Among my dirtiest scholarly secrets is that I still feel Derrida’s work prefigured many of the debates about writing and media we are currently having in the examination of digital culture. I have no wish to take another spin on the language turn, recenter critical theory in the literature classroom, or read new batches of the sometimes leaden deconstructionist criticism. But, especially after reading and then re-reading Juliet Fleming’s recent book Cultural Graphology, I can’t shake the feeling that Derrida was correct about a lot of things about pre-digital writing that continue to be true about digital texts of all kinds. In his final collection of interviews and essays, Paper Machine, Derrida, among other things, addresses the effects that freely available digital technology has had on his and others’ writing practices and the production and reception of texts in digital formats. As much as I feel his ideas here to be valuable, its some of his older texts I found to be the most relevant to current scholarship on digital technology. However, more than simply connecting Derrida’s work to these newer ideas, outlining functions of digital media that adhere to dynamics Derrida describes arising in print also reveals previously invisible features of those pre-digital media. I’m most interested in examining the overlaps between writing for humans in literary texts and writing for machines in programming or coding.

In her 2017 book, Coding Literacy, Annette Vee compares computer code to human language in order to arrive at a definition of literacy that applies to both (that description doesn’t do justice to her nuanced and convincing argument). Vee uses literacy to examines programming as more than simply a “problems-solving tool,” but also as “a species of writing” (loc231). In arriving at her definition of literacy for both code and writing, she enters into a discussion that bears striking similarity with a debate that took place decades earlier between Derrida and proponents of Speech Act Theory. Vee says, J.L. Austin, in How to Do Things with Words, “ultimately fails to find a basis to separate performative statements from descriptive statements. By the end of the lecture series, he proposes that all language implies a kind of action” (loc3379). The distinction between performative and non-performative language, in other words, isn’t quite air tight and therefore its usefulness as a category of speech is diminished. Definitions of code, Vee says, that rely on executability confront the same problem. Ultimately, Vee rejects the notion that code can be defined as a mode of discourse through its executability because the execution and the writing of code are not identical:

While the relationship between code language and execution is slippery, code’s status as simultaneous description and action means it is both text and machine, a product of writing as well as engineering. Programming became a kind of writing when it moved from physical wiring and direct representation of electromechanics to a system of symbolic representation. (loc599).

Between the writing of the code and its execution, in its transition from the symbolic notation to the physical action, a gap emerges. The action, it turns out, even when it is to be carried out by a computer, requires interpretation, and that opens up entirely new range of considerations.

In his book, The Stuff of Bits, also from 2017, Paul Dourish seeks to ground the seeming immateriality of information in the material objects which process and present them. Like Vee, Dourish complicates the idea that code can be understood based on its ability to carry out tasks. He shows how executability of a given program–the written instructions computers carry out–depends on the machine that runs it:

The materialities of digital systems lie not least, then, in this gap between what is denoted and what is expressed, or between the specification and the execution. A computer program may be a precise series of instructions, and yet the experience that results from the program’s execution is radically underspecified by that program. (loc519)

Programs, texts written with machine audiences, require precise procedural language that makes their instructions as explicit as possible, yet the way these instructions are executed varies from one machine to the next. This is because, despite its explicitness, “There are ways of carrying out the tasks specified in the program that are not part of the program’s text; and the computational platform has properties that affect the program’s execution that are also not described in the program itself” (loc509). Between the written text and the execution of its instructions, is a gap in which the computer’s properties influence how the program is executed.

Where I’m going with this is pretty obvious. Derrida makes the same argument about all written symbols and their interpretation. His obsession with limiting cases and extreme examples means he focuses on the aporia that emerge between the writing and the interpretation. Though written and spoken language works very well at communicating information every day, Derrida, like Vee and Dourish, foregrounds the failures (Austin would say infelicities) that emerge between a text’s intention and the interpretation by its receivers. Derrida says, “The conscious presence of speakers or receivers participating in the accomplishment of a performative, their conscious and intentional presence in the totality of the operation, implies, teleologically that no residue escapes the present totalization” (14). Of course, writing would not be writing if both the speaker and receiver needed to be present in order for its intention to be conveyed. And even if that condition were met, as those of us who teach well know, being in the same room with an audience and trying to clearly express yourself fails with discouraging frequency.

What is absent in writing and speaking is the full expression of context or intention, both for the speaker and for the receiver. It is impossible to express that context in the text and equally impossible to anticipate all the contexts in which it will appear again and the audiences that will consume it. Derrida says,

[T]his essential absence of intending the actuality of utterance … prohibits any saturation of the context. In order for a context to be exhaustively determinable, in the sense required by Austin, conscious intention would at the very least have to be totally present and immediately transparent to itself and to others, since it is a determining center of context. (18)

The writer and coder or programmer cannot include the context in which their text was written or account for the new contexts in which it will be read. Dourish says that no matter how complete the specification, the machine will interpret the program in unpredictable ways: “The mechanics of devirtualization–of the production of actual effects based on digital specifications, be that the running of a program or the rendering of an image file–inherently exceed the reach of the specification” (loc521). Vee, Dourish, and Derrida all insist on attending to the space between writing and reception which opens space for interpretive ambiguity. What is novel about pointing this out, to my mind, is that what Derrida describes in communication between humans, also takes place when a series of precise and painstakingly procedural instructions are interpreted by a machine.

What does Derrida add to Vee’s discussion of coding literacy? What does he contribute to Dourish’s discussion of digital materiality? Not that much, really. They both make convincing arguments without, to my knowledge, once referring to the French thinker. The value in seeing Derrida expressing ideas similar to these studies of digital media is that he was, for the most part, talking about pre-digital media. This underscores that all types of writing have certain features in common. But Derrida had been saying that for years. If all writing is in some sense the same, how does code differ from human language? If we can’t base the difference between human and machine writing on executability, then is there a way to differentiate the two types?

Vee offers some answers to this question, but also shows how difficult it is to definitively separate human from machine language. She says, “Programming and writing are not the same thing, but they have a lot in common and can even merge into each other” (loc3348). This merging is what’s interesting to me. Vee argues that human writing and code, by both being discretized forms of communication, are productively constrained by formal requirements: “Constraints in form such as those that discretization provides can foster creativity, even poetry, in both programming and writing. In programming, these poetic forms often highlight the dual audience for code: computers and humans” (loc3389). Vee’s point here, I think, is very exciting. The reading of code also requires understanding the constraints, the formal requirements of a given computer language or platform for instance, but also the computer as audience. The language of code is addressed, in some sense, to the machine, speaking in its idiom so that it will understand. Reading code as a human requires understanding how a machine understands. It is not correct, however, to say that code is solely addressed to the computer. In some sense, it is always also addressed to the human reader, or at least the human reader willing to learn the computer language. Is the reverse true? Are the constraints, the implicit rules according to which literary aesthetics operate, similarly addressed at once to a human and non-human audience?

My contention is that the avant-garde experimentation with language taking place in the modernist period can be better understood through comparisons with code. It is easy to suggest that the formal requirements of poetry, Petrarchean Sonnets or Terza Rima, operate according to certain rules and therefore resemble code. I’m arguing something slightly different. Interpreting certain literary texts requires reading with this dual audience in mind. Like code, the poetry or prose is not only addressed to the human reader, but also to another, more difficult to define audience. If code is addressed to the machine, literary language in these texts is in constant dialog with other language also appearing there. Interpreting these texts requires understanding what certain elements mean, but also how they interact or “speak” with each other. Unpacking the portmanteau words in Finnegans Wake, tracing local and remote patterns in The Cantos, or understanding how the final rhapsody of The Making of Americans relates to the 900 pages that precede it, requires overhearing and understanding the conversation taking place between elements of information. Though it is a far cry from the explicit machine language that appears in computer programs, I argue this these dynamics resemble the “dual audience” at work in code that Vee describes.

