Introduction: Skeuomorphs and Anti-Time[Record]

  • Dino Franco Felluga

…more information

  • Dino Franco Felluga
    Purdue University

Eleven years ago at the Wordsworth Summer Conference, while hiking the hills of the Lake District, Michael Eberle-Sinatra and I discussed the possibilities and challenges of digital publishing. The year was 1995, one year before the date now commonly given as the start of the Internet’s viability. Thanks to Michael’s vision, perseverance, and coding skills, Romanticism on the Net is now celebrating its tenth anniversary; the first issue appeared February 1996. Now in 2006, I cannot help but feel like Wordsworth after Simplon Pass—or, more properly, like Robert Jones since Michael is surely Wordsworth in this scenario—a sense of surprise that we have managed to make it across after all. When Michael asked me to edit the tenth-anniversary special issue of the journal, I decided that I wanted to take this moment, a decade after the Internet’s emergence onto the scene, to reflect upon the relationship between Romanticism and technology. I wanted that relationship to be explored in the volume in two opposing directions at once. On the one hand, I asked representatives from well established and well admired digital archives to reflect—in properly Romantic fashion—on the territory already traversed. On the other hand, I asked critics to consider—in unabashedly anachronistic fashion—the ways that Romanticism prefigures and informs future technologies. My hope was that such multiple temporal crossings would underscore the difficulty of establishing simple cause-and-effect narratives when it comes to technological innovation. Any such innovation tends to be at once more revolutionary and more conservative than is usually acknowledged: revolutionary in so far as an innovation like the Internet helps us to see past innovations differently, working like Stephen Hawking’s conception of anti-time, which has causality moving backwards in chronology; conservative in so far as any new innovation is necessarily delimited by the inescapable material drag caused by past practices, leading to the reliance of new technology on what N. Katherine Hayles terms the skeuomorph: “A skeuomorph is a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time” (17). Her example is the vinyl on the dashboard of her Toyota Camry, which has been formed to simulate stitching, though the effect is actually produced by an injection mold. The skeuomorph calls into play “a psychodynamic that finds the new more acceptable when it recalls the old that it is in the process of displacing and finds the traditional more comfortable when it is presented in a context that reminds us we can escape from it into the new” (17). The eight essays in this special issue underscore both the skeuomorphic limitations of and the revolutionary, if anti-temporal, potential in the new. The first section, “The Rossetti Archive, the Blake Archive, and Romantic Circles as Case Studies: The Transformation and Future of Romantic Scholarship,” asks the individuals behind the three most established digital archives of nineteenth-century studies to take stock: Morris Eaves and Joseph Viscomi on The Blake Archive; Steven Jones on Romantic Circles; Jerome McGann on The Rossetti Archive. All four critics look at once nostalgically backwards and prophetically forwards. Like Wordsworth crossing the Alps, any recollection in tranquility is filled in these essays with failed paths. In both Romantic and revolutionary fashion, however, any acknowledgment of failure is tempered by a vision of “awful promise” as each critic faces the future with “Effort, and expectation, and desire/ And something evermore about to be.” Eaves and Viscomi get us started by thinking about not only the ways Blake’s own innovations in his medium speak to the new medium of the Internet …