June 11, 2003

I create this content in my form

I have been thinking quite a bit about Matt's recent post where he said:

Indeed, with the rise of CSS, skins, etc. there is now a more pronounced division than ever between "form" and "content"


but the interface as "contact surface," an add-on to a "pre-existing bundle of functionality" is precisely the relationship between data and styles that's been reinstated by CSS, is it not?


Note too that the separation of data and styles goes against the grain of the old humanistic saw about the mutually informing and inextricable nature of the relationship between form and content

This seemed fairly straightforward to me at first (this is how I interpreted it, not necessarily how Matt said it) - here we have two documents: first, the HTML document, content. Second, the CSS, form or (sounds like smooth jazz) - style. Visual rhythm. Sure. That makes sense.

And then my head said: Wait a second. That's not right. The data is not in the HTML - it's text in a (in my case) MySQL database.

Alas. A wrench.

Ok, three parts to the gestalt triangle: HTML templates (to include, perhaps, an image header), CSS styles (link and page colors, physical arrangement on page, fonts), and database (text/content). And of course I'm ignoring Perl scripts that make MT work, the server it runs on, the extra Perl:modules that give you perks. These things I'll continue to ignore for now, because a triad is as much as my brain can handle before my second cup of coffee.

Since I'm not the only person intrigued by Matt's comments, I refreshed myself with the discussion through his trackbacks, finding myself struck again by Kari's astute discussion of "accidentals and substantives" and the terms' influence on textual editing. I was surprised by this deft twist, which I expected to go one way, when it actually went another:

"In the context of Matt's entry on the strict separation of style and content in current web-design practice, I am struck by just how "organic" the metaphor is: each of the strands, linguistic and bibliographic, intertwines about a common textual axis. The free variation of style in electronic environments--the ease with which one skin can be swapped out for another--throws a monkey wrench into contemporary editorial theory.

I loved this notion of an organic metaphor, but I thought of it in entirely a different manner. 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. I'll describe quickly what I'm thinking and then I'll follow up later with some snips of the code to (hopefully) support my point.

The database itself contains a structure of tables and data cells. Each "type" of data rests firmly in its assigned cell, although within those cells there is of course "play" between the types of data that sneak through. The main entries, for example, can have almost any type of alpha-numeric content and I could buck the trend, for example, by editing into the main text of my argument comments made by others after the fact. Slippage perhaps.

If you export MT files, the format provides a pretty good indication, however, of the basic structure established by the database, so we already have form and content in place. But is this text file, structurally sound perhaps, "my blog"? Personally, I don't think so. Nelson Goodman might say, "sure" (or he might say, "Don't put words in my mouth").

As I turn to the HTML document, I notice that it is actually as second (at least) layer to the design of the blog as a whole. The div tags are very specific and help separate the website into specific units (headers, bodies, title types, and so on). They are the bones on which the muscles of the CSS must graft. And yet by adding extras to the default, I can add "content" to the website that is not part of the database. In my case, I have extra links, a little picture of angry robot, and (soon, I hope) some added features.

And the CSS - well, whether or not that is content, or accidental, or substantive, I suppose is an argument of materiality. I personally believe that such markings - fonts, colors, etc. - by choice or not, play a role in our reception and interpretation of a work.

Wish I could write more about it, but alas - time to put on that tie. I'll add edits later.

Posted by Jason at June 11, 2003 5:34 AM | TrackBack

This is precisely the kind of technical detail needed to move the discussion to the next level. I'm going to reread your post once I've woken my brain up with some caffeine.

Posted by: kari at June 11, 2003 6:16 AM | Permalink to Comment

This is all very astute and suggestive. Of course you're absolutely right about the addition of the db component to form a triad--though out on the Web at large there are plenty of pages that just do XHTML/CSS. In any case, I'd love to see those code snippets and whatever else to furhter refine this . . .

Posted by: Matt K. at June 11, 2003 7:32 AM | Permalink to Comment
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