Last year I learned about a rumor swirling around the comparative literature department at UCLA, where I did my PhD. Supposedly I had managed to get C++ to count as one of the three languages required for the degree. It’s not true, for the record, but it is a topic that comes up from time to time—substituting programming languages for natural languages. Many of us who work in computing and the humanities claim that knowledge of computation is essential background for all discussions that hope to bridge the two, not just for those who intend to make things for computers.
In fact, that’s the basis of most justifications for substituting a computer language for a natural one in humanities graduate programs. If literary scholars need to understand the languages that comprise literature, then, so the logic goes, digital scholars ought likewise to understand the languages that comprise computing.
When Tim Morton recently asked, Should Computer “Languages” Qualify as Foreign Languages for Ph.D.s?, he found an answer quickly: no. Here’s Morton:
UC Davis and UC Irvine now allow students to substitute one “computer language” for a foreign language. Of course I have no objection to studying codes and I believe in a form of AI (connectionism), so I’m not a Luddite. And I’m an object-oriented ontologist. I don’t believe humans have a monopoly on meaning. I think humanists should study all kinds of things (“carpentry” as Ian Bogost puts it).
If we allow computer languages, we should allow recipes. Computer codes are specialized algorithms. So are recipes
So what are we doing when we ask a Ph.D candidate to “translate” some software code? I hold that we’re asking her to do something very different than what we want when we ask her to translate some Derrida from the French.
Tim’s right to point out that the ability to translate natural languages doesn’t really translate (as it were) to computer languages. And in that sense, replacing a natural language like French with a software language like C is a mixed metaphor.
And it’s in that mixed metaphor that we find the very reason we computational humanists so scorn traditional humanists on matters digital. To understand computation one must look at all of its material forms, and how those forms interrelate uniquely and differently in particular platforms and artifacts. This is the holistic approach that Nick Montfort and I advance under the shingle of platform studies. (Perhaps you can see why the object-oriented approach appeals to me.)
In the doctoral program in digital media at Georgia Tech, we don’t require students to demonstrate monkey-like mastery in a particular programming language. But we do require them to demonstrate mastery of computational creativity. They have to be able to make things with computers, and we offer a broad range of ways to prove that ability. Not just some comical programming test, or whatever the equivalent of a language exam might be.
Here’s the rub, though: the same accusation could be made of natural languages! The idea that we just strap on a foreign language competence to humanities doctoral requirements is preposterous anyway. It’s an artifact of the linguistic turn, wherein language became a fetish that replaced more meaningful, synthetic evaluation of the various material conditions at work in particular systems of interest. That’s why Tim’s comparison of cooking is so apt. Natural languages are systems. So are computers. So is cooking. So is politics. We should choose the right expertise smartly, based on goals not on requirements or blind tradition.
Don’t get me wrong, I think people should learn languages. That’s not just lip service… I publish a Greek course for kids, after all. I think everyone should do this in addition to learning programming languages, not as a substitute. That’s because language is a vital and predominant component of human history and culture. It’s just not the only one.
Here’s a final provocation: perhaps the conversation about replacing program languages with computer languages in the humanities is really a crack in the wall of the very idea of national language programs. In the humanities of the future, perhaps we will we gather within the logical boundaries of specific media or specific problems instead of within the accidental boundaries of states and languages.