This is the value in connecting the discourses around print and digital writing of various kinds. We can situate the texts that make computers work within the ancient practices of writing, but also reveal features of print texts that have only become visible in digital contexts. The above comparison between Vee, Dourish, and Derrida seeks to crosshatch the discourses of code, literacy, digital materiality, and literary language. If code and human language have these features in common, if they are subject to the same limitations and affordances, there is value in comparison from one to another.


Joyce’s Paper Database: Presentation for BH and DH Conference at The Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

In his recent book, Plain Text, Dennis Tenen proposes a new way of reading the different layers through which digital media deliver text.  This approach, which he calls computational poetics, is “a strategy of interpretation capable of reaching past surface content to reveal platforms and infrastructures that stage the construction of meaning.  … computational poetics breaks textuality down into its minute constituent components.  It is a strategy of microanalysis rather than macroanalysis” (loc198).  Tenen calls for looking at these latent, tiny spaces in order to more fully describe the processes that determine how texts appear.

Somewhat perversely, in this paper, I am advocating a nearly identical approach, but for the study of print texts, in particular James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Texts like Ulysses (I’m thinking of Finnegans Wake, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, Pound’s Cantos, and more recent works like Anne Carson’s Float and Susan Howe’s The Telepathy of Archives: Spontaneous Particulars and Debths) lend themselves to this approach because they feature unusually robust organizational and I would argue, even programmatic, networks existing below the surface of the page.  Like digital forensic or media archaeological approaches to digital texts, understanding how and why these print texts appear as they do requires investigation of the material and encoded processes that authors use to produce them.  I will begin by outlining the material structures Joyce developed to organize the information he integrated into Ulysses, and then I will make a case that understanding the relationship between these structures and the text as art object involves reverse engineering the “surface content” to illuminate the invisible encoding that guided Joyce’s composition of the novel.  


Material Structure:

In Joyce’s Creative Process and the Construction of Character, Luca Crispi performed the most comprehensive census of the papers Joyce used to compose Ulysses as they are scattered in libraries throughout the Western hemisphere.  He identifies five main document forms the avant-texte takes: “For Ulysses, there are five basic kinds of manuscripts: Notes, Drafts, Faircopies, Typescripts, and Proofs” (Crispi Joyce’s Creative Process 281).  Each document type serves certain functions and each of the stages is tied to Joyce’s idiosyncratic compositional tactics, or to the demands of publishers, printers, and other individuals involved in the final versions of the text.  

The first stage is Joyce’s information gathering methods.  Joyce collected a great deal of information from conversation, letters, and by sending acquaintances, friends, and family on information gathering errands.  He recorded many of these details onto small slips of paper he carried with him.  In addition, Joyce’s letters are saturated with requests for materials from a myriad of sources, and, together, these efforts comprise a complex network of information accretion.  

After gathering the information, Joyce developed methods for organizing it and these evolved from the 1917 Subject Notebook into the famously chaotic Notesheets [show slides].  During the seven year composition of Ulysses, Joyce’s notes took multiple forms and were organized according to several principles, but by the time Joyce was relying on the Notesheets, he was entering elements of information in the form of lists of phrases organized under episode headings that were based on correspondences with The Odyssey.  (With some exceptions, each episode of Ulysses corresponding with a chapter of Homer’s text.)  By late 1920, Joyce had developed the Linati and Gilbert schemas which consist of a set of categories derived from the Homeric associations for each episode [show slide].  The final destination for the information entered into this system was the versions of Ulysses themselves.  Studying these systems is complicated because they evolved over time, but also essential because changes to the latent systems correspond with changes taking place on the pages of Ulysses.  Thus, like the examination of digital media, confining our attention to the text on the surface ignores crucial details about how and why that surface text appears as it does.

The most obvious change took place in 1919 as Joyce wrote the “Cyclops” episode when Ulysses changed from a basically narrative text about the lives of a small set of characters, to one that dramatically increased in size and complexity and foregrounded extreme stylistic experimentation.  These changes on the surface of Ulysses follow changes in the note systems Joyce used to manage the information.  The Subject Notebook is the first surviving version of these notes.  Joycean and genetic critic Wim Van Mierlo describes:

Predating all other surviving manuscripts and notebooks for Ulysses, the Subject Notebook gives us a glimpse of what Ulysses may have looked like in late 1917, at a moment when Joyce began redrafting what he had written since 1912 or 1914 to begin the process of reshaping the book in the form it was finally to assume in 1922.  

The Subject Notebook merits particular attention because it reveals several things about Joyce’s early organization methods.  The notebook consists of a series of categorized lists, some that are recognizable in final text of Ulysses, others that are not [show slide again]. 

The Notesheets are difficult to make sense of on their own because, apart from the episode headings, they have little internal organization.  First, though Joyce entered this information as he accumulated it, the Homeric structure remains the primary organizational principle, each episode with a title from The Odyssey having its own set of notes.  Next, the largest units of information appearing in the Notesheets are complete sentences.  The majority of the material consists of what amounts to a list of smaller words and phrases Joyce identified as having relevance to the episode under which they are filed.  These characteristics reveal a process in which the final versions of the text are comprised of a multitude of discrete elements Joyce gathered from various sources, recorded onto the Notesheets, and arranged onto the pages of Ulysses according to the Homeric framework.  

The role the schema played is somewhat more ambiguous.  It is difficult to determine where (or if at all) in the composition process Joyce used the schema, but the categories of association they outline do reveal that Joyce’s initial Homeric framework extended beyond simple character and event correspondences [show slide again].  They reflect detailed conceptual and formal categories according to which Joyce accreted information and then conceived of the episodes.  

The transition from the Subject Notebook to the Notesheets illustrates an important point about how Joyce used these systems to compose Ulysses.  As Ulysses expanded in size and informational density, the lists in the Subject Notebook no longer served to organize the information he collected.  In order to cope with this expansion, he developed the Notesheets which allowed him to collect items that corresponded to each individual episode.  Paired with the secondary categories of association as formalized in the schema, Joyce was able to dramatically amplify the specificity and volume of information he collected and organized.  This shift from the Subject Notebook to the Notesheets is something akin to the difference between a spreadsheet and a database.  The Subject Notebook is a single two dimensional table with rows and columns.  The Notesheets and schema operate like a database with a table for each episode with space for Joyce to enter elements into the secondary categories of information.  The increased capabilities of the latter system demonstrates that Joyce was developing a kind of information machine which helped him compose Ulysses.  As he encountered the limitations of early versions of this machine, Joyce was forced to increase its power to house and organize information.  However, as with digital media object, understanding of this machine is incomplete without examining the rules by which it operates.  


The associations in Ulysses begin with the Homeric correspondences.  According to the parallelism between Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey Bloom is Odysseus, Stephen is Telemachus, and Molly is Penelope.  The figures Odysseus meets in The Odyssey appear as twentieth-century Dubliners: the Citizen in the “Cyclops” episode is Polyphemus, Gerty McDowell is Nausicaa, Garrett Deasy is Nestor, etc.  The events that take place on June 16th, 1904 also participate in the parallel: the conversation in the National Library is Scylla and Charybdis, the lying-in hospital in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode is Helios’ island, Bella’s brothel is Circe’s lair, the visit to the Cabman’s Shelter is Odysseus speaking with Eumaeus in his hut, etc.  

