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Code as Conceptual Writing

Code as Conceptual Writing


Poet Amy Sara Carroll of the Electronic Disturbance Theater said something quite provocative and evocative via Skype during a discussion of the patently provocative Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT) at USC last Friday.  Actually it wasn't something she said but a combination of statements that has set my mind into this thread.

First, she said that she had told (Poet) Brett Stalbaum that the code was the poetry of the project (despite the fact that she has written a set of texts called "poems" that are embeded in the project).

Second, she talked about a lack of understanding of conceptualism in various discourse communities (though I need to go back to the video to see which ones).

Conceptualism.  Conceptual Writing.  

These words stuck with me (and I realize I am late to this particular party).  What if the code were poetic not primarily because it possessed semiotic patterns that mirrored and reflected those of conventional poetry, as in the case of some codework, but because it is conceptual writing?  

A little background in case Wikipedia is down (and excuse the abysmally hasty gloss): Conceptual Writing is a genre formally introduced by Craig Dworkin in 2003, which builds upon a tradition of "non-expressive poetry" and notions from Kenneth Goldsmith.  As Dworkin writes in the intro to UBUWEB:

But what would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with "spontaneous overflow" supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process?

I'll stop the quote there, as the hyphora seems to be pointing straight at such code as that in TBT.

For a while now, I've been trying to understand how code can be posited (by its authors) as poetry  -- beyond the realms of the intentional poetic play of coding genres such as Perl Poetry or, again, the cool creole of mesangelle.  Conceptual writing may be a main answer.

But certain questions persist.  Is the code become conceptual poetry merely by being framed as such? And more troubling: Could any code be taken as conceptual writing?  (Campbell's soup cans all art now, of course.)

In the midst of these open musings, I am also a bit concerned about clouding the discussions about code in general in the broader work of Critical Code Studies.  (These 500 or so words will no doubt mean that someone will have to write 50,000 words to contextualize these comments and tamper their side effects.)

But as I pour through the code of The Transborder Immigrant Tool and think through the place of code written by artists within artistic projects, projects with aesthetic goals in mind, I think I have just had an ah-ha moment.

Photo Credit: Kinsee Morlan

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