October 17, 2003

Image & Narrative and Internationality

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 12:02 am

I just discovered the online journal Image and Narrative via Jan Baetens’s review of The New Media Reader. Image and Narrative is described as “a peer-reviewed e-journal on visual narratology in the broadest sense of the term” and its current issue includes essays with titles like “Comic strips and constrained writing” (which hits a couple of my interest buttons right there).

In the NMR review (which, despite what I’m about to say, made me quite pleased) Nick and I take some flack, and not for the first time, for putting together an English-language anthology entirely made up of texts well-known in English: “Although they include an important number of European texts and authors, the gathering is mared by the fact that only texts which are already available in English seem to have been chosen.” Which is seen to have some negative effects in the journal’s area of focus: “For the section on comics, for instance, this means that European, mostly francophone, scholarship has been completely ignored and that a (by European standards) second-rate theoretician like Scott McCloud is the only one to represent the field.”

Nick wrote to me in email saying, “I think he’s right to criticize the monolingual, American-centered nature of the NMR. On the other hand, how do we expect an anthology like this to emerge that isn’t rooted in a particular language and national culture?” It’s a good question. Nick, as one of the few people to translate a work of elit from another language into English, has also put personal effort into creating a more international, multi-lingual field. Personally, I probably haven’t done enough.

6 Responses to “Image & Narrative and Internationality”


  1. nick Says:

    Noah, as you know, the New Media Reader was about as extensive a project as it possibly could have been. It’s true that it would have been nice if we had read some non-English works and had them translated for the New Media Reader, but there are two reasons that this couldn’t have happened: first, we don’t read theory in other langauges, and second, we couldn’t possibly have commissioned and paid for new translations of works. Although it’s nice to wish for, it would never have been within the scope of a project like this.

    What we can hope for is for more scholars to form an awareness of new media that encompasses several langauge communities and several countries.

    Although it’s nice of you to point out Dead Reckoning, I’m really quite monolingual, as doesn’t befit a humanist. I wish I had fluency in some foreign language and was informed in my studies by reading in a different langauge.

    One trend that could do a great deal of harm in new media in this respect is that of allowing a programming language to count for a requirement of proficiency in a foreign language. Programming languages are not used for general communication among people; there is no literature or history or news written in programming langauges; and in fact the word ‘language’ is used in a different sense in the term ‘programming language’ than it is in other cases.

    For a college or university to conflate the two requirements is a mistake akin to thinking that a bachelors ‘degree’ is a unit division of a temperature scale. If colleges want to dispense with the language requirement but add a requirement that people become proficient in computing, they should do that explicitly rather than continue this sort of confusion.

  2. noah Says:

    Nick, many good points. But are you sure you mean this one?

    For a college or university to conflate the two requirements is a mistake akin to thinking that a bachelors ‘degree’ is a unit division of a temperature scale.

    It seems to me that people who study digital artifacts should probably be able to read code, just as those who study certain “near eastern” artifacts probably need to read Aramaic. This isn’t because they’re going to pick up a journal written in code/Aramaic. It seems the reasons they need to read these things are, actually, pretty similar.

    As for how this should play out in the world of requirements, I’m not sure. What about a digital humanities PhD program, within a university that generally requires two additional languages (with one of these being “secondary”)? I think I’d support requiring students in the program to show a reading mastery of several different types of programming languages (e.g., LISP-like, C-like), and maybe a markup language as well, as their secondary language.

    But you might be able to talk me out of it.

  3. nick Says:

    A programming langauge is a way of expressing a computer program – a way of encoding a mathematical formalism. Learning a programming langauge without learning how to program is fairly meaningless, like learning mathematical notation but not knowing any mathematics. When you learn how to program, you learn a programming language (and are able to quickly pick up syntactially different programming languages that have a similar overall style) along the way, much as you learn the necessary mathematical notation as you are studying math (and a change of notation might be unnerving, but could be understood in a short while).

    Programming languages have almost everything in common with mathematical notation and almost nothing in common with natural, human languages, living or dead. The fact that words are used in programming languages is completely incidental, just as my use of “max” and “min” in a mathematical formula has little to do with classical Latin. Understanding an old FORTRAN program has almost nothing to do with reading Aramaic and relates in almost all ways to understanding a mathematical formula.

    So, as I see it, a university requirement that people know something about programming should have a lot to do with a mathematics requirement (or a computer science requirement, more specifically) and should have almost nothing to do with a language requirement.

    Isn’t it the case that language requirements have been co-opted for programming education purposes entirely for administrative and bureaucratic reasons? I’ve yet to see any intellectual or academic justification for it.

  4. michael Says:

    Programming languages have almost everything in common with mathematical notation and almost nothing in common with natural, human languages, living or dead.

