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Very little has been written on skeuomorphism in general. The most recent thorough theorization of the concept is to be found in Michael Vickers and David Gill, ‘Artful Crafts’ (1994), yet their consideration is within the narrow archaeological framework of its application to Greek ceramic imitations of metal vessels, from the 6th to 4th century DA N O’HARA
B.C. Michael Vickers describes his German volume on ‘Skeuomorphismus oder die Kunst, aus wenig viel zu machen’ (1999) as:
“An examination of the concept of skeuomorphism: the principle whereby expensive materials, such as gold, silver, or rock crystal are imitated in cheaper ones, such as bronze, pottery or glass. It is a means of transcending archaeological positivism, for by extrapolating from the archaeological record, it is possible to reconstruct vanished objects made from material that was too precious to discard in antiquity” and provides yet another definition of the term: ‘the migration of a form native to one medium into another’. Richard N. Bailey has noted the traces of metalworking elements upon stone Anglo-Saxon crosses, such as stone bosses or ‘studs’; he has suggested that such stone ‘studs’, some of which were once painted and even gilded, emulate both the jewelling of metal crosses, which use of a valuable material served as an appropriate glorification of God, and as an imitation of the Crux Gemmata, itself a transfiguration of the true cross, as the 7th-century AngloSaxon poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ memorializes.2 Fig. 2: The 11th-century Lotharkreuz, made in Köln and now in the Aachener Dom 2 Richard N. Bailey: “What mean these stones?” Some Aspects of preNorman Sculpture in Cheshire and Lancashire. In: Donald Scragg (Ed.): Textual and Material Culture in Anglo-Saxon England: Thomas Northcote Toller and the Toller Memorial Lectures. Cambridge 2003, p. 213–239, p. 238.
SKEUOMO R PHOLOGY A ND Q UOTATIO N 285David A. Hinton suggests that those who made the original objects of emulation in this period—Anglo-Saxon smiths—might have been both excluded and revered, as “those who have the knowledge to change metals into objects may have other powers ascribed to them,”3 but also and more sensibly as popular fear of their magic might understandably be reduced to a sensible precaution against the possibility of fire. It is a popular superstition which one might easily recognize as applied also to authors.
The archaeologist Carl Knappett has discussed the applications of skeuomorphism to modern photography and film, but only briefly and in one paper. Like many of the writers currently working on the development of ‘material culture studies’ from a fledgling discipline into a mature ‘science of the artificial’, Knappett’s work is concerned primarily with how we derive meaning from objects, and theorizes skeuomorphs within a semiotic framework borrowed from C. S. Pierce. In using semiotics to interpret material culture, Knappett and others are essentially engaged not in determining forms as non-Cartesian expressions of thought or, in other words, as memes, as they believe; rather, as semioticians they are engaged in an epistemology of attributed meaning, and not an ontology of intended meaning. The advantage of looking at skeuomorphs in literature, however, is that it circumvents the problem of intention entirely, as skeuomorphology is concerned not with new interpretations of older conventions and genres, but with the ways in which conventions and genres act as nonhuman agencies in themselves.
Rather than being evidence of the transference of ideas themselves, skeuomorphs are vehicles for the tranference of the forms of ideas. In cases where the medium is the message, as is so often the case in quotation, a higher degree of complexity obtains than in, for example, the analysis of Scythian pots.
Elsewhere, works dealing primarily with architecture and with computer software engineering have recently taken up the concept of skeuomorphism to describe specific problems within their own fields.
Philip Steadman’s ‘The evolution of designs’ views the concept as one of many, possibly fundamentally flawed, analogies with biology. Although his concern is principally with architectural manifestations, he identifies some of the wider philosophical difficulties of identifying
ornament with absence of function. Stewart Brand also touches on architectural skeuomorphs in his 1994 work ‘How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built.’ Anders Mørch, although he misunderstands the etymology of the concept entirely, believing that skeuomorphism refers etymologically to a ‘skewed’ form, uses skeuomorphism to describe the junk surplus functions, or remnants of once-functional machine language, left behind in ‘bloatware’—vastly over-inflated software in common usage, such as Microsoft’s ‘Word,’ where each successive generation of the product fails to eliminate the previous version’s redundant functions.
Generally, however, skeuomorphism has since its coinage become largely restricted to usage within archaeology, but it is instructive to note that its earliest adherents place it within a much wider morphological system. Alfred Haddon’s ‘Evolution in Art’ (1895) sees it as merely one type of -morphism in an entire classificatory system of form in (mainly ‘savage’) artworks. Most of his terms derive from the object of representation—hence, ‘zoomorph’, ‘phyllomorph’, ‘anthropomorph’ and so on—yet the addition of skeuomorphism permits Haddon to identify a type of form by the process of its genesis, so that he is able to account for a non-human agency determining certain forms. A further refinement of his system is that it can account for hybrid forms, or ‘heteromorphs’, where a nonintentional skeuomorphism is combined with an intentional biomorphism. Haddon’s memorable formulation of the concept as ‘the annihilation of the useful by the beautiful’ suggests that what is needed is to resolve the concept is the very opposite of the current academic trend: an account of the relation between form and function which focuses not upon meaning but morphogenesis.
