The Haunting Wordsworth: Romantic Poets and Monkeys With Typewriters

(x-posted to The Valve)

(UPDATED: I recommend the full text of Ray Davis’s post on the matter, available here.)

You might go on extending the list of explanations indefinitely, but you would find, we think, that all the explanations fall into two categories. You will either be ascribing these marks to some being capable of intentions (the living sea, the haunting Wordsworth, etc.), or you will count them as nonintentional effects of mechanical processes (erosion, percolation, etc.). But in the second case—where the marks now seem to be accidents—will they still seem to be words? Clearly not. They will merely seem to resemble words.
-Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory” (JSTOR link)

Suppose you confront a fallen pudding, or a toaster that would toast, but for that frayed power cord. It would be absurd to say, ‘I have no notion whatsoever what this…thing…is for.’ The fact that you call it a fallen pudding registers your awareness of what it was supposed to be for: eating.
-John Holbo, “Form, Function & Intention: Drafty Thoughts” (announcement and link here)

In their infamous article “Against Theory,” Knapp and Benn Michaels argued that if you happened across a reproduction of “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” and you decided that no purposive being was responsible, the illusion of meaning would vanish. In its place, you would merely have the curious presence of shapes resembling words.

In Holbo’s wonderfully provocative series of responses, continued with “Now God Help Thee, Poor Monkey!”, he drafted the outlines of an argument about replacing intention with function. For Holbo, the best way to understand language is by understanding what it does within a community: between people, rather than merely in the purposive mind of the author (which is nonetheless quite real). Holbo’s argument about normative function hasn’t assumed its final form, but I suspect it will have elective affinities with the account given by Ray Davis, who writes:

Most art is intentionally produced, and, depending on the skill and cultural distance of the artists, many of its effects may be intended. And yes, many people intentionally seek entertainment, instruction, or stimulation. But as with any human endeavor, that doesn’t cover the territory…Happy accident is key to the persistence of art across time, space, and community, and, recontextualized, any tool can become an object of delight or horror.

I generally agree with both Davis and Holbo: language is a functional melange of intention and accident. I would add that it is a functional result of intentions both conscious and unconscious. Bearing this in mind, let’s probe a little deeper into the specific examples that arise in these conversations.

The first example, provided by Knapp and Benn Michaels, is that of a Wordsworth poem appearing on a beach; the authors suggest a number of possible agents, including the “living sea” and “the haunting Wordsworth.” The play on “haunting” is instructive; as much as this is a fable about human speech, it is also the record of an anxiety about the meaning of natural landscapes and events. To the Romantics, Nature was meaningful and capable of expression; to Knapp and Benn Michaels, Nature is a series of meaningless “mechanical processes.” The beach is supposed to represent a blank slate upon which words either are or aren’t written. Really, however, it is a symbolic maneuver in a bizarre anti-Romantic fantasy. I imagine we have all had the experience of writing words in the wet sand of a beach, and then looking on as the surf gradually erases them. This is the world as the Romantics knew it:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In Shelley’s poem, Nature (particularly the natural process of decay) has an effect on the meaning of the inscription. It elevates it to the level of the sublime, in the full philosophical sense of the word. However, in “Against Theory,” the surf actually inscribes words, rather than washing them away. The result, that which “seems to resemble words,” brings us back to Immanuel Kant:

But what does even the most complete teleology prove in the end? Does it prove anything like that such an intelligent being exists? No; it proves nothing more than that because of the constitution of our cognitive faculties, and thus in the combination of experience with the supreme principles of reason, we cannot form any concept at all of the possibility of such a world except by conceiving of such an intentionally acting supreme cause. (Critique of the Power of Judgement, 5: 399)

Things in Nature seem to resemble words: they seem to have purposiveness. Kant’s fundamental insight was that order is purposive, but that the aesthetic is produced when you have the appearance of purposiveness without the knowledge of an end.

Thus, Kant is actually much more thorough and skeptical than Knapp and Benn Michaels. As several commenters on Holbo’s posts have noted, the argument in “Against Theory” isn’t very good, not least because it assumes that you can have knowledge of whether other beings are acting in an intentional manner in some direct, non-interpretive way. This amounts to completely dodging the so-called “problem of other minds.” Since you have to base your claims about intentionality on the fact that certain patterns appear to be intentional, which is circular, Knapp and Benn Michaels would have to conclude that an intentionally acting, supreme intelligent being does exist if similar-looking patterns appear in Nature (they do). Kant gets out of this problem by locating the circularity of this logic within the human mind, and calling the teleological assumption an inevitable result of the “constitution of our cognitive faculties.”

Holbo confronts the problem more directly. He cites Joseph Plunkett and William Paley on, respectively, the mystical and probabilistic arguments for a supreme cause, but rejects both of them. For Holbo, the liminal space between intentionality and mechanism becomes the realm of accident:

Suppose we find a screwdriver in the sand. Merely by seeing it as such, we register its function: driving screws. Also, if asked, we are prepared to presume it had a maker…We will not, certainly need not, assume anyone left this screwdriver as a message.

In short, he uses Paley’s argument from probability (it is very improbable that a universe ordered like ours could happen by accident) against Plunkett, and then uses the conjunction of intentionality (which is human) and accident (which manifests an absence of order) in order to refute Paley.

This brings us right back to Plunkett; you can’t use Paley to refute him if your next move is to refute Paley. Certainly, when it comes to small implements, the phenomenon of accident does not inspire a feeling of sublimity. In “Ozymandias,” however, the screwdriver in the sand does become something sublime. The tension between what is knowable and unknowable is the alternating presence and absence in things of an analogy with ourselves. We see ourselves in landscapes, animals, other people; then, just as quickly, they turn an alien face towards us, terrifying us with the prospect of destitution and oblivion.

