Matt asks whether “the current XHTML/CSS paradigm” and the ease with which “skins” are laid on top of applications are contributing to an undoing of “the old humanistic saw about the mutually informing and inextricable nature of the relationship between form and content.”
Kari then takes the discussion in an interesting direction by bringing up W. W. Greg’s classic differentiation between “‘accidentals[,]’ those features of an author’s work–spelling, punctuation, style–generally regarded as contingent rather than constuitive” and “‘substantives,’ or linguistic content, the real locus of authorial meaning.” She writes that against this long-influential view “a younger generation of mavericks … hold that accidentals are substantives, a variation on the old saw that the medium is the message.” These “mavericks” argue that “[t]hings like font size and style, page layout, white space–all are semantically constituitive.” However, now that we can switch these elements around relatively easily in an electronic environment, textual theorists might need to rethink their assumptions about form and content.
Jason takes the XHTML/CSS binary and complicates things by arguing for a three-way (woo-hoo!) relationship involving the database backend (oh.) that runs MT blogs and other forms of information: “In looking at the CSS, the HTML templates, and even the database, I see a variety of levels of ‘form’ and ‘content’ intertwining in a (seemingly) organic fashion.”
All this has left me wanting to play devil’s advocate. Might we restrict our view to the “document” — whether that’s a blog entry or the interface for a chat client — as it appears on our screen? The skin, the database backend, or the stylesheet are the means by which the document was formatted, but now that it’s there on screen, do these things matter so much to our analysis of the document itself? The computer — or the printing press, for that matter — is the device upon which the process of document creation was enacted, but once the document is created, we’re back to the inextricable nature of form and content. The links on Matt’s page used to be blue and underlined; now they’re green and have no underlines. I would argue that these features still signify; they’re still “substantives.” There is no reason to read them as “accidentals” simply because their change is the result of a stylesheet edit.