Joyce used elements from The Odyssey fluidly, creating character and setting correspondences contributing to the narrative of Ulysses.  The Odyssey also determines the text in more complex and granular ways.  Joyce identified individual themes, motifs, images, and ideas from throughout Homer’s text and used them as the basis for integrating other information through associations.  Joyce’s insight was that his initial impulse to construct Ulysses on narrative correspondences with The Odyssey opened into a hugely powerful logic of associations that possessed the seemingly limitless potential for integrating more and more information through continually expanding relationships.  When Joyce began to focus on these associations rather than the narrative–as he was composing the “Cyclops” episode–the high-modernist narrative dominated by Stephen and Bloom’s stream of consciousness began to be crowded out by the escalating amount of non-narrative information he integrated into the text according to this programming.

By way of example, I’ll focus on the correspondences surfacing throughout the “Aeolus” episode.  The Homeric correspondences center on Aeolus, the warden of the winds, who helps Odysseus by confining unfavorable winds in a bag.  Odysseus’ men let the winds out of the bag and their ship gets blown back to Aeolia where Aeolus refuses to help them any further.  The Homeric correspondences in the “Aeolus” episode are stylized and overt: the characters in the Freeman’s Journal newspaper office are ceaselessly blowing, breathing, speaking, sighing, and shouting.  The office is constantly being blown through by newspaper business, the newsboys, and both Bloom and Stephen.  Under the direction of Miles Crawford, the counterpart of Aeolus, the office is the source of voices moving in every direction, within the building in which the events take place as well as the network of news traveling throughout Dublin, the rapidly circulating activity of the news business resembling Aeolian winds.  The connection is complex, but intuitive, and it is emblematic of the type of informational relationship through which Joyce generates characteristics of Ulysses from the Homeric elements.  Joyce has taken an element, in this case the wind motif from The Odyssey, and used it as a catalyst for generating each of these aspects of the text.  However, the correspondences expand further and determine aspects of the episode that go beyond diegesis.  This passage exemplifies each of these characteristics [show slide]:


Mr Bloom, breathless, caught in a whirl of wild newsboys near the offices of the Irish Catholic and Dublin Penny Journal, called:

–Mr Crawford! A moment!

Telegraph! Racing special!

–What is it? Myles Crawford said, falling back a pace.

A newsboy cried in Mr Bloom’s face:

–Terrible tragedy at Rathmines!  A child bit by a bellows! (U 7.963-965).  

The most conspicuous characteristic of the text are the headlines, here “RETURN OF BLOOM”, that interrupt the narrative sixty-three times.  They are defined by the over-clever distillation of the events in the section of text that follows them, like a newspaper headline.  The headlines are joined by a panoply of rhetorical devices Joyce added to the episode.  In James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, Stuart Gilbert says, “The thirty-two pages of this episode comprise a veritable thesaurus of rhetorical devices and might, indeed, be adopted as a text-book for students of the art of rhetoric” (189).  Gilbert provides a list of nearly 100 rhetorical devices alongside examples from the episode in which they appear.  Though less conspicuous than the headlines, the rhetorical devices are woven into the episode’s most realist details: [refer to quotation].  Gilbert lists this as an example of the “Anticlimax” rhetorical device, presumably anticlimactic because it’s not a terrible tragedy to be bit by a bellows.  These single line of “Aeolus” are determined by multiple pre-established factors.  The wind references from Homer expand into the newsboy’s affiliation with the newspaper, he is yelling in Bloom’s face, mentioning a bellows, and manifesting a rhetorical device all in this brief passage.  

“Aeolus” demonstrates how Joyce used Homeric elements to gather and present information in Ulysses.  It was during large-scale changes in Ulysses after he wrote the “Cyclops” episode that Joyce added the non-narrative elements such as headlines and rhetorical devices.  Through associations, the wind motif expands into the secondary categories of elements that appear in the episode.  Though the interposition of the headlines and rhetorical devices alter how the text operates as fiction, we can trace the appearance of the headlines and rhetorical examples back to the original Homeric correspondence.  Their origins derive from the progression from Aeolus, to wind, to breath, and then into the associational relationship between circulation, speech, and the art of rhetoric.  Portions of the text, in this sense, are the product of non-narrative processes.  They are on the page not because they participate in the story, but because they associate with motifs or images from The Odyssey.  In other words, accounting for their presence on the page requires looking beneath the surface of the text to study the associational logic Joyce used to compose it.  

As in Tenen’s description of “computational poetics”, in order to fully understand the text appearing on the pages of Ulysses, it is necessary to dismantle, layer by layer, the series of processes working to produce it.  It’s important to note that one can certainly read Ulysses, like any text on a digital platform such as Kindle or a laptop, without understanding these processes.  It’s also true, however, that the presence of many of the aspects of the text, in “Aeolus” the headlines, the rhetorical devices, the emphasis on breath and lungs, is determined by the series of categories Joyce derived from the Homeric correspondences.  Like a text read in digital formats, the integration of these elements is the result of an informational programming not visible to the reader at the interfacial level.  At a conference whose aim is to consider the overlap of book history and digital humanities, the structures Joyce built and the programming by which they operate have much in common with the functions of digital texts.  

It’s necessary to point out that the latent systems I have outlined have been exhaustively written on and studied in fields such as textual genetics and what has come to be called comparative textual media studies.  Scholars in textual genetics for instance, have been studying these manuscripts for decades in order to trace each element in the Notesheets onto the pages of Ulysses much in the way that Tenen describes computational poetics.  Many scholars have also compared Joyce’s work with digital media, particularly hypertext, dedicating an entire online journal, called Hypermedia Joyce Studies, to these types of comparisons.  This is all to say that there is widespread belief that Joyce’s methods appearing in early twentieth century print have things in common with the technical media that have come to define the twenty first.  The empirical and material focus of textual genetics and the conceptual abstraction of media comparison done on Joyce’s work need each other to reach conclusions, just as studying the “code” of a digital object also requires understanding the “body” of the device that actuates it.  My contribution to these discourses is in some sense simply a literal application of digital methods to print texts.  Ulysses, the text and its latent structures are one text machine complete with an interfacial surface, material substrate, and a concealed programming.

Our current conference’s CFP asks “is ‘dh’ a continuation of some of the most ‘traditional’ scholarly work in the humanities: bibliography, textual criticism, and book history?”  Based on the work done on Joyce’s composition process, I would have to say that DH is a continuation of textual studies in print.  I would add, however, that the digital pane through which we view print in the twenty first century allows us to recognize functions not normally associated with non-digital textual media.  Here I’m thinking of the complex, material, and evolving data management structures Joyce developed to augment his memory, or the Homeric programming he employed to compose Ulysses.  If DH is a continuation of BH, then it also provides us with an expanded vocabulary with which to describe normalized features of print media.  


Below is the earliest version of a piece I plan to write about The Making of Americans and information.  This is part of my larger project on code and programming in modernist literature.  I’m still working through these ideas and developing a vocabulary for discussing them.  

Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans is almost certainly one of the least read modernist texts.  Alongside Pound’s Cantos, Proust’s Recherche, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, TMoA is hardly alone as a massive and difficult early twentieth century book, but it is singular in many ways.  The vast majority of TMoA hardly recommends itself in terms of entertainment value, aesthetic pleasure, or even the traditional bildung a narrative of over 920 pages would typically aspire to.  The ostensible subject of the text–the history of two families bound by marriage–is quite familiar in the novel genre and in this sense the text is an aesthetic and conceptual commentary on the nineteenth century marriage plot.[1]. But this narrative never reaches a conclusion, and the final section, beginning on page 905 and entitled, “History of a Family’s Progress,” makes no mention of the characters it had been following to that point.  Instead it shifts to exclusively pronominal language to discuss trends and patterns arising in the lives of individuals and across populations.

