What is Code?

After a long semester of reading theoretical and fictional texts about the concept of the interface, I think I finally had a break through reading What is Code? this week. Section 2.1 made real for me many of the things we have been circling around in our readings thus far. It’s an obvious point, and something I have known conceptually in my head all along, but seeing the code that appears when typing a letter on a keyboard finally slapped me in the face this week.

Similar to zihan’s question about “Who is really doing the writing when we type on a laptop, us or the code?” I would venture to ask: “What language am I even writing in? Am I even saying something sensical, that I myself can understand?” The code that appears when I type my name transforms information that is entirely familiar to me into something foreign, which essentially reduces me—my personhood, my concept of “self”— into a series of letters and numbers that I interpret as gibberish, but that are really a kind of mechanized and standardized language between the computer and the keyboard. I am almost left out of the conversation entirely.

The interface of the keyboard/computer makes something that I interpret as being entirely subjective and personal, the act of writing, into just another series of coding that is strung together. This level of displacement challenges the notion of the interface that I had up until this point, particularly Hookway’s of theorizing interface as a kind of relation to machines. I fancied myself as “writer,” as “owner” of my laptop, as being “in control” of the way I relate to machines. In some ways I conceived of myself as having the upper hand in my relation to the interface, in that I am human, thereby superior in my interpretative and critical thinking. Playing around with Paul Ford’s interactive keyboard, however, flipped the script. I don’t know if humans are as in control as we think we are when it comes to our interactions with technology. Even when writing “personal” documents, we must entrust a computer with that information, and at the end of the day, the words and letters we worry ourselves over mean nothing to the computer’s coding of those words and letters.

Even if I knew how to code, I wonder if I would feel any sort of authority over technology. I can’t help but think that it wouldn’t help the situation much. As a “coder” or “developer,” I am still manipulating technology under a very strict set of conditions—I must bow to the computer’s language and limitations. I wonder where this leaves us. I might be becoming a disgruntled, Flusserian sort of luddite here, but I have to ask—when our language is essentially superseded by the language of code, does writing (as we understand it) really have a future? Or are we doomed to bend to the will of technology, to make our subjective thoughts and interpretations fit the mold of what the interface demands?

Not a case of words?

Thus far, I have tried not to let my personal feelings about the reading affect my ability to construct a critical response, but with this week’s reading it seems unavoidable. Like Noelle, I found the Young-Hae Chang “readings” extremely grating and difficult to follow. And the actual content of Between Page and Screen was somewhat disappointing. I thought the entire idea—the multimaterial configuration as outlined by Ortega—was brilliant, but the content itself, while quirky and certainly tongue-in-cheek, did not provide me with much to take away.

For Ortega, it seems that the lack of substantive content is to underscore “the material configuration of the project…emphasi[zing] its process of mediation, and the eccentric enactment of the reading experience.” I totally get that, and that’s fine, but I just wish that the experiential aspect of the readings were doing some deeper work than just highlighting their own materiality. If page and screen both “share text’s fleshy network,” I suppose I was expecting more flesh, more text… more fleshy text. In House of Leaves, for example, the calls toward the text’s own materiality are working in conjunction with the story itself, so one’s experience with the interface does not overshadow one’s ability to make meaning of the story, and vice versa.

I wonder if my reactions mean I am fulfilling the type of reader that these texts seek to challenge. That may be true, but if so, what is the project here? I understand that every “textual environment produces its own meaning-making logic,” but I wonder if Between Page and Screen tries to resist meaning-making in a similar way to Pynchon or some of the other authors we’ve engaged with. This is sort of the only conclusion I can come to as to why the text itself is so sparse. Perhaps it truly is “Not a Case of Words” as Ortega utilizes as a foundation for her argument. But is it an effective act of resistance to make a reader do a bunch of “work” for no real payoff? And if so, what does this prove, other than working as an attempt to dispel the authority/fetishization of the written book object?


I thought it was interesting that Lori Emerson’s primary goal through Reading Writing Interfaces seemed to be a call toward demystifying devices by making visible the processes taking place when they are used, but yet she did not spend much time detailing those processes. I was hoping to leave this book with a base knowledge of what exactly is going on inside the black box, rather than a confirmation of my already cynical view toward the black box.

