Category Archives: transclusion

he do the police in different voices

the cover of womans worldIn a sense, Graham Rawle‘s novel Woman’s World, just out in the United States from Counterpoint, is made for the internet. It’s the sort of thing that you expect to see on Digg or Reddit: artist spends several years cutting up old women’s magazines and laboriously constructs a 400-page novel out of the collaged shards of text. If the internet loves anything, it’s novelty, and Rawle’s work is certainly that. Every spread of the book is beautiful – here’s one chosen at random:

I show one spread, though I could as easily have shown 200 others. Rawle’s work is supremely visual, and invites the reader to appreciate in that way. In a sense, it puts off serious readings: it’s constructed from women’s magazines of the 1950s and 60s, which society accords little value to: magazines are ephemeral, fashion magazines inherently so. But such readings, inevitable as they may be, are unjust to Rawle’s book, which deserves to be read as a novel. While emphatically a work of print, the way Rawle uses text can shed light on the way we use text online.
What goes on in Woman’s World? Rawle’s raw materials suggest his subject matter: it’s a novel about clothes, specifically women’s clothes. It’s not a stretch to imagine that his working method suggested his plot: Rawle, a mail artist, uses women’s words to construct a book; his male protagonist garbs himself in women’s clothes. Clothes become language: Rawle stitches words and phrases together to make something new. (A parallel might be drawn to Georges Perec’s use of constraint in La Disparition/A Void, a work of art not because it does away with the letter e – that had been done before – but because Perec’s technique informs his narrative; the informed reader sees the novel’s themes of disappearance and loss as Perec’s method of indirectly writing about the disappearance of his parents in the Holocaust.)
It’s worth paying close attention to how the creator works. Rawle generally cuts on the phrase level, going down to the word level. Occasionally a suffix is added (-s, -ed). It’s only once in a great while that he edits inside the word. On p. 307 (below left), the eye is drawn to word “realising”, where the American spelling “realizing” has been changed to the British “realising” by pasting an s over a z. (From the spelling, Rawle seems to be mining British magazines, another reason for this word to stand out.) It’s hard not to take this as a sign pointing to to another narrative about transvestites where things end badly, Honoré de Balzac’s “Sarrasine”, a short story best known to English readers from its appearance as an appendix in Roland Barthes’s book-length reading of it, S/Z. In that book, Barthes dissected “Sarrasine” into 561 narrative units he called “lexias” in which he discovered five different codes underlying and structuring the text. Balzac’s story appears twice in S/Z: once interpolated with Barthes’s notations over 220 pages, and again in an appendix to the book, interpolated by the numerals numbering the lexias Barthes found in the story. Displayed on the page like this – an example is below right – “Sarrasine” feels like Frankenstein’s monster, constructed from numbered parts of language; a great-uncle, perhaps, of Rawle’s text. There’s at least a faint family resemblance:

p. 307 of womans worlda scan of p. 251 of s/z by roland barthes in the translation of richard miller
Just as Barthes finds structures by which to decipher what the reader experiences in “Sarrasine”, there can be found structures to decipher what the reader experiences when reading Woman’s World. At one level, there is the story – a sequence of words that could be put into a .TXT file and be exactly the same. At another level, there’s the presentation. This is something that’s hard to precisely pin down, but it’s best explained by pointing out the difference between reading a plain text version of Rawle’s story and the collaged version of the same. Try looking at Rawle’s p. 307 and my neutral typesetting of it (click on each for a better view):

