The following is an excerpt from a draft of my masters thesis’s Theory chapter, with minor mechanical revisions to fit the web. This chapter originally grew from my earlier post here, A Philology for Computer Science.
I wrote this chapter first on paper.
Coming from a background that has been a literal dualism between the technical and humanities fields, it has understandably been an endeavor, over the two years of this present masters, to join the two. My approach has not been to find a dialetics between the two, but to discover a hermeneutics and an ethics that exists within them both without failing to resist their conventional division.
I believe that I have found this, and I consider this a foundation in a theory of communication.
In writing that initial attempt at this chapter, I strove to mirror the tone and techniques of Burke in developing his theory of identification. The draft drew philologically from many sources, each section heading of that pen-and-ink chapter representing not what that section grew to become, but the idea I had in mind as I began to explore its boundaries. I have since transcribed, revised, and shared that initial attempt with my advisor on this project. What remains is a clearer attempt at describing the mechanisms of that theory of communication, mechanisms that I believe are more honest and productive in describing what is conventionally envisioned as the “rift” between arts and sciences.
This presentation of this theory, then, begins with Epicurus, whose duty to language (deontologically) and preservation of the self (psychologically) will constitute the foundation of this theory with regards to knowledge, limitation, and communication.
My primary sources for the views of Epicurus is his letter to Herodotus, preserved in the third century in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers and translated in 1926 by Cyril Bailey; and the Philodemi Rhetorica, a fragmented work by Philodemus on Epicurean rhetorical theory written in circa 50 B.C., excavated at the Herculaneum in the eighteenth century, and translated and extensively commented upon by Harry Hubbell in his 1920 work by the same name. Epicurus fittingly begins his letter, in the second paragraph as rendered by Bailey, calling for Herodotus to strive to find the right language to convey his ideas, to strive to understand the ideas attached to words, and to “keep all our investigations in accord with our sensations.”
I believe that when Epicurus states we must trust the senses that this is not an absolutist, empirical trusting. Although his natural philosophy is a materilistic one, I believe that his trusting of the senses is better considered “psychological.” It is a trusting that has as its determined goal that same notion central to his philosophy, that life is meant to be happy. In this trusting, we strive to do our best with the senses that we have. Herbert Simon might call this a “bounded rationality,” except his models of man do not account for the philology of ancient Greek thinkers. If we forego this trust, then like the skeptics and the nihilists we are doomed to a poor existence.
I see the stick in the water and I feel that it is straight and I see that it is bent. This tells me that my senses are in conflict, but I nonetheless trust that I have proper sight and proper touch. The stick is straight and it appears bent. This today we can say confidently to be a phenomenon of the refraction of light. To the Greeks, this was a classical test of the senses; to Epicurus, this was more a test of one’s natural knowledge.
How do we reconcile the senses with knowledge?
I find my answer in Epicurus’s preconceptions, which were for him a solution to the problem of infinite regression. Taken psychoanalytically, however, these preconceptions are the thoughts that we have before we think them, to put it one way, or the encoded potential for communicable thoughts. These are the innates, the biases, the hypotheses, the abductive reasons. Before the reader asks which items of a human’s knowledge are innate (the “true” preconceptions present at birth) and which are learned (the “exposed” preconceptions that take root and materialize in possibly subconscious ways), I say that the question itself is moot by the time anyone is asking. By that age, one has been exposed to so many sensory experiences and possibly developed uncountable “layers” of preconceptions that teasing them apart from the innate from the learned provides little productive insight into the subject’s actions, beliefs, and statements.
Instead, what I do hold, I find in Epicurus a duty–an owing to ourselves and one another–to “feel out” these preconceptions. In this Epicurean epistemics, so to say, is it possible to make such conventionally dichotomous divisions between the acts “to sense,” “to feel,” “to believe,” and “to know” if there is no material difference between them? Are not they all varying degrees of rigor in that “feeling out” of Epicurus’s preconceptions? From the perspective of Epicurus’s materialism and our focus on communication, I believe that there exists no such divisibility between “to sense” and “to know” apart from denotational differences, and I do not hold that exploring those differences will be productive.
Asking, “How do I prove so and so,” in these epistemics would therefore be a less accurate reflection on the nature of knowledge itself than asking, “Why do I already hold the belief that so and so?”
I have no intention here for a philosophy that takes takes knowledge as a transcendent Truth or regales it as a matter of language; I do, however, take this for knowledge as communicable. In this philological knowledge, I posit that preconditions form and, felt out, get challenged, or at least they get conferred.
In the games of langauge, language is impossibly imprecise. Yet, to pursue Absolute Deconstruction is again like the skeptics’ poor existence. There is no “logic” to this statement. It is absurd. And yet for the psychology and cooperation necessary for a happy life, as Epicurus desires, we owe one another more strongly that in the face of language’s limitations we will try our best to communicate anyhow.
There is a selfish element to our Epicurean philosophy of communication here.
He strives for a happy life centrally. His ethics are an egoist’s–not an egotist’s–ethics. Happiness for Epicurus cannot be obtained by excess (like the nearby Hedonists), nor by social isolation. There remains space in Epicurus for professional contracts that grow, unforced and over time, into friendships.
To our Epicurus, a degree of “emotional reasoning”–in a sense other than it typically means today–is permissible. This “reasoning” is not an epistemic one conventionally. It will not tell us any Truths. Yet, in order to live a happy life, as defined by Epicurus as freedom from pain, it must be that when something sucks you have the right to call it out.
Consider one’s personal safety.
An Epicurean philosophy may hold that one has the right to promptly remove the source of the “bad” from one’s life. And yet, because our duty to make the best of language and because one’s beliefs are a “layering” of material experiences unique to the individual–and it is here that emotional reasoning meets epistemics, as we mean the two terms presently and not in general use–, this right to “remove the bad” is not free of cost. Once safety has been restored, one must, and I say “must” deontologically, reflect upon the means by which that removal was carried out.
It is here that we may see a call by our Epicurus for a love of education, for how else is one to think critically in retrospect and upon the natural laws? Lack of the development of these skills, Epicurus fears, will lead to an unhappy life. Just as excess is said to lead ultimately to unhappiness, so too would a lack of a right to self-preservation and also the conscience following that self-preservation as a regret–a regret of an action taken out of regard for personal safety, but a regret nonetheless.
But we must ask, what is this complete, “unnarrowed” human that is not afraid to appeal to reason both logically and “emotionally,” as we have explored above?
So long as Ullman’s image of the “Chess game” holds the highest caste in intellectual society–of which both academics and programmers may consider themselves–, then we may never be able to identify this unnarrowed self. Camus argues that this sort of human would be absurd. Left to logic alone–nihilistic logic–, why do we not all commit suicide? This topic grim, Camus concludes in Myth of Sisyphus with an image of the titular character –condemned eternally to roll a boulder up the same hill–, upon that brief moment when the boulder falls again, Sisyphus turning back down the slope, his life in remembrance, smiling.
Burke again may help here. That one begins to care about the dentist he has visited twice yearly for fifteen years–no one else is as such and such as my dentist–, Burke would elucidate the mechanics of the attraction here in a more general sense of rhetoric, a strategy he terms “identification.” It is here that our discussion makes a shift to the rhetorical framework of Burke instead of the psychological and epistemic frameworks of Epicurus, yet it is also necessary to hold in mind that the approach Burke takes to rhetoric, at least in Motives, is at once psychoanalytical, rhetorical, and hermeneutic, so our shift in approach is more accurately a reframing altogether, an expansion and revision, so to say.
So, let us define “identification” more specifically.
We may do this in terms of his Symbol-Dramatism as the recognition of functions of one’s own symbols being reflected in the functions of another’s symbols.
These terms, “functions” and “symbols”–as I use them and adopt from Burke–, are references to his hermeneutic theory. If we ask of some interesting symbol how it has provided agency to the author to accomplish their purposes, i.e. functions, and if we trace these identified functions throughout the author’s discourse, then we might imagine these functions piling up or taking shape into some hermeneutic “topology,” a term that I find I must introduce to distinguish between the Burkean use of “function” as singular phenomenon and “functions” as collective phenomena.
For example, with enough creativity and effort, a King’s throne can symbolize anything. It is the wealth that holds him up, literally, above his subjects, at the same time enticing him into a state of lull. It is a device for the author to introduce a dream sequence, or take us into the King’s thoughts, the lull of the chair providing the author agency to “pause” the action of one scene as we enter the contentions of those elsewhere. We ask, in such an approach, why we are drawn to certain uses of a symbol, and in this we find that shifting landscape of meaning perhaps concentrated upon certain peaks–thus the image and use of my term topology.
That we might desire to interpret topologies should be evident by the existence of dictionaries: they seek to make “clean cuts” of the topology’s otherwise raw “gem” that has begun to take shape through the philologist’s sustained attention to Burkean symbols and their functions.
With this framing of Burke in mind, then, his theory of rhetorical identification does not amount to claiming, “You and I are the same in such and such regard.” The theory certainly would contain that sentiment, but this would be only a small percentage of the overall theory. Identification is better fit by the phrase, “The way I so and so is like how you so and so,” except the placeholding “so and so,” as an act, might be grammatically replaced by any of the other axes from Burke’s hexad (act, actor, agency, attitude, purpose, and scene). Imagining a “scene” as identification then, it might go, “my situation is a lot like yours.”
Identification along a single axis of the hexad at a time is uninteresting, and identification along insignificant functions–of course you and I both own shoelaces, what of it?–is rhetorically ineffective. Show me why shoelaces are important. The bulk of Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives is, along these lines, written to address a “significance” of identification, to “feel out” its ways dialectically. Having identified identification as a human tactic of communication, how do we find its use in practice?
In that project, Burke spends much of the middle chapters wrangling with the motives of the second world war and Nazi Germany. How did Hitler identify, for example. The discussion he gives here is depressing and at times cynical (in the modern sense of the word, not the Greek sense). Yet, he emerges from this dialectic–and from this dialectic emerges–with a first principle of identification: The reason humans need a rhetoric of identification in the first place is directly because we are materially split. We are, by nature, divided.
From there, Burke provides us a warning.
For scientists to be truly impersonal–and thus resist the rhetoric of identification–would be a short step from seeing animals, nature, and enemy people as “things.” He also cautions against vaguely defined memberships, lest these be used to inadvertantly or purposefully discriminate–I don’t know what it is, but you’re missing that je ne sais quoi that Steve here’s got.
This vagueness is an interesting by-product of the mechanisms of identification, and the discussion of one is not complete with the other, so let us hold our attention here.
Burke names this vagueness “metonym,” “mystery,” and the “mystical.” I will use only the lattermost. The mystical is the building up of meanings–diverse functions scattered over a wide topology–under the name of a single, trancendant head term. To proceed building up in this way, Burke argues, is to approach, in the absolute sense, God or the god-man. In Burke’s hermeneutics, all mysticisms lead to and stem from the Ideal. That is the true power of mysticism Burke tells us–that “witchcraft” is language rhetorically misplaced from commanding humans to commanding nature. Yet, before he tells us about mysticism–and later at length the inevidabilities of hierarchies, mysticism therein contained, and our social responsibilities therefore to seek the right kinds of returns from our appeal to hierarchy, lest we go the way of the great war–, Burke tells us about Carlyle’s clothes.
