Theory Bytes

A bit about the bytes

The word “bytes” in the heading of this blog, “Theory Bytes”, has bothered me from the start. Am I just using up the bytes, or should I address them? Since interdisciplinarity seems to be emerging as a theme to my Slipnet pieces, I thought I would share a few of my thoughts on the bytes that I am using on your computer. But forgive me for detouring first by bringing up the history of structuralism: you will see why in a moment.

Structuralism is widely credited with focusing critical attention on the socially mediated nature of various kinds of identities. I would argue that this is almost certainly not, however, the most important legacy of the 20th century structuralist and formalist traditions. In fact, Montaigne was drawing attention in 1580 to the constructionist nature of culture with a subtlety that remains, to my mind, unparalleled today. From the outset, structuralism took the culturally mediated nature of ostensibly common-sense phenomena for granted: it was an argument that already enjoyed enormous persuasive force, especially in continental Europe and Russia. Structuralism did not invent this particular wheel.

The true contribution of structuralism was firstly firmly to identify the mediating element as language (again, this was not the first time this claim had ever been advanced), and secondly to discuss, in precise technical detail, how language effected its transformations.

In this sense, structuralism represented an encounter between the formal engineering logic of language and theories of culture: if we are going to credit language as one of the most important instruments of culture, the structuralists were saying, then we are in the extremely fortunate position of being able to draw on linguistics, by then a paradigmatic science, to provide a precise description of the way linguistically coded cultural meanings are translated into forms of human experience. Paradoxically, despite the fact that the use of language seems in key respects to define us as human, language is itself peculiarly inhuman: in certain respects it works a bit like a machine, with a predictable internal logic that starts to impose itself on us whenever we use it (and, the argument goes, we use it all the time – we live in it).

We have since had many arguments about this issue, particularly about the exact scope and nature of the purely structural, machine-like aspect of language. Nonetheless, we emerged from the encounter with an appreciation for the kinds of technical tricks that language plays on us; the way its organizing principles enter into complex engagement with our cultural forms, its optical illusions. What we inherited from structuralism is a greater degree of precision in our understanding of the technical way in which language intervenes in the meaning that it seems simply to carry.

These days, something new has emerged that plays its own obviously significant role in the transmission of meanings: the microchip, and the incredible range of technologies that it enables.  What strikes me about most conversations about information technology in the humanities is that we are in a sense back now in a pre-structuralist paradigm: “computers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, we observe with the same misty-eyed Romantic vagueness that sustained Shelley’s similar claim on behalf of poets. Structuralism has taught us to look at structure, so we look at elements like hyperlinking, web structures, avatars and so on in order to explain how computers engage and inform social life. Almost all the academic work I have seen in the humanities on information networks and related technologies literally stop at the screen, the life of the computer as it presents itself to the user. In a sense, we are being fooled by the computer’s performance of itself. What you encounter now, on your laptop, is only the visible dimension of a machine that looks and works very, very differently inside, I promise you.

The properly structuralist procedure would be to engage the engineering logic of the computer in the same way as we engaged the underpinning engineering logic of language. Like structuralism, it is an invitation to interdisciplinarity – this time between two apparently unlikely but in actual fact intimately related partners, namely information engineering and the humanities. In a way, I find the paucity of work that touches on this issue quite depressing. It tells me that our contemporary promotion of interdisciplinarity is a bit like the erasure of national borders in the European Union: the apparently free flow of traffic is bought at the price of erecting a massive immigration wall around the continent of Europe. Our interdisciplinary moment lacks the true sense of borderlessness that allowed the great 19th century experiments in thought. It also tells me that the humanities lacks a strong sense of a knowledge base: if we had internalized the lesson of structuralism, rather than merely its vocabulary and its sloganistic commonplaces, the necessity of this encounter between the study of culture and the logic of information technology would have been inescapable in an obvious way right at the outset.

Let me give you a small sense of what I have in mind. Perhaps you know that most computers programmes these days are “object oriented” – a rather difficult concept to explain in a few lines, so let me gloss it with the somewhat unsatisfying explanation that in the old days, when I was a teenager tinkering on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum (remember those great clunky home computers?) a computer programme was basically a list of instructions. Nowadays, however, a computer programme is more or less a collage of self-contained, sealed baby programmes, a harmonizing colony of “objects”, each of which contains all the information it needs to do some sort of job on its own data structure. These “objects”, curiously placed somewhere between conceptual abstractions and real engineering tools, share a number of qualities: chiefly encapsulation, polymorphism, inheritance and open recursion. These are fascinating attributes, of enormous interest, I would argue, to anyone considering the archaeology of knowledge, and I really enjoin you to read up a bit about how these things work: you do not need to be a programmer to understand the principles.

