The Software License Preamble and the French Literary Preface

Now that I look over "The Software License Preamble and the French Literary Preface" after writing it last week, I'm trying to imagine how the conventions of the preface and preamble work their way into the essay itself. For the approach I use is part semiotic analysis and part historical-referential exposition complemented by an introductory paragraph that is very preface-like in itself, although it fits into the continuity of the essay as a whole - and does so within conventions of expository writing, being one paragraph in the total collection of essay paragraphs.

The first, semiotic section uses an approach à la Roland Barthes, simply reading a generalized license preamble/preface as if it were hewn out of matter and not a reification. But in reification we stipulate how the constituent parts of this hybrid construct may be thought of "in the world". And it is with this hope that, in looking at my essay anew, I see ways in which the picture it presents is valid and that it benefits very much from a combined analytical approach of a generalized semiotics and an historically focused textual investigation.

G.S.B - October 19, 2009

When viewed through the lens of literary techné as well as 18th and 19th Century French literary prefaces in particular, various contemporary software licenses preceding works of computer code "perform" literary operations on their larger wholes and offer rich intertextualities, configuring coding as a generalized writing and transforming texts onto or off the page. As dynamic as switch-like machine instructions living in a runtime system, or seemingly as ancient and utilitarian as Sumerian clay tablets of marriage records prefaced "all over" with the noise of time and decay, the software preamble confirms the ontology of coding as inscription many times over, and how tiny bits of texts give value to voluminous script. Denis Diderot's preface to young persons contemplating the study of natural science in Pensées sur l'Interpretation de la Nature (1753) the well-known Avertissement to the Vandeul edition of his Éléments de Physiologie (1784), and Jorge Karl Huysmans' 'Préface écrite vingt ans après le roman' (1903), A Rebours (1884), have been appended by their authors or estate to their main courses, but rule these primary texts out in advance or guide their use according to larger societal patterns. They perfectly semantically situate open source, proprietary, and fair use licenses in how they reverse the value of large scale software from a primary text to a marginal note, putting its licenses for its artifacts.

Received knowledge and ingrained reading conventions of the codex book dictate that a literary preface sets up a reader for its main text out of necessity: although it is usually but a fraction of the size, it is imminently necessary for a "proper" reading of the text. On the other hand, software licenses seem to be only legal subtexts, although still negotiating the "proper" use of text/software, they back up their warnings concerning proper use with copyright law. Nevertheless, a literary preface and software license preamble both indicate common actions of symbolic redaction, prescription, displacement and pollution, given a primary inversion of their word counts for a basically qualitative inoculation: the preface and license are dually literary and legal microbes disjunctively in symbiosis with their larger parent beings/texts. And indeed, there is an "inversion of control" by which prefatory material drastically colors main texts.

A preface and license have a disjunctive relation to the primary texts to which they are attached, a relation that qualitatively demonstrates how a preface or license is a form of editing only affecting the historical imprint of its parent text by quasi-action "at a distance". Often the distance given for an action of prefacing comes in years: a preface can be a signpost of changed ideological stance that must rewrite the wayward birth of an author to protect her temporally altered consciousness. An author who writes changed is schematically further from the text: engaging in research, an author becomes occupied with other objects, and entropy casts a looming mask of decay on her bodily disposition, one that reconfigures that body for an analysis of everyday life and its various objects/texts. On the other hand, the software license presents a disjunctive gap through its legal obligation, juxtaposed to users who will pillage a software artifact, redeploying it into many different contexts fitted loosely or tightly as web banner ads. A term from physics may then ironically be applied to the drift of the author from her works: "action at-a-distance", a description of the founding relation between objects under the sway of Newtonian Gravity. In denying the materiality of the seemingly distant, and overlooking the numerous "chemical" and biological ways the seemingly distant is materially connected – and non-mechanically at that – a distant preface dramatizes the gap between an author's current mental life and beings/texts that she has engendered a long time ago. A software license, in presenting itself in a different linguistic idiom than its software, is morphologically distant and has a seemingly less material connection to this software. With legal or literary conscience adrift, the software or literary author metaphorically reaches to guide interpretations of others, grasping to layer meaning in front of her primary text in order to guide its reading.

In this way, a preface or license functions as an abridged mode d'emploi, constraining a user before she may make use of this text or work. In some ways, a software user manual corresponds to a literary preface in how it guides or prescribes "proper" use. Yet a user manual is not part of code, like an open source software license preamble, which precedes code datafiles, nor like a proprietary license, which interrupts use to ensure proper usage (i.e. "click 'I Agree'"). It is easy to see how a preface and license prescriptively constrain their users in Foucauldian ways, each exercising their own legal or semantic control as larger systems of control. And while a user may skip a preface or license, going directly to code, literary works, or primary texts themselves, the "body" of a primary text can be footnoted by textual matter that negates it, or sticks in it as a giant thorn, getting in the way and standing as an obstacle to pleasures of pure reading or pure business logic. In this sense, the author who writes a preface or the programmer who must append a license – cannot be a purist, even if those who use her liteary work or code may be.

