Scaffolding Conversation

[An off-list epistle (or a short note) about an objection to a move in post on Humanist]

Dear X

It may be viewed as a bit of stretch to go from Eskelinen to Barthes. I could have occluded the writing/reading process and simply referenced Barthes. However, I think the post benefits from the illustration of the wandering mind at play in intertextual possibilities.

I am mindful of Eskelinen’s context i.e. the production of textual instruments. I’m not sure how work-oeuvre can be harnessed to that end. I fail to discern a dialectic in this pair. Also taken in the context of the other pairs, the work-oeuvre sticks out: it ruins the parallelism — how is an oeuvre a process?

object process
work oeuvre
text intertext
reader text control
maintenance destruction

Of course I am emboldened in my reach for Barthes by Eskelinen’s invitation: “The task and the pleasure of the reader- player-instrumentalist would be to maintain, break or (re)create the balance between these oppositional poles.”

Interestingly, I do not marshal Barthes’s notion of “text” in my little post. I really only pick up the triad reader, writer, observer. There too I could have occluded the source (Barthes) that triggered my setting this triad at play with considerations of Willard’s desire for an oppositional AI. Of course the scaffolding could be made to disappear. But then showing scaffolding can lead to conversation …

Thank you for making me revisit this. Appreciated as ever,


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My interlocutor came back with a reference to Humboldt’s distinction between language perceived as product (Werk) or ergon on the one hand and as activity (Tätigkeit) or energeia on the other. I think Eskelinen would approve.

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Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 137.
[Response to Humanist 35.134]


I am enticed by your elaboration of the what you are seeking to hook in your
fishing. I am intrigued by the hint at a space between machine and human (though
your terms are “hardware and wetware” suggest a kinship of wares). Your
quotation from Peter Clemoes is the perfect bait. There the traces of a dynamic
emerge from this telling phrase: “a systematic relationship between potential
and performance”. There seems to be an implied feedback loop here.

I am reminded of the summary provided by Markku Eskelinen in “Six Problems in
Search of a Solution: the Challenge of Cybertext Theory and Ludology to Literary
Theory” [1]. In the context of building textual instruments that “is supposed to
shape and frame the player’s action and to produce interesting variation” (which
I take to being akin to the productive fiction you are looking for from
oppositional AI), Eskelinen looks to literary tradition for means of realizing
such textual instruments:

Literary tradition contains at least five easy dialectics that could be adapted as flexible frames for the necessary variation: the text as an object and a process, the work and the oeuvre, the text and the intertext, the reader’s and the text’s control over reading, and the maintenance and destruction of the text. The task and the pleasure of the reader-player-instrumentalist would be to maintain, break or (re)create the balance between these oppositional poles.

I am not sure what Eskelinen is referencing by the dialectic between “the work
and the oeuvre” and hazard a guess based on the distinction between object and
process that this formulation is meant to evoke a classic distinction from
French literary theory: that between work and text. And so we come to Roland
Barthes and to his set of variations on the distinctions between work and text
[2]. I want to focus on a triad that is mentioned but not extensively explored
by Barthes since it might provide some agency to the relationship between
performance and potential that seems to underpin the search for oppositional AI.

Just as Einsteinian science demands that the relativity of the frames of reference be included in the object studied, so the combined action of Marxism, Freudianism and structuralism demands, in literature, the relativization of the relations of writer, reader and observer (critic).

What I want to retain here is the possibility of the machine occupying the role
of writer, reader and observer. I think in relation to your oppositional AI it
is easy to imagine writing and reading that produce friction for the human. The
question for me remains open as to how AI can function as an observer. But is it
a question worth posing?

Back to the phrase from Clemoes: is not the writing and reading generated by an
oppositional AI the pretext or potential for the performance of the observer?
Observers also know when not to issue remarks (I recall that annoying animated
paper clip in early versions of Microsoft Office that read keystrokes and
suggested assistance in writing a letter … precursor of many a humorous
autocorrect error.) Reading and writing provide the potential for a performance
of observation. The performance of observation is itself the occasion for the
potential of further reading and writing.

Would your oppositional AI be like an observer who takes delight in the
recursive without getting too giddy? Can your AI laugh? At and with?

[2] Originally published as ‘De l’oeuvre au texte’ in Revue d’esthetique, no. 3,
Paris, 1971; translated as “From Work to Text” by Stephen Heath in Image Music

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And so for day 2982

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