Literature and Random Chance

By Colin Dodds

Inviting Randomness to the Party

It was about a year ago, and I had a stack of notes that wouldn’t agree to be poems or stories – oddball refractory fragments that had accumulated over the years. Or maybe it was me who was feeling oddball and refractory. Either way, it occurred to me to fashion the best of them into oddball and refractory aphorisms and collect them in a book.

As I revised, rewrote and so forth, the question of how to order the aphorisms kept bothering me. There was a temptation to structure the book into discrete groups – themes or chapters or moods or seasons or something like that. But grouping the aphorisms like that felt like an apology, an immediate watering down of the individual force of each individual aphorism. And deliberately placing similar aphorisms far from one another felt artificial.

Not long after I’d sent an early version of the collection to some friends, one of them wrote me saying that she enjoyed flipping through the collection each morning and reading the aphorism she landed on. And I thought she had exactly the right idea. At the same time, I was chatting with my friend Matt Dublin about technology-slash-art projects. Those conversations with Matt, along with her comment made the randomized-aphorism app idea click into focus.

I imagined a book, where the pages hang on a single spine, transforming to something like a dandelion in late summer, when the white floaties stick off the seed head and a strong breath blows them all away except for one, or one of those plasma balls, where the pink lightning strikes from the core to the glass surface where you press your finger.

A Short and Inadequate History of Books and Chance

The idea of random chance interacting with literature isn’t new. Bibliomancy – the practice of flipping through a book and dropping your finger down to learn the future, or the will of G-d – is as old as the codex. It was how St. Augustine decided to convert to Christianity, according to his Confessions.

In the I-Ching, the reader navigates the text by flipping coins or other random means to arrive at the correct page for them in that moment. More recently, the cut-ups of William Burroughs attempted to expose intentional language to the mysterious dynamics and agendas of so-called randomness. There’s even a Cut-Up Machine that allows you to enter text in, and receive something else out. When I was pounding away at a manifesto/marketing document for Forget This Good Thing I Just Said, I dropped that document into the machine and read back – from among the block of text, if I squinted – the spooky phrase “Like don’t messages chance to say a reader’s idea?”

As the author, I had some say in how random I wanted things to get. And the cut-up approach gave chance more license than I wanted. I liked the aphorism as the unit of meaning, because it’s just long enough to make a statement, and too short for much equivocation or obfuscation.

Why Let Random Chance Speak at All?

Bibliomancy, the I-Ching or Burroughs’ cut-ups all embody a largely unspoken faith that what you most needed to hear in a given moment is likely a bolt from the blue.

It may be mystical. But there’s a lot of common sense in mysticism. Randomness, as an idea, smells like science. But it’s an unproven assumption. It’s a placeholder for something else.

What is that something else? I’d always had an on-again-off-again fascination with Jung’s idea of Synchronicity, or serendipity, and the idea that random chance was the camouflage for some unbelievable beast you could occasionally look in the eye.

Random chance, if it’s a mystery, can also be liberating. People like to say that we can forge meaning from randomness. But what if randomness is the one thing that’s uniquely poised to deliver the meanings that can transcend our habits and our hand-to-mouth scheming?

You can check out Colin Dodds latest project concerning literature and random chance here: Forget This Good Thing I Just Said


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