Though individuals in both the Hersland and Dehning families are the primary subjects leading up to that final section, it is easy to lose track of them.  The narrator often pauses from the relation of their story to consider the particular versus the general, the nature of totality, the individual versus the population, and the strain of recording and representing these perspectives simultaneously.  These interpolations are made more noticeable because the language itself is so repetitive.  Not only does the narrator restate the themes and ideas very often, but the sentences themselves are deformed by the repetition of pronouns, an unnecessarily precise expression of the connections between subjects and predicates, and an inability to persist with a subject (such as an individual) without telescoping out to consider how the particulars being discussed exemplify patterns across larger populations and modes of being.  These narrative pauses signal a disintegration of the coherence of the novel and narrative forms which were no longer suited to a project that, by its end, sought to describe every person who had ever lived.  In a broader context, these ambitions of universality functions in parallel with twentieth century culture beginning to conceptualize society in terms of populations, networks, and large-scale patterns, perspectives made possible by coinciding revolutions in bureaucratic, archival, and industrial data management and collection [2].   Stein could no longer confine herself to thinking of two families, the Herslands and Dehnings, but was constantly preoccupied with the patterns they fit into within the larger social grid.  The various failures and disappointments the narrator experiences during these experiments culminate in the final section in which the particular characters and the narrator disappear and are replaced by impersonal and generalized statements about individuals and groups.

Here I am arguing the abstraction of the final section is essentially a language technology Stein developed to use information to amplify human powers of representation as an attempt to capture a complete picture of human experience.  Though this solution is not successful, it does reveal that Stein, with a group of other modernists, was manipulating information in order to capitalize on its capacity to operate automatically [3].  In place of a human author (a hugely important detail according to my definition of code) manually recording and representing every individual, the patterns, once formalized, aim to capture every possible variation of human experience, new individuals fitting into the patterns the narrator has discovered and laid out in the final section.

More specifically, Stein’s use of extreme abstraction is an information technology that resembles binary code’s ability to encode nearly any other body of information.  Like the pronominal final section of TMoA, binary code is effective because it reduces specificity (to its absolute minimum: yes/no, on/off, 0/1) in order to increase its capacity for translating other types of information into its language.  The extreme repetition of binary code means that it carries very little information, but also that every possible particularity can be encoded into binary.  The same is true for the language of TMoA [4].  The narrator could never hope to describe everyone who has ever or will ever live one person at a time.  By using more general terms of description–some people, many people, all people–Stein has developed the same conceptual approach to information operating at the heart of all digital media.  The use of this general language operates as code because it attempts to describe all human experience without the moment to moment intervention of the human.

In the rest of this post, I’ll present a few representative passages which exemplify the progression I outlined above.  Early on, the narrator addresses the reader directly, and foregrounds the practical and material realities of the project they propose:

Bear it in your mind my reader, but truly I never feel it that there ever can be for me any such creature, no it is this scribbled and dirty and lined paper that is really to be to me always my receiver,–but anyhow reader, bear it in your mind–will there before me ever any such a creature,–what I have said always before to you, that this that I write down a little each day here on my scraps of paper for you is not just an ordinary kind of novel with a plot and conversations to amuse you, but a record of a decent family progress respectably lived by us are our fathers and our mothers, and our grand-fathers, and grand-mothers, and this is by me carefully a little each day to be written down here; and so my reader arm yourself in every kind of way to be patient, and to be eager, for you must always have it now before you to hear much more of these many kinds of decent ordinary people, of old, grown, grand-fathers and grand-mothers, of growing old fathers and growing old mothers, of ourselves who are always to be others and we must wait and see the younger fathers and young mothers bear them for us, these younger fathers and young mothers who always are ourselves inside us, who are to be to be always young grown men and women to us.  And so listen while I tell you all about us, and wait while I hasten slowly forwards, and love, please, this history of this decent family’s progress. (34)

It’s important to note a few things about this passage.  First, this is an unusual form of address for this text.  The narrator is in control until page 904, but almost never speaks directly to the reader.  This is part of an overall attenuation of the human element in the text.  Second, here on page 34, the narrator’s ambition is only to provide the “history” of this family, a goal that will change dramatically as the text progresses.  Third, the narrator references the painstaking process of recording the details of this family.  Thus the text is not a standard novel “with a plot and conversations to amuse you”, but the “record” of a particular family, a conceptual and generic shift inviting us to interpret it as information as much as art.  Finally, and most importantly, this direct address is immediately undermined by the narrator.  The first sentence says, “Bear it in your mind my reader, but truly I never feel it that there ever can be for me any such creature, no it is this scribbled and dirty and lined paper that is really to be to me always my receiver.”  From the very beginning, the narrator acknowledges the temporal, spatial, and material division that inevitably emerges between the writer and the reader.  (The narrator’s awareness of this fact of writing is an essential detail of understanding print as media, and language as material and inhuman, a fact which I’ve discussed is one of the necessary conditions for comparing print to digital media and discussing language as code.)  The narrator goes on to emphasize the material features of the paper, the messiness of writing, and the reality that there is no direct interaction between the mind of the author and the mind of the reader.  The text, once written, operates independently from the author like a machine. [4]

From here, the narrator gradually expands the text’s ambitions.  On page 34, the narrator plans to provide a history of these families.  By page 166, the narrator introduces “types” of people, and suggests the history of the family fits into these larger patterns: “There are many kinds of women then and many kinds of men and this then will be a history of some of the many kinds of them” (166).  Here, the narrator remains committed to the two families while incrementally broadening from the particular to the general, but shortly thereafter, further widens the focus by introducing the idea of representing the totality of humanity:

Soon then there will be a history of every kind of men and women and of all the mixtures in them, sometime there will be a history of every man and every woman who ever were or are or will be living and of the kind of nature in them and the way it comes out from them from their beginning nature in them and the way it comes out from them from their beginning to their ending, sometime then there will be a history of each one of them and of the many millions always being made just like them, there will be sometime a history of all of them, there will be a history of them and now there is here a beginning. (176)

The final clause in this passage is an early example of the narrator’s ambition to connect the history of this family to the description of every person who has ever lived.  The narrator continually oscillates between the particular and general in this fashion, and while the text does focus on the Herslands and Dehnings, these universal concerns become and increasing preoccupation.  However, doubt starts to creep in as the narrator senses the magnitude of representing every human who has ever lived.  Near the book’s exact center, the narrator loses faith in the enterprise:

Perhaps no one ever will know the complete history of every one.  This is a sad thing.  Perhaps no one will ever have as a complete thing the history of any one.  This is a very sad thing.  Sometime each one will have made a complete history of them in the repeating always coming out of them.  Sometime perhaps some one will really know it of someone, that will be a very contenting thing to some.  … Perhaps no one ever gets a complete history of any one.  This is very discouraging thinking.  I am very sad now in this feeling.  Always, hearing something, gives to some a sad feeling of realising everything they have not been hearing and that they are not knowing and perhaps they can never have really in them the complete history of any one, no one ever can have in them the complete history of any one and that is then a very melancholy feeling in them. (454)

Passages of this kind are rare in the text, but betray the strain between the narrator’s more modest project of depicting the Hersland and Dehning families (though the narrator also feels overwhelmed by the complete and accurate representation of individuals as well), and the prospect of universality. [5]  These moments soon pass, however, and the narrator ups the ante, taking on the task on their own:

I have been giving the history of a very great many men and women.  Sometime I will give a history of every kind of men and women, every kind there is of men and women.  Already I have given a history of many of them.  … Sometime then I will give a history of all of them and that will be a long book and when I am finished with this one then I will begin that one. (479)

This is one of the first instances in which the narrator suggests they will attempt to represent the totality of human experience.  It’s important to note that the universal history is at this stage separate from the history of the two families.  As the text progresses, the distinct projects will merge into one.  It’s also interesting in this passage that the narrator mentions the magnitude of the book itself, a strangely practical concern alongside a patently impossible plan.  The realities of the book itself and perhaps the labor of writing sentences, prompt the narrator to consider other formats for a project of this kind.  The first model is a diagram:

More and more in living I come to know enough of each kind of them to make groups of them.  Sometime I will be able to make a diagram.  I have already made several diagrams.  I will sometime make a complete diagram and that will be a very long book that will tell all about each kind there is of men and women. (580)

Next, the narrator suggests lists as a way to represent individuals and their relationships:

It would be a very complete thing in my feeling to be having complete lists of every body ever living and to be realising each one and to be making diagrams of them and lists of them and explaining the being of each one and the relation of that one to other beings in other men and other women and to go on then explaining and realising and knowing the complete being in each one and all the kinds there are in men and women.  (594-5)

The narrator never adopts any of these alternative models for representing their subject, but the consideration of them does demonstrate that TMoA is in some sense a metacommentary on how to record, organize, and present information.

