Your Mistake was a Vital Connection
Oblique Strategies for the Digital Humanities

This summer I attended the first annual Institute for Liberal Arts Digital Scholarship (ILiADS) at Hamilton College. It was an inspiring conference, highlighting the importance of collaborative faculty/student digital work at small liberal arts colleges. My own school, Davidson College, had a team at ILiADS (Professor Suzanne Churchill, Instructional Technologist Kristen Eshleman, and undergraduate Andrew Rikard, working on a digital project about the modernist poet Mina Loy). Meanwhile I was at the institute to deliver the keynote address on the final day. Here is the text of my keynote, called “Your Mistake was a Vital Connection: Oblique Strategies for the Digital Humanities.”

Forty years ago, the musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt published the first edition of what they called Oblique Strategies. Oblique Strategies resembled a deck of playing cards, each card black on one side, and white on the other, with a short aphoristic suggestion on the white side.

Doctorow, Cory. Oblique Strategies Deck, PO Box, The Barbican, London, UK. Photography, June 14, 2013.
Doctorow, Cory. Oblique Strategies Deck, PO Box, The Barbican, London, UK. Photography, June 14, 2013.

These suggestions were the strategies—the oblique strategies—for overcoming creative blocks or artistic challenges. The instructions that came with the cards described their use: “They can be used as a pack…or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case, the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.”

When we look at some of the strategies from the original deck of 55 cards, we can see why their appropriateness might appear unclear:

Broackes, Victoria, and Geoffrey Marsh, eds. David Bowie Is... Special edition. London : New York: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2013.
From Broackes, Victoria, and Geoffrey Marsh, eds. David Bowie Is… Special edition. London : New York: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2013.

And other strategies:

Make sure nobody wants it.

Cut a vital connection

Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame

Do something boring

Honor thy error as a hidden intention

And one of my favorites:

Repetition is a form of change.

Brian Eno explained the origins of the cards in an interview on KPFA radio in San Francisco in 1980: The cards were a system designed to, as Eno put it, “foil the critic” in himself and to “encourage the child.” They were strategies for catching our internal critics off-guard. Eno elaborated:

The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation—particularly in studios—tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.

If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results. Of course, that often isn’t the case—it’s just the most obvious and—apparently—reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt *this* attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt *that* attitude.”

Other ways of working. There are other ways of working. That’s what the Oblique Strategies remind us. Eno and Schmidt released a second edition in 1978 and a third edition in 1979, the year before Schmidt suddenly died. Each edition varied slightly. New strategies appeared, others were removed or revised.

For example, the 2nd edition saw the addition of “Go outside. Shut the door.” A 5th edition in 2001 added the strategy “Make something implied more definite (reinforce, duplicate).” For a complete history of the various editions, check out Gregory Taylor’s indispensable Obliquely Stratigraphic Record. The cards—though issued in limited, numbered, editions—were legendary, and even more to the point, they were actually used.

David Bowie famously kept a deck of the cards on hand when he recorded his Berlin albums of the late seventies. His producer for these experimental albums was none other than Brian Eno. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know about Bowie’s use of the Oblique Strategies

I knew about Tristan Tzara’s suggestion in the 1920s to write poetry by pulling words out of a bag. I knew about Brion Gysin’s cut-up method, which profoundly influenced William Burroughs. I knew about John Cage’s experimental compositions, such as his Motor Vehicle Sundown, a piece orchestrated by “any number of vehicles arranged outdoors.” Or Cage’s use of chance operations, in which lists of random numbers from Bell Labs determined musical elements like pitch, amplitude, and duration. I knew how Jackson Mac Low similarly used random numbers to generate his poetry, in particular relying on a book called A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates to supply him with the random numbers (Zweig 85).

RAND Corporation. A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates, 1955.
RAND Corporation. A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates, 1955.

I knew about the poet Alison Knowles’ “The House of Dust,” which is a kind of computer-generated cut-up written in Fortran in 1967. I even knew that Thom Yorke composed many of the lyrics of Radiohead’s Kid A using Tristan Tzara’s method, substituting a top hat for a bag.

But I hadn’t heard encountered Eno and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. Which just goes to show, however much history you think you know—about art, about DH, about pedagogy, about literature, about whatever—you don’t know the half of it. And I suppose the ahistorical methodology of chance operations is part of their appeal. Every roll of the dice, every shuffle of the cards, every random number starts anew. In his magisterial—and quite frankly, seemingly random—Arcades Project, Benjamin devotes an entire section to gambling, where his collection of extracts circles around the essence of gambling. “The basic principle…of gambling…consists in this,” says Alain in one of Benjamin’s extracts, “…each round is independent of the one preceding…. Gambling strenuously denies all acquired conditions, all antecedents…pointing to previous actions…. Gambling rejects the weighty past” (Benjamin 512). Every game is cordoned off from the next. Every game begins from the beginning. Every game requires that history disappear.