Clothes are identification made material. In the practice of tech conference talks, we might see that clothes too contain laptop stickers, presentation slides, and technology demonstrations. Subtle clues in these mark, for we software engineers, our uniforms. Does she work on front-end? Is he a full-stack developer? Are they active in the Ruby community? Clothes are the material markers of yellow stars in the second world war, of red letters in The Scarlet Letter, of the triple parentheses known as “echos” that one places around a name on Twitter to denote a Jewish user. These markers, albeit material symbols, carry with them the abstract topologies of the functions their bearers have been exposed to and experientially built up over a sustained or intense period. Think of the emotional identification powers of armed forces uniforms alone.
Burke’s treatment of rhetoric, alas, goes the way of many in its attitude towards emotion. Equated–that is, identified–with the fairer sex, emotions get presented by Burke as side effects or targets of rhetoric, not as a source of knowledge in themselves or a goal directly as our Epicurean epistemics–and a feminist epistemics–would allow. Just as Ullman writes of software engineer’s narrowing of the human existance to that which is logical, Burke here does similarly with the symbolic. We could find interest in how the logical and the symbolic are obviously related yet not quite equivalent, though I believe a feeling out of their relationship is not at present pertinent.
It will suffice to call out this narrowing of the human experience–that same humanity he calls on scientists to identify with–and to note that in his dialectics he has limited the list of authors read to male authors. Lacking any voices of women, he lacks any perspectives on the sex with which he identifies emotions–placed carelessly on a caste beneath reason–, so his dialectical topology comes to be without any resistance that might declare, “Hey, that’s not fair.” The literature-as-experiences that he selects results in a building up of his, what we are calling, preconditions that represent only one side of humanity.
So let us not permit Burke to cast off emotions so easily.
Let us ask, why does identification even work?
Whatever the case, I believe there is a “rawness” that has the rhetorical power to identify any two humans. In contrast, this “rawness” is unlike the more immediate, yet limited, style of identification of Carlyle’s clothes.
It is this rawness–and a trusting in this rawness–that permits Epicurus to say that any professional relationship, given time, will blossom into a proper friendship. The narrowed self is a challenge to this rawness, and this rawness is a challenge right back to the symbols to which we restrict the image of “friendship.” Is friendship more than drinks at a bar? It must be. But to attempt an enumeration of the symbols of friendship–and thus a limitation thereof based on our unique experiences with its mysticisms–would be as well to forget how raw, absurd friendship resists reason. This desire-and-yet-inability to enumerate is itself precisely Camus’s notions of absurdity.
It is time to rejoin our discussion with technology, and so it is natural that we address the elephant of the discussion, the duality of man and machine.
Perhaps we could recount Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, in which the posthuman “cyborg” is provided as a metonymic image that challanges–deconstructs– the Western attaction to dichotomous language. In her reinterpretations, the lines between man and machine, in terms of who creates who, are blurred. She concludes with a call towards cyborg hermeneutics which she argues holds the power to bring us out of the dualistic vocabulary that has historically been used to talk about our bodies and our tools. Her appeal is ultimately one of language, as Epicurus likewise introduced his letter to Herodotus, yet not for a “common language,” but a means of discourse that is able to operate in a “heteroglossia.”
Or we could appeal to Anne Balsamo’s introduction to Designing Culture, itself a multi-genre work that evades dichotomous definition. Here she introduces the term “technoculture” so as to avoid pitting the two against one another, pointing instead towards “the details and situations when matters of culture were overtly discussed in the negotiations among design participants.” And although Balsamo is speaking of man in the scale of social enteraction (as opposed to man-as-biological-individual), still here we see an attempt to not let language and our existing vocabularies shape us. Our common thread in doing away with that dualistic vocabulary continues to be the above-developed psychological trusting of the senses, accumulation of preconception experiences, a sense of responsibility in our use of language, and a recognition of the power of the mystical symbols in language that–if not challenged–threaten to run away with our rhetoric, pointing it erroneously towards some false Ideal.