A preface and license then imply a disconnect between intentions of an author and the many uses that her work or software come to possess. The engendering of a literary work is a bifurcation from a "source" leaving this work to acquire its own history; the software artifact bifurcates too, as communities grow, pushing runtime artifacts beyond their constraints until versioning and the production of new releases unburden these constraints. Artificial languages, for instance, are proto-software with instructions, prescriptive grammars, and user communities that could theoretically write any number of literary works in their schemes, works not completely determined beforehand but becoming effective through picturing functions homologous to natural language. Languages are the perfect brainchildren of authors and software engineers because their development implies a community that will make generative use of them. Even programming languages, with their own domain-specific languages, create a mirror of themselves in how they call their users to an even finer-grained utilization of their systems. Still, technology and text are abstract harlequins with many costumes and well-travelled bodies, bodies which succumb to a much larger range of uses than dictated by their prescriptions, with technology pushed into service of its own destruction. The birth of the software artifact or literary text incorporates, beforehand, its death, which it manically approaches as it moves forward in time.

Since this "death" must be produced for a text/software artifact, a preface and license dramatize many conditions of textual being-in-the-world and become canonical debris when inserted into flows of irreversible time. A preface and software license highlight states of being of a text or software artifact, and then attempt to rule them out. A preface/license follows on the heels of a software artifact and has a so-called "final" word. Of course, is it a final word if no subject is there to read it and give it a second thought, just as no one hears the proverbial fall of a single tree displaced away from a subject in a forest? A preface constructs "fine print", an encoding of nature and culture which determines how we operate in the world without our being conscious of its participation – most of the time. A preface, as an encoding, lies before a text and changes its signification just like a paragraph of textual gibberish arbitrarily inserted in front. While it may fade out of consciousness of its primary text, it still canonizes this text through textual operations and action despite those who choose not to read. Irreversible time moves forward so that prefaces and licenses may fall into its stream as so many particles which shape whole texts coated in the same temporality that carries along readers. This process is perpetual editing and revision, shifting the position of an author and changing the expectations of audience.

We see this process in Denis Diderot's note to young persons contemplating the study of natural science from his Pensées sur l'Interpretation de la nature. This note gives the manifesto of the Pensées as a gift to young pupils, bringing them into an enlightened community or alternative discursive practice, despite the tract's conformation to grown-up conventions of the short, axiomatic treatise. Pensées sur l'Interpretation is Diderot's second Pensées, and quite different than the first. Pensées sur l'Interpretation seems like a manifesto because it carries the inaugural moment of Diderot's atheism, but more importantly, it carries the moment of his formal break from Newton. Pensées sur l'Interpretation is also an indictment of abstract mathematics as a universal solution to the problems of science and philosophy. Diderot puts forward a proto-evolutionary empiricism, where the order of things dictates the pattern of Diderot's inductivism. The note is targeted at young persons who may want to learn how to critically study Nature:

To Young People Who Wish to Study Natural Philosophy

"Young man, take my words and read them. If you do finish, you will be capable of greater understanding. As I propose less to instruct you than train you, I don't care if you adopt or reject my ideas, as much as they might consume all your attention. Someone abler will teach you knowledge of the powers of nature; it suffices for me to have you try for yourself. Now, farewell, yet one more word, then I will be done. You should always keep in mind that nature is not God, that man is not a machine, that a hypothesis is not a fact. And be certain to never credit me anytime you think you perceive something contrary to these principles."

The note very directly gives those who have not yet undergone their own process of philosophical clarification a taste of the issues they may face. These issues are very particular to Diderot's research however, and many adults would not yet have learned these axioms of Diderot's break with Newton. Thus, even most adult philosophers are pupils to this evolutionary empiricism. Diderot changes, then, the tenor of the work he has written, in the sense that all philosophers besides Diderot are but children needing to go further in actualizations of natural philosophy. Subversively, Diderot offers his supposed heresy even to "children", waving, with his note, his tract as a flag to the young while indicating that we are all "young" Newtonians. Similarly, if software companies build communities of users through proprietary licenses, then their technology may become standard. But with open source, communities span many technologies, and the prospect of open code reduces the possibility of being "locked in". With open code, and the declaration of its openness through a license preamble, the tiniest of users may make a derivative work and grow a new community from a software artifact that is attached to a dying community.

