TOM JENKS: On Liberty Repressed: Dragging and Dropping John Stuart Mill

On Liberty, Repressed: dragging and dropping John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher and political economist who lived from 1806 to 1873 and has been described as “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century”. (Wilson, 2003) He is associated in particular with liberalism and with empiricism, the theory that firstly, all concepts are derived from experience and secondly, all claims to knowledge are founded on experience. (Quinton, 1997, p. 203) He was not, however, a philosopher by day: that portion of his time belonged to the East India Company. A. N. Wilson, in his book The Victorians, describes Mill’s routine: walking to work at the company’s offices in Leadenhall Street, striding through the marble portico, up the massive staircase to the high-windowed room where he worked. On his arrival, he would immediately be furnished with a boiled egg, tea, bread and butter which he would eat at his desk before beginning work. (Wilson, 2002, pp. 108- 109)

Mill’s father was James Mill, who Wilson describes as “the most relentless of the philosophic radicals, the fiercest of the Gradgrinds”. (Wilson, 2002, p. 109) He was an unswerving disciple of Jeremy Bentham, secular high priest of utilitarianism, often paraphrased as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, which sounds like a perfectly sound basis for governance until we consider what happens to those who aren’t amongst that greatest number. What begins as ‘liberalism’ can end as a justification for tyranny. Perhaps the best expression of the non-libertarian side of utilitarianism is Bentham’s plan for an ideal prison, which he called the Panopticon, a circular building with cells around the perimeter and officers in the middle who would be able, by virtue of a complex design which Bentham spent much of his time and money developing, to perfectly view the interior of every cell, creating “the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence”. (Bentham, 2012, p. 65) If you wish to take issue with Bentham in person, you can visit him at University College London, where he is pickled in a glass case.

Mill senior practiced what he preached, certainly when it came to his son’s upbringing, which was organised along unbending utilitarian lines, a rigorous and all-encompassing system of philosophical and moral education. Mill junior’s sole outdoor exercise took the form of long walks with his father, during which he was examined about his work and his progress. He stated, rather poignantly, that “I never was a boy, never played cricket.” (Ball, 2010, p. 43) Unsurprisingly, life in this Victorian boot camp began to take its toll and at the age of twenty, Mill began to question what his father had handed down to him. He described his great joy at reading Wordsworth and discovering that he was capable of feeling. (Wilson, 2003, p. 109) His own thought, whilst retaining the utilitarian stress on the role of government being to promote the general good, placed more emphasis on individual freedom, stating that “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”. (Mill, 1909, p. 217) We could note at this juncture that this sits slightly oddly with the day job.

Marjorie Perloff, in Radical Artifice (1991), an early discussion of the possibilities of digital literature, describes “The Return of the (Numerical) Repressed”, highlighting the potential of digital technology for applying mathematical systems to the field of literature, what Michele Leggott described as “number tumbling”. Perloff cites a range of “number tumblers”: John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, the Oulipo and also Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers. (Perloff, 1991, p. 147) Harry Mathews, the first American member of the Oulipo, developed his Mathew’s Algorithm, where text is tabulated and subjected to ‘shifts’. For Mathews, such ostensibly non-literary techniques are a means of identifying the “otherness hidden in language”. He states that “Beyond the words being read, others lie in wait to subvert and perhaps surpass them. Nothing can any longer be taken for granted; every word becomes a banana peel.” (Mathews, 1986, pp. 126)

I became interested in constraint-based literature a few years ago and as my interest grew, I began to think about works that I could produce myself. I’ve been aware of Mill since the days of A Level Politics, but gradually came to think about him and his work in a different way, not just as thing in itself but as, in the words of Raymond Queneau, a means of exploring the area of potential literature via “new artificial or mechanical procedures that will contribute to literary activity”. (Queneau, 1986, pp. 51) I chose Mill’s best known work On Liberty (1869) as the basis for an Oulipian experiment. The tension in Mill’s own life between limits and freedom, embodied by his iron clad education and his emotional rebellion into Wordsworth, was part of the reason for choosing On Liberty, but the biggest reason was the title itself. What better source to explore the idea of constraint than one that declares itself to be concerned with freedom?

