The @ Symbol as a Material Object (Opens the Door for a Cautionary Tale)

It’s been a week since “MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design … acquired the @ symbol into its collection.” I know, right? WTF? First of all… the @ symbol? And second… MoMA? The “acquisition” was announced a week ago on MoMA’s site, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I really don’t know what to make of it. Part of me thinks that it’s a serious “art joke” in the spirit of some of Duchamp’s most irreverent work (think “In Advance of a Broken Arm” and his “Urinal” pieces, for instance). But another part of me suspects that MoMA takes itself (and its incredibly valuable collection) waaaaay too seriously for that. So is Paola Antonelli serious? It doesn’t really matter to me because this move sort of makes sense. I hate to say it, but there’s really a dearth of intelligent commentary on this move so far out there on the interWebs. Most blog entries consist of a lot of quotation, and then little more than this-is-really-smart-or-really-weird sort of comments. Almost no analysis, though. The best I’ve seen is, surprising, at PCMag.com. (Check out Mark Hachman’s article.)

I’m not an art critic, and I’m not one who can speak to the history of industrial design. This situation makes me wish I were. But what I can do is think through the relevance of this move (if there is any) to the book’s history and the book’s futures.

What MoMA has done, essentially, is to try to commoditize a symbol. But the symbol, in an of itself, isn’t really a symbol in the way that Target’s little-red-target is a corporate icon or a semi-colon and right-parenthesis is a symbol for a smiley face. It’s not even a symbol in the way that arrow keys or dollar signs are symbols.

It’s the symbol of a decision (of one person, Ray Tomlinson). The decision to take an almost obsolete character and give it a new function, new meaning. It’s my impression that what MoMA is trying to value here is the movement of traditional symbols into newly adopted digital contexts. The @ symbol is a powerful phenomenon. It has a certain materiality. And a certain immateriality. And it has a public ownership. It’s something we can point to when we talk about it as a phenomenon. There’s a certain abstraction operating underneath it which allows it to do it’s cultural, semiotic work. And it can appear in unlimited contexts by anyone who chooses to adopt it. And, by-and-large, it’s reached a level of ubiquity where it’s semiotic reception is relatively stable and predictable.

Books operate in the same way. But they didn’t develop in the same way. Books weren’t a form that ever existed for a purpose other than their current operation and cultural work. But there’s still the material/immateriality to their definition, and the form itself operates as a cultural universal.

So why is this important? Lots of reasons. I’ll get to one tomorrow. In short, it reveals a flaw in the habits many theorists fall into when they work to historicize the future of the book. Tune in tomorrow.

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