De-constructing 'code' (picking apart its assumptions)
February 2, 2010 6:35 AM   Subscribe

De-constructing 'code': I am looking for philosophical (from W. Benjamin through to post-structuralism and beyond) examinations of 'code'. That both includes the assumptions contained in the word 'code' and any actual objects or subjects that code is connected to - including, but not limited to: computer programming, cyphers, linguistics, genetics etc.

I am looking to question the assumptions of 'code'. Perhaps a specific example of a theorist de-constructing the term.

I am currently knee deep in an examination of certain practices and assumptions that have arisen from digital media/medium and digital practice (art and making in the era of data packets and compression-artefacts for example). Through my analysis I wish to investigate the paradigms of text and writing practice (the making of textual arts).

A simple analogy to this process would be looking at dialectic cultures (speech based) from the perspective/hindsight of a grapholectic culture (writing/print based). In a similar way, I want to examine writing, film and their making with the hindsight of digital paradigms.

I am aware of the works of Deleuze, Derrida, Barthes, Genette, Ong, Serres, Agamben etc. but any of their works that deal specifically with 'code' would be very very useful.

I look forward to any pointers you can give me
posted by 0bvious to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Code is the grouping together of statutes passed into a comprehensible group. It is evidence of the law, but not the law itself. Only the statutes passed are law.

Code is cypher

Code is a set of writable, changable instructions for a calculating machine or computer.

Code is the entirety of the sequence of base pairs in nucleic acids.

Code is a set of informal rules, usually unspoken, for the conduct of individuals not regulated by statutory law, such as Omerta or the "bro code."

Code is a word or phrase that says one thing but means another e.g. "boy," "uppity," "an articulate black."

From this we deduce two opposite meanings: the first, a set of instructions for life, for behavior, for operation. They are generally clear and obvious, even if unspoken.

The opposite is the hidden nature of code, something said that means something else.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:57 AM on February 2, 2010

Andrew Hodge's Alan Turing: the Enigma will not directly try to deconstruct code, but Alan Turing's lifework was about the code in obvious and not so obvious way: can thinking be encoded as commands done with 1s and 0s, the Enigma cipher and other wartime codebreaking, code of chess playing, social code, imitating a code, code of organism growth (morphogenesis). Getting to know Alan Turing as a natural philosopher should give you a quite fine perspective of how very different meanings of code are related.
posted by Free word order! at 7:21 AM on February 2, 2010

From a literary perspective, this is the major theme of Richard Powers' Goldbug Variations.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:21 AM on February 2, 2010

Best answer: You might find this new Critical Code Working Group interesting. Good timing too - it's just starting. The term 'critical code studies' might also give you a jumping off point.
posted by barnone at 7:55 AM on February 2, 2010

Godel Escher Bach is kind of the seminal book on the relationship between ideas, the mind, and the brain. It discusses in huge width and depth the way that abstract symbols and concrete biological processes combine to allow the physical world to be encoded and manipulated in the mental world.
posted by Babblesort at 7:57 AM on February 2, 2010

Best answer: Virilio approaches the idea of code from a technocentric standpoint. He sees the rise of the ability to express complexities of things such as genetics as a potentially dangerous ability.

But for all that there is a raw materialism in Virilio's reflection, nowhere better expressed than in his grisly vision of information as suffocation. In his theatre of thought data banks have migrated inside human flesh, bodies are reduced to granulated flows of dead information, tattooed by data, embedded by codes, with complex histories of electronic transactions as our most private autobiographies. Information mapping our lives -- process, principles, concept, fact -- we have all become measurable.

This text is available through CTheory, here

There is an overview on the subject of re-reaing Foucault with Virilio by Sam Han here. If you find these ideas interesting and relevant I would suggest picking up some of Virilios writing. I would suggest that Art and Fear would appear to be the most relevant.
posted by multivalent at 8:12 AM on February 2, 2010

A good overview of the use of 'code', in linguistics and semiotics, along with lots of references, can be found in Daniel Chandler's Semiotics for Beginners. I think you might want to start here.
posted by daniel_charms at 8:58 AM on February 2, 2010

don't tell anyone to read Neal Stephenson for facts ever. His works are all total fantasy with no relation to how computers or science actually work. Jesus God, don't tell this guy to read Stephenson for insight into ANYTHING. It's like telling people to read the Hobbit to try and get a better understanding of people with dwarfism. All the other ones are great.. i'd also suggest any book you can find with a discussion on Dynamical Systems. Even if you don't get through it, it's going to change the way you conceive of what code "is" without you necessarily needing to read someone else's analysis.
posted by judge.mentok.the.mindtaker at 9:54 AM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Some great starting points there, thank you.

I was hoping a specific paper about the 'semiotics of binary code' - or something similar - might crop up. Naive? Perhaps.

I have had a copy of Godel Escher Bach sitting on my bookshelf for years. It has been waiting for the right moment to come down and speak to me. An argument, if ever one were needed, as to the benefits of having a bookshelf full of books you haven't read...

Keep 'em coming!
posted by 0bvious at 10:13 AM on February 2, 2010

This might be related: Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization.
posted by AlsoMike at 10:46 AM on February 2, 2010

Best answer: Harvard Law School professor and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig wrote a book called Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace and a related article for Harvard Magazine called Code is Law.
posted by mbrubeck at 11:10 AM on February 2, 2010

Best answer: The word "code" has a lot of different meanings, most of them unrelated to each other—so you won't find anything that involves both genetic code and ciphers, for example, because those are totally different senses of the word "code." You might get better answers if you were more specific.

As for binary code: "binary code" means either any number or sequence of numbers represented in base-2 notation, or sometimes a specific series of numbers representing instructions to a computer processor (this is what the "source code" of a computer program is converted into so a computer can run it). Since "binary code" is just an alternate notation, its meaning is the same as that of the data it represents. For the latter case, maybe you're interested in the semantics of programming languages?

I'm afraid I don't know anything about post-structuralism etc., but if you're open to suggestions from analytic philosophy, I could recommend a few things on topics related to program source code or on the effects of computing on society.
posted by k. at 11:47 AM on February 2, 2010

Metaphors we Program By
posted by phrontist at 1:09 PM on February 2, 2010

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