The Winograd Matrix

by Richard Holeton profile

Science Fiction

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The Winograd Matrix, August 20, 2022

Richard Holeton, John Barth of the Eastgate Systems era, is known for Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, one of those pioneering twentieth century elits which elicit as much effort even understanding what it is you’re reading as understanding what it is you’re reading.

If you’re confused, then good news, this work is based on the Winograd schema, an attempt to improve the Turing test by layering anaphora to charge meaning through intuited referential connections, a method of attempting to rigorize the metaprocessing of sentience. The problem consists in presenting a sentence with an introduced ambiguity that produces two semantically valid parallels, where only one selection is preferred by normative linguistic thinking, a la the original example of “The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they [feared/advocated] violence.” The pronoun “they” can mean either the councilmen or the demonstrators, and each can be applied a proper verb: feared for the councilmen, advocated for the demonstrators. The normal reading that most people would intuit is that “they” represents the councilmen, so the supposedly correct choice would be to select the verb “feared.”

Like a lot of twentieth century futurism formalisms, the idea is conceptually entertaining, if not necessarily applicable, which means that it provides a perfect pomo playground. That The Winograd Matrix is structured through a series of Winograd schemas while also being about people attempting to create a narrative called “The Winograd Matrix” that describes the very process that the reader undergoes to read the work is all very much par for the course, leading inevitably to shall we say slapstick discursions on penises and winkwink punning from a Beau Drillard boy friend to bother the boyfriend.

Much of the writing whirls densely around polysemous references, internesting associated links that sometimes get four, five, six steps deep. Rather than obscurantist whirligigs, the prose notes the notches and mostly goes for jokes it also painstakingly notes, as per this riff on a Newton’s Cradle: “Drillard had given me the “executive toy” when I began my Double Home Confinement (following my so-called assault of Cofú the Intern) in order to, he said punningly, help keep me grounded. / “Executive Toy or Cradle Toy, Bo,” Jenny had asked Drillard, “—it’s certainly not for babies?” / Drillard quipped, “It rocks, baby!” Trying to be cool. Despite our being old friends, I’ve never liked the way Drillard winks at Jenny all cuddly and hairy like a bear. Less so since Jenny and I moved in together. Meaning I like it less so—he seems to do it more so.” This quirk of constantly interrupting flow with grins to the reader stacks up the clausal complexity with a ludic disdain for whether the whole thing should collapse or not, as when “it seems like the whole building shakes or shudders (Drillard would call it a structural destabilization)” intersplices images with abstractions generating conceptual distance in anaphoric twists.

When not going for gags, the order of the day is divorcee mundane: “Things started off pretty well. Jenny complained that I spent too much time in the bathroom (using it), or too little time in the bathroom (cleaning it); I noted her difficulty discerning which substances were proper vs. improper to put down the garbage disposal. Of course I brought up the hair clogging the bathroom drains. / The annoyances quickly escalated. “Speaking of hair [uh-oh!], have you thought about trimming your nose hairs?” Jenny said, and after a second glass of wine went straight to, “Were you raised by fucking wolves?” / My rejoinders (e.g., regarding her Chronic Inability to Take Out the Recycling, “Do you have a goddamn broken leg?”) were not well received, and in short, our Happy Hour Sharing Time went down in flames after only one week.” The clack of trivium trivially pursued stifles the emotion in piles of plastic waste that dulls us into a twittery anhedonia kept thrumming along Winograd forks by DFWesque jargon plasticity pileons: “My Double Quarantine means I cannot (a) set foot past my front porch into analog AmbiZone space, or (b) co-locate with another human in any public or private Holospace, without setting off my PanoptiCuff® GPS ankle monitor.” Arguing with your partner about petty grievances during lockdown serves as a basis for traipsing williesnilly through modernity (though not Modernity) dizzies, which provides the true core animation for much of the work, even though seeking a path through those dizzies towards restorative, gracious trucemaking remains the assumptive goal, chasing after the promise flickered briefly in lines like: ““Here’s to picking up the pieces,” Jenny says. She looks at me, and I look back into the deep pools of her eyes. I realize these three seconds or so are the longest we’ve looked into each other’s eyes for all these months of confinement and tension, suspicion and crime.”

Indeed, the razorthin relationships buried beneath nonrecyclable ephemera gets chapter and verse DeLilloan: “”Extruded polystyrene foam is 95% air, not biodegradable, and emits toxic fumes when burned,” I say as we extract mangled slices of pesto and pancetta pizza, flecked with Styrofoam, from the table cleavage.” Where the difference emerges is a semihopeful ethos of resistance, that sees the informational pressure as a zugzwang oppression in need of an extracontextual nonbinary flight, hinting at a devious compulsion of the Winograd presumptive choice: ““Multiple oppressive narratives that we’re complicit in co-constructing…” Jenny starts to say with exaggerated gravity—parroting Drillard, or parodying him, I can’t tell which. Then she shrugs, as if suddenly overwhelmed by the cumulative weight of it all. / “But you can resist,” I say. “We can resist, right?”” Not really, as when discovering a nonbinary choice spills out of the framework to simply end up spilled out: “In the end, I tear off my PanoptiCuff® ankle monitor and run down the street … I feel vindicated, but I end up alone.” Well, back to square one, I suppose; or, if you’re feeling generous, a “time-reversal symmetry” to the starting node of a Twine that interrogates the linear modalities of power structures as reproduced by a constructive agency in which we etc etc.

