Work in Progress: Matthew Kirschenbaum, "Spec Acts"

September 18, 2019
3:00 - 4:30 PM
2115 Tawes Hall

In preparation for a presentation for the English Institute's 2019 conference on "Abstraction," scheduled for October 4-5 at the University of Chicago, Matthew Kirschenbaum will present work in progress:

Spec Acts: Reading Abstract Realism
On March 25, 2017 at 9:17 in the morning Ross Goodwin sat down behind the wheel of his pen to begin driving his novel. This talk reads 1 the Road, a 20,000-word token of narrative fiction produced by an array of digital sensors affixed to an automobile driven from New York to New Orleans (the same route taken by Kerouac) whose outputs are filtered through an artificial intelligence technology called a neural net to produce the text. “It was nine-seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy,” it begins. Nearer to the end, it produces this utterance: “It was a strange thing.” This strange thing, which is to say this strange text, is, I argue, representative of the most widely read (and written) category of texts in the world today, as algorithms churn within our secretive climate controlled data centers to perform not speech acts but speculative or “spec” acts—what Shoshana Zuboff has lately taught us to call surveillance capitalism, and what Felix Guattari forecast nearly three decades ago when he told of “machines speaking to machines” before they speak to us. What happens when we listen in, as Goodwin’s text permits us to do, and how are we to read this evolution of text, both critically and closely? I propose a new, framework called abstract realism to name these opaque, otherworldly colloquies, which, abstracted from any immediate human agency, feed the systems that feed our platforms and engines, and as such are arguably, paradoxically, the most authentic locus of our real.
Note: This practice talk is in preparation for a lecture to be delivered at the 2019 meeting of the English Institute in Chicago, whose topic is abstraction. Feedback (and pushback!) would be very welcome!




For more information contact: Edlie Wong (