In fact, as instructions for participation in a community, the note to young persons parallels the open source license preamble and communicates a master-pupil pedagogy while ushering in an "enlightened" relationship of author co-production or reversal of authority. Open source technologies are very much connected to expert knowledge, and a "portable" expert knowledge which puts it in kinship with intellectual traditions and "open" research publishing. The research paper and its accompanying software are by definition tied to new knowledge (thereby diminishing hierarchies of authority), and converging participants towards higher plateaus of shared know-how. Often, the open source project enlightens through new knowledge too, although often open source solves the same business goals as purchased software, so new knowledge accompanies a standard that is independent of both open and proprietary software. The GNU license preamble remarks not only of its collective use, but the ability to use the software in any way, along with the ability to redistribute modifications, as jointly crafted intellectual works:


The GNU General Public License is a free, copyleft license for software and other kinds of works.

The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed to take away your freedom to share and change the works. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change all versions of a program--to make sure it remains free software for all its users. We, the Free Software Foundation, use the GNU General Public License for most of our software; it applies also to any other work released this way by its authors. You can apply it to your programs, too.

When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price. Our General Public Licenses are designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for them if you wish), that you receive source code or can get it if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs, and that you know you can do these things.

To protect your rights, we need to prevent others from denying you these rights or asking you to surrender the rights...

Open source authors become co-producers performatively, through declarations such as these, in turn using open code to develop programming ability as pupils of the implementation to which they contribute. The claim that software users have rights, almost harkening back to Enlightenment ideals, incites revolutionaries to action, and away from closed models not allowing for their own inversion via repackaging.

In addition, Diderot's break with Newton in the Pensées and his call for all young pupils to follow his lead, configures its primary text as a shift away from a ubiquitous Newtonian paradigm, and politically offers an explicit impetus for an epistemological break analogous to an open source software constitution inscribed in software front-matter. As the GNU license labels its header as a preamble, this reflexively positions the license in relation to the notion of a constitution indeed, not for a geographic state, but for a material state or process of software production. The license above has been updated in 2007, long after open source licensing became prominent, almost reflecting its well-established niche in moving away from ubiquitous proprietary software. As is the case with open source softwares which provide a community edition and charge for support and services, and while the "free" the GNU license talks about is a "freedom" to change software without restriction, the current state of open source software may also be read in these cases as a paradigm shift, yes, but in some ways as a software sales paradigm shift. Still, the GNU preface is a break, and where Diderot implants his revolutionary impetus in the young, the GNU license is less subtle than Diderot, but nevertheless demarcates changing paradigms, even if its language does sound like a classical Marxian petition for revolt, willing conditions of production to change at light speed.

While the note to young persons and the open source license attempt to initiate the user of the text or software artifact into a community that directly details the nature of commerce within that community, the Avertissement or preface to Diderot's Éléments de Physiolgie functions to obscure the community into which it places the reader. The Avertissement is a one-paragraph preface at the start of the Vandeul edition of Diderot's unfinished Éléments. The Vandeul edition was discovered in the library of the estate of the Mme Vandeul, daughter of Diderot, in the 1950s. Éléments presents "la vie" materially, and it is noted for it's deeply atheistic conclusion in its third and final part. The provenance of the Avertissement is controversial because it puzzles its readers as to its raison d'être. Why is Diderot not mentioned by name (but rather by a string of asterisks)? Does the Avertissement conclusively tell the reader that Diderot even intended a finished work? Doesn't the time span in which it presents the activity of composition problematize other much earlier works which possess family resemblances to it, such as L'Rêve de d'Alembert? It certainly clouds Diderot's stature as an Enlightenment lumière:

Mr *** conceived of the project of drawing up the elements of physiology while reading the works of Baron de Haller. For several months, he collected what seemed to him to belong to or that were essential to put into these elements: notes and extracts were jotted down on some scattered, isolated pages. Death having prevented Mr *** from finishing the project, for which he only happened to prepare the material, these notes are believed to be united in a single copy. Somewhat incomplete as they are, and as they could not be given an order, it is thought that the public will nevertheless receive these fragments with pleasure, and that one day someone will undertake, after the plan and ideas of Mr ***, the work that he had only sketched.

