The Algorithmic Corpse


One of my favorite classroom assignments is to ask students to write original fiction or poetry using words and phrases plucked from Google Autocomplete. Inspired by Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing (2011), the challenge requires them to use some kind of seed phrase (“how do I,” for example) and then add on words to get new language for their reuse. To give this constraint a little flexibility, I also allow students to elide the seed phrase and pluck other keywords out of the resulting text if they wish.

I’d like to think this is a kind of exquisite corpse where the collaboration happens between millions of strangers, most of whom have no idea they are playing the game. The result is powerful precisely because of this distributed network of textual ghosts: people who typed in phrases (often profound, or bizarre, or deeply sad) thousands or millions of times. The exquisite corpse that emerges is both improvisational and thoroughly grounded in a particular intentionality and history.

Consider this example, starting with the keyword “exquisite”:

Exquisite blood surf

Exquisitely tender

Infernal black diamond necklace

Synonyms and antonyms

Exquisite corpse why lie

This corpse is the artistic creation of one individual (breaking the cardinal rule of the game), but it is also a kind of collage that involves millions. The search bar is a vital interface between the collective id and the articulated consciousness of the Internet. It is a confessional and a space for interrogatory dialog. When we adapt the distinctively clipped, quasi-boolean voice of the search query to the ends of poetry, we get something that is perversely beautiful and multivalent. Each phrase drags along its own string of corpses behind it, the trial of inquiry and speculation that leads people to ask Google questions like how do you have sex.

I don’t know quite what game I’m playing here, or how this could become a multiplayer game like the real exquisite corpse. One variation might be to tell a story starting with a letter of the alphabet, using that letter to find an autocomplete phrase to add to the narrative. How else might we build this monster?

3 thoughts on “The Algorithmic Corpse

  1. A similar game that I like to play is to let my Android phone suggest the next word in a text message that I’m composing. Then I let it choose the next word, and then the next. I’ve never seen my phone suggest a word that ends a sentence, so the message will invariably dissolve into some kind of loop, but that’s interesting too. The algorithm knows how words reasonably follow on one another, but it doesn’t know how to complete a thought.

    Or if it does, it’s playing pretty coy.

    I don’t know where this all leads either. But these algorithms are always sitting on our shoulders, and most of the time, we don’t even think about them, even as we’re offloading decisions and neural processes onto them. It can’t hurt to play with them every now and then, if for no other reason than to better understand their personalities.

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