What if we treat algorithms as primary theoretical texts? This seems to be, beyond suggestions rehashed from other theorists, one of Setphen Ramsay’s primary contributions to the matrices of questions that constitute the Digital Humanities in Reading Machines.
In order to write the program, the critic must consider the “how to” of a deformative operation, but once that text is written, the output will be one that places the same critic into a critical relationship not only with the text of the result but with the text of the program as well. (66)
Aside from his work with the Oulipo and the Fibonacci sequence, however, Ramsey provides few examples of how this interaction may function. In looking at the code he does make an important distinction between the “procedural,” and the “functional.” While the functional describes a relationship, the procedural, that is, code, can “perform the relationships it describes” (65).
My question, if one would want to use code, procedures, as interpretive “texts,” where does this kind of text stand in relation to other forms of critical-text-as-primary-text? To respond, I look to the similarity of Derrida’s Of Grammatology to Ramsay’s description of code as a primary text. Here, Derrida describes Rousseau’s hiding and showing himself through writing:
Let us note that the economy is perhaps indicated in the following: the operation that substitutes writing for speech also replaces presence by value: to the I am or the I am present thus sacrificed, a what I am or a what I am worth is preferred. “If I were present, one would never know what I was worth.” I renounce my present life, my present and concrete existence in order to make myself known in the ideality of truth and value. A well-known schema. (142)
Ultimately, Derrida works toward his conclusion of irreconcilable meaning: “Difference produces what it forbids, makes possible the very thing that it makes impossible” (143). However, what interests me in the above passage is the way in which Derrida restates—neatly by the sentence—Rousseau’s logic a number of times and turns it over to make it seem a schema!* Once he states it three times, after all, it seems quite old-hat.
In this way, Derrida codifies and generates a procedure and a formula from the intelligence he sees in Rousseau’s writing: procedural in that Derrida’s writing is performing the work that he describes (deconstructing) while, at once, generating for us a formula (a schema) that describes Rousseau’s logic. The formula, not as immediately apparent, one might say is the average amalgamation of the statements that Derrida puts forth, the abstract description of all three statements.
Indeed, what may upset traditional scholars about the computer-aided analysis is that, beyond word counting and data mining, the procedures are hidden. Knowing the procedure, allowing one to put the code in open conversation with the critical work it performs, removes the threat: “For surely there is nothing in the procedure that makes any claim to truth value beyond what is already stipulated in the critical act” (80). However unclear one may find Derrida’s writing, there is his procedure, laid out and labeled.
*Not sure from what Spivak translates “schema,” nevertheless:
1.a. “Any one of certain forms or rules of the ‘productive imagination’…”
1.b. “An automatic or unconscious coding or organization of incoming physiological or psychological stimuli” (OED)
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.
Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
“schema, n.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 12 February 2013