Tag Archives: Bloomsday

Neural Streams of Consciousness

Style-extraction algorithms having reached the level of popular smartphone apps which could take the small-scale features of Hokusai’s wave or a Lichtenstein cartoon and apply them to a picture of one’s pet, it was only a matter of time before the technique was successfully applied to textual, rather than graphic, works. These first neural networks were mere mimics, more sophisticated versions of elementary Markov chains, which could produce plausible but nonsensical imitations of existing texts with no semantic content.

A breakthrough came with the Antal functor, which used a form of iterated adversarial machine learning algorithm to extrapolate multiple versions of a given text along many dimensions and then aggressively prune this ramifying cluster of words into “fixed points”, an unfortunate piece of mathematical jargon for what could be quite subtle and profound features of the source material. (The story of the functor’s use in extracting “virtual characters” from apparently objective and non-fictional texts, and the subsequent effects of this discovery on journalism and politics, have been told elsewhere.) Once this basic technique had been mastered, it could then be applied in an analogous way to that used in vision, sorting the qualities of a text on an approximate scale which ranged from such minutiae as idiosyncrasies of spelling or word frequency, to the characteristic syntactic patterns employed, and then on, with decreasing accuracy, into such large-scale qualities as extended metaphors, symbolic structures and plot.

The most famous application of this technique was the urDay service. The user registered his or her various social media accounts with urDay and allowed it to apply a battery of neural functors to the texts and images which flowed from them, taking these as a modern and technologically-mediated version of the stream of consciousness which had been pioneered in literature by Woolf and Joyce. The abstract versions of these could then be expressed in any number of ways: to generate wry or amusing animations with a cast of adorable algorithmically-generated mascots; inserted into an ever-changing roster of movie clips and viral videos as sarcastic commentary, witty cameo or heartfelt dialogues.

A set of textual plugins had been provided, more out of the curiosity of some of the development team and a sense of pride in their antecedence than any hope that urDay would have any serious impact on literary studies, much less kindle in its users a love of high modernism. With these, one could project the narration of one’s life in a kaleidoscope of styles and voices, just as Joyce had done in Ulysses: a cursory description of an annoying planning workshop or visit to a supermarket could be recounted in the language of high fantasy or science fiction. Use and abuse of these textual plugins became popular in certain literary circles, all the more because of the occasional thunderings against this digital prostitution of the art and craft of writing which came from the stodgier journals: although their output was, if anything, too facile and polished to really be groundbreaking as generated textual art, their use signalled that one was not above a certain populist bravado.

As is only natural, after a few years such collaborations seemed painfully dated, and the professional writers abandoned the field to those amateurs who enjoyed running an autoblog which gathered up and retold the output of their various encounters and days in the manner of, for example, a noir detective story, or an epic battle across frozen tundra, or a stylish psychodrama.

Their remained the matter of what became known as “the puzzles”. Certain scholars who had shifted from collaborating with the urDay plugins to analysing their outputs claimed that motifs and images seemed to be following patterns which, though elusive, could neither be attributed to the social media inputs, nor to the literary models used to generate the various styles. (The use of functorial analysis allowed this to be done with a degree of confidence.) For example, a week-long sequence from a university student’s autoblog, which alternated between a somewhat archaic translation of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Patti Smith’s memoirs, showed a striking affinity with certain of Pound’s Pisan Cantos, a work which neither the student nor her chosen electronic amanuenses had any connection. An archaeologist’s field notes, transformed into an elaborate science-fantasy scenario, spontaneously revealed a correspondence between certain ruins on the shores of the Persian Gulf and the galactic coordinates of active pulsars. Once one began looking for such patterns, it was said, they began to emerge everywhere, and perhaps it was this sense of ubiquity which explained the somewhat tepid response with which these demonstrations were greeted. While happy enough, at least in some circles, to let the false leads and teasing traps laid down by a legitimate genius like Joyce keep them busy for centuries to come, literary scholars saw the apparently limitless sea of neural “puzzles” as nothing more than an epiphenomenon of their computational origin, as uninteresting to them as the technical details of the programming languages used to create their word processors or functorial analysers.

