Poetry by Algorithm
This is poetry made from recycled text. Hannes Bajohr uses his own words along with passages from websites, excerpts from Peter Weiss’ notebooks, minutes of the German Bundestag or calligraphy by Apollinaire, and fragments, transcribes and newly arranges these texts with the help of algorithms.
By Friederike van Stephaudt
The author of Halbzeug (Half-Stuff) approaches other people’s sentences respectfully, finding appropriate modifications for each. At the end of each unit, readers can trace in detail which kind of processing the text has undergone: Some sentences have been automatically halved, others read aloud into a mobile phone using word recognition, and on at least one occasion, “[a]ll user-written erotic stories listed on german.literotica.com [were] gathered into a corpus using the Kimono web scraper […] and parsed with a Python script that screens out all instances that are recognisable as German words; sorted alphabetically”.
This process results in image-rich, surprisingly dense poems, word arrangements and graphics. In impressive fashion, Bajohr sketches a new concept of authorship that lies in the digital infiltration of the established.
Between ennui and innovationIt’s a fascinating game of words orchestrated by a literary scholar. While it may not always be entirely clear who has the upper hand, readers definitely have a lot to gain: Each page offers a unique opportunity to scrutinise, or even abandon, their own reading habits.
However, the game also reveals the ennui that has existed in literature ever since the Decadent movement: How can I create something new when everything has been already said? Every arrangement of words already exists, the idea of the creative genius hasn’t been in vogue in literary reception for a long time. So why not use modern technology to uncover a new – i.e. one not created by humans – and arbitrary word structure? Why not put to use the very thing that strikes fear into the hearts of writers?
Forms of poetryBajohr uses this seemingly fatal blow and turns it into its opposite: By bringing together the old, namely already existing texts, and the new, namely digital processing programs, he proves that old and new aren’t always mutually exclusive; they can work together, and something completely new can emerge from their symbiosis – powerful, multi-layered poetry.
At the same time, a gentle poetry of the everyday shines through in these texts: After all, Bajohr uses everyday programs, normally used in a goal-oriented and pragmatic way, to produce poetry – which traditionally eludes the fast pace of the outside world.
A seemingly deceptive process in a deceptive mass of written sentences, cleverly decoded and tied to a philosophical tradition by Bajohr: “Where everything is text, everything is reading, everything is writing. Where everything is text, there is no oeuvre anymore, only half-stuff.”
Bajohr, Hannes: Halbzeug. Textverarbeitung
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2018. 107 pages.
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