According to Conditions 🐿️

Writing in early summer 2024 has been an exercise in patience, haloed for session after session with a feeling that the timing is not quite right, and so the ever-reliable maxim surfaces again, “Drive according to conditions.” The timing slips because I have been fine-tuning a set of documents with a deadline next week, readying for travel to Michigan for Is.’s graduation, and lingering in that waiting place for feedback on something whose revisions can only take flight thereafter, and also waiting while waiting for go-ahead (or decline) on a chapter I proposed, anticipating a May decision. My point is, rhythms are allowed to wobble; laminar wishes swirl, betrayed by entropy. And so I chip away at other things. Mow the holler before traveling. Install a fabric dust barrier and some squirrel inhibiting hardware cloth in the side shed. Pick the season’s first black raspberries. Spritz the garden with neem oil. Turn the compost. Dab the exposed pressboard edges of a countertop a bonding agent engineered for uncooperative surfaces. Check email, but not too often. (180)

AIlingualism

By omitting a space and setting it in a san serif font, AIlingualism piles on ambiguities. On page or screen, it might tempt you to see all lingualism, the heteroglossiac babelsong, much like Adriano Celentano’s Prisencolinensinainciusol might tempt you to hear Anglophone snippets in what is stylized nonsense. “AIlingualism” sounds like eye-lingualism, I suppose, or the act of entongued seeing, which without going into the subtleties of synesthesia might be as simple as tracing tooth-shape, fishing for an offshed hair from a bite of egg salad, or checking the odontal in-betweens for temporarily trapped foodstuff. Hull from a popcorn kernel? When did I have popcorn? A similar phenomenon would be something like “retronasal olfaction,” which Michael Pollan describes in Cooked, as the crossover between senses, the role of olfactory processing within experiences of taste, or where smell and taste commingle and coinform.

Yet I mean something altogether different with AIlingualism. Used to be the over-assisted writing revealed itself owing to too many thesaurus look-ups. You’ve betrayed a faithful expressive act because we could almost hear Peter Roget himself whispering through your words. But thesaurus overuse is a lesser crime than the wholesale substitutive “assists” that walk us nearer and nearer to overt plagiarism: patchwriting, ghost writing, essay milling, unattributed quotation, and so on. An assist from a thesaurus was usually keyed to a smaller unit of discourse, which in turn amounted to petty ventriloquism. But as the discursive magnitude increases, so too does the feeling that the utterance betrays the spirit of humanistic communication, that fleshly-terrestrial milieu where language seats, swirls, and percolates, elemental and embodied. I think this is close to what Roland Barthes characterizes as the “pact of speech” (20) in “To Write: An Intransitive Verb” (1970) from The Rustle of Language (1989).

AIlingualism creates phrasal strings from a vast reservoir of language, not the ‘Grand Vat’ but in the vaguest of terms, a large language model, or LLM, whose largesse blooms on the shoulders of other people’s language–papers, books, discussion boards, social media chatter, and utterances in whatever additional ways collected and compiled. Not that utterances have shoulders. But they do, at their genesis, stem from beings in contexts, and although the writing itself is a technology that rebodies utterances, LLMs as an extractable reserve and pseudo-sense-making melange yet further extend that rebodiment. To invent with the assistance of artificial intelligence is to compose in a way uniquely hybridized and synthetic. Language games, in this case, work by different but non-obvious rules. AIlinguals, or users of LLMs to write, suspend the pact and engage in pactless speech.

It isn’t so much the case that pactless speech of this machine-assisted sort is destined to be disappointing, underwhelming, detached from terrestrial contexts, or otherwise experientially vapid. I can’t say I am in a hurry to devote any time to reading AI writing, other than comes with the shallowest of headlines glancing. And now that we’re solidly a year and a half into this “summer” (or buzzy hot streak) of AI, it continues to hold true that most everyday people are still puzzling over what, exactly, is assisting when a writer enlists the assistance of AI. AI is as often as not fumbling along with poor customer service chat help, with returning Amazon orders, and with perfunctory Web MD advice (“Have you tried sipping chamomile tea for your sore throat, Derek?”). It is helping to offer safe-playing might-rain-but-might-not weather forecasts. Looks up; no rain. And in this sense, it still functions, albeit within my admittedly small and mostly rural lifeworld, innocuously.