Eventually, the “puzzles” became the hunting ground of that even more prolific realm of amateurism, the conspiracy theorists, to be added to their never-ending roster of patterns and coincidences, world without end.

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Usylessly

Instead of my usual blog post, this Bloomsday I made a Twitter bot, @usylessly, which posts the output of a neural net trained on the text of Ulysses. There’s a bit more information about it on the bot’s website.

Worldbuilding

My guests, at that time, were greatly interested in literature and displayed a marked predilection for works of fantasy, especially those composed in English during the twentieth century. I informed them that such works, although they had always had their defenders, were not held in high regard. It was difficult enough to make my meaning plain without insult, for the very things which captivated my guests – the maps, glossaries of invented languages and scripts, annals of kings and migrations of peoples that never were, or which were cobbled together from mythologies or revived notions of the historical past – were exactly those which seemed to the eyes of literary criticism to be trivial and childish. Once I had politely pointed out that Tolkien and his epigones, despite their popularity, were not ranked among the foremost writers, my guests (employing a grammatical mood of their language which I had always found somewhat slippery and which indicated, I think, in this case, that the question was in fact sincere in spite of its superficially seeming to be a mere act of politeness) asked for examples from the higher literary traditions of this period which would be would be more worthy of their study. I spoke of the revolution in acceptable subject matter and style which came with Modernism; of the importance of literature which allowed itself to slip the confines of suburban morality and deal with subjects hitherto barred by prudishness from serious writing. Without concealing my personal tastes, I suggested that the works of James Joyce epitomised this artistic revolution.

At our next conversation, my guests, who had absorbed the works in question with that speed and comprehensiveness which was one of the disquieting reminders that they were not, despite appearances, human, were full of enthusiasm for Joyce and particularly for Ulysses. (I did ask them, at a later date, for their opinion of Finnegans Wake, but confess that I could not grasp it, and was left with the same feeling as I have always had when an aficionado of cryptic crosswords attempts to induct me into their cult.) We talked of the stylistic brilliance and daring of the work, on the initimacy of characterisation made possible by the stream-of-consciousness technique, and of the relish which the author had for the least details of quotidian life. “And the world-building!” said one. “We now percieve that our admiration for Tolkien was ill-placed. How could one compare Minas Tirith with the marvellous city of Dublin, where the evidence of millennia is present at every turn? How delicately Joyce’s exposition hints at a whole world beyond its borders! We marvel at the subtlety and skill of his creation.”

Somewhat taken aback by what I took to be a display of naïveté, I objected that Joyce’s Dublin was no fictional creation: on the contrary, like Proust’s Paris, Dostoyevsky’s St Petersburg, or Flaubert’s Rouen, it was a transfiguration of the marvellous reality of an actual time and place into a great work of literature. I was rebuffed with what I understood to be one of my guests’ rare attempts at humour.

“Why, then, Joyce is no mere genius, but a thaumaturge of rare power, able to create real persons, a real city, an entire country with its painful and bitter history! These cities of which you speak, Paris, St Petersburg, Dublin: do you imagine that even the most obsessive novelist could represent but a shadow of their true immensity? For all that Bloom’s Dublin has an original in what your race are pleased to call ‘reality’, it is nothing more than a finely wrought tissue of words. But with such great artistry, it is understandable if you forget that even Joyce has given us only appearances.”

—from Hearn, The New Arcana Cœlestia: A Memoir of My Time with The Visitors

Ulysses: Alternate Endings

Ulysception

“What is this place?” asked Stephen. Eerie monuments stalked off to a fog-shrouded horizon: many were like trees and standing stones. Here and there were more disquieting shapes, like broken fragments of limbs or tremendous statues with blurred features. Voices seemed to murmur all around them in a hundred accents and languages.

“It’s a dream I shared with her,” replied Bloom. “We were happy here, for many decades. But it is too deep: too close to Limbo, the formless chaos behind all dreams.”