However though, neither answers our present question of what an “unnarrowed human” is. The posthumanist threads of Haraway and Balsamo here might state that no such definition could exist. I agree. However, returning to Camus’s lead, I find it more productive to consider this unnarrowed rawness illogical, undefinable, and yet observable in the human experience.
I believe we can see this in Ullman’s closing paragraph (my emphasis):
For now, I’m just going to enjoy where I am: at the beginning of a new contract, the rocket-takeoff learning curve, the exquisite terror of it, the straight-up ride against gravity into a trajectory not yet calculated…. If only I could stay here, inside this moment, before it slips away, as it surely will: a delusion, a sweet delusion.
It is easy to imagine Ullman’s car ride around the curves of California roads as she contemplates her newest assignment as a clear parallel with Camus’s Sysiphus turning back down his hill to chase his boulder once again. But further, I believe we also see here another important symbol for our theory of communication, one we’ve yet to explore.
In my revisions, I have found it most productive to consider two symbols of my own introduction: what I am calling the “colloquia,” a mystical head-term for the intersecting and plural spaces of human inter-communications experienced by the tech community; and “work,” specifically the symbol as it is used rhetorically or presenting as “clothing” to represent one professionally, neither work-as-production nor work-as-labor–though a feminist understanding of labor is certainly benefitial to the conversation of our “work” symbol.
Consider the image of the hobbyist, who although is welcome at the meetings of the professional, is rhetorically identified as outside the “real” conversation.
What is the difference between work and hobby?
Perhaps work in the professional sense is rhetorically equivalent with that of the open source contribution sense. Some engineers are formally employed in the first sense to engage with the community in the second sense. And yet, the hobby still stands as a separate symbol as regards one’s ability to identify as an engineer. Contributing to open source as a hobby is figured differently than performing the same labor professionally.
I offer one explanation: commitment. Contributing to open source projects, even when unemployed, carries with it the function of a commitment towards that project. One is identified by these contributions as having had a real hand in the work of that project. Together, these contributors fill the field of computer science with one new identity. Like in an archipelago, they are raising a new land from the ocean floor. This space is simultaneously their own and also an initiation into that larger island chain, the collective.
A hobbyist does not have this. Their land is a peninsula. They call themselves “Makers.” They are not creating new land, just keeping the longstanding tradition going that began with carpentry, ushering the past into an age of electric motors, literal cars in space, and an Internet of Things. And although there are some who may wear both hats, neither sort of labor consitute an automatic identification with with other.
In this way, the work of the software engineer as presented in our colloquia is a creating-of-something-new. It is a solving of a problem no one else has solved before, or doing so within constraints we have never been able to meet.
Of course we know this to be folly.
As we propose new “frameworks”–and every new solution just must be delivered as a repeatable unit couched within a framework–, we attach our names to the project of the community. We elicit a sort of control over the future. Anyone who solves this problem now owes something to me. To have a framework that every one else uses–this itself is not the identity of the software engineer, but to desire it is. Yet I say folly because there are no true frameworks. Every solution borrows from a larger, broader history, and in a different context wouldn’t even apply to the problem at hand. A solution is a paragraph in a discussion. A word in a wrangle. Other approaches to the framework’s target problem certainly exist, and yet to claim a framework is to claim a conclusion, that one may approach this problem always from this same perspective. By declaring that the discipline will now owe oneself, the script has been flipped on what one owes to the discipline.
Still, we need a–if not this particular–symbol of work.
Dialectically, it is this symbol that complements the Epicurean ideal of epistemology–our “colloquia,” a sensory space of knowledge-as-communicable–, for without the symbol of work, what is there to prevent the colloquia from becoming a room of starving philosophers? Nothing in our theory above prevents an endless “talking” or “feeling out” of our preconditions. All biases will be challenged forever–albeit important to challenge our biases–without ever endulging in life itself. The colloquia requires moderation, just as all things in Epicurean philosophies, lest we go the way of another poor existence.