    Programming is not reified mathematics – reading code as math requires discursive work, the same kind of work it takes to read a program as model of human cognition, or to read a program as a simulation of an eco-system, etc. Just as it’s a shame for a new media scholar to be essentially monolingual (like myself – I can fake my way through German but am not truly multi-lingual) and thus not able to engage the full range of writings on the subject, it’s a shame for a new media scholar to write on computational media, and not be able to read and write code and unpack the complex relationships between code and rhetorical machines. Metaphoric references to “databases” or “networks” is not the same thing as deeply engaging the construction of meaning in computational systems.

    I agree that the way programming is currently used to satisfy the language requirement is lame, typically one programming course in which the student learns primitive, non-reflexive skills in some imperative language (Java, C, basic, pascal, etc.). But the language requirement for a natural language is of course much more strigent, requiring at least two years of clases meeting 4-5 times a week to realistically be able to pass the test. So, if programming languages can satisfy the language requirement, then similarly two years of classes should be required. The test should involve reading and writing code in a number of programming styles (as Noah mentions), as well as unpacking the relationships between pieces of code and rhetorics surrounding the code (e.g. here’s code and here’s a conference paper describing the system implemented by this code – locate the rhetorical strategies by which execution of this code is turned into the argument made in the paper, or, describe what assumptions about human social relationships are encoded in the TCP/IP protocol). Such a proficiency has everything to do with the meaningful expression (e.g. language) and nothing to do with math.

  5. nick Says:

    This is getting a bit confusing already …

    As at least the people here now, I’m very much in favor of new media students learning about programming. The thing is, I’m also in favor of their learning languages and having a language requirement, because much interesting primary and secondary work is in other languages.

    If a university wants to simply replace a language requirement with a requirement that students learn about programming and computer science, that doesn’t bother me – it’s a way of honestly reassessing the requirements for a degree. What doesn’t seem honest, and in fact seems procrustean, is calling a comuper science proficiency a language proficiency. If language pedagogy has something to contribute to CS, let’s look at that for a pedagogical reason, not to find a bureaucratic excuse.

    The use of programming in our culture certainly encodes “assumptions about human social relationships,” just as statistical models of markets and ecosystems, hyperbolic discounting functions and inequality aversion models in behavioral economics, graphical models of social systems, and large numbers of other mathematical expressions and systems do. Any time we use a mathematical formalism (be it an equation or a computer program) to model or claim something about the world, we’ll encounter this, even if you don’t pick an example far on the engineering side of computer science, like a network protocol definition. It seems unlikely that you really mean to assert that proficiency in working with a formally-defined network header or with some theory of economic behavior – one that is expressed as a mathematical function – has “nothing to do with math.” Yes, it’s important to be able to relate mathematically expressed concepts to human society and culture. Without mathematical profiency, however, a lot of work in the field of “meaningful expression” isn’t going to do us much good. We won’t have access to the core concepts that are being put forth as part of the academic rhetoric.

    An example which applies directly to the case of the TCP/IP protocol: many students can’t write valid HTML after taking a class about the Web. Why? Because they don’t know that such a thing as valid HTML exists. They don’t understand the concept of a formal language, and that HTML is defined formally. Whether it’s a Web page or a network header, not understanding the existence of formal specification makes it impossible to understand that a particular page or header can be invalid or valid (and further that it may not express the right thing if it’s valid). Of course, the fact that different browsers fail to implement this formal standard in different ways is even harder to understand without knowing about the existene of a formal standard. We could use weak analogies to the syntax and semantics of natural language (not something that is formally defined) and then we’d be fostering the confusion of students instead of serving their education well. The basic concept is better seen as mathematical one, one which we’d best understand if we hope to try to unravel the Web.

    Another formal protocol, such as TCP/IP, would require this same basic level of understanding. And if students want to use their rhetorical skills to critique some important underlying assumption, perhaps this idea of formal specification itself is more important and more worthy of attention than any particular snippet of an RFC. And perhaps failing to understand this, like a failure to understand other core mathematical properties of a formal system, renders other sorts of surface critique rather quixotic.

  6. vika Says:

    Interesting. I think I agree with Nick on this one; conflating natural and programming languages in university requirement schemes is harmful. Coming to it from a strictly humanistic (and, moreover, language-based) perspective, I see the harm as two-fold. First, so many programming languages are based in English that accepting them as fulfillment of the foreign language requirement makes for a rather anglocentric society; and the United States, for one, does not need any more help in this regard. Second, the formalism inherent in programming languages should not be allowed to replace the flexibility of natural language; that flexibility is one of the key aspects which make foreign language learning useful to the human mind.

    Of course, I am all in favor of learning programming (even, perhaps nowadays especially, if you’re a student of the humanities). Perhaps it would be more useful to make it an additional requirement, or one integrated in some other way into the educational system. I appreciate the concern institutions may have about imposing too many requirements and allowing for too few electives; but there’s got to be a better way to approach and view various types of language learning.

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