That’s the goal of the Oblique Strategies—to clear a space where your own creative history doesn’t stand in the way of you moving forward in new directions. Now in art, chance operations may be all well and good, even revered. But what does something like the Oblique Strategies have to do with the reason we’re here this week: research, scholarship, the production of knowledge? After all, isn’t rejecting “the weighty past” an anathema to the liberal arts?

Well, I think one answer goes back to Eno’s characterization of the Oblique Strategies: there are other ways of working. We can approach the research questions that animate us indirectly, at an angle. Forget the head-on approach for a while.

One way of working that I’ve increasingly become convinced is a legitimate—and much-needed form of scholarship—is deformance. Lisa Samuels and Jerry McGann coined this word, a portmanteau of deform and performance. It’s an interpretative concept premised upon deliberately misreading a text. For example, reading a poem backwards line-by-line. As Samuels and McGann put it, reading backwards “short circuits” our usual way of reading a text and “reinstalls the text—any text, prose or verse—as a performative event, a made thing” (Samuels & McGann 30). Reading backwards revitalizes a text, revealing its constructedness, its seams, edges, and working parts.

Let me give you an example of deformance. Mary Lee and Katharine are two social media stars, with tens of thousands of followers on Twitter each. They’re also great white sharks in the Atlantic Ocean, tagged with geotrackers by the non-profit research group OCEARCH. Whenever either of the sharks—or any of the dozens of other sharks that OCEARCH has tagged—surfaces longer than 90 seconds, the tags ping geo-orbiting satellites three times in order to triangulate a position. That data is then shared in real-time on OCEARCH’s site or app.

OCEARCH Tracking Map (screenshot)
OCEARCH Tracking Map (screenshot)

The sharks’ Twitter accounts, I should say, are operated by humans. They’ll interact with followers, post updates about the sharks, tweet shark facts, and so on. But these official Mary Lee and Katharine accounts don’t automatically tweet the sharks’ location updates.

Sometime this summer—well, actually, it was during shark week—I thought wouldn’t it be cool to create a little bot, a little autonomous program, that automatically tweeted Mary Lee and Katharine’s location updates. But first I needed to get the data itself. I was able to reverse engineer OCEARCH’s website to find an undocumented API, a kind of programming interface that allows computer programs to talk to each other and share data with each other. OCEARCH’s database gives you raw JSON data that looks like this to a human reader:


But to a computer reader, it looks like this:

Structured JSON Data

Structured data is a thing of beauty.

Reverse engineering the OCEARCH API is not the deformance I’m talking about here. What I found when the bot started tweeting location updates of these two famous sharks was, it was kind of boring. Every few days one of the sharks would surface long enough to get a position, it would post to Twitter, and that was that.

Something was missing. I wanted to give this Twitter account texture, a sense of personality. I decided to make Mary Lee and Katharine writers. And they would share their writing with the world on this Twitter account. The only problem is, I don’t have time to be a ghost writer for two great white sharks.

So I’ll let a computer do that.

I asked some friends for ideas of source material to use as deformance pieces for the sharks. These would be texts that I could mangle or remix in order to come up with original work that I would attribute to the sharks. A friend suggested American Psycho—an intriguing choice for a pair of sharks, but not quite the vibe I was after. Mary Lee and Katharine are female sharks. I wanted to use women writers. Then Amanda French suggested Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day, which just happens to feature two characters named Katharine and Mary. It was perfect, and the results are magical.

Now, Katharine tweets odd mashed-up fragments from Night and Day, each one paired with historical location data from OCEARCH’s database. On December 9, 2014, Katharine was very close to the shore near Rhode Island, and she “wrote” this:

Here’s December 29, twenty days later:

A month later, Katharine was down the coast, near South Carolina:

In every case, the journal part of the tweet—the writing—is extracted randomly from complete text of Night and Day and then mangled by a Python program. These fragments, paired with the location and the character of a shark, stand on their own, and become new literary material. But they also expose the seams of the original source.

Whereas Katharine writes in prose fragments, I wanted Mary Lee to write poetry:

How does Mary Lee writer this? Her source material comes from the works of H.D.—Hilda Doolittle, whose avant-garde Imagist poems are perfect for the cut-up method.

Mary Lee follows the cut-up method described by Brion Gysin decades ago. I’ve made a database of 1,288 lines of H.D.’s most anthologized poetry. Every tweet from Mary Lee is some combination of three of those 1,288 lines, along with slight typographic formatting. All in all, there are potentially 2 billion, 136 million and 719 thousand original poems that Mary Lee could write.

What kind of project is @shark_girls? Is it a public humanities project—sharing actual data—dates, locations, maps—that helps people to think differently about wildlife, about the environment, about the interactions between humans and nature? Is it an art project, generating new, standalone postmodern poetry and prose? Is it a literary project, that lets us see Virginia Woolf and H.D. in a new light? Is it all three?

