From Medium to Well-done

From medium to well-done

I’ve been thinking about the “medium” of hypertext, the resistance it causes in me, and the reasons why. I suppose it’s about will. Mine burns pretty brightly, barbequing things up, and serving them up in slices in this liquid space. A crafty person might even be able to construct a partial image of me, based on what I put in my little space.

But this is a bubble at best, a place I do believe I own, contrary to Weinberger’s assertions that “Web space is the opposite of a container,” and that it is “a place we can enter, wander, and get lost in, but cannot own.” I beg to differ. I pay the rent, and I own what I put here, and am free to move at any time. It is a container, a grab-bag of texts and images which I assemble to amuse my overactive will. Presentation concerns me greatly; it’s the “artist” in me, who seeks to control not just the content, but the way that content is presented. He’s right though, Web space makes that sort of thinking nearly untenable.

I’ve had to surrender myself to the fact that people will surf into here with out-of-date browsers and see my neatly aligned content explode into a garble of semantic rubbish. Someone might cage me in a frame, or be unable to view in the relatively nominal screen resolution that I set things up for, and once again I’m baked. For the longest time, I wondered about ways around this. Then I just decided to write instead, and live by the common disclaimer “This site best viewed on my monitor” though I would hope that people might call ahead before they stop by.

Weinberger is right to assert that hypertext, by its nature, is a public phenomenon. It relies on the free access to public linking. Once you put your stuff on the web, you open yourself up to appropriation, and no amount of legislation or clever software tricks will stamp it out entirely. If you can see it, you can steal it. While I’m willing to surrender the content I provide to an audience, I can’t quit believing that I should have some control over its presentation.

However, the most well-done statement in the “Space” chapter of Small Pieces Loosely Joined is its conclusion:

What holds the Web together is not a carpet of rock but the world’s collective passion.

Should I surrender my passion for presentation? Reviewing a history of Rhetoric, I was reminded that one of the striking changes which occurred in the 18th century was the complete separation of inventio from the realm of rhetoric, leaving nothing but the hollow shell of arrangement behind. The reason for this was the bifurcation of the emotions and reason, and science from passion. It dawned on me that this is the same thinking that exists behind CSS and the upcoming semantic web.

Don’t get me wrong. I think CSS and the extensions that XML may eventually provide are a good thing. But there is something just so fundamentally, well, logical about it. This isn’t a move engineered by passion, but by logic. That’s the reasoning that fueled the disembowelment of rhetoric in the 18th century. Invention, or creating new ideas, was thought to be the province of logic, not the emotions. Arrangement, on the other hand, needed to deal specifically with the emotional appeals. The passions were neatly systemized by logic, and thought to be their slave.

Content rules, presentation is an afterthought. Not for most artists I’ve known. Artists create spaces as well as scientists; they just want more control.

I could turn each page into a graphic to get around the problem, but I doubt I’ll do that. I could lock them up in a proprietary format like Flash. But instead, I just live with it. If it looks like shit, it’s because of my problems coping with this open environment. It may be shit, but at least it’s mine.

Hypertext does force a huge rethinking of every creative enterprise. I generate it in blocks, with the aid of software. But they’re my blocks, at least the ones that rest in my domain. Using them effectively is a major challenge; I’m not ready to surrender control of how they are put together inside my own place on the web. But it is certain that they are indeed disemboweled, barbequed, and served up on a variety of platforms around the web.

1 thought on “From Medium to Well-done”

  1. “Content” is not really separable from “form,” I agree. Where I’d disagree is that font choice, color, size, screen position, and background color are really essential to your pages’ “form.” Which is lucky, since you have so little control over them and since your lack of control makes your work available to more of those who can enjoy it.The “presentation” aspects that bring me back to your writing have to do with the form of your *prose*, not the form of your *typesetting* or *layout*. (And I venture to guess that you spend more hours on the first than on the latter two.) If you change your layout, the effect of your prose and photos will not change drastically (unless you make them illegible). The weblog form tends to produce semi-independent units, and when the units are as well made as yours, they’re perfectly capable of maintaining their own semi-independent pleasures and semi-independent lives: scattered, maybe, but still hopping, unbarbequed.It’s great to find a teacher who loves Rochester’s poetry, which I guess is a digression except inasmuch as we’re not all reading Rochester’s manuscripts….Best,Ray

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