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«Defamiliarization: Flarf, Conceptual Writing, and Using Flawed Software Tools as Creative Partners Richard P. Gabriel IBM Research 3636 Altamont Way, ...»

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Knowledge Management & E-Learning: An International Journal, Vol.m, No.n. 1

Defamiliarization: Flarf, Conceptual Writing, and Using

Flawed Software Tools as Creative Partners

Richard P. Gabriel

IBM Research

3636 Altamont Way, Redwood City CA 94062

E-mail: rpg@dreamsongs.com & rpg@us.ibm.com

Abstract: One form of creativity uses defamiliarization, a mechanism that

frees the brain from its rational shackles and permits the abducing brain to run

free. Mistakes and flaws in several software tools are shown to be the starting points for increased creativity and better art, and a theory explaining the phe- nomenon is proposed.

Keywords: writing, poetry, creativity, flarf.

Biographical notes: Richard P. Gabriel received a PhD in Computer Science from Stanford University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wil- son College. He is a researcher at IBM Research, studying art, science, and the philosophy of software.


Shem raised the rope and forced his bulky frame through chapped his knees when they allowed a braying ass through the holy gates but it’s holy shit fire downtown his oiled black hair glistened in the sun as the ass was led around the path toward the pinnacle of the secret of the hiding place of the Holy Ark Noah bitched and moaned about the count so Yaphet used the pinnacle of a technical split legged capture bomb (holy fuck) this kicked all kinds of ass Ham completely destroyed his bitch ass f A poem like this is easy to dislike.

But it’s flarf [1] and I wrote it in 2003 using Google to search for documents men- tioning terms not likely to appear together—here “ark,” “pinnacle,” “ass,” and “holy”— and then I worked with some of the returned synopses pasted together as a first draft. The 2 Gabriel, R. P.

point of working this way isn’t to be cute but to assist the mind in finding unfamiliar situ- ations, novel language, unexpected combinations, and therefore new territory to explore and thereby to make new discoveries possible, finally leading (perhaps) to fresh under- standing.

I call this defamiliarization; it’s not a new technique—in the past we noticed de- familiarization when the artist appeared to have a strong streak of idiosyncratic creativity and we admired the unusual mind operating behind the scenes. My use of this term is not the same as Victor Shklovsky’s, who used it to describe the outcome of an artistic process [2]. That is, Shklovsky described as defamiliarized those poems or other pieces of writing that used unfamiliar and disquieting language and images to disturb and disrupt the read- er in order to make the poem or piece more vivid and to invite the reader to look afresh at the thing(s) described. My use locates defamiliarization in the creative process itself and characterizes it as a mechanism to invite—or more accurately, to force—the artist to explore more deeply and widely in creating the piece.

Exploration is essential to artists; artists thrive on a sort of defocused attention, engaging in flat associations by going broad not deep. This is exploration; by noticing, artists begin to discover. Discovery is making connections, and this is where metaphors pop up. The fiction writer Peter Turchi writes that exploration is “some combination of premeditated searching and undisciplined, perhaps only partly conscious, rambling,” and that “if we persist, we discover” [3].

Exploration is opening the mind to possibilities; discovery can be literal discovery, such as finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but sometimes it’s a guess—this is the best way to structure the story, the best image to convey the narrative or lyrical point, or the best explanation of what you saw while exploring; understanding is coming to believe (based on gathered evidence) that the discovery or guess is valid—that it is right, that it is what is needed, and perhaps why it’s valid.

Turchi says, “exploration is assertive action in the face of uncertain assumptions, often involving false starts, missteps, and surprises” [3]. Discovery, as William Stafford might say, is a “reckless encounter with whatever comes along” [4].

Artistic creation is as much about being lost as exploring known—even halfknown—territory. Great explorers don’t explore the parts of the map that have names.

Turchi sums it up like this:

Artistic creation is a voyage into the unknown. In our own eyes, we are off the map. The excitement of potential discovery is accompanied by anxiety, despair, caution, perhaps, perhaps boldness, and, always, the risk of failure. Failure can take the form of our becoming hopelessly lost, or pointlessly lost, or not finding what we came for (though that last is sometimes happily accompanied by the discovery of something we didn’t anticipate, couldn’t even imagine before we found it). We strike out for what we believe to be uncharted waters, only to find ourselves sailing in someone else’s bathtub. Those are the days it seems there is nothing new to discover but the limitations of our own experience and understanding. [3] Many artists—particularly experimental artists (defined below; but it doesn’t mean avant-garde)—use a process of creating a first “draft” of the piece and then using that

draft as a partner in the creative process. Fiction writer Robert Boswell puts it this way:

I have grown to understand narrative as a form of contemplation, a complex and seemingly incongruous way of thinking. I come to know my stories by writKnowledge Management & E-Learning: An International Journal, Vol.2, No.1. 3 ing my way into them. I focus on the characters without trying to attach significance to their actions. I do not look for symbols. For as long as I can, I remain purposefully blind to the machinery of the story and only partially cognizant of the world my story creates. I work from a kind of half-knowledge.

In the drafts that follow, I listen to what has made it to the page. Invariably, things have arrived that I did not invite, and they are often the most interesting things in the story. By refusing to fully know the world, I hope to discover unusual formations in the landscape, and strange desires in the characters. By declining to analyze the story, I hope to keep it open to surprise. Each new draft revises the world but does not explain or define it. I work through many drafts, progressively abandoning the familiar. What I can see is always dwarfed by what I cannot know. What the characters come to understand never surpasses that which they cannot grasp. The world remains half-known.