I’ll let other people decide. We can’t get too hung up on labels. What’s important to me is that whatever @shark_girls is about, it’s also about something else. As Susan Sontag wrote about literature: “whatever is happening, something else is always going on.” And the oblique nature of deformance will often point toward that something else. Deformance is a kind of oblique strategy for reading a poem. If the Oblique Strategies deck had a card for deformance it might read:

Work backwards.

Or maybe, simply,


Another kind of deformance—another oblique strategy for reading—are Markov Chains. Markov chains are statistical models of texts or numbers, based on probability. Let’s say we have the text of Moby Dick.

The first page of Moby Dick

Just eyeballing the first page we can see that certain words are more likely to be followed by some words than other words. For example, the pronoun “I” is likely to be followed by the verb “find” but not the word “the.” A two-gram Markov Chain looks at the way one pair of words is likely to be followed by a second pair of words. So the pair “I find” is likely to be followed by “myself growing” but not the pair of words “me Ishmael.” A three-gram Markov parses the source text into word triplets. The chain part of a Markov Chain happens when one of these triplets is followed by another triplet, but not necessarily the same triplet that appears in the source text. And then another triplet. And another. It’s a deterministic way to create texts, with each new block of the chain independent of the preceding blocks. Talk about rejecting the weighty past. If you work with a big enough source text, the algorithm generates sentences that are grammatically correct but often nonsensical.

Let’s generate some Markov chains of Moby Dick on the spot. Here’s a little script I made. If it takes a few seconds to load, that’s because every time it runs, it’s reading the entire text of Moby Dick and calculating all the statistical models on the fly. Then spitting out a 3-, 4-, or 5-gram Markov chain. The script tells you what kind of Markov n-gram it is. The script is fun to play around with, and I’ve used it to teach what I call deep textual hacks. When I show literature folks this deformance and teach them how to replace Moby Dick with a text from their own field or time period, they’re invariably delighted. When I show history folks this deformance and teach them how to replace Moby Dick with a primary source from their own field or time period, they’re invariably horrified. History stresses attentiveness to the nuances of a primary source document, not the way you can mangle that very same primary source. Yet, also invariably, my history colleagues realize what Samuels and McGann write about literary deformance is true of historical deformance as well: deformance revitalizes the original text and lets us see it fresh.

All of this suggests what ought to be another one of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies:

Misreading is a form of reading.

And to go further, misreading can be a form of critical reading.

Now, let me get to the heart of the matter. I’ve been talking chance operations, deterministic algorithms, and other oblique strategies as a way to explore cultural texts and artifacts. But how do these oblique strategies fit in with the digital humanities? How might oblique strategies not only be another way to work in general, but specifically, another way to work with the digital scholarship and pedagogy we might otherwise more comfortably approach head-on, as Brian Eno put it.

Think about how we value—or say we value—serendipity in higher education. We often praise serendipity as a tool for discovery. When faculty hear that books are going into off-site storage, their first reaction is, how are we going to stumble upon new books when browsing the shelves?

A recent piece by the digital humanities Victorianist Paul Fyfe argues that serendipity has been operationalized, built right into the tools we use to discover new works and new connections between works (Fyfe 262). Serendipomatic, for example, is an online tool that came out of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. You can dump in your entire Zotero library, or even just a selection of text, and Serendipomatic will find sources from the Digital Public Library of America or Europeana that are connected—even if obliquely—to your citations. Let your sources surprise you, the tagline goes.

Tim Sherratt has created a number of bots that tweet out random finds from the National Library of Australia. I’ve done the same with the Digital Public Library of America, creating a bot that posts random items from the DPLA. Similarly, there’s @BookImages, which tweets random cat-pics images from the 3.3 million public domain images from pre-1922 books that the Internet Archive uploaded to Flickr.

Fyfe suggests that “these machines of serendipity sometimes offer simple shifts of perspective” (263)—and he’s totally right. And simple shifts of perspective are powerful experiences, highlighting the contingency and plurality of subjectivity.

But in all these cases, serendipity is a tool for discovery, not a mode of work itself. We think of serendipity as a way to discover knowledge, but not as a way to generate knowledge. This is where the oblique strategies come into play. They’re not strategies for discovery, they’re practices for creativity.

Let me state it simply: what if we did the exact opposite of what many of you have spent the entire week doing. Many of you have been here a whole week, thinking hard and working hard—which are not necessarily the same thing—trying to fulfill a vision, or at the very least, sketch out a vision. That is good. That is fine, necessary work. But what if we surrendered our vision and approached our digital work obliquely—even, blindly.

