Algebra of Identity

Skin of Wind, Skin of Streams, Skin of Shadows, Skin of Vapor

D. Fox Harrell 

1. Introduction & Braiding 

Here, I braid three cords together, identity, algebra, and poetry. Identity is the subject matter, algebra is a tool for representing sign systems of fluid identity, poetry is used as the enactment of the view of identity described with the algebra. I also use algebra to aid in the development of computational techniques for implementing a system that generates prose poetry in response to a user's prompts -- a call and response form which is thematically fixed but variable in particular expression and metaphor. 

The subtitle of this paper: Skin of Wind, Skin of Streams, Skin of Shadows, Skin of Vapor is meant to evoke a restricted notion of identity, and the insubstantiality of that notion. A focus on skin is obsessive and solipsistic. I am expected to write about it in a paper on identity. When ethnic identity is made binary and colorized, we talk in bodily terms, of skin. It is evocative -- it is a membrane, protecting, projecting, coating, an exterior, a superficial, obvious and immense organ. I shan't disappoint these expectations of skin obsession, but when I write of the traits of ethnic identification these are just symbols for a classification based conception of social identity. 

Wind whips, shrieks, or is unnoticeable. Streams bears small creatures below rocks, rush with energy and transparency. Shadow obscures, cools, relaxes. Vapor moistens, hides, causes ships to crash, is fluid but hangs in the ether. If we can imagine these four skins, we can also imagine skin of tangled roots, illicit love, unscratched itches, crossed senses, angels, or demons. I shall get back to this later. 

What I wish to conjure is a sense of the fleeting nature and contingency of classification based identity as it is typically conceived of. I propose why some current notions of identity seem damaging, and discuss alternative ways to address it. My belief is in internalizing and exposing this very contingency, accepting this as the reality in how we perceive ourselves, others, and the concept of identity as a whole. 

In the beginning I would like to motivate the discussion of identity. 

2. Identity 

Jacques Derrida's version of deconstruction is one of the most influential schools of thought among young academic critics. It is salutary in that it focuses on the political power of rhetorical oppositions -- of tropes and metaphors in binary oppositions like white/black, good/bad, male/female, machine/nature, ruler/ruled, reality/appearance -- showing how these operations sustain hierarchical world views by devaluing the second terms as something subsumed under the first.

-- Cornel West, "The New Cultural Politics of Difference," Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, 1990.[1] men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics -- will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last! Free at last! 

-- Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream," August 28, 1963.[2] 

It is crucial to be cognizant of the network of forces determining your identity. Though it is not possible to regulate one's identity, it is necessary to be one of the forces contributing to its expression. Since even "objective facts" can be viewed from innumerable perspectives we can utilize so-called "objective" historical knowledge and its impact upon identity formation in ways that supports self-empowered living, this a functional view of identity. Functionalism means fluidity in a world where dualist classification systems inhabit even oppositional strategies to prejudice such as Aimé Césaire's seductive song of negritude[3], or Judy Chicago's well-appointed "Dinner Party."[4] A functional view is inherently going to be assailed as constructionist fiction, and yet a view that intends to transcend the quagmire of dualist identity using a strategy of essential "sameness" is going to be assailed equally: 

An example: 

Alison Saar, Sam Gilliam and Martin Puryear are three artist found in the same categorized section of ARTODAY[5], a book on contemporary art. Regarding Alison Saar, the author writes: 

...Alison Saar has also looked at African fetish statues as a source of inspiration. ... The problem with all these attempts to make a new Africa in America is that the spectator is aware of the artist's self-consciousness, of an attempt to create a kind of 'primitivism' which doesn't come into existence spontaneously. 

Of Sam Gilliam, the author writes: 

Gilliam is, and has always been, an abstract painter, whose work eschews overt symbolism. ... Gilliam has caused considerable irritation amongst African-American militants, and has sometimes been accused of 'Uncle Tom-ism' because of his insistence on being judged purely as an artist, not as a generic representative of minority culture. 

Of Martin Puryear the author writes: 

Martin Puryear, now perhaps the most celebrated African-American sculptor, is similarly insistent, despite the fact that he is one of the few African-American artists who has direct experience of Africa ... Attempts to align his work with African artifacts have been made by enthusiastic critics, but seem fruitless in the face of Puryear's own statement that, when in Africa, he felt like an outsider -- not part of the customs of the people among whom he lived. 

