The Liminal Textuality of Comments in Code

Rachael Sullivan

Society for Textual Scholarship Conference, 3/8/2013

to read the full text of this paper, please view the page source (likely either ctrl+U or command+U in firefox and internet explorer; option+command+U in chrome and safari).

executability + action + autonomy

"Code is the first language that actually does what it says--it is a machine for converting meaning into action."

Alex Galloway • Protocol (2004) • pages 165-5

not so fast...

"Only rarely is code itself the primary agent in software. The shifting status of code--an ideal expression of an operation, something to be written, something to be run, something to be circulated, something to be upgraded or forgotten--attests to the involutions of agency attached to software."

Adrian Mackenzie • Cutting Code: Software And Sociality (2006) • pages 17-18

"Source code [is] arguably symptomatic of human language's tendency to attribute a sovereign source to an action. By converting action into language, source code emerges."

Wendy Chun • Programmed Visions (2011) • page 27

a modification

To transpose some of Galloway's words, here:

code actually does what it says.

⇓ ⇓ ⇓

actually, (sometimes) code says what it does.

or doesn't do.

Image of source code comment

Image of source code comment


(1) a transitional or initial stage of a process

(2) on a threshold

still life

"a static state filled with vibratory motion, or resonance. A quivering in the stability of a category or a trajectory, it gives the ordinary the charge of an unfolding. It is the intensity born of a momentary suspension of narrative or a glitch in the projects we call things like the self, agency, home, a life. Or a simple stopping."

Kathleen Stewart • Ordinary Affects (2006) • page 19

[see handout]

image of bird in flight from Latour/Yaneva's essay

Flight of a gull captured with Etienne Jules Marey's "photographic gun"

versioning flight

"the problem with buildings is that they look desperately static. It seems almost impossible to grasp them as movement, as flight, as a series of transformations."

Bruno Latour and Albena Yaneva • "Give Me a Gun and I Will Make Buildings Move" (2008) • page 80

bodies commenting

// HACK! HACK! HACK! (MohanB) In order to fix #64710 at this very late

From leaked Windows 2000 source code file private\inet\mshtml\src... \core\cdbase\baseprop.cxx

"Woe to me! I cannot continue, because I feel sick. Woe to me! The wind feels so cold and strong."

Scribal comment in Four Gospels, second half of 13th century, Athens, 161b

a paradox


code's ghostliness, invisibility, universality, and immateriality (e.g. Chun, Manovich and Galloway)


information forensics, code production and circulation, dirty matter and e-waste (e.g. Kirschenbaum, Mackenzie, and Parikka)

Image of George Brecht's Word Event and realization of Word Event

left: George Brecht, Word Event (1961) • right: Brecht, realization of Word Event (1962)

the fluxus event score

"[event scores] can be read under a number of rubrics: music scores, visual art, poetic texts, performance instructions, or proposals for some kind of action or procedure. Most often, when they are read at all, these scores are seen as tools for something else, as scripts for a performance project, or production that is the 'real' art."

Liz Kotz • Words to Be Looked At (2007) • page 61

language + performance

(1) Language: a script or instructions to be read.

(2) Performance: the execution or activation or enactment of the language.

language + performance + material objects

(1) Language: a script or instructions to be read.

(2) Performance: the execution or activation or enactment of the language.

(3) Material objects: for code, I would include documentation and commit logs, as well as Google's images of humans maintaining servers and "Commit Logs From Last Night" as the "material residue" of code. Not quite Kirschenbaum's "forensic materiality." Somewhere between forensic and formal. Karen Barad's push to see matter as performative ("Language has been granted too much power," she writes) is central to this third category.

Image of a Fluxus work by Robert Watts

Robert Watts • Robert Watts Events (Fluxus Edition) (1964)


Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.

Chun, Wendy. Programmed Visions: Software and Memory. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011. Print.

Galloway, Alexander. Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Print.

Jones, Steven. “Second Life, Video Games, and the Social Text,” PMLA 124:1 ( January 2009), 264-72. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. Print.

Kotz, Liz. Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Latour, Bruno and Albena Yaneva. "Give me a Gun and I will Make All Buildings Move." In Explorations in Architecture: Teaching, Design, Research, ed. R. Geiser. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2008. 80-89. PDF file.

Mackenzie, Adrian. Cutting Code: Software And Sociality. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. Print.

McGann, Jerome. "From Text to Work: Digital Tools and the Emergence of the Social Text", Romanticism on the Net 41-42 (Feb.-May 2006). Web. 21 Feb. 2013.

McGann, Jerome and Dino Buzzetti. "Critical Editing in a Digital Horizon", in Electronic Textual Editing, eds. Burnard, O'Keeffe, and Unsworth. 2005. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.

McKenzie, D. F. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts: The Panizzi Lectures, 1985. London: British Lib., 1986. Print.

Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.