Computational Culture

a journal of software studies

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Editorial, Issue Five


Welcome to Issue Five of Computational Culture. The bulk of this issue is taken up with a series of articles published under the rubric of an exploration of rhetoric and computation, guest-edited and carefully introduced by Annette Vee and Jim Brown. We thank them and all the contributors to this issue of the journal for their work (and their patience) in putting it together.

In some ways, the confrontation of computation with the centuries old art of rhetoric was inevitable, once computation escaped its rather specialist confines in universities and the backrooms of large corporations. Becoming an ingredient in so many practices, practices that inevitably escape the presumptions of formal logic, a detailed exploration of the complex cultural status of computational artefacts as enunciative devices has been a long time coming. Rhetoric, of course, usually explores the virtuoso capacity of enunciation to secure “uptake” for its pragmatic actions as “persuasion”, a characterisation that makes the ethical and political potentialities of “speech” readily. Given the contemporary trajectories of computation, exploration of these dimensions is indispensible. However, saying that the confrontation was “inevitable” and “a long time coming” has, of course, to be tempered by an acknowledgement that it is partly as a function of the ongoing institutionalisation of the disciplinary hybrid “digital humanities” and the already well-established institutional position of rhetoric, in the US academy in particular, that the confrontation with rhetoric has come about. The publication of the eight articles brought together by Vee and Brown for this issue of Computational Culture builds on prior work exploring this link, some of which the editors flag for precisely this purpose. But readers will discover that alongside Lingua Fracta, Words Made Flesh, The Language of New Media, and Persuasive Games, a broad range of other conceptual antecedents for exploring the conjunctions of rhetoric and computation proposed here: for their collective bibliography alone – to say nothing of the acuity of their insights and careful development of arguments – the papers published here are an absolute goldmine.

Readers coming to this issue of the journal, perhaps, from other disciplinary or theoretical backgrounds and debates, or academic cultures where rhetoric is not such an openly acknowledged and supported part of the curriculum, might need a little persuading as to the relevance of a rhetorical approach to computation. Possible prompts are not lacking, though, particularly where politics is concerned. For example, we might choose to read a tacit reference to rhetoric into Paolo Virno’s well-known explorations of virtuosity in relation to immaterial labour (see Or, in recent positive reappopriations of sophistry (eg Lyotard The Differend, Barbara Cassin Sophistical Practice) and arguments about the regulation of language, a more direct highlighting of the links between persuasive enunciation and politics. It’s difficult to ignore the connections of rhetoric with issues relating to subjectivity too – fans of Freud or of Lacan, interested in the libidinal dimensions of computation, will find much to interest them here. Making such connections is, not of course, except in some intriguing and indirect ways, the main concern of the papers that Vee and Brown have edited together here – mentioning such connections is simply a way to point up the very considerable broader interest of work that explores the relevance of rhetoric for thinking about computational process, practices and platforms.

Questions of the links between rhetoric and computation are not the only focus of the articles that make up this issue of the journal, however, as they are introduced in a very and comprehensive manner by the editors, we can safely use the rest of this introduction to discuss briefly the other contributions to this issue of the journal.

In perhaps an unconscious acknowledgement of the link between rhetoric and educational practice, we have included in this issue a detailed discussion of educational software. Situating their discussion of Mitchel Resnick’s Scratch and the online community of projects it has spawned in the broader history of educational software, and, in particular, the educational debates which developed around the work of Seymour Papert (inventor of Logo), and others, Michael Lachney, William Babbitt and Ron Eglash focus in particular on the issues arising from the largely content agnostic position of educational software tools that adopt a “constructionist” stance. Pointing towards the ways in which content agnostic tools, whilst devised with the laudable aim of facilitating child-centred learning, nonetheless tend to favour the production of artefacts that have a highly recognisable commodity content.

Operating in an environment that is already so highly skewed in favour of the social influences of video games, commoditoys and so on, a set of tools that are content-agnostic will inevitably be constrained by such influences. Lachney et al’s account leads them, through a discussion of ethnomathematics, into a discussion of their own endeavours at building what they call “Culturally Situated Design Tools”, applets that entail a principled recognition that computational knowledge “exists within cultural designs and practices.” Beyond the specific interest of their discussion of CSDTs, Lachney et al’s paper is important for the way in which it draws our attention to the cultural specificity of computational knowledge and the complex set of negotiations that designing tools able to challenge the problems generated by technologies that deny their cultural situatedness. There is a complex politics to the content-agnostic educational software that is brought into relief here in a sensitive and nuanced manner.