The naarrator repeatedly gestures in the direction of completion, but never actually embarking on the project itself.  The narrator  expresses confidence that they have accumulated enough knowledge and wisdom to eventually write the complete history of every person who has ever lived:

I am hoping sometime to write a complete history of men and women, I am beginning to be hoping this thing again, I am filled up now so much with learning so much about men and women and feel so much wisdom in me now inside me completely organising that I am coming again to be almost certain that I can sometime be writing the complete history of every one who ever was or is or will be living. (665)

Despite this optimism, however, the text proceeds for over two hundred more pages, until finally, after 904 pages and the exhaustive investigation of the Hersland and Dehning families, The Making of Americans makes an abrupt transition.  The final section, “History of a Family’s Progress,” and though this basic topic about the family is familiar to anyone who had read the preceding pages, the style, content, and most importantly, the rhetoric have changed in significant ways.  The section begins,

Any one has come to be a dead one.  Any one has not come to be such a one to be a dead one.  Many who are living have not come yet to be a dead one.  Many who were living have come to be a dead one.  Any one has come not to be a dead one.  Any one has come to be a dead one. (907)

All the essential features of the roughly 20 page final section are contained in the above passage.  No individual person is mentioned.  The narrator, having relating every detail of the text to this point, is completely absent from the text, signalling a significant rhetorical shift.  The narrative that began with a conventional story about two families joined by marriage began to disintegrate gradually and the narrator became preoccupied with how this particular story fit into the overarching social grid.  The sections in which the narrator considered these larger patterns interrupted the description of the families, until, in this final section, they disappear altogether.

This final section signals a certain type of trade off.  The ambitions to universality, the description of every person who has ever lived, requires the elision of the individual human from the text altogether.  It’s important to note that Stein’s experiment does not even approach the goal of universality.  However, the literal success of the experiment is less important than the conceptual opening it creates, and the approach to information it anticipates.  Across a selection of major modernist works of literature it’s possible to see several different approaches to this same dilemma.  Stein, with William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Joyce, e. e. cummings, and a host of others, began to eliminate the human being from their texts.  The absence of the human is a rhetorical approach that is a definitional characteristic of code.  This widespread move is part of a larger reconsideration  of the relationship between human beings, media, and language taking place in the early twentieth century.  These changes produced experimental texts, and these experiments coincided with and resembled innovations in information technology that directly lead to the code and programming running contemporary digital technology.  These early efforts by the high modernist authors are part of a long history of twentieth century information and media innovation.


[1] Genre is also an interesting question in this regard, but I won’t be discussing it in this piece because genre analysis takes so up so much space.  TMoA is interested in language itself, but also in the novel’s ability to depict experience.  The fact that the narrator is continually getting distracted from the “story” of the novel to discuss information reveals that there is a tension between the novel form and the concerns the information continues to introduce.  TMoA can’t focus on the usual business of the novel, character development, narrative arcs, etc., because the question of the fitness of the form itself keeps coming up.  Thus the text shows the strain the nineteenth century novel was under in the early twentieth century, and that avant-garde authors like Stein sought to interrogate the forms they inherited from past eras.

[2] Another way to approach these characteristics of the text is as an early model of big data in social contexts.  In this sense, TMoA bears similarity to Leopold Bloom from Ulysses, who is constantly distracted from his surroundings by thoughts of populations, aggregated data, and the chilling effects that has on the intervention in any particular event, good or bad.  In other words, Bloom’s attention, like the narrator of TMoA, is constantly interrupted by thoughts of larger social networks and patterns.

[3] Beyond the obvious failure to describe everyone who has ever lived in under twenty pages, the project is unsuccessful because the presupposition of universality is based on normative ideas of human experience.  Stein has been justifiably accused of holding Eurocentric ideas about world history and humanity and her model of universality in TMoA is consistent with those narrow views on culture and race.

[4] A more complete version of this piece will use Shannon’s information theory to better formalize this polarity between the specific and the abstract in information.  Binary code is so effective at encoding everything because it carries the smallest possible amount of information or is the least specific.

[5] Derrida’s work is the most explicit on the necessary separation taking place in the act of writing.  In Signature/Event/Context he argues that the type of separation Stein’s narrator acknowledges makes language into a machine: “To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a sort of machine which is productive in turn, and which my future disappearance will not, in principle, hinder in its functioning, offering things and itself to be read and to be rewritten.”

[6] The narrator occasionally expresses the desire not only to represent everyone but also to be accurate.  Thus the narrator is concerned about their ability to describe everyone, but also about the accuracy of that description:

Sometime I want to be right about every one, I want to realise every one.  Sometime I want to write a history of every one. … I want sometime to write a history of every one, of every kind there is in men and women.  It would be such a satisfaction always to be right about every one, such a certain, active feeling in me. (574)

“Realising every one” also introduces its own dilemma of totality.  Knowing a person completely signifies its own kind of completeness that is impossible to achieve, a further problem for the narrator:

As I was saying every on always is repeating the whole of them.  Every one is repeating the whole of them, such repeating is then always in them and so sometime some one who sees them will have a complete understanding of the whole of each one of then, will have a completed history of every man and every woman they ever came to know in  their living, every man and every woman who were or are or will be living, every man and every woman in each one’s beginning, middle and ending , every man and every woman then who were or are or will be living whom such a one can come to know in living. (319)

In this sense, the representational dilemma confronts the narrator on both the smallest and largest scale.  Not only is it impossible to record, express, or capture all of humanity, but inevitably, details from individuals’ lives will escape collection.


Looking back from this digital age toward the early twentieth century, I continue to see traces of code and programming appearing in a range of literary works.  In my previous post, I followed John Cayley to define code rhetorically.  Writing of any kind qualifies as code when it is addressed to other writing.  An instance code operating in digital media functions as code because the instructions or information it contains is addressed to other information, operating like a machine.  The code works like a machine because it is understood and acted on without the intervention of a human interlocutor.  Humans can read and understand the code, but only by adopting the rhetorical stance of, eavesdropping on, the non-human agents.

As I’ll be examining in my next couple of posts, modernist authors were obsessed with representing this type of nonhuman expression, and as such they were participating in changes in how all of culture began seeing language and information.  This change amounts to a materialist view of how language shifts from a transparent expression of human interiority, into a material and resistant medium.  Far from destroying its potential to express ideas, this way of seeing language opened up entirely new fields of aesthetic and conceptual potential in which information had an intrinsic capacity to animate itself, automatically connect with other information, and to operate independently of humans.  The literary spaces in which these experiments with the materiality of language take place are part of a larger twentieth century revolution in information and technology resulting in the code, programming, algorithms, and other types of automated information processing at work in digital media. 

