Essays

Essays

JavaScript Affogato: Programming a Culture of Improvised Expertise (2018)

Forthcoming, Configurations 26.1 (2018).

This essay attempts a philological, meaning a both technically and socially attentive historical study of an individual computer programming language, JavaScript. From its introduction, JavaScript’s reception by software developers, and its importance in web development as we now understand it, was structured by a continuous negotiation of expertise. I use the term “improvised expertise” to describe both conditions for and effects of the unanticipated development of JavaScript, originally designed for casual and inexpert coders, into a complex of technical artifacts and practices whose range and complexity of use has today propelled it into domains previously dominated by other, often older and more prestigious languages. “Improvised expertise” also marks the conditions for and effects of three specific developmental dynamics in JavaScript’s recent history: first, the rapidly accelerated development of the language itself, in the versions of its standard specification; second, the recent, abruptly emerging, yet rapid growth of JavaScript in server-side networking, data processing, and other so-called back end development tasks previously off limits to it; third, the equally recent and abrupt, yet decisive emergence of JavaScript as the dominant language of a new generation of dynamic web application frameworks and the developer toolchains or tooling suites that support them.

Editor’s intro to “Thinking with the Sciences (2): Language” (2015)

Cover of diacritics 43.1

Lennon, Brian. Editor’s introduction to “Thinking with the Sciences (2): Language.” diacritics 43.1 (2015): 3.

We imagined this issue within a series titled “Thinking with the Sciences.” Such phrasing suggests a scarcity best understood as artificial—meaning not illusory, but manufactured. It demands polyliteracy: not the same as polyglottery, but no less worthy. It also imagines reconciliation. This is more troublesome, if we also accept that the party tasked with reconciliation isn’t the party who produced the schism. And can we call it reconciliation when one party is too merely busy (in Heidegger’s sense) to notice? I began asking myself: Who needs to think with whom? Is it possible to do any thinking, let alone thinking-with, when one party is a source of such unrelenting noise?

Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication (2015)

Cover of diacritics 43.1

Lennon, Brian. “Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication.” diacritics 43.1 (2015): 82–103. Special issue “Thinking with the Sciences (2): Language”.

This is an essay on passwords in general and on three passwords in particular. That is to say that it is about both general and specific keywords, in something like Raymond Williams’s sense: words that carry a certain weight, at a certain time, in what Willams called the “general and variable usage” that overlaps with specialized discourse, but also diverges from it. Whose security, that is to say, in providing a key to meaning, is always also an insecurity, in “passing” taken in a sense that takes leave of gatekeeping. But this is also an essay on passwords in a technical sense and as an artifact of everyday life in the historical present of an information society marked by what Karl de Leeuw calls an “unprecedented civilian deployment of security tools and technologies”: an artifact whose broadly linguistic, even literary history may now be coming to an end.

Challenges to Monolingual National Literatures (2015)

Cover of The Multilingual Challenge

Lennon, Brian. “Challenges to Monolingual National Literatures.” The Multilingual Challenge: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives, ed. Ulrike Jessner-Schmid and Claire J. Kramsch. De Gruyter, 2015. 143–160.

Both social-existential and literary forms of multilingualism pose meaningful challenges to monolingual national literatures, but the reverse is also true. Claudio Guillén’s typology of responses to the “latent” multilingualism of many societies distinguished between mere Sprachmischung and a more radical literary bilingualism, and was conscientiously attentive to the social dynamics of domination and subordination that guide the choice of a language of expression for multilingual or equilingual writers. And yet, like most who have written on this subject, Guillén had little to say about what I consider the the primary counter-challenge posed by monolingual national literatures to the literary multilingualism that challenges them: the organization of the book and other print publication industries, which all too often block the publication of radically multilingual literature at the point of entry to the market or even at the creative source, barring access to the literary posterity of the library and archive or even dissuading multilingual writers from undertaking multilingual writing projects altogether.

Machine Translation: A Tale of Two Cultures (2014)

Cover of book Companion to Translation Studies

Lennon, Brian. “Machine Translation: A Tale of Two Cultures.” A Companion to Translation Studies. Ed. Sandra Bermann and Catherine Porter. Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2014. 133–146.

