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Surfaces: A History

Joseph A. Amato
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Human beings are surrounded by surfaces: from our skin to faces, to the walls and streets of our homes and cities, to the images, books, and screens of our cultures and civilizations, to the natural world and what we imagine beyond. In this thought-provoking and richly textured book, Joseph A. Amato traces the human relationship with surfaces from the deep history of human evolution, which unfolded across millennia, up to the contemporary world. Fusing his work onDustandOn Foot, he shows how, in the last two centuries, our understanding, creation, control, and manipulation of surfaces has become truly revolutionary-in both scale and volume. With the sweep of grand history matched to existential concerns for the present, he suggests that we have become the surfaces we have made, mastered, and now control, invent, design, and encapsulate our lives. This deeply informed and original narrative, which joins history and anthropology and suggests new routes for epistemology and aesthetics, argues that surfaces are far more than superficial façades of deep inner worlds.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95443-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. INTRODUCTION. The Surface Is Where the Action Is
    (pp. 1-16)

    Surfaces include the scored faces of my old and worn golf irons, the overlapping boards of my handmade rowboat, the high, wind-catching side of my keelless aluminum canoe, and the bending tips of the fly rods I inherited from my father-in-law. Surfaces evoke images, hold memories, and occasion stories. They are the worn peasant shoes that philosopher Heidegger found, on reflection, to be rich with meaning; they are the pair of scuffed shoes I wore to work at a Chrysler missile plant, which infuriated a fellow worker who thought my apparent disinterest in caring for my shoes was a display...

  6. ONE We Are Surfaces and Surfaces Are Us
    (pp. 17-37)

    Surfaces are nature’s instructors. Circles, arcs, and angles, lines and grids, crystals and jumbles, they reflect light and cast shadows; reveal movement and aging; indicate size, shape, form, slope, and color; and create texture. They bloom afresh, age continually, and die. They fly up and dive in, breaking the surfaces of water, land, and sky. They signal edibility, danger, and chances for reproduction. They indicate pain and pleasure, friend and foe, dead and alive, and whole ranges of similarities, contrasts, and polarities. The face of things individual and collective, they reach deep into our brains. They prompt reactions, spawn images,...

  7. TWO The Grip and Grasp of Things
    (pp. 38-61)

    The eye cannot but choose to see; the hand—to echo Wordsworth’s verse—cannot but choose to touch and grip. The hand digs into what the eye uncovers. By touching surfaces—however humble and close by—by taking hold of them, twisting, and breaking into them, we identify things, compose worlds, and make a mind, which, over the course of ages, reaches as matter of habit into existence and grasps its things and symbols as our own. Shape, color, and size define both the places we call home and the distant ports toward which we hope to sail. Surfaces are...

  8. THREE Walls and Homes: THE INS AND OUTS OF LIFE
    (pp. 62-87)

    Humans, like other animals, live among and by surfaces. These skins and shells, covers, crusts and crystals of animate and inanimate, natural and built world, have no single or simple classification. They do not lend themselves to the uniformities of a periodic table; they are not always predictable or definite; they do not always have the certitude of forms or the conviction of common grids, certain lines, and identifiable colors. As single and discrete or as a profusion, burst, and riot of appearance, they are seen, touched, smelled, and drawn. They are the given, encountered, experienced, and speculated upon. They...

  9. FOUR Decoration and Representation
    (pp. 88-108)

    Here i turn back to advance our chronological exposition. I do not argue only that we live by surfaces perceived and conceived, but that we participate in being and know ourselves through decorative and representative surfaces. I suggest, more tangibly, that we come to meet, construct, and imagine ourselves within the embracing walls of city and home, before and inside the temple, and at the very point that the stylus cuts clay.

    I started work on this chapter with many questions, none of which I brought to an entirely satisfactory resolution. I asked what decoration is. I did not seek...

    (pp. 109-135)

    Surfaces furnish epiphanies of life. They provide an abundance of sensual perceptions and offer a multiplicity of worlds to the eye and hand. They trigger emotions and stimulate elemental intellectual curiosity. Surfaces, which present themselves in configurations and juxtapositions, define context for all things and announce things as rich in contrasts and contradictory meanings, furnishing a basis for comparisons, classifications, and associations. For the poet, particular surfaces, which are the face of both the one and the many, are springboards, metaphors that connect things and fly across orders of meanings. The twentieth-century neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain queried how can it be...

  11. SIX Courts, Gardens, and Mirrors: SEEING AND BEING SEEN
    (pp. 136-162)

    With modern times came science. It calculated magnetism, barometric pressure, water columns, celestial objects moving through outer space, and light’s and gravity’s invisible movement and hold. In the same period, it charted seas, islands, and continents and mapped, measured, and surveyed all it could count on this earth.¹ Science advanced a general sense of control, regulation, and knowledge.

    As algebra and calculus offered the means to figure the movement and behavior of things seen and unseen, believers grew more confident in Bacon’s prescription that it fell to humans to observe, understand, and reform the world by measuring, counting, and analyzing...

  12. SEVEN Fresh Faces and New Interfaces: FROM THE GROUND FLOOR UP
    (pp. 163-196)

    Modern and contemporary history constitutes a narrative of making, building, and inventing things both large and small. New synthetic materials, powerful and precise engines, and fresh technologies form chapters narrating the transformation of macro- and microenvironments’ surfaces. In the nineteenth century, society—on an unprecedented scale and at accelerating speed—enwrapped itself in innovative structures, entire new industries, and myriad manufactured products, much as early civilization had enclosed itself in walls and Homer’s Mediterranean had outfitted itself in bronze. So the century reshaped landscapes and lives. Its surfaces, as singularities, contexts, juxtapositions, and entire environments, became means to create identity,...

  13. EIGHT Engineering the Small, Designing the Invisible
    (pp. 197-222)

    A premise of this work and this chapter is that human history can be written as the story of human recognition and control of both natural surfaces and made and designed surfaces. These surfaces define human environments and, at the same time, become the images, signs, and metaphors by which humans construct and transcend their world. A second premise, one that additionally justifies this work’s increasing focus on modern western history, is that in the last two centuries the West, by invention, design, and production, has achieved a true revolution in the making, control, and distribution of artificial surfaces.


  14. CONCLUSION. Encapsulations
    (pp. 223-240)

    We can examine this stirring disquiet in the light of the history of surfaces and contemporary society’s ever-expanding design, production, and creation of encapsulating surfaces. Humans become in body and mind the surfaces they acknowledge and make, as I’ve argued. Now we can turn our attention to three questions. Are humans, in some elemental way, losing contact with nature and local community, and, if so, what are the material and intellectual implication of this loss? What are the possible meanings of human encapsulation in manufactured and designed landscapes and things? Third—drawing on Jacques Ellul, the contemporary French sociologist and...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 241-286)
    (pp. 287-288)
    (pp. 289-290)