… There can be no discovery in a world where everything is known. A crucial part of the writing endeavor is to practice remaining in the dark. [5]

–  –  –

quires guessing—abduction. But, any performed abduction takes place implicitly in the subject’s mind. This test measures implicit learning—or implicit abduction: what grammar can give rise to the 45 test strings?

Now consider a modified experiment: suppose a group of 40 people, broken into two 20-person groups, is asked to do the above exercise, but before that, the members of each group are asked to read an illustrated short story. One group reads a revision of Kafka’s “The Country Doctor,” which is a (slightly) absurdist story; the other group reads a straightforward version of the same story [7] (see Appendix for a description of the stories). What would happen?

Camus wrote about Kafka:

In this fundamental ambiguity lies Kafka’s secret. These perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning. [8] Travis Proulx and Steven J. Heine did this experiment, and found that the group that read the absurd version of the story were 26% more accurate (correctly identified strings from the grammar) than the other, and classified 33% more strings as belonging to the grammar (ignoring whether they were right or wrong) [9]. Proulx and Heine claim this latter result is because of increased motivation, but perhaps it’s just increased energy.

Though I didn’t do the experiment, my interpretation of its results differs from those researchers. The straightforward version of the story is linear and boring. It doesn’t require any guesswork to get its “meaning,” which in this case is nothing more than its (dull) plot and happy ending. The absurd version is not particularly crazy or surreal, but it does call for lots of abduction to try to make sense of it. Like many surreal and absurdist stories, no abductions work well, and the reader is left with a sense of mystery and strangeness. But the brain is hard at work abducing and becoming defamiliarized. No wonder, then, that a mind open to far-flung connections is able to learn a little more effectively and confidently.

Defamiliarization seems a way to get the brain abducing and hence exploring and discovering. Given this, we can argue that tools for helping creativity need not be secondclass participants but essential partners to making the new really and radically new.

f Creative work can be experimental, like Robert Boswell’s half-known world, or conceptual. Experimental work refers to a method of creation in which the work—the piece created—emerges as the work proceeds. A good way to think of this is to imagine a painter confronting a blank canvas and simply beginning, waiting for what will emerge to come along. Paul Cézanne was such a painter. He did few studies before taking to the canvas.

The term “experimental” is, in this context, unrelated to the term “avant-garde,” which refers to pushing the boundaries of accepted art. Here it refers to a way of working, an iterative, incremental, and ultimately agile way of working in which the art is revealed as the piece evolves.

Some experimental writers start with a scene or a situation, sometimes just a sense or feeling—and that becomes a novel. The poet Robert Hass says he starts with a phrase, a word, or a line and a gesture, a physical gesture in the air that indicates, for example, a rising energy level or a decline or some more complicated shape—and the result is a poem [10].

Knowledge Management & E-Learning: An International Journal, Vol.2, No.1. 5 Once a draft begins to take shape—a draft of a written piece or paint on the canvas or some shards off the rock or some notes on the guitar—a process of understanding begins.

This is the revision process where what has been discovered is examined and the best story / painting / sculpture / composition is created. Sometimes these drafts are in the form of sketches or studies when the medium is not malleable.

Again, Turchi: “Only after discovery can the work be properly structured, can the selection and organization of the significant moments of time take place” [3]. He continues:

If we attempt to map the world of a story before we explore it, we are likely either to (a) prematurely limit our exploration, so as to reduce the amount of material we need to consider, or (b) explore at length but, recognizing the impossibility of taking note of everything, and having no sound basis for choosing what to include, arbitrarily omit entire realms of information. The opportunities are overwhelming. [3] Experimental art is the epitome of exploration and discovery.

Artists who have produced experimental innovations have been motivated by aesthetic criteria: they have aimed at presenting visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. [11] But not all creators work exclusively in the realm of “stuff”; not all writers write without a plan, without a concept; not all scientists work exclusively from data to hypothesis. Lots of creative work is not the product of unbounded exploration and discovery; lots of work is based on concepts.

In contrast, artists who have made conceptual innovations have been motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can usually be stated precisely, before its production, either as a desired image or a desired process for the work’s execution. Conceptual artists consequently make detailed preparatory sketches of plans for their paintings.

[11] Cézanne, an experimental painter, played. He struggled to develop an authentic observation of the seen world by the most accurate method of representing it in paint that he could find. To this end, he structurally ordered whatever he perceived into simple forms and color planes (abstractions). His artistic goals were things he could only approach and never achieve, and that’s why he kept trying, with his best works coming late in life.

His ideas were not concepts that came in a Paul Cézanne: A Modern Olympia flash, but something he painted and painted and painted. He stalked art, he pursued it like a series pursues its convergence.

Picasso, a conceptual painter, thought of himself as someone from whom art sprung whole. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered by many to be his masterpiece. He carefully planned it. The painting portrays five nude prostitutes in a brothel in Barcelona. The figures are physically jarring, none conventionally feminine, all slightly menacing, and each is rendered with an angular and disjointed body shape. Two of the women have AfGabriel, R. P.

–  –  –

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

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