Language as a ‘code’, behavior as ‘programming’, ideas as ‘downloadable’—these are all metaphors drawn from a cybernetic and technoscientific paradigm. However, predominant as these metaphors are in guiding the norms of our society, is not guaranteed, nor is it likely, that their explanatory power extends to cover all aspects of semiological activity—whether natural language use, economic behavior, or exchanging ideas is concerned.
A code is something that is really only virtually present: all that matters is that it be received and decoded at the target end so that the desired and expected action is performed. The code ‘disappears’ in or underneath the communication. Once the message or packet of information is received and processed, the means can be disposed of. I send a signal for a document to print; once it’s printed, the computer can comfortably forget the signal and ready itself for another. Likewise, all instances of reception are functionally identical, no difference or mutation enters in. When I download a PDF, my computer receives the exact same file your computer would. Obviously, the details of the code will depend on the platform, the OS, the printer, and so on; but no matter these details, whenever the desired acted is successfully performed, the code disappears.
In other words, with ‘codes’, interpretation is lacking. This is essential to its purpose: if the dots and dashes of Morse code allowed for interpretation, it would be a nightmare to send a consistent message. A code cannot function without a clear set of references that are regularized and repeatable. Computers function on 1’s and 0’s and nothing in between. But even word-based sign-systems, like crossword puzzles, can lack this dimension of interpretation and operate like a code. All that matters in the puzzle is to fill in the blanks with the right letters; once this is finished, there’s nothing left to do. And while thought is involved in finding the right answers, there’s no option about what they can be. It is retrieval from memory and highly associative, but in the end, the activity of decoding the code— by whatever strategy, along whatever detour— is all that takes place. To interpret a clue differently from what’s expected just means you’re making a mistake. It is also an activity that aims at disposing its means, the crossword itself, upon completion. That is why ‘cheating’ is both silly (because why play if it’s just copy and paste from an answer key) and irresistible (because cheating may be the only way to get it over with). Finally, once more all instances of solution are identical. The only variety comes in how one reaches that identical goal, but again, by puzzle’s end all trace of that process is invisible and irrelevant (unless, perhaps, you’re being graded on your crossword skills!). The ‘means’ vanish into the message, the proper arrangement of letters on a grid, which itself is meaningless once the task is finished, the challenge met and some leisurely pleasure produced.
By contrast, if each of us read Plato’s Phaderus, every instance of reception is going to be different, spark different associations, lead to different intellectual conclusions and existential choices. There will be ambiguity at points and dispute at others. Certain meanings will be clear and agreed upon, others will remain hidden, obscure, perhaps even unreachable. At no point will the text become disposable or lead to an identical result. Although Plato has been interpreted by nearly every philosopher since, none would be so foolish as to suggest that their interpretation could substitute for reading the text itself. So, there’s difference and supplementarity all along the line of transmission of this text: readings that differ from each other and supplement each other without replacing each other or the original; an original that itself appears different with the passage of time and the history of interpretations. Indeed, after multiple readings of it, the same reader’s interpretations will evolve, deepen, perhaps contradict. And this is without even mentioning the importance of translation and how, if we could read it in ancient Greek, the entire text would look different and raise other questions. But the primary point is that it calls for interpretation and cannot be treated like a code.
In short: interpretation comes in the moment we have to ask “What does it mean?” and the answer is not only *not* transparent but demands we exert ourselves to read— not only to make sense of what it says, but to reflect upon ourselves and examine our own ideas in the process. The Socratic method could even be viewed as a type of deprogramming: right where you thought it was simple as filling in the right answer, according to views you already hold but never investigated, instead you’re asked to think. Furthermore, there is no ‘message’ of the text that interpretation only has to reach. Reading is not deciphering but thinking-along-with. This spills over, in Plato’s case, from examined text to examined life. This is where interpretation shows its true color as something world-embedded, as a process of weaving understanding from all the texts and textures encountered there.
To return, code-based metaphors only get us so far. They may even lead in the wrong direction, if too broadly applied. For my part, I would say it’s a great danger to view communication and the acquisition of knowledge according to this paradigm. The question of a tradition (‘handing-over’) of knowledge is something different from the decoding of a code: it is a creative project and the outcome cannot be predicted in advance. It is this unpredictability of result—the un-programmable nature of any genuine inheritance from the history of thought, which involves decision, risk, faith…— it is this unpredictability that everything from big data mining to an education system based in standardized testing seeks to eliminate from the process of understanding the world, in all likelihood, to dull our power to critique it.
No one can deny the pervasiveness and dominance of codes and programming, but the consequences of accepting it as defining of knowledge are severe and further reaching than we may initially believe. Doing so turns society into a calculation of ‘social codes’, with most outcomes effectively prescribed according to manufactured views and norms. It is a manner of treating each of us like terminals, like machines merely selecting from options defined in advance. Worse, the ‘messangers’ for these codes, humans, ultimately become disposal too–a model that draws strength from evolutionary theory when it treats the individual as the vessel for passing on the species DNA code—only now, the code is caste and capitalist accumulation, maintenance of a status quo of inequality passing itself off as the ‘programming’ necessary for the ‘act’ of society to succeed. A code is good for computers, but the idea of a code comes from military and religion culture. So, it is no accident that codes so efficiently accomplish tasks, stabilize references, circumscribe fields of reference, and make sure all the letters are in the right place in the grid.
What is the code we are normally unwittingly consigned to transmit, and which takes us out of play for the sake of the ‘message’? What does resistance to the paradigm of total encoding and information transmission look like? What is interpretation?