Machine Language and the Gothic – signal, noise, atmosphere

Posted by Evan Hayles Gledhill on August 15, 2015 in Blog, Evan Hayles Gledhill tagged with , , , , , , , ,

We often think of scholars and practitioners of the creative arts and humanities as very different to coders and system engineers, yet they share much in their approach to language and communication. Many people have heard the joke about the eggs and the milk, which relies upon the linguistic tick of logical dependencies. A humanities scholar or author will enjoy the linguistic turn as well as a programmer – we all understand the structures of language, and enjoy playing with the quirks of the system. Many of us interdisciplinary scholars who have worked in the digital humanities or the medical humanities have come across network theories and the like, and we understand the idea of a signal to noise ratio. N. Katherine Hayles gives an excellent overview of the history of the application of computational analysis to the human body, in How We Became Posthuman, addressing the way that genetic scientists unravelling DNA try to sort the ‘signal’ of applicable instructional code, from the ‘noise’ of supporting protein structures and legacy code from our evolutionary forebears. In looking at the signal to noise ratio in our bodies, we are looking to the heart of one aspect of the snape sarcasmdefinition of ourselves, our species. How do we declare what is and what is not relevant? We do the same with our language. When reading, when listening, it is not just the words that impart meaning. That language can mean more than one thing is both a great frustration, and a great joy. It enables us to revel in the great gothic sarcasm of Severus Snape.

Last week, Sarah Churchwell from UEA, as part of the Summer Scholars Seminar series from the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, presented on ‘Ghosts and Authors: Reading The Turn of the Screw’. In her seminar, Professor Churchwell highlighted the ambiguity of James’s text, of the multiple readings available, the unreliability of the narrator, and the pleasures this adds for the reader. The ghost story relies upon the creation of unease and discomfort, and James’s superficially simple tale does not just make the audience feel unease at the possibility of the supernatural, but also at the possibility that there is no such thing. Either way, the children are in a measure of danger, it is the source of the danger that we cannot precisely know. Henry James is the master of the signal to noise ratio; his short stories and novels often appear to be about nothing at all, to dwell on insignificant detail to an excruciating effect. He makes his reader pay unbearably close attention to the mundane, to highlight the moments of inconsistency, the absurdities, the stifling atmosphere of ‘normality’.

This ambiguity, the uncanny effect of looking too closely at the familiar, is at the heart of the gothic text. The gothic exists in the liminal realm where things are not as they seem, or cannot be seen from the current perspective. The role of the hero is often to sift the signal from the noise, just as they must find their destination through the fog. The pleasure for the audience is partly in the uncertainty that noise produces; the murky fog of atmosphere. What would the genre be without a good moorland fog, or dense city smog, to obscure the truth? But the pure logic of coding language, of systemic structures that depend upon logical causalities, does not allow for such atmospheric fug. What does a machine culture gothic look like?

cybernetically enhanced humanoids stand in bas, plugged into a machine
I am currently at work upon a chapter on the posthuman gothic, exploring the gothic aesthetic of StarTrek’s most frightening enemy of the Federation, the cybernetic Borg. The ultimate assimilationists, the Borg see no difference between flesh and machine, all is a tool to a higher purpose. With the exception of their Queen (a controversial figure for critics and fans), who manipulates emotions and performs gendered display, the Borg drones are part of a genderless, hive identity, they are collective. The Borg communicate through a cortical node implanted into their brains, direct sub-space telepathy. Their signal to noise ratio is exquisite. When individual drones are separated from the collective, it is shown to be the sudden intrusion of ‘noise’, like emotion, that makes the transition to individual existence very hard (“Descent, Part II”: TNG, “Unity”: Voyager).

The collective’s use of language reflects a low-noise communication channel; they assign numerical codes to species and locations rather than names, and they speak in repetitive, pre-established phrases. The famous Borg address goes ‘resistance is futile: you will be assimilated. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us.’ (“The Best of Both Worlds”: TNG) The staccato rhythm, the clear expression of intent and the lack of emotional resonance make the Borg sound like nothing so much as the original text-based quest computer games, like Castle Adventure. Deliberately so; this is how we imagine computational culture, this is how humans have created machines. Borg language use, is as empty of nuance, emotion, ambiguity as the vacuum from which their cube emerges, at terrifying speed, to attack. The Borg reflect the cold chill of space, the lack of atmosphere is a gothic absence, a dark void.

However, yet another linguistic joke favoured by coders goes: ‘a programmer is going to the store for coffee, his colleague says “while you’re out, pick up some milk.” The programmer never returns.’ The programmer behaves the way a computer would: interpreting those instructions as code to be followed without the input of freewill. In most programming languages this is called a ‘while-loop’. First instruction: While(a certain condition holds) Linked instruction: Do(whatever) As long as  the condition in the while-statement holds (the programmer is still out after picking up the milk), we end up with an infinite loop (he keeps buying more milk forever). The joke linked to in the opening paragraph is a joke about interpretation, it relies upon ambiguity – what the wife meant, versus what was quite possible for her husband to interpret from her sentence construction. The logic is sound; although many people would wonder why the availability of eggs impacted the purchase of milk, there is no clear reason why it should not either. The second joke however, no longer works for linguists and humanities scholars; it’s humour depends upon an understanding of specific programming language. For a human, to return after purchasing the goods despite there being no clear instruction to do so, is more logical than to perpetually purchase milk. Whilst we can view this as another example of the cold rationality, the frustrating dependence of the computer on rules without will, we can also see the possibility for a labyrinth. Another central gothic trope. To become trapped in byzantine pathways of formal logic, in which ones’ humanity counts as for nothing, is also a gothic nightmare.

We can imagine a Gothic machine culture as having two parts then; a clinical interpretation of signal to noise that erases emotion and ambiguity, and the potential for the construction of a labyrinth of logical systems that can only be ended/exited through paradoxically acknowledging the potential for ambiguity. Is Byzantine code, causing labyrinths and loops, simply badly designed and not fit for purpose? Can we introduce noise into the communication channel deliberately, without this being a corruption of pure purpose? Is there an aesthetics of code that can be said to be beyond practical application? Or is this an attempt to elevate the human in the posthuman, to recentralise something that is irrelevant? Do we even need fog when we have a labyrinth? The question, at least for this scholar, is

Can code itself be Gothic?

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