In every genre and format, modernist authors continually insist on this new understanding of language.  The primary symptom of these changes is an author working to eliminate the human voice from their work.  This achieves the effect whereby language operates as code–automatically–by addressing itself to other language, and interpreting these texts requires overhearing these non-human exchanges. [1]

From the perspective of scholars (as opposed to the authors), an essential part of comparing literary language to code requires also understanding the affordances of print media.  This includes fields such as book history, printing history, comparative media studies, textual scholarship, circulation studies, and genetic analysis.   These fields are important not only because the authors themselves figured these material concerns into their works, but also because these fields illuminate how a print text is, no less than a digital computer, a processual medium that is assembled in stages and operates according to encoded instructions.

The analogy remains a loose one, but assuming a text consists only of the version we read in a new paperback edition is similar to assuming the information we receive on the computer screen both begins and ends with that interface.  Stacked infrastructure, information economies, technology manufacturers, and the physical processes at work in the machine itself, combine to produce the media experience of using a digital object.  Understanding these factors requires both mental and physical labor to reverse engineer these objects as we use them.  A similar critical engagement is necessary with texts appearing in print.  Confining our study of literary works to the trade paperback edition we read and teach for coursework, research, or pleasure not only limits our interpretive purview, but misunderstands what a print text is and how it fits into media history.

To use an extreme example, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake demonstrates the ways in which the study of texts requires the examination of the entire media object–manuscripts, drafts, versioning–just to get a sense of what is taking place on the pages of the final version.  Without the wealth of scholarship performed by genetic critics, our understanding of the Wake would be significantly different.  Simply knowing that Joyce “wrote” the Wake  by accumulating discrete bits of information through associational connections with established “nodes”, (as David Hayman calls them in The ‘Wake’ in Transit) alters our interpretation of the text as a whole.  The connections Joyce made between the nodes and information he collected is a perfect example of the active the role language came to play in modernist literature.  Joyce integrated this information according to relationships it bore to other information, a section of text mentioning rivers, for instance, would prompt Joyce to collect all the names of rivers from references such as the Encyclopedia Brittanica and weave them into the text.  The process itself was human, Joyce and his network of information gatherers were reading texts and recording information, but the instructions for what to collect derived from relationships between elements of information.  As if Google Search were just a bunch of people responding to queries and collecting information.

The same could be said of the puns the Wake is famous for: the portmanteau words are assembled according to connections between characteristics the words share.  Semantic, orthgraphic, phonic features of words, any type of informational relationship, provided Joyce with instructions for agglutinating them together like LEGOs.  According to Jean Michel Rabate, Joyce’s “associative and collective method implies the enlisting of many other people and induces a mechanical linguistic process” [2].  This basic network of information gathering expanded into an “automatic word machine systematized by Joyce in the winter of 1930” which was “designed to radically alter a previous text.  The number of layers piled up on the first-draft version is staggering” [3].  Something took place between that first draft version and the final version we read and that decision by Joyce–the development of that word machine–is essential to arriving at a full picture of what the Wake was and what it became.  The changes that took place tell us a great deal about Joyce’s process as a writer, but also about the way texts come together and depend on these organizational and compositional substrates to become what they are.

As I keep fleshing out these ideas, I will be analyzing some of the texts I feel best exemplify code or programming as well as an examination of the widespread trend in experimental modernist texts of removing the human voice from the text.


[1] I’m not suggesting that the authors themselves are eliminated from the creative process, an obviously untrue position.  Instead, I’m arguing that the authors are expressing the language’s potential to interact with other language.  Joyce and Pound, with their separate but similar penchants for quotation, are obvious examples of authors who did not “create” their works wholesale, but were involved in connecting elements of information according to patterns inhering between them.  But Stein, H.D., Williams, and others were also involved in similar aesthetic experiments in which language takes an active role in determining the text’s composition and function as art.  I will be expanding on each of these authors.

[2] Rabate, Jean Michel.  “The Fourfold Root of Yawn’s Unreason: Chapter III.3.”  How Joyce Wrote Finnegans Wake: A Chapter by Chapter Genetic Guide.  Eds Luca Crispi and Same Slote.  University of Wisconsin Press, 2007.  394.

[3] Ibid, 398.


A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. -William Carlos Williams The Wedge, 1944

Code took over in Un Coup de Des by Stephane Mallarme.  Code also took over on page 907 of The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein.  Code also took over as Ezra Pound revised “Ur-Canto I” into “Canto II”.  Code also took over as James Joyce composed the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses, and was really going by 1939 when he completed Finnegans Wake.  Looking back to these texts using contemporary definitions of code, I argue that these examples from literature represent a shift in the uses and applications of language.  Rather than a frictionless mode of expressing authorial interiority, language for these authors became a non-human thing and was accompanied by affordances, resistance, and autonomous agency.  These authors banished the human from language and the consequences of this shift are still being felt in fields such as object oriented ontology, digital media, the poetics of code, and code poetry.

Far from suggesting I am discovering something about modernism, I am convinced that this was a fundamental, but as yet unexplored, ambition of the modernist authors themselves.  Stein, Pound, Joyce and others deliberately removed their simulated consciousness from the text in order to explore the potential language has for animating itself, working independently of the authors that put it into motion, that is, behaving like a machine made out of words.

In developing my definition of code in preparation to apply it to print texts, I have been reading as widely as possible in software studies, critical code studies, information theory, and so far have had my understanding of these fields seismically shifted on several occasions.  I’ve also discovered that my goals are somewhat different than thinkers in these fields.  As much as I want to join literary and media studies through shared terms of inquiry, my interest is not directed toward interpreting or reading code in all the digital contexts in which it appears.  Instead, I seek to locate those areas where writing appearing in literary texts exhibit the characteristics we have seen formalized and deployed in code and programming.  In other words, like my previous project on databases, I argue that poets and novelists were experimenting with language in ways that anticipate code and programming long before the rise of digital media.

While I’m sure taking this line runs me afoul of more techno-determinist schools of media studies–after all, media determine our situation–I persist in thinking that many Anglophone modernist and post WWII and contemporary authors, particularly American poets, use language in ways that can be illuminated by comparison with code, programming, or software.  Naturally, I am far from the first person to make this argument.  Entire books, journals, and webpages are dedicated to exploring code or the poetics of code, and the coded or programmatic features of poetry.  Sites like Hypermedia Joyce Studies have laid the groundwork for studying Joyce in this light, and the Electronic Poetry Center at Buffalo represents a massive repository of poetry that in some sense exhibits the features of electronic media.

To these discussions, I can only hope to add a slightly different approach by starting with a rigorous definition of code which applies equally to its appearance in both literary texts and programmed digital media.  In order to do this, I start with more contemporary discussions of code because these poets and scholars are dealing with code as code, rather than code as literature or the proto-code that I seek to define in twentieth century literature.  That is to say, thinkers in critical code, software, or media studies are interacting with and attempting to define code as a genre unto itself without having to separate it from literary language, poetic form, or whatever else, and therefore have a clarified (and highly technical) understanding of what code is and how it works in the media we consume.

I favor the definition of code developed by poet and critic John Cayley in his article “The Code is not the Text (Unless it is the Text)”.  I prefer Cayley’s approach because he wants to separate code from other types of writing and define it taxonomically.  Cayley says,

[C]ode has its own structures, vocabularies and syntaxes; because it functions, typically, without being observed, perhaps even as a representative of secret workings, interiority, hidden process; because there are divisions and distinctions between what the code is and does, and what the language of the interface text is and does, and so on. … code and language require distinct strategies of reading.

Cayley doesn’t suggest that humans can’t read code (impregnably black-boxed code would be useless), but instead that there is something about code that makes it different from the language that humans read and speak.  As with every last thing on this planet it seems, there is almost certainly no absolute difference between code and the language humans use, but peeling apart the tiny strands of literary language requires being as precise as possible about the differences between the two.  Cayley frames this difference as one of rhetoric or mode of address:

Address to other, unusual reading processes – the machine itself, or particular human readers who have learned how systems read – implies the need for different persuasive strategies, different strategies for generating significance and affect. I mean that the rhetoric of writing in code must be distinct. Again, appeal to values of hybridity and mutual linguistic contamination (addressed to postmodern humans) threatens to conceal the emergence of new or less familiar rhetorical strategies.