In a section called “5. Creatures as Machines,” Wendell Berry puzzles out a series of questions that, though they appeared in Life Is A Miracle, which was published in 2000, might just as well have been about ChatGPT:

Is there such a thing as a mind which is merely a brain which is a machine? Would one have a mind if one had no body, or no body except for a brain (whether or not it is a machine)–if one had no sense organs, no hands, no ability to move or speak, no sensory pains or pleasures, no appetites, no bodily needs? If we grant (for the sake of argument) that such may be theoretically possible, we must concede at the same time it is not imaginable, and for the most literal of reasons: Such a mind could contain no image. (47)

Such a mind could contain no image. AIlingualism propagates pactless speech; its intelligence can generate but not contain an image. Its memory is contrived (or dependent upon contrivance), not organic, fleshly, or pulsed neurologically. This is the greatest and gravest indicator of all: still, it better than holds on. AI is ascendant, picking up steam. What can this mirror about the world we’ve built, grinding along with its paradoxically gainful backsliding, AIlingual utterances–today–amounting to no more and no less than the throat clearings, ahem ahem, of commercial science and militarism. Of all the possible energias to put to language, to sacrifice our tongues to, these? Ahem ahem ahem.

May Contain Additives

“The abstractions of science are too readily assimilable to the abstractions of industry and commerce, which see everything as interchangeable with or replaceable by something else” (41).

Life is a Miracle (2000), Wendell Berry
Image by Hans from Pixabay

Strangely, since questions surfaced and circulated about chlormequat chloride in oats (and in, increasingly, in the bodies of people who have eaten those oats) a couple of weeks ago, it hasn’t been easy to find, much less to follow, that story’s diffusion. The Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology published the Temkin et al. article in February, and then USA Today‘s Mary Walrath-Holdridge authored and published a piece soon thereafter, “Study finds chlormequat in Cheerios and Quaker products: What to know about the pesticide.” When I mentioned in ENGL2014: Food Writing last week that I do still eat oatmeal most days for breakfast, only that I now take each spoonful with my fingers crossed, several new questions arose: What even is chlormequat? What effect is it having on mice? Why are we only just learning about this now? Is chlormequat chloride used on all oats? Just the cheap stuff? Just the stuff not otherwise labeled organic? I didn’t have many sure answers, but I said I would look into it and report back. So this is some of that; that, this. A writing teacher’s porridge, unsweetened.

Chlormequat chloride is a “growth regulator,” and something of a stalk straightening agent, as I understand it. An applied chemical, chlormequat chloride guides the oat plant (avena sativa) to an ideal form: vertical stalk, perpendicular to the earthen plane; no slouching; optimum height. The 2024 Temkin et al. article found that chlormequat chloride showed up in the urine samples taken from 77 out of 96 people (83%). Evidently, we don’t know a whole lot about the effects of chlormequat chloride on humans, but we can with a little bit of plausible extrapolation pause with concern for the what we do know about the animal studies in which chlormequat chloride does observable harm.

So while I tell myself I am eating delicious, nutritious oatmeal, I am probably eating something more like oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or oatmeal+a pretty good chance of chlormequat chloride. I make the cross-my-fingers joke as a way to cope with these unavoidable and late-discovered, later admitted additives; it’s not like we can confirm the presence of chlormequat chloride visually, much less pick it out. Still, we must eat.

Oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or how about we call it CC oatmeal, is merely another in a continuous stream of announcements about additives. Earlier this spring there was the cinnamon+lead recall, which I remember hearing about and wondering, how does something like that sidewind beneath notice such that we only learn about it when preschoolers begin exhibiting lead ingestion symptoms after snack. This week, Lunchables, a popular Kraft Heinz snack pack, have been in the headlines again, as Consumer Reports announced that these convenient miniature meal kits contain nearly the maximum allowable daily limits for sodium, lead, and cadmium–and this comes within a year of Lunchables ascending to the status of a bona fide lunch unto itself in the eyes of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) guidelines.

