transCoder / Sketches / About

About transCoder

transCoder is a play on transgender and Lev Manovich’s fifth principle of new media – transcoding. Manovich writes, “to ‘transcode’ something is to translate it into another format.” Within computing and new media, Manovich identifies a “cultural layer” and a “computer layer” affecting each other: “we can say that they are being composited together. [. . .] Cultural categories and concepts are substituted, on the level of meaning and/or language, by new ones that derive from the computer’s ontology, epistemology, and pragmatics.” Defining transcoding as a “process of cultural reconceptualization” is one way, according to Manovich, to start thinking about the transition “from media theory to software theory” as a method for the analysis of new media forms and objects, looking beyond visual representation to underlying structures and logics.

transCoder is designed as an open source software application that interrogates how computer code operates within circulations of performativity, gender, ideology, and queerness. Users conceptually and practically engage in an exploratory dialogue aimed to question the structure, logic, and semantic meaning at the basis of constructing computer code. Specifically, as a queer software application, transCoder is devoted to rupturing the heteronormative superstructure that has infiltrated coding and software historically, discursively, and culturally. transCoder strives for a complete shattering of code’s ontology. Viewing transCoder as a “language” battle between seemingly disjunctive fields of discourse (computing and queer theory), the application wants to sever ontological and epistemological ties to dominant technologies, to interrupt a flow of circulation between heteronormative culture, coding, and visual interface. transCoder stretches out to the sublime of destruction—a desired ontological rupture of functionality, designed to initiate a conceptual reassessment beyond the technical.

transCoder is programmed to transcode between Manovich’s cultural layer and computer layer. The cultural layer of queerness, which, according to Judith Halberstam, consists of “subcultural practices, alternative methods of alliance, forms of transgender embodiment, and those forms of representation dedicated to capturing these willfully eccentric modes of being [. . . including a] nonnormative logics,” acts upon and mutates mutually with the computer layer of algorithms, binary logic, data structures, code, software, and digitization. Recognizing Wendy Chun’s critique of transcoding as erasing “the computation necessary for computers to run,” transCoder is fixated upon the transcoding process but also well aware that software is more than “translation.” transCoder wishes to specifically focus upon the act of transcoding in order to explore how the culturally queer maps onto coding and structures of software. Yet, the vagueness that accompanies the transcoding process can be positive. Judith Butler has described the “lack of finality” in cultural translation as crucial for removing essentialism from notions of universality and providing positivistic affirmation of “linguistic vulnerability to reappropriation.” It is the very vulnerability of cultural translation, according to Butler, that empowers a “postsovereign democratic demand.” Cultural translation—transcoding—is at work on all levels of engagement with transCoder.

transCoder’s logo builds off of an appropriation of Apple Computers’ old rainbow apple logo. transCoder uses the apple as an homage to Alan Turing. transCoder attempts to return the bitten rainbow apple to the forefront as a visual reminder of the permanent mark Turing’s death has left on relations of gender, sexuality, and technology. Problematically, a symbol of Turing or not—a visual site of struggle for queer freedom within technological infrastructure or not—the apple is unquestionably owned by Apple. No matter how careful the apple is conceptualized as a symbol for thinking through alternatives to obtain freedom, it will always be read first and foremost as the apple of Steve Jobs. Judith Halberstam correctly acknowledges the apple as moving beyond a Tree of Knowledge to the “fruit of a technological dream.” The fruit of transCoder’s dream is ultimately claimed by the global dream of corporate capitalism.

Without question, gender and sexuality operate as strong components of technological design. Gemma Shusterman has described sex in design as “an integral part of our commodity culture [. . . reflecting] the complexities of capitalism,” exposing how people desire each other through product—“desiring product.” Speedy sports cars are designed for heterosexual men to express their masculinity; pink cell phones become a normative feminized communications device. (As Shusterman points out, a man would not buy a hot pink cell phone unless he is actively trying to subvert his normatively assigned gender role.) However, looking underneath the “hood” of technology, traces of gender and sexuality become opaque and blurry. While Adrian MacKenzie notes the performativity of white, heterosexual male culture at play within the coding structures of Linux, research into the transcodings between queer culture and computer code are lacking.

