Mr. Polemic or: Techno-Comprehension and Limited Retention

Please approach my response to this weeks reading with a grain of salt (I’m pseudo-serious, but I know I’m wrong). I start this post with multiple questions I have at the forefront (if you rather respond to one of these, by all means do so) before diving in:

First, What is code, In Katherine Hayles’ chapters, I’m left with a very vague and nebulous feeling that the phenomena of “code” signifies an empty signified, making this abstraction too theoretically detached from an independent artifact of analysis.

Second, Is the academic move to treat language as a monolithic subject divorced from its current programming utilization?

Third, how does technological optimism frame the discussion of computation?

Fourth, Literacy and Code imply a looking-in/regulatory functions that feels very violating of communities that don’t want to be revealed.

These gestures were all focal points that I originally wished to write about, and think that there is much to be discussed, albeit this post takes a different direction.

Computation, Hayles identifies, “connotes far more than the digital computer, which is only one of many platforms on which computational operations can run” (p. 17),  unpacking hardware onto social systems (via langue) and complex modes of interaction and being. In chapter two, Hayles attempts to critically delineate the limits/operations of “speech, writing, and code” (p. 39). She argues that, “we cannot afford to ignore code or allow it to remain the exclusive concern of computer programmers and engineers. Strategies can emerge from a deep understanding of code that can be used to resist and subvert hegemonic control by megacorporations (p. 61)”.  My concern is that theorizing a concept of “code” literacy need not (re)articulate itself from speech and writing, but should be embedded within pragmatic interpretations of language proper.


Hayles argues, “Speech, writing, and code: the three major systems for creating signification interact with each other in millions of encounters every day” (p. 38).  When treating “code” as an external system (la langue), it becomes a privileged technical system exterior to and insulated from speaking and writing. When the technique of coding becomes it’s own techne it removes itself from the basic supposition that coding is writing. She argues, “Now that the information age is well advanced, we urgently need nuanced analyses of the overlaps and discontinuities of code with the legacy systems of speech and writing, so that we can understand how the processes of signification change when speech and writing are coded into binary digits” (p. 38). In a logically positivist manner, she situates code as the next phase of learned knowledge, understanding, and development, because, “Computers are no longer merely tools (if they ever were) but are complex systems that increasingly produce the conditions, ideologies, assumptions, and practices that help to constitute what we call reality” (p. 60).  Tension emerges when treating the computer as both simplistic tool and complex machine (which is latent in this last quotation itself), pinning down the mechanistic process/capabilities in it’s fluidity need not serve analysis for the artifice proper. In less congested terms, selectively deciding how to theorize code/computation/digital in it’s relationship to speech/word/written functions as a self serving mode of interpretation further externalizing computational literacy, instead it creating an additional layer of literacy making it harder to teach “non-programmers” its utilization.


Hayles argues that, “Code is not the enemy, any more than it is the savior, Rather code is increasingly positioned as language’s pervasive partner. Implicit in the juxtaposition in the intermediation of human thought and machine intelligence, with all the dangers, possibilities, liberations, and complexities this implies” (p. 61). What is problematic in this “parternship metaphor” is that code is part of language and a non-external device. Computer code is not a partner to language, but computer code is itself language. If the goal is to create a public that is literate and capable of understanding “computer code” (my criticism is more so of the concept of code rather then the computer itself), we need a public that is literate (with code). If knowledge of the digital becomes apart of learning language itself, then language inherently becomes what it was always/already, code.


Digital language need articulate itself through discourse at earlier stages of development, both to show its utility and to deny the magical effect it has, once it becomes insular  to language (Eliza effect was the title I believe the other author called it – need fact checked). For instance, at the Elementary educational level, if computational language was taught (we can easily scrap cursive, etc…) computer “code” would not be a foreign entity but part of our basic system of understanding and literacy. As Hayles’ notes, computation and code is a “metaphor pervasive in culture” (p.20), the ultimate task is to change the metaphor into something more attainable at the literacy stage.

One thought on “Mr. Polemic or: Techno-Comprehension and Limited Retention

  1. It is interesting how Hayles approaches the discussion from the perspectives of other language operations e.g. speech and writing, but it feels to me her purpose is particularly well situated for a literacy studies and composition studies audience, as the field(s) in part established itself by thinking through the affordances and challenges of learning writing in tension with learning speech, which is not to say that there isn’t a vast and complex relationship between the two forms of utterance (and I think that’s ultimately what she’s trying to say by entering the conversation this way). She takes on the discussion via Derrida and Saussure who are more known in wider spheres than literacy studies-specific figures like Brian Street vs. Walter Ong. Point being, she’s assuming a certain level of literacy when it comes to composition studies that she doesn’t feel the need to repeat here. At the moment she’s writing this (ten years ago) that tension is perhaps one obvious place to insert discussions of code as another form of language acquisition and use.

    I don’t feel like Hayles is relegating code to some other third sphere. It’s not so much that code is a DIFFERENT language, but a different kind of use of language or utterance. Helpfully, she compares code to “esoteric theoretical writing” as that which is “intelligible only to a specialized community of experts” (51). Written language, too, was once only available to the educated elite. Thus, literacy programs and public education and so on. But code differs in that there are vast barriers to fluency given how fast code evolves and diversifies. Putting code in tension with these other forms of language use allows her to draw out these barriers.

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