Cephalotus

I’m participating in a minor debate with some friends over at Metazimut (great name by the way). There are several points we’re debating, all surrounding the political, artistic and ontological nature of blogs. It started with one of the best French web-theoreticians, Etienne Cliquet (an even better name ;-) reacting to some militant positions I had recently taken with respect to standards and web aggregators over at CEDAR. Here is his original post with our comments: Feed me, feed me!!!.

Since Etienne and I are quite clearly squaring off around the role of pingbacks, I thought I would give him a tip of the hat over here with a ….pingback. He really does set himself up when he claims that in a popular blog pingbacks can be shut off whereas comments cannot. He obviously hasn’t been attacked by blog spam yet. While technically he might be right, the power of blogs comes from their links and not from their comments, which are the domain of forums by the way. In fact, many blogs have shown exactly the opposite logic. Régine Débatty was at our art school the other day and spoke about her politics concerning comments. Her blog has obviously become a force through pingbacks, links, trackbacks, call them what you will — and not through the comments which are heavily moderated. It was the inter-blog linking by the way that got her where she is now. In fact, we call it a blogosphere because of the links, not because of the comments. Many blogs even get their “voice” from the choice of links they prepare every day which acts as a proxy for commentary, especially when connected up into a network of interrelated links.

Back to Etienne’s post, I can see three major points of disagreement:

  • 1) the political nature of standards
  • 2) the media model used to define blogs
  • 3) the importance of separating the semantic layer from the presentation layer (xhtml + css)

In an eye-opening accusation, Etienne claimed in his original post that my positions on web-standards were in fact apolitical. Woah. I was expecting quite a few reactions but not that one. I suppose I’ll never win over here: I’ve been accused of being apolitical for years, and when I finally do take some obvious political positions I’m told they’re apolitical. Ho hum. But more seriously, I think the problem here is assuming that we chose to move into open-source and open standards for merely technical reasons, and not political or critical ones. Even worse, that we did not have artistic motives, merely technical ones. I have been teaching in a fine arts school and not a technical trade school precisely because I am interested in a critical exploration of technology, avoiding above all instrumentalization. The common french argument against technology is that people use it without a critical eye. Resistance is everything for the French — it’s in fact what I love about them. But being unable to identify the resistance of others is a common French problem.

A more interesting debate surrounds the use of previous media models to define the medium itself. Etienne claims that blogs are subject to the ideology of “audience”, inherited from television, and to a lesser degree the press. While I agree with the press idea, his original emphasis was on a televisual model. My main opposition to this idea surrounded the distinction between synchronus flux (television) and asynchronus flux (press). Blogs, like newspapers, are dated. But blogs go further and add the minute itself of the post, which is what sometimes confuses it with a synchronus medium. During disasters where traditional communications go down, blogs are nowadays the first to get the news out. But the web, and all TCP/IP based communication, is fundamentally asynchronus and therefore needs to be distinguished from the television’s need to eternally populate its flux with rumor in the Heideggerian sense. RSS is fundamentally a publication medium, and was designed as such. It even works with media that wasn’t originally designed to be archived, searched, or aggregated. In Bruce Mau’s Life Style, he states:

“Postscript’s principal innovation was the invention of a “page description language” used to describe any point on the surface, whether it was text or image. There is no longer any distinction between text and non-text, image and non-image. The entire surface is now described in one language. Everything is now image.” – Bruce Mau, Life Style, p.65.

What I find interesting about RSS is how it reverses this logic : anything can be trapped into an RSS feed, even a synchronus flux. This ultimately re-textifies media objects, transforming them into discrete, modular, exchangeable and archivable entities. This is why the web, and blogs, can “watch” television, feed off of it, and then use to make new feeds, as is currently happening with You Tube.

The final point of dispute is the problem of creating a face-off between “content” and “presentation”. I knew this would create a debate in my original post (my web classes are based on this separation), precisely because so much French thinking is based on Foucauldian and Deleuzian theories that precsiely identify this kind distinction as an ideological trap. So I wasn’t suprised when people accused me of falling into it. But what amazed me was that precisely those who inspired me in this move, were those those that missed the point. So many local teachers (and many usability-fascists, by the way) think that CSS has become the new dogma, a new æsthetic imposed onto us like yet another politically-correct way-to-behave. Many who have recently questioned us on our move to Processing have the same misconception. The hilarous thing about this complaint is how far off target it is. In fact, the idea of moving over to CSS was precisely a strategy for putting behind us obsessions over presentation, and espousing — elegantly — the vanilla flavor logic of the web.

A case in point. Here is a recent post on this blog, entitled Diagram, Procedure, Algorithm that you can see in all its abstractmachine regala; I’ve chosen the background, the font family, the links colors and so on. Now go look for the same post, over on the vanilla-flavored processing blogs. Notice any difference? It’s presented using the default interface for WordPress, which is actually pretty close to my presentation, but obviously could be much much different; for example if I was reading it in a feed reader, or reading it in a terminal.

So for me, espousing the use of XHTML and CSS was less of an issue of making fancy webpages with my students (we don’t, ours suck) and getting them to focus on the logic of aggregators, and recontextualizers of all sorts currently taking over the web.

Oh, and focusing on this issue was — ahem — a politically motivated shift.