Chapter VIII Lewis Mumford
One significant difference between the two generations which came
of age before and after the First World War is that the participants in the
earlier rebellion were patriots and the younger men were not. The preoccupation
of the older men with the state of the national culture is declared in the
titles of the books they wrote:
This was not true, however, of one member of the older generation. When Lewis Mumford was welcomed to the Freeman’s columns by Van Wyck Brooks in 1921, it was as if a fresh and vigorous enlistee had joined a fatigued company of veterans. Mumford was no more approving of the state of American culture than Brooks or Harold Stearns, but he brought to his criticisms a verve and panache that neither of them could muster. If Brooks said, in effect, “we are lost!”, and Stearns said, “what a goddam country!”, Mumford said, “this will no longer do.” Mumford had a range that left his colleagues far behind. He wrote on town planning, city politics, architecture, art, literature and utopian theory. He relished debate and had a flair for polemics: there was ground to be cleared, there were fallacies to be smashed, remedies to be tried. He was impatient to be underway. “Someday,” he wrote to Brooks in 1925, “I must write a real history of American civilization and culture; treated as a whole,” but not before he could do it “with a grand gesture, and with a firmness that will win the reluctant assent of the professional historians.” 2 To say Mumford was an amateur is only to say he taught himself, or better, sought out his own masters. He was a generalist, as he would later call himself, who strove to fulfil Emerson’s definition of the American scholar‑not a thinking man, but Man thinking, of whom Emerson had said, “him the past instructs, him the future invites.” Accordingly, Mumford went to the past to be instructed, chiefly to the nineteenth century: Ruskin, Morris, Sir Ebenezer Howard, Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson.
At the same time, he was a
pioneer. Sticks and Stones, his
survey of American architecture from its origins to the present., contained
gaps (it could hardly have been comprehensive), and was written with an
emphatic downrightness that its author had perhaps not quite earned, but it was
a new mapping-out of terrain, an indispensable beginning. Mumford’s
study, of the literature of the American 1850’s, The Golden Day (what an implicit rebuke in that title to the
cheerlessness of Brooks!) was one of the first examples of what decades later
would be known as “American studies”. A brilliant book on the recently
rediscovered Herman Melville followed in 1929, and then in 1931, extending his
study of American culture forward into the Gilded Age, Mumford produced The Brown Decades, and added to America’s
usable past such forgotten men as George Perkins Marsh, the physical
geographer, and the Roeblings, father and son, the
builders of the Brooklyn Bridge. 3 In the
meantime Mumford had joined with such town-planning theorists and practitioners
as Clarence Stein, Henry Wright and Benton MacKaye to
form the Regional Plan Association of America in order to push forward Sir
Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City idea in the
At the end of the Twenties it would have been difficult to predict what direction Mumford’s career would take, so varied had been his production of the previous decade. By the end of the Thirties, after the publication of Technics and Civilization (1934) and The Culture of Cities (1938), that direction was clear: although remaining always the generalist, Mumford would focus his attention primarily on the city and technology, and the history, present situation and prospects of each. In retrospect, that line of development was perhaps detectable to one with an attentive eye from the very beginning: Mumford’s career in the Twenties, The Golden Day and the Melville book apart, was a period of gestation and preparation for the two large books of the Thirties, both of which were carried off with that “grand gesture” Mumford had spoken of.
The development of Mumford’s thought from the beginning to the large works of the Thirties and beyond was dialectical; both Technics and Civilization and The Culture of Cities were, so to speak, built on platforms of successive, overlapping contradictions. Mumford’s writings on technology especially may be seen as a series of attempts to strike a reasonable balance between the organic and the mechanical, between nature and technics. Hence the importance to Mumford of Howard’s vision of the Garden City, or of Peter Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories, and Workshops, in the very title of which the pastoral and the industrial are symbolically fused. Thus, too, Mumford’s own vision of a “biotechnic” order of the future, in which farm work, factory work, intellectual work and leisure would be combined in a round of life-enhancing activities, while the machine, now made docile and shunted to the background, would silently perform the drudge work.
The tension produced by Mumford’s ambivalence toward the machine is observable in
his first work, The Story of Utopias.
