The Writing on the Wall

I have some spare time in between my summer job and my fall classes. So I’ve spent the past five days learning to program in PHP and MySQL. My focus has been on the development of so-called large scale web applications. Luckily my dad has agreed to accommodate my unemployment, taken me back in, and even found me a room in the apartment so that I no longer have to sleep on the couch in the living room. In process of learning good organization and coding practices, I came across the idea of templates. And then I realized why graffiti never became an art form, despite its introduction into high-class New York galleries in the early 90s. Stephanie, this post is dedicated to you.

Templates are pretty natural and, nowadays, pretty common. Anyone who has used Microsoft Word or Excel has probably seen a template, some have maybe even used one. They’re empty containers which you can fill in with your own information to produce a finished product without too much effort. What they do, though, is subtle. I hadn’t realized just how subtle they are until last night. Templates allow you to separate content from presentation. This is important. The same thing works in programming, except in web development it’s a little bit more complicated.

A web application has three parts: the content, the presentation—both of which you, the user, see—and the business logic—the code which does the actual heavy-lifting in the silently backroom in the dark. It’s a good idea to keep these guys as far away from each other as possible. You enter the content, more or less, in HTML. Fortunately and unfortunately, the paragraph tag < p > is blind to your content. You wouldn’t format the address in a letter the same way you format a recipe, for example. HTML, however, can’t distinguish between the two. It treats everything similarly. Luckily, that’s where another standard, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), comes in.

CSS allows you to tell the browser exactly how you’d like a certain type of text to look. You can control placement, font face, font weight, behavior in response to events (like when the mouse cursor hovers over a link), and more! This is the presentation part of it all.

A clever little package, aptly named Smarty, lets you keep your PHP scripts from mingling with your HTML and your CSS. That way you can redesign the look of your pages without having to update the guts which control the functionality, too. Your copy editors and content managers stay happy, too, because they aren’t effected, either, and can continue doing what they like to do best: write content.

And all this got me thinking about my friend Stephanie and her undergraduate honors thesis. It straddled the divide between literature and art history; she wrote about the rise and subsequently fall of graffiti in the art world. She argues that the art world rejected graffiti, actually, a particular type called Writing—writers would never call their Writing graffiti, so why should we?—because it was written and people got caught up in trying to read it. And that makes sense. Try to take in the artistic value of the following:

Do not read this.

You can’t. If you know how to read in English, then you read and processed the above statement, even though I intended it as a purely visual object. Writing is a little bit more subversive. A single author didn’t always tag with one name, and often the script was so stylized that it was impossible to read in the popular sense of the word. Yet other Writers had no problem identifying authorship. The trick is, they were able to distinguish between the presentation and content of a Writer’s tag. Critiques strove to find meaning in the words the Writers presented—meaning that was never there. And the style discovered its author, not the name. Writers had deconstructed the written word, extracting only a visual idiom while leaving the word’s referent alone to fend for itself fully detatched from its referrer.

Few people in the academia of literature, it seems, study the effects typography and layout have on a written work for better or for worse. Perhaps it is more important to distinguish the two when investigating Islamic writing (and its calligraphy) or medieval, illuminated texts. Too bad, though, that presentation has been relegated to the design world. Everyone interacts with layout. It affects so much of what we do everyday.


What are the implications of my scheme?

I don’t even want to mention what a meta-language like XML might mean to literature academes. At least not now.

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