January 1, 2007

Philadelphia Survives Modern Language Association Again

by Nick Montfort · , 4:07 pm

The MLA was huge and hectic this year, as it usually is, with 40 panels going on at once; interviews happening in hotel suites, mass gladiatorial arena-like settings, and lobbies; a huge book exhibit; and unofficial events of various sorts.

Thursday contained a day of programs on the sound of poetry. I missed friends Matt Kirschenbaum, Kari Kraus, and Peter Stallybrass speaking about the material history of digital and non-digital texts due to the co-occurring Canadian sonic invasion: As they gave papers, Steve McCaffrey delivered Hugo Ball’s “Karawane” and Christian Bök read his “Mushroom Clouds” and “Synth Loops.” There were also papers from Kennry Goldsmith, Charles Bernstein, Johanna Drucker, and Craig Dworkin; Caroline Bergvall read as part of this track, too. The next day, Scott Rettberg spoke opposite his fellow Electronic Literature Collection editor Kate Hayles, the ELO had a get-together, and almost 60 people read in the MLA offsite reading.

There were two code-oriented panels on Friday. The first panel, “Cyphernetics” started at 8:30am and so was not within my safety zone for consciousness, but I heard that Wendy Chun gave a great paper there. I was also sad to miss the paper on the Oulipo that was given there. At least I’d already gotten to hear Stephanie Strickland speak on her topic for that morning at the SLSA. (The SLSA’s next meeting has code as its theme.) Next, Rita Raley chaired a session “Reading Code” with John Cayley (who talked about writing into and out of code as part of a literary practice), David A. Golumbia (who worked to situate computation in culture), and Florian Cramer (who talked about combinatorial language and other pre-electronic instances of computing with language).

I was particularly interested in what the respondent, Mark Marino, had to say. He introduced to MLA to his concept of Critical Code Studies, which follows some of the paths that Michael and I did in writing about obfuscated code and esoteric language, some of the same paths that other authors who contributed to the Software Studies handbook have pursued. (Look for the ebr article on CCS soon.) Mark was the only one to actually discuss a famous program, although it was a “Hello World” example in Lisp – not a very extensive program. John’s writerly approach to code is great from the standpoint of the literary arts, but I don’t see that it can be the basis of a new critical approach to code, helping us understand Eliza, Adventure, bpNichol’s First Screening, Racter, Bad Machine, or even John’s own The Speaking Clock and Translation. My own sense is that the discussion of code will be much easier and more productive once we start to actually discuss interesting, important, and influential computer programs and the code in which they are written, rather than mainly appealing to the concept of code in the abstract.