Friday 18 March 2016

Chance seems to be only a term, by which we express our ignorance of the cause of any thing

[Page 2 of A Humument. Left: Original. Middle: First Version 1973. Right: Second Version 2013 From HERE.]

Chance plays an important part in many of the processes of nature and in human lives. But our common - sense notion of chance is not usually explicitly related to the mathematical concept of randomness and for many people chance is merely shorthand for unpredictability; we all know that we will die one day, but have no real way of predicting when, where, or how we will die - it will be a matter of chance. The use of the specific word chance as a way of signifying ignorance or unpredictability is longstanding - for example in The Religion of Nature Delineated (1722) the English writer and cleric William Wollaston (1659--1724) concludes that;

Chance seems to be only a term, by which we express our ignorance of the cause of any thing.

Chance is also vital in the sciences, where a more formal concept of randomness is an essential part of physics, probability theory and statistics. On further reflection the common-sense notion of chance leads to interesting philosophical and mathematical issues that relate to predictability, randomness, statistics and the computer science problem of generating random numbers from a well defined and deterministic computer programme.

Given the pervasive role that chance plays in nature, life and science it would be surprising if it did not also play an important role in the creative process. In fact a probabilistic, or aleatoric, approach to generating art - using chance as an agent for creating artistic novelty, is a surprisingly old idea. In order to give a framework in which probability can be used, it is generally useful to define a set of items that are then subjected to the laws of chance. For example, the six sides of a dice are subjected to random shaking and rolling before one side shows up. A classic example in art is the infinite monkey theorem; one version of this states that a single immortal monkey typing randomly on a typewriter keyboard will eventually reproduce the script of Shakespeare's Hamlet. This motif was first used  by the French mathematician Émile Borel to illustrate the abstract idea of a random process running for infinity (Borel, É. Mécanique Statistique et Irréversibilité, J. Phys. 5e série, vol. 3, pp.189-196.) The main idea here is that the monkey will exert no conscious direction to the stream of characters that are spewing from the typewriter - and that over an infinite length of time, and purely by chance, the Hamlet script will appear.
This is a fascinating and provocative thought experiment. There are many logical and artistic consequences that result from the completely random permutation, combination and re-combination of a small set of alphabetic symbols. These consequences were of particular interest to the Argentinian writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in an essay and several short stories, written and published between 1939 and 1941, he explored this idea; a book, or a library of books, created by combinatorial or random processes.

In his essay, The Total Library (1939), Borges traces the origin of random text generation back to the discussion of the atomism of Leucippus in the Metaphysics of Aristotle. The thread extends through Cicero's explicit use of the metaphor of random text generation to refute atomism in his book De Natura Deorum. Borges follows the history of the idea through Blaise Pascal to a celebrated example of random text generation in Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). 

Borges concedes in The Total Library that theoretically a random process could create a meaningful text if it ran for an infinite length of time, but he also describes the nightmarish side effect of this process - an astronomical number of volumes of text, the overwhelming majority of which will be absolute rubbish. Borges describes the output;
Everything would be in its blind volumes. Everything: ...the proof of Pierre Fermat's theorem, the unwritten chapters of Edwin Drood, ... the paradoxes Berkeley invented concerning Time but didn't publish, ... Everything: but for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings. Everything: but all the generations of mankind could pass before the dizzying shelves - shelves that obliterate the day and on which chaos lies - ever reward them with a tolerable page.

Borges moved from non-fiction to fiction to further explore this theme, and he revisits it, in even more extreme form, in a short story called The Library of Babel published in 1941. The story begins with a quotation from The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) by Robert Burton;  By this art you may contemplate the variation of the twenty-three letters.

This quotation serves to outline the theme of the story and subliminally refers to how different cultures have used the chance permutation of letters, or pictographic symbols, as a way of trying to explain and understand infinity and the unpredictability of the future.

The Library of Babel describes a complete universe in the form of a vast library, arranged on a hexagonal floor plan, that contains all possible variations of a 410-page book of a certain format. The books contain every possible ordering, or permutation, of a basic set of letters, white spaces and punctuation. There is no known plan for the library and the order of the books appears to be random. This is a labyrinthine and nightmarish form of infinity, generated by endless permutations and combinations of a small set of symbols. The number of volumes that are possible with this scheme is incredibly large, the mathematician William Goldbloom Bloch estimates it is 2 x 10^1,834,097, a number that is so far beyond astronomical that Bloch calls it unimaginable.

