Hacking the (Recommendation) Algorithm—An Avant-Garde Provocation

Sergio C. Figueiredo

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Sergio C. Figueiredo is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Kennesaw State University. Born and raised in southern New Jersey to two immigrants from rural Portugal, he attended Rowan University for his undergraduate work in literary studies, Marshall University for his master’s work in rhetoric and composition, and Clemson University for his doctoral work in rhetorics, communication, and information design. Sergio have been teaching at Kennesaw State University since August 2012. He is the translator of Inventing Comics: A New Translation of Rodolphe Töpffer’s Essays on Graphic Storytelling, Media Rhetorics, and Aesthetic Practice (Parlor Press, 2017).

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I want to understand histories of algorithmic logics through the nineteenth-century avant-garde and apparatus theory. As algorithms electronically coded into a host of digital platforms become sites for critique, such as Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression (2018), pointing to systemic social, cultural, political, and technological concerns, histories of the concepts that have evolved into these programs can shed light on how previous generations have addressed the problems we are once again experiencing. Specifically, the brief history of the term algorithmic and its use in the nineteenth-century reviewed in this essay suggests we approach the algorithm not as some sort of descriptive (definition) process but as an inventive (creation) method.

In it most basic form, the algorithm aims to achieve the same goal through symbolic rules and computational systems as any other conventional research and writing method: identifying patterns and classifying those patterns along commonplace categories (topoi) to address artistic problems—ones that, for Aristotle, require persuasive logics to solve. Recommendation algorithms in particular constitute a particular form of these symbolic systems, used to persuade users of any digital technology that there is an authentic, fixed self that can be categorized by collecting, storing, analyzing, and filtering personalized sets of digital data into topoi. These algorithms attempt to syncretize all dimensions of an individual’s life and construct archetypes to serve various purposes, most often for commerce. Rather than critique the logics of algorithms (or a specific algorithm), I am looking for a method of adapting those logics to meet the charge given to the avant-garde (the arts and humanities, collectively) by Henri Saint-Simon: to address issues of social well-being in the public sphere through the use and invention of the popular arts (more on this later). My aim is to move us beyond the patterns and habits algorithmic systems identify and use to classify and organize individuals and collectives into a variety of groups that can be known.

But what if we do not want to be known? Can we hack the recommendation algorithm? Make it think it knows us? The algorithm is our audience, [1] an audience we do not want to know us; we want it to think it knows us. If we can point to the origin story of algorithmic logics, we can discover methods of hacking those logics and demonstrate where they fail to contribute to individual and collective well-being.


The avant-garde is most often treated as an aesthetic practice or philosophy of creating experimental provocations in a public sphere addressing the relationships among producers and consumers. Gregory Ulmer marks the origination of avant-garde with the first Montmartre cabarets in Bohemian Paris in 1881, describing it as opening “a space of pure creativity, pure invention.” [3] That same year, John Venn, an English mathematician and Fellow at Cambridge—best known for inventing the Venn diagram template—published Symbolic Language, marking one of the first uses of algorithm as a part of an adjectival phrase (‘algorithmic logic’), positing that “symbolic” is “almost the equivalent of ‘algorithmic’” and that the challenge of “constructing a generalized symbolic language” is that “the discussions on this subject are much mixed up with the wider question of a general philosophical language.” [4] Venn’s argument specifically addresses Joseph Delbœuf’s 1876 essay, “Logique Algorithmitique,” and his critique that algorithmic systems only deal in ‘abstractions’, not in lived experience. [5]

Delbœuf’s critique is less about algorithmic logics than about the state of the arts and humanities, writing that amid the “expansion of all the positive sciences, philosophy proper has remained stationary, that it is about as advanced as in the times of Plato and Aristotle, [content] in overthrowing the edifices previously elevated rather than building a lasting monument.” [6] As a part of his work as a psychologist and practitioner of hypnosis, Delbœuf sought ways of bridging the symbolic logic of the sciences and the performative logics of arts, proposing that theatrical performances of experiments in hypnosis did less harm to the lay public than untrained physicians in medical rooms. Thirteen years later, Lionel Dauriac, a philosopher and musicologist, identifies Delbœuf’s work on balancing symbolic logic with performative logics as an avant-garde practice, and notes his work on hypnosis as an example of the avant-garde’s mission to re-position the place of the arts in old order social order within a new order social order. [7] For Delbœuf, this work developed in the fields of experimental psychology and hypnotism. Mark Micale, in The Mind of Modernism, directly connects Delbœuf and medical hypnosis to the Montmartre cabarets and the popular interest in artistic and poetic performances of the symbolic and algorithmic logics of the sciences, including how these logics affected the credibility of those sciences. [8]

These performances often worked by means of political mockery, satirical comedy, and gallows humor. [9] Still, to better understand how the term avant-garde was being used in these works, we need to go back to the early-nineteenth century, when the term was first applied to a new model of social organization designed for the emerging era industrial, scientific, and technological development.


