Code From Information Theory to French Theory
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2023
272 pp., illus. 47 b/w. Paper, $26.95
Bernard Geoghegan’s Code presents a strong history of how the humanities of the 20th century worked in close connection with communication and information sciences. As Geoghegan early on argues, while “war” has served as a core narrative thread for much of media historical, archaeological, and theoretical discussions, there is another way to structure the historical periodization of information, management, and indeed code across the 20th century. Partly, one can read Geoghegan’s book as a take on the Cold War period of institutional practices that come to play a role as a financial and material infrastructure of language, kinship, and meaning – key investments of the humanities. But there are also other versions of for example (settler) colonial discourses that have branded the North American context especially (but not exclusively). Geoghegan refers to Jennifer Light’s take on cybernetics and welfare policy, but in this book he expands to a rich and insightful analysis of several case studies across the 20th century. Hence, the book moves across anthropology and communication, structural linguistics, and cybernetics, and of course as per the subtitle of the book, offering one version of the history of that peculiar (North American) thing phrased often as “French theory”. While avid readers of for example Lacan would already be well aware of the keen interest in information sciences (consider how so-called French theory visually look like if one would make it into a comprehensive map of diagrams that were employed across the 1960-1980s), the broader history that Code offers is very useful in showing how systematic, and underpinned by interesting power play, this humanities-information-data link was.
The book’s opening gambit whets the appetite: spatial enclosures of the colony, the asylum, and the camp become reference points for a particular material history of epistemology as it is practiced in institutional settings. There is at least a hint of Foucault in this opening. Geoghegan’s focus is on cultural techniques of knowledge production as much as it is on the conditions of their emergence – the particular “circuits” through which for example funding was channeled. Hence, the role of Rockefeller Foundation or Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation are examples of institutional and inter-institutional flows that come to characterize the formation of research themes and areas. Some quirky little snippets of institutional cross-fertilisation across the Atlantic also feature such as MIT’s Centre for International Study (CENIS), “a center of cybernetic research covertly linked to the CIA”, that co-funded Lévi-Strauss’ seminar on cybernetics in Paris.
Much of the institutional work are related to Geoghegan’s interest in anthropological field trips – especially Mead and Bateson – and their media aesthetic contexts. Besides modes of recording as writing or as still images, film features in this part as a central element (also resonating with such work as Ute Holl’s Cinema, Trance, and Cybernetics as well as others who have dealt with the media and anthropology link as well as the US Cold War contexts of the humanities) of becoming an active medium in the broader circuit of analysis from the family structure to different psychopathologies. This is also where the link to e.g. welfare policy – such as institutional practices related to psychotherapy and mental institutions – comes out clearest in Code, while the other side of the anthropological coin is in the institutional set-ups like Lévi-Strauss’ laboratory, the HRAF, which already in multiple ways incorporated “descriptive codes, punched cards, and computers” as Geoghegan quotes. HRAF comes to stand then as an early example of a cultural analytics, echoing a much later use of the term Manovich that Geoghegan plants as part of the Cold War context of human sciences done as bureaucratic data analysis. Here it is fruitful to read Code together with some other recent takes on the early history of digital humanities, such as Henning Schmidgen, Bernhard Dotzler, and Benno Stein on “From the Archive to the Computer: Michel Foucault and the Digital Humanities”. Foucault’s interest in archaeology is part and parcel this broader entry of computing into organizing sources as series, into quantitative methods and arguments, but also the capacity to reflect on such changes in mechanisms of knowledge production.
Back to Lévi-Strauss’s computational architectures. Picture in your mind an image of the famous anthropologist in a maze of a file cabinet data storage room while reading Geoghegan’s argument: “This synthesis [of cybernetic methods and anthropology] gave rise to a bold cultural analytic whereby vast regimes of human data were disassembled into informational units for cross-cultural analysis. Knowledge scattered across thousands of peoples, millions of texts, and hundreds of millions of bodies would now assume the form of orderly comparative data” (131). At least for this reader, here is indeed one of the key contributions that Code makes: it expands from the more recent data-driven digital humanities to an excavation of different uses of large datasets and a data-epistemology as part of many layers of technical humanities beyond the digital. It speaks both to the architectures and cabinets of information processing, as it does to what is lurking around the (archive) corner, i.e. digital computing.
This capacity to write one history of the changes in the humanities is intriguing and rewarding. On the one hand, it participates in shifting the emphasis on computational humanities to pre-digital times and to show the various political histories at play; of course, also other strands of computation, media, and the humanities (especially arts and design) could be summoned, some of which are covered in Beck and Bishop’s Technocrats of the Imagination that brings a different Cold War genealogy into view, one that is in a different manner experimental and triggers what becomes the core axis of art-science type of collaborative work. On the other hand, Code shows the value of historical source work as it offers an “archaeology” of academic forms of knowledge production that are inherently connected to also various difficult, ambivalent contexts of anthropotechnics: those techniques of knowledge through which “humans” are defined in relational and structural terms, which those relations and structures employed are part of how recursively we come to establish humanities. Gender and racialization play a role in this difference-creating machine, implicitly or explicitly. Code thus works with encoding and decoding as societal forms of exclusion and inclusion, of institutionalization and their limits. This triggers questions that are not only about recent digital humanities as about computational vs. humanistic forms of theory and analysis but about the contemporary forms of funding structures and flows that do not follow the same Anglo-Western institutional story and its geopolitical implications.