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Writing on Complex Surfaces

by John Cayley

Writing in programmable media is theorized in relation to the surface of writing.[1] Within the framework of currently dominant cultural and technological formations, the surface of writing is conceptually simple, and this overdetermines practices of writing. As it is typically conceived, the surface of writing is a flatland plane, a 3rd-dimensionless scroll (however segmented or, indeed, fragmented) on which linguistic symbols, similarly dimensionless, are arrayed. Once language has come to rest on this simple surface, any qualities it may possess of temporality or material depth are bracketed. Programmable media problematize this dominant but simple model, and yet, arguably, its depthless, timeless surface misdirects the composition and publication of writing, even writing that is instantiated in programmable media. In the field of poetics, there are traditions for which the surface of writing is complex. Although rarely made explicit, such approaches to the writing surface have enriched the practices of important writers, particularly poetic writers. This essay sets out from one important statement on the complexity of writing surfaces and then pursues three examples of writing on/within/amongst such surfaces, connecting engaged poetic practices with literal art work in cinematic and programmable media. The film titling of Saul Bass is discussed; followed by the author’s series of pieces overboard and translation. Finally, there are remarks on the author’s work-in-progress for Brown University’s four-wall VR Cave, within which the surface of writing is literally, graphically complex. The surface of writing is and always has been complex. It is a liminal symbolically interpenetrated membrane, a fractal coast- or borderline, a chaotic and complex structure with depth and history.

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