Cayley identifies “persuasive strategies” unlike those traditionally associated with language.  Understanding code requires also understanding these alternative strategies, listening in the functions with the mind of the machine.  This is because code is not only, or even primarily, addressed to humans.  The audience code seeks to persuade–its rhetoric–is not the human reader, but the machine to which it relates instructions.  This approach separates Cayley from others because rather than study code alongside the other types of writing that appear with it (coder commentaries, cross-contamination with code poetry, etc.), he seeks to define what makes code distinct from other forms of language.

In a sense, when reading code, the human is overhearing a conversation between two other interlocutors.  I would argue that, as when reading code, highly difficult literary texts such as The Making of Americans, The Cantos, and Finnegans Wake, are not primarily addressed to humans and have another audience.  We as readers are eavesdropping on exchanges of information between other conversants, decoding or reverse engineering the exchange in order to follow the conversation.  But connecting Cayley’s definition of code to texts in print, the problem remains: in these texts there is no machine for the “code” to address.

For this reason, I have to further renovate Cayley’s definition of code, or at least the terms which surround it.  Cayley says code is defined by its rhetoric: it is code (and not just language) because it is addressed to a machine.  I am expanding the discussion of machines beyond computers to argue that all forms of writing are essentially machines.[1]  This allows me to expand my definition of code from one confined to computers, to one that applies to all kinds of textual media.  My definition of code:

Code is writing addressed to other writing

The question of writing as a physical act, as an extension beyond the interior reaches of human creativity is necessary and overlaps with truly fascinating theoretical discussions of what information actually is.  The act of forming, putting something into form, making an idea, thought, or image physical, in-forming, will have to be left to the side for now.  Instead, I’ll confine myself to discussing form, and formalism.  It is no accident that modernism, as a period of literary history, was fixated on form.  It is also no accident that Cayley, a code poet, is as well.  He says,

Serious formalism in literature was never just a matter of rhetorical flourish; it was inevitably, ineluctably, concerned with the materiality of language, and therefore with the affect and significance of language as such.

The insistence on language as material is important because it acknowledges that it always takes a form, but also because it exists outside and independently of the humans that speak and write it.

In my last post, I quoted from N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman who in their introduction to “Comparative Textual Media,” argue that the complexity of technical media, with their encoded, electrical, and latent but busy substrates, have made it more difficult to sustain the fantasy that authors (or creators of other kinds) are speaking directly to the consumers of that media.  The technicality of these media cut the site of creation from the site of consumption.  They also argue that the awareness of media initiated by this heightened sense of technicality prompts reappraisal of older media forms, particularly print.  Looking back at print texts through this electronic media prism, they suggest, allows us to reexamine how print functions as a medium dividing writer and reader.

I would like to situate this approach to print media within a much larger discourse in which has begun redrawing the boundaries between humans and the objects they interact with.  In his “Introduction” to his edited collection of essays titled, The Nonhuman Turn, Richard Grusin explains this shift:

Describing the nonhuman turn as a shift of attention, interest, or concern toward nonhumans keeps in mind the physicality and movement involved in the idea of the turn, how the nonhuman turn must be understood as an embodied turn toward the nonhuman world, including the nonhuman that is in all of us.  (loc281)

Grusin’s turn pairs well with Hayles’ and Pressman’s new view of print media because both call not for revolutions in philosophy or media and literary studies, but a careful attention to the subtle ways we have territorialized nonhuman objects as human.  This attention can change our understanding of things–like media–whose nonhumanness we have previously overlooked.  Grusin says,

To turn toward the nonhuman is not only to confront the nonhuman but to lose the traditional way of the human, to move aside so that other nonhumans–animate and less animate–can make their way, turn toward movement themselves. (loc293)

I feel that Stein, Pound, and Joyce each became aware of this turn and began to lose the “traditional way of the human” in their use of language.  In their texts, and for each this plays out right on the pages their works, they began to move aside to allow words to move themselves.  The nonhuman turn Grusin identifies taking place in the twenty-first century started to roll in the early twentieth.

The approaches of Hayles and Pressman overlap with Grusin’s in interesting ways, and they are all participating in larger philosophical discussions of media studies and ontology.  My own purpose in referring to their works is more modest in that I’m trying to explain very particular features of texts appearing in modernist literature.  Hayles’ and Pressman’s approach is useful because they seek to use comparative techniques to illuminate normalized or misunderstood functions of different media forms.  I similarly feel that we have been misunderstanding certain features of modernist literary texts for some time and that more recent theorizations of digital media can help us understand their functions.  Grusin’s approach helps in this regard because he highlights the seemingly subtle changes in contemporary thinking that have major effects on how we understand the role of the human amidst a universe of nonhuman phenomena and objects.  I’m looking at a small historical period and a set of literary texts, but I also think a new conceptualization of the relationship between humans and media will have important consequences on the historical accounts of code, programming, and software.

I feel these texts exhibit the characteristics of code, but in order to discuss them this way it is necessary to banish the normalized understandings of the role authors have in the creation and reception of their texts.  In other words, I want to remove the human from the interaction between elements appearing in these literary texts.  I want to hear the writing speaking to the other writing without hallucinating the author’s simulated consciousness hovering over the material paper and language appearing in the book.


[1] I’ll take a more detailed look at language as machine in my next post.

[2] This notion of design is essential to my definition of code as it appears in print texts.  I will deal with it in more detail in my next post when I cover Derrida and his debate against performativity and intention.

-And to put it another way, the plastic, or, if you insist on the use of a much abused word, the aesthetic of machines is still in a healthy state, because one can still think about the machine without dragging in the private life and personality of the inventor  -Ezra Pound, Machine Art 1930

This posts represents my very earliest attempts to connect literary language to code, programming, or software.  I need to do a great deal more reading on all these topics, particularly in code and software studies and definitions of information.  This post is only the first in a series in which I plan to try and express some nascent ideas on changes in how language and media are conceived of in modernist literature.  These changes are, briefly:

  • (1) authors (for now I’m focusing on Stein, Joyce, Pound, and possibly H.D. and Beckett) began to see print as a resistant medium rather than a neutral extension of their artistic interiority;
  • (2) this new way of seeing their medium coincided with a shift in their understanding of language in which it literally transformed from romantic notions of expression into information in a material and embodied sense (this change will require a post of its own, but I’ll cover it briefly below as well);
  • (3) both of these reconceptualizations result from newly understood boundaries between human agency and the language and media it creates, from authorial intention, in which a consciousness is simulated through the text via language, and into notions of design as in the plastic arts and industries including, of course, fields like contemporary computer programming (this shift will also be covered in the post on information);
  • (4) the focus on design (as opposed to intention) preserves the author’s role in creation while also emphasizing their awareness of the fundamentally machinic and non-human status of media and language;
  • (5) the above shifts taking place during the modernist period represent a major conceptual break in which authors become aware of language as divided from the human (both author and reader) altering the way they use it in ways identical to the functions of what we now discuss and study as code, programming, or software;

In some form or another, I have been searching for ways to approach this topic for at least three years.  Throughout the composition of my dissertation which situates the information management techniques used by Joyce, Toomer, H.D., and Pound within the century-long technical and conceptual development of databases, I was continually trying–and failing–to express certain features of their works which continued to elude my ability to express.  These features, it took me a long time to realize, could not be theorized as I was making another argument about literature and databases.  These other ideas needed their own attention and now that I have expanded my dissertation into a book proposal, I have a bit of freedom to explore the topic.

