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The Enframing of Code: Agency, originality and the plagiarist

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>2011
<mark>Journal</mark>Theory, Culture and Society
Issue number6
Number of pages28
Pages (from-to)113-141
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


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.