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Abstract

This paper explores the artistic legacy of Stéphane Mallarmé's 1897 poem "Un Coup de Dés Jamais N'Abolirà le Hasard" through a selection of derivative works, in order to demonstrate how the poem can be interpreted in digital environments as a self-replicating machine, programmatically facilitating the ongoing production of potentially countless ulterior works, including our own internet recasting called www.athrowofthedicewillneverabolishchance.com. Through a detailed discussion of this work, we will attempt to draw a lineage between Mallarmé's original poem/book of 1897 and Google, incorporated a century later, in 1997. In conclusion, we will speculate on the potential that our interpretation of Mallarmé's work may provide a form of poetry for non-human readers, which we interpret as a metaphysical search for meaning by the kinds of Artificial Intelligence programs currently in development by corporations such as Google.
Mallarmé's Self-replicating Machine
Karen ann Donnachie (Independent, Australia) & Andy Simionato (RMIT University,
Australia)
All images copyright Karen ann Donnachie & Andy Simionato
<Insert Fig. 1: athrow_01.jpg>
Fig. 1. www. athrowofthedicewillneverabolishchance.com, internet artwork by Karen ann
Donnachie and Andy Simionato, (2015-2018).
Abstract
This paper explores the artistic legacy of Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1897 poem “Un Coup de Dés
Jamais N’Abolirà le Hasard” through a selection of derivative works, in order to demonstrate
how the poem can be interpreted in digital environments as a self-replicating machine,
programmatically facilitating the ongoing production of potentially countless ulterior works,
including our own internet recasting called
www.athrowofthedicewillneverabolishchance.com. Through a detailed discussion of this
work, we will attempt to draw a lineage between Mallarmé’s original poem/book of 1897 and
Google, incorporated a century later, in 1997. In conclusion, we will speculate on the
potential that our interpretation of Mallarmé’s work may provide a form of poetry for non-
human readers, which we interpret as a metaphysical search for meaning by the kinds of
Artificial Intelligence programs currently in development by corporations such as Google.
Background
At ELO2015 we launched the internet artwork
www.athrowofthedicewillneverabolishchance.com (A Throw of the Dice) exhibited at
LydGaleriet, Bergen, Norway. This work has been subsequently exhibited in Tokyo and
Kyoto by the Tokyo Type Director’s Club, in the Australian exhibition “Words Without
Grammar,” and remained functioning and accessible to the public at the URL until 31st
March 2018, when Google turned off the reCAPTCHA v1 service. The title of the work
derives from the English translation of the title of Mallarmé’s original poem “Un Coup de Dés
Jamais N’Abolirà le Hasard” (“Un Coup de Dès”).
Generations
Although this is not specifically a critical discussion of the literary or linguistic matter of
Mallarmé’s poem “Un Coup de Dés,” its narrative is useful here and can be summarized as
follows; a ship’s captain, who Mallarmé calls the “Master”, is floating on the ocean in a
terrible storm, below him sinks the wreckage of his ship. The Master is holding dice, that he
hesitates to throw for he knows that by casting the dice he will reveal an important truth, one
that Mallarmé refers to as the ‘Number.’ It is not important here, as suggested by some
scholars (Meillasoux, 2012), whether the ‘Number’ that the Master is about to reveal is
indeed a key to unlocking some mystery hidden within the poem itself, but it is suffice to note
that the poem uses a system of symbols that describe a suspended process of internal
combinatorial logic that remains hidden to the reader.
Perhaps, the poem’s most distinctive visual feature is its radical departure from typographic
and grammatical conventions of the period, specifically its distribution of words and groups
of words. The resulting white spaces, described by the poet’s friend Paul Valéry as
‘embodied silences’ (Bindeman, 2017: 12; Guerlac, 2000: 98), occupy a majority of the
poem’s eleven double-page spreads, suggesting additional meanings or interpretations of
the poem.1 Yet any internal logic suggested by this graphical treatment appears just beyond
the reader’s grasp, and indeed ‘solutions’ to this visual poem-puzzle abound in its
historiography. One example among many that demonstrates the extent of the poem/book’s
influence beyond the literary field, can be found in Philip B. Megg’s entry for "Un Coup de
Dés" in his History of Graphic design:
Rather than surrounding a poem with white, empty margins, this “silence” was
dispersed through the work as part of its meaning. Instead of stringing words in linear
sequence like beads, they were placed in unexpected positions on the page to
express sensations and evoke ideas. (Meggs and Purvis, 1992: 242-243)
Mallarmé’s adoption of expressive typographic experimentation and creative use of page-
space has influenced not only the genre of visual poetry but, as Marcel Broodthaers would
argue, has also helped establish principles of sign, symbol, and image, that underlie much of
20th Century Contemporary Art (1992: 149).
