At MLA 2011, the question arose: Do Digital Humanities scholars need to know how to code? (Sample MLA11, Brown MLA11) While that question raises anxieties in many humanities scholars, it is not an overstatement to argue that computer source code presents a sign system, a discourse environment, that holds tremendous influence over our daily lives -- and that for the humanities not to be able to address it, not to be able to use their methodologies to critique this cultural milieu, is the equivalent to unplugging from the Internet permanently or, as has been tweeted, to live in the Roman Empire without knowing how to speak Latin. While perhaps not every DH practitioner need code or know how to code, if we cannot collaborate with our colleagues in computer science to apply our methodologies to the study of source code (and hardware and software), we will be confined to cultural critique of the surface effects of a digital culture which functions within in a black box.
What does it mean to look at the code not just from the perspective of what it "does" computationally, but how it works as a semiotic system, a cultural object, as medium for communication? How does it organize itself, understand itself, think about its own representations, its own capacities and workarounds? Critical Code Studies is the practice of looking at the code that produces and imagines those digital realities, from a humanistic perspective. Or more formally:
Critical Code Studies applies hermeneutics to the interpretation of the extra-functional significance of computer source code, "extra" not in the sense of "outside of" but "growing from" the functionality.
Code offers an important arena of discourse with its own particular affordances and affinities, full of nuance and rhetoric, circulated, extended, and re-purposed, forming and shaping communities, built of programming paradigms and predilections, political divisions and institutional actors. In short, code offers quite a bit for the humanities to talk about (for example, see Stephen Ramsay's presentation Algorithms are Thoughts, Chainsaws are Tools).
Critical Code Studies began with trying to solve a problem. Now that N. Katherine Hayles was directing attention to Media Specific Analysis and Lev Manovich and Matthew Fuller had called for “software studies,” how could humanities scholars analyze the digital objects we work with, play with, think with, and create social networks with? While some took on the challenge of looking at software processes and hardware, there were few models of analyses of computer source code.
With momentum from the Spring 2010 online Working Group, the Critical Code Studies forum at HASTAC attempts to develop and practice the reading methods and interpretive moves that can be used to read code. The forum consists of two separate but inextricably linked elements: A theoretical discussion below, and a space for performing group analyses of user-submitted code snippets (link). The theoretical component surveys general issues of how CCS practitioners can approach code and produce meaningful readings of digital objects, and the code critique section is available for scholars to engage collectively in CCS.
=====Investigating the theory and application of CCS:
  • What frameworks can the Humanities disciplines and their theoretical approaches provide for reading and interpreting code?
  • What insights does the code offer the cultural critique of a digital object and what are our tools and methods for doing so?
  • How does the programming paradigm affect the interpretive approach? Travis Brown has pointed toward the "hegemony" of imperative languages in current CCS examples.
  • How can we use critical code studies in the classroom? What exercises have proven fruitful? What texts can we add to the bibliography?
  • How do issues of race, class, gender and sexuality emerge in the study of source code?
  • What is the relationship between Critical Code Studies and disciplines that center on building code-based objects? For example, computer scientists and programmers, other kinds of scientists, digital artists, et cetera.

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[Highly visible link to Code Critique section]