LR – software studies: in which a new child is born

While my concern in this Software section of this Literature Review is with work around protocol, it is important to locate that particular focus on code within a broader account of how ‘software studies’ has positioned itself.

The term “software studies” was coined by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media where he said: ”New media calls for a new stage in media theory whose beginnings can be traced back to the revolutionary works of Robert Innis and Marshall McLuhan of the 1950s. To understand the logic of new media we need to turn to computer science. It is there that we may expect to find the new terms, categories and operations that characterise media that became programmable. From media studies, we move to something which can be called software studies; from media theory — to software theory”{Manovich 2001a@48}. He later refined this definition, arguing that the original positioned computer science as a kind of absolute truth rather than itself part of culture. “I think that Software Studies has to investigate both the role of software in forming contemporary culture, and cultural, social, and economic forces that are shaping development of software itself”{Manovich 2008@5}.

Manovich traces software studies after 1991 through a number of key texts{Manovich 2008a}. His own The Language of New Media of 2001 sought to identify the specificity of the “new media object”. Although he approaches this question through the prism of cinema, locating software as enfolded with industrial and cultural shifts. He says: “software programs enable new media designers and artists to create new media objects – at at the same time, they act as yet another filter which shapes their imagination of what is possible to do with a computer”{Manovich 2001a @117-118}. While one could argue with the rather functionalist reading of software, what is important is his willingness to address software in distinction to hardware or a more widely drawn new media or cyberspace etc. Software is a problematic.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort’s The New Media Reader{%WardripFruin 2003}, Manovich argues, proposed a new model for thinking about software by juxtaposing historical accounts of computing with accounts of new media art (similar to the juxtaposition apparent in Galloway and Fuller’s work). This format, Manovich asserts, “demonstrated that both belonged to the same larger epistemes”{Manovich 2008@6}. Matthew Fuller’s Behind The Blip : Essays On The Culture Of Software{Fuller 2003} continues this theme. It provides an analysis of the power relations inherent in software design and development refracted through Fuller’s own software art work with I/O/D and Mongrel.

Fuller went on to edit a book that not only had software studies as its title but explicitly set out to define an emergent area of concern, even a discipline: Software Studies: A Lexicon{Fuller 2008}. Fuller introduces this first volume in a new MIT series as a “project” looking at the “‘stuff’ of software [which]… structures and makes possible much of the contemporary world”{%Fuller 2008@1}. Here the “conjunction of words”{%Fuller 2008@11} denotes if not a new the new discipline that Manovich and later Matthew Kirschenbaum{%Kirschenbaum 2003} identify, at least a new focus for media studies, media history and even linguistics[ref]As we shall see, there is a strain of software studies that looks to treating code as language.[/ref].

This emergence of “software studies” as problematic is framed by those involved as a discovery of an overlooked object and as almost a meta-discipline necessary to deal with a new episteme. In his forward to his lexicon, Fuller says that the text “proposes that software can be seen as an object of study and an area of practice for kinds of thinking and areas of work that have not historically ‘owned’ software, or indeed often had much of use to say about it”{%Fuller 2008@2}. This is less an announcement of the birth of a new discipline as the announcement of the discovery of one hidden in the old. The “object of study” has been there all along but just overlooked by media and cultural studies. Fuller organised the very first Software Studies Workshop at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam in 2006. Manovich reports Fuller as saying: “Software is often a blind spot in the theorization and study of computational and networked digital media. It is the very grounds and ‘stuff’ of media design. In a sense, all intellectual work is now ‘software study’, in that software provides its media and its context, but there are very few places where the specific nature, the materiality, of software is studied except as a matter of engineering”{Manovich 2008@7}. Here software is seen as so omnipresent and omnipotent that – in the sort of evangelical tones that the Birmingham Centre arguably used to position cultural studies – a society and economy soaked in software (as opposed to media) required a new meta-discipline.

Manovich takes this anointing of a new perspective further. He says: “I completely agree with Fuller that ‘all intellectual work is now ‘software study’’.Yet it will take some time before the intellectuals will realize it…Fuller’s statement implies that ‘software’ is a new object of study which should be put on the agenda of existing disciplines and which can be studied using already existing methods – for instance, object-network theory, social semiotics, or media archeology”{Manovich 2008@8}.  Manovich reads Fuller as arguing that there is no need for new methods or approaches (just as for cultural studies E.P. Thompson’s history{Thompson 1975}, Barthes’ semiology{Barthes 1977} and Gramsci’s marxism{Gramsci 1996} offered tools for the new discipline) so software studies’ novelty was not methodological but ontological. What it added was a new focus, a new conception of the “object of study”.

