[NetBehaviour] Code Is Not Literature

Rob Myers rob at robmyers.org
Mon Jan 27 02:05:31 CET 2014

On 26/01/14 03:14 PM, Alan Sondheim wrote:
> On Sun, 26 Jan 2014, Rob Myers wrote:
>> 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.

I agree that traditional poetry obviously has structure and flow, and
can transform meaning over the course of being read with great subtlety
or degree. I do think that the nature of the re-reading and re-thinking
that Mezangelle requires and affords via its syntax is more compact than
plain language poetry. And that this compactness of notation is a
quality of some kinds of code.

Some programming languages are interpreted and it's obviously possible
for two runs of a program to give different output. In this sense there
are different interpretations of the same text when interpreted by
computer, as there are when interpreted by a human being. I'm certainly
not arguing that Mezangelle is Meme RNA, but I think these comparisons
are useful.

I can't speak to antiorp. :-( I shall investigate, thank you.

1337 is inherently ironic but it's also very much a shared joke and
shibboleth for cliques. It involves much play but is more instrumental.

>> 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
> amazing).

Reading-as is closer to Siebel's concern. I greatly enjoy the lists in
(for example) the Cornelius Quartet, "The Sale Of The Late King's Goods"
or "JPod". And there may be a program listing out there waiting to be
discovered as literature. But I'm doubtful of this for reasons of what I
guess are "family resemblance".

We could go Situationist and simply nominate a particular listing as a
novel, but this would I think be different from what we are discussing here.

> 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.

"Software is math" is a core argument in the non-patentability of software:

"When people say that software is math, they mean that in the most
direct, literal sense." -


> 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.

Code can be very complex as well, I've never read the whole of the Linux
kernel for example. I don't know the proof for the 4-colour theorem but
I enjoy the proofs of set theory and find that mathematics, art and code
have a shared concern with some kind of *form*, and some kind of
*aesthetic* governing it, whatever their other differences.

>> 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.

Again I don't think it's easy to go further than family resemblance in
the ontology of art.

>> 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.

I've just read "Color, Facture, Art And Design" (highly recommended)
which is largely a history of grounds and pigments and how they relate
to the social content of painting. This kind of technical-conceptual
integration, is what I am arguing for in this discussion.

I chose staples and nails because their relative volume in the material
and significant construction of painting supports is generally low and
contingent. My point was that we have to consider the possibility that
code, and I say this as someone almost ridiculously invested in the idea
that art can be made with or of code, may not be strongly relevant in
the critique art made with it.

- Rob.

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