Notes for Bruce Janz “The Betweenness of Code”

Key concepts: dwelling, materiality, phenomenology, place, scene, space, topeme.


Related theorists: David Berry, Richard Coyne, de Certeau, Deleuze, Heidegger.

Code lies at base of mediation of media, and it seems our embodiment as well.

(np) The betweenness that has the most urgency for me is the one that underlies much of the media we take for granted in the contemporary world. It is the betweenness of code. If the nature of media is to mediate, code lies at the base of that mediation. We think of code as being the ultimate abstraction, and as such the ultimate placeless entity. We think of it as it was presented to us in The Matrix: the potential idealization of place, the world-destroyer that could potentially render all our phenomenological engagement with the world to be a self-constructed and self-fulfilling narrative. The move to seeing our biological structure as information processing seems to render our embodiment (which is, after all, our first place in the world) as another form of code.

Deleuze seems to put a negative spin on technology that affects popularity of programming accepted as a valid critical scholarly research methodology, an unfortunate side effect of his popularity in philosophy of technology and now computing studies. Does my lack of knowledge as familiarity of contemporary place theory discourse networks jeopardize my ability to usefully participate in the conference?

Theory of code entwining materiality, following Berry.

(np) Several possibilities present themselves as we think about code in this manner. We might regard it as the ultimate threat to place, and as such guard ourselves against it at all costs. We might insist on the real as irreducibly external to us, thus forestalling the potential for code to eradicate place by sheer force of will. We might prioritize space over place, and argue that code establishes free action in space while undermining the meaningfulness of place by making specific places interchangeable. Or, we might imagine a theory of code which entwines it with materiality. This is what David Berry argues for, a phenomenology of code which enables it to be seen as material. In this he walks a path with Deleuze, despite Deleuze’s skepticism toward code in “Postscript on the Societies of Control”.
(np) This paper assesses Berry’s argument and others like it which are rooted in Deleuzian theory, to see whether a theory of code which essentially territorializes and deterritorializes material space, could be a viable component of contemporary place theory.

Despite this criticism of a biased materiality of code reducing to Aristotelean phronesis apparent in Berry, and therefore somewhat shallow for being putatively limited to professional practices, leaving the rest of humanity to try to be a good stream or Serres parasite, it is nonetheless a fascinating position to consider the philosophy of computing from within working code, a position I take with critical programming studies, of which production, testing and release constitutes community and individual practices, and about which platform studies, software histories and programming studies depict some of the terrain.

(19) Code’s materiality is described in terms of its production, testing, and release (i.e., practices in which code is central). In other words, for Berry the materiality of code has to do with the material processes in which it is implicated. Knowing “computationally” is like Aristotelean phronesis for him – a “knowing-how”.
(19) This captures part of place-knowledge (it is sometimes about knowing how to live and move within a place), but it does not seem to capture the nuances of the materiality of place.

Semiotic sense of space derived from emphasis on material processes of code production misses nuances of Heideggerian place.

(20) Spatiality, in relation to code, is about network organization (in my terms, the semiotic sense of space).
(21) [This] version of materiality seems unlikely to lead to place as understood in the Heideggerian tradition. At best, it is semiotic place.

Coyne tuning of place invites Nietzschean response how one philosophizes with computers, electricity, programing, though multipurposiveness of code goes beyond cognition of embodied minds, into which machine intelligence subducts.

(24) The limit of Deleuze’s critique here, though, is that he is talking about the divisibility of already-integrated entities. Elsewhere (e.g., A Thousand Plateaus), he is more interested in the ways in which life is assembled from myriad practices and interactions.
(25) He is interested in the phenomenology of the life-world of digital processes. The habitus of the digital. This is one version of materiality, and a useful study, but it does not seem to help much with the question of place.

Digital rather than digitizing place implies more than phenomenology of use, leading to new term topemes, perhaps a kind of Bogost unit; discussion of nested levels similar to layered network topology model (Galloway and others) and my concept derived from control systems engineering.

(27) In the same way that phonemes assemble into intelligible words, topemes assemble place. The usefulness of thinking in these terms is that we can account for different levels of topemes, and hence, different places that nest into each other, that overlap, that are all experienced as different places.
(30) place is already digital.
(31) Topemes organize and behave like code, in Berry’s sense.

Example of Edmonton mallspace as digital and analog, exemplifying Coyne tuned place and Deleuze societies of control, de Certeau space is practiced place.

(36) Where I amend [de Certeau's] work is to say that the place that gets practices is not an uninterpreted given, waiting to be acted upon by humans and others. Those places are assemblages, felt as whole and unique, but assembled out of contingent, replicable and iterable components.

What both de Certeau and Janz seem to miss in asserting continuum between engineering knowledge and digital place (scene) is working code, the intrinsic value of spending time writing software and tinkering with electronic machinery: I believe this is because most theorists forget or have not given much heed to the fact that code is always a combination of machine and human languages, for example C++ and English.

(40) Code is the basis of digital place. Digital place is assembled, emergent place. It resists elements of the phenomenological sense of place – it is “scene” to phenomenology’s “dwelling”.



Janz, Bruce. “The Betweenness of Code.” Unpublished presentation. 2012. Web.