p. 307 of womans worlda retypeset version of the same thing

Something is lost in my translation, though most don’t have the vocabulary to describe what that is. (Tom Phillips, no stranger to this sort of thing, gives the book a close reading in his Guardian review that suggests that such a thing is possible with a background in graphic design.) But try to read these two versions of the same page aloud and note the difference: the first full sentence in Rawle’s version has a front-loaded stress (“HE looked at her”) that isn’t apparent from the words alone. The same sentence feels choppy because it’s cut into individual words at first; it seems to speed up when it gets to “and just then found,” a whole phrase. An eye more attuned to the nuances of type is bound to notice more of these connotations; and certainly this seems conscious on Rawle’s part.
On a third level, there’s the apparent history of Rawle’s bits of text: its referentiality. Every letter of Rawle’s text clearly comes from somewhere else; sometimes he takes as many as several sentences. The original context isn’t always clear, though it can quite often be guessed. (Extended excerpts aren’t always needed to do this: sometimes a single decorative letter is enough to suggest that it originally served as an ad.) Rawle’s language is explicitly secondhand. In a sense, though, it’s no more secondhand than any other language. We use words and phrases because others have used those words and phrases before us (or, more pretentiously, we hope that others will use ours) and those words and phrases suggest our previous conversations, reading, and cultural contexts. Language carries its history with it.
(Perhaps I didn’t need to go to Barthes to point this out: one remembers the best moment in The Devil Wears Prada is a scene in which Meryl Streep, playing Anna Wintour, upbraids the movie’s idiotic anti-hero Anne Hathaway, for declaring that fashion is meaningless and that her constant demands are similarly petty and meaningless. Streep responds fluently in the language of fashion, spinning off a history of color, texture, and cut, proceeding from designer to designer, through connotations and denotations, until she reaches the nameless maker of Hathaway’s rather non-descript blue cardigan, which carries a world of associations even if worn by the unaware.)
Language is a complicated thing that we tend to take for granted. Looking at Rawle’s novel suggests how loaded simple text can be. It’s worth considering how comparatively limited reading on the Internet seems to be. Consider this text: I’m writing it in black 14 point Avenir Roman, though when it appears on the blog, my best guess is that you’ll see it in 13 point Verdana in a dark gray. That could be, of course, entirely wrong: the browser environment (and RSS readers) give viewers a great deal of freedom in defining how their text looks. But that’s a small point in comparison with the third code I find in Rawle, the referentiality of his pieces of text. For all the interlarding of scans in this post, it appears to be a seamless whole – you, the reader, have no reason for not thinking that I didn’t start at the first sentence and write furiously until I came to the last sentence, and I would be more than happy not to disabuse you of the notion. Had this piece been written as a Wikipedia article, you might have some notion of how this was created, though it’s still very difficult to visualize exactly where a Wikipedia article comes from: while the prose of a typical Wikipedia article is lumpy, it has nowhere near the eloquent texture of Rawle’s pages.
Could an electronic Woman’s World be made? Another parallel could be drawn, to Ted Nelson’s idea of transclusion, the concept of keeping quoted texts connected to their original sources. Transclusion was an early hypertext hope, though results so far have been generally disappointing; it’s not quite so easy as cutting and pasting, though Nelson’s appealingly low-tech diagrams might suggest this. There’s a way to go yet.

ted nelson is still on the job

It’s been a while since we’ve mentioned Ted Nelson on this blog. Ted Nelson came up with the idea of hypertext in 1963; since then, in his estimation, most of what’s happened in computer interfaces and the way we use electronic documents has been a colossal disappointment. This would be a presumptuous idea to have, but Nelson does have some claim to being a genius, and his analyses of what’s wrong with the way we use computers are cogent and worth taking seriously. If you have an hour, there’s a worthwhile video of him presenting the basics of his ideas at Google at GoogleVideo. There’s an even better (if longer) presentation of a talk he gave at Oxford in 2005, where he holds forth on the history of science and technology, why the systems that win out aren’t necessarily the best ones, and what’s wrong with the standard metaphors of cut, copy, and paste as used on computers since 1984. Nelson’s a computer scientist, but he’s talking about issues that increasingly affect everyone in today’s world. Viewing both – especially in the first, where his audience is an unenthusiastic group of Google engineers – it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him as a romantic figure. His view of technology bears a certain similarity with the view of American history laid out in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon: that of vast potential squandered in the name of power and the market.
As I’ve argued before, Ted Nelson’s ideas are essential to engage with if we’re thinking seriously about how we compose and read using computers. His central thesis (which is strangely echoed by Gary Frost‘s comments on this blog) is that from Xerox PARC on, electronic documents have been designed to mimic their paper antecedents. In Nelson’s view, this is where everything went wrong: electronic documents could and should behave entirely differently from paper ones. Since 1960, Nelson’s been attempting to remedy this problem by creating a replacement for the World Wide Web which he calls Project Xanadu. In 1995, Wired termed it the “longest-running vaporware story in the history of the computer industry”. Twelve years later, Project Xanadu isn’t much closer to replacing the web, but it’s somewhat less vaporware: Nelson’s group has released Xanadu Space, Windows-only software that lets you create primitive transcluded documents. We unfortunately don’t have a PC in the office to try it out on, but you can see Nelson running it in the Google video, and there are intriguing screenshots:





There’s more information here; I’d be curious to hear how well it actually works.

ted nelson & the ideologies of documents

I. Nelson’s criticism

Ted Nelson (introduced last week by Ben) is a lonely revolutionary marching a lonely march, and whenever he’s in the news mockery is heard. Some of this is with good reason: nobody’s willing to dismantle the Internet we have for his improved version of the Internet (which doesn’t quite work yet). You don’t have to poke around too long on his website to find things that reek of crackpottery. But the problems that Nelson has identified in the electronic world are real, even if the solutions he’s proposing prove to be untenable. I’d like to expand on on one particular aspect of Nelson’s thought prominent in his latest missive: his ideas about the inherent ideologies of document formats. While this sounds very blue sky, I think his ideas do have some repercussions for what we’re doing at the Institute, and it’s worth investigating them, if not necessarily buying off on Xanadu.

Nelson starts from the position that attempting to simulate paper with computers is a mistaken idea. (He’s not talking about e-ink & the idea of electronic paper, though a related criticism could be made of that: e-ink by itself won’t solve the problem of reading on screens.) This is correct: we could do many more things with virtual space than we can with a static page. Look at this Flash demonstration of Jef Raskin’s proposed zooming interface (previously discussed here), for example. But we don’t usually go that far because we tend to think of electronic space in terms of the technology that preceded it – paper space. This has carried over into the way in which we structure documents for online reading.

There are two major types of electronic documents online. In one, the debt to paper space is explicit: PDFs, one of the major formats currently used for electronic books, are a compressed version of Postscript, a specification designed to tell a printer exactly what should be on a printed page. While a PDF has more functionality than a printed page – you can search it, for example, and if you’re tricky you can embed hyperlinks and tables of content in them – it’s built on the same paradigm. A PDF is also like a printed page in that it’s a finalized product: while content in a PDF can be written over with annotations, it’s difficult to make substantial changes to it. A PDF is designed to be an electronic reproduction of the printed page. More functionality has been welded on to it by Adobe, who created the format, but it is, at its heart attempting to maintain fidelity to the printed page.

The other dominant paradigm is that of the markup language. A quick, not too technical introduction: a markup language is a way of encoding instructions for how a text is to be structured and formatted in the text. HTML is a markup language; so is XML. This web page is created in a markup language; if you look at it with the “View Source” option on your browser, you’ll see that it’s a text file divided up by a lot of HTML tags, which are specially designed to format web pages: putting <i> and </i> around a word, for example, makes it italic. XML is a broader concept than HTML: it’s a specification that allows people to create their own tags to do other things: some people are using their own version of XML to represent ebooks.

There’s a lot of excitement about XML – it’s a technology that can be (and is)bent to many different uses. A huge percentage of the system files on your computer, for example, probably use some flavor of XML, even if you’ve never thought of composing an XML documents. Nelson’s point, however, is that there’s a central premise to all XML: that all information can be divided up into a logical hierarchy – an outline, if you will. A lot of documents do work this way: book is divided into chapters; a chapter is divided into paragraphs; paragraphs are divided into words. A newspaper is divided into stories; each story has a headline and body copy; the body copy is divided into paragraphs; a paragraph is divided into sentences; a sentence is divided into words; and words are divided into letters, the atom of the markup universe.

II. A Victorian example

But while this is the dominant way we arrange information, this isn’t necessarily a natural way to arrange things, Nelson points out, or the only way. It’s one way of many possible ones. Consider this spread of pages (double-click to enlarge them):

Click here to enlarge this image.

This is a title page from a book printed by William Morris, another self-identified humanist. We mostly think of William Morris (when we’re not confusing him with the talent agency) as a source of wallpaper, but his work as a book designer can’t be overvalued. The book was printed in 1893; it’s entitled The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane. Like all of Morris’s books, it’s sumptuous to the point of being unreadable: Morris was dead set on bringing beauty back into design’s balance of aesthetics & utility, and maybe over-corrected to offset the Victorian fixation on the latter.

I offer this spread of pages as an example because the elements that make up the page don’t break down easily into hierarchical units. Let’s imagine that we wanted to come up with an outline for what’s on these pages – let’s consider how we would structure them if we wanted to represent them in XML. I’m not interested in how we could represent this on the Web or somewhere else – it’s easy enough to do that as an image. I’m more interested in how we would make something like this if we were starting from scratch & wanted to emulate Morris’s type and woodcuts – a more theoretical proposition.