I developed a procedure specifically for this purpose named, with a nod to Perloff, ‘numerical repression’. The complete text of On Liberty is available on Project Gutenberg and is free and out of copyright. My treatment of it began by downloading the text in its entirety and then stripping out anything that was not in the original, such as Project Gutenberg publication details and links to other sites. I then used a database procedure (SQL Server, for reference) to drastically reduce the text by selecting only words beginning with any of the letters of the title: “o”, “n”, “l” etc. through to “y”. The remaining words were then inserted sequentially, according to the order in which they occur in the original, into a series of ten by ten grids. As a final restriction, only the text in columns corresponding to On Liberty’s first year of publication were kept: 1, 8, 6 and 9. This created a set of two-hundred and sixty-eight grids.

The grid is often seen as a rigid structure. We might think, for example, of Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s geometric remodelling of Paris under Napoleon III, around the time Mill was writing On Liberty which, whilst modernising the city and improving sanitation, also made it far easier to manoeuvre cavalry and canon to wherever they might be needed. (Grammenos and Lovegrove, 2015, p. 54) Hannah Higgins, however, notes that the grid can also be used creatively as a more fluid organisational and generative mechanism. Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, used it as compositional tool and it is central to Filippo Brunelleschi’s method of rendering perspective. It has also been used in literature. Mallarmé used the grid as means of producing concrete poems. Emmett Williams’ Four Directional Song of Doubt for Five Voices (1964) is based on five gridded cards. (Higgins, 2009, p. 147, p. 155, p. 197) Rob Holloway’s Permit (2009) emerged from “individual, improvised readings from an 8 x 7 grid of A4 pages”. (Holloway, 2009, p. 57) Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi (1978), translated into English in 1987 by David Bellos as Life a User’s Manual, tells the interwoven life stories of the inhabitants of a fictitious Paris apartment block. Amongst the constraints utilised by Perec is “the knight’s tour” as a means of determining the order in which each apartment is selected, referring to the L-shaped move made by the knight piece in chess. (Perec (trans. Bellos), 1996)

With my treatment of On Liberty, I used the grids as canvases, as source material for the finished poetic work, which I titled On Liberty, Repressed. As with the earlier stages of the process, this was done by adherence to a set of rules. Unlike these stages, however, these rules were not implemented mechanistically and gave latitude for shaping and sculpting according to less tangible, non-rule based considerations, such as intuition, affect and aesthetics. Taking each grid in turn, each containing forty words, I created a sequence of minimalist poems by deletion. I did not allow myself to add to the text in any way, nor did I allow myself to edit any of the words. I also did not allow myself to retain more than one word per row. Other than that, I shaped and sculpted as I saw fit.

As well as being a procedural work, therefore, On Liberty, Repressed can also be considered as a work of deletionism or erasure and owes a debt to two key figures in that area. Tom Phillips A Humument is a reworking of W.H. Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document. Phillips has been working on it since 1966 and has created over a thousand fragmentary texts using a range of techniques such as painting, collage and cut-up. (Phillips, 2012) Ronald Johnson’s Radio s (1977) is an erasure treatment of Milton’s Paradise Lost. (Johnson, 2000) Other works of deletionism are of note: Jen Bervin’s Nets erasure of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Derek Henderson’s procedural erasure of Berrigan’s Sonnets in Thus & and Amaranth Borsuk, Jesper Juul and Nick Montfort’s The Deletionist, which, in the words of its creators, is “a concise system for automatically producing an erasure poem from any Web page. It systematically removes text to uncover poems, discovering a network of poems called “the Worl” within the World Wide Web.” (Bervin, 2004), (Henderson, 2011), (Borsuk, Juul & Montfort, 2013)) Derek Beaulieu argues that erasure texts “make permissive nodes for future projects”. (Beaulieu, 2015)

