Reading and discussion question for Monday

The reading for Monday is “Writing on Complex Surfaces” by John Cayley, which can be fonud here. Please also take a look at the two poems by Cayley that he discusses in his article: overboard, which is here, and translation, which is here.

The discussion question is: Reflect on the concept of a “complex surface” of writing. What is the “simple surface” to which such a complex surface is opposed? What effects are possible with a complex writing surface that aren’t possible with a simple surface?

Published in: on February 12, 2010 at 6:30 pm  Comments (13)  

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  1. In his “Writing on Complex Surfaces,” John Cayley draws a line between what he deems “flat” writing, and that which he calls “complex.” He explains the general terms in which the two types of textual materiality differ, specifically in their transparency. “Flat” writing, he states, is simply writing on a two-dimensional printed surface, where the text itself affords the reader some transparency, but where there is no shifting, moving, or interacting with the text on a higher level. In this case, the content of the text is what is the most important to the reader.

    “Complex” surfaces, on the other hand, allow for two distinctions of materiality- that of content as on a regular printed surface, but also that of interaction with the text itself. He demonstrates this in his poems “overboard” and “translation,” in which the content of the poems isn’t as important as their subsequent moving- the three forms that he calls “drowning,” “floating,” and “surfacing.” All three of these have varying degrees of legibility, and he draws a metaphor with a wave- the text “drowns” in the wave when it is completely submerged and is no longer visible to the reader. The text “floats” when surfaces are reached; however, they’re still “wet” in a way and the text is only slightly legible, or is taking the form of legible words. The final stage, “surfaced” phrases, occur when a surface is reached and “dry” so that the reader can understand what is being said in the phrase. The same happens in his poem “translation,” in which the shifting languages of French, German, and English are each legible to different people at different times, making the text a continually interactive experience.

    Cayley’s own complex writing form demonstrates the power of complex writing to have more than one meaning and level of engagement with the reader, as opposed to his definition of “simple” or “flat” writing as a two-dimensional, singly transparent piece.

  2. The ideas of complex versus flat surfaces of writing are an interesting one. At the base, they refer to the way in which a text responds to the material of which it is made. John Cayley’s poems illustrate this quite perfectly. The three forms in “overboard” that illustrate the concepts of the text through the typography add a new dimension to the text and therefore making it complex. A flat text merely refers to the type of text in which the font is transparent to the reader. With a complex text, the creator can engage the reader visually as well s conceptually.

  3. The text focuses on working with “flat” and “complex” surfaces. The “flat” concept refers to flat print on thin paper, that is, a regular printed surface. Cayley mentions how although paper is thin and print is flat, these ‘old’ media concepts allow for many ways to indicate a text’s material depth. Furthermore, this kind of surface achieves the point it is trying to get across in literary virtuality, that is, through the mind and imagination. On the other hand, there is the “complex” surface, which is not only a regular printed surface, but it is also interacts with the printed text itself. Cayley quotes Retallack, “The symbolic is always […] a flatland in its relation to the complex real.”. In other words, “complex” surfaces interact with the “flat” surfaces in order to achieve their purpose.

  4. In looking at the “complex” and “flat” writing surfaces explored by this essay,
    they can both best be understood simply as differing contexts for the written word.
    The “flat” writing surface, consisting of flat-ink on equally flat paper, relies on the reader’s imagination to lend a sense of depth, and the ideas they propose, also rely almost entirely on the mind to perform their function and realize their purpose.
    “Complex” writing surfaces, however, lend words a sense of depth and meaning that need not rely entirely on the reader’s imagination. Words in this context almost “perform” their function in conjunction with typographic elements of their font, shape, color, and perceived materiality.
    “overboard”, in particular, demonstrates that a poem is capable of performing itself in conjunction with a reader’s perception (or lack thereof) when unrestricted by more traditional surfaces.

  5. In John Cayley’s “Writing on Complex Surfaces,” the differences between simple and complex surfaces are observed and discussed. A simple surface, such as plain ink and paper (both of which are physically flat), conveys only the content associated with the text and nothing beyond that depth. On the other hand, writing on a complex surface offers the reader the content of the writing as well as a wealth of additional information. Most notably, a temporal sense may be paired with the text to illustrate to the reader some idea of time and how that relates to the content.

    As evident in Cayley’s own poems, complexity of surface may be observed in how it shows multiple levels of depiction and analyzation to the reader which would otherwise be impossible when working with a simple surface.

  6. A complex surface can work in the third dimension. It can also have a temporal component. A simple surface is two dimensional. Any depth present in the simple surface is depth as an abstract concept, because “paper is thin and print is flat.” A simple surface can only work as a complex surface conceptually. The title sequence for the film North by Northwest uses a complex surface because the text moves up and down, introducing a temporal element as it enters and leaves the screen. This would not be possible with a simple surface.

  7. Catley describes a “complex surface” as a surface upon which one interacts with textuality beyond merely what we had previously defined as the “crystal goblet”. That is to say, it is not merely a container for the words, but itself becomes a part of the artistic message and thus assumes a new role as furthering the intended transference of ideas beyond simply transmitting them. For instance, Cayley’s own “overboard” has text “wash up” and out of view continuously and forces the willing reader to observe the text over time to extract the meaning of the words, adding a new dimension of temporality to the surface which defines it as a “complex surface”.