Let’s zoom in on encapsulation. It means in principle that you write a bit of programme that performs a certain kind of job on its data, and then you seal it up in the same way you hide the inner workings of a radio. Consequently, you can change the way the piece of programming code does what it does without changing anything else in the programme. A programme is no longer a vast interconnected web where one change ripples out and affects everything else, but instead a collection of sealed units that communicate with one another in an agreed-upon way.

To a certain extent, encapsulation corresponds well to our own practical experience of the world: when my radio breaks I can buy a new one and use it in the same way as the old one without ever knowing how a radio works, or how my new radio does the same job as the old one in a different way. I just need to know to look for an on button, a tuning knob, a volume control, and so on. Ditto picking and eating an apple, in case your mind is starting to draw a too-neat association with Fordism and commodity culture.

But encapsulation is also tied in with the specific requirements of engineers, and these are determined both by the technology and by the kinds of social and economic environments in which they are working. Firstly, it means that vast teams of engineers can work on a single project without understanding the micro-level logic of the overall project. Something like Microsoft Office is developed by a veritable army of sub-specialists. It would in fact be impossible for one person to have an exact overall mastery of the code, except perhaps for a particularly diligent vampire who decides to spend immortality pursuing this end. We can say that encapsulation facilitates the incorporation of knowledge in all senses of the word “incorporate”, including the economic one. The object-oriented nature of computer programmes has in a sense rendered the programme larger than the programmer. The boundary or the “author function”, to borrow Foucault’s term, of the programme becomes the corporation, which is usually economic, but sometimes also a radically open utopian civic project like the Linux operating system. Encapsulation is clearly a result of technological specialisation, which itself attends on the unprecedented growth of scientific knowledge under modernity and on particular economic modes of production in the age of capital. Technologies of encapsulation obviously also facilitate the protection of intellectual property: a certain secrecy at least theoretically veils the inner working of a programming object.

In other words, engineers make use of programming “objects” not only because they conform more exactly to the way we “really think” (there are big arguments about this in any case: an object oriented programming debate can be a strangely philosophical affair), but more importantly because it makes it easier to be an engineer in our current global environment. Like all engineering solutions to problems, it has benefits and limitations. There are reasons, sometimes, not to want to use encapsulation: it starts to interfere with the programme, it slows things down, it imposes its own logic on you. It is possible to offer a similar description of the other qualities of the “objects” of object oriented programming, and to draw the same conclusion in each case.

Now let’s think about a popular networking site like Facebook from this perspective for a moment. Beneath the obvious ways in which it links people together, the apparent splitting between self and avatar, the demand for constant self-reinvention, the focus on spectacle and the visual, the establishment of a culture of surveillance, of lines of inclusion and exclusion, there is another order of knowledge at work, comparable to the psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious. This is the logic of the machine, which is itself recursively part of the anthropology of engineering. (That is, the culture of engineering is to an extent also established around the capacities of the machine.) In this logic, all your Facebook friends are objects, and they have particular characteristics that stem from the technological and social matrices of the machine. That is, they are encapsulated, they can inherit, they are polymorphous, they are recursive, and so on. Just to be clear, I am not saying that the organizing principles of the programming language somehow determine the social interactions that they facilitate: in other words, I am not claiming that the “secret truth” of the machine somehow expresses through the way social webs are formed and maintained on the surface of the screen. As I argued in my response to Sarah Nuttall, the point is more that there are two discrete systems: an engineering system and a social system, and what you see on the surface of the screen is simply their interaction. The engineering is harnessed in service of a social desires, and social desires become infected with engineering preoccupations.

This is my question: how can we simply ignore this dimension? Here we have a non-subjectivised structure with its own internal system imposing itself on a social interface with other human beings. We use Facebook to fall in love, to ask for approval, to confess, to boast, to foster epoch-shifting revolutions, to slip information past the clumsy censoring mechanisms of the state, to write our biographies, to sell our products, or our ideas, to reference other texts for our circle of friends. And these transactions all conform to a greater or lesser degree to a logic that intersects with but also diverges sharply from the social. How can we not find out more about this logic, and think through its implications, its alternatives, its own faultlines and contestations?

A movement such as structuralism should really not be superseded and displaced, but instead constantly renewed and defamiliarised as we are flooded by the new. The “scandal” of structuralism, the energy that gave it its explosive potency in the academy, was its lack of regard for disciplines, its willingness to recognize the possibilities for collaboration between knowledge forms. I think we could do with a bit of structuralism in the humanities right now.

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Rustum says:

Great piece. Fascinating, and it’s good to see more use wrung out of structuralism.

(@Admin: Any chance of adding a tweet button to Slipnet?)