Saturday, June 05, 2010

Matter and form

The following is from the introduction to Robert Friedel's essay, "Some Matters of Substance" from the book History From Things, Essays on Material Culture, edited by Lubar and Kingery and published by Smithsonian:
In the second book of his Physics, Aristotle sets out the central concerns for students of the physical world, by which he means not only the world of nature but also that shaped by humans--the world of artifacts, if you will. At the center of these concerns is the recognition that there are two aspects to all things: matter and form. He chides earlier philosophers for being too much concerned with matter at the expense of understanding the form or essence of the thing. As befits Plato's star pupil, Aristotle urges us to pay more attention to form or design.
Is it time to do a back flip? We have begun to flub up rather badly by failing to understand the material aspects of our universe. As children become further enthralled with the capacities of their iPhones (aren't we all?), are we missing some important matters of substance?

I have been watching helplessly as the oil surges from the latest BP contraption in the gulf. The images are haunting. The robots are busy injecting thousands of gallons of dispersants into the spill. The dispersants break down the oil, keeping it from rising to the surface, spreading it out so that bacteria can do their work on breaking it down into more natural components. As bacteria eat the oil, they rapidly consume the oxygen in the water, depriving all marine organisms in the spill zone of what they need to survive. What we are witnessing is the death of a natural ecosystem brought on by arrogance and greed. Successful regulation would have saved British Petroleum and the Gulf region from unprecedented disaster.

BP in now on plan D, E, or F in stopping the spill. I've lost count. It's become tragically apparent they never had a plan A in the first place, and seemingly did not have engineers with real hands-on wood shop experience to understand the implications of gravity on the processing of material. One thing you learn when you cut wood, is that if it isn't fully supported, when you draw close to the finish of the cut, the weight of the wood can cause the blade to bind... which is exactly what happened to their diamond saw.

Not having people educated in success and failure in the use of material puts us all at risk. Getting back to Aristotle... form and material are two sides of the same object. We kind of got the idea that integrity of material was of little consequence back in the days when we discovered we could sell just as many TV sets in wood-grained plastic cabinets as we could when they were made of real wood. We became a society in which form mattered over substance. In contrast, in an age of craftsmanship, caring about the implications of both form and substance were of integrated, inseparable concern. When we gave up on craftsmanship as the primary means of human growth, we really screwed up.... Everything.

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