This year like most begins with a confession: The famous General Conference Preview blog, run by Brother Kevin D. Porter, was not as presented. The general conference talks presented for prayerful preview were, in fact, generated by a computer code. And Brother Porter’s face? That also was created by combining some existing apostles of the church into a composite generic authority, in this case, a Cobber named Kevin.
Backstory: A hipster friend who teaches at a local university was playing around with a code “engine” called Dada, which is used for generating text, such as the notorious postmodern essay published in an academic journal some years ago. He also wrote some “Markov chains” which are algorithms, as he says, “to make state transitions based upon a choice of probably next states, given the current state.” The “next state” represents to the Markov-based engine the probability of seeing a certain word in a large text sample, given the particular four word combination immediately preceding it (our “present state”). So, why not try it out on those texts which are known, and lauded, for always sounding the same? Thus, to the genre of General Conference talks the enging was turned.
Probabilities of occurence were calculated from a large number of texts published on lds.org, specifically classified according to some topic of interest, (e.g., atonement, faith, repentance). The end results can be read on Brother Porter’s blog. As my friend explains, the process “can be compared to photocopying talks of similar topic, physically cutting individual sentences apart, placing them all in a hat, and drawing them out randomly, reading them as they come out of the hat.” The Dada engine comes in at this point, as our inspired organizer of the grammar, which cut up and re-arranged according to word forms like verb, noun, prepositions, fixing tenses, and so on. The result was a series of talks which, I believe, could be passed off as legitimate General Conference sermons from LDS apostles.
The website GenConPreview drew nearly 2000 views over a two week run, with over 500 on its busiest day, when I seeded Facebook with a question about its legitimacy. The run up to the Fall Conference resulted in consecutive days with over 250 views, with traffic coming from ldsavow.com and ldsfreedomforum.com, private forums which threaded discussion of the blog. I have not seen these discussions, however. zomarah.wordpress.com and barerecord.blogspot.com also drove traffic to Porter’s GenCon.
Among those who commented on the blog was a Henri DeFarge, apparently using an ISP owned by the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop. He insisted the blog was a fake, and so I changed his comment to reflect a more program Correlated perspective. I took him a few tries before he realized that his comments were not posting as he submitted them, when he apparently gave up the protest.
The doubts that I read about the blog were concerned not with the content, but with the source. Why is the Church releasing the talks on this random blog? That was the question. None of the doubters wrote, “This does not have the same prophecy, seering, and revelation that I read in General Conference reports.” In fact, the actual process of making a real General Conference talk seem not dissimilar to the computerized process: former talks are cut up, arranged according to topic or theme, which is then found in some scripture decontextualized from another story, and these are arranged into a talk. What is the difference? Is there so much more intelligence, spirit, and light going into the cut-and-paste and add-a-story material we hear every spring and fall, than there is when a computer does the same thing? Where is the difference found? In the content, or the delivery? Or is a General Conference talk only partially known by its content, and everything else–its real power–comes from the assumption of an audience, and a venue for its delivery, and the endless circulation of that talk as it fragments into other talks, commodities, and imaginations?
These are matters of “genre” formation, but in this case the genre includes “pragmatic” matters like speaker, addressee, and other factors like breath control, inflection, and so on that do not show up in printed text, but are ‘experienced’ in audiovisual presentation. If we are talking about “truth” as something only partially related to the content of a statement, and also partially related to where one speaks, and to whom one speaks, how it is said, and then recirculated over and over again by other voices (at church), then are we not admitting that Power is inherent in Truth? And not a derivative? And that the Power is at times used to make something true, as much as the power is derived from revealing a thing to be true? We call this “performative” rather than “declarative” utterance, and try to imagine the sort of world where the powerful obtain power by making realities for the less powerful, by whose belief the powerful gain more of the means to make those less powerful consistently so. If that seems good to you, you differ from me.
What sort of things can this power make true? It cannot make a world, nor save your souls. It can make lives miserable or less so, it can get you to this place or that place, make you rich or poor, married or divorced, wearing one type of shirt over another, or have so many holes in your ears. The truth that is informed by this sort of arbitrary power is what we might call “Gentile” truth: being powerful means making things true, that term being redefined to mean, “things which generated power for someone, the power to make things true.” The reason why it is limited to Gentiles (who thrive in virtual reality) is because apparently other beings do not make things true by their utterance, temporarily; but instead utter things that are true independent of their utterance, true forever. When the Brother of Jared calls Jesus a god of truth, and so he can have faith, he surely does not mean that his words are being sent out to many millions, who recognize his voice because it was broadcast from Mount Zerin, on a certain day, with a monotone inflection full of smarmy quotes and patches from the scriptures, and that they are subject to change by being called “continuing revelation.” By “continuous” do we often mean, that which supplants, replaces, or alters the previous thing in the sequence? If I told I had continuing disease, would you think I meant I had syphillis, the clap, then gonorrhea, then liver cancer, and then the flu? Or would you think I had a disease which had some consistency beyond disease-ness, some quality that was the same besides being disease? Just so: continuing relevation should not supplant nor replace: that is discontinuous, by definition. It should continue to add light and knowledge, not simply swap out a 45 Watt bulb for a 30 Watt one, and then a red one because times have changed. Continuing light should be continuous, a continuum, not an interrupted, punctuated supplanting and alteration whenever times demand a change. So the voice of truth must be same, in quality, and no simply saying the same things over and over again, until some new program requires a change in the content.
If only those who recognize his voice will bear his name, than we are back to reality: a single thing or quality; not a relationship of processes and practices dependent on technology, inflection, language, venue, calendar and audience size. The Truth is spoken in a certain voice, and it cannot be imitated, except to those who are not of his sheep, but are the goats in sheep’s clothing, tares planted to confuse the wheat by accepting any counterfeit as true coin. For Truth to be otherwise is to make the god of truth dependent on things outside himself, even bogus money; or to make him able to keep his word by redefining the world. Can you imagine him making a promise to Enoch that he won’t destroy the world by water, and then renaming water “Schmater” and thus getting out of his covenant? Or that he prophecies of his condescension among Man, and then simply renames “man” as angels, and thus gets out of the whole crucifixion business? Yet this is our modern church’s way of exercising power. It is benign, and all the more beguiling for that reason.
In other words, a god of truth generates faith because he or she has power by knowing and speaking truth; not by using power to create “truth” which is by definition subject to change, further “revelation” or administrative-procedural adjustment. The kind of power now bound up with “the priesthood” is no more than social power, and that is the power to create a very limited bit of “truth,” and more importantly, creating consumers of that tiny truth: a great many minds who think that their limited bit of truth is all the truth that can be had, in what must now seem like a very rotten, wicked world. If a computer can closely imitate not only the procedure for making truth, but also the content, and is only limited by not having a mouth, a set of lungs, and a pulpit, then that is a notion of truth found among a people who cannot but be in captivity. Captivity to what? To something other than the voice. How does one escape from such a thing? It can, I suppose, be rejected in hope of something less powerful, and more able to take the weak things of the world as one’s force for good, for all they need is to hear the voice, and to live by hope according to their faith.