At the outset of the book, Mumford defined the two generic types of utopias he
proposed to discuss, the utopia of escape and the utopia of reconstruction. The
first type resulted from building “impossible castles in the air.” The second
type he likened to the plans of a practical architect envisaging a house fit to
live in. 5 It would
have been consistent with such a distinction to praise the 19th century utopian
writers who accepted industrialism and to dismiss as fantasists those who
rejected it. But Mumford detested the technotopias of
the nineteenth century, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward above all. He deplored
the equanimity, even the enthusiasm, with which such writers accepted the
regimentation of the labor force as essential to the
functioning of a truly disciplined Industrial society. The only nineteenth
century utopias which, in Mumford’s view, were
devoted to values rather than means were those imagined by men who revolted
against industrialism. These were by his own definition Utopias of escape, and
the one he most admired was perhaps the most escapist of all, William Morris’ News From Nowhere.
Mumford explained that utopias of escape had something which utopias of
reconstruction often lacked. If Morris seemed “too remote from
More than four decades later,
Mumford would gently dismiss News From Nowhere as a “golden tapestry,” but his early
endorsement of the vision contained in it cannot be explained as a youthful
indiscretion: similar expressions of longing for a pre‑industrial order
occur throughout his work. 7 On the other hand, Mumford
was from the beginning drawn to the new world of machines. As early as 1921, he
had discovered the crude but promising beginnings of a new machine aesthetic in
the cheap fixtures and utensils of the newer
But in a 1923 essay in which
Mumford again spoke for a new aesthetic appropriate to the machine age, he
slipped back in the end to arcadia. There was, he began, a “new kind of beauty
to be achieved in and through the machine,” and he went on to
describe its elements. But it seemed to him that handicraft still had a future,
for if it had been driven out of the city for good, it might yet return by way
of the country. When “our agricultural populations grow more self-conscious and
self-sufficient, as they have become today in various parts of
By 1927, Mumford had seemingly given up on handicraft and was again for giving the machine its head. In an essay in that year he ridiculed the upper classes for demanding “the unique” in interior furnishings. The machine, he said, would provide anyone with beauty and individuality enough, “the beauty of economy and the individuality of function.” It was “quite beside the point to dwell upon the little oasis of archaic handicraft in whose shade many well‑to‑do people now take refuge.” 10
Still, he was quick to denounce
others for getting too excited about the machine. In that same year, Mumford
got into a half-comical quarrel with Genevieve Taggard
in the pages of the New Masses, a
quarrel prompted by Taggard’s enthusiastic review of
Jane Heap’s Machine-Age Exposition. Taggard had taken
the occasion to deliver a swipe at the “Ruskinian
boys and girls” who prattled about “the evils of present-day life‑‑‑standardization,
and the robot crowds in the subway and the horrors of cleanliness and order.”
Those Ruskinians made her sick and tired. They
yearned for the lost pastoral life, but did not American farmers lighten their
burden with machinery whenever they could? Taggard
challenged the Ruskinians to go to some farm in
The revolutionary boys and girls, Mumford replied, had revealed their tired and bored bourgeois souls. “They must worship something: so they worship the Machine: They must believe in something: so they believe in The Machine Age.” There must be a distinction made, he said, between what was “humanly helpful in the Machine Age” and what was “futile, dreary, antagonistic to life.” The “weaker brothers and sisters” began by praising the beauties of the Machine Age. If they were not careful they would end by swallowing it whole, “bonds, Babbitts, installment buying” and thin slices of ham cut by “exquisite machinery”‑‑this last an allusion to the delight taken by Taggard in the beauty of a delicatessen ham slicer at the Heap exhibition. Mumford sternly pointed out that some of the proudest possessions of the Machine Age, bath tubs and hot water for instance, were equally “the marks of a servile plutocracy,” and had been enjoyed in Imperial Rome “on an even grander scale than they are today.” He too liked baths and hot water, although he had gone without them for months at a time without any discomfort, and he too admired machines. He differed from Taggard only in one particular: “I like my ham sliced thick, and I prefer to handle the knife myself!”
