Creativity, Chance and the Role of the Unconscious in the Creation of Original Literature and Art

Robert Maddox-Harle

Robert Maddox-Harle (aka Rob Harle)

Writer - Artist - Independent Researcher

Oulipo, Surrealist, poetry, creativity, chance, unconscious, inspiration, literature

This essay discusses inspiration, chance and the role of the unconscious mind in the creation of literature and art. Neurophysiological factors are considered, especially the aminergic – cholinergic brain chemistry system and how this relates to inspiration and original creativity. Surrealist poetry, computer generated poetry and the Oulipo project are analysed to provide practical examples. Chance is discussed in some detail as this phenomenon is a vital, though often overlooked component in all creative endeavours. Though the essay concentrates on the role of the unconscious mind in the production of creative literature the processes discussed are equally applicable to all forms of creativity.

I was waiting for the inspiration to hit me so I could write a brilliant opening sentence for this essay. The harder I tried the more it eluded me - this essay explains why. An emerging new theory of our so called unconscious mind is the key to this most frustrating phenomenon which is experienced at times by all creative people. Regardless of whether we jot down a poem on a scrap of paper, program a computer to co-author texts or produce ergodic literature to expand and contract over networks our human mind-brain processes are intimately involved. Consequently an understanding of how these processes influence the creation of imaginative art is important at a fundamental level.

Chance is an important factor in the creation of Surrealist, Computer Generated, Oulipian and Ergodic literature. This essay explores the relationship between chance in these projects and human conscious/non-conscious states. A discussion of Computer Generated Poetry is used to show that the actual production and resultant poetry from “within the digital consciousness” is very similar to that of the pre-digital era. Obviously Cybertext and Ergodic texts (with their hyperlinking and interactivity) involve the use of digital computers, however, these texts may or may not be computer-generated texts. Ergodic as used in this essay refers to the term coined by Espen Aarseth to mean text in which the reader has to do some work, that is, at minimum mouse-click on hyperlinks. (Aarseth 1997) Co-incidentally ergodic as originally used in statistics and mathematics is also relevant to chance at a complex abstract level but that is not our concern here.

Before discussing consciousness specifically I must mention how I became interested in literature and machines.  I have a deep interest in the field of Artificial Intelligence and had thought long and hard about the possibility of the creation of a non-human entity that would be conscious and intelligent, that is, would be able to think “intentionally”, in a Searlean sense, similar to the way humans think. (Searle 1983) This interest has involved research into neurophysiology, theories of consciousness, the supposed mind-body problem and the unconscious. The chance comment by a colleague in a discussion about Artificial Intelligence stated, ‘Never mind trying to make machines conscious, what about when they [sic] try to give them an unconscious’, struck me as a possible powerful key to help unlock the mystery of the mind-brain.
1  Learning about and understanding the unconscious would highlight many of the problems perhaps not realised or articulated by Artificial Intelligence researchers. I devised an experimental model by which I could compare literary creations supposedly from the human unconscious, specifically Surrealist poetry, and those from a machine that most certainly did not have an unconscious. I discuss the model and poetry created a little further on.

Freud’s theory of the unconscious is well known so I will not go into details here except to remind the reader that he insisted that the unconscious was ‘a distinct entity operating under its own volition’. Rather than understanding the unconscious as, ‘ intrinsic aspect of the mind/brain system’ Freud believed the unconscious depended upon the external world for its energy and information. (Hobson 1984: 98) He believed the unconscious was primal, libidinal drives and repression which dynamically caused a person to act and dream the way they did. The unconscious did not just contain forgotten information which could be retrieved or remembered at will. The actual contents of the unconscious, Freud insisted, ‘was impossible to be directly recalled’, it was permanently excluded from consciousness. I have shown elsewhere the three fundamental aspects of Freud’s theory: (a) manifest content of dreams; (b) repressed sexual desires; and (c) a dynamic, deterministic unconscious to be untenable. (Harle 2000)

