Twitter bots for an autopoietic literature
Presentation of the topic
In this essay, I will analyse the diverse range of literary Twitter bots, these are automated Twitter accounts that post literary content according to algorithmic programming. I will present the context and digital infrastructures that constitute them and will evaluate their contribution to the current literary landscape.
In order to do this research I will present the intersections between systems theory and literature, specifically examining the concept of autopoiesis as a resource to propose self-reproducing and sustainable literary systems.
Then I will present, very briefly, the explorations made in the field of artificial intelligence in regards to literary creation. I will provide a critical perspective on this revision and will locate Twitter bots in this cartography.
To introduce the topic of Twitter bots, I will explore the social conditions in which they emerge, I intend to present them as an accessible way to experiment with automated coding with dissemination results that engage audiences at a massive level. In order to make this critical assessment of the bots I’ll evaluate factors as the bias in algorithmic design and the proprietary character of the Twitter platform and its effects.
The core part of this essay is the proposal of three types of Twitter bots, I will provide one descriptive example for each category. These examples will be analyzed under the theoretical framework developed in the first sections of the essay.
Having critically analysed the role and nature of literary Twitter bots, I will be able to provide guidelines regarding their contribution to the literary scenario, I will evaluate the ways they constitute or not a significant resource to expanding our modes for thinking literature.
Autopoiesis as a posthuman approach to literary systems
I am proposing an analysis of the object of study, the Twitter Bots, that starts at systems theory, this is the interdisciplinary study of systems that is carried to discover a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions, etc.
Systems theory has been embraced by post-humanist theorists as a non-anthropocentric perspective for the study of the humanities, and this includes literary works, the renowned posthumanist scholar Cary Wolfe claims:
“In light of the post-humanist imperative I have been invoking thus far, systems theory has much to offer as a general epistemological system. Unlike feminist philosophy of science, it does not cling to debilitating representationalist notions. And unlike Enlightenment humanism in general, its formal descriptions of complex, recursive, autopoietic systems are not grounded in the dichotomy of human and nonhuman” (Wolfe 1995 p.47).
Wolfe narrates how systems theory has evolved from a circular theory of negative feedback (recursivity) to visions that consider environmental factors as the theory of autopoiesis, created by the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.
Autopoiesis refers to a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself. This concept was originally developed for the study of cellular chemistry but its use has been extended to areas as cognition, systems theory, social sciences and even literary studies. A general definition of autopoiesis can be found in the glossary of Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living by Maturana and Varela:
“An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network” (Maturana and Varela 1980 p.135).
An example of autopoiesis applied to the humanities is present in the article The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism by Sylvia Wynter, she uses the concept of autopoiesis to explain the process of creating and understanding literature, she positions the human as a trans-subject entity whom, by living, realizes its mode of being (Wynter 1984 p.22). This definition is used by her to construct a critique of the patriarchal and racist educational system, which is the environment that determines the behaviours and “objective” standards of individual scholars (Wynter 1984 p.39).
The concept of autopoiesis is particularly useful for the type of study proposed in this essay: studies that emerge at the intersection of machines and literature, since they require an infrastructural analysis that provides an understanding of computational environments but also a research at the individual level, which is the dimension of the human writers and human readers.
This perspective of humanities in interaction with environments and non-human elements, resonates in the current situation of comparative literary studies, which are becoming more receptive to incorporate non-traditional forms of textual production. Comparative literature is no longer a discipline of comparative languages alone, but of the different materialities—digital, printed, handwritten, screen- or paper based—that help to format and transform the stories that we tell and the poetries we forge (Brillenburg Wurth 2018 p.1).
Artificial intelligence and literature
When we think of the feasibility of an autopoietic literary piece, it is possible to consider the analysis of any type of literature that is mindful of the conditions of its creation and of the many moments the piece is involved in interactions with human agents.
