We’ve discussed at length works which use an algorithm whose output is poetic. This week, I’ve been examining Jody Zellen’s All the News that’s Fit to Print, which is an interesting twist on this generative model of electronic literature. Whereas most of the texts we’ve examined thus far have been attempts to generate content reminiscent of a conventional model of poetry–appropriating text from other poets and piecing it back together mechanically in such a way that emulates its source to a degree–All the News borrows the aesthetics, headlines and imagery of the New York Times and its output is geared to emulate the front page of a daily newspaper.
The poem’s “bank” of text and images is harvested from the cover pages and headlines of New York Times articles between 2005 and 2006 and, like the other generated works we’ve scene, it pulls from this pool of content to construct a new front page every few seconds. What sets it apart is the almost satirical output, contingent upon a paratext in the form of how familiar the viewer is with American news media but otherwise strikingly reminiscent of what one would expect to find on the front page of a real paper at any given time. While the poem produces its fair share of what seems to be nonsense, it will occasionally put text and image together in such a way that makes a detached sort of sense.
This detachment from the subject at hand is highlighted in the poem and, by extension, the media it borrows from. When the output of the machine is functionally indistinguishable from the words written by a real journalist, it raises questions regarding the legitimacy of the media from which it borrows. Is a random-number generator effectively emulating complex world affairs, or is the reader just as detached from those affairs as s/he is from the machine?
In addition, the piece explores the importance of juxtaposition to great effect. The headlines themselves are pulled from the pool in one piece–all real headlines–with the only two variables being the image and complete headline chosen. The juxtaposition between image and headline sets the tone of each “stanza,” for lack of a better word. Taking the two above images as examples:
The juxtaposition between a smoky, rotting highway and the headline regarding the Iranian Nuclear Program sells a much different message than the exact same headline accompanied by an image of veiled women marching in the street. The “wife-beating epidemic,” similarly, is reinforced by the image of a woman being carried on a cart, which is vastly different from the same headline followed by the image of police training. The importance of the associations the reader makes between image and text are proven by the piece, serving to highlight the power wielded by the medium it emulates with this kind of juxtaposition.