[NetBehaviour] Code Is Not Literature

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Mon Jan 27 00:14:37 CET 2014

On Sun, 26 Jan 2014, Rob Myers wrote:

> On 26/01/14 09:03 AM, Alan Sondheim wrote:
>> for me it relates to IRC and warez slang, 1337, antiorp/integener/n.n.-
>> speak, a whole array of 'hackerese' languages that also need decoding,
>> that also don't run in the traditional sense (as opposed to perl poetry
>> for example) -
> It does but I think it takes this further.
> Reading Mezangelle is like running code to debug it - watching call
> stack frames being pushed and popped and data being created and operated
> on. You have to keep track of nested contexts and back references. Each
> new word fragment or piece of punctuation can operate on and transform
> the previously read elements. Even when you've parsed Mezangelle it's
> unstable and active, whether it reduces to a singular meaning or is more
> ambiguous. This is different from 1337-style encoding.
True, but it's not that different from the waves that occurs in more 
traditional poetry. You're not debugging Mezangelle and you're not running 
it; you're interpreting it and one person's interpretation is different 
from anothers (which is also true btw of antiorp and poetry). Also you're 
assuming a stability in 1337 which might not be there.

> Regarding Seibel's comments on code as literature, James makes a good
> point about paintbrushes. We don't read shopping lists or meeting notes
> as literature, yet they are written. Code does not tend to be written as
> literature. It's possible to read code for pleasure and to find its
> formatting and data structures, its *form*, aesthetically satisfying.
> Code is mathematics, so this is similar to enjoying a mathematical proof.

Here I do disagree with you; reading-as is something that at least I, and 
I assume many others do (just as such lists were read by Braudel as- 
history). Example - I'm currently reading Walsh's Mercantile Aritmetic, 
published in Newbury, Mass, in 1800 - which is just what the title says, 
but which reads like a fantastic epic, especially the sections dealing 
with monetary exchange (I might quote later, because the writing is 

I also am not sure that "Code is mathematics" just because it's exact; 
certainly at the level of machine language, it follows strict protocols.

Mathematical proofs and proof theory are complicated - look atthe 4-color 
theorem - and I find code-reading very different. But then I'm neither an 
astute mathematician or programmer.
> I've enjoyed reading code. The DUIM source code was beautiful. I've
> enjoyed seeing code execute. I still remember the first time I saw
> Photoshop boot. But this shows that code and software can be evaluated
> separately. I think that they should go together, like Emacs or
> LambdaMOO or the Symbolics OS.
> I think that a piece of software that is a) structured like Emacs to be
> self-editing or at least self-revealing of its code and is b)
> constructed to use this facility essayistically or discursively or
> narratively is what would be required for code to be literature. Char
> Davies' "Osmose" is a weak example (whatever its other strengths) of this.
I really do think there's any sort of "requirement" involved, maybe 
part-requirements like part-objects, or something along the line of 
"tendencies"; I'm extremely dubious of requirements in relation to art in 
general - even the idea that art/literature, etc. _should_ be something as 
opposed to something else. Aesthetics and reading behaviors, reception 
theory and the like, is far more complex than this.

> But I may be proposing a gentrification of code.art. Or discussing the
> equivalent of why nails and staples aren't considered more important in
> the social history of painting. ;-)

Well they are important, and there are books that emphasize things like 
the chemistry of paints etc. - I relate this again to Braudel and the 
annales school of historiography.

- Alan

> - Rob.
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