  8. A “simple surface” is easily defined as print on paper. It encourages the transparency of the thing being read. A “complex surface” is more interactive, it engages the reader in more ways than a “simple surface” and can’t be viewed as incorporating transparency since the reader is very aware of the use of various digital concepts. Cayley states that simple surfaces, or “flatland”, are simply to be read and understood, that our imagination provides the complexity (if there is any). However in regards to complex surfaces we’re provided with more than just words to be understood by their various implied and direct meanings, they’re also to be understood as symbols by how they are represented, or symbols are used which are derived from the words. Complex surfaces allow for more depth and interest, it also makes the typographic elements more than just about what they say, but also their position as art. However, the words are meant to be read and understood in conjunction with the artistic and symbolic aspects, as with Cayley’s Overboard which attempts to tie all these elements together to further the meaning of the piece.

  9. John Cayley draws a distinction between “flat” writing and “complex” writing in “Writing on Complex Surfaces”. “Flat” writing is merely writing on any 2-D surface (pen & paper, pencil, etc.), which gives the reader a small amount of transparency, but that is about it. There is no interaction with the text, or any visual effects delivered unto the reader. This method instead relies on the content of the text to deliver the message to the reader.

    However, writing on a “complex” surface is different, becuase not only is there the 2-D surface that the reader observes, but also a distinctly different materiality, where the text is actually interacting with itself to offer a different perspective. He gives examples in some of his poems, like “overboard” and “translation”.

    In “overboard”, the text physically takes the form of the water, and in “translation” the text is written first in one language, then another, and the languages shift, which makes the reader constantly interact with the text. This shows how “complex” writings have more interactive value, and carry more meaning than “flat” writing.

  10. As opposed to a ‘complex’ surface, a ‘simple’ surface is writing that is restricted to a piece of paper. In theory a simple surface has no way of being temporal. However, Cayley addresses this in his paper. He believes that a simple surface can have a temporal effect. He brings up the example of mesostic text. I found some interesting mesostic poems online. The nature of the poem causes the readers eye to move around the page and see different words at different times. In other words, one text is actually creating different images. While, the simple surface is not as restricted as the common person might think, it still does have limitations. The ‘complex’ surface is far superior when it comes to temporal possibilities. Cayley uses examples of kinetic typography and his own work, overboard. Saul Bass perfected kinetic typography. In Cayley’s work, he has tried to prove that the context does not have to be read, but instead can be created by the moving images. The moving of the text creates the feeling of objects floating in water. This is a kind of ‘ambient’ poetry. A mood and context is created by the moving of the text, not by the meaning of the words.

  11. A “complex” writing surface has visual (i.e. apparent), symbolic, and imaginary dimensions. Cayley’s primary example of a complex writing surface is the opening credits to “North by Northwest.” He uses this example to illustrate how the unique materiality of the text generates “a specific complex surface.” This means that the structure, dimensions, and temporality of the surface is determined by the materiality of the text which is “written” upon it. The vertical scrolling of the credits in the “North by Northwest” sequence serves as a real world referent to elevators, and it is the “behavior” of the text that determines both the symbolic and material dimensions of this surface. This same rule holds true for “simple” writing surfaces. According to Cayley, “the writing (on simple surfaces) renders itself and the writing surface transparent.” Therefore, according to Cayley’s theory, writing on “simple” surfaces is incapable of manifesting its symbolic dimensions as actual dimensions, an effect achieved by writing on “complex” surfaces.

  12. A “simple surface” is merely ink on paper. It allows the reader to not concentrate on what is the text is saying (type of font written in, bold, italics, mirrored image etc.) but what is being said within the text (content and imagery). The “complex surface” has many more facets to take into consideration when reading the material. It offers an inside look into what is being said before you even read the first line. It could be seen as artwork, or text manipulation. The reader must look at the entire piece in order to understand what is being said, not just reading the words alone. The “complex surface” extracts emotions from the reader that would otherwise be unable to be accomplished with a “simple surface”. However, meaning can be lost in the translation if the reader does not carefully analyze the material when reading and take into full consideration what they are seeing.

  13. As opposed to simple surfaces like paper or stone, complex writing surfaces provide the features of temporality and mobility, as well as the ability to introduce algorithms to randomize and individualize experiences. Simple writing surface may be just as efficient at displaying text, however, complex writing surfaces (especially digital surfaces) allow the author to introduce new audio/video elements to both reinforce figurative language, or to alter the reading experience entirely. However, these elements may in fact push the text aside, and become the sole object of attention. In Cayley’s “overboard,” the effect of misconstruing the text in fact hinders the ability to read it. One could ask whether or not the use of complex writing surfaces is counterproductive or at least detrimental to the text’s message. Instead, it should be thought of as a separate medium, not to be viewed as an enhancement of the message of a text, but rather to be viewed as the message’s source.

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