This collection of statements, representative of a tendency in art critical writing, promotes the stance that the racial identity assigned to the three artists takes precedence over the content and formal issues of the work by placing these artists all in the "Racial Minorities" section in the book (which happened to be the second to last section, the last being "Feminist and Gay"). The organization of the book indicates the author's hierarchical view of the relative importance of different groups of artists. New York artists deserve their own section (which does not include artists from New York that happen to be of racial minority groups), and British artists are important enough to be segmented by content, hence a section on British Figurative Painting, as opposed to ethnic identity. Curiously, contradictorily, the author simultaneously racially classifies these artists, emphasizes racial debates surrounding the artists, and denies the artists self-determination in assertions of heritage. The African American artist cannot be seen non-racially, but can only be seen as an African American artist who wishes to be seen non-racially. At the same time, the African American artist cannot be seen in connection with any ancient historical tradition or culture, as such attempts are "self-conscious or tenuous." 

With such forces seeking to constrain social and individual conceptions of people, it is imperative to seek techniques and perspectives capable of disarming such constraints. The dominant categories such as "white" are unmarked, invisible, in their dominance in the ARTODAY example above. But reliance upon the binary relationships imposed by marked versus unmarked categories are not used only from the top of the hierarchy down. Many times even socially aware and proactive groups define themselves and their relationships to others in binary terms. Black, white. Majority, minority. Patriarchy, oppressed. White-privileged, affirmative-actioned. A world of binaries is concrete and actionable. Humans have a need to classify, yet when it comes to identity politics binary and discrete classification reinforce systems of social oppression. Sociologists Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star emphasize this point in their 1999 book Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences[6]: 

Each standard and each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing -- indeed it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous -- not bad, but dangerous. For example, the decision of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to classify some races and classes as desirable for US residents, and others as not, resulted in a quota system which valued affluent people from Northern and Western Europe over those (especially the poor) from Africa or South America. The decision to classify students by their standardized achievement and aptitude tests valorizes some kinds of knowledge skills and renders other kinds invisible. ... For any individual, group or situation, classifications and standards give advantage or they give suffering. 

Aside from the problems introduced via the marked/unmarked dichotomy, we are also always left with phenomena that fail to be classified when subjected to discrete measures. In the racialized world of black vs. white, the catch-all category of "other" is typically understood in terms of whether the current person under consideration is more black-like or white-like, or as an Indian-American colleague encountered while traveling through rural Colorado "you ain't black, you ain't white, so what is you?" 

Dualities carry power and have long informed diverse agendas ranging from the software/hardware split in the von Neumann architecture in computer science[7] to anti-racist ideology in groups like the Black Panther Party (Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party described the strategic use of essential classifications, black nationalism as a necessary political response to oppressive social conditions, as a stepping stone on the path toward a society embracing broader humanist values[8]). While illuminating "possible origins of cybernetic theory in African culture, ways that Black people have negotiated the rise of cybernetic technology in the West, and the confluence of these histories in the lived experience of the African diaspora," Professor Ron Eglash notes that: 

Opposition to racism has often been composed through two totalizing, essentialist strategies: sameness and difference. For example, Mudimbe (1988) demonstrates how the category of a singular "African philosophy" has been primarily an invention of difference, having its creation in the play between "the beautiful myths of the 'savage mind' and the African ideological strategies of otherness." In contrast, structuralists such as Levi-Strauss have attempted to prove that African conceptual systems are fundamentally the same as those of Europeans (both having their basis in arbitrary symbol systems)." [9] 

Aligning under binary banners makes the power struggle very clear, though it is disenfranchising for those who seek a sensitive expression of personal identity. A mathematical analog to binary thought, Boolean logic, is quite powerful, in its limited domain [10]. It is sound. Anything that you can prove in a reality described by Boolean logic is entailed by that reality. This means that in any possible world it is true if you can prove it ('possible worlds' here means being able to look at all of the possibilities for what is true and what is false). Furthermore, it has the converse property that anything you can say in Boolean logic that is true in all worlds, can be proved. It is complete. 

