The art of code

Maurice Joseph Black, University of Pennsylvania


The Art of Code originates at the nexus of literature's and computing culture's related but distinct aesthetic systems. 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. The 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. As such, the dissertation's three chapters work together to provide both an aesthetic history of computing culture and a related analysis of how programming aesthetics can inform modern criticism. Chapter One outlines a range of historical, technological, philosophical, political, and legal conceptions of what software is, focusing on how those conceptions have shaped our ideas about how software should be written, distributed, and protected. Chapter Two discusses the aesthetic history of code, examining the importance of the literary ideal to programming culture. Chapter Three examines the intersections between modern programming theory and the authorial practices employed by James Joyce, arguing that understanding computer programming as a literary technique, a mode of writing with inherent artistic capabilities, enables a powerful re-imagining of the complex linguistic and structural experiments Joyce conducts in Finnegans Wake. Concluding with a reconsideration of Martin Heidegger's conceptions of technē and poiēsis, The Art of Code aims to initiate philosophical inquiry into the complex, dynamic interrelationship between the semantics of computer programming and of literature.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Black, Maurice Joseph, "The art of code" (2002). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3072974.