One of the first published references to the literary and artistic avant-garde in the industrial age Still, to better understand how the term avant-garde was being used in these works, we need to go back to the early-nineteenth century, when the term was first applied to a new model of social organization designed for the emerging era industrial, scientific, and technological development appears in an 1825 essay credited to either Henri Saint-Simon, a social scientist, or Olinde Rodrigues, a banker, mathematician, and social reformer. Titled, “The Artist, the Scientist, and the Industrialist,” the essay details the role arts will play alongside the sciences as nations adapt to a global industrial society. Where the scientists are tasked with inventing new technologies for the advancement of social justice and well-being and industrialists with producing and selling those inventions, the artists are tasked with using the power of the arts to promote the ethical and social practices of those inventions. As Saint-Simon (and/or Rodrigues) write, the artists

… have weapons of all kinds: when we want to spread new ideas among men we inscribe them on marble or on canvas, we popularize them by poetry and singing, we use by turns the lyre or the galoubet, the ode or the song, the story or the novel; the dramatic scene is open to us, and it is here that we exert an electric and victorious influence. We turn to the imagination and the feelings of man, so we must always exercise the liveliest and the most decisive action, and if today our role seems nonexistent or at least very secondary, it is because the arts were lacking what is essential to their energy and success, a common impulse and a general idea. [10]

The common impulse and general idea these authors charge artists with is the complete re-organization of the social structures of Western and Greco-Roman traditions, placing the artists/poets in the first order, the scientists in the second order, and the industrialists in the third. (Their work is often credited as an early theory of socialist thought, as being an early argument for social welfare (justice) as a central part of public policy deliberations, and proposing early arguments for women’s suffrage across a Europe undergoing industrialization.) Across the publications of the Saint-Simonian disciples, [11] oration (as developed over the course of rhetoric’s Western tradition) appears first in the list of popular arts more often than not, and it was to be employed as a method of organizing the mission of the arts to guide the well-being of national and global societies. (Saint-Simon is also credited with developing an early version of what would eventually become the European Union—which he understood as an urgent and needed reform from an era aristocratic rule, particularly if scientific and industrial innovation was to thrive in this new era of human social life.)

Out of this model, for instance, Rodolphe Töpffer invented comic books in the late-1820s, using comics to challenge the algorithmic and symbolic logics of pseudo-sciences like physiognomy and phrenology through satirical, dramatic scenes. Comics served as an example of an experimental art designed to prepare students in classes on rhetoric to actively contribute to the mission of guiding the ethical life of an emerging industrial Europe. Comics, for Töpffer, worked in the manner that Saint-Simon envisioned the popular arts: the power of the popular arts are their ability to have an immediate and quick effect on public thought and life. [12]

The hacker functions today as a contemporary avant-garde artist, learning the symbolic logics and processes of electronic media and making them perform unexpectedly. Experimenting with the personal, social, cultural, political, and institutional implications of emerging technologies on the well-being societies, hackers work to foster the capacity for the common goal of improving the world by upholding principles of democracy:

  • Open sharing, collaboration, and community.

  • Mistrusting authority and promoting decentralization.

  • Freedom of information.

  • Artistic experimentation.

  • Learning how systems function by taking them apart, seeing how they work, and using lessons learned to create new and more interesting things. [13]


Recommendation algorithms are to hackers what the nineteenth-century pseudo-sciences were to Töpffer and the artists performing in Montmartre cabarets: symbolic systems with the potential to trouble the steady progress of social life toward the common impulse of social well-being (justice). The hacker studies the rhetorical activity in “algorithm-centered functions in digital platforms” [14] and tests the limits of those encoded procedures with methods derived from the experimental arts, such as coding. Where Töpffer critiqued the assumption that studying the shape of the head and facial expressions could provide insight into the intellectual capacities of an individual, the hacker-as-avant-garde-artist critiques the assumption that an algorithm, no matter how advanced, can provide insight into an authentic and fixed self. Rhetorically, recommendation algorithms can be defined by their use of topoi to describe the commonplaces used to organize users into groups, protasis to describe the conditional logics used to identify patterns in user activity across time and space, and premise to describe the conclusions that can be inferred by analyzing the relationships across the topoi and protasis. [15] The hacker recognizes that the goal of this symbolic system is the propagation of “viral content” by optimizing the desires of particular categories of audience. [16] The hacker responds to this drive by asking how creating an inventory of these lessons might be applied to fostering the capacities of publics to improve the social well-being of a digitally networked, global society. The hacker points away from the central point in the algorithm’s Venn diagram.