These formulations–oatmeal+chlormequat, MTCI cinnamon+lead, and Lunchables+cadmium–are biochemical realities. The cinnamon was recalled. But the Quaker Oats and Kraft Heinz Lunchables examples elicited the predictable corporate hedges along the lines of “our products are wholesome, verified to be safe and entirely obliging of all FDA standards.” It’s a well worn path and a familiar refrain, and rather than make this about corporate (ir)responsibility, I have been thinking about it in terms of how it figures into food anxiety, insinuating doubt and causing everyday consumption habits to punctuate, as an underscore would, with uncertainty. How much should we worry about this?, was another question I heard not long ago. I don’t know. The ‘this,’ is it really only CC oatmeal for today’s breakfast? Tomorrow’s? I simultaneously understand ‘this’ as also much bigger, about food processing and industrialization, a dying planet, a broken world. I really don’t know. And can only come up with maybe we learn to grow oats again. Maybe we track down some brown sugar and a dash of fuckitol. Maybe we continue to cross our fingers.

Friendly Silence

A Meal at Google
When I visited Google, I shared a silent meal with some of the people who work there. Afterward, they wrote to me and said, “Never before in that cafeteria have I had a meal that wonderful. I was so happy. I felt so peaceful. Nobody said anything in that whole room full of people. Everybody was quiet from the beginning to the end of the meal. In the history of Google, that’s the first such meal we’ve ever had.” (55)

Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Eat (2014)

I understood by mid-January that the Spring 2024 semester was probably going to rise tempestuous and run roughshod over the time I had been devoting to more regular reading and writing rhythms. It wouldn’t quite be right to say that the reading and writing went altogether dormant; it just shifted, as it is prone to doing, to other things. Even as I had a mid-January deadline for a chapter and as I was tuning plans for the classes I would teach (one a first run, the other a second run), I said “yes” to reading for a book award committee, and “maybe-could” (interpreted as yes!) to another reading-heavy committee. Both sets of reading have lit up the mix board, so to speak. It still feels good to read and read widely, to experience that silent symphony of serendipitous this paired with serendipitous that. Clicks of comprehension are oftentimes almost clicks of invention.

Yet, piled up, deadline-driven reading blankets a semester with an even deeper entrainment. Entrainment, Jenni Odell explains in Saving Time, names the exteriority of temporal regulators in a life. Too much entrainment, though, begins to feel like all of one’s time is planned for you; and so we become busy-busy, and morning noon and night governed. Asynchronous communications, such as text messaging and email, can (and oftener and oftener do, in my experience) function as entrainment reservoirs, brimmed with extras to fill in so the endo-calendar is always chock full. Administering writing programs for a decade braced me for treading again into the brittle psychosphere, a not infrequently brainfogged arena machinated by entrainments which are backed up by reserve entrainments, as when I said yes to the committees, and as when I agreed to be interim director of the PhD program.

Yet, I did say yes. Was not coerced. And I had a pretty good idea of what was ahead. The known trade-off in this is a kind of self-regulated, inevitable quietude in other areas, for example, like having less of a say here, engaging only intermittently on Facebook or Instagram, responding more slowly to texts about social engagements, drawing less, and quietly waiting for sweet flashes of downtime to consider again saying yes to anything more. Another way to approach this would be to underscore that these rebalancings of time amount to sourcing one’s own equanimity; it does little good for me or anyone in my everyday orbit to witness any apparent suffering brought on by a set of circumstances I clear-headedly agreed to.

Now that it’s April and my song is getting thin, I am taking some relief in knowing that these committees are wrapping up, and my interim term lasts only for another month or so. The last day of classes is April 30. And the reading, piled so richly high and smartly wide ranging as it is, has given me a lot to think about, including a more refined sense of possibilities for a class I am due to teach in fall.

Under the quiet, busy din of the semester, though, I have begun to understand the trade-offs in one sphere of activity dialing up, while another sphere of activity dials down, and how, throughout these adjustments–both self-set but also heavily entrained–I am perceiving the silences, lags, intervals of evident inactivity as friendly silence. A decade ago, I would have instead felt some low-level stress marked by tidal entrainment. Friendly silence (and its corollaries in composure and patience) clocks a lesson slow learned.

Is Food Studies an Inquiry Paradigm? ?

Mid-February scatters into stolen moments as the semester’s Week Five tides rise. There are classes to prepare and teach and observe, micro-interim administrative hand-offs to receive (push exchange yields soon thereafter to pull exchange), and a pair of stout reading lists for different awards and recognitions. The hours hand waves in its dinky circles, hello-good-bye, hello-good-bye, again, though time’s passing isn’t so much doldrum-thrum as labored, more-so than usual, for three fitfully stacked oncoming weeks.

