Friday, June 11, 2010

Monkeys and the Appeal of Infinity

In talking with our artist Christopher K. Ho the other day (Chris' upcoming exhibition with Kevin Zucker at Santa Fe's Fisher Press Gallery is, somewhat coincidentally, titled "Sooner or Later, like death, New Mexico will catch up with you in the end"...but I'm getting ahead of myself), I noted how the biggest frustration in my life isn't the economy, or my stompy upstairs neighbors, or the way the size of my waistline seems to be inversely related to the number of hairs on my head...no, my biggest frustration is how little time I have to do everything I want to do in my life. All the places I have yet to visit, all the museums I have yet to visit, all the books I have yet to read, all the people I have yet to meet, all the foods I have yet to taste, these are the things that haunt my nightmares....there isn't enough time!

The
infinite monkey theorem posits (in one variation on the theme) that if you set a chimpanzee at a typewriter (that's how old the theorem is [btw, this made me laugh]) and give it an infinite amount of time, that eventually it would type out some recognizable text of great value, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Another variation on the theme, popular where I grew up, was that the monkey would eventually type-out the great American novel. Why chimpanzees (not native to America) would be expected to have some sort of cosmic access to the great American (versus Chinese) novel is not explained by the theorem*, but you get the general idea.

I'll admit to being fascinated by the idea, but note that the appeal of the theorem to me has never had anything to do with monkeys, but rather with the notion of greatness through infinity. In fact, despite all the other food for thought in that film, it was this idea that fascinated me most in "Ground Hog Day." If I could just have more a little more time than everyone else, I could accomplish everything I want to...I could have the life I want.

This idea came back when I read a bit in The Observer deflating the pride that must have felt by the writers identified by the The New Yorker's summer issue as "twenty young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction." The Observer does admit that their piece might be fueled by envy, but still:
Enough arguing about whether the "best young writers" are really best—are the "best young writers" even young?

Not really, says Sam Tanenhaus in The Times:

It is a mistake to assume that because they are young - at least according to our culture's ever expanding notion of youth, when 40, or even 50, is "the new 30" - they must be poised midway up Parnassus, with higher achievements to come. The trouble, perhaps, is that this definition of "young writer," which owes less to literary considerations than to the intersecting categories of sociology and marketing, muddies our understanding of how truly original, enduring fiction comes to be written.

The Tanenhaus pantheon of young achievers who produced masterpieces—not just "promising" work—long before 40: Flaubert (29 when he began Madame Bovary), Thomas Mann (24 when he finished Buddenbrooks), Tolstoy (began writing War and Peace at 34), Kafka (29 for "The Metamorphosis"), Melville (32, Moby-Dick), Fitz­gerald (28, The Great Gatsby), Hemingway (27, The Sun Also Rises), and Faulkner (32, The Sound and the Fury—his fourth novel).

Basically everyone except Tea Obreht is already behind.

Talk about leaving a turd in a punchbowl.

*"Popular interest in the typing monkeys is sustained by numerous appearances in literature, television, radio, music, and the Internet. In 2003, an experiment was performed with six Celebes Crested Macaques. Their literary contribution was five pages consisting largely of the letter 'S'."

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10 Comments:

Blogger Iris said...

It is funny that this theorem uses the monkey, in Buddhism 'Mind Monkey' is the term used to describe the scattered, unsettled mind. It is the ego that compares age and achievement, stresses over time, which are all illusions. In reality there is only the present time, which is infinite.

6/11/2010 12:12:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

In 2003, an experiment was performed with six Celebes Crested Macaques. Their literary contribution was five pages consisting largely of the letter 'S'.

Actually, those five pages were part of Doug Coupland's novel jPod, which, interestingly, came out three years later, in 2006.

I mentioned the young thing to my wife, who responded with an absolute shitstorm about stereotyping and ageism, a lot of which made sense. I see now I'm going to have to rethink all my cherished beliefs about when people get wise.

6/11/2010 12:23:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

We don't have to worry about monkeys writing anything very long.

50,000 characters (roughly 10,000 words) can be rearranged (permuted) 3.3*10^200000 ways.

50,000! is 213,237 digits long and uncomputable. We're safe.

My captcha was "gutbards"

6/11/2010 12:58:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Evertson said...

They wrote the great American Fluxus novel.

6/11/2010 01:08:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

SssssSs s ssssssstssssS**SssssgsgssssSSS.........s

6/11/2010 01:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Monkeys are amazing creatures and possibly our nearest ancestor as tool users and their skeletal physiology. Those squat, muscular and domineering creatures that we stuffed on mission flights and shot out in to the black cold reaches of outer space are true heroes. The well documented example of Coco is a breed set apart from other smart simians. She has mastered colors and some form of sign language. These super monkeys can communicate through color, and by that, I mean paint. As tool users who take sticks and poke termite holes these junior Picassos can create a splash of color to rival Pollack and other twentieth century art mavens . Where does this ability arise from? Do we all have a creative gene buried deep in our DNA. Think of this, man has painted in religious context for the benefit of the hunt since he first walked the African savanna upright. Unlike today’s men, all ancient men danced the tribal boogie. Yes, I think monkeys, creation and art are DNA linked.

6/11/2010 01:52:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

George, my math makes it 50 keys ^ 50000 spaces = 10^85000 possible (very short) novels.

But you can’t use math to solve productivity problems like this one. That point was driven home years ago by Fred Brooks in his book The Mythical Monkey-Month.

6/11/2010 02:15:00 PM  
Anonymous David Mann said...

Relevant article relating to youth, age, time of life and creative practice, accomplishment / recognition:

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.07/genius.html

6/12/2010 06:13:00 AM  
Blogger Iris said...

Interesting article (and research) David, thanks for posting it!

6/14/2010 09:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

+++my biggest frustration is how ++little time I have to do ++everything I want to do in my ++life.


I've been pondering about this quite a lot in recent years. It has affected my life as a non-artist (from used-to-be-artist) because I often feel that artists who spend their life making art without having much time to lend some interest in what others do are stuck in their bubble, just where I don't want to be. I'd rather sacrifice an art career and have the time to see all that there is out there. All that I can.


This said, I also have a compulsion to be(come) an artist, and so I have gathered sort of a curriculum of things to do, from which I intend to realize the best shots, in circumstances that won't be detrimental to my hunger for everything else. Another way this affects me, is my disdain for doing work that demands too much time of the audience if it is not going to be worth it, and I evitate any exhibition that just fills a room with tons of obsessive data. It's like a tv series that last for 40 years: it can't be all that great (sorry, Star Trek).


I basically work with lists and constantly blackout what I don't have time for (when I feel I can, I'll leave an open permissive space, which means a day off to see stuff I have absolutely no expectation about). The good thing is that, when you're thinking "I don't want to loose my time", good ideas for art emerge more easily, or maybe you develop a better confidence about your decisions.


Cedric C

6/15/2010 10:07:00 AM  

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