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Critical Software Thing

Originating with the twelfth-century French term l’exécuteur du testament (the executor of the will), the term “execution” today finds itself entangled in myriad systems, such as linguistic systems, judiciary systems, computational systems, and systems of memory—all of which are touched upon in this text by Critical Software Thing (CST). Be it by guillotine or CPU, as a realization of a decreed sentence, CST suggest that “execution” always relates to the now, “to an actualization, a presence which is always already over.” Highlighting the micro-instructions, micro-operations, and micro-temporality of systems executions, CST point toward the liveness inherent in them. Without succumbing to the seeming seamlessness of computation—harkening to the Cell for Digital Discomfort’s suggestion to embrace a seamful approach to technology—and with an awareness for the executive power of code, CST propose that code itself to be regarded as but “a partial instruction within a wider, dynamic ecology of many executing systems.”



Execution is a function that operates within a range of systems, such as language, computation, or biology. The following entry traces a few of these instantiations of execution in order to highlight the material discursive quality of any particular executing system, with the discussion moving across law and guillotine, language and langue, computer instruction, and memory. In each case tracing the way in which execution produces situated posthuman couplings in a dynamic ensemble of such conjugating systems.

The word execution stems from l’exécuteur du testament (twelfth-century French), designating the executor of the will. Here we see how execution is from its inception embedded in regulatory forms of bureaucracy.[1] The ancestor of the executor of the will was the bourreau, whose function goes at least as far back as Ancient Rome, and who performed executions decreed by the court, with punishment acting here as spectacle and demonstration of power, perceived as a means to socially regulate crime and disobedience. This social function was actualized in the public square, where beheadings took place live. As an effectuation of a sentence, execution always relates to the now, to an actualization, a presence which is always already over.

Execution in this instance then is not dying, but specifically to be deprived of being. It is not deceasing, nor is it homicide, it is death by punishment. It is sudden death forced upon a body of punishment which has no control over the violence executed by the system. In these iconic, self-presencing actualizations, we are made to forcefully witness execution’s quality as an event, an act of a juridical, political, technical, or biological discourse enacted decisively upon its sentenced subject.

Language can be seen as such a discursive system, one that executes by consisting of two separate dimensions: langue and parole.[2] Langue as the system of language is the formalized structure, the underlying system of distinct signs, opposing parole, which is articulated speech. Thus parole is the executive side of language. The point of note in this instance is that exercizing language is not a shift from the non-linguistic to the linguistic. It is the actualization and execution of a system into an instance of discourse. In relation to this, subjectivity in language is inseparable from the moment of execution, the instance in which language as system becomes language-in-use (when langue is converted into parole). An execution deictically designates a speaker, therefore it is when entering language and converting the virtual system to actual use that the subject is constituted.[3] However, the subject evaporates in its own articulation of itself as it becomes a mere property of a symbolic system. Execution of language is thus related to the “killing of the subject”[4]—it is in the actualization of the language system that the speaking subject produces itself as an abstraction separated from a body. Executable systems like language can therefore be said to be inherently violent, effectuating a killing, be it abstract or literal.

The tongue, the embodied executioner of language, the interface of executing langue, both gobbles and babbles. Following philosopher Michel Serres’s account of the five (human) senses, every time an organ—or function—is liberated from an old duty, it re-invents itself.[5] As Hominina stood up from her quadruped ancestor,[6] the tongue, freed from the vital necessity to sense danger, became a universal tool.[7] According to Serres, the “information imperative” is to receive, store, process, and emit information. The tongue’s embedded subjectivity has become a literal geographical expansion of the postindustrial and the nutraceutical market.[8] It divides bodies between obese and skinny, and food between organic and fair-trade. It clears Amazonian rainforests for soya plantations used for feeding live stock.[9] It fractions populations between young high-paid social entrepreneurs and the violently displaced. The tongue is a decisive and divisive organ of gentrification and land forming.