Duty-whines aside, in and among those stolen moments, I am provisionally sizing up and laying out interlocking puzzle pieces toward a conversation and workshop session I’m due to lead in April with the Food Studies group, framed primarily by the question, “Is Food Studies a Discipline?” Provisional intuition says that it is not, or, rather, that where the Food Studies label circulates and sits, there are semi-baked artisanal cracker crumbs and runaway shreds of cheese that only almost made it into the pimento cheese, but there is not as of right now any large-scale organizing will of the sort that a cohering and widely shared theory would be useful for. I could be wrong! Depending upon how long cast is the shadow of this disciplinarity question, it’s early, and I am an interloper in that my own engagements with Food Studies are recent and probably naive, as such. Nevertheless, this question is intriguing enough to me to follow for a while. To engage it further, I have checked adjacencies (as a bowler needing bumpers might do) with Visual Studies and Writing Studies. I mean that because Visual Studies and Writing Studies have, each in their own time, rallied a not insignificant measure of attention and energy at their own disciplinarity questions, there are cross-checks and angles by which to compare, albeit lightly and with due consideration of all the ways such comparisons become complicated.

Approximately a decade ago, with the publication of Farewell to Visual Studies (Penn State UP, 2015), James Elkins sent into circulation an adapted version of an introductory lecture from 2011. The short piece consists of two elaborated lists, a list of farewells to unfulfilled promises (“Farewells”), and a list of “things [he’d] like[d] to see visual studies become.” Returning to the question I am considering, as a Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies academic transposing the disciplinarity question now onto Food Studies, I’ll post Elkins’ list once as it appears in Farewell to Visual Studies, and again with modifications posed as a rerig for Writing Studies and Food Studies.

List of farewells for Visual Studies (Elkins):

  • Visual studies should be harder to do.
  • Visual studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
  • Visual studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary visualities.

List of farewells rerigged for Writing Studies:

  • Writing studies should be harder to do.
  • Writing studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
  • Writing studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary composing practices and compositions.

List of farewells rerigged for Food Studies:

  • Food studies should be harder to do.
  • Food studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
  • Food studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary foods.

List of absences for Visual Studies (Elkins):

  • Images need to start arguing.
  • Visual studies needs to make more adequate use of its images.
  • Visual studies needs conversations about its own history.
  • Visual studies shouldn’t bypass non-art images and scientific images.
  • Visual studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the making of images: like art history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the making of art.
  • Visual studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
  • Visual studies is confused about ideological critique.

List of absences rerigged for Writing Studies:

  • Writing needs to start arguing.
  • Writing studies needs to make more adequate use of its texts.
  • Writing studies needs conversations about its own history.
  • Writing studies shouldn’t bypass non-creative writing and scientific writing.
  • Writing studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the doing of writing: like media history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the doing of writing.
  • Writing studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
  • Writing studies is confused about ideological critique.

List of absences rerigged for Food Studies:

  • Foodstuffs need to start arguing.
  • Food studies needs to make more adequate use of its dishes.
  • Food studies needs conversations about its own history.
  • Food studies shouldn’t bypass non-culinary foods and scientific treatments of food.
  • Food studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the making and eating of food: like culinary history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the making and eating of food.
  • Food studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
  • Food studies is confused about ideological critique.

In each list for Writing Studies and Food Studies, I have boldfaced the rerigged lines that seem to me to be worthy of entertaining, even momentarily, and I have italicized the lines that suggest instead a hint (or greater) of dissonance, surfacing a quality or condition that just doesn’t quite seem congruous with the network of activities and materials that correspond with the named field of study (albeit from my own small, humble, and unavoidably limited standpoint).

Having stepped through the exercise, it leaves me with doubts about whether it generates much in the way of new insight or possibility. Might not be map to follow if we want to venture farther into the maze. Heck, it does more in service of recalling the questions about what it means for Visual Studies to have given up the ghost, so to speak (coincidentally? not conincidentally? at the same moment when Visual Rhetoric was still gaining curricular and researcherly traction, almost as if Visual Rhetoric, even if it did not get big time sustaining uptake in any of the field’s prominent organizations or journals, was untroubled by the overtures about Visual Studies’ end). And so the light turns green on the EMF meter, but I don’t know if it blinkers toward anything significant for these other two pairings, writing and food.