The murmuring voices rose around them, and with them a tide of dark river water. “A MacGarath O’Cullagh O’Muirk MacFewney sookadoodling and sweepacheeping round the lodge of Fjorn na Galla of the Trumpets!”

* * * * *

Stephen gasped on the floor of 7 Eccles Street, his head doused in cold water. “A bit of a turn,” said Bloom, “Syncope. Cold water the best remedy,” gesturing awkwardly with the chipped enamel basin he held.

“Mgkranow,” said the cat, as the ceiling caved in under the weight of a torrent of syllables.

* * * * *

“The fuck is this,” said the reader. “Hello there,” said Bloom, at his elbow. A crubeen span and continued to spin upon its trotter, tottering, trottering, teetering, tottering…


Hey Hey It’s Bloomsday

Standing outside Paddy’s Markets, a quartet of AUSTRALIANS wearing blackface, comically oversized leprechaun hats and hoisting pints of green Guinness and blocks of Coon cheese shout “Top o’ the morning to ye!” at passers-by.

MULLIGAN (aside): Stage Irish.

BLOOM: Come on now, that’s a bit much.

THE AUSTRALIANS (sobbing and exposing their stigmata): WE DIDN’T KNOW, WE CAN’T BE RACISTS, WE’RE NOT BRITISH/AMERICANS, STOP CENSORING US, WHERE’S YOUR FUCKING SENSE OF HUMOUR, &c.

They are impaled on a huge steel I-beam which slips from the crane of a nearby construction site.


Stephen Hero

—But Stephen, gasped Mr Deasy, what about our history?

Stephen grins and puts on a pair of sunglasses.

—History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.

He walks towards the camera as the school explodes.

Tales of Louchébem

In that time (so Master Borage relates) the makars of the city took such great delight in the precise description of the material circumstances of their tales that they durst not leave these to their own invention, holding that to do so were to pollute the purity of an history with the rank and egotistical sentiment of its creator, so as to bring it to the level of a mere tavern-ballad. In a sarcastic phrase that became notorious, one of these bards sneered, “How fortunate that the tempest should be such a punctual guest to the wrathful castle, and the downpour faithfully attend the hero’s funeral!” Whether this poet was, in fact, the first to consult an accurate record of the weather over a period of several years, and, willy-nilly, apply it to his own story, that his characters be subjected to the same happenstance of the elements as his readers, is not known. Certain it is, though, that the attested works of this period acquired a steadily greater encrustation of accidental detail, such as tide-tables, paradigms of dead tongues, minute descriptions of the city and the surrounding country, lists of the virtues of herbs and precious stones, annals of the heads of minor noble houses, folk songs, descriptions of military engines, fortifications and strategies, catalogues of the works of earlier poets, miracles of saints, monstrous births, horoscopes, laundry lists, bills of sale and merchants’ books of accounts, and so on, leaving the substance of the narrative as a mere footnote. It was not uncommon for the action of a poem in fifty cantos to be an event as trifling as an exchange of pleasantries between friends or the purchase of a heifer, swollen to great length by the intricate, skilfully versified and, as far as may be determined, accurate accumulation of incidental facts.

The apotheosis of this fashion was that bard who, not being satisfied with erecting a veritable encyclopædia as the background to his characters, was determined that their own lives be subject to the same stern rigour of verisimilitude, and sought to apply the then novel mathematical technique of probability to their fates. With the aid of a cousin versed in the arts of chance, vast tables were derived from the lists of births and deaths in the royal archives, and lots were faithfully cast. (It is said that the cousin went on to found the Insurer’s Guild.) The results of this endeavour are, of course, well known: the developing love triangle between a lord, his lady, and an equerry, which is abruptly cut off in the third stanza by the deaths of all three in a freak falconing accident, followed by the narration of their burial, the disposition of their household and a minor legal dispute over the succession to certain tenant farms. The bulk of the work is then occupied by an hundred and forty-seven stanzas in which the slow growth of grass about the noble tomb and over the simple churchyard plot of the servant is described in exquisite and beautiful detail, to the undying gratitude of Louchébem’s literati and the equally eternal exasperation of its schoolboys.

