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Ruby, Bion, and Software as Sociality

by on May 9, 2010

Rubyists impress me as a group of people who are broadly literate, so I was only slightly surprised that twice in one week the subject of psychoanalysis (of all things) came up in the context of Ruby. In the first instance, I was sitting next to a gentleman at the monthly pdx.rb meeting and I made a comment about passion and libido in the context of Ruby (Ruby is fun as they say) and he mentioned to me that he was a working psychoanalyst. And just a few days later, a gentleman who was interviewing me for a Ruby job asked me if I am familiar with the Slovenian Psychoanalytic Philosopher Slavoj Zizek. (I am).

The Ruby psychoanalyst and I engaged a wide ranging conversation in email after the meeting and it strikes me that our conversation is relevant to and indicative of a development in the culture and reality of software. Ruby in particular and Open Source software in general are what I might call software as sociality, or software that fosters literacy. And literacy fosters collaboration and sociality. This loop is a kind of virtuous helical spiral, or a kind of cultural and intellectual bootstrapping process

Somehow, a very interesting psychoanalytic thinker by the name of Wilfred Bion came up. Bion was an immensely literate person who dedicated his life to helping people develop intellectually and emotionally. He was himself a person of very wide ranging interest and someone capable of both rigorous mathematical and philosophical thought and someone capable of being both pithy and very funny. In short, in my estimation he had wisdom and wit. Bion was an excellent example of someone conversant and felicitous in many domains. He was, I might say, a Rubyist before Ruby existed as the language and culture we know today.

Writing something on Bion, in fact, will help me explain some about how Ruby as a language walks the balance necessary to be productive and at the same to promote literacy and understanding. Bion had a way of putting things cogently, of distilling wisdom that I find satisfying and so I want to credit him where he is due, without falling into the trap of Bion said this and Bion said that, which in any event would not be very Bionian. He spends a considerable amount of time in his seminars reminding his listeners to let the jargon go once one gets an understanding, to not hold tightly on to jargon. (Think about that in the context of Ruby.)

And there is something more here in this tension between respect for, love of the work that others have done and the calcification of jargon. How can we become literate and learned in a technical or other domain without becoming stultified by jargon? How can we wield the artifacts of civilization with felicity? Languages, whether technical or otherwise are living, social artifacts and they need context, collaboration, and a kind of commerce to grow and stay lively.

And now, while I’m thinking through this, another association comes to mind. Somewhere, in one of the seminars, Bion waters up an idea from Freud on “interpretation as construction.” In fact, there is an essay from the Standard Edition in which Freud distills his own thoughts on constructions and interpetation. But it is Bion who brings home the insight that simply giving an interpretation to someone as a finished and shrink-wrapped piece of jargon does little for them. An interpretive act takes place in a context and in a history, and it is the context and history that give it meaning and life if it is to have any real life at all. Building up or constructing an interpretation using a living context or history gives the other person an opportunity to think along and come to something of an understanding of what an interpretation means. Construction in this sense gives interpretation efficacy and life.

Bion mentions, tangentially, how Milton’s poetry was not English Literature (for him). We can fall into the trap of thinking that we are teaching or being taught English Literature when encountering Milton, but Milton was “saying what he had to say” in the form that most suited his understanding. Literature in a shrink-wrapped or even in a Wikipedia sense was not his concern. We are better readers of Milton and will understand and participate in more of his “genius” if we allow ourselves to think along with him and we place ourselves in the context of “Milton is expressing and working through an understanding” in his poetry. (Incidentally, this is the approach to interpeting Milton that a good literary critic such as Harold Bloom takes and Bloom uses Freud to high-powered effect in his acts of interpretation.)

Slices of jargon are as Bion says, “very compressed statements which have a considerable penumbra of associations.” Jargon is useful and convenient short-hand, but it detaches itself from context and from specific meaning. Jargon is especially dangerous when it becomes calcified and appears to be doing the work of thinking or meaning. In the context of this little post I would define a construction as an interpretation that uses a context to build or prove itself, an interpretation that forms using the details and the context of life that might go unnoticed without a well formed construction. A construction “says what it has to say” in the “right” form, and uses context to give itself meaning and relevance. A construction uses unformed context or detail to give form to context and understanding to detail. In fact, details or context are not even noticed without some understanding or some construction.

The above paragraph strikes me now as a not too poor elucidation of what “bootstrapping” consists of and there a number of philosophers who have extended that kind of little play on context and interpretation to make some conjectures about how the mind and cognition work. We can discuss more of that later. It might be interesting to work through some of the explicit and implicit aspects of extending this little piece of wisdom, if I might call it that. I see some interesting possibilities. I can, in fact, use this frame to talk about or elucidate Open Source development in general and Ruby and the Ruby community in specific. Open Source software in general eschews the shrink-wrap model and exposes more of its context.

What can be seen in some instances as less convenient and more context dependent (Open Source), actually has the virtue of providing enough context through which to learn and through which to promote literacy. Free and Open Source software as an environment in which literacy is preserved, promoted, and developed is something I’ve been going on about for over twelve years. It seems more and more evident to me every day. Collaboration and conversation are some of the watchwords of the day and they have very relevant uses and meanings in the context of Open Source development. The compression in an Open Source scripting language such as Ruby is very convenient and very productive without necessarily removing context. In fact, in ambiguous or difficult to understand places, context can be brought in, either through unpacking of terse or ambiguous statements, or through well-written comments and thorough test coverage both.

Discussion of community is also very relevant not because we Open Sourcerers stand around a campfire singing free software songs (however appealing or appalling the idea), but because all language is social. Free software is social in a true sense. I’ve unpacked that sentence before, so I’ll just leave it there in all its compressed ambiguity for now. I will only say in this paragraph that free software exposes itself as language, as “speech act”, in a way that fosters conversation, literacy, and community. The image of the anti-social and flat coder who speaks or writes an isolate, discreet (machine-only) readable language or jargon is an artifact of a world in which software is shrink-wrapped and cut off from language in general and from the context in which it might find use and life.

This post is, in fact, a program. It is as much a program as a program written in Ruby. That statement either pushes the boundaries of what is thought of as a program or it confirms and participates in the literate community of software developers who both speak and write articulately in their own native languages and in Ruby. I have confidence that many in the Ruby community understand what I mean by that. They understand it because they live the fact that the wall between language as language and language as code is more and more open; they understand it because of the general intellect and literacy that the Ruby culture embodies.

Here’s to more conversation and collaboration.

  1. gel permalink

    hummm, pal? i’m subscribed to the ‘zizek’ feed of your site. till now i only see comments, your comments. is there any chance to find things about zizek (links etc.), concretly, or should i unsubscribe?
    sorry for the directness of the question, it is honest.

    • Absolutely no problem, I do have a post linked from this one, here.

      It also might help me to know what aspects of Zizek you would like to discuss, as I can either respond in a post or a comment with more thoughts. Thanks for reading.

      I don’t have a Zizek feed by the way….

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