Of course, this line of thought is metaphorical, but it has interesting implications when we indulge this thought experiment. This type of binary thinking leads toward finality of thought, imperial statements, and reification of ideas. There is no way to express a concept such as she is "woman and not a woman" so that it is true, though socially it is perhaps possible to think of situations where such a statement might pertain. An interesting note is that as soon as logic is expanded to include generalizations, with statements such "for all women who are sports fans," the logic is no longer complete. The comfort provided by its restrictions is taken away. 

There is a non-metaphorical component to inquiry involving mathematics and identity too. Aside from exploring African influences upon computer science, Ron Eglash also notes traditions of novel technical cultural practices within the African diaspora. An example of such a practice, the GRIOT computational system[11] (discussed below in section 5), which I programmed at the Meaning and Computation Lab at the University of California, San Diego, has been used to output prose poetry about a girl with skin of angels and demons in response to user input about domains such as Europe, Africa, girls, whiteness, devils, and seraphs. The system's output represents a subjective and transitory notion of identity. The system is equally based in mathematics (algebraic semantics and specification) as it is in semiotic theory and cognitive linguistics approaches to identity. 

Thus, I invoke mathematics here as a device to, metaphorically and literally, allow us to move away from the standard binary way to view identity. I seek new blends involving identity, new ways to combine thoughts, without deviating from the subject matter. Discussion of algebra provides a means to do so. 

3. Algebra 

Algebra may be considered, in its most general form, as the science which treats of the combinations of arbitrary signs and symbols by means defined through arbitrary laws.

-- George Peacock, A Treatise on Algebra, 1830. [12] 

'Watch out, men! You are not so pretty that you can handle a woman's blade!' But as Raven turned the blade by the lantern (Bayle squinted because two threads of light lanced from the gnarly hilt), she was still grinning. 'Ah, you men would take everything away from a woman -- I've been in your strange and terrible land long enough to know that. But you won't have this. See it, and know that it will never be yours!' She laughed. (It wasn't one blade on the hilt, Bayle realized, but two, running parallel, perhaps an inch apart: as she brandished it, the lantern flashed between either side.) 

-- Samuel R. Delany, "The Tale of Potters and Dragons," Tales of Nevèrÿon, 1978. [13] 

In the Delany quote, the sword, a violent and masculine symbol, has been transformed into a vulval feminine symbol in a matriarchal mythology, no less violent. It is a combination of signs and symbols defined through (seemingly) arbitrary laws of culture. Algebra deals with the rules for how things can generally be combined. Since I often work using this framework, these days I am sensitive to blending in many domains[14]. The blending of concepts is contingent and fleeting[15]. The national obsession of the U.S.A., identity, is no exception. One obvious breakdown in traditional notions of identity is creation of new ethnic identities by merging. Identity also occurs in peculiar ways in different contexts, for example in a market economy it is treated often as a commodity as we encounter phenomena such as identity theft. It is important and crucial to recognize and challenge inequitable power structures. One way to do so is through understanding identity as a dynamic network as opposed to a system of binary relations. The challenge is to do so within a social context based upon the binary relation of standard versus other. 

In computer science, definitions from algebraic semantics are used describe how information behaves purely based on syntactic properties[16]. An algebra consists of a set of values and operations defined on those values. For example, you could have a set of "people," and a set of relations describing who "rules over" whom. There is a great deal of flexibility and nuance that can be captured in even a simple algebra that is difficult to represent in terms of simple inclusion or exclusion of people in particular levels of a social hierarchy. We can also define semantic equations which describe equivalences between syntactic elements. This means that we are able to describe how elements are equivalent even if they are named differently, we can translate between different syntactic forms of the same thing. The real advantage of using algebra as a metaphor for fluid notions of identity comes from the fact that the names used to describe elements are arbitrary, the system of rules is what makes the difference, not particular classifications. Formal notation such as algebraic semantics is no more than a useful tool for precisely describing a set of concepts. Reality does not conform to the language of mathematics. Still, within its limited range of application, formalizing ideas can be used more casually and intuitively to add to analyses grounded in lived experience and social context. 

