A Language of Expression and Action: Speech Acts and Coding

I ran into the concept of speech-acts last semester, and while finding the thought interesting, I did not find it relevant at the time. But I find the concept revived once more as our class begins writing in Markdown, HTML, and CSS. Here, we have languages that are, as far as I know it, composed entirely of speech-acts or a certain kind of speech-act. Each corresponding word and phrase either builds or enacts an operation onto the computer. Since each word and phrase creates action, coding becomes the language of command, of speech-acts, and of properly learning the scripts of command. In connection to the humanities then, our day-to-day language becomes in contrast a language of expression. The question, to me, becomes then how do each of these languages interact with each other? And, how do we properly theorize on a language of action?

The first chapter of James Gleick’s The Information provides the best resource for exploring this thought, as the chapter describes code (Morse code, specifically, but the thought is broad) as a means of ‘bootstrapping’ meaning onto symbols. Textually, Gleick reflects that “Morse had bootstrapped his system from a middle symbolic layer, the written alphabet, intermediate between speech and final code” (29). I think this quote is useful because the sentiment on Morse code is analogous to the relationship between code as action and language as expression. Code (in the programming sense) is mediated through language, but unlike Morse code, which aimed for streamlined expression, code aims for streamlined action. The issue, which I believe is most naturally raised here, is that streamlined expression is more perplexing than streamlined action because expression converts into action through peer to peer relationships, whereas streamlined action is only completely operative in a human-computer relationship. Thus, the province of the humanities would have nothing to say about this utilitarian language based around a relationship between a user and a tool. Yet, I disagree with this notion, because we have, like Morse, used the alphabet to create a language entirely composed of speech-acts that will be followed when the right rules are followed. This is the key sentiment; our most effective tool is filtered through everyday language. And there are two important meeting points of the humanities and coding because of that. The first is the intersection between programming and rhetoric, and the second is a language of streamlined command serving as the foundation to our most used space of expression.

It is this commonality of symbols that paves the way for coding to form a relationship with the humanities, and more specifically, rhetoric. I find rhetoric to as the most ample ground in the humanities because it is the discipline that has teleological aims. Rhetoric itself is not precisely a speech act, as the flow of rhetoric often spans over many statements and ideas, but it can be viewed as the goal being to inspire a belief or action within the listener. In relationship to coding, there is a natural link in the way language is used as influence (rhetoric’s domain) and command (programming’s domain). Naturally, rhetoricians interface with a person or a section of a polis whereas programmers interact with computers, but the complexities of this distinction are outside the scope of my post. I want to focus on the feeling that is accessible when having access to a language that allows for the consistent and perfect use of speech-acts and commands.

I want to relate this back to Gleick’s recounting of the Morse code and the African drummers, for there is a point in which his statement on expression mirrors that of action. Of the drummers, Gleick states that “The extra drumbeats, far from being extraneous, provide context. Every ambiguous word begins in a cloud of possible alternative interpretations; then the unwanted possibilities evaporate” (32). Morse code needed to have as few words communicated as possible to save money, but I think this implicit utilitarian factor culls the ability of expression. In contrast, the ‘translations’ of the drum beats felt far more poetic and evocative. However, the streamlined language of action (programming) loses none of its power, and in some sense, gains more with its straightforwardness. Clearly, there is a difference in the words necessary when attempting to be properly expressive and properly active. And yet, this streamlined language of action builds the framework of our most used platform of expression. I cannot remember another time when our most common mode of expression was built on a language of purely action. I cannot help but feel as if that framework resonates upwards and effects the way in which we discourse as well.

I would like to conclude with a short word on the concept of scripts that I mentioned. There is always the thought that human interaction has a ‘script’ so to speak, or rather, that there are a combination of words that I could say to someone that would allow me to ‘access’ or ‘influence’ them effectively. This is a flawed conception, and I believe that it blocks attempts at cooperative dialogue. But now, our world is run on a set of programs operating through this kind of script. I think this is the enigmatic piece when attempting to theorize on the relationship between the humanities and computing. The humanities does not have a language of action whereas computing does. This point raises a wariness in me then, as this gift of a language of pure action to creatures of pure expression, it seems perverse. I think it is possible to write off this entire thought as a over-extrapolation of a user/tool dynamic, but computing (in modern times, I remember 1s and 0s) is the first tool to use language so powerfully. I suppose I would like to end with a quote I found from Walden that fits into what I am attempting to convey. Thoreau says of our living this, “It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under roof, or the saint dwell there so long. Birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots” (44).