With that in mind, I did find several elements of Emerson’s argument to be particularly interesting, especially the chapter on the “typewriter-as-interface.” I thought the shift away from a poetics of “semantic meaning and toward a poetry whose meaning is more about a process of making” could be a relevant framework to our course (94). So often, I have been so stuck on the plot elements of the fictional texts we have been reading this semester that I sometimes forget to encounter the book as an interface. I think our class has led me to be especially adept at identifying the thematic matter about interfaces within the plot—what kind of interfaces appear in the plot, what is the plot itself saying about our relationship to technology, etc.—that I am quick to forget the interface right in front of me. Where can we see the “process of making” in the novels we are reading?

This reflection has led me to agree with Emerson’s thoughts on the book: “It is just that the conventions of the book, in which we have been so enmeshed, lull us into believing that a paper-bound or bookbound text is stable, perhaps even knowable” (154). I am certainly guilty of this implicit trust in the book form, even in a class such as ours. From this quote on 154, it seems that Emerson calls us to apply a certain amount of skepticism toward the book form as well as digital interfaces, but she ends the book by saying:

“that supposedly antiquated device, the book, is fast becoming a safe haven for readingwriting because its particulars cannot be tracked, monitored, indexed, fed into an algorithm, and given back to us as a commodity. Perhaps, the future of digital literature is readingwriting that is born of the network but lives offline—digital literature transformed into bookbound readingwriting that performs and embodies its own frictional media archaeological analysis” (184)

This ending puzzled me. If Emerson calls us to be critical of the inherent knowledge of bookbound writing, while also encouraging the digital literature of the future to make use of the book form exclusively, how are we to approach books in a way that “demystifies” their authorial power? I want to think more about what Emerson means by “readingwriting that is born of the network but lives offline” and “bookbound readingwriting that performs and embodies its own frictional media archaeological analysis.” How does Emerson see books fitting into a future of digital literature that exposes its (digital) process through a distinctly non-digital format?

My imagination is not my own? (Help!)

This book presented a lot of moments where I thought “Hmm… so this is why Kathleen chose this text for our class. Got it.” The reflections on interfaces and their effects were impossible to ignore.  I found Jackdaw’s character to be especially interesting. His initial description constructs a familiar stereotype about “nerdy” tech folks, though especially tinged with pettiness: “He might have been attractive, except for the steady diet of Doritos and the inability to abide much direct human contact without flinching.”

Inn one of those “keyword” moments, Jackdaw’s inability to communicate with Adie is succinctly described: “Jackdaw struggled mightily to address the barrage. But he could not parse her. Their interface was makeshift, the cable between them noisy, and their throughput limited to the intermittent burst.” Powers goes on to say that Jackdaw isn’t “comfortable talking to living things. Living female things. Their firmware algorithm eluded him.” Aside from being somewhat comical (though slightly offensive?), I think Jackdaw’s relationship to Adie, living female things, or living things in general gets to a lot of the things we spoke about last week.

Chapter 16 gives us more of Jackdaw’s biography, and especially his first immersion into the world of technology through “Original Adventure” on his father’s Televideo 910 in 1977. He describes his father’s pushing him to use it as “an elaborate diversionary tactic to fool a boy into—of all things—reading.”

When I looked up “Original Adventure” I found this link: https://quuxplusone.github.io/Advent/

So I clicked it. The game started with the same narrative as in Plowing the Dark: “You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.” So naturally, I figured this was the same game and played it, trying to get a sense of what the original would have been like. To my surprise, what I initially perceived to be essentially a prehistoric game proved to be VERY DIFFICULT. The parameters on the actions you can command are strict! Commands can only be 1 or 2 words, and only the first five letters are looked at. It requires a lot of imagination to decide what to do, since the game says: “I know of places, actions, and things. Most of my vocabulary describes places and is used to move you there. To move, try words like forest, building, downstream, enter, east, west, north, south, up, or down.” I’m in a building, there’s a key, a lamp, some food and some water. Now what? What on earth am I supposed to do? Where is the danger? What is the goal? Where am I going?