Manovich however disagrees and in his call for new tools for a new discipline he establishes another principle. He says: “if we are to focus on software itself, we need a new methodology. That is, it helps to practice what one writes about”{%Manovich 2008@8}. This hardly comes as a surprise from the man whose seminal, formalist account of the “new media object” argued for the specificity of its object and ways of approaching it{Manovich 2001a}[ref]Although one might draw attention to the fact that, as MichaelTruscello{%Truscello 2003} points out, Manovich’s account of new media positions it in terms of existing approaches: “the visual culture of a computer age is cinematographic in its appearance, digital on the level of its material, and computational (i.e. software driven) in its logic”{Manovich 2001a @180}[/ref].  In his later work he argues that software studies practitioners draw their legitimacy from their “systematic involve[ment] in cultural projects which centrally involve writing of new software”{Manovich 2008@9}. He does not talk about “practice-research” in the sense in which I discuss it in my Methodology Chapter, but the implication is clear. A dialectical relation between practice and theory/analysis is the only way to deal with this particular object of study. He even goes as far as to position other writers on technology such as Zielinski, Castells and Latour as “without this experience”{%Manovich 2008@9} implying a gap in their CV or even credibility.

This theme is apparent throughout the founding texts of software studies. Fuller as editor makes clear that “one rule of thumb for the production of this book is that the contributors had to be involved in some way in the production of software as well as being engaged in thinking about it in wider terms”{%Fuller 2008@10}. Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort in their directions to readers say: “understanding new media is almost impossible for those aren’t actively involved in the experience of new media; for deep understanding, actually creating new media projects is essential to grasping their workings and poetics”{%WardripFruin 2003@xii}. Kirschenbaum Geert Lovink, in his self-reflexive interview as introduction lauds “the artists and critics featured in this book [as] working with the technology itself. There is no outside position anymore, nor is this perceived as desirable”{Lovink 2002@4}. ’Michael Truscello even goes as far as to invoke Gramsci’s idea of the intellectual as one “grounded in the practice of everyday life and not simply an effect of oratory,” arguing that, “Manovich embodies this progressive creed”{Truscello 2003}. Most famously perhaps Friedrich Kittler wrote that students should know at least two software languages. Only then would they “be able to say something about what culture is at the moment, in contrast to society”{Griffin 1996 @740}.

This concern for practice and software literacy[ref]Which perhaps drives a conception of code as primarily a language.[/ref] appears as a way of grounding software studies, separating it from, or possibly privileging it over, other explorations of digital media and cultural analysis. This also has implications in terms of its account of the object. Software is not just something that is now so powerful and present that it demands explanation and exploration, it is also the means to that end. It is not something that can be put under an analytical microscope by a ‘subject’. As subjects we are enfolded with(in) software within a global, computational assemblage. Software is inescapable. To use it as a field of practice-research/critique is to acknowledge and work with that logic.

Unlike cultural studies which addresses practices and texts or cyber/digital culture studies which looks at practices and spaces, software studies has a specific object that it maps and traces across society and power relations[ref]It is of course important not to position Software Studies as a hermetically sealed discipline, a school of coders deliberately establishing a conceptual and methodological distance from “new media studies”, “cyberculture studies”, “digital culture studies” or other work on the Internet, computing or networks. A number of key thinkers display a concern for software within their broader work around informational culture{Lash 2002}, identity{Turkle 1997}, posthumanity{Hayles 1999}, cities{Amin 2002}, memory{GardeHansen 2009}, mobility{Urry 2007} and political subjectivity{Terranova 2004}. Perhaps to borrow a term from Fuller, the relationship between software studies and other strains of new media scholarship is more of a media ecology{Fuller 2007}, a complex ecosystem of mutual dependence and interdependence. Similarly it is important not to over-homogenise ‘software studies’. To continue the ecological image, there are a number of different themes living together. Adrian Mackenzie’s focus on code{Mackenzie 2005}{Mackenzie 2006}; Jussi Parikka’s on digital anomalies{Parikka 2009} and circuit bending{Hertz 2010}; Eugene Thacker’s focus on bio-code{Thacker 2004}{Thacker 2005}, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s exploration of programming{Chun 2008} and code as fetish{Chun 2010}, Olga Goriunova’ exploration of fun and software aesthetics{Fuller 2010} and David M Berry’s analysis of open source and ‘copyleft’{Berry 2008}.[/ref]. It is a programmes such as Microsoft Word{Fuller 2003}, a particular langauge such as Perl{Mackenzie 2008}, a virus{Parikka 2009} or an interface{Galloway 2009a} that allows one to trace the operations of power. And it is the creation of alternative browsers, programmes or interventions within networks by artists and activists that offers one the tools, the space, the insight and the hacker-like credibility to do that mapping. Without an object to analyse or to create as part of that analysis, software studies would be just another form of cultural critique divorced from the hacker communities it likens itself to and unable to distinguish itself from textualist and formalist accounts of digital space and culture.

With a founding story built around the specificity of focus, the distinct methodology and the concern for working with as well as analysing the code object, software studies, perhaps unlike other fields of digital critique, has by necessity had to develop an account of the object. My argument will be that that argument has been framed in relational, process rather than object-oriented terms.

Lev Manovich took that task head on.