But if what is as stake is not the meanings and interpretations of objects or statements or genres but the processes that guide their genesis, the question of the validity of the ‘biological analogy’ becomes rather pressing. Philip Steadman’s careful distinction in ‘The evolution of designs’ between Darwinian natural selection and Lamarckian cultural evolution requires re-assessment, as even in the year it was published, evidence of ‘reticulate’ evolution in biology was becoming available. I do not intend here to explore this problem, though it is worthwhile considering the extent to which a skeuomorphology would obey the evolutionary principle that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: or, in other words, the principle that each organism develops in stages which follow the same order as the evolutionary stages of the species to which it belongs.
SKEUOMO R PHOLOGY A ND Q UOTATIO N 287In biology, examples of this principle include the fact that vertebrate mammal embryos develop the backbone first; in human embryos, the cerebrum develops last. It would seem that human biological skeuomorphs such as the coccyx do obey this principle: it develops into an embryonic tail at the same stage as it does in primate embryos, and only later in embryogenesis does it recede to become the coccyx.
Up to this point, I’ve discussed the principle that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and the question of whether or not we can speak of man-made artefacts in the terms of evolution, only in terms of morphogenesis at the ontogenic level. George Basalla, in the ‘Evolution of Technology,’ describes the great ‘interlocking cycle’ of invention/replication/discard that is the characteristic of technological selection at the highest level: and this is in fact a phylogenic level. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny here: or, the same process applies at the macro and the micro level; at the molar, and the molecular levels. The relations between invention, replication, and discard are internalized and productive; and furthermore they seem to apply across distinct fields, to the evolution of biological and mechanical entities equally. The exact internal abstact relations between the three are equivalent to intensities: these are fluid, but the governing factor (or the quasi-cause) that determines the degree of intensive relations is the principal factor in determining, both at the micro and the macro level, at the ontogenic and the phylogenic levels, whether a given artefact can be actualized or not. In other
words, these relations are the condition of a given artefact’s possibility:
they are its virtual abstract machine.4 I would however propose that there is a suggestive and productive continuity between skeuomorphism and Richard Dawkins’ theory of ‘memes,’ as skeuomorphs may be categorized within Dawkins’ schema as physical instantiations of memes. Anders Mørch summarizes
Dawkins’ notion of memes in suggestive terms in his article ‘Evolutionary Growth and Control in User Tailorable Systems’:
“Memes are the ideas embedded in cultural artefacts, from books to pottery.
They have a code that can be reused (i.e., described by a ‘language’), expressed (presented as readable ‘sentences’) and accessible to bodies in their environment (e.g., human readers). In the same way a gene can replicate to form new
cells, a meme can become part of new artefacts. An example of this is when an idea that has been introduced in a book is found again later in another book.
This can be explained as the meme’s capability for replication and survival (Dawkins, 1982). Memes combine and accumulate in a similar way to how genes combine and accumulate (by reproduction and inheritance).”5 To take a concrete example: Levi’s jeans have a small pocket within the outer right-hand pocket. The pocket’s corners are fastened to the body of the jeans by rivets. If one examines the top button of the fly, one sees that its form is a stylized version of the same rivets that attach the pockets. We have here a series of obsolete functions (the small pocket is now purely ornamental, as we no longer carry pocket watches or gold nuggets) and stylized imitations of functions (the button rivets, but its form hardly needs to resemble one).
What then are the characteristic attributes of skeuomorphs, and how might we be able to describe and understand literature through a
skeuomorphology? If we once again consider the O.E.D.’s key definitions:
“‘skeuomorph, n., 1.’ an object or feature copying the design of a similar artefact in another material.” “‘skeuomorph, n., 2.’ an ornamental design resulting from the nature of the material used or the method of working it.”
and Michael Vickers’ further definition:
“the migration of a form native to one medium into another,” and consider these definitions within an evolutionary framework, the characteristic attributes of skeuomorphs therefore appear to be: their essential vestigiality; their ornamental form which is the residue of an obsolete function; and their capacity for (self) replication. As the logic of these three attributes may be applied equally to the evolution of the nonorganic and the artificial as to the organic, I would suggest that we 5 Anders I. Mørch: Evolutionary growth and control in user tailorable systems. In: Nandish V. Patel (Ed.): Adaptive evolutionary information systems.
Philadelphia 2003, p. 30–58, p. 39.
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might consider the instances of such a logic in literature at three levels:
of form, language, and genre.
For example, in poetry end-rhyme has long since lost its primary function of helping the reciter to remember what comes next in the order of the poem, as we no longer have solely oral poetry. With writing came a shift, and end-rhyme is now a skeuomorph, an artefact which has lost its function and become ornamental. Despite this essential vestigiality, it possesses a remarkable capacity for self-replication and survival.