Algorithmic Theory

Success in small matters. Perseverance furthers. At the beginning good fortune, at the end disorder. Water over fire: the image of the condition in AFTER COMPLETION. Thus the superior man takes thought of misfortune and arms himself against it in advance.

  1. Nine at the beginning means: He breaks his wheels. He gets his tail in the water. No blame.
  2. Six in the second place means: The woman loses the curtain of her carriage. Do not run after it; on the seventh day you will get it.
  3. Nine in the third place means: The Illustrious Ancestor disciplines the Devil’s Country.  After three years he conquers it. Inferior people must not be employed.
  4. Six in the fourth place means: The finest clothes turn to rags. Be careful all day long.
  5. Nine in the fifth place means: The neighbor in the east who slaughters an ox does not attain as much real happiness as the neighbor in the west with his small offering.
  6. Six at the top means: He gets his head in the water. Danger.

I was intrigued by Ramsay’s discussion of how the I Ching dissolves “boundaries between creation and interpretation,” generating a worldview “liberated from the suspicion that subjectivity compromises meaning” (45). Instead of one contiguous texts, think of the I Ching as a set of 4096 texts which only become available through an algorithmic deformation. The random number generating process (completed with coins, yarrow stalks, or a program) determines whether each line of the hexagram is broken/changeable, broken/unchangeable, unbroken/changeable, or unbroken/unchangeable. This process is repeated six times for a total of 4^6, or 4096 possible outcomes.

Ramsay uses the I Ching as an example of a text which can only be interpreted after it is deformed. Interpretation is inherently subjective because it requires the critic to choose one or more meanings from the set of all possible meanings contained within a text; some meanings are always left out. The I Ching sidesteps this dilemma by containing only one meaning: an algorithmic deformation will “determine the auspiciousness or inauspiciousness of a course of action and [give] some sense of how that course is likely to unfold” (38) in accordance to the readers ability to interpret it. The nonsensical nature of these deformations when taken at face value subverts the temptation to assume that the text itself contains some inner meaning which the reader must uncover (an assumption frequently made about horoscopes, for example); objective meaning only exists to the extent that the reader can subjectively arrive at it.

If I understand Ramsay correctly, he’s arguing in favor of developing algorithms which can strategically deform a text in order to enable readings which would have been otherwise impossible. In contrast to McGann’s narcissistic Ivanhoe Game, these deformations would be objectively produced through a pre-determined process. I wonder, however, if there might be some other way to merge the subjectivity of deformation with the objectivity of algorithms.

I wonder what it would look like to read a text based on an algorithmically determined theory. Instead of giving a text a feminist reading, for example, or a Marxist reading, one would employ some sort of algorithm to think up an entirely new theory and attempt to apply it to the text. After all, the I Ching is supposed to provide a theory for dealing with a specific aspect of everyday life. Put another way: what sort of reading of, say, “The Road Not Taken” might we come up with if you used the I Ching hexagram 63 (quoted above) as our theoretical text? What if we used hexagram xx (quoted below)? There are only so many post-colonial readings of Heart of Darkness–at some point they will all have been written. Algorithmic theories, if properly engineered, can be infinite.

In adversity it furthers one to be persevering. The light has sunk into the earth: the image of DARKENING OF THE LIGHT. Thus does the superior man live with the great mass: he veils his light, yet still shines.

  1. Nine at the beginning means: Darkening of the light during flight. He lowers his wings. The superior man does not eat for three days on his wanderings. But he has somewhere to go. The host has occasion to gossip about him.
  2. Six in the second place means: Darkening of the light injures him in the left thigh. He gives aid with the strength of a horse. Good fortune.
  3. Nine in the third place means: Darkening of the light during the hunt in the south. Their great leader is captured. One must not expect perseverance too soon.
  4. Six in the fourth place means: He penetrates the left side of the belly. One gets at the very heart of the darkening of the light, and leaves gate and courtyard.
  5. Six in the fifth place means: Darkening of the light as with Prince Chi. Perseverance furthers.
  6. Six at the top means: Not light but darkness. First he climbed up to heaven, then plunged into the depths of the earth.

(All quotations from the I Ching adapted from the Richard Wilhelm translation, chosen at random)

4 thoughts on “Algorithmic Theory

  1. Pingback: Week 4: Algorithmic Criticism | "Digital Humanities": Emerging Tools and Debates in Literary Study

  2. I’m struck by the following comment: “There are only so many post-colonial readings of Heart of Darkness–at some point they will all have been written. Algorithmic theories, if properly engineered, can be infinite.” To me, though, the tasks of these endeavors have much different stakes. A post-colonial (or other) reading is deployed for some ideological or moral purpose- it’s working to prove something. Algorithms seem to be able to be used to either supplement criticism (providing you data for those criticisms) or to produce infinite versions of non-linear literature (Oulipo). I don’t quite believe that using algorithms over and over will produce infinite THEORIES. I think it produces infinite data perhaps but there is a vast difference between that and a well-executed smart reading of a text. So are we really ready to forego literary work in lieu of algorithmic criticism? Or would a more worthwhile pursuit be to supplement our (sometimes tired) methods with algorithmic criticism? (To produce perhaps a more nuanced or interesting new reading of Heart of Darkness)

    • Really interesting points! I would point out however, that the I Ching does in fact carry an enormous amount of moral/ideological weight in many East Asian cultures. That is to say, I’m not at all convinced that moral/ideological projects and algorithmic theories are necessarily mutually exclusive. Of course, the question then becomes, how exactly does one write a moral algorithm?

  3. The chief good, I think, for Ramsay is makerliness. Do cf. the little afterword: “What brought people together from across a startlingly diverse set of disciplines and professional roles was the shift from criticism to creation;” “everyone in the field was involved in building something;” “the shift from theorizing about games and We sites to building them [is jarring, radical];” “building deepens and enriches … engagement” (84-85). Our made thing allows us new “phenomenal experience” (10). Such objects and such experience might bring us (though never without our consent) to fresh theorization. Considering Mueller’s lists, “we would teeter between confirming our own theories and forming new ones. At a certain point our narrative could no longer be said to resemble the one that supposedly explained the very thing that threated to make us ‘stop’ reading right there. Algorithmic criticism is born at this moment, but it need not be born” (71). The goodness or the badness of any one theory is a question the treated object’s richness. And yet that celebration—if only by theory—of the objects we’ve made lies, I think, somewhere between onanism (publicly done) and boastful comment about one’s own child.

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