Electronic computers as we know them today were devised to perform ballistics calculations and cryptanalysis during the Second World War. In the postwar period, the U.S.–Soviet arms race encouraged attention to a broader cultural application of computing, in a vision of computers as fully autonomous and fully automatic translators of human writing and speech in natural languages. In the United States, the imagination of human language successfully manipulable by an electronic computer was embraced by some prominent postwar mathematicians and engineers, contested by others, and regarded with caution or dismay by most humanists and writers and many journalists. Debate over the technical and ethical limits of computing was widespread and energetic, both in the academic world and the U.S. literary and journalistic public spheres; literature and literary language had a surprisingly prominent place in this debate, as the last frontier for the power of computation and its ultimate test. As such (and in the United States, at least), the history of machine translation, or “MT,” provides a vivid illustration of the postwar conflict of what C. P. Snow called the “two cultures” of applied science and the humanities.

The Digital Humanities and National Security (2014)

Cover of differences journal issue

Lennon, Brian. “The Digital Humanities and National Security.” differences 25.1 (2014): 132–155. (Special issue on topic “In the Shadows of the Digital Humanities.”)

Umberto Eco has suggested that we imagine a methodological bifurcation in the intellectual culture of late medieval missionary Christianity, a bifurcation presenting two quite distinct responses to the biblical story of Babel and the post-Roman allegory of “Europe” it represents. I suggest that we reconsider some of the most important debates in U.S.-based literary and cultural studies, during the last two decades, and imagine them as genealogically sprung from this bifurcation in responses to linguistic diversity during the formation of the idea of Europe. Over the last twenty years or so, responding to world-historical transitions like those of 1989–1991 and 2001, the discipline of comparative literature has re-examined some of its key concepts (world, comparison, translation) as well as what is probably the most distinctive aspect of its method, acquired professional multilingualism. It is only more recently that a nominally newer formation based more exclusively in departments of English studies has re-presented us with comparative literature’s methodological counterpart or other, and with its own intellectual and also ethical challenges. That formation is the Digital Humanities, understood as what I would call, adapting a phrase from David Golumbia, a culture of computation — and grasped in its emergence after 2001, alongside a surge of U.S. national security legislation and institution-building.

The Eversion of the Digital Humanities (2014)

Lennon, Brian. “The Eversion of the Digital Humanities.” On Steven E. Jones, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities (Routledge, 2014). boundary 2: The b2 Review, September 2014. n. p.

To be sure, who could deny the fact of significant “changes in the culture” since 2000, in the United States at least, and at regular intervals: 2001, 2008, 2013…? Warfare — military in character, but when that won’t do, economic; of any interval, but especially when prolonged and deliberately open-ended; of any intensity, but especially when flagrantly extrajudicial and opportunistically, indeed sadistically asymmetrical — will do that to you.

New Stationary States: Real Time and History’s Disquiet (2013)

Cover of journal Symplokē

Lennon, Brian. “New Stationary States: Real Time and History’s Disquiet.” symplokē 21.1–2 (2013): 179–193. (Special issue: “Critical Climate”)

In what follows, I will suggest something not new and startling, so much as hidden in plain sight: that there is no reason to believe any new critical turn will prove any less resource-intensive than what preceded it, or that the tendency of modern research to what Heidegger called “the industrious activity of mere busyness,” and Harold Innis “the expenditure of subsidies for the multiplication of facts,” will be any more sustainable in digital media, for example, than it was in print — either ecologically or as a cultural assertion of civilizational modernity as fait accompli. To address the ecological impasse we now face is not to demand some productive new critical-theoretical innovation, perhaps, so much as some restraint of mechanized critical and critical-theoretical production, in itself — truly a re-evaluation of ourselves as we are accustomed to work. With masters that cannot be pleased, and little left to lose, I suggest, we might as well insist on this long-durational productivity of waiting for our work. But this need not entail what the historian Arthur Herman, in The Idea of Decline in Western History, superciliously names “cultural pessimism.” One model for such professional literary and cultural-critical temporization, in the new stationary states to come, might be found in a now widely proposed, if nowhere enacted revaluation of the essay and of a certain essayism; another, perhaps, is ongoing professional second language acquisition.

Can Multilingualism Be Simulated? (2012)

Banner of journal Critical Multilingualism Studies

Lennon, Brian. “Can Multilingualism Be Simulated?” Critical Multilingualism Studies 1.1 (November 2012): 94–106.

