Centre for Internet & Society

This essay looks at language as an archive and posits, through a reading of Foucault, Derrida, Saussure and Jakobson that the means of perceiving language in the digital has changed. Communication requires community and the large networks made possible by the binary code, an added layer of linguistic units, changes the way we are able to communicate online. Big Data has further changed the way we interact with language and the world. The way the machine perceives language, through selection rather than combination with access to the “complete” archive allows it to make predictions and decisions through mere correlation rather than the causational mode of science hitherto conducted by human beings.

Google Search

The above is a familiar image to everyone reading this blog. In fact, I’m willing to wager my internet connection that anyone reading this must have come across this image and that they all would assume the same for anyone else cohabitating the digital world. The Google search, for many is the internet or at least one of the first images that come to mind when one mentions internet though I will not presume solitariness or principality in good faith to the impending argument. Before the digital era, if I had read the words “the-order-of-things” in a book by a French philosopher, I would have read it in a manner completely different to the way I read things or the order of things in the digital on Google search, for example. The implications of this rupture, I contend, redouble the way in which we interact with the world from perceiving data online to analytical operations on an astronomical scale such as big data but they have their beginnings with the humble binary code that poor Leibniz thought would preserve his Christianity.

In this blog I will look at binary code as a hidden architecture that has decentered the centrality of deconstructed language. I will explicate the proposition by exploring the structuralist linguists like Saussure and Jakobson, find a resolution in Foucault’s Order of Things and continue to view the conflict through Derrida’s Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. We have been exploring in my previous blogs about what Derrida meant when he said that language has invaded the universal problematic and the transcendental signifiers (God, Man) of yore have been ousted by the successive, contaminating, perpetually replicating influence of language. We will now explore language, for the purpose of this blog through the antiquated view as a first order code and as the archive or a self-imagined whole.

If we want to pose the problem of structural language before deconstruction with an added layer of code, then we will quickly end up with a number of propositions absolutely contradictory in relation to the status of discourse in post-structural language. Therefore we must begin where Foucault began and work our way to the world we live in now, which was probably still in the conception in 1966, forming and gestating as the unnamable was proclaiming itself as it is again now, while the birth was in the offing, only under a species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity that has become the digital. I don’t look upon it with fear or anguish, but it is needless to say that Foucault would have been caught off guard by the alien integer outside the natural set that was complete and contained, wreaking havoc upon our vision of everything that could neatly sit within a category.

Failing to avoid the cliché of mentioning Borghes’s Chinese Encyclopedia in the analysis of the Order of Things, I will enumerate the mnemonic list at the centre of his raucous laughter. The list of all animals that exist: [1]

a) Those that belong to the emperor

b) Embalmed ones

c) Those that are trained

d) Suckling pigs e) Mermaids (or Sirens)

f) Fabulous ones

g) Stray dogs

h) Those that are included in this classification

i) Those that tremble as if they were mad

j) Innumerable ones

k) Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush

l) Et cetera

m) Those that have just broken the flower vase

n) Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

Central to his flummoxed observance of this completely alien list is the paradox in the letter (h): those that are included in this classification.

“The central category of animals 'included in the present classification', with its explicit reference to paradoxes we are familiar with, is indication enough that we shall never succeed in defining a stable relation of con-tained to container between each of these categories and that which includes them all: if all the animals divided up here can be placed without exception in one of the divisions of this list, then aren't all the other divisions to be found in that one division too? And then again, in what space would that single, inclusive division have its existence? Absurdity destroys the ‘and’ of the enumeration by making impossible the in where the things enumerated would be divided up. Borges adds no figure to the atlas of the impossible; nowhere does he strike the spark of poetic con-frontation; he simply dispenses with the least obvious, but most com-pelling, of necessities; he does away with the site, the mute ground upon which it is possible for entities to be juxtaposed.” [2]

This seems, at a surface level to be an epigrammatic rendering of Russel’s paradox in set theory, but when applied to the notions of reified knowledge structures that are presented to us, it leads us to question the notions of everything and difference. That is to say, history, language or the archive are imperially established upon us as a totality of information rather than a unit or a part of a whole that cannot be known or escapes comprehension. Within this notion of everything, that actually is only a part, the archive sets divisive rules for itself, creating taxonomies of things that allow containment and comprehension. There is a moment when we move from the culturally imposed orders to the scientific or philosophical modes of order that reflect upon order itself when we escape the membrane of order and experience it in its pure form. This moment of anagnorisis when Neo awakens outside of the Matrix is when the order is destabilized and relegated to its rightful position in letter (h) and rules of experience and decision making are no longer applicable, or at least necessary. That is to say, if we construct the archive with this imagination, to endure the ordeal of this consciousness, we can have a space that has everything with everything without these artificial taxonomical boundaries.

