The Enframing of Code: Agency, originality and the plagiarist

Introna, Lucas (2011) The Enframing of Code: Agency, originality and the plagiarist. Theory, Culture and Society, 28 (6). pp. 113-141. ISSN 1460-3616

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This paper is about the phenomenon of encoding, more specifically about the encoded extension of agency. The question of code most often emerges from contemporary concerns about the way digital encoding is seen to be transforming our lives in fundamental ways, yet seems to operate ‘under the surface’ as it were. In this essay I suggest that the performative outcomes of digital encoding are best understood within a more general horizon of the phenomenon of encoding – that is to say as norm- or rule-governed material enactments accepted (or taken for granted) as the necessary conditions for becoming. Encoded material enactments translate/extend agency, but never exactly. I argue that such encoded extensions are insecure, come at a cost and are performative. To illustrate this I present a brief discussion of some specific historical transitions in the encoding of human agency: from speech to writing, to mechanical writing, and finally to electronic writing. In each of these translations I aim to show that agency is translated/extended in ways that have many unexpected performative outcomes. Specifically, through a discussion of the digital encoding of writing, as reuse, I want to suggest the proposition that all agency is always borrowed (or ‘plagiarized’) – i.e. it is never originally human. As encoded beings we are never authors, we are rather more or less skilful reusers. To extend agency we have to submit to the demands of encoding and kidnap that encoding simultaneously – enabling constraints in Butler’s language. Our originality, if there is any, is in our skill at kidnapping the code and turning it into an extension of our agency, that is to say, our skill at resignification – to be original we need to be skilful ‘parasites’, as suggested by Serres.

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Theory, Culture and Society
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16 Dec 2011 12:21
Last Modified:
19 Sep 2023 00:47