Friday, December 30, 2016

Transcendental Critique? The peculiar case of UNIX and race in America in the 1960s

Back at the beginning of the summer when the LARB hatchet job on digital humanities was rippling through the internets I came across Tara McPherson’s 2012 article on racism and UNIX during the 1960s, a juxtaposition I thought strange, but intriguing [1]. But the article has been widely influential, so I decided to read it [2].

It is an impressive piece of work. But I don’t believe it. McPherson makes no causal claims, which is good; because I can’t see any way causal claims can be made. But without causal claims, what’s the point? It reads like a critique of a sprawling Pynchonesque novel, not like sociological analysis of mid-century American society. But then it’s not sociology is it? It’s cultural criticism. Perhaps there are limits to cultural criticism. That’s what this is about, those limits.

I’d been meaning to write a detailed post on this, but between this and that my mind moved on and I had little choice but to follow it. Instead I’ve taken an email I’d originally written to a colleague, edited it, and added some new material to round things out.

McPherson on UNIX and Race as “Operating Systems”

McPherson is looking at two phenomenon of the 1960s: the development of the UNIX operating system for digital computers and the reconfiguration of race relations though civil rights activism, legislation, and ripple effects. These two phenomena resemble one another in their “modularity.” On that account McPherson seems to be arguing that mid-century American society was run by some mysterious and hidden “operating system” of which these two phenomena are expressions.

On the one hand we have Unix. Just what is it? Well, it’s computer software that performs the functions of a computer operating system – the software that handles the computer’s basic function. It’s code, but we can’t understand what that is without knowing something about what computers are and how they operate. Physically, we can imagine a printout of the code. But the resemblance McPherson is interested in won’t be visible there. We could also imagine flow charts or other visualizations, and those would be rather sprawling and complex and the resemblance won’t really be there either, because flow charts are static. What she’s interested in is dynamic function, and she presents that to us through quotations from design documents and such. This is very abstract stuff.

And so is the racial dynamics. Concretely we’ve got people, where they are located, and how they move in time and space. We can see (and imagine) the people readily enough, but the phenomena she’s interested in aren’t readily visible on the ground. Given prior knowledge of those phenomena, signs of them may be visible (for example, the boundary between a black neighborhood and a white one), but the phenomena are only really identifiable through an act of investigation (observation, data gathering) and subsequent analysis. You can detect neighborhood differences as you move though a city, but you can see the patterns that interest McPherson only by looking at appropriately marked maps. And we need a succession of maps of the same area to determine the change over time. So, while we’re interested in the disposition of physical stuff in time and space – people on the land – the identification of the relevant patterns requires a fair amount of abstraction. These phenomena cannot be directly observed in a physical way – which is why we need social science research to identify them.

In both cases, Unix and race, we’re operating at a remove from lived experience (a phrase that’s been showing up quite a bit in my reading on these matters).

Modularization, however, is a very general phenomenon. Surely there must be other cases during the 1960s (as well as before and after). And McPherson does mention others. The one that sticks in mind is the splintering of academic knowledge in more specialized disciplines – another abstract case. But she pulls back from going into these other cases, insisting on coming back to her core cases, Unix and racism.

Another Case: Containerization

Let me suggest a different kind of case: containerization in freight shipping. I don’t have any good sense of the timing. It certainly dates back to the 19th century. What I have in mind is the proliferation of purpose-built container ships. Did that experience a big rise in the 1960s? The Wikipedia article on container ships asserts that the first purpose-build container ships were constructed in the 1950s and that trans-Atlantic shipping in them between the USA and Rotterdam commenced in 1966. What I’d really like to know, for example, is when the freight terminals in lower Manhattan, Hoboken (where I now live), and Jersey City (where I’ve lived most of the last 15 years) were abandoned in favor of terminals in Newark Bay because the container ships were too big to dock there. My sense of the issue, which is not very deep, is that the period when freight shipping abandoned New York Bay for Newark Bay is when the big rise occurred.

However that issue works out, just think of containerization. It is obviously modular, and in a physically visible sense. Anyone who lives near a substantial freight port has seen containers stacked on land and perhaps stacked above the decks of very large ships. Others may have seen containers stacked on mile-long freight trains. And if you’ve not seen these things directly, you may well have seen photos or illustrations of them (e.g. in the current article in the NYTimes on the SNAFU at the new locks of the Panama Canal, which is what brought containerization to mind).

Assuming that timing is right, I find it difficult to imagine McPherson discussing containerization. Why? Well, of course, there’s her desire to focus on race and Unix. But beyond that, there’s the brute physicality of freight containerization in contrast to the rather abstract apprehension of modularization in Unix and racial dynamics. You can see freight containerization directly. An example like freight containerization would disrupt the rhetorical flow of her argument.

Rhetorically, her argument depends on the rarified nature of the phenomena she’s thinking about. That’s what gives it an air of discovery. At this basic level of examination containerization is so obvious that there is nothing to discover.

Throughout her article she is actively shaping the correspondence. She suggests that race is an “operating system”. What does that mean, concretely? I am willing to grant that racial dynamics are fundamental to American society, fundamental in the sense that they cannot be entirely derived from other processes (such as class conflict). But does society even have an operating system in the sense the computers have them? I doubt it, but if so, it requires an argument that McPherson hasn’t made.

Is the correspondence between UNIX and racism something that exists a priori and that McPherson has simply discovered or is it something that she has actively created in the course of her argument? While thinking about that, consider Foucault’s parallel between the classroom and the prison, or the New Historicist’s parallel between the court and the theater (examples suggested to me by Alan Liu). I’d be willing to grant that those similarities exist a priori. Granted, they are complex phenomena and so the appropriate descriptive terms may not be obvious, but both the court and the theatre are physical sites with well-known and extensively investigated social and cultural functions.

These questions strike me as deep and, in any event, messy. McPherson’s arguments are strongest if we grant that the similarities exist prior to analytic and interpretive humanistic discourse. But if we make that claim, then we’ve scuttled the (constructivist) arguments against (perhaps somewhat naive) positivist science. Latour’s position, as I understand it, is that there is a trivial sense in which all knowledge is socially constructed. Yes. But some constructions are good and some are not. Yes. That distinction is crucial. Where’s the primary site of construction, “out there” in the social and historical world, or “in here” in the analyst’s interpretive mind?

I don’t want to try following that one down the rabbit hole. So I’m going to shift the discussion a bit.

Mechanism: How Things Work

What interests me is ‘mechanism’–how things work. UNIX was created by self-conscious programmers trying to solve problems in the operation of computers. They could state what the problems were and how and why Unix provides a solution. UNIX might not be the only solution, but it is a solution, and, FWIW, one that has found widespread favor. The society-wide racial dynamics are quite different.

Consider this passage from McPherson where she remarks on the emergence convert racism (2012, pp. 30-31):
Let me be clear. By drawing analogies between shifting racial and political formations and the emerging structures of digital computing in the late 1960s, I am not arguing that the programmers creating UNIX at Bell Labs and in Berkeley were consciously encoding new modes of racism and racial understanding into digital systems. […] Nor am I arguing for some exact correspondence between the ways in which encapsulation or modularity work in computation and how they function in the emerging regimes of neoliberalism, governmentality and post-Fordism. Rather, I am highlighting the ways in which the organization of information and capital in the 1960s powerfully responds–across many registers–to the struggles for racial justice and democracy that so categorized the U.S. at the time. Many of these shifts were enacted in the name of liberalism, aimed at distancing the overt racism of the past even as they contained and cordoned off progressive radicalism. The emergence of covert racism and its rhetoric of colorblindness are not so much intentional as systemic. Computation is a primary delivery method of these new systems, and it seems at best naïve to imagine that cultural and computational operating systems don’t mutually infect one another.
Look at the last two sentences (highlighted). In the case of racism McPherson seems to be saying that we’re dealing with something that is an “emergent” property of the system, not a result of the explicit and conscious intentions of individuals living in the system. That is very different from the conscious development and adoption of UNIX.