In failing to attach the name of Diderot to this deeply atheistic work, the Avertissement holds the reading subject liable for the contents of the Éléments de Physiologie, in masking the identity of its author in the way a proprietary license can hold a user to a contract while foregoing its own liability, keeping a surrogate relation to the software product. Users of the Éléments may come to the atheistic conclusion at its end in identifying with the voice of the anonymous author to whom they listen. While identification is only one outcome of textual uses, the anonymity of Diderot through the Avertissement seems to generalize the source of this text into various movements in the late 18th Century towards materialism, especially due to the clandestine modus operandi of Diderot's works during his life and his distribution of these works with the Grimm Correspondence (a community of subscribers who received Diderot's works in secret at the hand of the publisher Melchior Grimm). Yet, with this generalization of the author, this re-inscription or partial erasure, the Avertissement creates the possibility for a reader to be united to its author by a practice of reception, an inversion of publishing, but still a rebirth of intellectual property in those who are new owners of that property. In this way, the Avertissement parallels, more so, proprietary software licenses, which, through selling services, appeal to the desire for better productive life for those who decide to purchase these services, yet dismiss any legal obligation for the failure of the software.

a. iTunes will provide the Service with reasonable care and skill. iTunes does not make any other promises or warranties about the Service and in particular does not warrant that: ...

(ii) the Service will be free from loss, corruption, attack, viruses, interference, hacking, or other security intrusion which shall be events of Force Majeure, and iTunes disclaims any liability relating thereto. You shall be responsible for backing up your own system, including any Products purchased from the iTunes Store that are stored in your system.

If use possibly goes awry, either through catastrophe or unexpected results, then even though the user has not literally authored the software or has not been its co-producer as in open source technologies, he or she virtually becomes the author of the software artifact in his or her contractual obligation to a company which is only a distant surrogate for the now transformed software artifact.

In open source, disclaimers of liability exist also, and it is often the case that software interfaces may be mapped out in interface declarations of its codebase, but its implementation has not yet reached the next development milestone. In the same way, the Avertissement announces the Éléments as originating from an author of stature in order to establish it as a philosophical work, while acknowledging that it is unfinished, fragmentary. Although not even proprietary softwares are ever truly "finished", one imagines the Avertissement being appended at this point in the text/software cycle, and the sense of the fragmentary nature of the Éléments crystallizes around this homologous software trope, where one sentence paragraphs of the Éléments provide an interface contract for a "completion" of the Éléments, i.e. , "one day someone will undertake, after the plan and ideas of Mr ***, the work that he had only sketched." In this way, all software oscillates between being simply an artifact imparting new knowledge to its users, and being a tool that performs knowledge in the form of runtime business services. Software as a sketch increases the value of software as embodied theory, and decreases the value of software as a working system or as some testament to notions of transparent usability. The skeletal software product emerges on the scene through open source, and its license preamble enacts and transforms this partial text into a seeming whole through presenting it through the notion of well-defined interfaces.

In contrast to the Avertissement, Jorge Karl Huysmans' Preface comes from the author of the work in question, although it does not present A Rebours as unfinished or fragmentary, while it deviates from the position of its main text, the classic work of the decadent movement that Oscar Wilde used as a model for The Picture of Dorian Grey. Despite Huysman's claim, "but I had no determined plan, for A Rebours, which liberated me from a literature without issue, in giving me fresh air, is a perfectly unconscious work, imagined without preconceived ideas, without future intentions, without any sense of a whole", the work is not unfinished in the sense of layers built upon a skeleton. In fact A Rebours is significantly layered with a host of material and sensual experiences transcribed into narrative and codifying the work in the mind of Huysmans ("each chapter becomes a coulis of a specialty, the sublime of a different art. It's condensed in one 'of meat', gems, perfumes, flowers, religious and lay literature, ordinary music and plainsong.") . Resurrected images of the novel then appear to be strong in the author's mind at the time of the preface, perhaps providing his misgivings about the work:

"I think all men of letters are like me and never re-read works upon their appearance in print. Nothing is, in effect, more disenchanting, more painful, than to gaze, after some years, at these sentences. They are in some way, decanted and deposed at the bottom of the book, and, most often, their volumes do not, like wine, grow better over time. Momentarily clarified by age, their chapters go flat and their aroma weak."

One might presume to add, to more sensualist values of A Rebours in hand with its role in the decadent movement in literature, a contrasting set of values embodied by the presentation of the author's conversion to Catholicism, and his subsequent distaste for the values of naturalism, which wish simply "to know why such a gentleman committed or did not commit adultery with such a madame"). For, Huysmans acknowledges:

"I grant however, that when I happen to open a book and, as I perceive eternal seduction and no less eternal adultery, I'm inclined to close it, not at all desiring to know how the idyll depicted will conclude."