I only have time to gesture at where this goes. People have a quite sophisticated grasp of the beautiful and the sublime; they write with sticks on the beach, watching in fascination as the surf rubs out each word, while simultaneously feeling in harmony with the larger pattern of the restless tide; they quote poetry to one another, unsure whether their own intentionality comes through when they repeat something originally written by Pablo Neruda or Bright Eyes. Meanwhile, scientists do all their work right at that line where the edifice of knowledge crumbles into guesswork.

Furthermore, we feel the acid of the sublime within our own selves, gnawing and disfiguring our words, threatening nonsense and madness. The reason that the image of the monkeys writing Shakespeare is so arresting is that we have typewriters (or laptops or what-have-you), and we don’t make particularly good use of them. Anybody who has ever tried to write a research paper or a dissertation can certainly identify with both of these paragraphs:

Moving from calculation to experiment, The Monkey Shakespeare Simulator, in existence since 2003 with a hundred monkeys typing at a vastly accelerated speed, has produced just nineteen letters from The Two Gentlemen of Verona after 42,162,500,000 billion monkey years: “Valentine. Cease to 1dor:eFLPoFRjWK78aXz …”

An enterprising experiment that involved real monkeys produced even more confounding results, not least because “they get bored and they shit on the keyboard rather than type …”

In the film Alien, human beings have to save themselves from the hideous alliance of computer (Ian Holm’s corporate android) and animal (the alien), notwithstanding the fact that they themselves are this hybrid. The problem with the monkey example is that the monkeys never pay attention to what they’re writing. They never develop any sort of organic, aesthetic relationship to it; if they did, it would compromise the randomness necessary for the experiment. However, if those monkeys were human beings, then the moment Shakespeare happened it would drag the whole bunch of monkeys along with it, away from the junkheap of “1dor:eFLPoFRjWK78aXz” and towards normativity. If that sounds like Harold Bloom, don’t blame me: I didn’t make Shakespeare the gold standard for monkey type. This is less Bloom than it is Douglas Hofstadter: in Godel Escher Bach, Hofstadter argues that a set of determinate formal parameters (in this case, the fact that the typewriter has a given number of keys, and is being typed on by monkeys) can eventually produce a self-referential system with the capacity for meaning. This meaning, however, is always haunted by its own incompleteness, amounting finally to Hofstadter’s own Godelian sublime.

In other words, we should not think of monkeys-with-typewriters as a story about the presence or absence of intentionality in the non-human world; it is really a story about the aleatory genesis of meaning by and for human beings.

Of course, it is possible to argue that we should not distort the meaning of the example of monkeys with typewriters: the fact that such monkeys might remind us of human beings is not germane to the point of the thought-experiment. Similarly, the fact that a beach is where shore meets ocean is not germane to the point in “Against Theory,” and the fact that the toaster is broken is not germane to the nature of a toaster.

Two responses:

1. Easy distinctions between “accidental” and “necessary” states or causes frequently break down themselves. I might assume that the function of a broken toaster is still to make toast, and that the malfunction is an accident. If, instead of a toaster, you have an iPod, that assumption is totally unwarranted. The batteries always run out, and the mechanism itself usually dies as a result of planned obsolescence.

2. The insistence on throwing away the ladder that delivers us to a logical equation is partly a result of our modern situation. In a comment, Holbo writes:

A magic elf has five dollars but gives three to John. How much money does the elf have now?

Bob has five dollars but gives three to John. How much money does Bob have now?

Swampman, a creature generated by thermodynamic miracle, has five dollars but gives three to John. How much money does Swampman have now?

It seems to me the answer, in each case, is 2 dollars.

In each case the answer is 2 dollars, because in each case the point of the statement is purely algebraic. If function y equals x – 3, and x = 5, then y(x) = 2. It doesn’t matter if you call y “magic elf” or “Bob.” This is the logic of capital — it doesn’t matter who buys a pair of shoes, the store still makes a net profit of $2 per customer. It is also the logic of the cellphone or instant messaging conversation. If cellphone interference produces a garbled sentence, I still assume that the person on the other end of the line meant to speak clearly, and I reconstruct their sentence to the best of my ability. Hofstadter mentions that most people can be fooled into thinking that a chat session with a computer is a conversation with a living human being: in the context of Internet chat, passing the Turing test becomes an achievable benchmark. So every time we do converse via computer with a human being, we have to do a lot of imaginative work making them live in all their glorious intentionality and complexity. There is always a strain involved, and hopefully it is clear that in many cases this continual digital remastering of the world is something of a comforting lie. Certainly, modern pop and punk music has benefited enormously by bringing finally to consciousness the wealth of distorted and atonal sounds we are normally supposed to ignore.

Speaking of aleatory things, I will end by pointing out that intentionality can enter into a relation with the sublime, something already suggested by the image of someone writing in anticipation of the surf. The Aeolian harp did not die out with Coleridge; John Cage created aleatory music by having multiple radios playing simultaneously on stage (as Hofstadter notes). To a greater or lesser extent, the aleatoric artist sets the parameters for the work, and these more blatantly open constructions take the place of the more conventional standards for achieved communication. We can use the Lilliputian, almost kindly language of accident to describe this aleatoric movement, or we can use the High Romantic vocabulary of wreckage and death. Regardless, we should not fail to see that Knapp and Benn Michaels have put Wordsworth on the beach in order to erase Wordsworth, and to erase Einstein on the beach, and finally to exorcise the sand and waves themselves: the haunting poet, the living sea.