Such discursive systems divide and conquer, working to make entities executable according to their particular logics and delimited needs. In his foundational article “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing provides a definition of computability as that capable of being enumerated and made into effectively calculable algorithms for execution upon and by machines.[10] In the further materialization of Turing’s thesis into actual computing machines, the act of making things discrete, so as to be computable, becomes one of establishing machine-readable cuts. These are the switchable on and off state elements, or flip-flops that are enacted at the level of logic gates used to store and control data flow.

Such flippable states constitute the material basis that allows for the writing and running of the executable binary instructions of machine code upon this “manic cutter known as the computer.”[11]

Such cuts—execution performed by computation—are expressed at the temporal dimension of code execution, constantly rendering the now in networked and pervasive conditions. The fetch–execute cycle in computing is used to describe the operational steps of performing code instructions by a Central Processing Unit (or CPU) following its clock cycle. A CPU fetches each instruction from the memory and breaks it down into micro-instructions, including the controlling operation sequence, computing, transferring, reading, updating, and storing data in memory.[12] Thus what is written in a piece of source code should only be regarded as a partial instruction within a wider, dynamic ecology of many executing systems. When extending the notion of execution into any dynamic networked environment in which things are networked seamlessly and data is processed continuously, there are different “micro-decisions” that are executed at the level of network protocols to control and regulate the transmission of data.[13] Such deep internal and operational structures of computation, data processing, and digital networks execute a distinctive rhythm and temporality; a computational form of “micro-temporality.”[14] These computational cuts and micro-decisions are intertwined, dynamic, and subject to change at any moment in time. In other words, execution involves micro-instructions, micro-operations, and a micro-temporality of things where codes, materials, and actions are composed in a dynamic environment. This micro-temporal dimension of execution again draws attention to the phenomena of liveness; the dynamics of execution that constantly render the now.

Any such cuts in the name of executability can be compared to what feminist theorist Karen Barad refers to as “agential cuts.”[15] They are made in the name of a certain agency; in the case of computer code, a computational agency. In its levelling of all data into a binary form of on and off, computational cuts enact a radical and seemingly non-discursive treatment of information. The data structures of computing are noticeable for the way in which they are particularly amenable to reconfiguration and application toward a range of operations.[16] Such a changing of states and configurations is, unsurprisingly, often strongly felt by any entities brought into contact with their executing logics. Turing himself was made to be acutely aware of this executive power of code, whether programmable, political, or cultural. Definable as a war hero according to one set of patriotic parameters, he soon found himself rapidly switched from national saviour back to sexual deviant and criminal to be persecuted by the state. Computable according to some logics and configurations; uncomputable according to others. Such is the potential power and violence of any cut and its executability.

This violence of entangled and often competing executable logics inevitably leaves “marks on bodies,” in which the marks are “the differences materialized.”[17] From Turing’s chemical castration to the growth of synapses catalysed by repeated stimulus, organisms bear the marks of inscription and execution. Implicit memory, in the Pavlovian tradition, is inscribed into long-term memory through habituation. The environment is constantly executing memory. Such is the power and force of trauma that it bootstraps long-term memory creation.[18]

Nevertheless, memory is also forgetting, a dynamic process of constant read and write execution. The recalling of memories is based on chemical exchanges within highly mutable synaptic networks that require protein synthesis.[19] As memory is reactivated, it mutates. Memory becomes an ongoing site of execution, rather than one of static storage, in which both habituation and deletion are crucial. The brain actively erases information as part of its regulatory processes.[20] In the absence of this regulatory function, a human becomes crippled by a form of neurological condition called hyperthymesia.[21] Erasure and death are regulatory functions performed through execution and its continuous actualization.

The very etymology of execution is administrative, and as a regulatory processing of living beings, bureaucracy is the performance of the law. But a violent disjunction occurs in the conflation of law and execution: the state of exception; or the conflation of death and execution: capital punishment. Cuts, which are inherently exclusionary, also contain a ready potential of violent impositions of a system onto bare life.[22] If the cut and its execution materialize on the one hand in the actualization of an event, they can also, in biopolitical fashion, take on an operative function as a self-perpetuating threat of violence to come. Such menacing potential events of crisis become important in actual execution, helping to prompt a range of pre-emptive forms of violent coded logics and crisis-oriented forms of execution.[23]

Execution situates and is situated. Whether via the tongue, the guillotine, the CPU, or the synapses, execution produces integral couplings of subjectivity and desubjectivity through systems such as those of language, of judiciary, of computation, and of memory. A powerful force, leaving marks on bodies and indelible traumatic memories. Such ecologies of execution are manifold, and the effectuation of a system is always conjugating amongst a mesh of other heterogeneous agents, processes, energies, and material strata.