Far from using algebra as merely an evocative metaphor, in the research of the Meaning and Computation Laboratory at UCSD we use Joseph Goguen's algebraic semiotics, an approach to meaning and representation that combines algebraic specification with social semiotics, to represent sign systems[17]. We also use it to implement construction of metaphors using ideas from conceptual blending theory in cognitive science. We construct blends of concepts. Ideas such as identity now can be blended with ideas such as commodities (in identity theft), screen based icons (as avatars), and where identity is blendable itself (concepts such as Hispanicity, whiteness, or gay, lesbian, transgendered unity). Identity of one individual can be blended with identity of another. For example the infamous American football star O.J. Simpson was often referenced in news reporting on the American basketball player Kobe Bryant's trial for rape because both are African American sports figures. Note that this analogue between sports figures is the result of a blend: Ishmael Reed notes in a recent article from his Konch magazine[18] that the music mogul Phil Spector was accused of murdering a white woman, the same Phil Spector who reputedly rescued Tina Turner from the abusive Ike Turner, but Spector has not been often compared to Ike Turner. 

A feature of blending is compression, humans want to reduce concepts to human scale in order to comprehend them better. Compression[19] often occurs in blending where the blended space is used to visualize something of a large scale in terms of a smaller one. In service of this goal, pressure is exerted on the blending process in order to: compress what is diffuse, obtain global insight, come up with a story, and go from 'Many to One'[20]. In these terms, even a cursory and ad-hoc analysis can prove illuminating regarding racism: in the Kobe Bryant/ O.J. Simpson example, two individuals are taken to be analogous because they represent the larger group, black male sports figures (reduction of many to one). They are identified only because they are used as representations of a larger concept -- the violent black male. The "white" Phil Spector (also accused of murder) could not show up in the compressed blend in this case, because he is not a representation of that group. Tokenism can be seen in these terms -- one individual is used to represent the many. 

It is important to remember that blends are often created on the fly; they can constantly change; they are active. They execute and allow for thought experimentation. They exist in larger networks and are extremely dynamic and contingent. This contingency seems especially relevant for discussing identity concepts. When we encounter others, our conceptions of their identities are composed as blends. When someone says "well I am really not that into sports," or "my mother is Asian," or "I have converted to Judaism," our conception of that person is transformed on the fly. The network of concepts that make up the perceived identity of that person is changed. Currently I am working on an algorithm to explore the construction of blends on the fly for generating media. It is possible to imagine how such work could be used to inform precise discussion about identity concepts. 

4. Poetry 

If anything my desire here has been to demystify the curious notion that theory is the province of the Western tradition, something alien or removed from the so-called noncanonical tradition such as that of the Afro-American.

-- Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, 1988.[21] 

Since the products of blending are ubiquitous, sometimes spectacularly visible, it is natural that students of rhetoric, literature, painting, and scientific invention should have noticed many specific examples of what we call blending and noticed, too, that something was going on. The earliest such observation that we have found comes from Aristotle. 

-- Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities, 2002.[22] 

Blending and metaphor are conceptual tools that can be used to address this fluctuating view of identity. New views of an identity can be introduced using metaphor and taken through transforming phases with evocative effect. For me, the use of exaggerated metaphors in poetry and literature can illustrate this idea. In my own work this is a central device that I use. In my novel, a fantasy entitled Milk Pudding Flavored with Rose Water, Blood Pudding Flavored by the Sea[23], characters constantly change identity and metaphorically transform. The fantasy in the tale arises from elaborating these metaphors more than any other type of magical or paranormal effects. For example, in the first half I describe the tale of a type of black knight youth traveling from city to city. Metaphor is used to describe the view of him through the lens of that particular town. 

In one example, Jal-R takes on a new role in the chapter "Men and Mothers," his description is established and transformed as the passage progresses. After this passage he transforms further: 

The voices were indecipherable. The number of people from far-away and near-away lands was greater than in years past. The effect was disorienting as he walked through the market. Many of the strangers shrank from him. His was a stark figure; black silhouette with a flowing shadow cloak slipping behind him. Despite recent sneers from his compatriot Black Riders, most townsmen and women treated him with grand respect. The strangers' fear came from the clear bearing of power and battle with which he carried himself. He was a warrior, there was no doubt. All talk of the diminishing public regard for the riders was moot in the wake of his heavy black boots. He was an undeniable force, a Black Rider. He was the essence of a rider, he walked and a thunderhead-ominous threat surrounded him. Today his merchant friends knew better than to approach him or joke at his expense. He walked as if on a mission. The hilts of two daggers swung at his sides. Knives formed delicate decorations on the calves of his boots. There was no color on him besides a touch of pink in the embroidered rose at his chest and reflections in the hints of silver at his feet, waist, and cowl. He opened the door to a nondescript long hall and stepped inside to crying and a sanitary aroma. 

