Session Proposal: Critical Code Studies

This session proposal overlaps with Patrick’s idea for a humanities coding session, but it’s different enough that I thought it might warrant its own session. Whereas Patrick would like to draw together people who write or hack code in a digital humanities context, I’d like to bring together people who are interested in the critical reading of code as a media object.

Critical code studies is an emerging field related to software studies and platform studies, but it’s more closely attuned to the code itself of a program rather than the program’s interface and usability (as in software studies) or its underlying hardware (as in platform studies). (NOTE: I’ve ridiculously mischaracterized software studies and platform studies here. In fact, according to Nick Montfort’s original formulation of platform studies, code is an integral component of the overall platform, meaning critical code studies is actually a subset of platform studies.)

Critical code studies might look at the algorithms of a program, the programmer’s inline comments to the code, or the way code is hacked and transmitted. It borrows many of the tools of literary and historical scholarship, but infuses them with what Katherine Hayles describes as “media-specific analysis.” Mark Marino has a good introduction to critical code studies, and I’d humbly recommend my own look at the code of SimCity as another example of critical code studies.

My interest in code studies is pedagogical as much as it is methodological. Code is not just for coders. I believe that as digital humanists, we need to teach everyday people, and in particular, nonprogramming undergraduate students, what Michael Mateas calls procedural literacy. This session, then, would serve as an introduction to critical code studies, and I’d stress that no programming experience is necessary. If you know how to read, you can begin reading code. And if you know how to read critically, you can begin reading code critically.


  1. Trevor Owens

    Great topic Mark. In terms of the session do you want to have a general conversation about the idea? Or, should we try and come up with some code snippet examples and try and break into groups and do some interpreting?

    In the case of the former, I would want to get into it with people about the inherent ambiguity of interpreting code. It just seems to me that code, while very interesting to study, really only makes sense in a broader notion of software studies and or platform studies where one would imagine interpreting software as traces that we need to contextualize with any other materials (ie, dev documents, arguments in the forums, discussions between users, etc) In this case I would be interested in why code gets special treatment and privilege over the other artifacts that make up our historical record of software. For example, software documentation would seem to be as rich a set of materials for analysis as code itself.

    In the case of the latter, I could imagine that we could pull some fun code snippets from some of the open source versions of a bunch of games (Or any software for that matter, but I just imagine it is way more involved to get into analysis of something that is less grandiose).

    For example, we could dig into something like the Indian Settlements Schema file in FreeCol see freecol.svn.sourceforge.net/viewvc/freecol/freecol/trunk/schema/data/data-indianSettlement.xsd?revision=8212&view=markup

  2. Brian Croxall

    I’d like the opportunity to get an overview to Critical Code Studies.

    I agree with Trevor that reading code must necessarily be ambiguous…but that’s just shows that it is indeed a linguistic act(ion) (and a performative one at that). For that reason, I don’t know that we have to consider the full context. We don’t have to have Jhumpa Lahiri’s manuscripts, her emails, diaries, or grocery lists to do some analysis of The Namesake. To what degree is/should code be any different? There are naturally scholars and scholarly approaches that would like or benefit from those additional materials, but it isn’t per force necessary. It’s interesting to ask, then, to what degree CCS is a return to formalism…

  3. Jean Bauer

    Some possible materials — and Mark I know you already know this, but . . .

    HASTAC Scholars did a online forum on Critical Code Studies back in January. I hosted the Code Critique spin off. There were some great conversations in the main thread (and some cool code bits in the Critique section.



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