Given Broodthaers’ own potent connection to Mallarmé through his well-documented
homage of “Un Coup de Dés,” (1969) to which we will turn shortly, such claims may appear
exaggerated. Yet the statement may not be all hyperbole, if we consider the large number of
derivative artworks, and more specifically, artists’ books, that owe a debt, in someway, to “Un
1 Despite its graphical treatment, as both Malcolm Bowie and Jan Hokenson note, “Un Coup de Dés,”
should not be defined as a calligram (Hokenson, 2004:172; Bowie, 1978: 119).
Coup de Dés.” What follows is not an attempt to exhaustively document this lineage of
derivative works (although even a cursory search suggests a sufficient number exist to
populate at least one anthology of works which directly quote Mallarmé’s poem), but simply
a scattered sampling of notable exemplars useful for our purposes. Our primary objective in
referring to these derivative works is to identify congenital similarities traceable back to
Mallarmé’s 1898 poem/book and forwards to our own version of Mallarmé’s poem/book,
which we re-imagined as a “technological machine,” designed to self-replicate by
reconfiguring its constituent elements at each re-casting.
As previously mentioned, of the most notable interpretations of Mallarmé’s poem/book is the
1969 work by Marcel Broodthaers, who remade Mallarmé’s original poem/book by redacting
all its text, drawing over each lexia (line of words) transforming each spread of the original
book into a patchwork of black rectangles. In this way Broodthaers privileges our awareness
of the importance of the relative positions of the words and sentences on the page over their
semantic meanings. His act of creative destruction renders the language of the poem
illegible and returns the book to an object to be seen and not read.
Yet Broodthaers’ appropriation is not the only, nor the first, derivative work that explores the
formal qualities of "Un Coup de Dés" while obliterating its words. Another noteworthy
example, and not only for its uncanny resemblance, is Italian artist Mario Diacono’s “JCT 1,
a MeTrica n’ABOOlira” (1968).
In what appears to be a parallel action to Broodthaers’ treatment of Mallarmé’s poem/book,
Diacono redacts the texts in Mallarmé’s poem with orange and grey coloured boxes, albeit
on heavy, opaque paper, rather than Broodthaers’ exclusively black marks on translucent
stock.
Broodthaers’ and Diacono’s formal graphic treatment of Mallarmé’s poem both appear to
echo Ernest Fraenkel’s appropriation of “Un Coup de Dés,” (1960) which, in addition to black
boxes obliterating Mallarmé’s words, includes lines linking the extremities of each box
directly above or below. These additional parenthetic insertions, which define distinct areas
of the page-space, become completely filled with black in later spreads of Fraenkel’s
derivative work, further reinforcing the topographic interpretation of Mallarmé’s poem/book.
Such topographies become further abstracted when Ellsworth Kelly revisits the spatial
balance of the poem by filling the pages with large graphic blocks of black ink (Kelly: 1992),
suggesting a contradictory space where all semantic meaning is both contemporaneously
lost (a void) and possible (a well of ink).
A decade after Kelly’s work, Guido Molinari paints (and publishes) bold multicoloured friezes
of Mallarmé’s pages (2003) and Michael Maranda (2008) cuts away the redacted blocks
previously added by Broodthaers in his appropriation (1969), leaving a kind of negative after-
image. This is followed in 2010, when Cerith Wyn Evan performs an analogous operation,
allowing the gallery walls to be seen through the rectangular holes in the page (Evan, 2010).
Marine Hugonnier (2007) instead incorporates collage into the page in her 2007 homage,
disrupting Mallarmé’s original topographies with images, introducing the logic of the
photograph to that of the word.
Michalis Pichler (2009) and Rainier Lericolais (2009), independently create works which
apparently meta-appropriate (that is, appropriate another artist’s appropriation of) Mallarmé’s
poem. Like Maranda and Wyn Evan, both Pichler and Lericolais perforate the paper
following Broodthaers’ redactions, but combine all the pages into a single long sheet suitable
for playing music on a street-organ.
Finally, Eric Zboya’s 2011 digitally generated works derived from “Un Coup de Dés” extend
these existing tropes, that share the desire to explore the poem’s page-space, by introducing
a vector of depth to the preserved letterforms (Zboya, 2011). Through the extrusion and
generative manipulation of typographic dimensionality, Zboya claims to relate these
experiments back to Mallarmé’s “higher-dimensional motifs” (Raley, 2016).
