// sean m. burke//
"Rationality is what we do to organize the world, to make it possible to predict.
Art is the rehearsal for the inapplicability and failure of that process."
-- Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices
A permanent problem in semiotics is that it is not possible to look at a text or object and say "there is no meaning in this". The best one can say is "I don't understand this". But if we say this, we really just mean that we don't consciously understand the meaning, with our individual human rational minds. But Surrealism talks to all kinds of minds, and saying you don't understand a work simply doesn't matter, any more than it matters that you claim that a disturbing dream of yours was "incomprehensible" -- it has still affected you.
When we say that Surrealism is not for the conscious and rational mind, many people interpret this to mean that Surrealism operates at some sub-rational level of mere desires and muddled "meaningless" dream imagery. This is a misconception that comes from thinking that the highest manifestation of intelligence/meaning is in the individual human's rational mind, and that anything else is inferior and inarticulate. Some people come closer to the truth when they suppose that there is only the rational and the irrational, and that they are equal, but distinct and exclusive. According to this perspective, a work of surrealist art is for the irrational mind just as chess is for the rational mind, wallpaper is for the eyes, perfume is for the sense of smell, and massage is for the sense of touch. Although this rational/non-rational dualism is still a misunderstanding, you can still profitably look at most surrealism from this perspective, viewing its intent as stimulation or exercise for the non-rational mind.
But I believe that there are kinds of mind and meaning that are totally alien -- so foreign and so real that it doesn't matter whether our conscious mind considers them inferior or superior, rational or irrational. This is the intelligence of a cat chewing on a telephone cord. This is the meaning of a dolphin's ultrasonic clicking. It's the intelligence of tarot cards, and of phobias, and of vain gods. It's the meaning of mistakes, and allergies, and most importantly, of computers.
I mention computers because they are currently rather dumb, but they will one day be smarter than us. We'll be able to tell this by how well they anticipate our wishes and follow our orders -- but they will never be like us. They will at times talk to us, but they will not be able to explain to us what they're thinking, at least not in normal rational terms. They will think in insistent clusters of analogies, and muddy crypto-contexts, clownishly efficient bird-brain algorithms, and well-tested heuristics of nonsense. They will communicate their thoughts with us not in surreal images, but in surreal-seeming pataphysical language. The words will be terms we already know, but they will form ideas we can only see bits of at a time. We will be tempted to dismiss the computers' thoughts as meaningless -- but we know we can't do that.
These days, I have been trying to make simple computer programs that talk like the bizarre computer-minds of the future. I wondered what that would look like, and I decided that it would look like our world, but fractured and rearranged; and it would come in email. The best approach I discovered for this was Dissociated Press, an early "travesty engine" algorithm and a sort of computational variant of the cut-up method of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs. With Dissociated Press (or its Perl implementation, called "Games::Dissociate"), you take existing text, and generate new text from it by reading back the text for a few characters or words and then jumping randomly to another point in the text where the same characters or words appear; then you go a bit forward, and you repeat the process until you have however much output you want. This generates meandering sentences, with occasional pataphysical nonsense words built out of other words.
The surprising thing about Dissociated Press is that it doesn't look like encrypted nonsense; it looks like something halfway between a Burroughs cut-up, and a schizoid insectoid alien's ramble. But you have to give the algorithm, input text for it to cut up and ramble about. I decided that the algorithm's best food would be the American news media. So I wrote a Perl program, called the Purple Monkey Dishwasher, which pulls random news stories from a large American newspaper's web site every few days, feeds their text through the Dissociated Press algorithm, and emails the output to the Dadaist email list. The results are a bulletin consisting of a mix of the important and the trivial, and lies and the truths, written as if by a reporter who is not even pretending to be human. I do not manually operate the program, nor do I choose the stories that go into it, nor do I edit its output -- I just wrote it and started it running a few months ago. It's not alive, and it doesn't know how to die. It's automatic!
For a sort of fundamentalist semiotics, it may be tempting to say that the output of Purple Monkey Dishwasher is meaningless, since there is no real mind actually producing the text that it sends. But that's like saying that a symphony isn't art because it doesn't sound like anything (except itself). Claiming that something is "meaningless" is just an excuse to ignore the meaning that these things have for us other than as conscious, rational, individual minds. But we are less than that, and more. And we must be surreal in order to understand the lunatic robots that we will either build, or become.
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