Monday, December 21, 2009

“Shaping Things” by Bruce Sterling

This is a diminutive book size with a big title about the design of created objects and the environment by author and journalist, Bruce Sterling. Sterling’s science fiction works have received critical acclaim. The book is certainly worth a read. Shaping Things was published by MIT Press in 2005 and designed by Lorraine Wild and Stuart Smith of Green Dragon Office, Los Angeles.

Bill Moggridge, cofounder of IDEO, supplies a quote for the back cover by saying the book is, “a manifesto for the future of design, impeccably crafted by Bruce Sterling and enhanced by the delicately emphatic graphic design intelligence of Lorraine Wild… Shaping Things hovers between science fiction and design fact, pushing forward into the future and showing how design happens.”

In chapter four, “The Personal is Historical,” Sterling discusses the correlation of science fiction and design “reality”:
By no accident, American design and American science fiction both date to the 1920s. In the visionary work of say, Norman Bel Geddes, with his gargantuan transatlantic airliners and inhibited Hoover dams, it’s easy to spot a science-fictional sensibility that hasn’t yet been caged and tamed. In their youth, both design and science fiction centered unashamedly on wonder, speed, and spectacle.

Their deepest and more lasting commonality is their fierce love of gadgetry. Design loves the glamorized object; while science fiction loves rayguns, robots, time machines, and rocketships—imaginary objects whose one great unity is that you, the reader, are never going to own one. There is no danger of science fiction’s pet gadgets becoming obsolete and disenchanting you. The tide of wonder never ceases for technologies that remain fantasies.

Suppose, however, that you become genuinely interested in gadgets—not as symbols of wonder to be deployed as sci-fi stage props, but as actual, corporeal physical presences. It may dawn on you that you are surrounded by a manufactured environment. You may further come to understand that you are not living in a centrally planned society, where class distinctions and rationing declare who has access to the hardware. Instead, you are living in a gaudy, market-driven society whose material culture is highly unstable and radically contingent. You’re surrounded by gadgets. Who can tell you how to think about gadgets, what to say about them—what they mean, how that feels?

Science can’t do that. There’s no such scientific discipline as “Gadgetology”. If you want to write effectively about gadgets, you must come to terms with design. And it pays to make that effort of comprehension, because, in science fiction, as in any kind of fiction, it improves the work remarkably to have a coherent idea of what you’re talking about.” (pgs. 28, 29).
This passage from Sterling made me think about the nature of things (realities) connected with a philosophy of art. One of the original faculty members of Dordt College, Professor Nick Van Til, once offered this definition of understanding art when he said:
Susanne K. Langer, a philosopher with a special interest in aesthetics, defines art as “the creation of forms symbolic of feeling.”1 Calvin Seerveld, while maintaining the emphasis on symbol, modifies and expands the definition to read, “Art is the symbolic objectification of certain meaning aspects of a thing, according to the law of coherence.”2 I would further modify the definition by substituting the word “reality” for a “thing.” That would eliminate the possible impression that the symbolization has to be limited to a tangible or ponderable entity. Art is more a symbolization of mood, feeling, and idea, though “thing” in it broadest sense, as opposed to “nothing” might be appropriate.
In response, or reaction, to this definition I prefer the word “thing” because I believe it’s a word that alludes to both tangibility and feeling expressed in an artifact.

The art historian James Elkins suggests in his book, Why Art Cannot Be Taught: a handbook for art students (2001) that an area of common ground for both fine art students and design students is to study, together, the nature of objects and things.3

I think so too, but, how about you?

1. Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form, Charles Scribner, NY, 1953, p. 40.
2. Calvin Seerveld, A Christian Critique of Art, The Association for Reformed Scientific Studies, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, 1964, p. 39.
3. James Elkins, Why Art Cannot Be Taught…, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2001, p. 83.

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