August 13 2022

I recently finished From A to <A>: Keywords of Markup, a collection of academic essays exploring different HTML markup elements from something of a critical code studies perspective. In the book's introduction, editors Bradley Dilger and Jeff Rice argue that the inextricability of writing on the web with markup requires us to understand how markup shapes digital communication:

We can no longer distinguish our writing from the markup we use to situate that writing within its given spaces.

...markup constructs ideological, political, pedagogical, and other features of digital composing.

In the age of markup, we must continue to build vocabularies of meaning so that we may better understand our rhetorical and writing practices in relationship to cultural, institutional, and ideological environments.

The approaches of many of the chapters are heavily influenced by Matthew Fuller and Matthew Kirschenbaum's conception of software studies, where software is "an object of study and an area of practice for kinds of thinking and work". Alexander Galloway's protocol is also referenced a lot.

I was hoping for a bit more from this book, though that's probably because my expectations were very high, excited as I was to find this book that seemingly tied so well to this project! Many of the discussions in this book felt a bit simplistic and dated, which to be fair they are: the book is a decade older than the Marino and Soon texts I was looking at last month. As a cultural snapshot of web development in the late 90s/early 00s, it's great.

That said, there were some insights I found in the book that have really stuck with me since finishing it.

Approaching web based writing from other media lenses

One thread I loved in several essays was how qualities of digital text was contrasted with other artistic mediums. This gelled with me, as in the past I have learnt as much from transposing the techniques of other media traditions into the web as I have learning about things like 'interaction design'.

In one essay on the <b></b> tag, Sarah J. Arroyo traces a history of the pedagogy of rhetoric to contemporary training on appropriate uses of the <b> tag. They argue that the physical qualities of rhetoric have a connection with multimedia writing:

For instance, for multimedia writers to design an effective piece, they must not only work with text, audio, and visuals, but they also must be acutely aware of timing, rhythm, cadence, repetition, interaction, and response—notions that would be familiar to the students Hawhee describes in the gymnasia of Athens. Accordingly, transmedia writers must anticipate the physical roles users will enact as they interact with the material. Thus, the physical aspects of digital design also blur the distinction between the physical off-line world and the virtual online world.

Rhythm, cadence, repetition... all devices at home with traditional poetic forms! Their relationship to oral forms and the elements of timing, interaction, response, might be an insightful lens for poets experimenting into a form where elements can transform over time or rely on an interaction-response cycle between the reader and the work. I think of how the tendency to organise hypertext works by pages, blocks or 'lexia' lends Twine-based poetry and fiction a kind of beat through each click – Xalavier Nelson Jr's SCREW YOU, BEAR DAD! is a great example of this rhythm. I remember also how eye-opening Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries was to me, seeing the potential of sound and image over time in a way that made clear the connective tissue between textual and aural forms I had encountered like spoken word, Last Poets-era rap, karaoke machine videos, and the orchestral accompaniments of 1930s/40s cartoons.

Another lens which complements and expands this conception of digital writing is proposed by Michelle Glaros in her exegesis of the <frame> element. Glaros likens digital writing to installation art:

Installation and electronic writing share certain affinities. Both sculpt spaces with tools such as light, audio, image, and process. Both invite the viewer/reader or user to enter the space in which the work is being composed. Yet our imaginations are trapped by traditional conceptions of the language arts, which prize clarity and linearity. We are like those early film-makers who found it difficult to escape the language of the stage.

...This entry also suggests that we use installation art as a model for electronic writing or new media art compositions. A 4-D art form that arranges and inscribes (and thus “writes”) space and time, installation art uses sound and image to sculpt particular “scenes.” In breaking out of the frame and sliding off the pedestal, this art of space offers language artists inspiration for imagining writing without the page.

Of course! Digital poems are a kind of space: they may require novel navigation techniques on the part of the reader; they are immersive; they often resist the linearity associated with traditional text forms (though I'd argue that poetry is the textual form most suited for nonlinearity – perhaps this is why I have seen VR/AR poems moreso than 'fiction'?)

If these two insights might be synthesised and (over)simplified for summary, it would be to say that digital writing (especially poetry) involves expanded attention to space and time, due to its multimedia (spatial) and interactive (temporal) affordances.

Peeking under the hood of the browser

One small aside from the book which also provoked me: Helen J. Burgess has an essay in the collection examining how PHP and other server-side scripts obfuscate some of the workings of web pages to end-users, as this code is not accessible via Page Source. Burgess' lament that this obfuscation occurs at the same time that HTML mark-up is diminished among other literacies of software developer's rings true to me still today, perhaps moreso with the proliferation of JavaScript and JS-based libraries that generate and contain HTML elements:

But the current trend in focusing on “visual literacy” tends to emphasize what’s on the screen, rather than what lies beneath. Our understanding of code has gotten lost under the layers of GUI and WYSI- WYG; graphic design teachers (trained primarily in the visual register) pale when students click on the <> button in Dreamweaver, and the mysteries of markup appear. At the same time, though, teaching plain vanilla markup is somewhat old-fashioned. Sure, there is the magic moment of revelation, but in an age of database-driven pages and invisible scripting languages (PHP, Perl, ASP.NET, the usual laundry list of server-side applications), it seems rather quaint to be teaching the <p> tag (or even worse, the dep- recated <font> and <table> tags). Server-side scripting languages com- plicate markup by writing code for us; if we try to view the source, all we see are the traces left behind in the shape of inert HTML tags. The magic happens elsewhere. Markup, then, has come full circle: from the mystery of the Web page, to the revelatory moment of “View Source,” to the invis- ible scripting we know is there but can’t quite get to. Unable to scan the page and take an educated guess at what’s going on under the hood, stu- dents face a key disadvantage as they try to understand how the Web works. This is especially true in the world of the social Web, which is dependent on database calls and the run-time restructuring of pages for its vitality. “View Source” is no longer sufficient as a mechanistic view of the way information appears on the screen.

This is in contrast to a small, delightful anecdote Burgess provides at the start of the chapter:

My favorite moments have neatly bookended activity in my Web writing, design, and development classes. The first is the moment of revelation, the pulling aside of the curtain: I stand at the podium, enter a URL, and then choose “View Source” in the browser. Students gasp. It’s very satisfying.

I love this! The capacity to use "View Source" look at what is happening in the markup to produce elements on the web page has always felt slightly magical to me. I think a key part of learning HTML and CSS in an engaging and productive way is learning through real examples, unpacking code as it is executed in the browser, rather than as a set of passive files. I wonder how to introduce things like server-side languages, APIs, etc, within this context... something I need to investigate further!

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