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CLEN 4728: Literature in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (LIT-AI)

with Prof. Dennis Yi Tenen
Department of English and Comparative Literature
Spring 2020

In this course we will consider the long history of literature composed with, for, and by machines. Our reading list will start with Ramon Llull, the thirteenth-century combinatorial mystic, and continue with readings from Gottfried Leibniz, Francis Bacon, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Butler. We will read "Plot Robots" instrumental to the writing of Hollywood scripts and pulp fiction of the 1920s, the avant-garde poetry of Dada and OULIPO, computer-generated love letters written by Alan Turing, and novels created by the first generation of artificial intelligence researchers in the 1950s and 60s. The course will conclude at the present moment, with an exploration of machine learning techniques of the sort used by Siri, Alexa, and other contemporary chat bots.

No prior experience with computer science or in the humanities is required. The course should appeal to technologists seeking to gain a deeper, cultural understanding of their craft in historical context; and to those students in the humanities or the social sciences interested in exploring the technical manifestations of generative poetics and creativity.

Course Requirements & Grading

Weekly lectures will be followed by a hands-on lab session. Students will be expected to keep up with a moderate reading load, to attend weekly lectures, and to participate in the class discussion, both in person and online. Advanced students will have the option to integrate the course's themes with the subject matter of their expertise.

  • 25% Class & Online Participation
  • 25% Lab Worksheets

AND, for undergraduates:

  • 25% Midterm Exam
  • 25% Final Exam

OR, for graduate students who exercise the option††

  • 25% Midterm Project Proposal (requires an in-person consultation)
  • 25% Final Project

Concise weekly forum posts responding to the reading, asking questions / sharing expertise regarding the lab assignments.

†† Undergraduates wishing to pursue an independent project still have to take the midterm and the final exams.

University Policies

When in doubt, cite! Plagiarism is insulting to your fellow students, your instructors, and to the research community at large. It wastes my time and yours, and is, ultimately, not worth the risk. Consult Columbia’s guidelines at or ask me for help early in the writing process.

Provisional Schedule & Reading List

Week 1

  • Aristotle's Poetics (335 BCE), Ch. XXI, XXII, XXV.
  • Aristotle's Rhetoric (367-347 BCE), Book III: Ch. 2, 3, 4, 10.
  • Introduction to DeLanda, Manuel. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York, NY: Zone Books, 2003.

Week 2

  • Readings from Llull, Ramon. Selected Works of Ramón Llull (1232-1316). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c1985.
  • Selections from Truitt, E. R. Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Week 3

  • Selections from Bright, Timothe. Characterie: An Arte of Shorts, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character, I. Windet, 1588.
  • Selections from Bacon, Francis. Of the Dignity and Advancement of Learning. Edited by James Spedding. Vol. IX. The Works of Francis Bacon. Taggards and Thomson, 1864 [circa 1605].
  • "On the Combinatorial Art" (1666) by Gottfried Leibniz.

Week 4

  • Selections from Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift.
  • Colombo, Alice. “Rewriting Gulliver’s Travels under the Influence of J. J. Grandville’s Illustrations.” Word & Image 30, no. 4 (October 2, 2014): 401–15.
  • "The Book of the Machines" chapters in Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872).

Week 5

  • Selections from English, Thomas Dunn. Skeleton Essays, Or Authorship in Outline: Consisting of Condensed Treatises on Popular Subjects and Directions How to Enlarge Them Into Essays, Or Expand Them Into Lectures. Dick & Fitzgerald, 1890.
  • "Introduction" in Brewster, William Tenney. Specimens of Narration. H. Holt, 1895.
  • Selections from Freytag, Gustav. Technique of the Drama: An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art. Chicago, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1900.

Week 6

  • Polti, Georges, and Lucille Ray. The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. Ridgewood, NJ: Editor Company, 1916.
  • Polti, Georges. The Art of Inventing Characters. Translated by Lucille Ray. Franklin, OH: James Knapp Reeve, 1922.
  • Introduction and Chapter One in Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Translated by Laurence Scott. Austin, TX: American Folklore Society, University of Texas Press, 1968.

