Calvino’s Ghosts

Last summer, Mike Sharples drew my attention to a lecture that Italo Calvino toured Italy with in 1967, reprinted as “Cybernetics and Ghosts” in the Vintage collection The Literature Machine. It presents a puzzling and somewhat disturbing argument. But the other day I was rereading it and think I discovered a key to unlocking its meaning and dispelling some of my concerns.

First, let’s quickly summarize the concerns. Calvino takes his cue from the meeting of theoretical and technological developments that must have appeared quite exciting at the time, although the excitement, which I suppose I was literally born into only four years after Calvino’s lecture, had always, or at least until last summer, seemed to me a little overblown. Simplifying somewhat, he asks to us imagine the consequences of feeding our structuralist and formalist theories of language and literature into a sophisticated computer — indeed, a computer whose sophistication can be seen simply as an extrapolation from Raymond Queneau’s “rudimentary model of a machine for making sonnets,” which I have myself suggested is a good model for thinking about large language models.

Having laid down these procedures and entrusted a computer with the task of carrying out these operations, will we have a machine capable of replacing the poet and the author? Just as we already have machines that can read, machines that performs a linguistic analysis of literary texts, machines that make translations and summaries, will we also have machines capable of conceiving and composing poems and novels? (12)

His answer to this question seems at first to be yes. He even welcomes the prospect. Like Barthes, Calvino imagines a time when “the author vanishes–that spoiled child of ignorance–to give place to a more thoughtful person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works” (16). Of course, he was able to say this at a time when this situation was still a long way off. In fact, I don’t think the machines he mentions — machines that can read, analyze, translate, and summarize literary texts — existed in 1967 as he claims. There is no question that they do today, except there is one thing: it is not clear that knowing how a large language model works tells us very much about how that “spoiled child of ignorance” works. Maybe authors aren’t machines after all?

I’m not doing any of these ideas justice because I’m in a rush to get to the passage that suddenly made me realize that Calvino wasn’t being entirely serious.

Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material, independent of the personality of the poet, but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but has slipped in from another level, activating something that on that second level is of great concern to the author or his society. The literature machine can perform all the permutations possible on a given material, but the poetic result will be the particular effect of one of the permutations on a man endowed with a consciousness and an unconscious, that is, an empirical and historical man. It will be the shock that occurs only the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and of his society. (22)

There’s a lot to work with here. And I’m going to try to pick up the threads on Wednesday and Friday again. As I’ve mentioned many times before, already before Calvino’s lecture (and I’m sure Calvino was aware of it) Borges had rejected the idea that literature is a “combinatorial game”: “Those who play that game forget that a book is more than a verbal structure, or a series of verbal structures; a book is the dialogue with the reader, and the peculiar accent he gives to its voice, and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory.” In this passage, Calvino seems to be making the same point. Literature needs a soul. I’d argue that all writing does.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *