Ryan Cordell: Programmable Type: the Craft of Printing, the Craft of Code

A line of R code set in movable type

I want situate the kinds of programming typically practiced in digital humanities research and teaching in relation to practices more familiar to book historians and bibliographers, such as the work of compositors and printers working with moveable type.

Ryan Cordell sent me a link to a talk on  Programmable Type: the Craft of Printing, the Craft of Code. The talk looks at the “modes of thought and labor” of composing movable type and programming. He is careful to warns us about the simplistic story that has movable type and the computer as two information technologies that caused revolutions in how we think about knowledge. What is particularly interesting is how he weaves hands-on work into his course Technologies of Text. He asks students to not just read about printing, but to try doing it. Likewise for programming in R. There is a knowing that comes from doing something and attending to the labor of that doing. Replicating the making of texts gives students (and researchers) a sense of the materiality and contexts of media. It is a way of doing media archaeology.

In the essay, Cordell writes about the example of the visual poem “A Dude” and its many iterations composed with different type. I had blogged about “A Dude”, but hadn’t thought about how the poem would have been a way for the compositor to show of their craft much like a twitterbot might be a way for a programmer to show off theirs.

Cordell frames this discussion by considering the controversy around whether digital humanists should need to be able to code. He raises an interesting challenge – whether learning the craft of programming (or letterpress printing) might make it harder to view the craft critically. In committing time and labour to learning a craft does one get implicated or corrupted by the craft? Doesn’t one want end up valuing the craft simply because it is something one can now do, and to critique it would be to critique oneself.