I’m imagining a kind of dada DH. A gonzo DH. Weird DH. Which is in fact the name of a panel I put together for the 2016 MLA in Austin in January. As I wrote in the CFP, “What would an avant-garde digital humanities look like? What might weird DH reveal that mainstream DH leaves out? Is DH weird enough already? Can we weird it more?”

My own answer to that last question is, yes. Yes, we can. Weird it more. The folks on the panel: Micki Kaufman, Shane Denson, Kim Knight, Jeremy Justus will all be sharing work that challenges our expectations about the research process, about the final product of scholarship, and even what counts as knowledge itself, as opposed to simply data, or information.

So many of the methodologies we use in the digital humanities come from the social sciences—network analysis, data visualization, GIS and mapping, computational linguistics. And that’s all good and I am 100 percent supportive of borrowing methodological approaches. But why do we only borrow from the sciences? What if—and this is maybe my broader point today—what if we look for inspiration and even answers from art? From artists. From musicians and poets, sculptors and quilters.

And this takes me back to my earlier question: what might a set of oblique strategies—originally formulated by a musician and an artist—look like for the digital humanities?

Well, we could simply take the existing oblique strategies and apply them to our own work.

Do something boring.

Maybe that’s something we already do. But I think we need a set of DH-specific oblique strategies. My first thought was to subject the original Oblique Strategies to the same kind of deterministic algorithm that I showed you with Moby-Dick, that is, Markov chains.

Here are a few of the Markov Chained Oblique Strategies my algorithm generated:

Breathe more human. Where is the you do?

Make what’s perfect more than nothing for as ‘safe’ and continue consistently.

Your mistake was a vital connection.

I love the koan-like feeling of these statements. The last one made so much sense that I worked it into the title of my talk: your mistake was a vital connection. And I truly believe this: our mistakes, in our teaching, in our research, are in fact vital connections. Connections binding us to each other, connections between domains of knowledge, connections between different iterations of our own work.

But however much I like these mangled oblique strategies, they don’t really speak specifically about our work in the digital humanities. So in the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to create DH-specific oblique strategies, programmatically.

The great thing about Markov chains is that you can combine multiple source texts, and the algorithm will treat them equally. My Moby Dick Markov Chains came from the entire text of the novel, but there’s no reason I couldn’t also dump in the text of Sense and Sensibility, creating a procedurally-generated mashup that combines n-grams from both novels into something we might call Moby Sense.

So I’m going to try something for my conclusion. And I have no idea if this is going to work. This could be a complete and utter failure. Altogether, taking into account the different editions of the Oblique Strategies, there are 155 different strategies. I’m going to combine those lines with texts that have circulated through the digital humanities community in the past few years. This source material includes Digital_Humanities, The Digital Humanities Manifesto, and a new project on Critical DH and Social Justice, among other texts. (All the sources are linked below.) I’ve thrown all these texts together in order to algorithmically generate my new DH-focused oblique strategies.

[At this point in my keynote I started playing around with the Oblique DH Generator. The version I debuted is on a stand-alone site, but I’ve also embedded it below. My talk concluded—tapered off?—as I kept generating new strategies and riffing on them. We then moved to a lively Q&A period, where I elaborated on some of the more, um, oblique themes of my talk. As nicely as this format worked at ILiADS, it doesn’t make for a very satisfying conclusion here. So I’ll wrap up with a new, equally unsatisfying conclusion, and then you can play with the generator below. And draw your own conclusions.]

My conclusion is this, then. A series a oblique strategies for the digital humanities that are themselves obliquely generated. The generator below is what I call a webtoy. But I’ve also been thinking about it as what Ted Nelson calls a “thinkertoy”—a toy that helps you think and “envision complex alternatives” (Dream Machines 52). In this case, the thinkertoy suggests alternative approaches to the digital humanities, both as a practice and as a construct (See Kirschenbaum on the DH construct). And it’s also just plain fun. For, as one of the generated oblique strategies for DH says, Build bridges between the doom and the scholarship. And what better way to do that than playing around?

Works Cited

  • Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1999.
  • Fyfe, Paul. “Technologies of Serendipity.” Victorian Periodicals Review 48, no. 2 (2015): 261–66.
  • Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What Is ‘Digital Humanities,’ and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things about It?” Differences 25, no. 1 (2014): 46–63. doi:10.1215/10407391-2419997.
  • Nelson, Theodor H. Computer Lib/Dream Machines. 1st ed. Chicago: Hugo’s Book Service, 1974.
  • Samuels, Lisa, and Jerome McGann. “Deformance and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30, no. 1 (January 1, 1999): 25–56.
  • Sontag, Susan. “In Jerusalem.” The New York Review of Books, June 21, 2001.
  • Zweig, Ellen. “Jackson Mac Low: The Limits of Formalism.” Poetics Today 3, no. 3 (July 1, 1982): 79–86. doi:10.2307/1772391.

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Oblique Strategies for the Digital Humanities

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