In reading and writing on the texts I examine in my dissertation, I kept running into sections that exhibited the same informational, machinic, and automated functions of what is referred to in different contexts as code, programming, and software.  At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to define code.  This was in part because I hadn’t studied the term information clearly enough.  I still haven’t gotten nearly there, but I am closer.

I follow John Durham Peters in his article “Information: Notes Toward a Critical History” in which he says, “Information is knowledge with the human body taken out of it.  Information, which in empiricism had meant the experience of an individual, with statistics came to mean the experience of the state, insofar as the state can be said to have experience.  Implicit in statistics is a kind of knower not subject to mortal limits” (15).  Though I understand Peters is not here presenting a final definition of information, I find it compelling that information comes into being when it is separated from the human.  It is put into form, divided from the human that creates it, externalized and in that process becomes information.[1]

Granted, Peters is here discussing statistics, which, because of their mathematical sterility, aren’t subject to the same conceptual and interpretive drift as literary language.  However, I am not arguing about the reliability with which language-become-information carries meaning from its author to a reader/consumer.  Instead, I’m focusing on how authors, as they began to see language as material and as separated from their human agency, began to short circuit this connection between author and reader.  In other words, this is a shift from romantic notions of literary expression in which a text transmits the author’s consciousness to an imagined reader through language, toward one in which texts, like all other media (particularly the new media that surrounded the production of modernist texts) house, arrange, present, and manage information.  The interruption of this connection between author and reader prompted the authors to dramatically shift their focus from simulating their consciousness in their texts, and begin exploring the capabilities for language interact with other language.  (It is no surprise that many of these texts become functionally unreadable at this same juncture.)

I feel this conceptualization of language-as-information allows me to draw a connection between it and what we think of as code.  Here is my definition of CODE:

Code is information that speaks to other information.

A coded or programmed example of media, a piece of software, a database, a social media interface, a personal computer, are all discussed as machines.  They are machines because they perform automated functions.   These functions are automated because they operate, at least in part, independently of human agency or interference.  On the other hand, in every case I can think of, they are also designed by, interacted with, or consumed by humans.  Between the human that designs the machine and the human that receives what it produces or the process it carries out, that machine “works” independently of its creator.

Much has been written on this topic from a media studies perspective.  I wrote a blog post 2 years ago referring to the author’s role, or lack thereof, within a text as a question of “presence.”  This post remains relevant to this discussion, but for a myriad of reasons, I would like to shed the philosophical baggage of the Heideggerian notion of presence and instead pursue this media studies avenue.  This allows me to to examine the role programmers play in texts comprised of code or software in order to illuminate the way modernist authors design their works.

In that previous post, I quoted from a couple of theorists which I’ll reproduce briefly here.  Wolfgang Ernst, in his essay collection Digital Memory and the Archive, confronts this issue frequently, but never so clearly as in In “Toward a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations,” he says,

The media archaeologist, without passion, does not hallucinate life when he listens to recorded voices, as does the notorious dog Nipper when listening to ‘His Master’s Voice’ on a phonograph.  The media-archaeological exercise is to be aware of the fact that at each technologically given moment we are dealing with media not humans, that we are not speaking with the dead but dealing with dead media that operate.(183)

Ernst focuses on digital media and the microtemporalities they rely upon that are and should be understood as alien to human experience.  The interposition of the digital technology between the author, the text (video, sound, or actual text), and the reader makes it easy to visualize how the content itself is separated from the humans with which it interacts.  The interposition of the technical apparatus makes it easy to see the divide between the text’s creator and its consumer.  For the authors working in print that I’m focusing on, it’s less obvious that this same division exists.  However, like these more contemporary technical media, print is subject to the same separation from the human.

N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, in the astonishingly clear and brilliant Introduction to their edited collection Comparative Textual Media, put it best:

[W]hen writing was accomplished by a quill pen, ink pot, and paper, it was possible to fantasize that writing was simple and straightforward, a means by which the writer’s thoughts could be transferred more or less directly into the reader’s mind.  With the proliferation of technical media in the latter half of the nineteenth century, that illusion became much more difficult to sustain, for intervening between writer and reader was a proliferating array of technical devices, including telegraphs, phonographs, typewriters, Dictaphones, Teletypes, and wire recorders, on up to digital computing devices that themselves are splitting into an astonishing array of different protocols, functionalities, interfaces, and codes.  The deepening complexities of the media landscape have made mediality, in all its forms, a central concerns of the twenty-first century.  With that that changed cultural emphasis  comes a reawakening of interesting in the complexities of earlier media forms as well. (loc157)

Hayles and Pressman identify the intervention of technical media as the event that reconfigured this understanding of writing as a more or less uninterrupted transmission from the author’s mind into the reader’s.  I agree with Hayles and Pressman, particularly with regard to the renewed interest in older media, namely print.  However, I would also like to shift the focus slightly, from the reader/critic/media studies perspective and toward the authors themselves.

Many things change when critics and scholars view texts as material media rather than magical transmitter of authorial voice.  It further stands to reason that similar changes take place when authors begin to view their own texts as media rather than as extensions of their artistic intentionality.  I would further argue that we can pretty reliably pinpoint when this shift happens in literature.   When the authors begin to view their media, and more importantly the embodied language it houses, as fundamentally not human their approach to authorship alters in profound ways.

The feature of these sections of text which led me to these conclusions was that the author, Joyce, Toomer, H.D., or Pound (or Gertrude Stein, Susan Howe, Anne Carson, and any number of others) was deliberately removing herself from the text.  This absence signals a removal of the authorial, that is human, consciousness presiding over the text guiding the reader through and simulating the projection of consciousness from the moment of writing into the moment of reading.  Absent this simulated authorial consciousness, texts become the arrangement of linguistic signs and pictures, designed, like any other media object, to create certain effects in the audience or reader.  In several particular cases, the ones I’ll analyze in the posts that follow, these features are taken a step further.  In addition to the removal of the simulated consciousness, the texts also begin to fill this gap with relationships–rhymes, puns, subject rhymes, orthographic isomorphies, repetition–between elements of information.  In other words, in these texts there is no human speaking, but information is “speaking” to other information.  This is code.  

There is a host of texts that exhibit these characteristics.  The examples are that much more interesting because several of them, The Making of Americans, the transition from the Ur-Cantos to The Cantos, the divide between initial style and experimental episodes in Ulysses, not only possess these features, but also reveal the aesthetic and conceptual processes by which they were arrived at by the author.  The development of these tactics actually plays out before our eyes as readers.  Pound in particular, because he wrote so much about literature and aesthetics, is explicit about the conceptual heavy lifting it took to achieve.  In the following blog posts, I will outline how these effects develop in each of these texts beginning with The Making of Americans.  First, however, I will pursue the debate in Signature/Event/Context in order to more fully explain the division between the human and information.

[1] I quibble with Peters’ final sentence, arguing it is the opposite.  It is when information becomes information that it becomes “mortal”.  The information would be immortal if it were to carry its producer’s intention, ghostlike, across separation from production to consumption.

I have a (filthy) OCR of Benjamin’s Arcades Project (which I won’t share) and plugged it into Voyant just for fun.  I envision a digital humanities course in which students work individually or collaboratively to first fix the OCR, then apply as many text analysis tools and encoding languages as possible.  Because it is not explicitly artistic, the Arcades Project seems like an interesting text to read–by both machines and humans–alongside other informationally overloaded and archival texts such as The Making of Americans, The Cantos,  perhaps even the Wake.  




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Manuscripts, materiality, method: a research network

Text and Medium: Intro to Digital Humanities

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Posts on the Penman

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Modernist Fragmentation and After

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