I propose to consider the question “Can multilingualism be simulated?” The term “multilingualism” is often used to mark one of the human social and existential behavioral conditions produced especially by experiences of migration and displacement, but also by special intensities of education. To the extent that it stands in contrast with “monolingualism” as marking the state-managed sovereignty of a nationalized standard, or written dialect, “multilingualism” is also often used to mark the violation of de jure or de facto state-managed codes for public (and certain forms of private) communication, including those employed in and for the regulation of both labor and education. If “multilingualism” is in some ways thus often imagined as a litmus test for what we might call the humanity of a state exercising its monopolies of both knowledge and force, it might be worth considering the question of whether multilingualism can be simulated, as the spoken and written production of the state-managed code itself can now be simulated by software.

Remediafication (2011)

Cover of journal Revue française d’études américaines

Lennon, Brian. “Remediafication.” Revue française d’études américaines 128 (2011): 30–45. (Dossier: “Le numérique dans les humanités américaines”)

This is an essay in critical history. It is an attempt to inscribe the dynamic history of a field into its new stationary state. One may read it as a kind of critique of pure media, or of mediation reconstituted as an epistemological object and object of triumphant discipline — “remediafication,” if you like. I propose that digital literary and cultural studies, in its United States context and on the United States model, is the site of a schism in humanistic discipline that attracted two very different and quite incommensurable critical temperaments, right from the start — one of which customarily honors itself by disavowing the other, and which has recently attempted to declare a kind of victory over its adversary.

distance@ (2009)

Cover of journal symplokē

Lennon, Brian. “distance@.” symplokē 17.1/2 (2009): 175-189.

The global village, the world imploded in a caul of socialized electricity, is privatized in the home-bubble, a nut or seed-pod of data, the personal-professional archive whose exponential growth in life online, this essay suggests, shunts modernist critical practice (ours) into reverse. In this closure of critical distance, down the longue durée of the library shelf, we see our own work on the “junk-pile of critical history,” “instructive as a hyperbolic interaction of critical desire with the modes of production” of our time (Willmott). There is no more necessary perspective than this; for scholarly production, today, no less than less rigorous forms of ubiquitous capture, compulsive diarism, and self-archiving, is an embrace of the surveillance state — as much as its self-study, in what we might have to call our “telepathy”: the pathos of (critical) distance, of distance which is always already “at” place. In nowness, in newness, the need to be “Herr von Vorsicht,” der Fernseher, tele-visor, seer and broadcaster, prophet, fortune-teller, astrologer, historian — scholar — are we not precisely archiving ourselves, growing what Adorno termed “herbaria of artificial life,” archives and anarchives whose endurance, whose beginnings and ends, as archives, cannot be known?

New Media Critical Homologies (2009)

Cover of journal Postmodern Culture

Lennon, Brian. “New Media Critical Homologies.” Postmodern Culture 19.2 (January 2009). n.p.

New media studies, we might say, has discovered temporality. After fifteen years in which its cultural dominant was presentist prognostication, even a kind of bullying, the field has folded on itself with such new guiding concepts as the “residuality,” the “deep time” or “prehistory,” and the “forensic imagination” of a new media now understood as after all always already new. This essay rereads the legacy of hyperfiction pioneer and demiurge Michael Joyce through Fredric Jameson’s call, twenty years ago, for a “deeper comparison” than new media studies is yet ready to make, even today. It argues that new media studies, as a disturbance in both the practices and production regimes of humanistic discipline, is and always has been best thought less as an emergent field than as a site of such double vision. If we still want to consider Joyce’s work a founding moment in new media literary studies in the U.S., it suggests, we will have to recognize the radical untimeliness of, and at, that foundation: the extent to which the negativity of Joyce’s secession from this emergent field must be understood not as the end of his influence in it, but in antinomian fashion, as its beginning again.

Gaming the System (2009)

Lennon, Brian. “Gaming the System.” EBR: Electronic Book Review, September 2009. n.p.

It cannot be denied that the works here under review are saying something new, if by “new” we mean also that which, far from being discovered in uncharted territory, was all along hidden, as it were, in plain sight. Sometimes, it is a matter of the structural amplification of scale through which the matter (the material, and its mattering) of context itself thwarts the circumscription of the phenomenological object, by reorganizing it from within (its image, as it were, re-taken at higher resolution); at other times, it seems necessary to look through the plane of the real, with and at that other, imaginative world of remonstrantive interpretation called ideology critique. Both are flexible and adaptive forms of the scientism through which the literary humanities in the United States, in its retransmission of French intellectual struggle, mixes discourse-analytic tactics of parallel delineation with hermeneutic strategies of serial penetration, and through which both its Comtean and its Marxist positivisms express, as François Dosse has put it of their transatlantic progenitors, “a certain degree of [Western] self-hatred.”