My theory of the unconscious is a synthesis of the work of Hobson, Gelernter and States, (Hobson 1994; Gelernter 1994; States 1988) this is based primarily on the brain’s chemical system known as the aminergic system. Amines governs our waking state and the cholinergic (acetylcholine) system governs our dreaming state. These systems are in dynamic equilibrium and neither one is ever totally inactive. The ratio of these chemicals can now account for many previously mysterious states of the conscious mind such as hypnosis, dementia and fantasy. As we approach sleep the cholinergic chemical increases and maintains dominance whilst asleep.  As we wake up normally, the reverse happens and the aminergic system becomes dominant. (Hobson 1994: 14-16)

An interesting correlation to these scientific research findings is the work of Gelernter.  He believes mental focus moves from high to low. At the high focus end we are most alert, logical and deal with step-by-step problem solving. At the low focus end, that is as we move down the spectrum, we do not think logically and our minds move easily from one unrelated subject to another. Creative solutions to problems occur at this level, ones that have previously defied logical solution. It is at this level that inspiration suddenly hits us. I was not approaching sleep when I started this paper! This is why when we are further down the spectrum the onset of sleep and then dreaming occurs. Gelernter believes dreaming, ‘ a species of minimum-focus thought’. (Gelernter 1994: 109)

Again this description of mental states fits in perfectly with the action of the aminergic-cholinergic system. The most important aspect of this research is the way memory ties in with high-low focus mentation.  Gelernter believes young children’s dominant focus mode is low. As they mature they gradually replace their daydreaming, fantasy, stream of consciousness style explanations with the cold hard logic needed to survive in the world.  At low focus, memory is the most fallible. A daydreaming student cannot remember parts of a lecture in which he or she was daydreaming. To sum up this necessarily brief outline I use nonconscious to replace unconscious. Most of our mind-brain’s information is nonconscious most of the time, consciousness is the momentary awareness of some of that information. Chance associations are more likely when we are at the low end of the consciousness spectrum. The deliberate utilization of chance allows us to transcend the straight-jacket of our conditioning and preconceived ideas. History provides many examples of how inspiration and the answer to a complex problem occurred when the individual stopped thinking about the problem directly and was engaged in some unrelated activity such as waiting for a bus. This is not to say that inspiration comes out of the ether with no previous investigation or work which is clearly a prerequisite, however, when we let go amazing things happen.

Letting go was the prime modus operandi of the early Surrealists. Any attempt to define Surrealism and then neatly pigeon hole it is fraught with the danger of misrepresenting it, or worse,  missing the point altogether. One aspect of the Surrealist enterprise was to challenge the status quo and to question the validity of preconceived ideas and the doctrine, rules and styles of any of the “isms”.  This is particularly relevant to this present paper because Breton and Soupault wanted to by-pass all preconceived ideas, received truth and gain inspiration directly from the non-conditioned, amoral, primal unconscious. It appears even if we do allow the possibility of a Freudian unconscious, it is highly debatable if Breton et al. were “prospecting” this unconscious or the nonconscious reservoir of their minds.

If Freud had been correct, and had the Surrealists actually been bringing up material from the unconscious, their works should have contained vast amounts of symbolic sexual material, and perhaps an intrinsic destructiveness with little grammatical  coherence.  These three aspects of content are not apparent in any of the early Surrealists’ works (1919 to 1933).  Not only are they not noticeably apparent, there is even less evidence of such themes in the Surrealists’ works than in many other non-surrealist poets’ work. (Harle 2000)

There is considerable evidence, as Spector notes, that Breton did not understand Freud’s theories well and only appropriated the bits that suited his purpose as a literary artist and bourgeois revolutionary. (Spector 1997: 144) Remy further discusses in detail the limitation of Breton’s understanding of the psychoanalytical Unconscious. (Remy –cited in Spector 1997: 197) I contend that Breton et al. were doing nothing more or less than creative artists, writers and scientists have always done and continue to do today.  That is, the technical aspect of the discipline is thoroughly learnt, then by relaxing the hold on the conscious mind, shifting down the scale from logic-high-focus to dreamy-low-focus and quelling premeditated ideas of what should be, inspiration is given a chance to manifest itself.  Also, “chance association” of disparate ideas (which is perhaps inspiration itself), like genetic mutations, sometimes results in new, deeply imaginative, unique creations. 

