Masturbation by algorithm

It was self-explanatory, the tag that I appended on August 23 to the new photograph on my Tumblr. Anybody who clicked on the picture would see a form and instantly associate it with mental categories named (inter al.) cat and black. But the idea of clicking is all about working the process in reverse: from the name back to the thing. So I tagged my picture (inter al.) black.

Instantly my Tumblr was hit with a like from somebody (or “somebody”) bearing a name which also turned out to be self-explanatory: “hotebonyvaginas.” Clicking on that brought up a photo album devoted to the gynecology of black women.

Six days later I posted another image of the cat, and again tagged it with the search term black. Once, again, instantly, my site was like-bombed with a collection of black porn. This time, the like function named itself “eroticafrotits.” But though the two names were different, they had been generated by only one rhetorical algorithm.

When people like me teach composition, we call attention to this particular algorithm  by giving it a self-explanatory name: parallelism. Look, we say, writing an example on the board:

and that government
of the people,
by the people,
for the people
shall not perish from the earth.

After we finish writing, we draw lines between the similar parts of speech: preposition preposition preposition, one vertical line; article article article, another; noun noun noun, a third. If the words are arrayed this way in a matrix, you can see that the three lines we drew are parallel, and hence the name. It’s an ancient technology for massing words and bringing them to bear on their subject. The compilers of the Book of Proverbs used it over and over.

Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth;
a stranger, and not thine own lips.

The cyberbot that visited my site was one of those praising strangers. Its programmer had programmed it to do something called “liking,” and the word “like” showed up on my monitor per algorithm, then showed up again in parallel. Hotebonyvaginas, eroticafrotits: sexual adverb sexual adverb, race slang adjective race slang adjective, erogenous zone noun erogenous zone noun.  The machine operates in full auto made, and, entrained in full auto mode, unhappy old men turn off Fox News and unzip.

But here’s the cat: life filled to the exclusion of everything else with nothing but movement and appetite; and black. When you’re granted a choice of elements to like, my suggestion would be that you ignore silicon and choose carbon.

Sources: Proverbs 27. 2 (King James Version);


The papers that came in from the Hong Kong students weren’t in ESL. They weren’t incoherent, not at all. But they were incomprehensible. The year was 1977, my first as a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, and the assignment had been ordinary by American undergraduate standards: a reading of a text, five typed pages long. One of the Hong Kong students gave me what I’d asked for, but from each of the others I received only a startling surprise: a thick wad of lined notebook paper consisting of thirty pages hand-copied, word for word, right out of the textbook.

This wasn’t cheating — not in any ordinary sense of the idea. There couldn’t have been any intent to deceive. The students must have known that I’d read the book. But then what had they given me? Why in the world would anybody want to look at it? I tried asking the students, but that didn’t help at all. With tears glittering in their eyes, they protested that they had to do their work that way, because that was what they had been taught in school. And (with indignation added to the tears) NO!, they couldn’t type their papers either. They had to copy the words by hand. That was what they had been taught.

Finally the student who had done the assignment American-style rescued me. In Hong Kong as of 1977, she explained, there were two school systems: the British and the Chinese. She had attended a British school and received pretty much the same education she would have received in England. It transferred right over to the University of Hawaii, an American school in an Unamerican locale. But the Chinese schools were strictly Confucian. An English class there wasn’t about learning English; it was about learning to ascribe the moral authority of tradition to a repeated activity — in this case, a muscle activity called “writing.” My own sense of the word “writing” had nothing to do with it.


A few weeks ago somebody from an electric utility commented in Salon about how much his industry has been changed by the computer. In his building, for instance, there was once a large room full of draftsmen. No more — and when I read that word “draftsmen” on my screen I suddenly realized that I hadn’t read it at all, anywhere else, for who knows how many years now? An entire category of labor, its name and its idea, have gone obsolete.

Drafting room, War Production Board, Washington, 1942.

The draftsman’s pipe is no more, and so is the draftsman. The War Production Board, likewise, fulfilled its purpose and then vanished into history. Labor and laboriousness, however, remain in effect and on wartime footing. Yesterday, for instance, I posted a note about a mysterious daily attempt, apparently originating from many sources in Poland, to reach a note about Margaret Bourke-White that I posted to this blog a year ago. I’d guess that that busily repeated simulation of a desire to read has something to do with a larger cyberprocess that has been going on all year now: a massive effort to take over computers running WordPress (like mine, for this blog) and turn them into automated spam engines. Here, for instance, is a screenshot that I took last night with the help of the tracking program StatComm. It displays a barrage of attempts to log into “The Art Part” by hundreds of cyberpersonae attempting to impersonate me.

