In this second part of our genealogy, we move not forward in time, but look back to an encounter that took place between two foundational figures in logic and mathematics, in an attempt to identify the conflicting role of contradiction, misunderstanding, failure, and disagreement in the queer history of computation. While again these figures are well known, the encounter between them is often dismissed as a missed connection and a failed opportunity. As such, it is often relegated to an uninteresting footnote in the history of mathematics. By reengaging this encounter I hope to blur the lines between computing, philosophy, and mathematics, and to disrupt the narrative trajectory that would see Turing as the single foundational figure within this history.
In the spring of 1939, Ludwig Wittgenstein taught a course at the University of Cambridge on the foundations of mathematics, a topic that occupied much of his work from 1922 through to the end of the Second World War. That same semester Wittgenstein was finally elected chair of philosophy at the university, acquiring British citizenship soon thereafter. At fifty years old, he was an established figure in analytic philosophy, having published his groundbreaking Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus almost twenty years prior, and having written extensively on the work of Gödel, Russell, and Whitehead. While Wittgenstein is considered by many to be the most important philosopher of the 20th century, he published very little in his lifetime, and much of his thought and character can only be derived from what survives of his lectures, notes, and seminars. Still less is known of his sexuality, and until the 1980s it was a subject rarely discussed among colleagues or in the many biographies written about his life and work.[i] Even now that Wittgenstein's homosexuality has been largely acknowledged, most scholars are hesitant to imply a connection between his philosophy and his sexuality – that is, between his work and his inner state, emotions, or personality. If, however, in a contemporary light we understand queerness as a structuring mode of desiring, we might view Wittgenstein's thought not as emerging from his sexuality, but as structured by the way in which it shaped his mode of being in the world.
Wittgenstein with Francis Skinner in Cambridge ca. 1933
Wittgenstein is widely regarded to have fallen in love with three men; David Pinset[ii] in 1912, Francis Skinner in 1930, and Ben Richards in the late 1940s.[iii] While it is clear these were relationships of love and affection, the extent to which they were physical is often contested. What seems to make many Wittgenstein scholars uncomfortable in confronting his homosexuality is that it conflicts with the ascetic, almost priestly view of a man so revered by contemporary philosophy. As Bruce Duffy suggests in a 1988 New York Times article on the life of Wittgenstein, "In their effort to put forth a plain, unvarnished record of what Wittgenstein did and said, some of these memoirs have almost the feeling of gospels – hushed, reverential, proprietary."[iv] The philosopher – or indeed, the mathematician – as a carnal, sexual being produces a seemingly irresolvable contradiction. Even those accounts that do concede his affection for other men often suggest that those feelings were purely aesthetic or emotional, and were never acted upon. That said, in perhaps the most controversial section of his 1973 biography of Wittgenstein, W. W. Bartley suggests that the philosopher frequently engaged in a kind of anonymous cross-class sexual contact facilitated by public cruising spaces such as parks and high streets.
By walking for ten minutes to the east . . . he could quickly reach the parkland meadows of the Prater, where rough young men were ready to cater to him sexually. Once he had discovered this place, Wittgenstein found to his horror that he could scarcely keep away from it . . . Wittgenstein found he much preferred the sort of rough blunt homosexual youth that he could find strolling in the paths and alleys of the Prater to those ostensibly more refined young men who frequented the Sirk Ecke in the Kärntnerstrasse and the neighboring bars at the edge of the inner city.[v]
These kinds of exceptional spaces as sites for anonymous sexual encounters continue well into the 20th century, and are instrumental in the structure of being and interaction that the author Samuel Delany identifies as contact:
[C]ontact is also the intercourse—physical and conversational—that blooms in and as “casual sex” in public rest rooms, sex movies, public parks, singles bars, and sex clubs, on street corners with heavy hustling traffic, and in the adjoining motels or the apartments of one or another participant, from which nonsexual friendships and/or acquaintances lasting for decades or a lifetime may spring . . . a relation that, a decade later, has devolved into a smile or a nod, even when (to quote Swinburne) 'You have forgotten my kisses, / And I have forgotten your name.'[vi]
Bartley's sources have been called into question by many historians, but it is less the detail of his description than the acknowledgement of an embodied sexuality that is significant to this history; it is the difficulty we often have in finding the sexual in the everyday, in the lived work of a person beyond these exceptional moments of contact. While such effects may be invisible or to a degree, unknowable, that does not mean they aren't real and do not have a direct effect on the world.