It seems that the mind-brain applies grammatical rules to the rising nonconscious thoughts as they break into consciousness. The resultant Surrealist literature always displays normal, conventional syntax and grammatical coherence. Just as the Surrealists’ grammar is correct so to is the Oulipians. This is easy to understand in the latter case as the Oulipians methodology is virtually antithetical to that of the Surrealists. That is, they impose rigid restraints, mathematical formulae and believe they completely expunge chance from their generated texts. OuLiPo - Ouvroir de la Littérature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) was a group founded in 1960 by Françios Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau to experiment with producing literature using constraint-based and rule-based writing techniques. Queneau was for a short time associated with the Surrealists but was excommunicated partly because he disagreed with their use of the unconscious as a psychological means of transcendence. (Motte 1998: 18) He also stated that, ‘...the poet is never inspired, if by that one means that inspiration is a function ... of subjective chance, or of the subconscious’. (Motte 1998: 43)

It should by now be clearer to the reader why a discussion of the nature of the unconscious is so essential to the investigation of not only pre-digital poetry but also of digital poetry and New Media Poetics. The whole Surrealist enterprise has its genesis in “prospecting” the unconscious; the Oulipian manifesto almost disbars any use or reference to the unconscious (subconscious) in its methodologies; and traditional poets, of which the Oulipians have much to say, often waited for inspiration from within or above. Digital avant-garde poets using computers to co-author texts will probably sigh, ‘Oh so much ado about nothing’ my computer does not have a nonconscious, so how can chance association from within a nonconscious affect my texts? The answer lies in the idea that random selection of words or phrases from a computer database, is similar to random selection from the database of our nonconscious minds. This complex, extremely sophisticated human mental database can be likened in this respect to any database. Before looking in detail at a small sample of actual poems from the Surrealists and “Poetry by Chance”
2, I will discuss and describe the concepts behind the way computers can be used to actually produce poetry.

The Oulipians were in one sense premature, ‘...a constant lamento of the group at that time [1964] was lack of access to sophisticated machinery’. (Motte 1998: 17)   This was particularly relevant to their mathematical literary methodologies such as their experimentation with “combinatorics”. The now ubiquitous personal computer was of course only being conceived at the time of their genesis. Contemporary Oulipians are now in a much better position to utilise the computer with its rule-based logic.

In my own research, as I mentioned in the introduction, I wanted to find a way by which I could compare Surrealist poetry with some other poetry which could not possibly have an unconscious and would not be subject to conscious control. The results clearly showed the computer poetry to have a far greater incidence of latent sexual content than the comparable Surrealists’ poems. I must admit to being astonished at first with these findings. This further supports the scientific evidence that Freud’s notion of the unconscious is a myth. A coincidental product of this research was to further the postmodern investigation into meaning and authorial intent by reducing human intentional control, especially as author, to a minimum.

One  pre-digital method of achieving this was through the use of “cut-ups” to include the characteristics of randomness. Cut-ups were used by Breton et al., although he called them, “random assemblages”, where headlines from the newspaper were cut out and randomly assembled to form poems. (Breton 1972: 40-41) Years later, singer songwriter Bob Dylan used a similar method to write the lines to some of his songs. The pop singer and entertainer David Bowie, also used this method and called the results “cut-ups”. Bowie now uses a computer to achieve a similar result. (Bowie 1999)

