digital rhetoric

Writing and Code

I just watched an interesting inteview of Katherine Hayles by Arthur Kroker on cTheory. I think it’s a great resource for any course dealing with her work or just generally discussing theories of the posthuman (though it’s probably only appropriate for graduate students).

Toward the end of the interview, Kroker and Hayles get into a discussion about the relationship between writing and code… something along these lines. Picking up on a part-Derridean, part just general literary-critical notion, they discuss writing in terms of aporia, fissures, gaps, silences, etc. This is opposed then to a concept of code where code is understood as executable. Kroker at one point suggests this is reminiscent of a positivistic view of language; Hayles disagrees and instead talks about seeing code as an act of building that establishes a complex interaction with writing as aporia.

Hayles approach is useful, and I believe it would be unproductive to attempt to erase the notion of code as execution (an appropriately loaded term). As Hayles points out earlier in the interview, some  99% of all communications in the world are computer-to-computer without any human interaction or awareness. These communciations are founded on a premise of reliable execution. Of course, errors happen all the time, and while computer science exists for the purpose of trying to reduce error, the elimination of error seems impossible. Taken from the other direction, as the existence of positivistic views of human communication demonstrates, we (or some of us) also tend to view human language and writing as executable and/or performative, though clearly error exists in human communication as well.

I would suggest, and I believe this reflects Hayles’ general direction (though I haven’t yet read her latest work…summer reading), that computational code rests upon/interacts with a more indeterminate, emergent, unfolding materiality. Code may be designed for execution. However, I think in many instances, writing is also designed for execution. Writing’s cultural contexts and the subtlety of human cognition allow us to deal with (perhaps require us to deal with) a less determinate worldview than computers. If computers were more complex, perhaps they would be able to do the same.

What I think is especially valuable about Hayles’ approach is that it does allow us to think about writing and code in a different way: to understand writing as the apprehension, storage, and interface with information on an indeterminate world.

When we look at “literature,” we see writing with an aesthetic value on indeterminacy, this in contradistinction to the more simplistic, moral universe of pop culture, as Bourdieu demonstrates. Experimental poetics (and philosophy) often attempts to leverage the aporias of language to illuminate the condition of an indeterminate language emerging from an indeterminate materiality as opposed to the more conventional Western view of a linguistic logos mirroring a natural logos.  The interview touches on this subject as well, noting that we see a significant shift in the move from viewing a natural world as based on logos to one that emerges from computation. Computation allows us to investigate interactions between complex systems (e.g. social interactions) in a way that previous approaches did not.

However I think there is more to be seen/understood here in terms of computation, code, and execution, particularly as they might relate to some determinacy in the production of materiality, information, or meaning.  This is where one might venture into concepts of multiplicites a la Deleuze and Guattari.

I’ll be interested to see where Hayles’ book goes.

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