Borges hit upon a key aspect of random text generation and he describes it brilliantly. A mathematician can play with the theoretical idea of creating random permutations of symbols over an infinite length of time and be oblivious to its side-effects. In the end the process will deliver the prize they seek - a given coherent text. But a writer and librarian like Borges cannot accept the price that needs to be paid for this prize. The overwhelming feeling we get when reading Borges words is his horror at a universe full of books of rubbish. Completely random generation of text leads inevitably to unimaginable volumes of output, which contain a vanishingly small number of coherent texts embedded in a universe of rubbish. This is clearly an obtuse way to create works of literature, but perhaps a little chance can go a long way - the addition of a small element of randomness or chance is a useful way to help an artist create real and useful novelty. 

In 1965 the Paris Review published an interview with the writer William S. Burroughs. In this interview Burroughs described the experiments that he had been undertaking with random text collage, or  cut-up, techniques for creating new literature; Cut-ups establish new connections between images, and one's range of vision consequently expands.

As Burroughs noted at the time these literary collage techniques had antecedents in earlier work; the original cut-ups of Brion Gysin (1916--1986), the Dada poetry of Tristan Tzara (1896--1963) and the fractured prose Camera Eye sequences of John Dos Passos (1896--1970). The cut--up method relies on a dynamic tension between chance and the conscious (or sub-conscious) creativity of the artist. Burroughs describes this well in the Paris Review article;

Interviewer: Instead of going to the trouble of working with scissors and all those pieces of paper, couldn't you obtain the same effect by simply free-associating at the typewriter?

Burroughs: One's mind can't cover it that way. Now, for example, if I wanted to make a cut-up of this [picking up a copy of The Nation], there are many ways I could do it. I could read cross-column ... you find it often makes quite as much sense as the original. You learn to leave out words and to make connections. Suppose I should cut this down the middle here, and put this up here. Your mind simply could not manage it. It's like trying to keep so many chess moves in mind, you just couldn't do it. The mental mechanisms of repression and selection are also operating against you. 

Burroughs' experiments with cut-up clearly have chance at their heart. But they use chance as  away of generating novel juxtapositions of chunks of already coherent text. They are random shufflings of elements that already exist and they add a touch of chance.

In 1965 the prolific British artist Tom Phillips, a painter, poet, printmaker, writer and composer, read the William Burroughs interview in the Paris Review. As a result of reading the interview, Tom Phillips began experimenting with the cut-up technique himself. After he had played with the technique and made his own experiments, in the form of column-edge poems from copies of the New Statesman, Phillips decided to pursue the technique more seriously and he made himself a rule that the first coherent book he could find for threepence would be used for an extended art work based on the cut-up approach.

One saturday morning in 1966, whilst on a shopping trip with his friend Ron Kitaj in Peckham, East London, Tom Phillips spent threepence buying a copy of a single volume reprint of A Human Document by W.H. Mallock. This book had originally been published as a three volume work in 1892 by Cassells in New York but then in a one volume edition by Chapman & Hall in London. Fortuitously, for what Phillips wanted to do with it, the novel pretends to be a discovered journal.

Phillips took A Human Document and began modifying it; the title was edited by extracting the central letters an Doc, to leave A Humument. The pages of the book were also edited. However, instead of physically cutting the book up, in the way that William Burroughs might of, Tom Phillips drew, painted and defaced the pages of the book. This is not artistic cut-up but an artistic cover-up; the book is a magical collection of incredible pages made of a combination of a few of the original words from Mallocks page and the visual imagination of Tom Phillips. This modified book was published by the Tetrad private press in 1970 and it has been continually modified and re-published ever since. Recently Phillips has released an iPad application based on A Humument, and he believes that this is perhaps the best version yet. 

However, A Humument didn't exhaust Tom Phillips' interest in A Human Document, he has produced a libretto for an opera, Irma, from the book along with numerous other works. In fact this single book, over the past 45 years, has been very thoroughly explored by Tom Phillips. As Phillips explains, the book has provided an unbelievably rich basis for his work;
... for what were to become my purposes, his book is a feast. I have never come across its equal in later and more conscious searchings. Its vocabulary is rich and lush and its range of reference and allusion large. I have so far extracted from it over one thousand texts, and have yet to find a situation, statement or thought which its words cannot be adapted to cover.
Another example of Phillips' mining of the Mallock source material is the illustrated edition of his translation of Dante's Inferno. For this Phillips required 100 parallel texts, which he generated from the original Mallock book. For example;

My story of a soul's surprise, a soul
which crossed a chasm in whose depths I find
I found myself and nothing more than that.

A single, rather outdated and idiosyncratic, book has given Phillips an unbelievable canvas on which to create. Phillips has used a range of cover--up and randomisation methods, for example, he describes taking page 99 of A Human Document and dividing it into half. Then by tossing coins, every word except one per side was eliminated by chance. Just how much can be obtained from a single book with collage is shown by A Humument, an inspired and determined exponent of intense seeing has created from a single book, of finite and rather modest volume, a nearly infinite universe of variations.