How Can We Understand Code as a "Critical Artifact"?: USC's Mark Marino on Critical Code Studies (Part One)
The Humanities and Critical Code Studies (HaCCS) Lab opened this summer at the University of Southern California with the specific goal of developing the field and fostering discussion between the Humanities and Computer Science. Current members include USC faculty and students and a host of affiliated scholars from other institutions, including and international advisory board. The HaCCS Lab sponsored its first conference this summer and will be sponsoring other get togethers both on campus and online. Central to its mission is to develop common vocabularies, methodologies, and case-studies of CCS, while promoting publications in the field.
Mark Marino, who teaches in the USC Writing Program, is the Director of the new center. He was nice enough to agree to an interview during which he explains what he means by Critical Code Studies, how it relates to other humanistic approaches to studying digital culture, and what he thinks it contributes to our understanding of Code as a cultural practice and as a critical artifact.
What do you mean by critical code studies?
The working definition for Critical Code Studies (CCS) is "the application of humanities style hermeneutics to the interpretation of computer source code." However, lately, I have found it more useful to explain the field to people as the analysis of technoculture (culture as imbricated with technology) through the entry point of the source code of a particular digital object. The code is not the ends of the analyses, but the beginning.
Critical Code Studies finds code meaningful not as text but "as a text," an artifact of a digital moment, full of hooks for discussing digital culture and programming communities. I should note that Critical Code Studies also looks at code separated from functioning software as in the case of some codework poetry, such as Mez's work or Zach Blas' trasnCoder anti-programming language. To that extent, Critical Code Studies is also interested in the culture of code, the art of code, and code in culture more broadly.
At this nascent stage, I also find it useful to point out the plurality and variability of the methodologies that have been already used to analyze code whether in the Critical Code Studies Working Group, at our two conferences, in the HASTAC Scholars Forum, at MLA, and elsewhere. These preliminary readings demonstrate that Critical Code Studies is not an approach but a wide range of approaches that use code as a starting point for a larger discussion. Scholars seem eager to talk about code and are experimenting with ways to unpack it.
Critical Code Studies answers a call from N. Katherine Hayles and others for media specific analysis by taking up for analysis an aspect of digital objects that is unique to the computational realm. Back in 2005 and 2006 when I first began talking to people about code, there weren't many examples of critics, working then under the title "new media," who discussed code, which struck me as unusual since it's such a rich semiotic realm. There just weren't enough critical readings that demonstrated for how to talk about that component of the work. At the time, I was working on my dissertation and was trying to produce readings of conversation agents, or chatbots. That led me to write that initial essay in electronic book review.
For my work, the "critical" component is also crucial because it evokes "critical theory." I don't want to limit the types of theory or philosophy that can be applied to code, but I do want to push for critiques that challenge, that remain sensitive to the socio-historic contexts of the code, the institutional investments, the ideologies and ontologies of code. Code is already studied in the contexts of computer science, while the humanities have something unique to offer in the form of critical analysis and explication or, if you will, exegesis.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Henry Jenkins: How Can We Understand Code as a "Critical Artifact"?: USC's Mark Marino on Critical Code Studies (Part One)
Posted by siobhan at 5:04 AM