Journal #5: Statements, Structures, and Codes

In trying to thinking of how Foucault translates to the digital milieu, I’ve been having a difficult time (like everyone else, it comforts me to see). It isn’t that the question is groundless, because it’s quite valid; rather, my difficulty stems from the enormity of it. Translating Foucault for the Internet may well be similar to translating Frege for computers: though eventually, we took the formulas and algorithms of logic and applied them to building reasoning machines, it’s an extraordinary trajectory to trace, one full of twists and turns. So as I read The Archaeology of Knowledge, I tried at all times to keep the digital realm in mind, but it kept slipping away. Then I came upon this in Foucault’s definition(s)(?) of the statement:

“Lastly, a graph, a growth curve, an age pyramid, a distribution cloud are all statements: any sentences that may accompany them are merely interpretation or commentary; they are in no way an equivalent: this is proved by the fact that, in a great many cases, only an infinite number of sentences could equal all the elements that are explicitly formulated in this sort of statement. It would not appear to be possible, therefore, to define a statement by the grammatical characteristics of the sentence.” (Foucault 82)

Thinking about a statement as something so far outside a speech act suddenly put me in mind of code, which models itself on a kind of syntax as much as algebra does, but is loaded with meaning that lays far from the domain of “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” Consequently, the idea of a statement is interesting for thinking about PHP: does code form statements? I must almost surely believe it does, or that it can. If that’s true though, what does it then mean when a site is run? The concept of forms that can be filled out, totally unrelated to the statements of the code but totally processed and augmented by those statements, infinitely complicates Foucault’s view of the statement as such. What I’m asking is, what of the user input into the site? Does the code cease to be a statement for the end user who sees not the code, but the functions generated by it? What’s the difference between a statement and a tool? Because it seems to me that PHP code can be both at once. So does the code become statements that are capable of containing any number of interchangeable, vastly different statements? Should the site input constitute a statement?

The moment I began to think about statements as transformable into frameworks, I realized that Lorne’s claim must hold some water: these “wholesale cultural shifts” may actually only be qualitative shifts in concepts we’re already intimate with! To think of code as a statement and a structure is sort of like thinking about it as a building (which might just be the perfect analogy): a building doesn’t need to be filled with people or material to mark its claim in a skyline or validate its status as a building (look at heritage sites taken out of use). However, you can fill the building with people, materials, work and business. The building will maintain its own constitution as an entity, but now it is also the housing and machinery of many other totally unrelated processes within. How do we approach the study of these complex structures, especially now that they are so very far from being isolated from one another or the things going on within them? Perhaps this is where Foucault’s archaeological method is meant to step in, but I have a hard time seeing it. It’s not that the techniques are unsound, but that they seem to me a little like trying to photograph a bullet train with a plate camera: the only way to get a coherent image is to stop the train completely. Simply put, the method is good, but it’s implementation extremely slow for contemporary discourse analysis. Discourses now are measured in days and weeks, not decades and centuries. Another analogy for Foucault’s methods could be that they are sort of like taking a clock apart piece by piece: it works, but slowly, and in the meantime, think of all the time that’s being lost! Especially when the point of the clock is to keep time. Just like the point of discourse analysis is to aid the study of discourse, it’s hard for it to do its job when discourse moves so much faster than it.

Of course, I don’t have a better solution. Go back to telegrams and the Pony Express, when there were a finite number of structures to deal with that moved slowly enough to be analyzed? That doesn’t really work. This reminds me of a comic strip I read, years ago: Guy 1 walks into a room containing Guy 2, a computer, a printer, and wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling stacks of paper.

Guy 1: What are you printing?

Guy 2: The Internet.

Guy 1: The Internet? You’re printing the INTERNET?

Guy 2: Well, so far, I’m only on the B’s. By the way…you need more toner.


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