Language, as Foucault understands it, is a system of exchange predicated on the notion of difference. [3] It is something that burst onto the scene of human evolution in one fell swoop as Levi-Strauss puts it, as an event.[4]

If the notion of attaching meaning to objects by assigning an unnatural or artificial sign that has no inherent connection to the former was arrived at, it automatically forms the whole matrix of language, a spontaneous tabula is formed where everything meets and “the spark of poetic confrontation is met”. Thus, language makes science possible by the artificial separation of things, which allows for the study of causation. Tracing a trajectory of eras of the role of language in this way, Foucault says:

“In this way, analysis has been able to show the coherence that existed, throughout the Classical age, between the theory of representation and the theories of language, of the natural orders, and of wealth and value. It is this configuration that, from the nineteenth century onward, changes entirely; the theory of representation disappears as the universal founda-tion of all possible orders; language as the spontaneous tabula, the primary grid of things, as an indispensable link between representation and things, is eclipsed in its turn; a profound historicity penetrates into the heart of things, isolates and defines them in their own coherence, imposes upon them the forms of order implied by the continuity of time;” [5]

After characterizing language in a structuralist notion, he claims that it is eclipsed for something else. This is the locus of conflict between Foucault and Derrida’s conception of language. Derrida teasingly says

“It would be possible to show that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated the constant of a presence… transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, man, and so forth.” [6]

(italics mine)

He suggests that the enlightenment center or centrality of the conception of Man can be or has been replaced, only to later suggest that language has invaded the universal problematic, but is different from God and Man in that it is imbricated within the fabric of life, perpetually manifest in speech and hence subject to its influence. Foucault agrees with the assumption of the substitutable transcendentality of man when he says

“It is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form.” [7]

However, he believes language, at least in its structural form disappears or is eclipsed with an event.

In order to fully participate in this disagreement, we must formulize what the structuralist understanding of language really is.

-Language is a first order code where the addresser encodes and the addressee decodes. A first order code implies that there can be second order codes. Levi-Strauss in The Raw and the Cooked says “Since myths themselves rest on second-order codes (the first-order codes being those in which language consists), this book thus offers the rough draft of a third-order code, destined to insure the reciprocal possibility of translation of several myths” [8]

and so on. -In the process of encoding (combination of linguistic units), there is an ascending scale of freedom. I have to combine c o m b i n e to form the prior word for it to have meaning but I have more leeway to combine words to form sentences and so on in different contexts.

Decoding involves

a) combination: a message involves constituent signs that are combined with others. “This means that any linguistic unit at one and the same time serves as a context in a more complex linguistic unit.” Therefore, “combination and contexture are two faces of the same operation.” Insights of Ferdinand de Saussure: combination “in in presentia: it is based on two or several terms jointly present in an actual series” [9]

b) selection: “a selection between alternatives implies the possibility of substituting one for the other, equivalent in one respect and different in another. Actually, selection and substitution are two faces of the same operation” Insights of Ferdinand de Saussure: selection “connects terms in absentia as members of a virtual mnemonic series”. [10]

Selection involves signs that are conjoined in the archive of things, the language repository itself but not a direct relation to the message at hand whereas combination involves signs connected through the message. We can therefore imagine the addressee as perceiving a message as a combination of constituent signs in the context of the larger sign and selected from the repository or all possible constituent parts, which Jakobson calls the code and Foucault calls the archive.

Although, theoretically, this is how language still works, something untoward has happened to it. Let us take the proposition that freedom follows in the trajectory of larger composite linguistic units.

Tabula Lingua

The movement of freedom occurs because of the tabula of context that one can create or define for the more complex units resting on the fixity of the previous layer in the “community”. If the meaning of the letter “b” is uncertain, then I cannot create the word bust and if the meaning of the word “bust” is uncertain, then I cannot combine as I please with other words. Jakobson says that the receiver and originator must have the same background and that communication relies on community/ commonality and subsequently influences what the community has in common.

If we were to create another space where the basic unit of communication is not the letter but a simple binary code, then it only follows that the freedom of linguistic combination increases automatically. The binary code, currently is the fundamental linguistic unit of the digital language. Its combinations can represent signs of all languages and all systems of totality in the same final tabula. The massive networks that the internet creates and the subsequent archivization of the data into 0’s and 1’s allows for a form of cultural and communitarian unification of the past “other” categories of totality into one that is not possible otherwise.

