Friday, August 19, 2022

Who Codes Whom?

@daily_barbarian (Geoff Shullenberger) describes René Girard as politically ambivalent.

He codes as right-wing in his insistence on the necessity of social order, but as left-wing in his insistence that any such order is founded on violence.

When I ask who is doing the coding here, and for what purpose, he replies 

People of all sorts who encounter his work and attempt to place it in the conventional categories. I’ve seen many on the left use the first point to call him a reactionary, and some on the right use the second to call him naïve about power.

Quite so. But the fact that other people don't know how to categorize Girard doesn't imply any contradiction or ambivalence on his part. What it does show is that the conventional categories (rightwing, leftwing) are becoming increasingly muddled. (There are several other arguments for moving away from this conventional way of framing politics - for example recent work by Latour.)

But what I want to talk about here is the elision. Instead of people of all sorts code him ..., we get simply he codes. As if Girard is somehow responsible for his own classification.

Classification is a political act, but categories are often treated as objective facts rather than subjective opinions (Bowker & Star). Hence my question about who and why. 

One domain in which the act of coding hasn't always received sufficient attention is in data and intelligence, but this is now changing thanks to great work by @abebab and others. See links to my other posts below.

And in the political domain, commentators are increasingly willing to challenge the coding that underpins certain alleged social facts. See for example Global Media Literacy. And those wishing to politicize the COVID pandemic can find more than enough complexity in the coding of health and pharma data that might support any given measure. (Politicizing such matters is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is itself a political choice.)

Anon, Opinion: Beware the data on American right-wing violence (Global Media Literacy, 23 May 2022)

Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out (MIT Press 1999)

Related posts: Framing a riot (August 2011), Limitations of Machine Learning (July 2020), Mapping out the entire world of objects (July 2020), Near Miss (April 2021), Purpose of Shame (April 2022)

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