There has been much debate regarding the process of transcoding at the level of computer code: from Mark B. N. Hansen referring to digital code as “referenceless” to Friedrich Kittler claiming software does not even exist to cyberfeminist Sadie Plant finding cultural representations of gender and sexuality all the way down to the machine code of zeros and ones. Alexander Galloway’s explanation of code as a paradox posits these skewed interpretations into a somewhat stable middle: “software,” he writes, “is both scriptural and executable. [. . .] software is both language and machine. [. . .] To see code as subjectively performative or enunciative is to anthropomorphize it, to project it onto the rubric of psychology, rather than to understand it through its own logic of ‘calculation’ and ‘command.’ [Yet, even as] representation as mathematical recoding, not as any socially or culturally significant process of figuration [. . .] at the end of the day what emerges is exactly that.” Galloway’s acknowledgement of code constantly returning to its cultural formations recognizes the psychology continuously pouring into coding constructions. Kittler also acknowledges a grounding in natural language: “there would be no software if computer systems were not surrounded any longer by an environment of everyday languages.” Presenting itself primarily as a machinic language, code maintains the luxury of alluding critique as “natural” languages of speech and writing. However, as Manovich and Galloway exhibit with their concepts of transcoding and the paradox of code, software and code must be rigorously interrogated beyond the level of the machine—to the cultural—to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the power structures code uses to inscribe technically, discursively, and historically.

Donna Haraway states that “language generates reality in the inescapable context of power.” The power and pervasiveness of code has incited an urgency into untangling its technical and cultural structures, and transCoder is embracing this moment of interrogation. If code is potentially replacing human language and becoming “the lingua franca of [. . .] all physical reality,” then it must be assessed through culture and computing, alongside speech and writing. Indeed, Katherine Hayles writes “language alone is no longer the distinctive characteristic of technologically developed societies; rather, it is language plus code.” With computer code as the first truly “executable” language for a machine that conveys “meaning into action,” it assumes the ability to move beyond Austin’s speech act theory and physically alter whatever it communicates with.

transCoder undoubtedly sees computing as a field marked by the “murder” and mutilation of Alan Turing and as a field that has gone too long without adequate interrogation into how its cultural environment affects its technical environment, and in turn, how its heteronormatively “embodied” technical infrastructure affects the whole of its users’ interactions and cultural representations. The transCoder libraries lie at the heart of this matter. With contemporary queer communities forming, at least in part, upon a philosophy of the theoretically queer, transCoder offers as a discursive tactic libraries rooted in specific theories of queerness. In as much of an esoteric, self-referential, and privately humorous methodology as the “rhetoric” that constructs the forms, regulations, and “identities” of coding methodologies, transCoder uses the rhetoric of its people to ignite a struggle of mutual mutation, fusion, connectivity, and recombinant linguistics. Libraries include: 1) Haraway’s Taxonomies for a Genderless Future, 2) Sadie Plant’s 0 as 1 (Fuck Lacan), 3) Fantabuloso Discursivity (Anti-Language for Queer Liberation), 4) Halberstam’s Technotopic Topologies, 5) Executable Speech Acts (Queering Speech, Writing, and Code), 6) Fisting as Friendship (Foucauldian De-Categorization), 7) Butler’s Destabilization Loop (Citing the Other), 8) Cyborgian Non-Essentialist Posthumanism, 9) Trans Cut-Ups, 10) Planes of Queer Consistency | Bodies with New Organs, 11) VNSMatrixized GenderCode Fuck, and 12) mySoftQueerWare (customizable).

The discourse associated with transCoder’s libraries have mutated from a recognizable form of writing to a hybridized version of coding. The application could be immediately attacked for essentializing queer theory into the digital logic under scrutiny; yet, this would be reductive. Rather, transCoder allows queer theory to mutate and transpose in order to infect computer code’s structure, logic, and “language.” It views queer theory as viral, accommodating itself in whatever form necessary. To restrict queer theory to the language it is originally written in would be the truly essentialist action (or non-action). If one were to consider TransCoder a battle against the mythology of language, Barthes provides the war cry: “the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth [. . .] Since myth robs language of something, why not rob myth?”

transCoder literalizes Galloway and Thacker’s statement, “Today, to write theory means writing code.” In transCoder, code can morph to endless choices of queer non-essentialism: from Boolean statements transferring to a multitude of states beyond and between true or false, loops fluctuating wildly and unpredictably, if / then logic dissolving into if / if / if / if ad infinitum, small comments between pieces of code becoming digital manifestos for queer empowerment, the “logic” of queer discourse undermining control operators, variables stripped of heterosexist terminologies, to coding structures resembling passages from Butler, Halberstam, or Edelman rather than C++ or Java. In the end, everything is transitory and unstable—always becoming.

Deleuze defined the codes of our time as “passwords”—control passwords that indicate “whether access to some information should be allowed or denied.” If the “terrorism of code” is always secured by our nation and conflated with personal freedom, what happens “when freedom is conflated with security”? As Wendy Chun writes, “freedom is no longer free.” Upon examining software, which comprise of coding structures, Chun describes its functionality as an ideology of imaginary relations: software “offer us an imaginary relationship to our hardware.” Based on Althusser’s notion of ideology as representing “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence [. . . and as a material that] always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices,” software, inscribed by code, offers users a set of imaginary situations formulated by concealment of code and simulated visual metaphors of “user-friendliness.” This user friendliness—commonly “referred to as your preferences”—offers “‘choices’ [that] limit the visible and invisible, the imaginable and the unimaginable.” As a result, Deleuze notes that “the digital language of code [. . makes] individuals become ‘dividuals.’” Alan Liu points out that “the ‘user friendly’ face of information [. . . technology is] strangely cold,” generating a “remoteness” between user and computer that becomes frozen over by a technological “cool.” Alexander Galloway echoes this remoteness with his explanation of obfuscation in software as “what you see is not what you get [. . .] code is never viewed as is.” Back to Chun: “In order to understand control-freedom, we need to insist on the failures and the actual operations of technology.” How is the corporate cool of technological infrastructure and security ideologically limiting, exploiting, and erasing users of computing technology? Considering that software is rooted in “a gendered system of command and control,” how is the heteronormative infrastructure of technological innovation affecting queer users? Are computing technologies more user friendly to heteronormative dividuals? Down to the level of code, how is queerness executed, performed, and interpellated by technologies? Could it be, as Friedrich Kittler has suggested, “we simply do not know what our writing does” anymore, or, as Chun states, “we do not and cannot fully understand nor control computation”?

For code to execute, it requires “reflection,” which consists of defining the “complete syntactic and semantic rules of a computer language [. . .] before the real ‘language’ takes place,” that is, in advance of interpreting, parsing, or executing the code. Without initially establishing the laws that the computer code must follow, upon any type of execution, the code will fail to cite pre-established rules—these “unforeseen articulations [. . .] are essentially dismissed out of hand as errors or ‘exceptions.’” Citation plays a critical role in implementing technological performativities of gender. Experimenting with transCoder’s libraries, the vague goal of the program is revealed as citational rupture within performatives of computer code. It is worth quoting Judith Butler at length on the operation of citationality within performative structures to fully illustrate the citational process: If the power of discourse to produce that which it names is linked with the question of performativity, then the performative is one domain in which power acts as discourse. Importantly, however, there is no power, construed as a subject, that acts, but only, to repeat an earlier phrase, a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability. This is less an “act,” singular and deliberate, than a nexus of power and discourse that repeats or mimes the discursive gestures of power. Hence, the judge who authorizes and installs the situation he names invariably cites the law that he applies, and it is the power of this citation that gives the performative its binding or conferring power. And though it may appear that the binding power of his words is derived from the force of his will or from a prior authority, the opposite is more true: it is through the citation of the law that the figure of the judge’s “will” is produced and that the “priority” of textual authority is established. Indeed, it is through the invocation of convention that the speech act of the judge derives its binding power; that binding power is to be found neither in the subject of the judge nor in his will, but in the citational legacy by which a contemporary “act” emerges in the context of a chain of binding conventions. [. . .] If a performative provisionally succeeds (and I will suggest that “success” is always provisional), then it is not because an intention governs the action of speech, but only because that action echoes prior actions, and accumulates the force of authority through the repetition or citation of a prior, authoritative set of practices. What this means, then, is that a performative “works” to the extent that it draws on and covers over the constitutive conventions by which it is mobilized. In this sense, no term or statement can function performatively without the accumulating and dissimulating historicity of force.

Wendy Chun observes: “to emerge as a language or text, software and the ‘languages’ on which it relies had to become iterable.” Code becomes a “collective agency in the process of constituting itself [. . . moving in a] cultural life of [. . .] circulation,” continuously a performative citing sets of prior authorizations. As a nexus of power, code circulates through previously established structures of control historically, socially, and technically. Code installs this power not through execution but its programmed reflection: not how variables and establishing commands are set but how the structure, logic, and semantics of code (the very form code takes) cite an invisible technological superstructure that is formulated by a politics of gender, sexual, racial, and class bias. The form a programming language takes—its functions, operators, structures, variables—suggests a language developed only on technological and mathematical logic, functionality, and practicality. Yet, a programming language uses these seemingly objectified decisions based on “scientific rationale” to cover over the conventions that it continuously cites. These conventions are grounded in corporate capitalism, heteronormativity, militaristic innovation, and governmental surveillance and control. Quoting Chun: “software—something theoretically (if not practically) iterable, repeatable, reusable, no matter who wrote it or what machine it was destined for. Programming languages inscribe the absence of the programmer and the machine in its so-called writing.” This absence is filled by conventions driving code’s citational performatives. If software is both “ideology and ideology critique [. . .] a concealing and a means of revealing,” as Chun suggests, then transCoder is a program operating on both levels: as ideology, by possibly concealing the internal structure that runs its application, and as ideology critique, by revealing coding structures to mutate as a form of critical engagement.

Adrian MacKenzie has noted that the “cultural life of code in circulation” operates as a powerful performative. Referring back to Gemma Shusterman’s writings on sex in design, it is easy to see how citational performatives play out through use of a speedy sports car or pink cell phone to lock normative gender assignments to repetitive powers that bind. Put simply, the continuous use of these technologies interpellates a subject’s identity into a heterosexual matrix. However, on the level of code, usually invisible and running on potentially never-ending loops, interpellation operates abstractly. The historical, cultural, discursive, citational legacy of code—that which gives code its performative force—interpellates users (or dividuals) “as concrete subjects.” Whether or not you drive a speedy sports car to pump up your masculinity or use a pink cell phone to accessorize your femininity, as you interact with contemporary technology, an inaudible “‘Hey, you there!’” resounds within executions of code . This paradoxically silent hailing binds you as a subject to code’s repetitive loops, citing a legacy of heterosexist power and control that subject you—interpellate you—as a subject bound within its structure as an ideological state apparatus. The computer, that apparatus, simulates its ideology and repetitive citations of power within visual constructs of user friendly and cool—software. Importantly, you are not required to acknowledge this interpellation like the hailing performed by the policeman; rather, you acknowledge as you interact with and use technology. In this circulatory system of citation and code, queerness—never “programmed” into the infrastructure—has historically been dismissed “as errors or ‘exceptions.’” The paradox of transCoder resides in its dual use of programming: while queerness is programmed conceptually into the project, executable code would be as normative as normative can be (give or take a few comments). Yet, transCoder defines itself as an experiment beyond technical functionality, exploring how the microphysics of code’s power strives to interpellate bodies into soft(ware) bodies of subordination.