There are a number of computer programs available whose purpose is to write original prose or poetry. I am not of course referring to programs such as word processors or text editors but to programs which use various techniques and degrees of sophistication, from simple random selection from a database through to true Artificial Intelligence applications. One sophisticated program is “Cybernetic Poet”, developed by Kurzweil Technologies. This program writes original poems based on a template, which is created from a human poet's unique style.  One may scan in a range of one's poems, the larger the better, to create a Poet Personality, this can then be used to create new poems.  Alternatively one can scan in the poems of a famous poet, say Péret, and then generate poems in his style.  The program comes with all the great poets' personalities ready to exploit. The software developers do advise users to be mindful of copyright considerations! (Kurzweil 1999)

Fascinating and interesting as these creative programs are, none suited my particular needs. I specifically needed a program which randomly selected words from an English dictionary and did so according to the basic rules of grammar.  If we simply select words randomly from a dictionary we get a list of words which generally have no relationship and the line of poetry made from these words is not only meaningless but also nonsensical. My program had to have no links to the mental creative processes of human poets so I came up with the concept and design of “Poetry by Chance” and enlisted the help of a programmer colleague to write the code. The concept is loosely based on a very rudimentary DOS program written in 1991. (Chachanashvili 1999) It also has similarities to another, non Artificial Intelligence style program,  “MacProse” written by Charles Hartman, this program comes with a companion book, “Virtual Muse”. (Hartman 1996) 

My program consists of a number of separate files each one being a lexicon of nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, conjunctions and prepositions. The number of words in the respective part-of-speech data files is somewhat limited due to restrictions of time and available resources, however, they are large enough to give a representative result. The random selection of words from these files is controlled by a syntax-structure file. The syntax-structure file may be changed to copy the grammatical style of a human poet or to experiment with new grammatical forms.  This is achieved by simply creating a new syntax-structure file which contains the parts of speech in the order desired. 
As an example:

Line 1       [the]    adjective    noun    verb    adverb   (file)
                   the     green          leaf      fell     slowly    (resultant poetry)
Line 2                   adverb       adverb          adverb     (file)
                             down          down            down        (resultant poetry)
The file can be made as large or small as required and the program allows for the selection of the desired number of lines per stanza and the desired number of stanzas per poem. Should I wish to compare the content and possible meaning of a poem by say, Éluard, I would analyse the parts of speech in the source poem, copy this order into a new syntax-structure file, then generate a poem.  The new poem would then reflect the grammatical structure of Éluard's poem but with randomly selected words.  Now, while correct grammar usage is not unique to an individual as already stated, I concede there is a weak argument in that a poet's idiosyncratic use of grammar may contribute to the poem's meaning and consequently reflect something of his or her nonconscious states. I can see no way of avoiding this contamination and believe that the influence would only be slight, if at all, and not change the basic meaning(s), but could emphasise meaning or create special emotional tensions. In the example above, the grammatical use of three adverbs consecutively, does not change the meaning that the leaves are falling downwards but adds emphasis to the falling.  So, if the poet's latent or metaphorical intentionality was concerned with the mythical leaf of Adam and the “Fall From Grace”, the grammatical structure would not change that deep meaning.

There is no space here to analyse a large number of poems nor is it really necessary to do so.  Péret, Breton, Soupault and Éluard are fairly representative of the early surrealist poets, so I selected randomly one or two poems from these writers. I analysed the parts of speech of the poems and created a new syntax-structure file representative of each poem. From the respective poet's grammatical style files I randomly generated six new poems.  I will discuss just two of these a little further on.

The syntax-structure file is the key to the versatility of this program and apart from the program's present use for analysis, it may be used as a creative aid for experimental writing, to fire inspiration or clear inspiration’s ‘idiot brother - writer’s block’, both of which the Oulipians insisted do not exist. The lexicons could be expanded to contain every noun, verb and so on in the English language or similarly could be customised to contain only words to do with a certain subject. Further, the syntax-structure file may be modified by adding words (or symbols) directly into it. These will then appear in the line of poetry unaffected by the random selection process. In the example, “the” will always appear as the first word in that line. This is a useful feature in adding, plurals, the and a and special endings to the part-of–speech preceding or following the non-random feature.

