re: Reconciling Guy Debord: Coding in Grammatical First Person VIEW POST


While I don't disagree that computerization in general and social media in particular have accelerated or potentiated the development of the "spectacle", I don't know that writing code in the first person about it amounts to more than -- forgive the bluntness -- a moderately interesting art project.

And as art, I think it's only partially successful. Certainly, it troubles distinctions between writer and written or between reader and read. It involves and imbricates the writer and reader (I might question whether software developers are, strictly speaking, proletarian, but either way it is undoubtedly better for us to be less alienated from our labor). But are these distinctions always untroubled? Declarative languages and systems seem to be there already: SELECT this, that FROM there WHERE thus-and-such GROUP BY this. SQL can be read as an instruction set with the implicit imperative "you"; but that "you" is subjective, and when I'm designing or reading a query with any complexity to speak of, I find myself thinking as the database, mapping out the boundaries of my relations, envisioning my sets and tuples overlapping and intersecting. It's a similar story with declarative configuration using tools like SaltStack or Ansible. And thinking like this and working like this has not kept me from writing SQL to less-than-perfectly-defensible ends.

The biggest sticking point for me, however, is: why accept the Cartesian "I" on Descartes' terms? "I think, therefore I am" is not without presuppositions. What is doing the thinking, what is doing the existing? Are they necessarily one thing, the same, or even related? But dispensing with the unary "I" in this case puts us back at square one, representing software in more Deleuzean terms as assemblages of machines without identity as such -- not particularly distinguishable from how it's represented now.


This is wonderful, and you deserve a much longer and more thoughtful response than I'm about to give.

I'd like to bring in my very favorite folks up the Dark Mountain, Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth, who conclude their 2009 manifesto with 8 principles. The second of which reads:

We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.

I don't see a real problem/solution schematic to Debord's critique of an economy of tautological representation, in which we are all absolutely implicated. The irony here is that any computer-based solution is almost entirely a perpetuation of the problem of tautological representation.

Instead, I can suggest a painfully underwhelming, utterly impractical, moderately interesting art project. No, the real way to engage with Debord is not to just write first person code as we design AI solutions to marketplace woes. Just the same, the real way to write ok code is absolutely not in first person.
However, I think it is our job as software developers living in our time to pick up this job pseudo-artisticly, tongue-in-check, and try to think about it differently. We certainly need to think about it, and it's consequences, differently.

Do you agree with Debord?
Do you feel implicated in the design and advancement of the very structure he is critiquing? I do
What do you think we should do about it? Art projects encouraged.

I'm not ignoring the great Descartes-Deleuze structure you've built at the end of your response. I think this is truly wonderful, and deserves more time than I have right now to unpack. I don't often consider myself a Cartesian, but I see a great deal of practical value coming from an articulation of "I"-ness as a way to locate thinking and agency in a field that has materialized, anonymized, economized thinking and subverts human agency with automation, auto-fill, and auto-correct. The suggestion hopefully helps getting us thinking about embodiment, agency, and ownership in general. More to come - I need to come when I'm home with Deleuze.

Bluntness is forgiven and appreciated. Thanks for the wonderful ideas here. I had never thought about the subjective "you" in SQL and the room that leaves for thinking like/as a database. That's what I'm all about.


First I have to confess that I have not actually read The Society of the Spectacle. I have read plenty of people following or building on Debord, enough to derive (I think) a fairly clear outline of his thesis, but not the man himself. I see parallels to Baudrillard (whom I have also only read secondhand; I'm not really on my best footing here): the economy of spectacle is a semiotic regime, and whether on Instagram or in the replacement of the United States' industrial base with high-finance shell games, its development tracks the unmooring of semiosis from real antecedents.

The nature of this system is that we are all complicit; we have no choice but to be complicit, some of us more than others, and certainly software developers generally more than most. What do we do about it? As you say, writing more software won't help. Art seems no worse an answer than any other short of organizing, still a pretty fraught proposition in the industry. There's no gainsaying Vonnegut's remark about the power of art against the Vietnam War being that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder, but it's not so much the fault of art.

The Dark Mountain manifesto reminds me of Peter Grey's Apocalyptic Witchcraft, although with an artistic instead of an esoteric bent. And perhaps a little more in love with ars gratia artis than is necessarily healthy; but then, I always feel that anyone waxing rhapsodic about the revolutionary potential of art is trying to sell me something, doubly so when framed as apoliteic. And if we're going to talk about challenging the myth of progress and decentering humanity's place in the cosmos, should we be starting with Emerson and Conrad, or with Lovecraft?

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