Granted that the mechanisms of social and cultural systems are rather obscure, I am nonetheless having a great deal of difficulty imagining a mechanism that can operate between the conscious intentions of programmers and the covert racial dynamics of society at large. Thus I’m inclined to regard McPherson’s assertion that “cultural and computational operating systems” are able to “mutually infect one another” as tap-dancing and hand waving. She has no valid argument. The meaning she sees is pretty much a product of her intellectual procedure. It does not follow from the processes operating in the world she’s examining.

Transcendental Critique

The fact is, as I remarked above, McPherson’s argument reads best as a critical analysis of a sprawling Pynchonesque novel. In that case everything in the novel is the product of the author’s mind, though not necessarily so. Why, in this particular novel, do certain computational processes and certain social processes resemble one another? Because that’s what the author wrote. The fact that these two things resemble one another in the novel is thus “insulated” from, at a distance from, the dynamics of the real world.

Yes, I know that, in a peculiar way, the author has been declared dead. The author has become a conduit for social and psychological forces beyond his or her control. And so we can read the text as an expression of those forces. Take one more step, though, and eliminate the fictional text. And that leaves us with McPherson’s situation. She’s reading the world as a text. No author, no text, just the critic and the world.

Isn’t that what cultural studies is supposed to do? But just who or what is it that created the particular “text” McPherson is “reading”, the text in which there is some deep but inexplicable resonance between UNIX and racial social formations in the 1960s? McPherson has taken up a critical stance outside the world (i.e. the text) she is examining and from that transcendental point of view she sees interesting resemblances. She cannot identify any causal mechanism within that world that is capable of producing that resemblance. She is thus in effect positing some transcendental force outside that world that is producing that effect.

What is that transcendental force? Is it a deity or a world spirit? Or is it merely a projection of her critical stance?

When you look into a mirror you see yourself. And the image you see is projected into a position in space that is as far behind the mirror as you are in front of the mirror. That’s what McPherson is doing.

How much of cultural critique works like this? I’m quite sure that all of it does not. Beyond that I cannot say.

7 January 2017

Perhaps humanists need explicit training in causal reasoning. Consider this paragraph from a recent article by Sharon Marcus:
Explanation designates the operation by which literary critics assign causality, though explanation can also signify description and interpretation, as when we “explain” a poem. Literary critics tend to downplay causality — “why?” is not our favorite question — and usually refer the sources of a text’s meaning or form to disciplines other than literary criticism, such as history, biography, economics, philosophy, or neuro- science. Thus scholars often relate specific features of literary works to general phenomena such as modernity, capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, or the structure of our brains. But because explanation is an undervalued operation in literary criticism, one seen to depend on the kind of literalism that leads many critics to reject description as impossible, the exact nature of the link between general phenomena and specific works often remains nebulous. Literary critics are more likely to posit the relationship between the realist novel and capitalism as one of homology, analogy, or shared commitments (to, say, individualism) than they are to trace a clear line from one as cause to the other as effect. (pp. 304-305 [3])
When McPherson argues that racism and UNIX are alike in their modularity she's arguing from homology, or resemblance. When I suggested that freight containerization belonged in the argument as well, I was doing the same thing. It's not a very powerful way to establish causality.


[1] Tara McPherson, “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century: The Intertwinning of Race and UNIX”, in Race After the Internet, Lisa Nakamura, Peter Chow-White, and Alondra Nelson, eds., New York, Routledge (2011) pp. 21-37. There’s a PDF online here:

For a brief informal statement, see her Henry Jenkins interview, March 20, 2015: Bringing Critical Perspectives to the Digital Humanities: An Interview with Tara McPherson (Part Three):

[2] A Google query on "U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century" turned up 441 hits:

[3] Sharon Marcus, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and the Value of Scale, Modern Language Quarterly 77.3 (September 2016) 297-319. pp. 304-305.

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