Sylvia Chan’s idea of a literacy narrative, the “coming-into-language” story, inspired me to think about the ways I’d tell my own literacy narrative—the only one I have that feels interesting enough to share. I only speak one human language fluently, but I like to think I’ve found some cool ways to wield it. I’m also a few years deep into my explorations of computer languages: working only with web specific code (a small fraction of the programming ecosystem) I’ve had plenty to work with as a writer and creator.
A story about learning how to code could be pretty dry. Every now and then somebody asks me about my reasons for working with technology. Though I may have some solid insight for the tech-curious or terminally unemployable (…part of my reason for picking this skill up was because it’s more marketable than a degree in literature, natch) that advice would lack the emotional overtones and cultural import thats comes with the story of learning a second or third human language (or at least I’d imagine).
I do have some story to tell, though, about the weird ways in which synchronicity follows you around once you begin to notice it. The concept of synchronicity was theorized by 20th century psychoanalysis pioneer Carl Jung. With a long-standing curiosity about Jung, the unconscious mind, and positive psychology I began reading about hypnotherapy a few years ago. As a therapeutic modality, hypnosis is controversial in terms of its effectiveness and ethics: successful treatment requires a willingness to accept that a) it’s morally sound (ie, not a form of mind control or manipulation of the psychologically vulnerable) and b) it works. Assuming both of these conditions are met, it can be a powerful force for behavioral change.
What this has to do with coding languages and my work therein is probably best summarized in a conversation I had with my friend Rich a few years ago. A programmer and mythologist, Rich introduced me to hypnotherapy as part of his work exploring the impact of mythology, archetype and symbol on the mind. Hypnosis and mythology might not appear to have much in common at first blush, but the Jungian perspective on the mind holds that the basic forms and story arcs of famous myths originate in the psyche—that part of the self to which effective hypnosis speaks.
Listening to Rich discuss hypnosis as a way of using language to “program” behaviors and effect positive change in the psyche was a little eerie: nobody wants to think of themselves as programmable in the sense that a computer is, receiving commands and executing orders robotically. It calls free will into question (the Manchurian Candidate comes to mind). Being suggestible enough to fall into a hypnotic trance, for some, is a mark of wooly-mindedness. But I was just interested enough to see beyond my first reaction, partially because my friend is such a reasonable guy.
I told him that it seemed like hypnosis called on a use of language similar to one of the reasons to which I was initially attracted to writing code: words as fully operational, as tools with little room for subjectivity, interpretation and—in a sense—waste. Fascist though this may sound, after years of studying and writing poetry, working in the nebulous head-space of creative writing, the simplicity of creating a text document with a set of defined functions and a guarantee to work if written above a minimum standard of accuracy was highly appealing. Language that is what it does. There’s something Zen about it.
Finding computer programming and hypnosis at the same time was a stroke of synchronicity and a sort of tonic for my soul; the limits of what language can do are thrown into higher relief the more time you spend exploring the outer realms of its potential uses, and through these studies, the fact that perfect writing and theory is a ridiculous pursuit became very real to me. It helped me treat writing and philosophy as it should be treated—as an art, not a science. Hypnotherapy and programming can do quite a lot, of course, but the further I’ve gone with them, the more I understand just how much is incapable of being pinned down in words.
So that’s the beginning of my literacy narrative. Maybe I’ll write the full story; there are some interesting anecdotes along the way, events that assured me of the usefulness of these investigations. Meanwhile there’s a lot more to learn