form, content, process

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.

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6 thoughts on “form, content, process

  1. Alas, what happens when I syndicate your site and apply my own style?
    I agree though (and I was working on this when I ran out of time the other day) – we are dealing with a few beasts here, two of which include the production process and, alternatively, the reception history. So, interesting intersection, I think, with historical models. On the other hand, digital replication may make things a touch more tricky.
    Hmmm.

  2. The same thing that happened when a seventeenth-century reader copied a Donne sonnet into their commonplace book. Ok, maybe not the same thing, but I don’t think it separates the two strands of form and content.

  3. The prima facie logic makes sense to me. And the Donne analogy is apt. So why do I still feel so compelled to look under the hood rather than remain at the level of interface?

  4. P.S. Loved the research reports from England, George. The intersections of print, manuscript, and oral culture in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England have fascinated me for a long time. I’ll look forward to reading the book when it comes out.

  5. Unravel the Threads

    Ok, a few threads dangling in the breeze, but announcements first: Most recent Digital Arts & Culture conference papers online here For those of us without travel budgets, blogs and pdf papers are a life-saver (and no, not the candy)….

  6. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking under the hood, Kari, but I think that when we do we are looking at something we might call “process” rather than “form” or “content,” intertwined or not.
    I’m glad you liked the posts from England. I look forward to reading the book, too. Oh, wait! I’m supposed to write it, first!

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