Yet, instead of a strict cancellation of A Rebours by its preface, a few lines further ahead give insight into how the preface maps out a new path for Huysmans in his Catholicism, at the same time that it redeems the novel:

"And now, as I traverse, after longer and surer investigations, the pages of A Rebours which had treated Catholicism and religious art, I notice that this miniscule panorama, painted on pages and notepads, is exact.

Huysmans' preface, as much as it presents Huysmans moving in a different trajectory twenty years later, illuminates how A Rebours, in its synthesis of disparate positions, is acceptable to both the avant garde literary artist turning away from naturalism and the Catholic dévote paying attention, now, to his moral agency.

In fact, Huysmans' Preface presents a new case for the synthesis of his 1884 position and his 1903 position, corresponding to the decadence of the aesthete and the spiritual salvation of the ascetic, a case for a two part refashioning of the novel, one a seemingly contradictory position, and another an inversion through further revelation and synthesis. In the turn away from naturalism to a politics against observation and to an embrace of the extra-visual and sensory splendors of the aforementioned "coulis", Huysmans broadens the focus of the novel of morals away from a type of Madame Bovary teleplay of love affairs to a novel of morals with an abstract object in trashing the significations of Western vision and visual pleasure. Even though he abandons the methods of Naturalism, his intent harbors a purpose at odds with a literal understanding of sensualism or immersion in the super-sensory. And the cry of desperation at the novel's end, of the main character Des Essientes, along with its call to turn outward to the world away from "pure" abstraction and the cogitations of the mind, brings to this novel its intent to say something about the limits of both naturalism and interior life, as a novel of morals. Interior life, until it becomes an isolation overdosing on sensory information to the extent of sensory deprivation, is a corrective to those methods of writers who are only well-trained eyes, and who look upon sensory observation as a "mere recording" in the sense that Pierre Bourdieu has described the techniques of objective sociology. Nevertheless, observation and the intake of an empirical data of everyday life are a corrective to a mental life knowing only its isolation, coming to choke upon its habits of pure analysis. In this way, the Catholic position comes to sit on top of Huysmans' previous literary embodiment championing aestheticism. This turn inward to abstraction is a critique of pure observation and presents, at the same time, the pious life of an ascetic Catholic.

Huysman's Preface better situates, then, A Rebours as domesticated nature, nature warmed over, and defines archaic and obscure textual knowledge as the material ingredients of a position between culture and nature, melding together styles of "decadence" and an iconoclasm of "transcendence". The preface is a fuller realization of the synthesis of the novel turning up the heat on the the collection of coulis: meat, flowers and latin texts which constitute the primordial bouillon of the novel. All sensuality in A Rebours is "meat", a stuff that the preface comes to illuminate as the hybrid byproduct of an arc of western vision and the spiral inward of its anti-vision, corresponding to the ascent of modernity toward supermodernity. The preface makes a contribution, then, to the original aim of the novel, but skews its trajectory as much as a bifurcating arrow of time. Its aroma is a stench of rotten meat, rather than the scent of wine from a bottle with a history of being on the literary wine rack. For, Huysmans' Preface, is part put for whole, but is a work in itself. It does not prescribe a "proper" way to read the novel, although in poetic ways, Huysmans'remarks map out more artifacts of modernity, and the practical side of the obscure latin texts of a Catholicism continuing into a new age. Artifacts of modernity are worshipped in the churches of domestication, where nature is tamed and brought to the throne of the abstract, and arcane knowledge, while becoming more than the superficial flush-bezel, is gazed upon more for the visual qualities of its texts than for any propositional content. Here enters knowledge as a runtime object, where the software artifact animates the cryptic and the arcane with its many views and screens.

As A Rebours is a text acquiring age and as it sits spread across the wine rack of Huysmans' repertoire, with other bottles, so software, as a synthesis of disparate software goals, is spread across various software repositories standing as beacons of obscure but useful domesticated knowledge offering its incorporation as tools into new literary/software productions. And so the preface and the software license exist because authors and readers, software developers and users live with the artifacts of writing while being immersed in a world in which things happen. The Avertissement of Diderot is a parasite, but his call to young philosophers and Huysmans' refashioning of A Rebours given new-found faith is a relation of commensality, though this is not to say that formally, all these front matters give no gestures of the break or the dismissal of the precedent, or in some way, no ruling out of their primary texts in advance. The preface and the license intercede in the life of intellectual works and software creations, and function as abbreviated filters upon their parent texts. The sense of writing becomes an interface which refashions a previous implementation, moving it in many directions which, while they may run contrary to an original intent of these works, result from actors who need to re-present them or fashion them for a community of readers. Holding the hand of the reader/user one last time, the institution of the preface and the license indicates the forward movement in time of inscription and its agents, as works come to have new life and software changes hands and changes its communities.