Whether the product of coincidence, influence or confluence, the works in this brief collection
of referential artworks evidence the ongoing potential for Mallarmé’s poem/book to generate
new works. We argue that the function of these, and many other derivative works, is not
merely to cite, each paying homage to their collective parentage through the reflective
translation of an original that remains inert and passive. Instead, we propose that such
derivative works may be re-imagined as ‘generated’ by Mallarmé’s poem/book which, from
this perspective, can be described as active in generating subsequent works. We will argue
how the work’s deliberate resistance to its own resolvability, its perpetual ‘unfinal’ status is an
invitation for creative interpretation by others.2 “Un Coup de Dés” is deliberately designed to
remain suspended and unresolved. Mallarmé symbolized the significance of this state of
suspension through the shipwrecked Master, hesitating to throw the dice he holds, because
through this action he may reveal some hidden truth. Critical discourse around the poem,
2 This is a reference to Derrida’s term “unrealized” (Le livre irréalisé), (Derrida, 1978: 29).
and its many derivative works often focuses on imagining what this ultimate meaning may
signify. Instead of understanding “Un Coup de Dés” as holding a key required for its
understanding, we argue that Mallarmé’s poem/book can be reframed as a question locked
within itself. It was this intuition that led us to explore the recursive potential of “Un Coup de
Dés,” through the making of our own derivative work
www.athrowofthedicewillneverabolishchance.com.
What follows is how we manifested this re-imagining of “Un Coup de Dés” as a self-
replicating machine—the primary function of which is to generate ulterior machines—by
developing a techne for self-generative literary reproduction using Google’s own attempts to
find meaning in the book.
Google and the myth of the universal book
Our research into this genealogy of derivative works revealed how “Un Coup de Dés” can be
seen as a Guattarian “technological machine,” generation zero of a machinic phylum
containing self-productive elements with the capacity to construct or evolve for future and
alternate assemblages, “with each generation opening the virtuality of other machines to
come; and particular elements within these machines also initiate a meeting point with all the
machinic descendants of the future” (Guattari, 1995: 8-12).
Mallarmé kept detailed notes describing his ambitious and unrealized masterwork, that he
called simply Le Livre, which translates to ‘The Book’ (Meillasoux, 2012). According to these
notes, Mallarmé’s universal masterwork Le Livre comprised unbound double-page spreads
that could be re-shuffled according to a “complex combinatorial,” which dealt the reader new
meanings at each delivery. Meillassoux describes Mallarmé’s detailed sketches for The
Book that included the organizing of reading ‘ceremonies’ analogous to a secularized mass:
…a ceremony whose Bible would be a Book made of mobile pages, without the
name of an author, and whose officiant is presented as an ‘operator’ joining two by
two the loose-leaf pages according to a complex combinatorial that, so it seems, was
intended to discover a multitude of meanings that would vary with the connections
(Meillasoux, 2012: 24).
Blanchot claimed that Mallarmé’s masterwork was not merely speculative, but rather gained
“support and reality” in “Un Coup de Dés” (2003: 234). Whether “Un Coup de Dés” was the
realisation of The Book that Mallarmé theorized is unimportant here, it is suffice to note
Mallarmé’s interests in the potential for generating new meanings from the perpetual
recombination of the paratextual elements of the book–a quality which became a primary
objective during our development of our own Mallarmé-machine.
Once we began re-imagining Mallarmé’s work as the manifestation of a desire to create a
way to generate a multitude of meanings through infinite recombination, and we consider the
theory that the computer is precisely a “language machine,” the potential connections
between “Un Coup de Dés,” algorithmic writing and electronic literature in general, became
more apparent (Winograd, Sheeran & Sosna, 1991). Considering the possibility that
Mallarmé intended “Un Coup de Dés” as a combinatorial mechanism as imagined within his
mythical conception of The Book, then a contemporary interpretation of his poem/book could
be explored through a programmatic machine, or to use a contemporary term, a computer
code. It was with these elements in mind that we turned to creating our own derivative work.