A bit later: 

Jal-R rocked the infant against his black padded breastplate. It had been a trial to coax the baby girl to sleep. He often felt ill at ease here and his queasy heart surely passed its vibrations to the children. The other professional mothers felt threatened by the alien image of brutality nursing their charges, muscling himself into their world. All in the longhouse felt as if their hearts beat through black gauze when Jal-R was there...a dark sense of roles askew. Jal-R was unaware of many of these perceptions of him, but the cloud that gathered each time he walked in there was impossible not to notice. It mattered little, he told himself, he had resolved to learn at least some of the arts of the mother to provide for Ayoli. 

My engagement with the idea of unstable, metaphorical, and transforming identity did not begin with the Jal-R Black Rider character. Reconnecting this poetry to the subtitle of this talk, I also wrote of an expansive view of skin. My concern with my society's obsession with skin peaked when I was around nineteen years old. I created more than thirty types of skin and imagined life in each of these[24]. 

These were skin such as: the skin of the man whose skin turned to paper, the man whose skin was made of everything funny, the balloon-skinned girl, the man whose skin was made of sexual experimentation, the girl with noisy skin, the man whose skin was pink but people called him white but didn't mean the color of pure driven snow, the man whose skin was brown but people called him black but didn't mean evil. 

One such poem follows: 

Skin normally has thin blue veins in it 

But the man whose skin turned to paper 

Knew that the thin blue lines on his skin 

Were made from ink and not the flow of blood. 

The lines were parallel to each other, 

Yet because his skin curved 

It was hard to tell whether the lines 

Were standard or college rule, 

And due to the fact that the man whose skin turned to paper 

Had skin that was not a chalky white, 

The thin red vertical line that ran perpendicular to the blue lines 

Was difficult to see. 

One hole through his head 

One through his duodenum 

One through his tibia 

So that although the size of a normal man 

He fit in a three-ringed folder. 

One pencil in each hand 

So that, enabled by ambidexterity, 

He could twice as quickly write and record 

His thoughts and ideas 

Images called doodles or tattoos. 

Writings, poetry, and self-indulgence 

Make a set of verse, a body of work 

That begins: skin normally has thin blue veins in it. 

For me, exaggerated, densely metaphorical, and shifting views of identity traits have a liberating effect. It expands a sense of possibility for self-identification. It also stimulates a skeptical view of social identity politics in that it engages the inherent limitations of hierarchical classification based identity, but also declares its divergence from functional reality. 

5. Call & Response, Improvisation & Conclusion 

But so often identity is forcefully, painfully imposed upon us despite our agitation against its confines. A dynamic identity must take into account immediate social context. In the African diaspora there are many artistic traditions that negotiate the disjunction between self-identity and social identity, between historical, traditional identity, and identities of resistance. Dynamic improvisation and call-and-response structures are familiar aspects of pan-African narrative forms as diverse as the delta blues, Charles Mingus's calling-out of the segregationist Governor of Arkansas in "Fables of Faubus[25]," the penetratingly satirical fiction of Ishmael Reed, hip-hop freestyle rhyming, and the African Brazilian martial art and dance Capoeira Angola. The capoerista provides a good example of shifting identity, he or she was originally a participant in a multiform art that functioned as a ritual, game, martial art, sacred space, and more, but that identity transformed as capoeira was outlawed beginning in nineteenth century Brazil. Capoeiristas were cast by the government as dangerous miscreants, potential revolutionaries, or thieves and punished with imprisonment, lashings, naval service, and even death. The identity of the capoeirista was forced toward multi-veilance and malícia (deceptive trickiness). Concurrently the capoeirista enjoyed respect and admiration of the African identified populace, and the simultaneous demonization as "primitives" and valorization as effective soldiers by the public authorities and the Portuguese descended tourists, aristocrats, and upper-class they intended to "protect." Recall for illustrative example the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870), the bloodiest conflict in Latin American history, during which Brazil's front line consisted of mostly conscripted capoeiristas, enslaved Africans sent across the Paraná river to Paraguay to fight with the promise of freedom [26]. Some of the most melancholy capoeira songs recall this river as a soloist calls out and hears responses in the words "Ê Paraná": 