The Game Players of Dublin

He waits for the next player. Not another scholar or student, he hopes, but someone who comes for challenge of the game itself.

It has not been a while between players, for there is no time here, but if a state is embedded in another state in a certain relationship that can from at least one perspective be projected into what would be a series of interruptions in a timelike continuum, then we can say, all provisos accepted, that it’s been a while. And it usually is.

He always tries to guess where they will leave. He doesn’t like to think of it as giving up: it seems unfair. The game makes its player, he likes to tell himself. They leave where it is right for them to do so.

Will they be defeated by the arbitrary first level, its sheer surfaces affording none of the usual purchase expected of a traditional game mechanic? Grow as restive as the schoolchildren in the uneventful second? Or will they shy at the irruptions of Aquinas and the unexpected apparition of Blake’s buttocks on the beach in the second? (They will, he knows, very many of them, unless they take it for weird texture and aim for the true targets.)

Once past this introduction, the next three levels are relatively easy going, and he will have the pleasure of feeling the player settle into the familiar primary character, dumpy in his toothbrush moustache, warming up for the day’s obstacles.

Level seven is always a pleasure – the episodic nature, he supposes, gives a sense of reassuring form to the players, and is also a relatively safe arena where they can fool around with some advanced rhetorical weaponry. The practice will come in handy in nine – eight, admittedly, being something of a palate cleanser – when the first really powerful set of antagonists must be dealt with. There is no boss at this stage, but an elaborate melee which can weed out many casual players.

Usually this is when he can spot the remaining students. They panic, turn on the noclip cheat and start whizzing through the walls. (He’s seen it happen too many times to be disappointed.) And the players who remain with him are a joy to watch in the next few levels: the friendly primary is back, hopping between the floating islands of level ten, unlocking the hidden jam session in level eleven, and rounding on the first big boss in twelve.

The shifts of scale in this level are dizzying, and the tone of the game starts to darken, creating a sense of expectation which is deliciously wrong-footed by the sudden shift to the cloyingly moe atmosphere of level thirteen – assuming, of course, that the player hasn’t read any of the controversy about this level on the ‘net. He’s seen all the ways successful players negotiate the stickiness of this level. Most of them make it through by accepting the game logic on its own terms, although it can be played satisfactorily enough in irony mode, or even casting the character as the villain.

The fourteenth level takes 8-bit homage to a new level, beginning by appearing to drop the player out to a character terminal announcing “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” Those patient enough to persist after are treated to a recapitulation of the entire history of adventure gaming, in which interface design and play mechanics vary from minute to minute. Many players will give up in dismay or resort to cheats or walkthroughs, but those who do not can be lost for days as they hunt down allusions and easter eggs, a process which he never finds boring.

The level ends in a simulation of a chaotic MMPORG battle which leaves the player, once again in control of the primary, in the nightmarish, constantly shifting environment of the fifteenth level. The most dedicated players can find this level dull, confronting and repellent by turns, as the character is mocked, distorted, humiliated and degraded, and the use of multiplayer chat can give the level the feel of an unmoderated web forum from Hell.

Those who don’t make it to level sixteen have his sympathies, but he is always engrossed by how the survivors negotiate its elementary but interminable mazes, full of seemingly useless weapons and broken equipment. There are keys and treasures here, he is sure, that will keep the players busy for many years.

In the following level, he is allowed, with joy, to participate, almost to become a character himself, engaged in a grave and courteous duel with the primary and secondary character. This was the designer’s favourite – that other self of his, lost, long sleeping in Zurich.

And he? He is the mechanism of the game itself, an aspect of the designer, but also of all his collaborators, the players: he is the plotfarmer, the voyce. He has watched the primary, moustache abristle, vaulting rolling barrels of porter, countless times, as he and the player ascend the heights of the last chapter, up to the final boss, the great mamamonster, as much a libel of woman as Kong is of ape, to grapple with her great sentences, once more to rescue the princess of her from herself.