18.573 plain text --> bytes briques hierarchy

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 8 Feb 2005 06:55:46 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 573.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Tue, 08 Feb 2005 06:43:16 +0000
         From: lachance_at_origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)
         Subject: bytes briques hierarchy


Inspired bythe recent thread musing on the appellations of ASCII and
"plain text" I ask, "What is a byte?". As would happen I have a textual
occurence in mind. In _Computers, Writing, Rhetoric and Literature_
Volume 3, John Slatin in "La Zambinella Meets the Cyborg: Barthes, S/Z,
and Print-Based Literary Studies" has produced a section called <<Bits,
Bytes, and Briques: The Text as Program>> where a paragraph encapsulates
some skepticism about the adequacy of the English translation from the

          The word byte has to do with the way data is encoded for the
         computer: a byte consists of 8 bits, or binary digits, and
         effectively represents the minimum amount of space in memory
         necessary to store a single piece of information such as the
         letter S or the numeral 107, which as it happens is the numerical
         value assigned to the capital S by the American Standard Code for
         Information Interchange, or ASCII. Barthes seems to be using the
         word byte in a slightly unusual way, however-- or perhaps it isn't
         Barthes but his American translator, Richard Miller. The word
         Miller translates as byte is brique. It does not appear in any
         French dictionary that I can locate as an equivalent for byte; the
         closest I have been able to get is a definition listed as archaic
         by Robert, in which a brique corresponds to a million old francs.
         This could work metonymically, so that a million old francs
         corresponds to a million bytes. But Claude Levy, a French
         colleague who attended the seminar from which S/Z emerged and who
         heard a much earlier version of this chapter in 1992, suggested
         that byte might well have been a mistake on Miller's part, that
         brique carries with it the sense of a building block that would
         correspond more closely to Barthes' references to subroutines and
         "sections of program" (Claude Levy, personal communication, 10
         April 1992).
<cit> http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/currents/cwrl/v3n1/zambinella/john2.html
Accessed: Mon, 27 Dec 2004 00:48:48 GMT </cit>

Slotin goes on to indicate that "Barthes is careful to specify "computer
terminology" as authorizing his usage. That is indeed Miller's translation
of cybernetique.

First question: How common was the use of the term "brique" in the
discursive domaine of cybernetics in French during the 1960s? I am in the
process of attempting to locate a copy of L. Couffignal _La Cybernetique_
"Que sais-je?" No. 638 [1963] in the hopes of perhaps finding an instance
apart from Barthes of the use of the term "brique".

Second question: What meanings were in circulation round the early 1970s
for the term "byte"? I recall leafing through an old edition of the
Penguin Dictionary of Computing and looking up the term "byte" and that
its meaning was compounded of two elements: what it was (a sequence) and
what it did (instructed). Perhaps, I thought, the rendering of the French
"brique" by the English "byte" was a felicitous rendering since the
Barthesian text does equate a byte or brique to a piece of a program
inserted in a machine [un morceau de programme insere dans la machine].
Unfortunately when I returned to the second hand bookstore where I had
been browsing, the volume had found another home. Even more unfortunate is
the fact that none of the libraries in my vicinity contain in their
collection a copy. However they do contain other dictionaries and with
similar definitions if not dates of attestation:

byte: a group of adjacent bits, such as 4, 6, or 8 bits, operating as a
unit. For example a 6-bit byte may be used to specify a letter of the
alphabet, and an 8-bit byte may be used to specify an instruction or an
_address_. Normally shorter than a _word_.
<cit>A.J. Meadows et al. _Dictionary of Computing and Information
Technology, 3rd edition, London: Kogan Page, 1987</cite>


Something very interesting happens to one when one adopts a view of the
byte as unit characterized by adjacency or sequence and endowed with an
indexical power to point or direct and runs that view through an old
debate. I'm sorry I missed one public disputation in particular. I am more
sorry that I have not been able to read any accounts of the event beyond
the position statements provided in advance for :

     What is text? A debate on the philosophical and epistemological nature
     of text in the light of humanities computing research

     Allen Renear, Jerome McGann, Susan Hockey (Chair and organiser)

     ACHALLC Conference, University of Virginia, Thursday 10 June 1999

One of the position statements makes the following claim for
poetry: <quote[...] the recursive interplay of the fields produces works
whose order is not hierarchical. Of course a governing hierarchy can be
imposed upon such works.</quote>

The other position statement makes the strong claim that
<quote> renditional features are not parts of texts, and therefore not
proper locations for textual meaning </quote>

I find myself after a little Barthesian excursion in the realm of briques
and bytes asking: What is a hierarchy? And how is it related to rendition?
(Partly because elsewhere I spent a lot of time asking what is a machine?)

Great ghosts of Heidegger! Etymology proves very instructive. "Hierarchy"
is dervived from the Greek meaning rule of the hierarch. The hierarch was
"an official of ancient Greece who had charge of the votive offerings in a
temple." [Funk and Wagnalls] "Votive" etymologically brings us into the
ambit of vows and votes.

Of course order is hierarchical. Order is composed of a series of vows or
votes. All order, whether or not a single governing hierarchy is imposed.
All order, including orchestrated chaos. Recursivity is impossible without
hierarchy. Without bits there would be no bytes. Without machines there
would be no bits. The materiality of the machine counts. Rendition
matters. The disposition of mind too.

If bits are viewed as vows/votes and bytes as hierarchical (in the sense
that certain votes need to be counted before others for sense to emerge),
can the model be scaled up to other textual instances, not only the
recursive but also the involutive?

Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large

2005 Year of Comparative Connections. DIA: Comparative connections? LOGZ:
Connection, first. Comparison, next. DIA: Check. Comparable ways of
connecting. LOGZ: Selection outcomes, first. Comparative Connections,
Received on Tue Feb 08 2005 - 02:03:20 EST

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