TEvent 1: e|mediated typo|graphicacy 'Funny Signs' was an Acrobat 'visual lecture' for graphic design students, comprising firstly, a 'paper' on semiotic [de]sign-as-ideology, written and designed as screen-statements of 7-30 words (with occasional hidden rollovers), in large white text on a black background (36 point size on the original Quark XPress). The second part was a 'slideshow' of abou...

  1. 1. David Golumbia

    English - University of Pennsylvania

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One of the maddening limits of the deconstructive literature to this
point is its general focus on what Whorf called "Standard Average
European" (SAE) language practices, with only occasional glances at
languages that fall outside this grouping (and despite the elaborate
founding of the Grammatology on an example from Levi-Strauss involving
South American Indian languages). Not only do the apparent structural
differences between fully modern languages and nonmodern ones become
occluded from this perspective, though this is a matter for discussion
under another heading. In addition, what are in effect full-on linguistic
practices that have become highly specialized throughout the
techno-scientific, governmental and business communities are left out as
well. These international lingua francas, usually based on either SAE
languages or highly standardized and restricted parts of non-SAE ones,
nonetheless are very literally the languages of the technical ruling and
business classes of our world. To restrict the deconstructive operation to
the core conceptual texts of our academies is, to my mind,
problematic. For in these specialized languages of modernity we find
nothing less than the substance of actual ruling structures, which is to
say no less their failure than their instancing as structure.
Perhaps the most pointed and the most challenging example of this
neglect is found in what are easily enough referred to as programming
languages. It is a familliar fact that the computerized economy is today
run by programs written in languages whose names some of us may know
well: Java, C, C++, VisualBasic, and others. These workhorses of the
computing infrastructure are supplemented by hundreds of less
widely-distributed languages that comprise the life's work of the many
engineers who make up a large segment of many of our largest
corporations. The written output of these engineers comprise no less than
tens of millions of lines of code each year.
Our goal in approaching these materials from the perspective of
deconstructive cultural studies is not exactly to read Java programs (for
example) interpretively, so much as it is to outline and contrast the
syntactic and semantic patterns in the programming infrastructure with
those found to greater or lesser degrees in so-called natural language,
and just as much to help to disambiguate various registers of natural
language in broadly cultural-ontological terms. This is to suggest that
phenomena like what we call Java and C++ must be seen at least in part as
cultural-linguistic practices, ones deliberately different from patterns
in natural language but also reflecting a deep wish to bend language in
explicitly ideological ways, ones which often poorly reflect the full
spectrum of linguistic phenomena, even at a syntactic level.
To start this analysis, I attempt to identify the critical penumbra
surrounding several critical concepts within today's programmatic
infrastructure, referencing in each case the systematic features that seem
to me to reflect an attempt to set off, to remake our
linguistico-ideological base in idealized terms.
Those concepts would include notions such as script, or a univiocally
interpreted sequence of statements; executable, a program that can be in
its entirety run on a host; shell, or the environment with which the
writer interacts; instruction, or a direct order to the run-time
processor; the compiler and the parser, those who not only read but
actively-remake the statements into instructions.
Briefly, two themes are uncovered in these concepts: the notion of
univocal interpretation and the notion of execution or running the
program, as specifically innovative with respect to previous technologies
of writing. Like the languages of mathematics and logic, the univocality
of programming languages tamps down much of the inherent polysemy in most
linguistic phenomena. But where logic and mathematics required human
intervention to be realized in human-level applications, programming
languages take English-style words as objects and include within them the
ability to execute. The difference between an executing script and one
that errors out is binary: either the function works as specified or it
does not. There is no prior written technology wherein the writer can
directly check his or her work to discover whether it performs as required
by asking the text to "run," and then seeing whether the output is as
Some of these top-down aspects of programming are discussed, with a
specific orientation toward the recent widespread acceptance of
object-oriented languages and of visual programming interfaces. In
particular the idea of a variable and its declaration, and the
generalization of that procedure within object-oriented approaches, are
discussed as central formations of the computational environment.
I conclude with some remarks on the omnipresence of a fragement of
English as a lingua franca in which nearly all popular programming
languages must be learned, and which is assumed for employment at most
companies using these popular languages. In addition to the very basic
questions often raised under the heading "postcoloniality" that this
phenomena suggests, it also leads to a consideration of some recent
attempts to generalize the language problem across the global computing
infrastructure and, thus, to the question whether a deconstructive
practice is in fact conceivable, practicable within the computational
There is a fine line of continuity from the focus on Logical Form
(LF) and its avatars within contemporary linguistics and philosophy to the
supposedly natural emergence of computing environments that rely on
univocal interpretation. While the details of that line are outside the
scope of this talk, it is clear that programming languages, as Logical
Form given spirit no less than life, offer an idealization of linguistic
practice that may do a disservice to those who speak them.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at New York University

New York, NY, United States

July 13, 2001 - July 16, 2001

94 works by 167 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (21), ALLC/EADH (28), ACH/ALLC (13)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC