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Joining the Software Studies Initiative at UCSD at WRT: Writer Response Theory

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Software Studies at UCSD

I’ve recently joined the Software Studies Initiative at U. California San Diego, where I’ll be working full-time doing software and code research from humanities and social sciences perspectives. Here’s the hiring announcement from

Jeremy is appointed to Software Studies with support from the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) and the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts (CRCA). He will be working with Lev Manovich (Professor, Visual Arts) and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Assistant Professor, Communication) to develop models and tools for the cultural criticism of software, establish the field as a complement to existing research in cyberculture and new media, and investigate how next generation cyberinfrastructure technologies can be used by humanists, social scientists, and cultural practitioners.

I’ll be working at UCSD with Lev Manovich and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, both familiar figures to WRT readers. Noah was kind enough to recently announce my hire (alongside my dissertation) over at Grand Text Auto. My current project is organizing field-building activities for software studies worldwide.

This is the second field-building announcement at WRT in a month - Mark Marino is well underway in organizing Critical Code Studies, with the blog (launched on the 11th) already sporting an impressive array of participants and resources. This marks a new phase for WRT, although it is too soon to say whether all this frenetic activity will push the study of digital text art to the back burner or rather revitalize it (hopefully the latter).

So how do Software Studies and Critical Code Studies relate to digital text art? Both are larger critical perspectives (on software and source code, respectively) that aim at a deeper understanding of digital, computational art and culture. How do they relate to each other? That is a thornier question, and perhaps unproductive at this early stage in the game when each term is a flag to rally round rather than a nation with well-defined borders. Each could arguably be defined as a subfield of the other, although I suspect what we have here is a classic Venn diagram arrangement with a high degree of potential overlap.

Venn diagram

The question will be easier to resolve when we move from proposed themes to formal definitions of methodologies. If software studies is centered around the phenomena of computation, and critical code studies is centered on the ephemera of uncompiled source, what are the distinctions (and hence advantages) that each perspective offers the other? This is the excitement of the conversations yet to be had.

WRT will continue to feature objects of digital text art with discussion - but hopefully these moves to loftier, more general approaches will energize the engagement with specific examples. After all, if the grand theories aren’t productive in local application, what is the point?

7 Responses to “Joining the Software Studies Initiative at UCSD”

  1. 1 noah

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    Hmmm… I actually can’t think of any instances of “uncompiled source code” that fall outside the domain of “software” — can you?

  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass

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    Good question, I’ll take a stab at it with examples.

    The answer depends entirely on how we define “the domain of ’software’” - which I’m assuming is the larger conversation we will all be taking part in.

    For simplicity in these examples I’m imagining “the domain of software” as “computation, its penumbra as pre-computation, post-computation, imagined computation, representations of computation” and so-forth. “Code,” in the sense Mark uses it in his writings on Critical Code Studies, are something like “human-readable and writeable representations relating to software.” I suspect that “relating to” has an outer edge, however - here’s how.

    So we have LOLcode, which was first developed as a meme as a code-esque parody of cat macro photos, and was implemented later - that is, it was not only uncompiled when first written, it was uncompile-able - the code itself was the primary form of cultural circulation (and arguably still is even after implementations have been written and LOLcode has entered the core domain of software by becoming computable). Perhaps more importantly, compileability and computeability was an important but secondary consideration even in the process of LOLcode becoming software - the primary guiding principal was that the resulting esoteric language reflect internet and macro culture on its uncomputed surface.

    Then we have the widespread phenomenon of pseudocode, e.g. a java-esque code snippet written on an envelope at lunch by one programmer, meant to be taken by another programmer and transliterated into python / whatever. One interesting thing about this kind of code is that is an abstract high-level patois often specific to the group using it - like the original LOLcode, its primary purpose is to be read (not to be compiled), and, unlike LOLcode, pseudocode is never intended to have an implementation compiler developed that will bring it into the domain of software - it only serves as an ancestor document to second- or third-order computational artifacts

    Then we have codeworks, like Mez and her mezangelle poetry. Like pseudo-code, mezangelle is not compileable - no implementation will ever exist to compute it. Unlike most pseudocode, arguably no implementation of mezangelle *could* exist, and indeed there is no second-, third-, or nth-degree object that a typical mez poem requires or implies that is strictly computed.

    Somewhere along this spectrum, and definitely by mezangelle, I suspect that we pass out of the domain of computation (which is how I have tentatively defined software) but not out of the domain of code. These never-compilable (even conceptually) objects are what I’m imagining as the right outer edge of the Venn diagram, but I’m also imagining a graduated continuity between the two centers, with analytics relating to computational phenomena more helpful near one center, and analytics relating to non-computational cognitive and cultural phenomena more helpful on the other. (There would be a corresponding left outer edge that is software beyond the domain of code, but I won’t go into that now.)

    Of course, if we define “the domain of software” as “anything computer-esque” then all these examples fall well within its domain. But that’s the real conversation: How would you define software? How would you define code?

  3. 3 noah

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    Jeremy, I have the sense that you’re saying that code studies considers human behaviors that aren’t precisely the writing or reading of uncompiled source code — but that are strongly influenced by our cultural contact with programming language code (pseudocode, codework poetry) and new kinds of communication enabled by software (LOLcode). In other words, some of code studies is studying aspects of digital culture through the lens of, or as informed by, a perspective on uncompiled source code.

    Which is to say, there are ways of looking at LOLcode or codework poetry that are code studies, and other ways that aren’t, right? Looking at codework without any perspective informed by thinking about uncompiled source code has certainly been done, and I assume none of us think that’s code studies. Similarly, I’d say the ways of looking at it that are informed by thinking about uncompiled source code are also software studies. Personally, my rough working definition of software studies includes any examination of culture that is informed by close examination of aspects of software, including uncompiled source code. Obviously, that creates lots of grey area. But it also puts the small number of people who are making the specifics of software central to their cultural work — like people doing code studies — at the center of software studies, rather than in the grey area.

  4. 4 Søren Pold

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    Sounds really interesting! Just wanted to point to some partly European initiatives (with lots of collaborations from the US and elsewhere - I’m not trying to claim a eurocentric perspective…), that have gone on for a while and are related to both software studies and critical code studies. One is the Read_me conferences and festivals (Moskva, Helsinki, Aarhus, Dortmund) around Software Art and the software art repository. On these festivals things like live-coding has taken place together with other software and code-oriented performances and pieces. Artistically people like Alexei Shulgin, Olga Goriunova, Amy Alexander, Adrian Ward, and Alex McLean, theoretically people like Matthew Fuller, Lev Manovich, Geoff Cox, Florian Cramer just to mention a few. Matthew Fuller organised for example a workshop on software studies that will result in a Software Studies Lexicon on MIT next year. In Aarhus, we’ve worked with the cultural and aesthetic interface as our research frame since 2004 (, not everything is available in English, but we’re working at it…

    To my view, the code view is interesting, as long as it does not claim to be - or function like - the hidden or ‘deep’ truth, obscuring other perspectives related to power-relations, representation, sound and images, use, etc. Code runs the risk of being the new latin or sacred depth, or perhaps just a jargon alienating other humanistic researchers and ordinary people, even though I know that a lot of the proponents of code studies try to fight this tendency! Programming, writing, coding is important, but it is not the whole story. Software and interface studies complement this.

  5. 5 noah

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    Søren, great to hear from you. Yes, not only are we aware of these things, but Lev Manovich (who you mention as a theorist, and who is a contributor to Fuller’s book) is the director of UCSD’s Software Studies initiative.

    I can’t write more at the moment, but I’m looking forward to further discussion.

  6. 6 Mark Marino

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    Can you add your definitions of software and code?

    Also, can you mention an example of a reading of “codework” that does not address uncompiled code?

    Also, Jeremy mentions “Critical Code Studies” but you write about “Code Studies.” Are you referring to something else?

    [I’ve added some further notes over at Critical Code Studies, but I did want to raise some over here as well]

    When you say the object of study is culture and the means to that study are “aspects of software.” This is the most remarkable definition yet in its affinities with CCS.

    I’d like to follow up on Noah’s postulation about critiques that discuss “codework” but do not address uncompiled source code.

    I certainly see critiques of code that don’t employ critical theory (which does not seem to be critical code studies).

    I also see critiques of software that do not discuss source code (again, these do not seem to be critical code studies) — but are in fact the very call for CCS.

    Critical Code Studies, as I see it, shares interests with those projects but brings in specific critical lenses from outside. One might see a similar, though not entirely analogous, division between Sociology and Cultural Studies or perhaps more accurately between literary studies and critical theory.

    If there is a distinction to be drawn perhaps it is in the focus.

    Software Studies, as I see it, is a broad category covering a set of objects and their cultural contexts, akin to literary studies. This seems commensurate with Noah’s definition. And similar to literary studies, the field does not have to spend much time convincing anyone (whom I read) that software is meaningful to culture. It can focus on various ways in which software makes meaning.

    Currently, Critical Code Studies, however, is still an argument, a hypothesis, and a movement that is trying to consider the meaning that can be found in/made out of code in relationship to culture. There is still quite a bit of doubt about whether or not it is possible and relatively few examples of elaborated readings of specific lines of code.

    In some ways, I think Jeremy’s suspicion may be correct, that this is too early to be setting boundaries.

    Nonetheless, without being too reductive: Emphasis is important. In the world of limited time, critics must choose what they will emphasize in any given article. Do they make a choice between emphasizing the computation or emphasizing the code? Probably. Do they make a choice between reading the code and not reading the code? Certainly. This is the work that remains for CCS regardless of where it fits on a Venn diagram.

  7. 7 noah

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    Unfortunately, I’m really slammed for time right now, and can’t write a long reply. But it is, in my opinion, incorrect to say that software studies is the study of software. Rather, software studies encompasses the work of scholars who are using examination of the specifics of software to understand any aspect of culture or society. Obviously, using the specifics of software is a great way to look at things that are software — like games, versioning systems, uncompiled code, etc. But it’s also a powerful way at looking at the many activities that have been transformed by software. Not just the often-collaborative work of software authoring, but also the work of architecture or DJing, many forms of entertainment, etc.

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