In her reply (the title of which inquired “Do You Kill Your Own Hogs Too?”), Taggard said with good-humored patience that she had simply tried to make the point that too many young people had a “golf-club idea of the universe.” It was not their fault; they had simply not experienced the fact “that one of the conditions of life has always been for someone an enormous program of toil,” and it had therefore not been brought home to them that the machine might be accepted “as a very interesting and enormously clever way of trying to do some of the work that has to be done.” Finally she was trying to say “not that I think that the Machine Age is good or perfect, but that I know we like it.” 12
But Mumford did not like it‑‑or
so, at least, he often said. Much later he would recall that in the early 1920’s,
he and his wife had been “true metropolitans” who would not have dreamt of
If Mumford was ambivalent about the machine, and on the whole hostile toward the metropolis, he was in the Twenties, also apprehensive about the future of architecture. Much as John Ruskin seventy years before had drawn a sharp distinction between architecture and engineering, Mumford held in Sticks and Stones that the engineer, necessarily a “utilitarian,” was interested in human beings only as “loads, weights, stresses, or units.” The machine, in “blotting out the elements of personality and individual choice” in building, had also blotted out the architect. 16 But this was before Mumford encountered Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and the commercial buildings of the Chicago school of the 1890’s, and perhaps represented no more than a humanist’s reaction to the machine absolutism of Le Corbusier, whose futurist doctrines Mumford detested. In any case, by 1931, Mumford had come around to a favorable view of the engineer’s methods. In The Brown Decades, he expressed admiration for the business skyscapers of the Chicago Loop. He liked their straightforwardness, their lack of specious ornament, even their impersonality. He now had words of criticism for the wholly personal cast-iron scrollwork that Louis Sullivan had used to embellish building facades and entrances. 17 In fact, Mumford now seemed a machine fundamentalist. The aim of design, he said in one 1931 essay, “is to remove from the object, be it an automobile or bedroom, every detail, every moulding, every variation of surface, every extra part except that which conduces to its effective function.” 18 Here was a ruthless application of doctrine indeed. The determinants of an automobile’s effective function might be enumerated, but who was to say what made a bedroom functional? Here Frank Lloyd Wright’s observation that the dogma of functional form might be abominable from the human standpoint applied perfectly. 19
Mumford, then, was hardly consistent in his attitudes in the decade or so between the early Twenties and the early Thirties. But consistency was not to be expected. He was maturing as a critic, constantly trying out new ideas, re-thinking old positions, seeing and absorbing. The result was Technics and Civilization, the book which will likely be regarded as Mumford’s masterpiece. Technics and Civilization was the first summary ever attempted of the technical history of Western civilization from 1000 A.D. to the present. 20 Ambitious as that would have been in itself, the book was also a work of philosophy, a treatise on aesthetics, a prophecy, and an exercise in higher propaganda. Mumford was venturing to discover what human values there were in machinery that had so far not been suspected, and also to discover what losses and perversions of energy had attended the machine process. The book began brilliantly as an exploration in technical and cultural history; it ended as a prophecy of a “biotechnic” order which might be brought into being if men possessed the sense to use humanely the machines they had already invented and would in the future.
The scholarship of Technics and Civilization was formidable, but scholarship in this book was at the service of impassioned prophecy and imaginative speculation. There were suggestive asides on almost every page‑‑‑as for example Mumford’s association of the invention of the glass mirror with, consecutively, Rembrandt’s self-portraits, the onset of greater self-consciousness (“mirror-conversation,” Mumford called it), and the rise. of the confessional novel, These were conceptualizations of experience that only a superbly confident generalist could provide. It did not matter that Mumford’s insights were sometimes reached by bravura leaps over a series of inherently unprovable, if fascinating, hypotheses: Technics and Civilization was a work of discovery, not a summing up.