The Prater park in Vienna
In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein defines truth as a tautology, that is, a result achieved through the mere repetition of the same meaning. While he insists that there exist religious or ethical truths, he argues that they cannot be put into words, that they are unknowable through language, and that claims to express ethical truths through philosophy must fail. Wittgenstein summarizes the Tractatus with the maxim: “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”[vii] What does it mean that for Wittgenstein truth is something that can be known but not discussed, that is indescribable? And how does he apply this critique to truths we understand to be beyond language – the truth of the body, or the truth of mathematics?
Back at Cambridge in 1939, another young scholar and philosopher was also beginning his research at the university. After two years working under Alonso Church at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, Alan Turing took up a position as an untenured research fellow at Cambridge, having failed to acquire a full lectureship. Turing and Wittgenstein had been introduced the summer of 1937, but it was not until two years later in 1939 that they would have any meaningful interaction. That spring Turing was also teaching a course on the foundations of mathematics that shared the same name as Wittgenstein's lecture.[viii] Perhaps intrigued, Turing enrolled. Over the course of the semester, Turing engaged in a lengthy dialogue with Wittgenstein, challenging and outright refusing much of Wittgenstein's thoughts on logic and mathematics.[ix] Despite their disagreement, this seems a pivotal moment in the history of computing, in which two queer figures engage with the limits of knowledge and computability, questioning that which exists outside of or beyond.
As a young man, Wittgenstein had thought logic could provide a solid foundation for a philosophy of mathematics. Now in his fifties, he denied outright there were any mathematical facts to be discovered. For Wittgenstein, a proof in mathematics does not establish the truth of a conclusion, but rather fixes the meaning of certain signs. That is, the "inexorability" of mathematics does not consist of certain knowledge of mathematical truths, but in the fact that mathematical propositions are grammatical, a kind of language game through which meaning becomes fixed. One the first day of class, Wittgenstein begins by stating, "I shall try and try again to show that what is called a mathematical discovery had much better be called a mathematical invention."[x]
The Erkenntnis from the Königsberg Congress of 1930
Alan Turing, Letter to Dr. N. A. Routledge, AMT/D/14A Turing Archive
There are many ways of telling the history of universal computation, and many origins of the technologies we now consider computational machines. A longer history might begin with Gottfried Leibnitz and Isaac Newton's simultaneous development of modern calculus and the dream of a universal artificial mathematical language. Alternately, we might look to the history of calculating machines, beginning with Charles Babbage's Difference Engine or Herman Hollerith's Electric Sorting and Tabulating Machine.
Most every history would certainly include the contributions of Alan Turing, an English mathematician who is considered by many to be the father of computer science. In his relatively short career Turing formalized such concepts as "algorithm" and "computation," he helped crack the Nazi Enigma Machine during the Second World War, was a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, and developed early research on such concepts as neural nets, morphogenesis, and mathematical biology. Turing was also an openly gay man who, in January of 1952 was convicted of Gross Indecency by the British government under the 1885 Labouchere Amendment, made to undergo chemical castration, and ultimately committed suicide in June of 1954.[i] The subject of numerous books, films, and works of art, Turing is perhaps the most widely recognized computer scientist in the field's short history. He is also the most recognizable queer figure in this history. As such, it is necessary to begin with Turing, not simply for the visibility of his difference, but for the fundamental role he played in defining the limits of computation, and the possibility to look beyond those limits in identifying a queer history of computing.
