Tenen 2017

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Tenen, Dennis. Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2017.

Form, Fomula, Format

algorithms tracking our reading: "Supervised training algorithms use our collective philological output -- sorting and commenting -- to classify information autonomously and to curate content suited to our predilections." (93)

"Despite its formative effect on practices of comprehension, code, the programmatic sign, does not often figure in our theories of meaning making. Instead, we consign it to the ornamental formatting layer of document structure. We do so at our peril. Unlike passive decorative elements -- fleurons, daggers, and pilcrows -- the programmati sign actively molds text to ontext. Words find their topography." (94)

"At the maximally blunt limit of its capabilities, format governs access. Commands render some words and sentences visible on-screen while suppressing others. The ability ot hide text from view completely or to make it so small as to be illegible affects not just the style but also the politics of text. Code determines its audience, privileging certain voices and modes of reading. In this sense, the programmatic sign acquires its nonrepresentational, tactical character. Stripped of references, resemblances, and designations, it commands and controls." (94)

machine control languages "do not stand for action; they are action." (94) -- "Code is an exercise of power, not its representation." (94)

"Located somewhere between screen and storage medium, formats relate matter to content. They are techniques by which immanent inscriptions, the electromagnetic charge, are transformed into transcendent digital objects: novels, songs, films, poems. Formatting imposes structure." (94)

format as structure, as "container or a data structure of a kind" (95)

formatting layer "mediate[s] between visible image and stored information: one surface facing the human; the other, the machine." (96)

form: 1) material outward structure of something; 2) inward Platonic ideal, abstracted from matter, "formula" -- mediating these two meanings is FORMAT

"Formats capture something about the shape, design, style, and thematics of subject matter; they connect the where to the what, when, and how." (99)

Plato — confusion of terms around form

Russian formalists

Best and Marcus 2009, surface reading

Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” — critic should describe form, to enable readers to make their own interpretations

Tanselle: format mediates between physical structure of book and intellectual content

“To decide on the formatting, then, is to commit the work of art as an ideational construct to a medium, that is, to convert it into an object of art.” (110)

Drucker and McGann, layout of the page matters

Print is a fairly static thing, same affordances for all readers

“The affordances of the electronic book are more diffuse” (112)

“The electronic book is in reality a multitude of dynamic formnats. Each requires specialized strategies of reading and interpretation.” (113)

“electronic books, unlike print, are not a single format but many.” (114)

“textual laminate” (114) — “Reading for format involves the delamination of media composits. it concerns the grammar of transformation between disparat conduits of information.” (115)

“Format necessitates a notion of document depth, distinct fro the metaphoric uses of the word in the discussion on surface reading” — but isn’t depth here still a metaphor? What would be a better metaphor or formal structure for imagining these relations?

Example of EDIT, one of the first text editors, designed for a mainframe computer

Publication divided into: document layout, editing, and printing

Richard Furuta, devised a theory of format in which documents are objects composed of hierarchies of more primitive objects, like paragraphs, sentences, etc. — “the concrete object gives physical shape to the instantiation of abstract universal classes” (118) — this “defined formatting as the reification of abstract classes, for example, applying font styles” (119)

Emphasis could be bold, or italics — notion of emphasis is abstract, boldness is concrete instantiation of it

OCR goes the other way, peeling text away from formatting

Printing or viewing as “chain of formatting operations that transform one type of concrete object, bits arranged spatially on the disk, into another type of concrete object, pixels arranged on-screen or in ink on a page” (121)

Copyright, digital rights management

Suggests that DRM and digital copyright laws that prevent tampering with code turn books back into objects, into devices

“How can close or distant reading practices persist when the reading device reconfigures a text dynamically to fit individual taste, mood, or politics?” (130)