The Virtual Sentence: A Book of Exercises by Kyle Booten, D. Graham Burnett, Brian Dillon, Jeff Dolven, Jan Mieszkowski, Sally O’Reilly, Mónica de la Torre, and Elena Vogman
Introduction by Jeff Dolven

Softcover, 80 pages, 7 (w) × 10 (h) inches
Black-and-white illustrations
Cabinet Books, 2024
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The Virtual Sentence is an exercise book for the era of ChatGPT. Its title is indebted to Gilles Deleuze, who uses “virtual” to name a reality that is neither actual (already here), nor potential (not yet here). Said of the sentence, the term points to the articulate alternatives that surround what gets spoken out loud or committed to ink and pixel. This is neither the total space of linguistic possibility, nor the particulars of what you might have said, considered afterward in a spirit of regret, or relief. In other words, the virtual sentence is not concerned with the before or with the after. Rather, it is what you might be saying, even as you say what you actually say, and what you might be hearing, even as you hear what you actually hear—a “might” that is in fact simultaneous with sentence making, surrounding it and making it meaningful. The virtual sentence inhabits a space defined by a kind of immanent syntactic and lexical alterity. What might be otherwise is already there.

Today, the space of the virtual sentence is increasingly endangered, most dramatically by the accelerating aptitude of text-prediction algorithms used in the large-scale, unsupervised language models collectively known as Generative Pre-trained Transformers (GPT). This is the technology that companies like Google and Apple rely on when they volunteer to finish sentences in your texts and emails. Gmail, for example, offers tools “personalized to your writing style.” It can do this because it has read every email you have written, and also what everyone else has written, which is why it proposes what you want to say more quickly than your wants do.

This book aims to interrogate these techno-linguistic regimens by offering hands-on exercises from eight contributors, each designed to provoke exploration, and expansion, of the space of the virtual sentence. The values in its pages are variety and self-surprise, and it turns to the genre of the exercise—a miniature ritual of permutation and invention—in order to generate, rather than to stipulate.

Since the need of this book is not expected to go away, it is published as a binder so that new exercises and their accompanying essays can be added to it as they are commissioned. Those purchasing this book can sign up to receive these future contributions in the form of PDFs that can be printed at home and added to the original set of eight.

About the authors
Kyle Booten teaches at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of Salon des Fantômes (forthcoming from Inside the Castle), a book that documents a week-long literary salon of which he was the only non-AI attendee. His other computational works include Nightingale, a Keatsian web-browser extension. For more information, see kylebooten.me.

D. Graham Burnett is based in New York City. He is the author or editor of a number of books, including, recently, Scenes of Attention: Essays on Mind, Time, and the Senses (Columbia University Press, 2023; co-edited with Justin E. H. Smith) and Twelve Theses on Attention (Princeton University Press, 2022; co-edited with Stevie Knauss), a text collectively drafted by the Friends of Attention. Burnett was a visiting artist at the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki in 2023. He teaches at Princeton University.

Brian Dillon is an Irish writer based in London. His books include Affinities (New York Review Books, 2023), Suppose a Sentence (New York Review Books, 2020), Essayism (New York Review Books, 2018), and I Am Sitting in a Room (Cabinet Books, 2012).

Jeff Dolven is a critic and poet who teaches at Princeton University. His books include Senses of Style (University of Chicago Press, 2018), *A New English Grammar (dispersed holdings, 2022), and the admittedly hasty Take Care (Cabinet Books, 2017). He is an editor-at-large at Cabinet.

Jan Mieszkowski teaches German and comparative literature at Reed College. His books include Labors of Imagination (Fordham University Press, 2006), Watching War (Stanford University Press, 2012), and Crises of the Sentence (University of Chicago Press, 2019). He is currently completing a manuscript about the philology of botany.

Mónica de la Torre teaches poetry and translation at Brooklyn College. Her poetry books include Repetition Nineteen (Nightboat Books, 2020) and The Happy End / All Welcome (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017). She co-edited Women in Concrete Poetry (Primary Information, 2020).

Sally O’Reilly is a London-based writer. Recent projects include the novella Help in Cucumbers (Joan Publishing, 2023) and Where They Gather (October House Records, 2022), a spoken-word and music album with Kit Downes.

Elena Vogman is a scholar of comparative literature and media. Principal investigator of the research project “Madness, Media, Milieus: Reconfiguring the Humanities in Postwar Europe” at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, she is currently working on a book titled “Geo-psychiatry: Media, Milieus, and the Politics of Madness.” Her previous books include Sinnliches Denken: Eisensteins exzentrische Methode (diaphanes, 2018) and Dance of Values: Sergei Eisenstein’s Capital Project (diaphanes, 2019).