Matt Watson

This text is not here

Matt Watson

“Isn’t here just there without a t?” – comedian Frank Caliendo impersonating Bill Clinton

I know just enough about computers and programming to be dangerous. My brother would correct me and say I don’t know anything about programming, because HTML and CSS doesn’t count, he says. It’s markup. Nevertheless, I like to fancy that when I write these posts and when I make HTML ebooks, I am programming.

Programming, coding, markup and technology in general haunt me, as I said in a previous post. When I make a post or an ebook or whatever it may be, and I slap a copyright and year on it, what exactly am I copywriting? What I see on the screen? The markup? The coding underneath the markup text files (Unicode or whatever it’s called)? The coding language under that?

Let me explain to you my metaphor for understanding computer text files. If you are a computer scientist, you can stop reading this now and go do something better with your time, because there are about to be more inaccuracies here than you are probably capable of handling.

I imagine thousands of rows of floodlights, with each row itself having thousands of floodlights. This wall of floodlights sits in the middle of some gigantic football field. Behind the wall, each light has a switch, and there is a man behind this wall responsible for switching these lights on or off. Of course, he must use an enormous rolling ladder like the ones in libraries in order to manage this.

The switch man is given a piece of paper that says which lights to leave off and which to turn on. He goes row by row and follows the piece of paper to the T. On the other side of the wall, the lights are now lit up in such a way as to look like a wall of text.

What is the text in this case? Is it what we see once all the lights are lit up, or is it the 0s and 1s that the man behind the scenes is working with to create this optical illusion?

My brother, Blake, is a mad genius, so I asked him this question. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but his answer went something like this:

“Young one, do you not see? The text only exists in the mind. An invisible idea, it is. What we perceive it as being, it is. Now, may the Force be with you.”

This was very enlightening for me, and it reminded me of a lecture at Yale I once attended (on Yale’s free Internet courses, that is). In it, Prof. Paul Fry explains deconstruction theory in understandable terms for a regular person like myself. You see, this whole problem of “what is the text?” goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, just like anything else. But the lecture isn’t about that. It is about how the question was treated by this guy named Jacques Derrida back in the 70s. Computers and the seemingly infinite number of coding language on top of coding language it takes for you to be reading what you’re reading right now, throw into relief, for me anyway, the following quote from Prof. Fry’s lecture:

[A] sign understood under the critique of deconstruction is something that is perpetually proliferating signification, something that doesn’t stand still, and something that can’t be understood as self-sufficient or independent in its nature as being both arbitrary and differential. It is a bleeding or spilling into successive signs in such a way that it perpetually leaves what Derrida calls “traces.”

And so then I went on to realize that my questions were so elementary. This whole problem of putting our finger on what is the text is a problem with pretty much any medium for expressing words, even “real life” paper and ink. When the priest kisses the Gospel texts, what is he kissing? The words? The particles that make up the ink that makes up the words? Is he simply kissing the content or idea behind the written text? Can you kiss something that isn’t there? This is just the example I thought of. I’m not trying to get into theology here, although one could if he wanted to.

This overthinking of what we are copywriting when we put the © signal at the bottom of our web pages opens up yet another can of worms: Who is the author claiming the copyright. The common sense answer is that it is the person who wrote the text, but common sense is no fun for a college-educated person like myself.

Let’s go back to our metaphor of the switch man and the wall of lights. Who is the author here? At first it seems to me that it must be whoever gave him the paper of which switches to turn on and which to leave off, right? Well, let’s say for the sake of argument that the author of these 0s and 1s just put random 0s and 1s down. Almost random, that is. He took the time to set certain parameters such that whichever random set he produced, it was sure to result in letters, maybe even intelligible words and sentences, if that is important for the sake of this argument. And let’s say that the author has not bothered so much as to look at the text he has produced, and it’s not like he can make sense of the 0s and 1s even if he tried.

So then, what happens? We look at the lights, and we read something very random, but it is, nonetheless, a text, whatever that might be. Who is the author? Is there an author? Well, certainly, the person we’ve been referring to as the author did, in fact, write the 0s and 1s under certain parameters. If we view his process as a kind of computer program, is the computer program itself the author?

Maybe we can settle it for the moment by saying the computer program is the author. But most of us would say that the author, to be an author, must be intentional. The computer program is not intentional, so it is not “really” an author, and whatever it produces is just a bunch of meaningless mumbo jumbo. In other words, we might say that without an intending author, there is no “transcendental signified,” to quote Prof. Fry, along with Derrida.

Fine, but just so you know, some people, such as Derrida, seem to disagree. They say that an intentional structure, such as a text, is separate from any intending author. Prof. Fry explains:

[T]o speak of an intentional structure as a center is not at all the same thing as to speak of an intending person, author, being, or idea that brought it into existence, because that’s extraneous. That’s something prior. That’s genesis. That’s a cause, right? The intending author, in other words, is outside, whereas we can argue that the intentional structure is inside. But that’s a problem. How do you get from an intending author to an intentional structure and back? A center is both a center and not a center, as Derrida maddeningly tells us. It is both that which organizes a structure and that which isn’t really qualified to organize anything, because it’s not in the structure; it’s outside the structure, something that imposes itself from without like a cookie cutter on the structure, right?

If we apply this to our metaphor, then it seems like we’d have to conclude that the author of the 0s and 1s in both examples of 1) intending what he writes or 2) randomly generating what he writes, is, in any case, an imposition onto the text. It doesn’t matter what he did or did not intend, because the text now in existence supposedly has its own inner logic and meaning. That’s why you get the aloof writer types that refuse to comment on their work. It’s why we’re still, in 2015, trying to figure out what “drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry” means. It’s why SCOTUS Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said in 1920 that the Constitution is like “a being the development of which could not have been foreseen completely by the most gifted of its begetters.”

Some people say, as I suggested earlier, this is all just a bunch of mumbo jumbo. Justice Antonin Scalia artfully rejected these notions of living texts when he posited, “You would have to be an idiot to believe that.” The same thing might be said about deconstruction. This conclusion is usually what I end up with when I think about these things too long and decide to snap out of it.

So, I will snap out of it for now. We’ll just put all this all behind us as a bunch of idiotic chattering. That is, until my literary theory class next semester. I’ll get back to you then, whoever I am.

June 16, 2015, Byram, Miss.