The Contextual Scope of an Artifact's Meaning

I have to admit, I feel way more at home with this week's readings; although I found the quantitative and ethnographic research methods interesting, I was struggling to apply them to my own current research area. Thomas' Artifactual Study in the Analysis of Culture, in particular, struck an interest in me. 

One of the first problems Thomas' discusses is that of the substitution problem; can the study of artifacts be equivalent with the study of human behaviour? She points out two shaky assumptions this problem is built on: that of 'a direct method' (as if all of human behaviour is can be captured in one ultimate method) and that of attempted equivalency (as if artifacts are trying to be a pale reproduction of human behaviour). 

The substitution paradox, I think, rests on the hierarchical dichotomy of effable and ineffable. Rudolf Arnheim, a psychologists most noted for his work on visual arts, argues that this word-over-image bias rests in a linguistic-deterministic framework: the visual world is so chaotic and meaningless that the only way to liberate is to impose the structure of the language, a mold in which order and meaning is created. The implication of this, thus, is that the visual is innately chaotic and represents no meaning or order in and of itself. 

This seems to be where Thomas' problem with artifactural study rests: can artifacts, a physical realm, be innately meaningful or does it require linguistic, a rationale realm, to give meaning? While she argues no, and to which I agree, I wonder the scope of innate meaning lies (i.e. is this meaning culture bound?). 

I can illustrate this with a very brief example: the page grids used by the German typographer Jan Tschichold. He was trained in the classical practice of book design, where page designs were centered and elaborately decorated to become a thing of beauty. Working in the 1920s, with the Bauhaus modernist school and chasing utopian Communist visions, his designs, to an extend, rejected the classical characteristics. He (literally) wrote the book on “the new typography”: asymmetrical, strongly vertical gridded sans-serif type that lacked ornament. 

Then, in the 1930s, was the rise of the Nazi party. As the Bauhaus and Modernist school of thought was stiffened, Tschichold averted this practice of the new typography. In his late career, he returned to the traditional classicism. His most notably client of this new approach, was Penguin books, where he constructed the publisher's template based on the traditional canonical grid used in the Christian manuscripts of the Medieval period. 

It can be argued that Penguin's books, as a revival of traditional canonical grid used in the Medieval religious manuscripts, is a rebellion of the radical communist approach, as a fear it'll lead to a fascist genocide. This analysis comes not as any explicit declaration of Tschichold, but is found in the contextual analysis of the artifact. My question, however, is what is the impact of this artifact today? Is this artifactual rebellion still present when I read a Penguin book?

1 comment:

  1. Thomas' argument about the contextualization of the artifact really applies here. I don't think that the visual is innately chaotic, but I also don't see how it can contain meaning without language. How would you understand the layouts that you present if you didn't also read historical documents, personal correspondences, and perhaps also conduct some interviews? To answer your question about artifactual rebellion, my first instinct would be to call Penguin designers and ask them about their influences. Is that too literal? I do agree, though, that artifacts don't seem to be less of a reflection of cultural behaviour than oral or textual research methods. It seems to me that integrating various methods is what will create a rich understanding of the behaviour in question.