Unreal Nature

June 21, 2011

The Mutant Fraction

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:58 am

… The effect of the mutant fraction, or prime trait, is dynamic in provoking change while that of the whole object is simply exemplary, exciting feelings of approval or dislike more than any active study of new possibilities.

… Early solutions (promorphic) are technically simple, energetically inexpensive, expressively clear. Late solutions (neomorphic) are costly, difficult, intricate, recondite, and animated.

My previous post from The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things by George Kubler (1962) was taken from the first half of the chapter “The Classifying of Things.” This post is from the second half of that chapter:

… Prime objects resemble the prime numbers of mathematics because no conclusive rule is known to govern the appearance of either … Their character as primes is not explained by their antecedents, and their order in history is enigmatic.

… A prime object differs from an ordinary object much as the individual bearer of a mutant gene differs from the standard example of that species. The mutant gene may be infinitesimally small but the behavioral differences which it occasions can be very great indeed.

… A possibility for change appears with the mutant-bearing prime object, while a generally beautiful or distasteful object merely calls for ritual repetition or avoidance.

Our interest therefore centers upon minute portions of things rather than upon the whole mosaic of traits that constitutes any object. The effect of the mutant fraction, or prime trait, is dynamic in provoking change while that of the whole object is simply exemplary, exciting feelings of approval or dislike more than any active study of new possibilities.

… Among craftsmen a technical innovation can often become the point of departure for a new sequence where all the elements of the tradition are revised in the light of the possibilities opened to view by the innovation. An example is the displacement of black-figured vase painting near the end of the sixth century B.C. by red-figured technique. This amounted to a reversal of figure and ground in order to favor the figure and to convert the ground from a decorative setting into an atmospheric distance.

The technical change in the potter’s firing habits may of course have been brought into being by the painter’s specific demands for such a renovation of the conditions of the craft, but the probability is that the “new” technical habit was available long before an artist seized upon it for his needs.

… Conversely, be it noted that many technological innovations provoke no immediate development. Heron’s aeolipile of the first century A.D. was an oddity without consequences for seventeen centuries until the sustaining economic, sociological, and mechanical conditions for the development of steam engines were at hand. The example points to abortive, retarded, or stunted sequences of which occurrences can also be identified in the arts. Henri Focillon used to speak of the “failures that lurk in the shadow of every success” when he described the oddities — such as eight-part vaults — strewn along the definitive line of four-part rib-vault construction in twelfth-century France. They too are examples of the stunted sequence.


… Prior events are more significant than temperament: the history of art abounds in examples of misplaced temperaments, like the romantics wrongly born in periods requiring classic measure, or the innovators living in periods governed by rigid rule. Prior events exercise a selective action upon the spectrum of temperaments, and each age has shaped a special temperament to its own uses both in thought and in action. Among artists, the prior events that determine the individual’s actions constitute the formal sequences we have been discussing. They are the events composing the history of the quest that most closely concerns the individual. His position in that quest is a position he cannot alter, but only realize.

… Prior events and future possibilities within the sequence: these dimensions govern the position of every work of art. The notebook of Villard de Honnecourt, the thirteenth-century architect, contains a sketch of one of the towers of Laon Cathedral, and under it he wrote, “Nowhere have I ever seen a tower like this.” The itinerant master-builder was not only praising the work of a predecessor; he was also challenging it, as if to say, “this good way has been done, and I can improve it.”

Such possibilities seem actively to possess the people who explore them. Vasari recorded the obsession of Paolo Uccello with the perspective construction of painted surfaces. Much of Cézanne’s work tells us of his long obsession with the ideal landscape through its prior realizations in Romano-Campanian painting and in the art of Poussin, whose canvases Cézanne studied in the Louvre. Every major artist betrays such an obsession: its traces are legible in works by men whose historical identity has otherwise vanished, like the Maya architects and sculptors at Palenque or Uxmal.

… every new form limits the succeeding innovations in the same series. Every such form is itself one of a finite number of possibilities open in any temporal situation. Hence every innovation reduces the duration of its class. The boundaries of a class are fixed by the presence of a problem requiring linked solutions …

… The rule of series requires each position to be occupied for its corresponding period before the next position can be taken. In purely technological domains this is self-evident: the steam engine was invented before the locomotive, but the mise au point of a locomotive required many more parts, each consuming its portion in the economy of the time sequence, than a steam engine alone. In works of art the rule of minimal durations is even more rigorous, marked by collective attitudes of acceptance or rejection …

… Every need evokes a problem. The juncture of each need with successive solutions leads to the conception of sequence. It is a conception much narrower yet more labile than that of any biological metaphor, for it considers only human needs and their satisfaction, in a one-to-one correspondence between needs and things, without the intermediary of any other irrelevant entity like “life-cycle.”

… Early solutions (promorphic) are technically simple, energetically inexpensive, expressively clear. Late solutions (neomorphic) are costly, difficult, intricate, recondite, and animated. Early solutions are integral in relation to the problem they resolve. Late ones are partial in being addressed more to the details of function or expression than to the totality of the same problem.





  1. I’m cautious about this. While I’d concede that these prime objects appear in a different historic sequence from their effects, I’m not convinced that they are unlinked to other sociohistorical currents.

    It might be noted, for example, that Hero[n]’s turbine arose when the technology and knowledge to permit it had arrived, while its application made no sense within an economy, cociety and frame of thought were rooted in the assumption of slave owning as primary source of labour. The dark ages wiped out (or drove into hibernation) much knowledge, so the European renaissance (small “r”) which led first to the capitalist revolution and then to the industrial had to start again from a low base. There were arguably, therefore, patterns (and even, perhaps, rules) governing both the arrival of both the invention and its application, but they produced the necessary circumstances seventeen centuries apart.

    Comment by Felix — June 21, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  2. I’m not cautious about it; I think it’s a fatal flaw. He’s not positing one uncaused cause (God). He’s positing zillions of them! They pop up willy-nilly wherever and whenever! The man is … rash! Unbridled!

    I like his response-to-problem angle but some of the other stuff seems like he’s straining to follow biological evolution’s form, which is … not a good match.

    Comment by unrealnature — June 21, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

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