Laying the Groundwork: Modernist Language as Code

-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.


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