So, a whole lot of Stuff, certain to fill out some pleasant peer-reviewed riffery, but I don’t know that we need a Rube Goldberg Machine to tell us that moving in with a partner can be unglamorous. In many ways, this work echoes a lot of the tropes of academic-facing elit that I find annoying, in which there is more effort spent on conceptual innovation posturing than on the actual content. Because, as much as we can discuss the formalistic cunning of The Winograd Matrix, most of what it actually is is a series of super dated dick jokes; well, depending on what your definition of is is.

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richardholeton, November 12, 2022 (updated November 13, 2022) - Reply
I really appreciate this very witty and learned review. Any writer would,
or should, be grateful for the extended time and attention of a smart reader
like Kaemi Velatet, author of the dense interactive novels Queenlash
(2021) and Manifest No (2022) and prolific IF reviewer. So I'm thankful
for such a thoughtful reading, even if disappointed in the extent to which
"The Winograd Matrix" failed to exhilarate this reviewer.

I also appreciate the mention of my hypertext novel Figurski at Findhorn on Acid—described as both "pioneering" and difficult to understand—and I especially relish being named, surely for the first time, the "John Barth of the Eastgate Systems era"! For those interested, Figurski is now available on the web, reimagined for contemporary readers, along with a 2022 radio play adaptation. Ironically, Velatet's assertion that "academic facing elit" can be guilty of "more effort spent on conceptual innovation posturing than on the actual content," which is lodged as an objection to "Winograd" in the review, is a notion I fully agree with, and in fact was a driving motivator for me to create Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, which other critics have found full of entertaining and humorous content, along with parodies of academic discourse.

Anyway, the review. One first of all marvels at Velatet's prose, poetic and erudite and peppered with zingers. As Mike Russo puts it so well in "Babel and everything after," a review of Manifest No, Velatet's prose is "thick with neologistic portmanteaus, second-order homophones, and alliterative tricks that aren’t just naïve flourishes but carry a payload of meaning in their playful sporting, so you can read each sentence two or three times and take away a different set of valences each time." Thus as the author of the subject of Velatet's review, I went about trying to find positive valences, flickers of praise, or compliments, even if left-handed, such as: "perfect pomo playground" (which I first misread as "porno"; my eyes must be going!) and "formalistic cunning" (love that) that is "certain to fill out some pleasant peer-reviewed riffery" (sarcastic but still . . .); a "semihopeful ethos of resistance" (yes! alas, the hope is dashed); and "chapter and verse DeLilloan" (I'm a fan of both Barth and DeLillo, though Velatet evidently is not).

On the other hand, Velatet is basically, obviously, not amused. Formalistic cunning cannot overcome "the clack of trivium trivially pursued" (wonderful phrase!) and "dulls us into a twittery anhedonia" (such lively, inventive, challenging prose—with a dictionary close at hand). The "mundane" content of "The Winograd Matrix" is reduced to this summary: "moving in with a partner can be unglamorous." At the same time, "most of what [the story] actually is is a series of super dated dick jokes." Ouch!

The review is clear enough in its overall assessment; I respect that, along with the forthright manner and stylistic flair of the analysis, and I don't wish to make the argument here that "The Winograd Matrix" has more to it than domestic tedium and "dick jokes" (one of those zingers punctuating the otherwise highbrow diction). Other readers will hopefully check it out and make their own determination.

And really, Velatet's review is just plain fun. In that same spirit, one can't resist asking, since the topic has been broached (not to say raised): Can dick jokes be funny? Perhaps to some, in the right context, like in a comedy club, from a raunchy female standup artist, after a couple drinks? "Super dated" dick jokes are unfunny to the reviewer, but what about fresh new dick jokes? Haha. I might find the latter amusing, but I don't really think that a medical condition like penis vitiligo (or its role in alleged child molestation by Michael Jackson)—even if the characters in "The Winograd Matrix" uncomfortably make fun of it—is a laughing matter.

kaemi, November 13, 2022 - Reply
Hey Richard! Thanks for the comment. Rereading this review, I feel it comes across more catty than I intended, for which I apologize. I hope it is clear from the review that I do value your work, and I continue to be excited to see future work from you. I appreciate you!
richardholeton, November 13, 2022 - Reply
Hi Kaemi! No worries and thank you. I love the review
and look forward to delving more into your novels. I
posted a link to your review on my website, hope that's
OK. BTW I just edited my comment because I realize I
had totally misread "pomo" as "porno"! Which might be
applicable as well :) .
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