Chapter 22. The sublime Code

After the end of writing, as announced by Catherine Malabou, grammatology has found its end before it even started. The inflation of the term “writing” not only in the humanities, but also in hard sciences like biology, genetics, cybernetics, etc. let to a diffusion what writing is, and what is that which is written. Especially in software and computer science everyone knows that code is written. But is code also read? I mean this in a traditional hermeneutical sense. Do we read code – if we learned the language – to understand as hermeneutics describes understanding or is there something else? 

One can easily claim, that we can read code with hermeneutical methods to find, what the code should tell us. But there is a problem: does understanding code become decoding? And if so, why do we not just debug instead of decode? What do I mean by debugging? I think that reading and therefore understanding code should include decoding, which is more or less a practice of translation and also debugging, which tends more towards understanding how the code works and making it work again. Hence in coding there is at least to possible forms of understanding: the first one is somehow traditional and aims at a meaning, something that seems to be hidden in the code (which can also be its function). This relates to the paradigm of “a-letheia” which means “unhidden”. The truth is never hidden. It is what is unhidden. 

The second meaning could be the functioning of codes and in a broader sense of all texts: Imagine a poem from the romantic period. Why does it work? Does it work? Or does it need to be debugged to work within the program of Romanticism? For Saussure language was a machine, which always works, even if it is damaged. To a certain point we can read texts, when certain bits of language are missing. Can we describe all styles of writing as having a specific code (even if codes have specific styles themselves) or better relying on a specific code to work as a text? This means that we should look for bugs in those texts, which reminds me of deconstructivism, always looking for those flaws which do not add up to the gold standard, the norm or the ideology. 

Within this two-folded framework the code is a form of text and also what forms the text. Just as a real computer code it performs what it describes as a text, especially when there is some sort of reader (machinic or human). What is at stake is the approach to code: we can try to read it, learn the language, analyze the structure, find those lines of code which are important (all of them are), see what the outcome is, what the input is, and then ask ourselves if the code is well written: does it work, and if so, does it work in style?

To write something in style, whether it is code or poetry, one has to know, what one wants to say. (You see: I changed the register there – as Derrida already showed: speaking and writing are related, but also fundamentally different. I cannot write what I speak, even if I use the phonetic alphabet. My voice and my writing are different not only in regard to the materiality and mediality of sounds and texts, but also ontologically. And they depend on a hierarchy – phonophallogocentrism, if I may – and that hierarchy is in favor of the voice and speaking)

But who knows what one wants to say before one says it? This is a question of thought. Everyone has to think about what to code or write down beforehand. After thinking there is writing. To solve a specific problem regarding my needs I aim at writing several lines of code, which should tackle that exact problem. Poetry sometimes is understood in the same fashion: poets write poems to tackle problems of modernity, of the subject lost in a world, where there is no relation to for example nature. As David Abram wrote: Writing has lost nature to humans, because now – with writing – the do not need to keep in touch with nature. They can live without the real, just in that virtual reality they created through writing (about nature). 

For code such a crushing diagnose seems not to work so well, because code is always already in touch with the outside world, but through computers. Without hardware, there is no software, Friedrich Kittler once wrote. And everyone who codes, knows, that they have to reality check the code: They test the code to see if it works. But what do we mean by “working”? Does it mean the code executes what we want it to execute? Do we know, if the code runs, that it does what we wanted it to do? Or is it all just a side effect of the code doing something else, what we just don’t understand?

The hermeneutical method of reading becomes a form of testing. And that testing is nothing more than reading, but with a tool, almost always a computer. Imagine the book would take over the task of running or testing the text? Hence, we wouldn’t need to read the book, just watch if the outcome is right. But what is the outcome of a poem? A feeling? Maybe. Just run the poem (the code) through the book (the computer) to see how it feels. 

And what if the code does not run properly (and what does it mean to run properly)? Code can also run without being purified (as Bruno Latour might say). Purification the main action of the moderns, which means to separate hybrids into to categories – subjects and objects, culture and nature, etc. – becomes also a mode of hermeneutical reading/testing. Debugging therefore is a form of purifying the code, cleaning it up. This also means, that hermeneutics becomes – again – a form of biopower, deciding what is sane and insane about the code. 

There is no wrong code. As Lacan said, the letter always gets to its destination. The code always runs, even if it does not work as intended. We cannot always already say what the destination of the code might be, not until we reached it all together. 

Now the main question arises: what is the sublime (of) code? Is there a sublime code? Is there something sublime to code? Does the code have to be elegant ore even beautiful? What is the beauty of a code? It’s form or how (fast) it works? Or is it just the data, which is transported by the code, the source, which makes the code astonishing? 

If a code acts upon us as a sublime event, we tend not to read or understand the code. We just look at it. Jean-François Lyotard discusses in “discourse/figure” a new mode of looking at texts, which is more or less a form of gazing. He is more interested in the form, than in the meaning. Just look at it (the text or the code), it will make you see something different to what reading is all about. It will open up to a different form of understanding.  

What about following line of code?

10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 

This line of code is not only beautiful in some way, but it is also sublime. Why? Not only because ten academics wrote a whole book about that exact line of code1, but because the code is “ultimately understandable”2. This is something, no one would ever write or say about a verse in a poem. See Friedrich Hölderlin’s famous verse of “Brot und Wein”:

Weiß ich nicht, und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit.

The code is described by the authors of the same named book in detail, but what is especially interesting is, that the code should run forever. It never stops. Hence it performs what is almost always something related to the sublime: infinity. In German the word infinity, “Un-Endlichkeit” resembles the Greek word for truth “a-letheia” or in German as “Un-Verborgenheit” through the prefix “un-” or “a-”. The prefix resembles the sublime, as it codes that the hidden is not hidden anymore and the end becomes endless. 

For the code the function of the prefix is executed by the command “GOTO”.

“The GOTO keyword and line number function here to return control to an earlier point, causing the first statement to be executed endlessly, or at least until the program is interrupted, either by a user pressing the STOP key or by shutting off the power.”3

But it is not only the infinity of the code, which can certainly be stopped by a stopping commando as well as it has to be started by the “RUN” command, that makes this code somehow sublime. It is that the code is virtually and actually infinite. It runs infinitely if one starts it, but it is always already infinite in itself. Hence it relates to poetry but in a different way, because we can endlessly interpret poetry to the point where the meaning of the words of the poem shift towards each other. As Derrida described the différance makes the signs move or float, never catching or grasping any meaning fully. But the production of meaning is not truly endless. But the sublime code is. But this is not the end …

Cite this blog post
Martin Bartelmus (2022, April 20). Chapter 22. The sublime Code. Dark Hermeneutics. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

  1. see the publication of Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, Mark C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample and Noah Vawter regarding a close reading of that code: []
  2. ibid., 7 []
  3. Ibid., 15 []

By Martin Bartelmus

Martin Bartelmus is a Postdoctoral Scholar of German Literary, Media, and Cultural Theory at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. He studied German Literature, Philosophy, Political and Social Studies at Julius Maximilians University Würzburg and received his PhD in Media and Cultural Studies as part of the DFG graduate program “Materiality and Production” from Heinrich Heine University. His PhD-Thesis is entitled Cultural Born Killer: Poetics of Killing around 1900. Before joining the department of German Literature at Heinrich Heine University for his current postdoctoral position, he worked as a curator for the Museum of Natural History of the Benrath Palace and Park Foundation and as a freelancer for the Julia Stoschek Collection. He is interested in Animal and Plant Studies, killing in literature and film, French theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, and literature without humans.

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