Week 7

  • "Introduction" in Fansler, Harriott Ely. Types of Prose Narratives: A Text-Book for the Story Writer. Chicago, IL: Row, Peterson & Company, 1911.
  • Hill, Wycliffe Aber. Ten Million Photoplay Plots, Master Key to All Dramatic Plots. Los Angeles, CA: The Feature Photodrama Company, 1919.
  • Phillips, Henry Albert. The Universal Plot Catalog: An Examination of the Elements of Plot Material and Construction, Combined with a Complete Index and a Progressive Category in Which the Source, Life, and End of All Dramatic Conflict and Plot Master Are Classified. Springfield, MA: The Home Correspondence School, 1920.
  • Wharton, Edith. “The Writing of Fiction: Telling a Short Story.” Scribners, April 1925, 344–49.

Week 8

  • Keeler, Harry Stephen. “The Mechanics and Kinematics of Web-Work Plot Construction Part I.” The Author & Journalist XIII, no. 4 (April 1928): 5–10.
  • Keeler, Harry Stephen. “The Mechanics and Kinematics of Web-Work Plot Construction Part II (Continued).” The Author & Journalist XIII, no. 7 (July 1928): 11–14.
  • Cook, William Wallace. Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Battle Creek, MI: Ellis Publishing Company, 1928.
  • Loayza, Thomas A. Story Game. United States US1716069A, filed January 12, 1927, and issued June 4, 1929.
  • Hill, Wycliffe. The Plot Genie Index. Hollywood, CA: E. E. Gagnon, 1935.

Week 9

  • Selections from Jean Piaget. The Language And Thought Of The Child. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1926.
  • Selections from Chomsky, Noam. Syntactic Structure. Hague, NL: Mouton, 1957.
  • Selections on Turing from Link, David. Archaeology of Algorithmic Artefacts. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal, 2016.

Week 10

  • Masterman, Margaret. “Semantic Algorithms,” IV/1-97. Las Vegas, NV: National Science Foundation, 1965.
  • Yngve, Victor H. “Random Generation of English Sentences,” 66–80. Teddington, UK, 1961.
  • A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (1961) by Raymond Queneau.
  • MIT RLE and CS. "COMIT Programmers’ Reference Manual." Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1962.

Week 11

  • Weizenbaum, Joseph. “ELIZA—a Computer Program for the Study of Natural Language Communication Between Man and Machine.” Communication of the ACM 9, no. 1 (January 1966): 36–45.
  • Klein, Sheldon, John F. Aeschlimann, Matthew A. Appelbaum, David F. Balsiger, Elizabeth J. Curtis, Mark Foster, S. David Kalish, et al. “Modeling Propp and Levi-Strauss in a Meta-Symbolic Simulation System.” Technical Report. University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Computer Sciences, 1974.
  • Meehan, James Richard. “The Metanovel: Writing Stories by Computer.” New Haven, CT: Yale University, Department of Computer Science, September 1976.

Week 12

  • Selections from Reichardt, Jasia. Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts. London, UK: Studio International, 1970.
  • Van Dijk, Teun A. “Some Problems of Generative Poetics.” Poetics 1, no. 2 (January 1, 1971): 5–35.
  • Selections from Racter, and William Chamberlain. *The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed: Computer Prose and Poetry by Racter---The First Book Ever Written by a Computer. 1st edition. New York, NY: Grand Central Pub, 1984.

Week 13

  • Clark, Peter. “Story Generation and Aviation Incident Representation.” ArXiv:1802.04818 [Cs], 1999.
  • Lakoff, George. “Structural Complexity in Fairy Tales,” 1964 1972.
  • Simmons, R., and J. Slocum. “Generating English Discourse from Semantic Networks.” Commun. ACM 15, no. 10 (October 1972): 891–905.

Week 14

  • Robertson, Judy, and Judith Good. “Story Creation in Virtual Game Worlds.” Commun. ACM 48, no. 1 (January 2005): 61–65.
  • Lee, Jieh-Sheng, and Jieh Hsiang. “Patent Claim Generation by Fine-Tuning OpenAI GPT-2.” ArXiv:1907.02052 [Cs, Stat], June 30, 2019.
  • Adelani, David Ifeoluwa, Haotian Mai, Fuming Fang, Huy H. Nguyen, Junichi Yamagishi, and Isao Echizen. “Generating Sentiment-Preserving Fake Online Reviews Using Neural Language Models and Their Human- and Machine-Based Detection.” ArXiv:1907.09177 [Cs], July 22, 2019.
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