But we also can think about artificial intelligence and algorithmic programming as areas in which self-reproduction and self-sustaining is central to the functioning of systems. It is possible to find examples of literary works developed by AI or algorithmic processors, this is the case of literature contests where computer-programmed pieces have participated with texts that are practically indistinguishable from the human-made ones (Lewis 2018). In these cases, the machine takes the place of the human (the writer), which could be considered a clear setting of the anticipated future proposed by Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto:
“Late-twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines.Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert” (Haraway 1991 p.11).
However, is the existence of a computer that replicates human actions an accurate example of a cyborg case? Isn’t it anthropocentric to think about machines whose main objective is to imitate the human? And which human do they imitate? Aren’t they subject to the bias of their creators and their environments?
In the following section, I am going to present the case of literary Twitter bots as a very particular case of automated digital creations that differ from the literature written by machines whose aim is to resemble human traits. I am proposing that in the development and consumption of literary Twitter bots, its computational nature is at the centre, and that is way more closer to the cyborg scenario described by Haraway and also way less anthropocentric. Additionally, their design promotes a much more clear autopoietic development since they “come to life” necessarily in relation with external agents: the active code always in motion and the level of interaction with their readers.
Types of literary Twitter bots
After a revision of the ecosystem of literary Twitter bots, I created three categories for them: the repeaters, the inviters and the producers.
To review each of these categories I will use poststructuralist ideas on deconstruction, mainly obtained from the works of Jacques Derrida, and Sylvia Wynter’s idea of “dramatic reality” which helps to understand the performative level of literary productions in relation with social contexts and structures.
- Repeaters: those that replicate literary works in the form of tweets
These are the accounts that display short excerpts of literary works, mostly classics. A very popular example of this category is @sapphobot, the account that tweets excerpts of Anne Carson’s translation of If Not, Winter by Sappho. The bot is very popular among the lesbian users of Twitter in part because the programmer of the bot identifies herself as lesbian with a disabling condition.
The bots tweets every two hours and some of their most popular tweets are the following:
I conversed with you in a dream
(99 retweets and 240 likes)
… and some men say an army of ships the most beautiful thing
on the black earth. But I say it is
what you love.
(58 retweets and 198 likes)
because I prayed
(102 retweets and 300 likes)
someone will remember us I say even in another time
(110 retweets and 308 likes)
Clearly the selection of excerpts resonates with topics as love and independent womanhood. It is also possible to find coherence with these topics and the lesbian identity which appropriated this work of Sappho for their imaginary. This process can be related to the process of bricolage described by Jacques Derrida in Writing and Difference as the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage that is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur. This is in contrast to the figure of the engineer, whom Levi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, the engineer is the one who constructs the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth (Derrida 1978 p.285).
In the case of @sapphobot, the engineer is the creative lesbian woman who created the bot, but the process of existence of the bot is beyond her, is a process of bricolage since it “comes to life” with the interpretations of the users who promote her content. The community takes appropriation of Sappho’s, and through autopoietic steps (the retweet, the fav), they create new meaning, lesbian meaning.
Sylvia Wynter uses the concept of “dramatic reality” to describe the proscriptions and prescriptions we obey to fulfill the expectations of our roles (Wynter 1984 p.24). In @sapphobot, their users are defying these prescriptions by inscribing themselves in their own lesbian drama, some critics could say that their are still registered in the proprietary logics of Twitter but it would be cynical to not acknowledge the importance of visibility for the lesbian community. Derrida explains that all bricolages are not equally worthwhile (Derrida 1997 p.139) but this is a case of a worthy bricolage because of its transformative role in a particular community of readers.
- Inviters: those that transform non-literary content into literature
There’s plenty of bots that post content which source is not traditionally literary but the format of Twitter somehow provides a literary atmosphere for this content. In this category exist the bots of songs lyrics that engage in a process of extraction of literary value from musical pieces. This has facilitated a process of social recognition of popular artists for their poetic work, this is the case of the Argentinian cumbia singer Gilda (@GildaBot) or of the British musician Morrissey (@Mozzer_bot).
