Reiterative Criticism

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)

Works Cited:

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



2 thoughts on “Reiterative Criticism

  1. jpkatz10 says:

    I’m intrigued by the feeling of what you’re saying, but I’m not quite sure I follow the content. I mean this as a good thing.

    So, is what you’re saying that:
    1) Algorithmic criticism scares traditional scholars because they don’t understand (cannot readily see) the procedures.
    2) Just as it is possible to derive procedural schema from the obscurity of Grammatologie, it is wholly possible to learn how algorithms work, and therefore
    3) Algorithms-as-primary-critical-text is in fact less an innovation in criticism (a whole new approach to reading), but a recognition of how criticism functions (critical texts are complex procedural schema)

    If this is the case, and let’s run with it, for now, I think you and Ramsay have made a brilliant case for algorithmic criticism as a methodology, rather than as a tenuous subdiscipline (“digital humanities”). So, then, are you suggesting that we already do algorithmic criticism, as you’ve demonstrated with Derrida? Or that use of actual computer algorithms is qualitatively not much different than using a schematic thinker like Derrida?

    A follow-up question before you’ve given the answer: If we are to make use of actual computer algorithms, will there be room for critique of the algorithm-as-primary-text in the same way that one can read Derrida not as a tool, but as a text that itself needs critique? That is to say, can one question the validity of an algorithm in a similar fashion that a wise, well-experienced Marxist professor might critique Derrida? An algorithm can be well- or ill-formed, but can it be subjectively scrutinized? Or, in fact, is its inability to be subjectively scrutinized its strength (as I think Ramsay might argue)?

    PS. “Schema” in the French is “schéma,” so I think your argument is safe.

    • Chris Barnes says:

      Though I know this question is specifically about what Joe thinks, perhaps looking at what Ramsay says about Sedgwick’s homosocial triangle: “The triangle indeed functions not as an algorithm, but as something more basic: a pattern transducer — a machine for mapping one symbol set onto another. Rhetorically, it asks, ‘Have you ever read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a triangle?'” (55). A bit later, he writes, “[a]lgorithmic criticism is, in this sense, nothing more than a self-conscious attempt to place such re-performances into a computational environment. But within this move there lies a fundamental remonstration against our anxiety about the relationship between text and reading” (57).

      Is the algorithm nothing more than the computer’s version of deformance (which is what he labels Sedgwick’s triangle)? That at least seems to be what Ramsay implies in his use of Sedgwick.

      And, again, to answer questions that are not for me, it seems that if the algorithm becomes a widely used tool within the humanities (as unlikely as that seems), one would need to be self-reflexive about what constitutes a “good” algorithm and what constitutes a poorly written one. Of course, that would also mean that more scholars in the humanities would need to be come familiar with programming…

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