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.

5 Responses to “Philadelphia Survives Modern Language Association Again”

  1. Mark M. Says:

    Thanks, Nick. The paper was really a call for people to begin/continue this interpretation. In the presentation, I felt it was important to make the case first for the need for this type of work, a kind of manifesto before moving into the specific readings. The ebr paper offers a few more examples, but nothing as robust as what you are mentioning here.

    Although I couldn’t elaborate in the 15 minutes, I have a few specific examples of my own. The paper invites others to join.

    We should also mention that at MLA Wendy Chun offered a reading of “goto” statements in the previous panel, certainly a move in the direction of specific code, althrough her paper seemed to lean more towards hardware and arguing against some of the personification mystification of “source” code. Stephanie Strickland’s paper also made interesting analogies between the visual design of code and poetry.

  2. Mark M. Says:

    Here’s the link to the essay in the electronic book review.

  3. Grand Text Auto » SLSA ‘07: Code Says:


    SLSA ‘07: Code
    by nick @ 11:34 pm

    As I mentioned in passing in my MLA post, this year’s Society for Liter […]

  4. michael Says:

    Mark, I’ve started reading your essay and it looks great. But I got excited enough in the middle of reading it that I had to stop to make a comment.

    You write:
    I would like to propose that we no longer speak of the code as a text in metaphorical terms, but that we begin to analyze and explicate code as a text, as a sign system with its own rhetoric, as verbal communication that possesses significance in excess of its functional utility.

    I agree, as is obvious from the work by Nick and myself that you reference. But, more specifically, I’m delighted to see you refer to “excess”, and to the desire to understand the relationship between the various semiotic functions (denotative, connotative, meta-language, etc.) of code as a sign system. In Expressive AI: A Semiotic Analysis of Machinic Affordances (which is an edited down version of a chapter from my diss), I employ structuralist semiotics (ala Barthes), plus a healthy dose of ideas from Agre’s Critical Technical Practice (as explicated in his most excellent Computation and Human Experience) to articulate the relationship between the “architectural surplus” of code as text, the machine execution of code, and the “interpretive surplus” of the code as process (the running code). My notion of surplus is, I believe, the same as your notion of excess. Some of the same ideas are presented in a much more elliptic and aphoristic style in a Dichtung Digital essay. Anyway, I’m excited to see you launch the agenda of Critical Code Studies, and to begin detailed, semiotic analyses of the correspondences, slippages, and excesses of actual, fully-specified computational processes (runable programs).

  5. Mark M. Says:


    Thank you so much for the enthusiastic response. I will be eating up the texts you mentioned.

    Your work with Nick in “A Box Darkly” as well as your essay in Software Studies feed this interrogation well.

    I will return with a more substantive reaction after I take in these new dishes!


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