However, for this section I would like to explore a different type of bot that invites non-literary content in the traditional sense to the realm of literature. This is the case of infinite deserts_ψ__ (@infinitedeserts) which, using ASCII characters displays combinations that resemble images of deserts. The account has more than ten thousand followers and these are some of his tweets:
. ☼ __¡n________________ _____ ° . ܀ °
. ☾ .Oo. .Oo. ﹏﹏﹏﹏﹏﹏﹏ ° · , ࿏ .
. * __෴෴__෴___广¯¯¯¯¯Ⴈ__ . ܀ . · , · , .
The analysis of this account requires an interrogation of the materiality of the very Western alphabet. This is not a new technique, considering the references of the modernist movements or the surrealist trends that created devices as calligrams.
I recognize this example as a heir of those traditions and as a case in coherence with the aim of the new humanities to find ways of expanding approaches to writing, creativity, narratives, and poems, as well as considering objects of literary study such as hyperfiction, e-poetry,and algorithms that have, until today, been carefully kept out of the canon of works studied in universities and schools (Brillenburg Wurth 2018 p.2).
- Producers: Those that create new content through automated processes
These bots differ from the first category (repeaters) because the displayed tweet is not a full sentence created by a human, they are designed to form their own outputs using determined coding inputs with more or less levels of autonomy.
For this category I will review Magic Realism Bot (@MagicRealismBot), this is an account that posts plots inspired in what they call magic realism scenarios. The tweets have a common structure of a subject plus an action and a context. These three elements are dynamically displayed from a coded database, the following are some popular tweets:
A banjo made of the Milky Way appears in Athens.
In Thailand there is a beauty therapist who has a jade vagina.
A pastry chef listens to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. In that time, she lives another life as a flamingo.
A lizard is talking to English literature.
To analyse this category, I consider useful to utilize the concept of deconstruction. To Gayatri Spivak, deconstruction seems to offer a way out of the closure of knowledge. By inaugurating the open-ended indefiniteness of textuality it shows us the lure of the abyss as freedom. The fall into the abyss of deconstruction inspires us with as much pleasure as fear. We are intoxicated with the prospect of never hitting bottom (Spivak 1997 p.lxxvii).
This type of bots can produce infinite pleasurable combinations, the text is done and redone in each post. It is possible to say that knowledge is never closed in such a digital environment.
Spivak also mentions Derrida’s acknowledgement that the the desire of deconstruction may itself become a desire to reappropriate the text actively through mastery, to show the text what it “does not know” (Spivak 1997p. lxxvii), and certainly in this exercise of deconstruction I am doing in this essay I am depositing meaning in order to master these tweets, but it is a never-ending task because the code is faster than the human reading and the bot will respond forever.
Contribution of literary Twitter bots to the process of thinking literature
To assess the contribution of literary Twitter bots to the process of thinking literature, it is necessary to consider literature as a living entity, as Gayatri Spivak explains in the preface of On Grammatology by Jacques Derrida “the book is not repeatable in its “identity”: each reading of the book produces a simulacrum of an “original”” (Spivak 1997 p.xii). And this living entity must be thought in the realm of posthuman knowledge generation, this means the displacement of the anthropocentric value systems (Braidotti 2017). In this particular case, this new knowledge pays attention to the agency of machines, facilitating the expansion of the cyborg world. Donna Haraway describes the cyborg world in this way:
“The cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet (…) From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point” (Haraway 1991 p.13).
The particular case of literary Twitter bots, is an example of this kinship between humans and machines. We have determined their importance in the construction of identities as in the case of @sapphobot and their relevance at the questioning of official forms of knowledge, which is the case of literary content made with ASCII characters and the case of @MagicRealismBot and their compelling outputs.