The Essay, in Theory (2008)

Cover of journal diacritics

Lennon, Brian. “The Essay, in Theory.” diacritics 38.3 (Fall 2008): 71-92.

In English, at least, essay-theory makes for a dialectically enlightening literature review. What one might, with perfect justice, call a vast wealth of work on the anarchival genre is now — has always been quickly — out of print, exclusive property of the scholarly archives through control of which we guarantee (less persuasively by the day, to be sure) our expertise. It is as though one were condemned to the archive by writing about the essay, that form so often and so vigorously imagined as a bridge linking university writing to what is left of the literary public sphere — or more recently, to “creative writing,” its institutional analogue. This article proposes for the figure or cipher of “essayism” three critical homologies: (a) as a name for the effect or intensity of “theory” in U.S. literary-critical and scholarly research practice; (b) as the object of a sometimes sincere and sometimes malicious mourning, in pronouncements of theory’s death; (c) as a mark of the indiscipline of “creative writing,” understood as a space into which English studies and U.S. literary studies have diverted the disruptively writerly energies of imported Continental thought.

The Antinomy of Multilingual U.S. Literature (2008)

Cover of journal Comparative American Studies

Lennon, Brian. “The Antinomy of Multilingual U.S. Literature.” Comparative American Studies 6.3 (September 2008): 203-224.

After September 2001, among other effects that may or may not have been foreseen, the new direction of US national political imperatives revived support for foreign language learning as a component of human or cultural intelligence. Across the political spectrum, lack of competence in languages other than English is now acknowledged as a serious weakness of educational, economic, and military resources in the United States. In the critical study of contemporary literature, the multilingual spirit of this new emphasis collides with the monolingual letter of the publication industry that produces books. In the production of research objects for scholars of contemporary literature, language difference, the ground zero of multiple language acquisition, is displaced by translative representation of language difference. To the extent that scholars understand themselves as analysts of already given objects, regarding intervention in the process of literary production as beyond their practical or desired ability, the premium placed on language difference here is insufficiently theorized.

Misunderstanding Media: The Bomb and Bad Translation (2005)

Cover of Criticism 47.3

Lennon, Brian. “Misunderstanding Media: The Bomb and Bad Translation.” Criticism 47.3 (Fall 2005): 283-300.

“Gadget,” we are reminded by Nicolas Freeling’s 1977 novel of that name, was in Manhattan Project jargon “a playful and harmless word for what we would call an atomic bomb.” Freeling’s novel turns the word over and over, linking the primitive device produced by America’s best minds in the heat of a just war to the hacked-out contraption always already acquired by its most bitter enemies, and reflecting on the inversions of the age of insanity opened there: above all, on what can only be called the Bomb’s satanic cuteness. In this essay, I examine the work of the gadget in an age of miniaturization: the molecular age of packs, bands, cells, all the social miniatures in the panorama of stateless (and indeed, headless) terror. My argument will be, first, that as a sign for inhuman efficiency, a form of the machine evolving by becoming more radically present-to-hand, the gadget is simultaneously a sign for the human value of inefficiency, of waste and expenditure. Second, I will argue that in the form of the portable translator, the gadget can tell us something about the human and the inhuman in language, that most artificial rose: about bad translation, or translation applied in spontaneous or calculated bad taste, and about the waste of translation.

Screening a Digital Visual Poetics (2000)

Cover of journal Configurations

Cover of book Media Poetry: An International Anthology

Lennon, Brian. “Screening a Digital Visual Poetics.” Configurations 8:1 (Winter 2000): 63-85. Rpt.: “Screening a Digital Visual Poetics.” In Eduardo Kac, ed., Media Poetry: An International Anthology, (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2007): 251-270.

Recent [2000] trends in digital media theory signal the absorption of initial, utopian claims made for electronic hypertextuality and for the transformation of both quotidian and literary discourse via the radical enfranchisement of active readers. The putative demise of textuality, inevitable or no, on the electronic network known as the World Wide Web is presently accompanied by a flourishing of poetry and text-based or alphabetic art that takes for granted not only its own dynamic, kinetic, virtual, and interactive visuality, but also — contrary to alarmists’ fears — a real, material, bodily human “interactor.” This essay offers an essay, a tentative gesture, at a digital visual poetics: a poetics that draws by necessity on an entire century’s worth of language art and visual poetry, while at the same time formulating ways to read and to look at, to “screen,” the new and seemingly newly ephemeral artifact of the electronic visual poem.