Dictionnaires Le Robert, 2004), pp. 569-579. They provide a diagram of (Plato’s nephew) Speusippus’s systematic classification, viz.

(identical words)
(different words)
(don’t designate the same thing)
(designate the same thing), eg., ‘animal’ for
man and ox
idios heteronuma
(properly heteronyms = don’t designate the same thing
(designate the same thing)
(different form and meaning but close)

Among many other boxed summaries, including several assaults on Aristotle, they also provide the following extraordinary table, laying out the taxonomies of Porphyry (P), Boethius (B), and the Paraphrasis Themistiana (T):


P homonumai B aequvioca

1. By chance

P apo tukhes

B casu

T fortuitu

Alexander (son of Priam)/Alexander (king of Macedon)

2. By intention, deliberate

P apo dianoias

B consilio

T hominum voluntate

2.1. by resemblance

P kath’ homoioteta

B secundum


eg., man/real portrait

man painted

2.2. by analogy

P kat’ analogian

B secundum proportionem

T pro parte

2.3. Unique Source 2.4. Unique Aim

P. aph’ henos kai pros hen, pollakhos legomenon [2.3. and 2.4. together designate the analogy of attribution, that is, the case of being]








e.g. principle = the origin in the series of numbers, the point in the line ab uno

e.g. medical, as in medical scalpel, medical potion

ad unum

e.g., healthy walk, healthy food, because they produce health (salus)

[16] See, inter alia, J. Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents, trans. S. Corcoran (Cambridge: Polity, 2009).
[17] Duchamp, p. 115. If Duchamp is a minimalist modernist, James Joyce is his maximalist interlocutor: Finnegans Wake as the unsurpassable Scripture of Synomonymy, if probably not of Parsimony or Parsed Simony. It’s also worth citing Duchamp’s acquaintance Jacques Lacan, and his just-as-unreadable elucubrations on Joyce, ‘Lituraterre,’ which begins: ‘Ce mot [Lituraterre] se légitime de l’Ernout et Meillet: lino, litura, liturarius. Il m’est venu, pourtant, de ce jeu du mot don’t il arrive qu’on fasse esprit: le contrepet revenant aux lèvres, le renversement à l’oreille. Ce dictionnaire (qu’on y aille) m’apporte auspice d’être fondé d’un depart que je prenais (partir, ici est répartir) de l’équivoque dont Joyce (James Joyce, dis-je), glisse d’a letter à a litter, d’une lettre (je traduis) à une ordure,’ Autres écrits (Paris: Seuil, 2001), p. 11. Lino is to make a stroke or line; litura is a smearing, anointing, alteration, a blemish or erasure; liturarius, books kept for the first draft of writings. The ‘Ernout-Meillet’ to which Lacan refers is A. Ernout and A. Meillet, Dictionnaire Étymologique de La Langue Latine: Histoire des Mots, first published in 1939, and now in its fourth edition, augmented by Jacques André (Paris: Klincksieck, 2001). I however relied upon J.E. Riddle, A Compete Latin-English Dictionary, for the Use of Colleges and Schools (London: Longman et al., 1844), mainly because it is freely available online, but also because, in the present context, I couldn’t get over the fortuity of the compiler’s name: JE Riddle
[18] R. Queneau, Letters, Numbers, Forms: Essays, 1928-70 (Urbana and Chicago: Unviersity of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 181.
[19] Bernard Magné gives a shortlist of: variations on poems, lipogrammatic translations, homophone games, hypograms, progressive semantic substitutions, anagram combinations, combinatorial texts, ‘Transformations of Constraint,’ Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 1 (2009), pp. 193-194.
[20] See A. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, assembled R. Queneau, ed. A. Bloom, trans. J.H. Nicols Jr (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1980).
[21] It is hard to recommend this site highly enough. Accessed 20 August 2015.
[22] As Barbara Cassin constantly argues, it is precisely against Aristotle — for whom the law of non-contradiction is the most certain of all principles — that the sophistic manipulation of homonymy is directed. See, inter alia, Jacques le sophiste, Lacan: Logos et psychanalyse (Paris: EPEL, 2012), whose title alludes to the great text by Denis Diderot Jacques le fataliste.
[23] G. Perec, ‘Conversation in Warsaw with Ewa Pawlikowska,’ Littératures, No. 7 (1983), cited in Magné, ‘Transformations of Constraint,’ p. 197. The role of chance or contingency (they are not necessarily the same thing) must be underlined in this context. As Epicurus himself puts in his ‘Vatican Sayings,’ ‘IX. Necessity is an evil; but there is no necessity for continuing to live subject to necessity,’ Epicurus, Letters, Principal Doctrines, and Vatican Sayings, trans. R.M. Geer (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1964), p. 66. If you’ll pardon even more spruiking on my part: my colleague Rowan Wilken and I are currently editing a volume on the contemporary legacy of Perec, titled The Afterlives of Georges Perec, slated for publication in 2016 by Edinburgh University Press.
[24] A. Badiou, Théorie du sujet (Paris: Seuil, 1982), p. 80.


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