The colloquia is, for tech, a fluid motion of communication passing from in-person interactions to one social application to another. Twitter alone has mentions, replies, retweets, quotes, direct messages, and private accounts, each with its own linguistic conventions, so it is easy to imagine an isolated conversation beginning in one media and being picked up in another, or a single conversation taking place over multiple media at once, kept organized only in the attention spans of the collocutors. The image that emerges here, as we step back to the continuous and circular scale of the whole tech community’s discourse, I hope makes apparent my choice of the phrase “intersecting and plural spaces” to define this mysticism above.
Here though, I want to ask as we move into our conclusion, can the colloquia itself be the subject of our work? That is, can we present as clothing a professional treatment of the spaces and manners in which we hold our discussions as a field and thereby identify as a software engineer? Can a theory of communication be seen as the work of a programmer?
I imagine, for some other fields, this may be so. Picture a knitting of NASA scientists, the lines between empirical research and progress-sharing blurred as they pass together in and out of conference rooms and labs. Here we may see the “lab” as an alternative ideal, or that to a parallel epistemics. I, however, cannot say for certain, as I know little of NASA’s operations.
I do say that within computer science, our work and our colloquia are not one and the same. The means by which we communicate is the subject of deliberation so less often than that of other topics, such as privacy, encryption, Bitcoin, and quantum computing. True, we may discuss the mechanisms by which we communicate, such as email, IRC, or Slack. But the discussion of the manner by which we speak is such a new topic, or at least a topic that is not typically seen as rich as those other examples–soon we will solve this problem and then we can finally move on. Such thinking pushes the ongoing nature of “manners” discourse from the scenes of our colloquia. “Manners” are just another problem to move on from, not a work to linger with as we would in a “lab” setting.
There are those doing work in this space however.
Ashe Dryden, for example, pushed for improved tech conference codes of conduct–or codes in the first place. Yet, this work, and a commitment thereto, does not yet seem to carry with it the rhetorical power of identification within the mystical software engineer.
We can see a “breathing” of our epistemics. This is a breathing that is powered by a sense of identification, knowledge rooted in sensory experiences, a coming together under or against professional codes, and a “drawing back out” in our attraction to a work we can add our names to.
I do not suggest that this “breathing” of computer science is bad, or that the lab is to be desired for our communal epistemics. I mean only that the intention and meaning of our work will be that which is born from our very breath, our methods of speech.
And so here I warn: the power of renegotiation of a technology’s placement within our society will lie in the hands of a few. This decision will be made in secret by those that hold the power of “last interpretation” of that technology’s product objectives. These are the coders, hackers, software engineers, and this is a decision, albeit informed by the colloquia, that can only be made material as a symbol of our work.
T. H. White writes in closing The Once and Future King, “There would be a day– there must be a day–when he,” the old and dying King Arthur, “would come back.” White is writing of war and the absurdity of honor. It is absurd because there will always be a King–Carlyle’s god-man, whose clothes represent the ideals of our society–, and Camelot is always destined to fall. One cannot put a name to, or a framework around, this King, because this king is transcendant, a thing always in flux. “Honor” is the symbol we use for the right kind of return from Burke’s mysticism, and yet it is a mysticism in itself. We are trying to use language to convice the world to put King Arthur in a box. And still language is limited, and still knowledge is communal.
It is all absurd. And yet, that is no excuse not to do our best.
Bailey, Cyril. Epicurus: The Extant Remains. Oxford. 18–55. 1926.
Balsamo, Anne. Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work. Duke. 2011.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press: Los Angeles. 1969.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sysiphus and Other Essays. Vintage. 1991.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto”. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. Routledge: New York. 149–182. 1991.
Hubbell, Harry. The Rhetorica of Philodemus. Yale. 1920.
Ullman, Ellen. Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents. Picador: New York. 1997.