By all means, I could have said lol for laugh out loud or made sentences like ‘ima bust yo ass papi’ or written sentences in Spanish on Facebook that are punctuated with smh and omg but it would have been a private code between me and a small community of people to whom I have to communicate the vast cultural data of acronymity, parlance, foreign language etc embedded in each of those messages. You must imagine a hypothetical creation of a code or a language that has signs for every sign of every archive that facilitates an endeavor like this. It is neither humanly possible to create something like this and teach it to a group of people to create the community necessary for communication nor is it a plausible submission that individual archives that imagine themselves to be self contained systems of the whole are likely to undergo. Indeed, it is not a human that facilitates this. The machine is the monster that smashes these worlds together.

Binary Tabula

The machine is a monster which has immense capacity for memory and storage but is othered as we other the diseased. There are more elegant explanations for the nature of a digital native’s language but in true archeological, Foucauldian sense; we are mainly interested in one of the conditions of possibility. Let us now look at the operations of the addressee in conjunction with those capable by the machine. The machine’s “storage” is akin to a full cabinet of files and its “memory” is the desk upon which the employee of a company pulls up the requisite files to perform an operation. We said the addressee perceives a message as a combination of constituent signs in the context of the larger sign and selected from the repository or all possible constituent parts, which Jakobson calls the code and Foucault calls the archive. We substitute the word memory in the addressee as the faculty that perceives combination, which looks at the context, the table of the sign and pulls up grammatic rules of combination necessary to decode the sequence. The perception and the reception of selection, however, is one that requires an access to the full code as it is a virtual set consisting of all the possible synonymic, antonymic, metaphoric and subjective equivalences that can all only be contained within the total archive (storage) which no addressee has access to. It is here that Derrida would say deconstruction occurs as a sort of Joycean stream of consciousness ensues in the mind.

When I searched for the order of things on google search, however, the machine entered into its storage, its archive, and performed a version of selection and substitution with an access to the whole as only the monstrous machine can and birthed its deconstructed offspring. This access to the whole, off course, is made possible by the binary code that allows such vast networks to form. The othered element of this monstrosity is in the way we other the diseased as Foucault explores in History of Madness and specifically aphasiacs in The Order of Things. In Jakobson’s “The Linguistic Problems of Aphasia”, he says one of the types of the condition is “contexture-deficient aphasia, which…diminishes the extent and variety of sentences. The syntactic rules organizing words into higher units are lost; this loss, called “agrammatism,” causes the degeneration of the sentence into a mere “word heap””. [11]

However, this type of aphasia has the capacity to select and substitute and the google search, and indeed most means of gathering and perceiving data on the internet is performed through selection and substitution ungoverned by the government of grammar or what is “correct” combination. The aphasic google search does not play by the taxonomical boundaries and rules while it interacts with the archive and thus recalibrates and imbricates the text trapped in the archive’s imagination. The result then leaves the reader with that very deconstructed offspring.

I see in the result “the order of things” as something to do with Foucault, colleges, fashion and Canadians. Even between the two results shown from amazon.com, I see that the book is in the context of “cultural studies > history of ideas” and “philosophy> History and surveys”. The free play of word association that the engine performs based on an alogarithm that functions on truly arbitrary levels of preference like statistical percentage of keywords, webpage hits or something of that ilk that results in a constantly mutating, multiplying context makes the perception of context closer resemble that of selection. That is to say, because the reader is simultaneously processing many contexts, what was a temporal process of combination perception in presentia is now in absentia in the virtual mnemonic series, conjoined merely in the code but not in the actual message, selected from something resembling a repository of all that is possible. What you see and read in the digital is therefore a myth and by the time you perform a third order deconstruction upon what is perceived, language has traversed such a distance in space and time that comparing it to Saussure’s encoding and decoding a message is like comparing Facebook to the tin-can telephone.

I grant that everyday life may not seem to have changed by much for the average user of the internet or consumer of digital data. There doesn’t seem to be a seismic change in the way we interact with the world after this invasion. In order to make this change more acute and feel the pungency of its impact, we must move now to a larger picture than you and me reading philosophy online. Let us take a look at how Big Data functions. When a particular reading of data is required, the machine memory extracts, transforms and loads (ETL) data from the various archives in the archive and combines them on the staging table where it is all converted into the same format, the machine level language or the binary code and travels back to the memory where the function is performed.[12]

For example, if we were to research an unauthored text to determine its authorship, then we might rely on intuitions of style and propositions’ falsifications based on an incomplete surveying of an incomplete set of texts. We will read a particular text, judge its combination based on a variety of contexts that exist in our memory, then judge its selection and substitution, which is the vertical axis of style based on a stream of consciousness comparable to the one engendered while reading another known author. Even if the research is thorough by academic standards, it still yields an inadequate, imprecise result that nonetheless is enough to fit into the taxonomical categories of history, our conception of genius and culture that we require to comprehend our world. Big data, on the other hand, has warped this disposition by making possible a real stylometry. Stylometric analysis has thus ruthlessly destabilized canonical and structural notions of authorship and genius like the vertical axis of Shakespeare in the history of Western literature, who it appears collaborated with Marlowe and Fletcher in his works.[13]

The digital has, at least in the humanities taken us down a chimerical road that we thought would lead to a Utopia, but has lead to a heterotopias.

“Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they secretly undermine language, because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they destroy 'syntax' in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to and also opposite one another) to 'hold together'...heterotopias (such as those to be found so often in Borges) desiccate speech, stop words in their tracks, contest the very possibility of grammar at its source; they dissolve our myths and sterilize the lyricism of our sentences.” [14]

If this machinistic sterilization of the cultural, literary and social archives seems to almost lead to the scientific, then that connection has already been made. Steve Lohr of the NYT writes “Mr. Jockers, for example, called his research presentation “Computing and Visualizing the 19th-Century Literary Genome.”

Such biological metaphors seem apt, because much of the research is a quantitative examination of words. Just as genes are the fundamental building blocks of biology, words are the raw material of ideas.

“What is critical and distinctive to human evolution is ideas, and how they evolve,” says Jean-Baptiste Michel, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard.”” [15]

Jean-Baptiste, echoing Herbert Spencer in the 18th century who said that sociology is the study of evolution in its most complex form [16] , is inadvertently pointing to a revolutionary change, perhaps the last revolution in the practice of science explored at length in my previous blog. Chris Anderson posits succinctly the condition of science in the big data regime. “The scientific method is built around testable hypotheses. These models, for the most part, are systems visualized in the minds of scientists. The models are then tested, and experiments confirm or falsify theoretical models of how the world works. This is the way science has worked for hundreds of years. […] But faced with massive data, this approach to science—hypothesize, model, test—is becoming obsolete. […] There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: ‘Correlation is enough.’ We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.” [17]

Big data thus “challenges the way we live and interact with the world”, as Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier say in “Big Data”, “most strikingly, society will need to shed some of its obsession for causality in exchange for simple correlations.” [18]

Causation, after all, was the baggage that came with the invention of a Universe. A language that identified things, everything, through their differences. A basic logic instated in language that required the human to see a combination of units based on difference while relegating the perception of true selection, a connection of different things, impossible to the mind. The machine has moved us away from that world of difference to a world of universal networks and sameness and follows it at the level of its memory that functions through selection with an access to the archive that humans do not. It then mutates our perception of combination, destroys primary context, rendering free-play, association and connection where there was merely difference before.

Sure, taxonomy was an evolutionary adaptation to see causation to make decisions better. And the data we have stored in the archives now are but a mere fraction of the totality of information that exists. However, with the current trajectory of information storage increase, we are fast approaching a world where enough information will exist to make decisions based on correlation alone. In other words, “between the encoded eye and the reflexive knowledge there is a middle region which liberates order itself…it is more confused, more obscure and probably less easy to analyse” but it “relinquishes its immediate and invisible powers, frees itself sufficiently to discover that these orders are perhaps not the only possible ones or the best ones”. [19]

This new monstrosity is, however, giving us the ability to make better decisions using just the selective faculty of language, through correlation alone and it is all done by data collection reaching the level (alas Leibniz is not alive today) of the mind of “God”. The simulacra are latching on to all information; the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave are being consumed by the outsiders and from the vast atomic network of 0’s and 1’s, Laplace’s demon is rearing its ominous head.

[1]. Foucault, Michel. The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Pantheon Books, 19711970. Print.

[2]. ibid

[3]. ibid

[4]. Strauss, Claude. The raw and the cooked. [1st U.S. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1969. Print.

[5]. See Citation 1

[6]. Derrida, Jacques. "Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences."Writing and difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. . Print.

[7]. See citation 1.

[8]. See citation 4.

[9]. Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in general linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959. Print.

[10]. ibid.

[11]. Jakobson, Roman, and Linda R. Waugh. On language. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990. Print.

[12]. nberger, Viktor, and Kenneth Cukier. Big data: a revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Print.

[13]. Neural Computation in Stylometry I: An Application to the Works of Shakespeare and Fletcher Matthews RAJ & Merriam TVN Lit Linguist Computing (1993) 8 (4): 203-209. doi: 10.1093/llc /8.4.203.

[14]. See Citation 1.

[15]. Lohr, Steve. "Dickens, Austen and Twain, Through a Digital Lens." New York Times 26 Jan. 2013, sec. Technology: n. pag. Print.

[16]. Perrin, Robert. "Herbert Spencer's Four Theories of Social Evolution." JSTOR: n. pag. Print.

[17]. Anderson, Chris. "The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete." Wired Magazine 23 June 2008: n. pag. Print.

[18]. See Citation 12.

[19]. See Citation 1.

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