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In some sort of relationship to my dissertation, which explores the ideology behind codic language, I started to code. What I haven’t figured out quite yet, and what I want to explore, is what this code is. Is it software? Almost definitely not… Is it art? Well, maybe… Is it criticism? Again, maybe… Is it experimentation? Yes, well, maybe…
I’ll talk more about my particular situation below. But to zoom out, these sorts of questions apply very broadly to the humanities. The humanities of course are more than one thing, but if I might hazard a relatively common idea of what brings us together, it would be the hermeneutic method. The 2010s has seen the proliferation of various humanities “labs,” as well as software- and media-making projects amongst humanists. So much so that many have reacted with some degree of alarm, as funding is supposedly drained from other humanities-oriented activities. To what degree these other research activities were always going to be defunded is unknowable, but it is incontrovertible that funding in the humanities for a particular computer-oriented niche of creative activity has gone way up, and other research activities have not seen a proportional rise.
Doubtless several people on this forum had their feathers ruffled by a 2016 article in the LARB on “A Political History of Digital Humanities” (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/neoliberal-tools-archives-political-history-digital-humanities/). In that article, the authors speak about the material basis of this explosion of lab-type activity, and how that basis tends to undercut precisely the critical, hermeneutic method which ought to define the humanities:
“Those who wish to acquire a sizeable grant, and who do not have site-based research needs, must develop a compelling rationale to employ graduate students. One of the simplest ways to justify the need for graduate students is to set up a named lab—a lab that requires not just funding but continual funding, and whose students can work on an evolving list of projects. In turn, applicants must explain how graduate students’ research enhances their employability. This makes Digital Humanities labs especially attractive, and makes researchers feel as if they cannot win large grants without doing Digital Humanities.”
I am one of those graduate students. And one answer to “what is all this code I’ve been writing?” is: it is the meaningless precipitate of a system that funds my otherwise prose-based research.
But if the materialist study of ideology has taught me anything, it is that meaningless precipitates don’t stay meaningless for very long. And the circumstances in which a thing is generated are rarely the determinants of the ideology which that thing ultimately expresses. So here we are. We have tons of code projects. I think it’s safe to say that, at least in our little subdiscipline of critical code studies, we have no intention of giving up on the sort of critical hermeneutics that has always characterized the humanities. If we are going to make anything of these projects, we are going to have to somehow draw our codework into a broader hermeneutic methodology. To focus all this in a single question: how can the creation of media, especially of code, be hermeneutic?