While playing this game I felt like Jackdaw when he talks to Adie. The interface between myself and the game exists, but it is entirely “makeshift.” I cannot “parse” this game, nor do I have the patience to do so. The “algorithm” eludes me. In some ways, I am unable to “read” into what the game is asking me to do, even though I am technically reading the words appearing on the interface.

This made me think of the later section when Jackdaw talks about graphics and the way that they sadden him. That they throw “open portals all their own.” I especially connected with Jackdaw’s father’s line about TV killing off radio: “Hearing about creatures from the eighth dimension beat having to look at them.” Playing this game proved to me how reliant I am on graphics and visualization. I think our moment in culture privileges the visual above everything else, which in some way limits our imaginations. Like Jackdaw, I am saddened. It seems that everything I can conjure in my imagination is a poor recreation or forgery of images I have seen before, which I think speaks to many of my colleagues’ posts about the role of art and simulation. What happens when the image in my mind of any given topic or object is just a simulation of the graphics I have been inundated with on a daily basis since birth?

I think it would be really interesting for others to play the game and record their experiences/frustrations/limitations. How does our incapability of parsing this interface reveal the kind of culture we are living in, and furthermore, how is our relationship to the written word and reading affected by the images living in our head that we did not put there? Sorry for the long and rambling post, but this book generated a bunch of (admittedly, existential) questions for me.

The Interface and its Effects

Both Hookway and Galloway emphasize the cultural significance of interfaces. I found Hookway’s tie between interfaces and the subject to be particularly compelling:

“the interface entails implications for notions of control and intelligence… These include the system and, perhaps most relevant to this study’s focus on the human relation to technology, the subject and its production through processes of subjectification…Likewise, agency, or the will and means to action, is a capacity at once mediated by and produced upon the interface.” (5)

He goes on to say that the interface is instrumental in defining what is human and what is machine. The sociopolitical implications of this statement echo Hookway’s assertion that the interface is a “disputed zone” or “site of contestation” (x) that both defines differences and simultaneously separates classes and draws them together.

Galloway uses similar language when he describes the interface as an “’agitation’ or generative friction between different formats,” but like Hookway, Galloway explores the cultural and political nature of the relationship between humans and technology through the interface. He writes on the “larger forces that engender” interfaces (vii), calling the interface itself a “control allegory” (30) and then exploring the way Marxist theory, fascism, utilitarianism, and the concept of a political consciousness relate to interfaces.

In this way, it seems that the preliminary definitions of what constitutes an interface do not seem to be the main takeaway Galloway and Hookway ask us to contemplate. Rather, we are faced with larger questions about the subjectification that occurs within the human relationship to technology, but also through larger institutional uses of interfaces in an effort to control the populace. If the interface is a “theory of culture,” as Hookway posits, then both of these texts explore the possibilities and perils of interface interactions within our culture.


Gitelman, Whitehead, and Everyday Things

I have been mulling over the question posed last week and in @matthewraymond’s post: “Why did this text come after Whitehead?” It seems that Gitelman, like Whitehead, is particularly interested in power structures and the dissemination of knowledge. Last week we noticed the repetition of “She doesn’t know yet” and other such phrases about the lack of knowledge Lila Mae has throughout The Intuitionist as she attempted to navigate the political and corporate entities that sought to expel her from their systems. This week Gitelman surveys the types of knowledge that are created, utilized, and taken for granted through paper documents, especially those documents intrinsically tied to bureaucratic power structures.

I’m trying to find a linkage between the metaphor of the elevator and the metaphor of the document. Gitelman writes that documents are integral to social order, power, and control, in that we are required to fill in and obtain certain documents in order to legally occupy certain spaces. I’m thinking in particular of the example Gitelman uses about “undocumented” immigrants—without the successful procurement of the correct documents, a human being becomes alien from the space in which they are living. Gitelman also draws our attention to the “thing-ness” of the document as Whitehead does with the elevator. Gitelman asks “who ever really reads receipts, bills, tickets, bonds, or certificates? … few people would describe their functioning in terms of reading, unless in the context of controversy, where a counterfeit is discovered or a lawsuit seems likely” (30). The thing-ness of these documents is never realized until their function is impeded—similar to the elevator. Also like the elevator, documents allow “elevation” or progression through social status, depending on which documents you do or do not have.