Taking us into the more lurid and brutally codified side of the rhetoric of computation, Erika Robles-Anderson and Patrik Svensson  explore the ubiquitous – and ubiquitously inappropriate – PowerPoint, a software tool so common and taken for granted that we can treat it quite simply as an “infrastructure” for the organisation of speech and the logic of argumentation. The absence of discussion of PowerPoint – in marked contrast to the noisy denunciations of algorithms, protocols, bits, and other excitingly arcane-sounding elements of computational culture more broadly – is of a part with the absence of discussion of “tax software, bug databases, or personal calendaring applications.” Beyond the field of computational culture, some scholars have, of course, addressed the ways in which technoscientific objects get “domesticated” in everyday life, but even here, amongst social science scholars used to the mundane, software is usually absent.

Robles-Anderson and Svensson’s paper is important for its recognition of the determining role of business logics, and the long history of electronic data processing (with its roots in pre-computational reorganisations of communication in the workplace), in the constitution of computational culture, redressing at least in part, the marked preference for framing accounts of computational culture in terms of  the technoscientific innovations of the heroes – Turing, Von Neumann, Wiener (perhaps), Knuth, and so on.

What Robles and Anderson call “presentation culture” – “in an information society, nearly everybody presents” – is the consequence of this well-embedded but frequently overlooked stratum of business communication within the technological kitting out of the everyday. Intellectual middleware – Félix Guattari’s “collective equipment” – here becomes a critical element in the transformation of culture. Their review of the hitherto predominantly negative appraisals of PowerPoint and their reconstruction of its technical-historical genealogy is nicely complicated by a recognition that some users of PowerPoint have accomplished a modernist exploration of the specificities of the medium and that the phenomenal success that PowerPoint has demonstrated in insinuating it into the communicative fabric of contemporary culture forces us to revisit generally reviled technological determinist arguments.

If PowerPoint offers another, familiar but largely overlooked route into thinking about rhetoric and computation, M. Beatrice Fazi’s detailed exploration of the computational-aesthetic implications of the work of Gödel and Turing returns to the metamathematical – or, as she proposes to rephrase it here, the metacomputational, revolution of the early to mid 20th century in order to extract a series of arguments in favour of a reading of the “immanence” of the aesthetic to the axiomatically formalised logic of computation. In this view, the link between computation and the ticklish sensibilities in which rhetoric finds its fortunes, is not something “added on” in empirical applications of computation. Beyond the restrictively logical formalist readings of computation, Fazi argues that it should be read ontologically, short-circuiting the by no means direct link between Turing’s mathematical arguments and materially effective procedures, by means of a claim that reality as such is computational. This is not to say – and here the consequences of Fazi’s insistence on indeterminacy are palpable – that this yields a vision of the world as a closed, axiomatically complete system. As she puts it “there is a contingent ontology of computation that is to be found and discussed at the formal level.” The implications of such a claim are myriad and it is beyond the scope of this brief introduction (which has already simplified what is a complex and nuanced argument) to explore them. We suggest that readers take the claims that Fazi makes as something of a lure for questioning the many assumptions that we tend to make about the place of computation in culture.


In addition to such a rich collection of articles, this issue of Computational Culture also includes a number of reviews: Zara Dinnen reading Lori Emerson’s Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, Silvia Mollicchi reading Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data, a history of vision and reason since 1945, and Giles Askham reading Anna Munster’s An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology. All three books demonstrate, in widely differing ways that between them the reviewers bring out very nicely, a concern with the aesthetic dimensions of computational culture. Emerson’s ongoing exploration of media poetics, in Dinnen’s words, participates in a more general “attentiveness to the everyday embeddedness of digital media that is also an academic separation of the computation from everyday life; a move made so as to see more clearly the ways the computational works on and in everyday life.” For Mollicchi, Halpern’s historically rich and methodically open study offers a history of design that “asks, in an oblique way, what is the troubled relation between aesthetics and epistemology.” And Munster, as Askham puts it, unpacking her Deleuzean/radical empiricist critical exploration of artistic appropriations of networked digital media technologies, offers us an “insightful glimpse into the sticky, multi-speed movement of affect through contemporary computer networks.” In the heterogeneity of the approaches to aesthetics and computation that our reviewers succinctly underline in their accounts of these writings, the reader will find much to confirm both the pertinence and the vitality of exploring the affective, perceptive or sensory resonances that, borrowing a term once linked to Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy, “immanate” from computation more broadly. Thanks to Dinnen, Mollichi, and Askham for their reviews: we can stop here and let their texts, like those of the contributors to the ‘Rhetoric and Computation’ special issue, for which we are equally grateful, speak for themselves.

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