The original publication of this essay appears in Posthuman Glossary, Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), and is republished here with kind permission of the author and the publisher. A follow-up title More Posthuman Glossary, Rosi Braidotti, Emily Jones, and Goda Klumbyte, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2022) is available now.


[1] A. M. Vallaro, “Considerans fragilitatem humanae naturae . . .” Testaments et pratique testamentaire à San Gimignano de 1299 à 1530 (Lausanne: Peter Lang, 2005).

[2] Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours De Linguistique Générale (Lausanne and Paris: Payot, 1916).

[3] Émile Benveniste, “De La Subjectivité Dans La Langage,” in Problèmes de Linguistique Générale I, ed. Émile Benveniste (Paris: Gallimard, 1958).

[4] Roland Barthes, “La mort de l’auteur,” in Roland Barthes, Le bruisse ment de la langue: Essais critiques IV (1968; repr., Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1984).

[5] Michel Serres, Hominescence (Paris: Éditions Le Pommier, 2001).

[6] Originally described as one of the earliest ancestors of humans after they diverged from the main ape lineage.

[7] Michel Serres, “L’information et la pensée,” unpublished conference paper from The Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy Joint Annual Conference: Philosophy after Nature (Utrecht University, Utrecht, 3 September 2014), p. 2.

[8] A portmanteau of the words nutrition and pharmaceutical. Although the term can be attributed to physician Stephen L. DeFelice, food as medicine has a long tradition in western medicine, as Hippocrates famously put it in “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” The term is applied to marketed products as wide as isolated nutrients, dietary supplements, and herbal products, specific diets, processed foods, and beverages.

[9] D. C. Morton, R. S. DeFries, Y. E. Shimabukuro, L. O. Anderson, E. Arai, F. del Bon Espirito-Santo, R. Freitas, and J. Morisette, “Cropland Expansion Changes Deforestation Dynamics in the Southern Brazilian Amazon,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103, no. 39 (September 2006), pp. 14637–14641.

[10] Alan Turing, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society 42, no. 1 (1936), pp. 230–265.

[11] Friedrich A. Kittler, Optical Media (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), p. 228.

[12] Mark Burrell, Fundamentals of Computer Architecture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[13] Florian Sprenger, The Politics of Micro-Decisions: Edward Snowden, Net Neutrality, and the Architectures of the Internet (Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2015).

[14] Taken from media theorist Wolfgang Ernst, micro-temporality refers to some thing that is processual and operative, a different understanding of historical and narrative macro time. Wolfgang Ernst, “Media Archaeology: Method and Machine versus the History and Narrative of Media,” in Digital Memory and the Archive, ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 57.

[15] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 429.

[16] Luigi Federico Menabrea and Ada Lovelace, “Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage . . . with notes by the translator,” Scientific Memoirs 3 (London: Richard and John T. Taylor, 1842).

[17] Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, p. 89.

[18] Eric Kandel, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), p. 342.

[19] Karim Nader, Glenn E. Schafe, and Joseph. E. Le Doux, “Fear memories require protein synthesis in the amygdala for reconsolidation after retrieval,” Nature 406 (2000).

[20] Nils Hadziselimovic, Vanja Vukojevic, Fabian Peter, Annette Milnik, Matthias Fastenrath, Bank Gabor Fenyves, Petra Hieber, Philippe Demougin, Christian Vogler, Dominique J-F de Quervain, Andreas Papassotiropoulos, and Attila Stetak, “Forgetting is regulated via Musashi-mediated translational control of the Arp2/3 complex,” Cell 156, no. 6 (2014).

[21] For further explanation on hyperthymesia see “What is Hyperthymesia? The Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM ),”

[22] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[23] Geoff Cox, “Critique of Soft ware Violence,” Concreta 5,; Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).

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