Homosexuality was by no means unheard of in England at the start of the 20th century, and by some accounts it seems to have been common practice among many college-aged students in elite universities such as Cambridge, which did not admit women until 1948.[ii] Still, homosexual activity had been explicitly illegal since the end of the 19th century, when it was famously used in a pair of legal cases against Oscar Wilde beginning in 1885, leading to his imprisonment and eventual exile in 1897.[iii] Given this legal status, what is most striking about Turing is how open he was with his sexuality, which seems to have been common knowledge among friends and colleagues. As Elizabeth Wilson notes in Affect and Artificial Intelligence, Turing's relationship to his sexuality seems to be less one of repression and shame, and more a kind of naïve amusement. If this attitude was not shared by others at the time, it was at the very least tolerated among Turing's friends and associates.
Donald Michie, one of Turing's wartime colleagues at Bletchley Park,[iv] recalls that "Bletchley had some flamboyant homosexuals,"[v] and that, despite the assumption that homosexuality would be considered a national security risk due to blackmail and other threats, it does not seem to have impeded Turing's work for the government, at least not during the war. For many in those days, homosexuality was an open secret, if it was kept secret at all.”[vi] But while Turing's sexuality is not in dispute, the effect it may have had on his life and work is much more speculative.
[Installation view, Artists Space, 2012. Photo: Daniel Pérez]
Archaeological in its meticulous arrangement of items, images, and ideas – within cases, wrapped in chords, laminated in plastic, or otherwise contained – DUOX4Larkin enacts a process of defamiliarization with corporate and retail objects, forming new connections and relations through Internet-informed practices of layering, connecting, enclosing, and manipulating objects.
DUOX is a collaboration between artists Daniel Wickerham and Malcom Lomax, MICA grads based out of Baltimore and New York City. The group has gained momentum in the past two years after several shows in Baltimore, leading to the Bard 2011 CCS exhibition Break My Body, Hold My Bones.
[Installation view, Artists Space, 2012.]
The show's title would appear to be a play on the collaborative X for Y schema that has become a popular way to make couture designers accessible to a broad audience (Missoni for Target, Lanvin for H&M, etc.). The double sided hanging displays of ten large print photographs that dominate much of the space resemble look books comprised of a collection of sporty, synthetic fabrics and colors. Shirts transform into dresses which are hung with laminated images and logos, over which Photoshop blur effects have been layered along with an arm captured mid-motion-blur in what appears to be a blue wetsuit with a sandal on its hand and the shadow of an eye on its forearm. This additive gesture (and…and…and…) dominates all pieces in the show, but rather than overwhelm, it flattens such details into a broader set of visual cues. It is a sophisticated collage that seems to both revel in and critique the consumer goods it deploys, repurposing and abstracting them.
[Part of the show's online component, a "Men Seeking Women" ad on Craigslist.]
Curiously absent from the show is the foregrounding of sexuality ...
Pronunciation Book is a youtube channel that was registered on April 14, 2010, intended as a resource for "correct" pronunciations of a variety of words that were complex, foreign, or otherwise difficult to pronounce. Each video had a distinct aesthetic, consisting of a still frame with the word being pronounced spelled in a simple, black, sans-serif font on a white background with a copyright date and the channel's URL. Each word was repeated three times with different emphasis, and videos lasted no longer than 15 seconds. The videos are simple, even artistic in their presentation, reminiscent of On Kawara's date paintings from his Today series, each word concrete yet abstracted from its context. Early traffic was no doubt driven by sincere users looking for the proper pronunciation of various words. Indeed there exist a number of youtube channels that serve precisely that purpose, many of which are geared toward ESL viewers; but for whatever reason, Pronunciation Book rubbed many the wrong way, and soon the videos became a popular destination for trolling, spam, and rage. The comments section of each video range from angry corrections of the given pronunciation to outright mockery in the form of re-spellings, dislikes, sarcasm, and a strong undercurrent of racism and xenophobia. Commenters often defended regional pronunciations and accents, or simply mocked the need for such a guide in the first place.