I don’t know yet whether I will return to Elkins’ lists or make new lists of my own for the April workshop. I am thinking that I might instead switch to an approach influenced by Steven Mailloux’s 2000 RSQ article, “Disciplinary Identities: On the Rhetorical Paths between English and Communication Studies,” where he cited Janet Emig’s 1982 CCC article, “Inquiry Paradigms and Writing.” Here’s that long excerpt from Mailloux, citing Emig:

The changed rhetorical conditions of disciplinary formation become strikingly evident in the 1982 volume of College Composition and Communication. The February issue alone contains Janet Emig’s “Inquiry Paradigms and Writing” and Maxine Hairston’s “The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing,” as well as reviews of rhetoric and composition collections that refer explicitly to disciplinary paradigms.’ Addressing her fellow researchers in composition studies, Emig argues that “our responses concerning the nature, organization, and evaluation of evidence reveal our inquiry paradigms, both those we elect to inhabit, and those we may even help to create” (64). She then goes on to elaborate the most important characteristics of an inquiry paradigm:

1) a governing gaze [a steady way of perceiving actuality]; 2) an acknowledged, or at least a conscious, set of assumptions, preferably connected with 3) a coherent theory or theories; 4) an allegiance to an explicit or at least a tacit intellectual tradition; and 5) an adequate methodology including an indigenous logic consonant with all of the above. (65)

Emig demonstrates how these characteristics inform disciplinary research into writing and how such phenomenological and ethnographic paradigms contrast with traditional positivistic paradigms, which sometimes are “simply, globally, and, of course, mistakenly” identified with “The Scientific Method.” Not only does Emig cite Kuhn in explaining her notion of “paradigm,” but she also clearly distances composition from traditional notions of science out of which came the scientific rhetoric used by teachers of public speaking earlier in the century.

The phrase “inquiry paradigm” rings nimbler than “discipline,” in part because inquiry paradigms haven’t imposed their ordering functions so deeply into the higher ed org charts (i.e., stabilizing, yes, but also overdetermining to the point of entrenchment in many cases the delineations walling off common questions by walling off departments and programs), and so it may turn out to be a better choice for inviting engagement on the question(s) about Food Studies and what, if anything, coheres its domain of activity. The governing gaze can refer, simply, to an in-common-ish attention structure sufficient for cooperative guidance (and corresponding leadership). Each of the other criteria–set of assumptions, coherent theories, an intellectual tradition, and an adequate methodology–steer me more toward uncertainty and less toward crisp, identifiable anchors, whether the ponderables are posed for visuality, food, or writing.

For this preliminary go-round, I’ll let this end with a ‘good enough’ nod; it’s gotten me thinking in ways I wasn’t before. Nothing conclusive, not yet. Senses of new and reshaped possibilities. And there is time, pocketed in dips and dives intermittent throughout the next couple of weeks, yet with sufficient momentum that I can pick these ideas up again with the goal of chilling the aspic for setting it more firmly by mid-late March.

Goose Meat For Tenderness ?

Food Writing preparations for Thursday’s class session sidewinded unexpectedly to Agriculture Canada’s 1970 (revised) volume, Methods for Sensory Evaluation of Food. The small internet-archived book has just 64 pages, and most of them provide models for Likert ratings and corresponding statistical lookups so as to go easy on calculator-keying. Especially telling about the book’s time and place are selection of foods features in the examples: peaches, “fish-potato flakes processed under two different sets of conditions” (16), and, here, “three samples of goose meat” (30).

I don’t think I want to go the meandering long-haul distance on this one; it’s too tangential to our focus on whether and to what extent, if so, food evaluation is plausibly indexical, relatable from one person to the next, communicable, and so on.

Without venturing too far into the numbers, I want to pose as a methodical backdrop categories of appearance/aesthetics, aroma/scent, taste, texture and consistency, temperature, and overall flavor, which I understand to be a more integrated and holistic sensory impression, whereupon each becomes inflected with the other (much of which I have adapted from sites like this). From this context, we have a system of a certain sort, and yet, this is meant to provide an antecedent for the more active and applied part of the class, which will include sampling an apple, mandarin orange, or banana, listening again to “Are You Really Appreciating the Apple? from Savor, and “Eating an Orange” from A Pebble for Your Pocket, and then, through writing and conversation, engaging reflectively on the relationship between experiential knowledges and the techniques, associated with mindfulness, in this case, for granting greater (or is it simpler, if intensified) saturation to the sensorium, while eating. I know, I know, 99 word sentence. Blog forgive me. I am mulling over the contrastive frames for experiential transposition, and that sets up promisingly in this first model, assigning ratings to discrete qualities, as compared to the mindfulness meditation that invites spacetime flux, the cosmos in a bite of tender goose meat, or GMO fruit, as the case may be.

