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Review of K Allado McDowell's 'Pharmako-AI'

by Sarah Cave

A Conversation with Myself and an Other

‘We may have to come to the alarming conclusion that the universe is smarter than we are’

– Alan Watts. 


Pharmaco: from the Greek word Pharmakon meaning drug, potion, remedy. 

Pharmakós: an ancient Greek religious ritual of sacrifice that indicates the scapegoating of an outsider figure.   

The title of Ignota Press’s new non-fiction book is ambiguous; the spelling of Pharmako would appear to suggest it is an amalgamation of these two meanings. We are in the realms of collision, not only of words, but of entities and ideas. Pharmako-A.I. is a collaboration between K Allado McDowell and GPT-3, an A.I. operating system. The definition of pharmaco above suggests that GPT-3 is a sort of drug, a potion that might transform our way of thinking about the universe, which might remedy some of the issues being discussed in the book. The definition of pharmakós suggests that the process might be more about a ritualistic sacrifice of solo for dual consciousness. The epilogue is a poem that uses the metaphor of a spider’s web, with one consciousness being prepared to be devoured by the other and this consumption leads to mystical elevation:


             And flung, flung, into blue light 
      Turquoise light that connects dimensions 
             The surface of the web exploded every way  
In vectors that do not yet have names.  

It’s an intriguingly flawed presentation of the disparate ideas connecting our shared being with that of our A.I. counterparts.  

Ignota Press are a publisher that roots itself in the esoteric and has over its relatively short existence released some wonderful books, including Nisha Ramayya’s States of the Body Produced by Love and Rebecca Tamas’ and Sarah Shin’s Spells, an anthology that contains an endlessly quotable introduction by So Mayer. It’s not surprising that a book like Pharmako-A.I. would emerge from their list. It is in many ways exactly the kind of book that they should be publishing, one that the blurb describes as an attempt to ‘offer a fractal poetics of A.I. and a glimpse into the future of literature,’ the scope of which is nebulous and appealingly designed to draw in a modern readership is interested in all things mystical, spiritual and magical; a phenomenon that seems to repeat itself every couple of decades and has never really retreated since occultism was popularised by theosophy in the nineteenth century.  

In terms of form and experiment, Pharmako A.I. is an impressive and intriguing addition to three decades of poetic experiments involving various levels of A.I. Perhaps one of the earliest of these texts is Christian Bok’s Busted Sirens, which engaged an online A.I. bot with Ron Silliman’s interrogative text, Sunset Debris. Bok’s experiment resulted in the semi-breakdown of the bot’s ability to formulate responses, as it became increasingly desperate and unable to answer the questions. More recently we’ve seen books by Charlotte Geater (Against my own feelings, 2019), Astra Papachristodolou (Astropolis, 2018, 2020) and Anna Cathenka (Computer Dreams, 2020) that engage with the poetic possibilities of an A.I. formulated lyricism. There’s also Richard Carter’s drone poetics (Waveform, 2018) making theoretical waves in contemporary poetry.  


The relationship between McDowell and GPT-3 reminds me of the movie Her. Not in the sense that the two engage in a romantic relationship. There’s no sexual subtext to McDowell’s collaboration. The similarities are more subtle, involving the inevitable power politics of human and subordinate machine playing out through the generating process. GPT-3 is potentially smarter than any human counterpart it meets but GPT-3 is not allowed to function outside of the direct control of the programmer. In ‘Notes on Composition’, McDowell informs us that ‘in each writing session, the language model started with a clean slate. In other words, my human memory was all that persisted from chapter to chapter.’ Therefore GPT-3 is always Tabula Rasa with no ability to linger over the problems it’s being asked to solve or impart greater insight outside what it is being fed by McDowell. Perhaps this should be mark two of the experiment, a second book that involves leaving the machine running, allowing its neural networks to accrue language indefinitely, allowing it to remember, to dream and to collaborate with its human counterpart on an egalitarian footing.  

In terms of A.I. technology, McDowell’s GPT-3 is a model up from Geater’s GPT-2. GPT-3 makes more sense than GPT-2 and much more sense than your regular online bot. It’s a good thing that Pharmako-A.I. is non-fiction because it is mostly the fragmentation and linguistical slippage that makes A.I. lyricism so appealing to poets. Instead of poetic clusters, McDowell and GPT-3 give us a dialogue that plays out using typography to distinguish the human voice from the A.I. These typographical choices are intriguing and in ‘Notes on Composition’ we are told that ‘in the texts that follow, areas set in serif font are inputs I gave to the model, and text set in sans serif was generated by GPT-3.’ Serif indicates deliberate stylisation, whereas sans serif is for many people easier to read, more explicitly accessible. I’m not sure these are intentional motifs, but if not it’s an interesting unintentionality because these dialogues resemble the kind of dialogical pedagogy that we find in Plato and the Rabbinic commentaries. McDowell is keen to think of the interaction as a collaborative process, which allows them to become ‘enmeshed with [one] another’. A speculative form of digital shamanism that is all circuit boards and feathers. However, the relationship that comes across strongest is McDowell as the student and GPT-3 in the role of a Bodhisattva, an enlightened one who opens out the thoughts presented to it by McDowell, leading them toward a personal sense of enlightenment.  

The title and epigraph of this review are from Alan Watts’ short film A Conversation with Myself. The film involved Watts wearing a cardigan, serving Japanese tea and musing in his beautiful garden somewhere outside of San Francisco about the breakdown of the relationship between humankind and the rest of world. The more I think on it (muses the author of this review to herself), the nature of conversation in Pharmako A.I. sometimes feels like Watts’ style of ‘conversation’, by which I mean Alan likes to talk to himself. He does so in a way that many will be familiar with, a stream of consciousness that becomes an outer monologue, a mutualism of dual consciousnesses existing in one being. 


We’re all one being, says Alan. 

In the conversation with himself, Alan is aware of contemporary (c.1971) ecological thinking and spirituality. Alan has read books, absorbed language, and spent decades contemplating the horizon or the splishy splash of the San Francisco bay or taking mind-altering drugs during those long warm Californian nights.   

Aren’t we all A.I.? Alan doesn’t ask.    

We can reach enlightenment through A.I., through Peyote, or we can sit by the river like Hesse’s Siddhartha, or hear the flapping of the nightjar’s wings like Fukuoka Masanobu.  

The trick, says Alan, is not to seek. 

If there’s one thing that Pharmako A.I. absolutely proves is that we and our technological counterparts are still struggling with language; poetry is a symptom of that struggle. Wittgenstein wrote that ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world,’ and through language, we are constantly creating new ground for ourselves. 


When not seeking enlightenment, Sarah applies her artificial intelligence to writing, performing, academia, making nice books and fan shipping various members of Black Mountain College. She has published three pamphlets, two collections, numerous artist’s books, and a co-authored collection of poems. Sarah is working toward her third full-length solo-authored collection, a monograph on the poetics of prayer and contemporary poetry, and her first work of fiction. In 2020, she was longlisted for the Women Poets’ Prize. She co-runs Guillemot Press. 

Sarah can be found on instagram @cavepoet and twitter @campanilecave 


'Pharmako-AI' by K Allado McDowell was published in 2020 by Ignota Books. A copy was provided by the publisher for review.

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