The exercise of this essay, is an attempt to identify paths for the creation of knowledge that is mindful of their cultural and material conditions. In Situated Knowledges, Donna Haraway, states that this is a major challenge for the new humanities: “our problem is how to have simultaneously an account of the radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own “semiotic technologies” for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a “real” world, one that can be partially shared and friendly to earth-wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness” (Haraway 1991 p.187).
When analysing a digital instance it is necessary to acknowledge the bias of their foundations. At the design stage, all digital services are given a set of algorithmic rules that will guide the behavior of the service. The researchers of the technomaterialist tendency of Xenofeminism, among many other critics of internet technologies, have denounced how material conditions and gendered expectations cultivate or restrict certain forms of knowledge, this results in an ecosystem of exclusionary networked communication technologies (Hester 2018 p.89).
Because of the recent events involving bots and fake news for influencing political elections, the official stand of the Twitter corporation towards bots has been a stand of censorship and the obstacles for the creation of bots have been progressively increasing. There is an active position against anonymity with the use of mechanisms as the request of phone numbers and the use of real names, many artistic bots are now dead because of the elimination of their accounts perpetrated by Twitter. The developers of these bots have moved to other platforms with open standards as Mastodon or they are still trying to stay in Twitter. Both ways are in line with the Xenofeminist idea of circumnavigate the gatekeepers of the super surveilled and controlled digital world (Hester 2018 p.137).
The fact that literary bots are persecuted nowadays in this cyber witch hunt, gives us a clue on the lack of consideration towards artistic production made by non-humans. Sylvia Wynter in The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism proposes a re-writing of knowledge as the only way to advance as a culture. I believe this new knowledge must overcome our current state of technological rationality and open a path for a loving cyborg world in which human, animal and machine will trans-interact in harmony. To Wynter, these cultural advances have always looked like heresies, therefore, if giving certain machines the capacity to live is a heresy (as it is in the Twitter official structure), that is a path that is worthy to explore.
However, if we consider literary Twitter bots as an autopoietic exercise of deconstruction, it will be necessary to pay a permanent attention to the constant changes of the structures that host them since they will unavoidably depend of this structure, this is the main problem of deconstruction explained by Jacques Derrida:
“The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not suspect it. Operating necessarily from the inside, borrowing all the strategic and economic resources of subversion from the old structure, borrowing them structurally, that is to say without being able to isolate their elements and atoms, the enterprise of deconstruction always in a certain way falls prey to its own work” (Derrida 1997 p.214).
To finish this essay I want to propose that literary Twitter bots have value, there is an artistry behind this practice and is important to take into account the expanding community that consumes them. They constitute an accessible form to navigate in the dimension of coding since they are relatively easy to create and maintain using online tools that do not require programming skills to use. Even more, they are inscribed in a format in which the possibility of interactions with human users and even with other bots is easy to promote.
Bots, particularly the bots I analyzed, constitute an exercise of deconstruction in the Derridean sense: they dismantle [deconstruire] the metaphysical and rhetorical structures which are at work in the text not in order to reject or discard them but to reinscribe them in another way (Derrida 1997 p.145). They are also an exercise of deconstruction in line with what was manifested by Gayatri Spivak in the preface of Of Grammatology: “deconstruction as a reading that produces rather than protects” (Spivak 1997 p.145). It is a production that radically questions authorship, blurs the line between human and machine and defies categorizations of what is officially accepted as literature. They live in an autopoietic way which creates new forms of understanding literature.
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 This can be related to the concept of “operational closure” proposed by Francisco Varela respect to autopoietic systems. To Varela, operational closure is the result of a resistance of elements of the system against closing operations of the same system (Varela, 1995). This really complex definition might be related to the “way out of the closure of knowledge” that Spivak mentions since in autopoiesis the operational closures are considered as a non-ending part of the living and forever expanding system.
 Or until the Twitter kills the bot to the Twitter platform ceases to exist.