Perhaps the most notable thing about On Liberty, Repressed, however, without making grand claims for the work itself, is that it can be seen as illustrative of the fact that we are now at an interesting poetic and technological moment. Using computers in the production of literature used to be a serious undertaking. Take, for example, Alison Knowles and James Tenney’s beautiful A House of Dust from 1968, a combinatoric work of ‘slotting’ where items are drawn randomly from four lists (material, situations, lighting and inhabitants), which was implemented using a mainframe computer. (Funkhouser, 2007, p. 70) It took months to program using punched cards and hours to run. In the late 1960s, computers were not readily available. Aside from the fact that they were huge, Heath Robinson-esque contraptions, they were so expensive to build, maintain and run that they were only found in large institutions. Now, however, we can run A House of Dust whenever we like in seconds on our PC, tablet or smartphone using Nick Montfort’s JavaScript realisation. (Montfort, 2015) As digital technology has become more readily available, very much cheaper and incomparably easier to use, we have reached the point where we, as writers, can use it without it becoming our life’s work. I would describe my level of expertise as above average, but by no means stratospheric. I have some background in IT, but I would not describe myself as interested in it per se, rather in what it can do. For this and other procedural works I have produced, such as a spreadsheet translation of the Book of Genesis, I used commercially available software on a standard specification machine. Where I didn’t know how to do something, I was able to find the answer online. On Liberty, Repressed can be described as an exercise in drag and drop poetics, where digital technology is picked up, used for a particular purpose and put down again. It embodies for me how I think human and machine work best together, with the machine doing what it is best at (number crunching, aleatory selection, algorithmic processing of large tracts of text) and the human doing what they are best at (shaping, sculpting, working by instinct and intuition, considering affect and aesthetics). The dynamic is one of cooperation and collaboration rather than conflict and usurpation. Techniques, including digital techniques, need not define us, but can rather be, in the words of Laynie Browne, tesserae in “a mosaic of possibilities”. (Bergvall, Browne, Carmody & Place, 2012, p. 16) Process is simply part of the process.

Note: On Liberty, Repressed is published by Knives Forks and Spoons. Details of the book, including an extract, can be found at,repres.html

Works cited:

Ball, T. (2010). Competing Theories of Character Formation: James vs. John Stuart Mill. In: Varouxakis, G. & Kelly, P. John Stuart Mill: Thought and Influence: The Saint of Rationalism. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Beaulieu, D. (2015). Local Colour. Available: Last accessed 15th Jan. 2015.

Bentham, J. (2012, first published 1826). Remarks on the Form and Construction of Prisons: With Appropriate Designs. Dehli: Gyan Books.

Bergvall, C., Browne, L., Carmody, T., Place, V. (2012). I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. Los Angeles: Les Figues.

Bervin, J. (2004). Nets. New York: Ugly Duckling Presse.

Borsuk, Juul & Montfort. (2015). Opening a Worl in the World Wide Web: The Aesthetics and Poetics of Deletionism. Available: Last accessed 15th Jan. 2016.

Funkhouser, C. (2007). Prehistoric Digital Poetry. Alabama: The University of Alabama Press.

Grammenos, F. and Lovegrove, G. R (2015). Remaking the City Street Grid: A Model for Urban and Suburban Development. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Hawkins, A. (2015). Tom Phillips’ magnum opus turned a Victorian novel into a work of art spanning 50 year. Available: Last accessed 14th Jan. 2016.

Henderson, D. (2011). Thus &. Manchester: if p then q.

Higgins, H. (2009). The Grid Book. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Holloway, R. (2009). Permit. New York: Subpress.

Johnson, R. (2000). To Do As Adam Did: Selected Poems of Ronald Johnson. New Jersey: Talisman House.

Matthews, H. (1986). Matthew’s Algorithm. In: Motte Jr., W. F. Oulipo: a Primer of Potential Literature. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 126 – 139.

Mill, J. S. (1909, first published 1873). Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. New York: Collier.

Perec, G. (trans. Bellos, D.) (1996). Life: A User’s Manual. London: Vintage Books.

Perloff, M. (1991). Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Queneau, R. (1986). Potential Literature. In: Motte Jr., W. F. Oulipo: a Primer of Potential Literature. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 51 – 64.

Wilson, A. N. (2003). The Victorians. London: Arrow Books.

Wilson, F. (2002). John Stuart Mill. Available: Last accessed 11th Jan. 2016.


Tom Jenks – selection from On Liberty, Repressed


Tom Jenks’ most recent book is Spruce (Blart Books). He co-organises the Other Room reading series and website, administers the avant objects imprint zimZalla and is a Ph.D. student at Edge Hill University.




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