For example, in Sign of the Times, a 2017 public arts installation commissioned by Cornwall Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Scott Kelly and Ben Polkinghorne offer an example of how an avant-garde hacker-artist-rhetor might address the ubiquity and omnipresence of the recommendation algorithm in everyday life. On their website, they prompt visitors with a provocation alongside photographs of the installations (see site for images):

Who run[s] the world? Collaborative filtering recommender algorithms. Also known as ‘Customers who bought this item also bought…’ suggestions. They’ve become ubiquitous in the online world, determining what we look at, buy and like.

Perhaps you’re worried that as your life moves online and Alexa moves into your living room, your decisions are essentially being made for you. Perhaps you’re worried you live in a bubble. Perhaps you’ve never thought about it.

Hopefully, you are now. Which was the point of putting these giant signs up in locations around New Zealand. [17]


Hacking (recommendation) algorithms is a rhetorical practice with roots in the philosophy of the early nineteenth-century avant-garde, using the popular arts as a platform for examining and contributing to the everyday ethical life of post-industrial and democratic societies. Sign of the Times offer an example of how post-critical experimental arts practices can be used to ask tough questions about how the other two major post-industrial institutions (Science/STEM and Industry/Business) employ symbolic systems and how those systems may (not) contribute to the general well-being of a society. Asking students to experiment with the logics of procedure-based systems engages in what Jody Shipka the transmodal “character of texts and communicative practices” that bring consciousness to the fore. [18] We could simply ask students to select and compose a version of the multimodal Customers who bought this item also bought… installation designed to introduce new members of a university campus to histories, cultures, and values embodied with/in that place. [19] Making those histories, cultures, and values apparent functions as a way of hacking of the symbolic systems that attempt to persuade us that institutions (can) know who we are through the logics of diagramming and identifying the convergence points of all we allow the algorithm to know about us.



[1] See John R. Gallagher, “Writing for Algorithmic Audiences” in Computers and Composition 45 (September 2017), 25-35.

[2] Byron Hawk, “Stitching Together Events: Of Joints, Folds, and Assemblages” in Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric, ed. Michelle Ballif (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2013), 106-127.

[3] Gregory L. Ulmer, Konsult (Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2019), xxiii.

[4] John Venn, Symbolic Logic (London: Macmillan and Co., 1881), 98-99.

[5] J. Delbœuf, “Logique Algorithmitique: Exposé de la Logique Deductive au Moyen d’un Système Conventionnel de Signes” in Revue Philosophique de la France et de l'Étranger, (Juillet a Décenbre 1876), 226.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lionel Dauriac, “Le Doctrine Biologique de M. Delbœuf” in Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger. (Paris: Ancienne Librarie Germer Baillière et Cle, 1889); and William Lysander Adams, History of Medicine and Surgery from the Earliest Times. (Portland: G.H. Himes, 1888), 50.

[8] Mark S. Micale, The Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology, and the Cultural Arts in Europe and America, 1880-1940. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 11; Mark S. Micale, “The Salpêtrière in the Age of Charcot: An Institutional Perspective on Medical History in the Late Nineteenth Century” in Journal of Contemporary History 20, no. 4 (Oct. 1985): 703-731.

[9] Hannah Bergin, “A Brief History of Paris’s Dazzling Cabaret” in Culture Trip (12 Feb. 2019). Accessed on 12 March 2019.

[10] Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 103.

[11] I use this term intentionally to indicate the framework of these groups, who saw themselves as developing a secular religious order intended to displace the Roman Catholic Church’s hold on European monarchies and aristocracies.

[12] See my introduction to Töpffer’s work in Inventing Comics (Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2017).

[13] Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 2001).

[14] See Laurie Gries’ (p. 438) in Walsh, Lynda, et al. “Forum: Bruno Latour on Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 47, no. 5 (Oct. 2017), 403-462; and Daniel L. Hocutt, “Algorithms as Information Brokers: Visualizing Rhetorical Agency in Platform Activities” in Present Tense 6, no. 3 (2018). Web. Accessed 11 March 2019.

[15] Madison P. Jones, “Writing Conditions: The Premises of Ecocomposition” in Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture. Web. Accessed on 12 March 2019. See also, Gregory Ulmer, Electronic Monuments. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 120-25; Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).

[16] Madrigal, Alexis C. “How YouTube’s Algorithm Really Works” in The Atlantic (8 Nov. 2018). Web. Accessed 11 March 2019. See also, Kordík, Pavel, “Recommender Systems Explained” in Recombee Blog – Medium. Accessed 12 March 2019.

[17] See "Sign of the Times," ScottAndBenorBenAndScott.com, http://scottandbenorbenandscott.com/#/signs-of-the-times.

[18] Jody Shipka, “From Translingualism to Transmodality” in College English 78, no. 3 (Jan. 2016): 250-257.

[19] See Jones, “Writing Conditions.”