Ê Paraná 

Eu não vou na sua casa, Paraná 

Ê Paraná 

Pra você não ir na minha, Paraná 

Ê Paraná 

Porque você tem boca grande, Paraná 

Ê Paraná 

Vai comer minha galinha, Paraná 

Ê Paraná 

Puxa, puxa, leva, leva, Paraná 

Ê Paraná 

Paraná está me chamando, Paraná 

Ê Paraná 

Me chamando pra jogar, Paraná 

Ê Paraná 

Minha mãe está me chamando, Paraná 

Ê Paraná 

Vê que vida de moleque, Paraná 

Ê Paraná 

The song translates in English roughly as: 

Eh, Paraná 

I do not go in your house, Paraná 

Eh, Paraná 

For you go not in mine, Paraná 

Eh, Paraná 

Because you have a great mouth, Paraná 

Eh, Paraná 

You will eat my chicken, Paraná 

Eh, Paraná 

Pull, pull, take, take, Paraná 

Eh, Paraná 

Paraná is calling me, Paraná 

Eh, Paraná 

Calling me to play, Paraná 

Eh, Paraná 

My mother is calling me, Paraná 

Eh, Paraná 

I see that hustler life, Paraná 

Eh, Paraná 

The repeated invocation of an historic place in the "New World" is a common theme in African diasporic call-and-response lyrics. When these songs are sung, new lyrics are often spontaneously improvised. The creation of traditionally structured songs with new meanings, especially layered meanings as in capoeira songs (the songs often have double and triple functions within the art form) also serves to create new identities for postcolonial contexts. 

Written prose poetry[27] and its more recent descendant flash fiction[28] ("short short" stories that encapsulate full narrative arcs within extremely abbreviated word counts), traditionally have not incorporated these techniques. On-the-fly improvisation has not been incorporated for the simple reason that the nature of medium of printed text is not dynamically reconfigurable. Computational media have dynamic information structure and feedback loops built into the nature of the medium. The output of my recent research combines this type of prose poetry, dynamically reconfigurable and founded in African and African American vernacular traditions of signification[29], with the use of algebraic techniques to construct imaginative metaphors on the fly. I have written a computer program (in the LISP programming language), called GRIOT, that uses algebraic semiotics as a foundation to generate poems line by line in response to user feedback, poems that can be reconstructed on each reading algorithmically, while maintaining core concepts and themes. I think of this work as development of improvisational texts (active media). The metaphors are fluid. From my vantage point, the cultural objects of most interest are the GRIOT and ALLOY systems themselves and the variability of the output in response to user input, not the individual instances of output as cultural objects on their own. 

The GRIOT system actualizes the winding together of the separate cords of algebra, identity, and poetry in a cultural artifact. The following text completes the braided cord with a series of call-and-response poetic output in the same mould as those I created many years ago. I conclude with a sample of output from the poetic system entitled "The Girl with Skin of Haints and Seraphs" (the user's input follows the ">" prompt, the italicized system's response follows; the appendix below contains several more examples in detail and a brief description of how the system works): 


europeans and beauty relish, create entitlement and cool ringing in the ears of the girl with skin of smugness and kindness blended with neck, red 


she worked raising imperialist, cherub children of her own 


death was better 


her spirit trusts that a nordic-beauty or epidermis arouses, provokes awe desire 


a spectral tone pervaded 


sunbather and first-born envies and is now melaninated and impoverished-elder, causing her eyelids to droop 


she knows that childish reverence of contradiction days will fall further and further behind 