Our process began with a consideration of the symbol of the dice—what we considered the
algorithmic device used symbolically within Mallarmé’s work and often cited as central to an
understanding of the poem—and the correlation between the number of pages of “Un Coup
de Dés’”(eleven) and the number of possible distinct outcomes of a roll of two die (also
eleven). Félix Guattari (1995) reminds us that even in the games of chance such as roulette,
chaos is perceived, until an intimate knowledge or closer observation reveals series and
patterns in the outcomes. So we set about designing an experiment to permit us a more
“intimate knowledge” of what we perceived as chaotic distribution of the typographic
elements in Mallarmé’s poem/book.
We subjected Mallarmé’s spatial distribution to probability tests through the use of geo-
statistical models. The ultimate goal was to have the poem not only self-generate but also
self-organize according to Mallarmé’s instructions for the placement, density and typography,
as found on the original text, with each new generation dependent on the results of the
addition of the values on two randomly rolled die.
Early experiments of this iteration of A Throw of the Dice applied a statistically weighted
combinatorial logic of the roll of the die to “Un Coup de Dés.” A process that at first was
appealing as it promised a new uncovering of the poem’s ‘key’ hidden within the book. The
pages were served to the user randomly, according to eleven possible results of a pair of
dice. The text (Mallarmé’s original verse, available in French and English) was then ‘cast’
across the page with typographic elements (the font position, style, weight and size)
determined according to the statistical inference of Mallarmé’s original distribution and page-
design.
<Insert Fig.2: athrow_02.jpg>
Fig. 2. An early iteration of www.athrowofthedicewillneverabolishchance.com (2015) where
browser windows were distributed across the screen in positions analogous to Mallarmé’s
poem/book.
This early iteration of our Mallarmé-machine could generate continuous variations of the
poem’s paratexts so successfully that without prior knowledge of the poem, the casual
reader could possibly mistake a machine-generated version for the original, even if the
words were positioned differently to Mallarmé’s poem. This ‘goodness of fit’ evidenced the
successful relocation of the elements of chance that we had observed in “Un Coup de Dés.”
Several other minor iterations followed that provided superficial interaction of the page
surface dependent on mouse movement, words moving as ripples, browser windows
flocking and ebbing across the screen, and other experiments which all ultimately proved
unsatisfactory in our desire to recast the poem/book as a self-replicating machine.
We realized that all of the experiments to date were in some way determined by Mallarmé’s
typographic choices and the semantic values they carried. In some experiments, Mallarmé’s
words appeared even more static alongside our algorithmically generated elements. In short,
because our A Throw of the Dice remained tethered to the language of the original, we had
merely created a series of digital simulacra which unwittingly fetishized Mallarmé’s
poem/book (along with its 20th century print technologies). Although some were visually
exciting, our early experiments failed to engage the reader with the affordances of electronic
space. Our project appeared merely another (more or less successful) homage to
Mallarmé’s legacy, paying tribute to its lineage without contributing significantly to the kinds
of critical discourse on the transformation of the post-digital book that interested us most. At
least until we enlisted the help of an unexpected co-author: Google corporation.
We will now briefly outline the “machinery” behind this most recent iteration of our internet
artwork, and describe how these elements serve to form a meeting point between both
Mallarmé’s original poem (written in 1898) and the uber-book of Google (founded in 1998).
We will describe how we recast Mallarmé’s poem/book by using images of words
appropriated from Google’s reCAPTCHA service in order to continuously reconstitute and
recombine new meanings.
<Insert Fig. 3.: athrow_03.jpg>
Fig. 3. Visitors to the internet site www.athrowofthedicewillneverabolishchance.com are
encouraged to make a physical printout of the uniquely generated edition for delivery to the
Google book project. This unique edition was printed 3 June 2015.
A metaphysical reCaptcha
Before describing reCAPTCHA, we must begin with a description of CAPTCHA. The
‘CAPTCHA’ interface, an acronym meaning ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell
Computers and Humans Apart’,in practice,is a security service which can be used for
allowing only humans access to specific areas of a website; to do so, users are asked to
type the words they read in an image of some wavy or distorted characters to determine they
are human before proceeding. Thus the CAPTCHA system assumes the role of gatekeeper
in order to protect against automated (non-human) programs that attempt malicious access
to online resources (Von Ahn et al., 2008).
<Insert Fig. 4.: athrow_04.jpg>
Fig. 4. www.athrowofthedicewillneverabolishchance.com (2015). Detail of a text-based
reCAPTCHA image served by Google and appropriated for a generated edition of A throw of
the Dice.