What’s the Word? ?

For a few years, maybe more, I have at times in my teaching practice opened a class session with a round of “What’s the Word.” “What’s the Word” is a segment from ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, a sports talk show featuring broadcast journalists Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, and, when one of the two of them is traveling or vacationing or otherwise unavailable, a substitute counterpart who balances the exchange and the screenspace. For 30 minutes in the 5 o’clock hour out east, the show is led along with a ticker-tape and marked by time intervals; clock-keeping governs the otherwise spirited dialogue. This clip will give you an idea:

It’s a toss-up whether students in classes I teach know the show or have any frame of reference for the premise. We watch the video, and proceed thereafter, usually with some solo word-whatsing, which then gets transferred to a marker board or Google Slide, and after this, we read them, and we talk about our neologisms, puns, and coinages. It’s not as if streamers and confetti fly from overhead, but it’s usually fun to play with words.

“What’s the Word” can with brevity open and span worlds1Similar to Thich Nhat Hanh on mantras, which are magical (or rhetorical) for how they can instantly transform reality., querying how the week is going, how a project (or some dimension of it) is unfolding, or how a reading resonates or fails to resonate, what instigates a click or a eureka. It sits in a single class meeting, so it’s not quite ENGL1999: Writing One Word, which I have (only half) jokingly pitched as a prototype for self-set minimalisms with labor and workload. “What’s the Word” fits into the discursive-unitroscope, which runs from the small to the large, and these measures include the Four Word Funk Review (variation on Four Word Film Review from back-back in the day), Fives, or lists of five what’ve-you-gots that then play into ranking and re-ranking, sharing out, writing rationales, and so on, and Nineties, which are a micro-genre adapted from Berlant & Stewart’s The Hundreds, and which amount to 90-word clips, give or take five words, that can, if they must, jump to the next multiple of 90. In other wordcounts, 85-95 is permissible, but above 95 the writer has to take it to 175-185, and below 85, it’s not a ninety because that’s where the cork edge of the dart board ends and you’ve dinged the drywall. I’m two years along in fairly routinely layering nineties into my teaching practice, and the results have been positive enough to continue, sometimes prompted, sometimes unprompted. I have yet to incorporate the indexing moves that elevate The Hundreds from distinctive and memorable to a book I consider truly one of a kind. Could be that’s what the future is for.

I’m thinking about “What’s The Word” this afternoon because we’re reading the first 28 pages of Han’s Non-Things for Monday evening, a book, which, in itself and in translation blooms a terminological cornucopia. We’ll have just an hour on Zoom for discussing the opening section, before we switch to open review of in-progress blog carnival entries. “What’s the Word” seems to me right-sized for the hour, for sorting out de-fleeification, or digitombed rhetorics, or smart-phoniness, or like-iod addiction.

Notes

  • 1
    Similar to Thich Nhat Hanh on mantras, which are magical (or rhetorical) for how they can instantly transform reality.

Are the Artificials Expressive? ?

Stepping into AI discussions since November 2022 has felt to me like stepping into a mixed gravity bounce house, enthusiasts bounding miles-high right next to cautionaries clinging clutch-knuckled to whatever handles avail themselves of the seeming-eternal humanistic basics.

Me, I’m just doing what I can to check the conversations, keep walk-jog sideline pace, or possibly bounce high enough for an occasional dunk-thought, sort of like those tenth grade lunch breaks when the gymnastics spring boards were theatrically repurposed so that everyone who wanted one could have an attempt at reaching the rim. Just a touch! I hope that’s not too much mixing, from bounce house to springboard-boosted basketball, considering I am over here trying to make a point about artificial intelligence, large language model “writing,” and the scoops of words masquerading as discourse from ChatGPT.

I was listening to a podcast—Ezra Klein, I think—while driving to Virginia from Michigan on August 2, and although the podcast wasn’t about AI, per se, the discussion of First Amendment law and free speech got me puzzling through a question about whether AI-generated prose is legally expressive. I am not the first; I am also not a lawyer. But. To illustrate, consider this: a local politician is running for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Not being much of a speech writer, they tap GPT4 on its non-shoulder, prompting it to return for them an applause raising statement about democratic values. The AI returns a lukewarm soup of a statement, and it just so happens to include in it a damaging and slanderous falsehood about another local official. Litigious gloves are off. Legal teams are enlisted. And the candidate mea culpas with the grandest of agentic shifts: “GPT4 made me say it!”