In last week’s discussion post, I focused on the quote from Theoretical Elevators: “We conform to objects, we capitulate to them. We need to reverse this order… We must tend to our objects and treat them as newborn babes. Our elevators are weak. They tend to get colds easily, they are forgetful…” (Whitehead 38). I wonder if Gitelman’s project asks for a similar re-orientation toward the documents we are naturalized to use (without really reading them). What is there to be gained through the “reading” of such documents? I suppose we would be forced to critique what Gitelman calls “the social processes that have made them useful as the impersonal instruments they are” (30). As in the case of the undocumented immigrant, the impersonal nature of the “documents” in question becomes exceedingly personal when it comes to one’s livelihood and ability to stay in country in which they live. Should we have a more personal relationship to these types of documents? I can’t help but think that both Whitehead and Gitelman are begging us to consider the sociopolitical—or more importantly, the human—effects of our apathetic interactions with everyday things.


If anyone is interested, I found this infograph to be really interesting in relation to our discussion last week about the environments in which writers write (especially Emily Dickinson composing in the pantry).

Taken from:


Does Whitehead ask us to be Intuitionists?

There is so much I could say about The Intuitionist. This text generated so many ideas for me related to the things we have been talking about, perhaps more than the other fiction books we have read thus far.

One thing I kept coming back to was the “thing theory” of elevators in this text. For most of us, we get into elevators without really thinking about it. We can easily take these machines for granted. Until, that is, they stop working. Only then are we confronted with the inherent “thingness” of this steel box that moves us up and down through buildings. Not only are we forced to recognize the absurdity of the fact that we are trusting in a box pulled by a cable to get us where we are trying to go, but in some cases as with the free-falling elevator conspiracy in the novel, it becomes clear that our blind trust in objects can cause injury or even death. The text seems to be very invested in this idea, as Intuitionism itself is “about communicating with the elevator on a nonmaterial basis,” asking the inspector to “Separate the elevator from elevatorness” (62).

There were various moments in the text when the “thingness” of the text itself was made apparent to me as a reader. The asterisks breaking up sections, for example, seemed to be interspersed in strange places, as with the use of ellipses. Even as early as page 3 there is an ellipsis that breaks the flow of the narrative off into a digression: “You want to say to yourself, how can people live like this, but then we are all dealt differently and you have to play what you’re dealt. Back home, we … He gave 125 Walker a clean bill. Lots on his mind, lots on his mind.” There was also the repetition of phrases about Lila Mae’s ignorance, with random interjections of “She doesn’t know yet.” These gestured consistently to the narrator’s foreknowledge of what is going to happen in this text, simultaneously forcing the reader to remember that this story is a manipulated one.

Perhaps this book’s self-referentiality as an object is getting to a similar point as the symbolism of the elevator. In Theoretical Elevators, James Fulton writes: “We conform to objects, we capitulate to them. We need to reverse this order… We must tend to our objects and treat them as newborn babes. Our elevators are weak. They tend to get colds easily, they are forgetful…” (38). Just as with Fulton’s prescription about elevators, Whitehead seems to prescribe something similar about our relationship to books as objects. Instead of allowing ourselves to check out and be carried along for the ride in this story, the text is disjointed and fragmented, requiring great care from the reader in order to piece things together. We must tend to this story to understand it. In some ways, I suppose you could say we must be intuitionists toward this story, rather than empiricists. Our impulse through our generalized academic training is to prod and poke, searching out meaning, attempting to solve the puzzle. I find Whitehead’s resistance against this impulse to be particularly meaningful to our overall discussions about how we interact with texts in our own processes of reading.

