Surfaces: A History
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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 on Dust and On 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.
chapters, humans on an ever-greater scale and at accelerating rates have shaped, joined, and bent small and great surfaces to form lives, meanings, and dreams. OUT OF THE BLACK BOX Twentieth-century design participated in making and representing the world from the bottom up. Its ability to bring forth properties on the surface turned on the atomic and molecular depths it had reached. However, as Ivan Amato reminds us in Stuff, we must realize that creating synthetic materials has a history.8
and the exterior and interior of things, I conjecture that a nucleus of hominin tools might be identified: ones that were used to care for bodies. Tools that were readily at hand—sticks, grasses, and leaves—could be used for cleaning; grooming; removing dead skin, prickers, ticks, and other irregularities; scratching; and probing sources of pain and irritation. Perhaps marking a radical disjuncture between human and animal, at some point humans (individually and collectively) began to confront
began to speculate systematically on nature, the elements, the gods, and mankind’s own place and fate in the greater order of things. As I argued in the preceding chapter, this advance rested on and went hand in hand with increased comprehension, manipulation, and symbolization of surfaces. The Neolithic revolution, whose direct heir is the transformative contemporary world, consisted of a set of advances in knowledge and in control of micro- and macrosurfaces. Without establishing direct or
advanced ceramics. Out of clay, they also created figurines that served in rituals and furnished a type of currency. Beyond this, they recorded their inventories, transactions, and promises on clay. In “The Changing Face of Clay,” anthropologist David Wengrow suggests that clay’s evolving use resulted in its becoming the all-purpose material of Sumerian society.50 Cuneiform, writing in clay, was a Sumerian invention. One of the first two writing systems (the other is hieroglyphics), cuneiform
singularly and in combination, produce words and phrases. Mixing painting and writing, and inseparably combining both decoration and representation, Chinese calligraphy remained throughout its vast history, until recent times, exclusive by virtue of its scholarly and aesthetic character.53 Whereas in early times the Chinese had written on strips of wood and bamboo, they transformed calligraphy, the quintessential merger of painting and writing—some might say beauty and truth—by developing brushes