From another point of view., however, it was just as surely a work of
consolidation, and as such, a perfect expression of its decade. The Twenties
had been a hectic period of revolutionary change, willed euphoria and lurid
prophecy: Le Corbusier’s
Technics and Civilization was received by some reviewers as work of sophisticated technocratic propaganda. “Mr. Mumford not only accepts the machine,” wrote Mumford’s friend Stuart Chase, “he glories in it. And his glory, strangely enough, is that of the artist.” 23 The truth was rather more complicated than that. Mumford intended to exonerate the machine of the crimes against humanity with which it had been charged by Ruskin and Morris. Certain traits of capitalism, and more obviously of warfare, had made the machine seem a “malicious element in society.” But the machine was a “neutral agent,” and the evil characteristics often attributed to it “had nothing essentially to do with the technical processes or forms of work.” 24
But with Mumford’s scheme of technological periodization, the machine lost its neutral character, absorbed attributes both good and evil from beyond itself, and became mythically charged. The stages of the machine’s history were: (1) the eotechnic period, from the tenth century to the mid-eighteenth; (2) the paleotechnic period, from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth; and (3) the neotechnic period, from the early twentieth century into the future. Each of these terms referred to several sets of phenomena: energy sources, typical materials, and modes of production; the corresponding cultural complex; and finally, the “ideals” appropriate to and furthered by all of the above. There was some overlap to these staged, of course; they went through emergent, dominant, and recessive phases, so that the recessive phase of the eotechnic coincided with the emergent phase of the paleotechnic, and so on. The energy sources of the eotechnic period were wind and water power, wood and charcoal; its materials, wood and masonry. The energy source of the paleotechnic period was coal; its typical material, iron. The energy source of the neotechnic period was electricity, particularly hydro-electric power. The typical neotechnic materials were steel and the lighter alloys, particularly aluminum.
Even the energy sources of Mumford’s periods had mythic potency (wood: eotechnic, good; coal: Paleotechnic, bad), but when Mumford assigned cultural attributes, and especially ideals, to his periods, an almost deliberate arbitrariness entered his method. The eotechnic stage was typified quite as much by Continuity of Life as by wood and water power; the paleotechnic as much by Death as by coal and steam power. The “typical organs” of the paleotechnic period, “from mine to factory, from blast furnace to slum, from slum to battlefield, were at the service of death.” 25 Mumford did not mean that blast furnaces found employment largely in making materials for war, but that the blast furnace, in its heat and noxiousness, symbolized the general contempt for life which Mumford perceived to be the dominant trait of the paleotechnic period. These. supposed cultural attributes could become on occasion no more than registers of Mumford’s visceral likes and hatreds. Thus, eotechnic practices had lingered on into the present day “as civilizing influences, in gardens and parks and painting and music and the theater,” while the paleotechnic period still exerted a “barbarizing influence” in industry and politics. 26
In some respects, then, Mumford’s eotechnic period was an idyll from Morris, and his paleotechnic period a composite of the most lugubrious passages from Dickens and the Hammonds. But the neotechnic period was a bold conception. Mumford had got the broad outlines of the concept from Sir Patrick Geddes, and perhaps from H. G. Wells also, along with the fundamental insight that “the machine” in an age of hydroelectric power and diesel turbines would stand for something enormously more efficient and clean than anything the mid‑nineteenth century might have conceived of. 27
The humane civilization which the new technics had made possible was by no means assured or inevitable. The neotechnic‑‑or, as he would soon call it, the biotechnic‑‑order would be achieved only if the “necessary social institutions and the explicit social purposes” appropriate to the new technics were created, along with “a cooperative social intelligence and good‑will.” 28 But Mumford did not doubt that there was a social order coordinate to the further development of the machine, and that an elevation of social ideals was appropriate to the new technics . For the habits of mind which had produced neotechnics, chiefly the scientific spirit of collective effort and detached observation, would also produce, if regressive forces did not intervene, a new civilization. In its future mature form, the neotechnic stage would differ from the paleotechnic “almost as white differs from black,” and would bear the same relation to the eotechnic stage “as the adult form does to the baby.” 29 It would differ from both of the preceding stages in joining science to technology, and the mechanical to the organic, thus producing an altogether richer sensual environment than either of the preceding stages had afforded, and hence a new world of art.
If there was a hero in Mumford’s scenario it was the scientist, whose liberated curiosity might prove as valuable as the most pragmatic research. More important than that, the sciences, for a Farraday or a Clerk Maxwell, existed not simply as a means of exploiting nature, “but as a mode of life: good for the states of mind they produce as well as for the external conditions they change.” The scientific method, in short, was applicable not only to technology but to the “conduct of life.” 30 And quite as important as the ascendency of science over technics in shaping the ethos of the new period was the ascendency within the sciences of the biological over the physical‑‑hence the “bio” of biotechnics. The inevitable effect of this would be a renewed concern for man.