The functions of Google’s reCAPTCHA, however, extend beyond that of simple sentry or
security device, it was in fact adopted by Google in 2009 to assist in the company’s attempt
at digitizing every book in the world. When optical character recognition (OCR) fails to find a
strong match in a scanned text from a book or diagram (which may happen for example,
when the text is either blurred, wavy or otherwise distorted) an image of this word is farmed
out to human readers through reCAPTCHA “…enlisting humans to decipher the words that
computers cannot recognize” (Von ahn et al., 2008: 1465). As stated by a Google engineer,
the purpose of Google’s mass-digitisation of every book in the world was not for human
readership, but for their AI:
“We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,” an engineer revealed to
me after lunch. “We are scanning them to be read by an AI [Artificial Intelligence].”
(Dyson, 2012: 367).
Google appears to be taking Mallarmé’s often cited statement, that “the world exists to end
up in a book,” (Pearson, 2004) one step further. Google’s attempt at creating a “universal
book” suggests that “the world exists to end up teaching an AI.”
Whenever the internet site of A Throw of the Dice is accessed, our algorithm generates a
unique, randomized combination of reCAPTCHAs arranged with the same spatial distribution
as Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés,” therefore each access to the page potentially generates a
new edition of the book.
<Insert Fig. 5.: athrow_05.png>
Fig. 5. Conceptual visualisation for www. athrowofthedicewillneverabolishchance.com. The
work is designed as a recursive system for human and non-human reading of “Un Coup de
Dés.”
The reader is encouraged to save and resubmit their new edition of A Throw of the Dice to
be catalogued in the Google book project. Predictably, Google’s OCR system will continue to
fail to read the texts made up of the same reCAPTCHAs it previously could not decipher, and
once again, the Google book project will enlist the help of other human readers to resolve
these undecipherable images of words. In this way, A Throw of the Dice becomes a
recombinatorial, recursive, self-productive machine capable of making and unmaking
meaning across both Mallarmé’s cryptic ‘unfinal’ book of poetry and Google’s book project,
each meeting points of the book a century apart.
<Insert Fig.6.: athrow_06.jpg>
Fig. 6. An unexpected development of www.athrowofthedicewillneverabolishchance.com
(2015) happened when Google’s reCAPTCHA service began to serve images from Google’s
street view alongside the words from its Google book project. The inclusion of these images
of numbers (taken from houses and street signs) added a further layer of meaning to our
derivative work.
When our artwork was first published online, the reCAPTCHA images were all of words from
manuscripts, books, marginalia and so on. Later, the images started to present as numbers,
and street signs, presumably taken from Google’s Street View. This further recombination,
the substitution of the word-variable was an unexpected but welcome evolution of the work.
Our Mallarmé-machine was based on the idea of experimenting with combinatorial logic as
an attempt to decipher the meaning of the poem, a meaning that has been argued can be
only unlocked through the discovery of the Number (Meillasoux, 2012). Our algorithm of the
Mallarmé-machine was designed to serve texts generated by Google’s reCAPTCHA
program, but later, and without our intervention, it appeared to attempt a construction of the
poem by recombining numbers. In these instances, the work both visually manifested its
intrinsic self-productivity, and also continued to reveal its ‘unfinal’ quality. Eventually the
Google reCAPTCHA was deprecated and ceased service on March 31, 2018. The project is
archived at the url, and a future iteration is currently under development.
Poetry for robots
Groys (2011) has argued that to enter a search term into Google is a metaphysical pursuit
for truth that moves beyond the rigid structures of language and into ‘clouds’ of words.
Through its reCAPTCHA program (V1), we argue that Google was demonstrating its own
search for meaning by enlisting the help of humans to complete what alone it could not
resolve.
Google leverages humans’ superior ability to help its AI find meaning in certain scanned
words. We leverage Google’s reCAPTCHA service to identify those words in which Google’s
AI is unable to find meaning. By recasting Mallarmé with these images of words currently
indecipherable to machines, we would be ensuring that future generations of AI may
continue to attempt to unlock its meaning.
The algorithms of AI are coded to learn through our actions, see through our eyes, gathering
data on every click, post,like or other traces we leave as we move through electronic space.
despite the increasingly large sets of semantic and visual data processed and incorporated
into databases and used for machine-learning by existing AI, it currently continues to
struggle to comprehend human expression, behaviour or language. Our A Throw of the Dice,
deliberately designed to be unresolvable by existing AI, remains as ‘unfinal’ as Mallarmé’s
original poem, every new recombination makes and unmakes new meanings, such that the
AI that attempts to read it must necessarily return, in a tireless techno-metaphysical search
for truth. In short, A throw of the Dice, is poetry for robots.
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