Updated Project Proposal

As I have begun to research Christopher Isherwood’s life and novels, I have come to realize just how central temporality is to his work. The myriads of ways that time shows up have really cemented my interest in Isherwood for this project. The relationship between temporality and modernity is much more complex and layered than my previous proposal illustrated, especially for queer writers. Like many queer modern writers, Isherwood was combatting time in a multitude of ways. Of course there were the temporal changes inherent to modernity—imperialism, industrialization, technology, scientific advancement, etc.—but also the emphasis on linearity imposed by fascism and their subsequent targeting of homosexuals, contemporary notions about homosexuality as a failed maturation from childhood to adulthood and thus an affront to human evolution, and even Isherwood’s own fraught relationship with technological modernity through his work with Hollywood cinema.

Isherwood also constructs his own queer relationship to time through his continual return to his experiences in the 1930’s. It is clear that this period of time haunts him, and his persistent revisiting of memory leads to the construction of a kind of queer present, in which he re-inhabits the past, both disrupting history and also producing an open-ended relationship between present and past.  My further research into this topic has also made it clear that one could probably spend years writing a dissertation on this topic, so I am working on ways to make the scope of my project clear and relevant to our course, while also making it manageable for myself.

For the moment, I am examining the type of writing Isherwood does in his novel Goodbye to Berlin, published in 1939, as compared to his memoir Christopher and His Kind, which was published in 1976 but recounts the events of his life that took place from 1929-1939. Particularly of interest to me is the kind of posture Isherwood takes up in Goodbye to Berlin, distancing himself from the narrator—a character by the name of Christopher Isherwood who tells the story through a series of diary entries. He writes in the Preface:

“Because I have given my own name to the “I” of this narrative, readers are certainly not entitled to assume that its pages are purely autobiographical, or that its characters are libelously exact portraits of living persons. “Christopher Isherwood” is a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing more” (xiii)

This careful distancing while also invoking the most personal of forms of writing—a diary—seems worth exploring, especially with the knowledge that he later published his own autobiography recounting similar events in Christopher and His Kind. I am working on developing some connections between this phenomenon and the theory we have read thus far in this class, especially Flusser’s notion of history being that it simply cannot exist without writing. What happens when histories are put into writing, but they are fictionalized as a mode of self-preservation as with Isherwood’s narrator in Goodbye to Berlin?

I am still mulling over the large questions I posted in my initial proposal, but am working to refine them further in light of what I have learned so far. How does the revisiting, reconstructing, and revising of the same memories over and over again work to disrupt linear time, but also what effect does that have on history? How does the mask of artifice (a character named Christopher Isherwood as the narrator in a supposedly fictional story) undermine our notion of history and ability to trust in its authorial power?

Discussion Questions for Track Changes

Hello all! I will be leading discussion on Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes tomorrow, so I wanted to post a few potential questions to be thinking about as you finish up reading and construct your blog posts for this week. There is SO MUCH in this text to discuss, so I’ve tried to pick out a few main ideas to give us a sense of direction. Even so, please feel free to bring up other concepts in the text that interested you!

1. In my reading of this text, I kept seeing echoes of the other texts we have read so far in this class:

  • Where do we see some of the ideas about writing and technology  brought up by Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore echoed or challenged by Kirschenbaum’s narrative?
  • How does Kirschenbaum’s narrative challenge or support the narrative about writing that Flusser put forth in Does Writing Have a Future? How does Kirschenbaum’s notion of the relationship between history and writing contend with Flusser’s?
  • Where do we see hints of Brown’s “thing theory” coming through with all the discussion about word processors and other writing tools as “things”? What does the “thing-ness” of the writing process contribute to our understanding of it?

2. Kirschenbaum seems very invested in the tools used and environments inhabited by different writers while they write, but concludes: “We don’t exactly why it is important to know these things, but we know we would rather know them than not” (7). Why is this discussion important? How do you think different writing tools affect our writing? What tools do you use? Why and when? Why do we have an interest in the processes of prolific writers? Why is it important to know the tactile and spatial particulars of our writing process? What does your writing process look like in relation to your editing process? How do you think this impacts your final product? What happens when you stray from these habits?