The following is a brief description of the functionality of the GRIOT system. Initially a poetic system designer inputs a set of poetic narrative templates (clauses with wildcards that will be replaced on each execution), a narrative structure that defines how clauses can be composed, a set of theme domains that provide information about a set of concepts, and list of keywords that access each theme domain. The "Girl with Skin of Haints and Seraphs" system works by establishing a set of theme domains such as skin, angels, demons, old Europe, and old Africa, composed of sets of axioms. During the execution of GRIOT, each time the user enters a term it is scanned for relevance to the domains and a response is produced as output to the screen. The system constructs conceptual spaces, using the algebraic semiotic framework, and blends these to construct metaphors using a conceptual blending algorithm. These are then combined with narrative templates, in the case of "The Girl with Skin of Haints and Seraphs," these are based on a model from socio-linguistics research, a formalization of William Labov's structure of narratives of personal experience[30]. This narrative template is integrated with metaphors generated on-the-fly. The core of the work is an algorithm called ALLOY that I wrote to model conceptual blending, not natural language processing. What comes out of it are conceptual spaces and axioms, not English sentences. For the purposes here, I use the GRIOT system as a front-end to construct a type of poetry, but in particular the guided combination of concepts is the focus of the work. My longer term project involves the generation of new metaphors driven by user interaction with a graphical or game-like interfaces, resulting in blends of graphical, audio, and textual media. 

Three samples of poetic output follow: 

(1) The first sample poem and a detailed description of its generation follows. User input is differentiated by being preceded by a '>' prompt. The system output is italicized. My commentary on how some of the content of each line of text is generated follows the system output. LISP code for an axiom describing subjective information about the domain follows my commentary. 

her arrival onto this earth was marked when first-born and charcoal-girl 

transforms to impoverished-elder or charcoal-woman 

she worked raising snow-queen original-lady children of her own 

the young lady would prevail 

a caress across her skin scares up demon black 

her failure was ignoring her wings and original-lady nature 

and she felt glad 

as she grew older she saw entitlement defiance wrinkles upon her face 

ebony-wood-like brimstone defines fetish bedrock, 

the sign that let her know she finally really alive 

(her arrival onto this earth was marked when first-born and charcoal-girl transforms to impoverished-elder or charcoal-woman) 

The concepts of first born people, the impoverished elder, and charcoal skin are selected from the 'Africa' domain in this opening clause. The LISP axiom selected for blending is: 

(axiom "is-now"
    ((constant "first-born" "person" afrika-space)
        (constant "impoverished-elder" "person" afrika-space))) 

(she worked raising snow-queen original-lady children of her own) 

The concept of the snow queen is selected from the 'Europe' domain in this narrative clause. The LISP axiom selected for blending is: 

(axiom "wears"
    ((constant "snow-queen" "person" europe-space)
        (constant "wintery-skin" "object" europe-space))) 

(the young lady would prevail) 

The 'Demon' domain is selected, but not used in this evaluative clause. 

(a caress across her skin scares up demon black) 

The concept of a demon is selected from the 'Demon' domain in this narrative clause. The LISP axiom selected for blending is: 

(axiom "stokes"
    ((constant "demon" "person" demons-space)
        (constant "hate" "emotion" demons-space))) 

(her failure was ignoring her wings and original-lady nature) 

The concept of wings is selected from the 'Angel' domain in this evaluative clause. The LISP axiom selected for blending is: 

(axiom "covered-with"
    ((constant "wings" "person" angels-space)
        (constant "feathers" "object" angels-space))) 

(and she felt glad) 

The 'Africa' domain is selected, but not used in this evaluative clause. 

(as she grew older she saw entitlement defiance wrinkles upon her face) 

The concept of entitlement is selected from the 'Europe' domain for use in this narrative clause. The LISP axiom selected for blending is: 

(axiom "experiences"
    ((constant "european" "person" europe-space)
        (constant "entitlement" "sensation" europe-space)) 

(ebony-wood-like brimstone defines fetish bedrock, the sign that let her know she finally really alive) 

The concept of an ebony wood fetish is selected from the 'Africa' domain in this closing clause. The LISP axiom selected for blending is: 

(axiom "constructs"
    ((constant "ebony-wood" "object" afrika-space)
        (constant "fetish" "object" afrika-space) 

(2) The following is output produced when user input selects the use of the 'Europe' domain for constructing conceptual spaces for blending. 


her tale began when she was infected with white female-itis 


she worked raising bullet, spiked-tail children of her own 


in the shadows 


when she was no longer a child peasant, august-being marks streaked her thighs 


her barbarian, impoverished-elder spirit would live on 

(3) I conclude with a poem with generated content derived from blending concepts from the 'Skin' domain with concepts selected by the system. 


she began her days looking in the mirror at her own pale-skinned death-figure face 


she peeped out shame, hate 


finally she fell from a cloud and skin and black drenched days were left behind 


[1] Cornel West, "The New Cultural Politics of Difference," Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, edited by Russel Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1990. 

