Potential Literature


Given enough time, a hypothetical monkey typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce all of Shakespeare’s plays.
– the Infinite Monkey Theorem

Not to be taken literally…

In an experiment conducted in a Zoo in England, zookeepers left a computer keyboard in the cage of six macaques for a month. The monkeys produced only a five page document, consisting mostly of the letter S, until the alpha male bashed the keyboard with a stone and all the other monkeys urinated and defecated on it.
– Dario Maestripieri, Primatologist

Writers and artists have been fascinated with randomness and with the combinatorial properties of text since DADA.

To make a Dadaist poem
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
– Tristan Tzara, 1920

Writer William Burroughs in the ’50s applied this technique, dubbed cut-up technique, to his own writing and recordings. (And David Bowie, and Kurt Cobain, and Thom Yorke…)

Not only text:


In John Cage’s Music of Changes (1951) the composer selected duration, tempo, and dynamics by using the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese book which prescribes methods for arriving at random numbers.

Raymond Queneau – Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (1961)

Web port here

Queneau was the founder of Oulipo – Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (workshop of potential literature).

Principle of variability in new media

A new media object is not something fixed once and for all but can exist in different, potentially infinite, versions. This is another consequence of numerical
coding of media and modular structure of a media object
Lev Manovich – The language of New Media

Manovich also noted how new media favor Database logic over sequential logic of linear media. The logic of a collection of items (data) recombined by algorithm is always present in generative literature and poetry.

Taroko Gorge by Nick Momford. Derivative works using different databases and algorithms.

Generation by interaction:

Generation by phonetics & genetic algorithms:

Generation by structural analysis of existing texts:

Gnoetry synthesizes language randomly based on its analysis of existing texts. Any machine-readable text or texts, in any language, can serve as the basis of the Gnoetic process. Gnoetry generates sentences that mimic the local statistical properties of the source texts. This language is filtered subject to additional constraints (syllable counts, rhyming, etc.) to produce a poem.

Word generation under constraint:
Adhesion text
You can create pretty interesting literature with it.

Text generation as parody:

Postmodernism generator

Automatic CS Paper Generator

Art critique generator

Bad literature

And so on…

And let’s not forget the most common and utilitarian use of text generation: Spam
Spam Poetry Institute

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