DLCL 2023 Commencement Address


Dominick Lawton, Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, delivered his speech on Sunday, June 18, 2023 at the DLCL Diploma Ceremony in Dinkelspiel Auditorium with the following speech:

"Hello! It is my great honor and pleasure to speak to you on behalf of the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. My name is Dominick Lawton, and I am a faculty member in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. To the parents, friends, and other dedicated supporters of our graduates, let me say: thank you, and welcome to Stanford. To the graduates themselves, let me say to you: congratulations, and it is my job today to perform the grammatically implausible task of welcoming you away from Stanford.

I know I speak for the faculty and staff of the whole division when I tell you how proud we are of your achievements, and though today is the day you receive your degrees, I am hopeful that wherever you go next, in one form or another, your engagement with other languages and textual traditions will continue throughout your entire lives. To devote years of your life to the study of at least one non-English language and literature is no mean feat, It requires you to learn to adopt the mental movements of another place and time, and to expand yourself by reading, speaking, writing, and thinking as someone else (or rather, as many someone elses!) This calls not only for rigor, perceptiveness, and discipline, but for humility, warmth, and humor.

In my view, there are few better embodiments of how crucial humor is to profound literature than the avant-garde Russian writer Daniil Kharms. “Kharms” is not a typical Russian name, but a pen name that Kharms consciously created. Kharms also knew English and was fully aware that his chosen name sounded like the English word “harms”. And yet, when he wrote his pseudonym in the Latin alphabet, he spelled the “kh” sound in a German style, with the letters “ch”—that is, “C-h-a-r-m-s,” or in English, “charms.” This unexpected transformation of one thing into another with an almost opposite meaning, of “harms” into “charms,” is accomplished through the same method to which you have devoted your education: the careful, but playful, transition between languages.

I’d like to share with you one of his short stories, though he himself did not use the term “short stories,” but rather “events” or “incidents” (in Russian, sluchai). Indeed, the story—or sluchai—that I have in mind is so short that I can read its translation to you in full:

There was once a red-haired man who had no eyes and no ears. He also had no hair, so he was called red-haired only in a manner of speaking.
            He wasn’t able to talk, because he didn’t have a mouth. He had no nose, either.
            He didn’t even have any arms or legs. He also didn’t have a stomach, and he didn’t have a back, and he didn’t have a spine, and he also didn’t have any other insides. He didn’t have anything. So it’s hard to understand whom we’re talking about.
            So we’d better not talk about him any more

This is a story that explicitly challenges us to say something meaningful about it. So how can we?

Some commentators interpret Kharms’ tale in political terms, pointing to the fact that it was written in the 1930s, at the height of Stalin’s reign in the Soviet Union; a period when those who were unfortunate enough to run afoul of the secret police would be airbrushed out of official photographs, leaving no visible trace of their existence. Others insist on understanding the story as more universal and less bound to a specific moment in time, referring to Kharms’ engagement with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant: they see the man with no discernible features as an extreme version of Kant’s theory that the true nature of things-in-themselves cannot be perceived by human consciousness. Either of these readings are plausible, as are many others. But what matters most, as you will no doubt have noticed, is the extraordinary form of the story: the way that Kharms’ delight in logical paradox takes his narrative apart before our very eyes (or lack thereof).

I have often thought of this story by Kharms when reading the flood of recent news about developments in Artificial Intelligence, particularly Large Language Models such as ChatGPT. We increasingly hear that this technology promises to wreak havoc on our most basic notions of authorship and writing. When tasked with writing something in a challenging or unfamiliar genre—whether that be a work of literary criticism or even a commencement speech—we now have the unprecedented option to ask neural networks to do it for us, generating reams of text in mere seconds.

Models like ChatGPT function by trawling through a massive archive of published text in order to statistically predict which words, and in what order, are most likely to answer a given prompt. This is a highly efficient way to do certain things, like generating form letters, responding to customer service inquiries, writing snippets of software code. But can it reproduce the mischievous self-contradiction that characterizes Kharms’ writing?

To find out, I used differently worded queries to repeatedly ask ChatGPT for a story about a red-haired man with no eyes, ears, mouth, nose… or hair. The results were mostly too verbose to share, but when asked to make the story just a few sentences long, this was what the model produced:

In a world where conventional perceptions held no sway, there lived a red-haired man devoid of eyes, ears, hair, mouth, and nose. Though lacking the physical faculties that most rely upon, he possessed a profound inner sight, an innate understanding of the world that transcended the limitations of the senses. He navigated through life guided by intuition, connecting with others on a level that surpassed words. In his silence, he spoke volumes, and in his absence of physicality, he exuded a captivating presence that left an indelible mark on the souls of those fortunate enough to encounter him.

This AI-generated story somehow ends up with even fewer memorable features than the red-haired man had in Kharms’ original. The longer stories written by ChatGPT also strained to turn Kharms’ man into an uplifting symbol: in one of them, the man “inspired others to embrace their own eccentricities and revel in the beauty of being wonderfully peculiar,” while in another, he “became a timeless reminder that the power of connection lies within our capacity to truly see one another.”

These principles—to embrace individuality and to truly see others—have much to recommend them, but the irony is that both of these morals are undermined by the formulaic way that ChatGPT inserts them into the story. The algorithm works because its products are not unique. They are recycled amalgams of already existing text, and statistically, ChatGPT’s choices come from the most frequently used phrases in its archive. Kharms’ story is both more genuinely eccentric and more deeply engaged with the possibility of seeing others than the AI-written texts which claim these exact ideas as their message.

I am dwelling on this comparison between Kharms and ChatGPT not to stage a Slavic version of the story of John Henry—an Ivan Henryk, if you will—for the age of AI, but rather because I think it shows us a truth that is rarely stated in the current discussions about technology and higher education. The humanistic learning that you have painstakingly earned, and that you will carry with you beyond this campus, cannot be reproduced by machines alone. OpenAI, the company that created ChatGPT, ran a series of trials earlier this year in which they challenged the program to take a series of standardized tests, including high school Advanced Placement exams. ChatGPT aced most of these tests with flying colors, but the only two that it could not pass were the AP exams in Language and Composition and Literature and Composition. The critical thinking, creative imagination, and insight that form the foundation of a humanities degree are the human qualities that can least be automated.

We only know about Kharms’ story, and about most of his work, because one of his friends and collaborators, the philosopher Yakov Druskin, risked his life to preserve a suitcase of Kharms’ manuscripts while under siege during some of the darkest days of World War II. However distant that particular experience may seem on this beautiful California day, you, like Druskin, have devoted yourselves to the brave ethical and intellectual task of nurturing the flame of human thought, creativity, and language. Having trained yourselves to truly listen to the often-unfamiliar sounds of voices that come from another place and time, you know that there is nothing passive about listening, or about reading: to read well, to diligently reconstruct meaning on new ground, requires the mental flexibility, courage, and compassion that distinguish human beings at their best.

Class of 2023, you have my warmest congratulations and my absolute confidence. May you flourish in the years to come; may your brilliant minds work together with your curious souls; and may your independence of will be combined with generosity of spirit and a commitment not to stop talking about things that others may or may not be able to see.

Thank you."



Photo credit: Tiana Hunter of Josh Edelson Photography