Admiration (and a bit of Envy) and Anticipation: UPDATED

**UPDATE**: *Brian Lennon has a terrific response to the post below, and which is below the post.*

*And my apologies to Brian and all other posters not wishing to deal with the Facebook commenting system: I confess I turned to Facebook for two reasons: (1) sheer laziness in the face of comment span when maintaining one’s own WordPress installation, and (2) a kind of acquiescence to the pervasiveness of Facebook, even among the digital humanities crowd. Brian’s has inspired me to try to get a “normal” comment system up and working again.*

*Finally, I apologize for the footer appearing in the middle of this post or of the page. I have a CSS error that I am trying to figure out, but in the mean time, my FTP authentication has gotten corrupted and I have to reset the system. That won’t be until this weekend.*

*So, yes, Jason Jackson, you are quite right about the work involved in maintain one’s own infrastructure. (I’m surrounded by people smarter than me. Dammit.)*

One of the reasons I am enjoying this turn towards computational approaches in my own work is I am getting to rub elbows with really smart people who are not only doing interesting work themselves but are also interested in the work I am doing. I recently found myself in a Twitter conversation over a post on the place for mathematics in an expanded version of the humanities, which is currently dubbed the “digital humanities” only because course corrections need a name while the ship shifts to get on the new heading.

I promised more on that, and I will deliver, but when I went to find out more about [Brian Lennon][] and [David Golumbia][], I discovered Lennon has listed a project that is really, really cool: “a philological history of programming languages.” My first response was: wow, just wow. I have been thinking about an examination of *a* programming languages as a language: that is, I have been thinking about joining an open source project and observing it in a similar fashion as I have done in other ethnographic projects. My goal was to attend to how programming languages and natural languages interact in discourse — that is, what would a code shift signify and how would it occur in the flow of discourse? My focus followed my folkloristic and anthropological training, but I admire, and envy a bit, Lennon’s much broader philological impulse. It’s fantastic. I know I couldn’t do it — I don’t have the coding chops to do any analysis personally, and I will be curious to see how he proceeds: I know there is a fair amount of discussion between the makers and users of the various languages about what distinguishes them, about the origins of the languages, etc.

**Brian Lennon’s Response:**

> Several things about that, which to me all come along with the choice of “philology.” First, I conceive it as an encyclopedic project, therefore ideally something that will eventually (I hope organically, rather than instrumentally) come to involve a group of writers. Second, I lack the training to do such very interesting ethnographic work as you mention (or indeed many other things in which I am interested), and so that would be one of the many areas in which co-aggregation would be useful in such a project. Third, for me “philological” learning of and learning about programming languages is really quite (if of course not entirely) distinct from what is involved in acquiring and retaining “coding chops.” We have quite a few histories of programming languages already, produced by PL designers themselves or by others at the technical center of the history of computing, and those are extremely valuable records — but human finitude means that none of them can have been “philological” histories, in the expansive sense that I’m happy to see recognized in your post, just as I myself am never going to acquire all the knowledge necessary to design a PL that would actually be adopted and used.

> In other words, as I see it, there is a place, in chronicling the linguistic history of computing, for philology as a set of practices we associate with historical humanism, which is its *own* place and not the place of computer science and industry — and which represents a set of practices that CS and industry simply don’t have time, will never, ever have the time, to cultivate expertly for themselves. So that’s what I’m after.

> And for that reason, agreed & well said on why we’re using that other silly name for all this!

[Brian Lennon]: http://www.personal.psu.edu/bul5/
[David Golumbia]: http://www.people.vcu.edu/~dgolumbia/

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