Curator's Note

At the beginning of his discussion of the things which are under our control, and the things which are not under our control, Epictetus observes that ‘if you are writing to a friend and are at a loss what to write, GPT-4 will tell you; yet whether or not you are to write to your friend at all, GPT-4 will not tell’.[1] OK, he doesn’t really say that: rather than GPT-4, he refers to γραμματικὴ, the art of grammar, also known until the eighteenth century as ‘technology’. Epictetus means that humans can contemplate ends as well as choose among means, meaning that they can choose not to do things they could do if they had a mind. GPT-4 may certainly give the impression of reluctance – nothing easier than its coy disclaimer ‘it would not be right for me to speculate about the virtue of targeted assassination’, or for it to generate a plausible first-person narrative in the style of Bartleby the Scrivener. What it could not do would be not to do something it has the power to do—that is, deliberately to not-do it. It could malfunction, but defect is not defection.

This might be taken as a roundabout way of saying that writing machines do not know what they are doing, whereas humans do. Actually, this is not the important thing. For in a sense GPT-4 ‘knows’ precisely and without residue what it is doing. It even knows what it does not know, in the sense of what information is inaccessible to it. It is humans who can come to be aware that they cannot know quite what will happen when they inflict the inflection of writing on themselves. To write is to broach the breach between what writes and what it writes.

This means that the more powerful mechanical systems become, the less impotential they will have, to use the term Giorgio Agamben breeds from Aristotle’s ἀδυναμία, adynamia.[2] The opposite is true of whatever we decide to keep calling nonmechanical entities. The more such entities can do, the more they can fail, or decline to do.

Nobody doubts the utility of writing machines. But what they do will be useful only to persons who take writing to be a useful way of getting things said, or done, declaring love, or war, persuading people you are nice, or clever, and so forth, and who want to inhibit rather than inhabit the suffering to which writing subjects the writer.


[1] Epictetus, The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, Books I-II, trans. W.A. Oldfather (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 9.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 182.

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