And in this morning’s screenshot, the tracking program Wordfence displays a tiny part of the ongoing effort, universalized all through cyberspace, to take over any computer running a WordPress page passworded with the default name admin. To the algorithm running that process, the word part of the term password has nothing to do with that human thing, writing in words. It’s only a coefficient to be changed in order to change communication from a manpower to something with a less anachronistic name.

While we still can, however, let’s consider one more labor function from the past. At the right of Ford Madox Brown’s Victorian allegory Work, two writer-sages, Frederick Denison Maurice and (in the hat) Thomas Carlyle, contemplate a repeated muscle activity under the aspect of its ideal form. In his poem addressed to Maurice, “Come, when no graver cares employ,” Tennyson envisioned that ideal as a series of laborious imperatives:

How best to help the slender store,
How mend the dwellings, of the poor;
     How gain in life, as life advances,
Valour and charity more and more.

A century and a half later, the shovel and the horse and the barefoot man with vegetation on his head are as obsolete as any draftsman, and the vocabulary word “charity” means something different when its culture’s writer-sage is Ayn Rand. Still, wouldn’t Frederick Denison Maurice and Alfred, Lord Tennyson have wanted us to hope that there may still remain something valorously human in Polish cyberspace — some impulse, for instance, toward actually reading my post about Margaret Bourke-White?

In that hope, let’s honor Maurice and Tennyson and Bourke-White as my students once honored Confucius. I registered Bourke-White’s photographs with the help of the fine muscles of my eyes, but then I wrote about them with the help of unembodied language. What I wrote may be unrepetitive after all, and subject to non-mechanical variation, and therefore untranslatable except in an error-prone, merely human way. Napisz komentarz w polu!

“Snap shots of an event that may become historic”

The microfilm readers in the University of Hawaii’s Hamilton Library are now linked to computers running Irfanview. Scholarly readers no longer have to work with a copy machine’s blurry approximations of the film; now they can scan an image from the film, save the scan to a thumb drive, and then Photoshop that digital copy. Here’s an example of what that labor can make available: visible again after decades of deterioration, three photographs taken in Honolulu harbor just after the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, 1917.

Click to enlarge.

With the United States poised to end its neutrality and enter World War I, the crew of the interned German gunboat Geier had tried but failed to destroy their ship, and a photographer was there, recording. His editor called the results “snap shots of an event that may become historic.” And yes, an independent historiographic record of the event does exist. You can read about it at, for instance,

But that record may not quite be history. Readers mark the distinction with a cliché. We don’t quite say the stern word “history” after we close a book about SMS Geier; instead, we tend to Disney-fy our newly read text by calling it something like “a footnote to history.” If it’s the short story of a little warship at the edge of the Great War, beached in a backwater that didn’t become canonical in the history of war until the war that followed this one, then of course (we think) it doesn’t belong in historiography’s large print. Fine-print footnotes like the anecdote about the gunboat Geier are detachable.

Here in Hamilton Library, both the thick books of history and the reels of microfilm testify that the anecdote named Geier was detached a long time ago. The newspaper from 1917 is gone, its microfilm archive is deteriorating, and these images are unlikely ever to be seen again where thick books about the Great War are written. As to the white-suited civilian that Photoshop has now brought back as if he had never left his spot on a pier in Honolulu, he can never again be more than a white footnote to the anonymous anecdote of Geier’s white sailors. The civilian’s hat is still on his head and the wrinkles in his clothes still say that he has a hand in his pocket, but his face has gone under permanent shadow and his body has come under the striped mark of the printing from 1917 that has now obliterated his name. Without Photoshop, he wouldn’t be visible in 2012. But even with Photoshop, he’s now one of the unreadable parts of his own history.

Illusive immortality, then; merely anecdotal monument and memory. Photoshop drills itself into a slip of microfilm, penetrates and reshapes the images there, and then rises with them, glowing, to the surface of a monitor. There, the newly illumined images will endure for the single moment before vision’s format changes again.

Update, June 6, 2014: the unphotoshopped original of this picture of Geier in Honolulu is image 000104 in the Al Menasco photo album in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive,

It must have been taken in March 1916, when Menasco and his partner Art Smith stopped in Honolulu en route to a series of exhibition flights in Asia. (“Art Smith Has Ten Little Red Racers With Him,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin 8 March 1916: 6.