Below I have included three poems from very different syntax-structure files, simply as an example of the nature of original poems generated by the program. The first poem, “The Experience”, is based on a syntax-structure file representative of my own poetry. The second, “The Devil”, is based on Bashõ's Haiku structure. The third, “The Sentiment”  is based on a new experimental structure.

a mount exposes a bridge while
the reliable actor is a hundred past...
an annual button neatly exists about a hundred cellars!
so space waits for the visionary and unbroken persons,
but perhaps innocent!
a station feeds out of an expected bridge
any horizon, particularly shakes without journeys
a down-swelling summary schemes a proud champion!!
the voyage hits a message certain,
magic factor is a faint jail?
a marginal weekend thus benefits under a mental party??
tell, spend
the food checkmates the white and boiling orders,
a language hopes upon a musical murderer.
agreement already sings out of venom contrasts,
an absolutely grieving virtue closes a slender support...
thereafter an experience!
a habit overturns despite its own vibration,
magazines still help below places,
a largely including director denies an open university?

over eternal made names
faults arouse under parts,
devils, hiss !

the poet forgives the foot,
always sinking at the vibrato
properly, instantly, tight answers
not nearing stress
Any meaning within individual lines or of the poems as a whole is purely the product of chance and (or)  meaning supplied by the reader. That is, there is no intentional meaning of an individual author, either with or without an unconscious. This creation of text without an individual author and consequently no authorial intention lends powerful support to Derrida’s argument of multiple authors and multiple meanings. The computer programmer clearly is not the author, simply the catalyst by which chance association through random selection has the means to manifest.

This raises an important question, which needs addressing in future research, regarding the true nature of meaning itself.  Not only meaning within poems and other literary texts but through hermeneutical exegesis of religious texts, scientific papers, mass media reports and all artistic creations. It is my contention that the hermeneutics and deconstruction of the Structuralist and Postmodern traditions is only part of the story.  Exploring the issue from outside (in a paradoxical sense) the strictures of postmodern theory, though not ignoring it, and utilising the results of neurophysiological research into consciousness, will I believe, help to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of meaning and the transmission of meaning from text to reader.
Recent research from Cambridge University shows just how important the role of our nonconscious is in interpretation……. ‘It deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the only iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the human mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe’.

Just as words in the dictionary are not unique to an individual's nonconscious state nor are the rules of grammar within a particular language. The words and their meanings and the grammar that renders them sensible in a phrase or sentence may arguably be said to contain the totality of human mental states in an abstract, historical form.  As such, the author of the poems produced by the program could rightly be, all humans who have contributed to the development and evolution of the English language. Perhaps this is the nature of, or could at least be thought of metaphorically, as the Jungian concept of a Collective Unconscious.

As mentioned above, if the computer generated poems have any meaning it has been created largely through chance association. The Oulipians repeatedly attempted to expunge chance from their potential literature experiments which engendered a contradiction which was not satisfactorily resolved. Quenneau referring to Lionnais’ “rebel angels” (the prime numbers) said, ‘...they imitate chance by obeying a law, therefore chance is exorcised and mastered’. The problem is, however, if the law is aleatory then no such exorcism is possible. (Motte 1998: 18) It is somewhat ironic that Chaos theory has since supplied us with proof that the law is in fact aleatory. Whilst the Oulipian experiments and methods result in profound literary creations it is clear they had no real idea of the nature of conscious/nonconscious processes nor did they correctly understand chance. Even using their S+7 methodology the resultant text, whilst created through a strictly controlled, consciously devised restraint still utilizes the element of chance. This method of creating potential literature lists all the nouns in a source text, looks them up in a dictionary and then replaces each one with the seventh following noun. Chance is clearly involved at a common-sense level and this kind of iteration is a fundamental aspect of Chaos theory.