First, we can look at the elements that comprise the page. We can tell each page is individually important. Each page has a text box, with decorative grapevines around the text box; inside the text box, the title gets its own page; on the second page, there’s the title repeated, followed by two body paragraphs, separated by a fleuron. The first paragraph gets an illustrated dropcap. Each word, if you want to go down that far, is composed of letters.

But if you look closer, you’ll find that the elements on the page don’t decompose into categories quite so neatly. If you look at the left-hand page, you can see that the title’s not all there – this is the second title page in the book. The title isn’t part of the page – as would almost certainly be assumed under XML – rather, they’re overlapping units. And the page backgrounds aren’t mirror images of each other: each has been created uniquely. Look at the title at the top of the right-hand page: it’s followed by seven fleurons because it takes seven of them to nicely fill the space. Everything here’s been minutely adjusted by hand. Notice the characters in the title on the right and how they interact with the flourishes around them: the two A’s are different, as are the two F’s, the two N’s, the two R’s, the two E’s. You couldn’t replicate this lettering with a font. You can’t really build a schema to represent what’s on these two pages. A further argument: to make this spread of pages rigorous, as you’d have to to represent it in XML, would be to ruin them aesthetically. The vines are the way they are because the letters are the way they are: they’ve been created together.

The inability of XML to adequately handle what’s shown on these pages isn’t a function of the screen environment. It’s a function of the way we build electronic documents right now. Morris could build pages this way because he didn’t have to answer to the particular restraints we do now.

III. The ideologies of documents

Let’s go back to Ted:

Nearly every form of electronic document- Word, Acrobat, HTML, XML- represents some business or ideological agenda. Many believe Word and Acrobat are out to entrap users; HTML and XML enact a very limited kind of hypertext with great internal complexity. All imitate paper and (internally) hierarchy.

For years, hierarchy simulation and paper simulation have been imposed throughout the computer world and the world of electronic documents. Falsely portrayed as necessitated by “technology,” these are really just the world-view of those who build software. I believe that for representing human documents and thought, which are parallel and interpenetrating– some like to say “intertwingled”– hierarchy and paper simulation are all wrong.

It’s possible to imagine software that would let us follow our fancy and create on the screen pages that look like William Morris’s – a tool that would let a designer make an electronic woodcut with ease. Certainly there are approximations. But the sort of tool I imagine doesn’t exist right now. This is the sort of tool we should have – there’s no reason not to have it already. Ted again:

I propose a different document agenda: I believe we need new electronic documents which are transparent, public, principled, and freed from the traditions of hierarchy and paper. In that case they can be far more powerful, with deep and rich new interconnections and properties- able to quote dynamically from other documents and buckle sideways to other documents, such as comments or successive versions; able to present third-party links; and much more.

Most urgently: if we have different document structures we can build a new copyright realm, where everything can be freely and legally quoted and remixed in any amount without negotiation.

Ben does a fine job of going into the ramifications of Nelson’s ideas about transclusion, which he proposes as a solution. I think it’s an interesting idea which will probably never be implemented on a grand scale because there’s not enough of an impetus to do so. But again: just because Nelson’s work is unpragmatic doesn’t mean that his critique is baseless.

I feel there’s something similar in the grandiosity of Nelson’s ideas and Morris’s beautiful but unreadable pages. William Morris wasn’t just a designer: he saw his program of arts and crafts (of which his books were a part) as a way to emphasize the beauty of individual creation as a course correction to the increasingly mechanized & dehumanized Victorian world. Walter Benjamin declares (in “The Author as Producer”) that there is “a difference between merely supplying a production apparatus and trying to change the production apparatus”. You don’t have to make books exactly like William Morris’s or implement Ted Nelson’s particular production apparatus to have your thinking changed by them. Morris, like Nelson, was trying to change the production apparatus because he saw that another world was possible.

And a postscript: as mentioned around here occasionally, the Institute’s in the process of creating new tools for electronic book-making. I’m in the process of writing up an introduction to Sophie (which will be posted soon) which does its best to justify the need for something new in an overcrowded world: Nelson’s statement neatly dovetailed with my own thinking on the subject on why we need something new: so that we have the opportunity to make things in other ways. Sophie won’t be quite as radical as Nelson’s vision, but we will have something out next year. It would be nice if Nelson could do the same.