Notes for John Bork “Core Exam Question 3”

(1) 3. Ian Bogost argues for “unit operations” as a new philosophical approach in humanities reasearch. Explain what he means by this, and put other writers on the core list in relation to his approach (that is, which writers provide support/examples of his approach, and which would suggest limitations or objections to his approach). Using examples from your own work on the relationship between programming and thought, show how Bogost's model succeeds or fails in accounting for your work.


“Unit operations” is an approach to videogame criticism articulated by Ian Bogost in his book by the same name that holds promise for wider applicability in humanities research. He is extending a concept well known in systems theory and autopoetic systems to literary studies. Operations are processes that transform inputs into outputs, as commonly conceived in systems analysis and computer programming. Bogost defines them as “modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive system” (3), and seeks to generalize the concept so as to consider the unit operations of not only industrial processes and computer software, but also biological systems and various creative phenomena that humanities study like poems, movies, music, and visual art. To make the connection to literary studies, Bogost invokes a number of philosophers, including Alain Badiou, Michel de Certaeu, and Graham Harman, to make the concept of objects common in object oriented computer programming sensible when speaking about literary objects. The connection is well developed via Pierce and Saussure: particular uses of signs, arbitrary symbols, are unit operations (23). In terms of traditional literary criticism, unit operations are like tropes, at their most discrete level.

Instead of considering a literary object in terms of genre, which he refers to as the system operations, he wants to determine the unit operations that are at work in it and how they interact with each other. However, his focus is videogames, which contain representatives of common unit operations such as movement, shooting, jumping, scoring points, advancing levels, and so on. “As procedural systems, videogames extend Benjamin's unit-operational logic of film—games create abstract representations of precise units of human experience” (114). Built from these basic unit operations, every game has a specific range of possible behaviors, although their permutations may be infinite. Moreover, videogames are built from computer programs, which embody discrete unit operations in both their hardware and code as both procedural flows and objects. The philosophy behind object oriented programming, with its key features of abstraction, encapsulation, inheritance, and polymorphism, both structurally ground unit analysis of videogames and offer metaphors that may be usefully extended into other domains and literary genre. His book Racing the Beam, coauthored with Nick Montfort, extends unit analysis to the physical hardware design of the Atari Video Game console from the 1980s, revealing both the social motivations behind its design, that is, the type of unit operations the manufacturer wanted it to be capable of performing (two dimensional maze navigation, firing projectiles, four colors, etc.), as well as the unexpected, creative uses of this very limiting architecture in future game cartridges. Unit Operations is rounded out with a number of examples of this technique applied to various computer games, as well as a number of masterful interpretations of traditional literary objects including the agricultural fair scene in Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

While none of the texts I reviewed cite Bogost (Unit Operations was published in 2006, I believe), a number of writers provide support for his approach. Gee, whose book is about video games and learning, gives an exemplary example of the strange connection between the unit operations of the virtual world and the physical world of the player manipulating the keyboard and mouse: a character in a virtual reality (Professor Von Croy in Tomb Raider) instructs the embodied player in the control function of bodily manipulations to machine operations, “The first obstacle, a small hop to test your—how do yo say—pluck. Press and hold walk, now push forward” (118). To him it is crucial that learning be situated, and what learners must do to become proficient in any domain is to learn and master the unit operations. Landow, in discussing Derrida's preference for conceiving texts as constituted of discrete reading units [gives another example]; the mourceau, “is always detached, as its name indicates and so you do not forget it, with the teeth,” and these teeth, Ulmer explains, refer to “quotation marks, brackets, parentheses: when language is cited (put between quotation marks), the effect is that of releasing the grasp or hold of a controlling context” (58). Analyzing a text in terms of parenthetical units, sentence units, paragraph units is a key work of textual editing, too. McGann's keen interest in the challenges of textual markup, and many comparisons between textual organization and computer programming, seem to reflect the spirit of unit analysis, even if he [McGann] is ultimately critical of the OHCO thesis of textuality (“text is an ordered hierarchy of content objects”).

McGann's ambivalence over the OHCO thesis that is the metaphysical assumption grounding the Text Encoding Initiative arises, he admits, from his and others' frustrations with coming up with encoding schemes for various literary works. What he describes as concurrency problems and multiple hierarchy problems confound the TEI's basic element-oriented markup, where the text must be divided into discrete, non-overlapping units. A number of essays in Electronic Textual Editing also reach this conclusion, and this may form the beginning of a criticism of Bogost's unit operation approach. Sometimes it is not obvious that a phenomenon can be analyzed in terms of unit operations, especially when it exhibits multipurposive behaviors. I think Bogost comes to this appreciation in his later work, especially Alien Phenomenology, which adjusts the unit operational view to account for its centeredness in the human observer.

Connections between Bogost unit operations and programming practice.

In my own work it has been almost unavoidable to draw connections between the unit operations model and thinking. I am keenly aware, of course, having ingested a great deal of Hayles texts, that the way I think about cognition is deeply biased by the way I think about computer technologies. I recognize a tendency in many theorists to quickly skip over procedural programming and dive into object oriented programming to create metaphors to do philosophy, while I often encounter patterns in critical argumentation that resemble recursive looping structures, nested conditionals, subroutines, and other unit operations common to the C language. Analogies in C++, an object-oriented language, are much more abundant, although more complex and nuanced because this language is built on top of C. Any API represents a set of unit operations, which Bogost presents well. Another form of unit operations that Bogost touches on with literary and cultural artifacts—copyrights and licensing—play an important role in understanding the social components of software systems, exploding the notion of APIs to imbricate their social histories, especially if they are part of free, open source projects for which the documentation is readily available for study. Actually designing systems, writing code, and testing it returns me to the multiple hierarchies problem so important to McGann, who gives examples of it with multiple drafts: in a partially completed, buggy system, the unit operations do not always maintain their consistency. Bogost's theory works well for finished products, like packaged videogames, published texts, and mass produced circuits, but may fail for works in progress. This brings the discussion full circle, I think, because Bogost disdains what he calls system operations, which he ties to traditional forms of literary criticism in his criticism of cybertext theory, raising the specter of analysis devolving into simulacral system operations, concluding that the crucial task is “exploring the manifestations of game rules in player experience” (131). Like the first question on modernism and postmodernism, I don't feel that joining the camp of unit or system operations exclusively is profitable.