The basic definition of chance as I use it refers to ‘the absence of any known reason why an event should turn out one way rather than another’. The use of chance in literary creation is not as rigid as the definition might indicate. Various levels of human “intentionality” may grade chance from pure chance to fairly highly controlled chance. An example of pure chance would be asking  a computer to select a random entry from a list equal to the number of entries in a dictionary then selecting that word from the list. An example of graded chance could be when the author of an ergodic text allows the reader only two choices related to a specific hyperlink. This means there are three possibilities open to the reader (a) don’t follow link at all, (b) follow link to location -1, or (c) follow link to location - 2. If when the reader mouse-clicked on the link a sub-program generated one random selection from ten thousand possible web sites and went to that site the level of chance (and a possible outcome) would be increased dramatically.

It is worth noting here that ergodic texts are not a recent invention. As Aarseth notes, the I Ching is a very ancient, multiple-authored ergodic text which requires a high level of interaction and interpretation and then further interpretation resulting from the initial interpretation. Chance is a major factor in the interpretation and it seems the authors have factored this into the textual arrangement. (Aarseth 1997) Further, the notion of “multiple authors” producing a text which grows as it passes from author to author, such as in a MUD, was highly developed in Japan in the 16th century in the collaborative writing of “renku” or linked verse from which Haiku developed. (Aitken 1982: 20)

When we sit staring at the wall trying to find the right concept to use in a poem, we are normally open to restricted chance association. We are travelling along a partly predetermined road and the associations are limited. If, however, like the Surrealists we employ methods to gain greater unmediated access to our nonconscious storehouse of ideas, concepts and words, the level of making unique chance associations and hence deeply imaginative, original creations is greatly increased. The Surrealists made a huge fuss of their processes, they published extensively their ideas and the way they tried to deactivate reason and engage in pure psychic automatism.  This started with the séances and noting down exactly what came through from “the other side”; then proceeded with automatic writing from the unconscious (nonconscious) and then the recording of natural and forced dreams. Breton especially was eclectic in that he investigated many sources of possible psychic information such as: occultism, séances, tarot, Freud’s attempt at a scientific theory of the unconscious, astrology (see Arcanum 17) and a smattering of psychiatry. (Breton 1994)  Some of these methods, as the Surrealists were only too aware, could lead to insanity. (Matthews 1982) For example, Breton’s literary work “Nadja” dealt with this topic extensively. (Breton 1960)

Automatic writing was an attempt to completely bypass conscious reasoning and allow chance association to flourish. They also used dream reportage, not interpretation, as a way to bypass reason. Many of their recorded dreams were of a political nature and by claiming the resultant texts were from dreams allowed the Surrealists a kind of impunity from criticism of the content, which was increasingly orientated towards Marxist utopian social revolution. ‘As the poets turned to actions within the public sphere, they converted their dreaming into projections of an ideal future....’. (Spector 1997: 44) Freud’s theory of the unconscious allowed this impunity. However, the current theory being discussed would allow them no such thing, as it understands dreaming as a kind of mental bookkeeping sorting the previous days experiences, thoughts and so on, ready to store in long-term memory. (Harle 2000: Chapter 2) If this is the case, using our dreams as inspiration in literature is a fairly highly graded level of chance.

The following two poems illustrate the concept of using an original poem – XII, and a poem created solely by the computer - NEW XII, which is based on the original poem’s syntactical construction.

XII  (by Benjamin Péret) (Péret 1984: 16)

An athlete laughing
a camel dancing
a man murdering his daughter
a rat kindling
a cow in clothing
a whale boarding a whaler
a lady withdrawing
a wave
a deity out for a drive
an untrue earth-tremor
a slough lit by dark lanterns
an open-plan furnishing
a shocking smile

If you can't get satisfaction
see a doctor
who will not cure your maladies

New XII (by Poetry by Chance)
A period slipping
a protein following
a host performing his drug
a rate costing
a Raphael above Ophelia
a restaurant suffering a lap
a Sibyl spending
a hero
a column up by a startle
a hundred hulled-Seth
a second serve by vulgar captains
a splendid Turing
a typical darkness

If you effectively grieve Clement
close a wake
who panics yet brings your galleries

XII, mainly in the first stanza, exhibits possible nonconscious source material, each line is a coherent statement independent of an overall coherent meaning, which does not seem to exist.  Both stanzas exhibit no latent content and the second stanza, shows complete conscious control, evidenced by the use of the standard comedian's trick of reversing the expected closureNew XII, as seems to be the case with all the computer poems, exhibits no coherent overall meaning and contains various latent Freudian symbols; "a hero", " a column", "a hundred hulled-Seth"  (boats were powerful female symbols for Freud) and "vulgar captains", very much an Oedipal poem this one? Whilst the above comparisons and analyses are not exhaustive by any means, they are adequate to illustrate the relationship between human-written poems, supposedly without conscious control and drawing on the unconscious as their source of meaning and those without conscious control and no possibility of unconscious direction. In other words resulting from chance.

Breton refers to chance as a divinity in the first Manifesto of Surrealism. (Breton 1972: 13)  I must agree with Matthews when he states, ‘...chance is to the surrealists pre-eminently the agent of revelation’. (Matthews 1982: 103) One of the most important methods of helping chance manifest itself for the surrealists was through games, especially word games.  Although the game playing was fun it was also taken very seriously. (Matthews 1982: 103) By being open to chances' intervention, ‘ creates a sort of vacuum in which the imagination finds itself released from the gravitational pull of commonsense associations’ [my emphasis]. (Matthews 1982: 103)

My investigation of  the Surrealist methods has provided no evidence to support that they are doing anything more than allowing random access to nonconscious states that are indirectly pre-empted by:  pre-séance, pre-dream, pre-chance configurations. The Surrealists' situation is not very different to that of other cultures and societies where the preparation stage for days, even months, prior to an event  (physical initiation, spiritual initiation or the next day's hunt) is essential and in a fundamental way, though subtly, controls largely what will occur. ‘During surrealist play the intervention of chance is solicited through rigorous application of agreed rules...’. (Matthews 1982: 103)

In conclusion, I have tried to show the role chance plays in artistic production,
how chance relates to both conscious and nonconscious mental states, how creative imagination is directly related to these states and the role brain chemistry plays in this process. It seems quite clear that chance can be manipulated and in some ways controlled. It is the choice of the author at what level they wish to utilize chance in their creations. We approach pure chance when we use random selection processes in computing from vast sources and gradually reduce the influence of chance the more we reduce the choices available to both ourselves as authors, or readers/participators, in our creations.

What does seem evident from this discussion is that potential meaning is perhaps inversely proportional to the level of constraints we impose on chance association. Consequently poems generated from a random selection, rule based computer program, lack overall coherent meaning. Whereas, providing small degrees of chance in ergodic interactive literature, will retain coherent meaning even though the outcome may be totally unknown at the start. Regardless of whether we are using “cut-ups”, random assemblages or computer programming to control selection of words to fire our imaginations, the production of literary texts is similar in our new digital consciousness to that of the pre-digital era of the Oulipians and Surrealists.


1 - Personal discussions with J. H. Bryant during 1999 re the possibility and ethics of Artificial Intelligence. Bryant is a retired U.S. government officer in the fields of Electrical Physics and Computer Technology.  He now works in ethics regarding computer technology.
2 - “Poetry by Chance” runs on a PC in Windows 95/98.  The program is very loosely based on an early DOS poetry program.
3 This essay was originally published in the following:"Creativity, Chance and the Role of the Unconscious in the Creation of Original Art and Literature" Harle, R.F. 2009 Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research. University of Plymouth, UK.  vol. 8 no.3 2011


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