May 18, 2005

The Art of Code

by Nick Montfort · , 1:15 am

Black, Maurice J. 2002 “The Art of Code.” PhD Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania. [Department of English.]

As the abstract says:

Arguing that software’s increasing abstraction from hardware has defined computer programming practices for the last half-century, this dissertation shows how that abstraction has shaped the aesthetics, politics, and professional culture of programming. Specifically, the dissertation examines how some programmers have adopted a literary approach to coding, describing carefully crafted code as “beautiful,” “elegant,” “expressive,” and “poetic”; writing and reading programs as literary texts; and even producing hybrid artifacts that are at once poems and programs. This project has two central goals: first, to show how identifiably linguistic sensibilities have influenced programming theory and culture; second, to show how programming theory, as a body of knowledge that thinks deeply about the semantics and organization of textual structures, can contribute to the project of literary study.

I’ve just posted my extensive notes from reading this intriguing dissertation.

6 Responses to “The Art of Code”

  1. mark Says:

    It’s certainly not as in-depth an examination, but I’m reminded of a controversial article that raised a bit of a stir (and 449 comments) in the techie-blogosphere of its day (though they weren’t called “blogs” then), “Programming is Not Art”. I still kind of like it as a reasonably concise summary of many of the “code isn’t art” viewpoints I’ve stumbled across.

    This thesis is interesting to me in that it treats the aesthetics of code as a separate matter. I was about to take issue with your claim that this was the first such analysis, but all the examples I could think of discussing code-as-art didn’t really examine code per se. Instead, the more common tack seems to be to take the investigation of code aesthetics as a special case of the investigation of mathematical aesthetics: “What are the artistic qualities of an elegant piece of code?” being subsumed by “What are the artistic qualities of an elegant proof?”. (How similar the two questions are might depend on what sort of code one is writing…)

  2. mark Says:

    One more thing that crossed my mind: Daniel Kohanski’s 1998 book The Philosophical Programmer has an interesting recurring discussion of the aesthetics of code, although it keeps falling back to an argument about simplicity-is-efficiency that I think keeps him from making interesting points about aesthetics themselves. That doesn’t really seem to be his thesis though: He seems to start discussing aesthetics in its own right, setting up interesting points, and then right at the last moment falling back to the old efficiency argument. It almost seems as if he wants to discuss aesthetics themselves, but feels compelled to come up with some practical engineering sort of justification for why he’s bothering to do so.

  3. greglas Says:

    Do you know where Maurice Black is now, Nick?

  4. nick Says:

    Greg, I don’t, but I’ll let you know if I find out. I had coffee with him about a year ago here at Penn, thanks to Jim Carpenter (of ETC, Electronic Text Composition).

    Mark, I read Kohanski‚Äôs book back in 1998 and was underwhelmed, but maybe I missed something in it. That last paragraph with “As the first attempt…” in it is a block quotation from Black’s thesis, so the claim about the dissertation being “the first such analysis” is his, not mine. I can’t think of anything to contradict it, though.

  5. Matt K. Says:


    One quick reaction (besides I want to read this whole thing, like, _now_): there is at least one specific community within the humanities that is engaging with code on its own terms, and that’s the “humanities computing” or “digital humanities” contingent; almost always practicioners as well as theorists (that is people actively involved in software engineering, systems design, visaulization, or other technical domains) this group takes on a particular significnace in light of Black’s claims about the reception of programming and code within literature departments and the humanities more generally. Three things to look at:

    The blog from a recent “text analysis summit” at McMaster:

    A similar gathering just announced for this September at UVa:

    The recent Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities, eds. Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth.

  6. Grand Text Auto » DAC Session 10 Says:

    [...] fairly standard technology-centric treatment that ignores political and economic factors. Maurice Black’s dissertation does a great job of describing the shift towards p [...]

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