[2] Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream," speech delivered Washington D.C., August 28, 1963. Source: Ed Clayton and David Hodges, Martin Luther King Jr.: The Peaceful Warrior, New York: Pocket Books, 1968. 

[3] Aimé Césaire, Lost Body. New York: Braziller, 1986. 

[4] Judy Chicago, "The Dinner Party," mixed media, 1979. 

[5] Edward Lucie-Smith, ARTODAY, London: Phaidon Press Limited,1995. 

[6] Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999. 

[7] John L. Hennessy and David A. Patterson, Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach, 3rd edition, San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2002. 

[8] Bobby Seale, The Black Panther Party, Cambridge: Alternative Radio, originally broadcast February, 2, 1995. 

[9] Ron Eglash, "African Influences in Cybernetics," The Cyborg Handbook, edited by Chris Hables Gray. London: Routledge, 1995. 

[10] Herbert B. Enderton, A Mathematical Introduction to Logic. Boston: Academic Press, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1972. 

[11] Joseph Goguen and Fox Harrell, "Style as Choice of Blending Principles," Style and Meaning in Language, Art, Music and Design, Proceedings, Symposium at 2004 AAAI Fall Symposium Series, Technical Report FS-04-07, edited by Shlomo Argamon, Shlomo Dubnov and Julie Jupp. Arlington: AAAI Press, 2004. 

[12] George Peacock, A Treatise on Algebra, 1830., from K. Meinke and J.V. Tucker, "Universal Algebra," Handbook of Logic in Computer Science: Volume 1, edited by S. Abramsky, D. Gabbay and T.S.E. Maibaum. London: Oxford University Press, 1993. 

[13] Samuel R. Delany, "The Tale of Potters and Dragons," Tales of Nevèrÿon. Hanover: Bantam Books, 1979. 

[14] Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books, 2002. 

[15] Joseph E. Grady, Todd Oakley, and Seana Coulson, "Blending and Metaphor," Metaphor in Cognitive Linguistics, edited by G. Steen & R. Gibbs, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1999. 

[16] Joseph Goguen and Grant Malcolm. Algebraic Semantics of Imperative Programs. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996. 

[17] Joseph Goguen. "An Introduction to Algebraic Semiotics, with Application to User Interface Design," Proceedings, Computation for Metaphors, Analogy and Agents, edited by Chrystopher Nehaniv. Yakamtsu, Japan: 1998. 

[18] Ishmael Reed. "CNN's Ku Klux Feminists Unleashed On Kobe," online, KONCH Magazine, 2003. 

[19] Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner. "Compression and global insight," Cognitive Linguistics. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2000. 

[20] Ibid 14. 

[21] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford, 1988. 

[22] Ibid 14. 

[23] D. Fox Harrell, Milk Pudding Flavored with Rose Water, Blood Pudding Flavored by the Sea, unpublished. 

[24] D. Fox Harrell, Conceit, unpublished. 

[25] Charles Mingus, "Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus," compact disc, Candid Records, 2000. Original session, November 1960. 

[26] Maya Talmon Chvaicer. "The Criminalization of Capoeira in Nineteenth Century Brazil," Hispanic American Historical Review, 82.3, pg. 525-547, 2002. 

[27] David Lehman, editor, Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present. New York: Scribner Book Company , 2003. 

[28] James Thomas, Denise Thomas, Tom Hazuka, editors. Flash Fiction: Very Short Stories. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992. 

[29] Ibid 21. 

[30] William Labov. The transformation of experience in narrative syntax. In Language in the Inner City, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1972. 


Fox Harrell is an artist and author pursuing new forms of computational narrative. He currently is a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science and Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego. He earned an M.P.S. in Interactive Telecommunications at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He also earned a B.F.A. in Art, a B.S. in Logic and Computation, and minor in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He has worked as a game designer and animation producer in New York City. He is a practitioner of Capoeira Angola. He recently completed his first novel, Milk Pudding Flavored with Rose Water, Blood Pudding Flavored by the Sea. 

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