Code in Modernism

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.


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