Pronunciation Book would seem to have tapped into an essential truth of the Web and all it's presumed meritocracy: act like you know more or are better than people, and be prepared to drown in a sea of rage. Perhaps the most sophisticated response to the channel came exactly one year later in the form of a separate parody channel titled Pronunciation Manual. Pronunciation Manual adopts the visual ...
[The Net, 1995]
Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) are the primary means through which most users interact with computers; but while GUIs help us make sense of complex computational data and allow average users to navigate and manipulate computer systems, human-computer interaction does not easily translate to other visual media such as film and television. It is difficult to dramatize database queries or the kind of intensive and prolonged engagement many describe when programming and writing code. These actions exists on a different scale and in a different time frame, and when dramatized they seem awkward at best, if not simply dull and uninteresting.
Perhaps it is for this reason that film has invented its own form of computer visualization, a kind of visual language of computation that speaks to the language of film. This often involves a very particular set of visual tropes that are intended to signify computation: login screens, chat rooms, loading bars, criminal or business profiles, copying data (often clandestinely), large legible typefaces, 3D interfaces, wireframe models, maps and floor plans, voice interaction, etc. On film the failures of interface design are almost always absent, as protagonists are capable of using almost any UI, data can be transferred and read across multiple systems with ease, and intuition is often enough to accomplish the most elaborate tasks.
In some cases films will use existing GUIs and operating systems, particularly when funding is available through product placement. Often, however, movies will invent entirely new GUIs that accomplish the simple goals of filmic computation, or which appear sufficiently futuristic and foreign from the types of graphical interfaces we are accustomed to. In fact there is an entire sub-field of the graphic and interface design industry that produces Fake User Interfaces or FUIs, both for software mock ups and for the film industry. Below we've collected a series of images taken from the site Access Main Computer File, "a visual study of computer GUI in cinema" run by Steven Huynh. Spanning over four decades, these images not only point to this cinematic visualization of computation, they also serve as the promise of and inspiration for future technologies.
I am very concerned with problematizing the class and gender dynamics of this history in particular, especially since I am using the term "queer" here in a slippery way, applying it to a group of men who may better fit its historically pejorative definition more than its contemporary transgressive one. I'd love to chat more online and in person. I'll contact you through twitter and perhaps we can get a coffee.
Honestly I just found it more interesting to talk about what the show might mean instead of whether or not it was good. People are going to see the show regardless, and I'd rather they read a piece that puts the show in a context they hadn't thought of then go in with the idea that the show is good or bad because they read it on a website. Is it the responsibility of a site like Rhizome to publish reviews that take a clear stance on the quality or validity of shows such as this? Maybe. But honestly I find that kind of work dull, particularly when it devolves into snark and shade that does more to boost the ego of the reviewer than it does to inform its readers. In fact I would argue that it is precisely those kinds of reviews that are uncritical, or at least, critically shallow.
Part of the reason I reviewed the show as I did is that I was not particularly interested in the pieces as artworks - and how they might fit into a longer art historical tradition - but more what they might be saying about art, technology, and culture. Whether or not the pieces are good is entirely beside the point for me. And, not to contradict Brian, but what the artist's intentions were when creating that piece, or whether or not he did it for the reasons I gave in my review, is also not personally of interest. And while I said in the first paragraph of my review that even though the show was "about" failure the show itself was not a failure, that does not mean that many of the pieces were not critical or intellectual failures, particularly in their failure to provoke any consideration from the viewer beyond "I see what you did there."
But when I went to the show having to actually consider the pieces beyond their immediate punchline and forced myself away from the kind of knee-jerk eat-our-own criticism that is so easy with so much of this kind of work - and so prevalent in this community - I found something that I thought was worth writing about, and that (hopefully) wasn't the same kind of critique that everyone has given Cory for years. For me the review wasn't about if the show was good or bad, it was about what it meant both for the new media art community and within the broader context of art, technology, and culture.
So while this may be a question of defaults it doesn't seem to be reflecting on technologically specific defaults, just culturally specific defaults and readily available forms.