It reads to me as one of the most ground floor conditions, a lower order stases: Is AI expressive? Is ChatGPT responsible, legally or otherwise, for its so-called writing?

If no, then follows a corresponding set of questions about what writing qua “content generation” actually boils down to. Humans are, arguably and correspondingly, small(er) language models (SLMs). Certainly this doesn’t mean that an SLM can’t every so often augment their repertoire of inventional, compositional, and interpretive range with a sidekick LLM, a backdrop behemoth spitting possibly everything ever. But my hunch is that the SLM should be cautious about surrendering its language to this other phenomenon overmuch, or all-out ventriloquizing the LLM as though its expressions will be satisfactory, sufficient, or both, just because it is big.

Writing, as a verb, doesn’t shield itself especially well from contending, sometimes mismatched, activities. In fact, three decades of writing studies scholarly activity has worked mightily to expand writing, sparing writing its alphabetic-linear reduction, and pluralizing it loftily with overtures of multimodality. Much of this has been good and necessary and warranted, but there has been a trade-off. The trade-off is the you can fit a whole lot of yes-that-too under the baggiest of umbrellas, and then along came the LLMs. I wouldn’t argue that anyone should revert to exclusive or narrow-banded definitions of writing, tempting as it might be (e.g., only a pencil-holding activity, or a thing that happens when a human hand makes a keystroke). But I would say that the lines have blurred between “content generation” and “writing” in ways that are not always helpful for demarcating reasonably distinctive activities and in ways that risk promoting shortcut mindsets when writing is presumed to be ready-made, extractive, and infinitely/generically scoopable from an allegedly ever-improving LLM.

Collin recently referred me to Alan Jacobs’ recent entry, “on technologies and trust,” which aptly sketches the position that we wouldn’t ever think of enticing prospective students to cooking school only to tell them that everything they learn will be derived from HelloFresh boxes. A similar logic extends to graphic designers from templated fallbacks. While the masticated options might be appealing to the uninitiated, they are not quite the same as learning by practicing when that practice entails selection, decision, trial and error, and so on.

I am not convinced that LLMs are expressive, and I want to work on making evaluative sense of AI more forwardly in these terms.

A final illustration: In April an HVAC technician visited the house for routine maintenance on the heat pump leading into the air conditioning season. Before leaving, he started to tell me about how he used to manage a big game preserve in Tennessee, though it closed, and so he changed careers. He then went on to tell me about his daughter who was taking an interest in cattle AI because she had a friend who was working with ranchers in Texas; the friend was finding cattle AI quite lucrative, he explained.

It took me a while to figure out that large-scale livestock procreation, too, has an artificial alternative; that’s “cattle AI,” for us non-ranchers. I think about this often as a checkpoint in conversations about AI and content generation. Might be, cattle AI is for cows what ChatGPT is for writing–artificial, expedient, not to be mistaken for the other embodied, developmentally-dependent, organic-contextual (more than mechanistic) act.

Fourth Mug ☕️

Four mugs for coffee, now three, where has the missing one gone? No big, no mood, we do not even need it today. Everyday mysterious disappearance, though this one feels temporary, more a misplacement than a vanishing. La, la, la, love. Trust. Senses knew it well enough to conjure its absence. Memorable qualities of the mug: same shape and size as the others, only brown-rimmed, not grue-bleen moss, orthodontial ivory, or #b84040 baked orangery-crimson. I only drink from the blue-green one; this morning I have what I need, hot temporary. 
[Goodman, 1979; Puddle of Mud, 2002; Julavits, 2015]

Rinse in River Lethe

A year’s end knocks. Oh, you’re early! Nevermind. Lost track of time. January soon. Knocks again. Annual report is due. What happened. Why? Pause, take stock, reflect. Rewind the tape but play it back at 1.5x normal rate, skip ahead, skip to the end, yawn because hyper recall is fatiguing and sometimes also boring. River Lethe’s feeding forks are vacant oblivion, forgetting, usually with negative connotations. Remember though, forgetting, too, is a clearing, a gift, and an inevitability. Maybe there can be more lethegraphy, forget-writing, gone-noting, in the new year.