Mumford took some care to be rigorous and precise when he attempted to strike a balance between authority and freedom under the biotechnic order. He was, in a sense, balancing two contrary dispositions within himself. On the one hand, Mumford was an Emersonian individualist; on the other, he apparently had no philosophical commitment to tolerance. (As he wrote in 1930, he had no quarrel with the “ruthlessness” of the Soviets, only with their goals; he was no liberal, and did not believe “that justice and liberty are best achieved in homeopathic doses”). 31 The biotechnic order represented an attempt to combine the discipline of the machine utopias of the nineteenth century with the freedom and spontaneity of Nowhere,’ but when Mumford spoke of organization he seemed much closer to Edward Bellamy than to William Morris. The “collective nature of the machine process” would require that the various groups in society be “worked into a nicely interlocking organization.” Special provision would have to be made for “isolated and anarchic elements that ... cannot without danger be ignored or repressed,” but “to abandon the social collectivism imposed by modern technics means to return to nature and to be at the mercy of natural forces.” 32
Under the biotechnic order, then, society would necessarily become a more effective and jealous arbiter of individual conduct than in any civilization before. But Mumford did not regard this “collective discipline” as one of the more desirable features of the biotechnic future. It was simply a vexing problem that had to be faced in a scrupulous but unsentimental way. That ominous note apart, the future projected in Technics and Civilization was in almost every way a desirable and exciting one—humane, just, equitable, and ecologically sound. The book was also the most optimistic Mumford would ever write. After 1934, Mumford would be increasingly critical of both science and technics, and increasingly pessimistic about the future of the machine civilization.
By the 1940’s, Mumford was
insisting that the conditions which had favored
industrial expansion and technological innovation for the previous three
centuries were “definitely over.” The populations of the industrial nations had
This argument was both false to Mumford’s organicism and false to the nature of technology. Was there, one might ask, a platonic steam-engine form or steam-boiler form conceivable to engineers in, say, 1830? Surely there was instead a one-best-way of producing steam pressure given the nature and capabilities of the materials at hand and the level of engineering expertise at the time. Technological advance, one might argue, consists not in the realization of platonic forms, but in solving immediate or long-range problems of process. Whereas a platonic form finds perfection in its own being, with reference to nothing beyond itself, type-forms in technology are usually units in an integrated ensemble, each enjoying only a provisional existence in order to perform a specific function in some process.
From the viewpoint of a technologist, then, Mumford’s argument was not convincing. But this was only to be expected, for at bottom he was not expressing a concern for technology’s proper development, but alarm at its ravages. In the aftermath of World War II, the atomic bomb, the symbol and instrument of total disaster, was also, inevitably, a symbol of the proficiency of science and technics, a fruit of that scientific method which Mumford had earlier dared hope would advance human society to a higher stage. The central support of his biotechnic optimism was gone. The “contemplative isolation” of the scientist, events seemed to prove, was simply a divorce from ethical concern, a withdrawal from life into a cold “objective” world of moral indifference.
Science, Mumford now came to think, was representative of the grotesque detachment of the super-ego of man from the ego, the seat of personality. And this detached super-ego now found itself at the service of the worst impulses of the id. The result of the full advent of the scientific method in the affairs of men was not, to employ the terms of Technics and Civilization, “assimilation,” but “compensation and reversion”‑‑the compensation of the scientific method, and a reversion to a crude, ideologically frozen power politics. 35
nBy the 1950’s, Mumford was as disenchanted with the arts as he was with science. The machine aesthetic no longer represented a gain in sensibility; it was a pathetic remnant of an older and fuller sense of beauty. Mumford now saw art reduced to two forms: the art of a “limited mechanical kind” represented by Léger, Mondrian and Brancusi, and a kind of art that had lapsed into the “primitive and infantile, the disordered and perverse.” 36 The successors of Cubism on the one hand; surrealism and abstract expressionism on the other: the super-ego and the id; compensation and reversion.
In 1959, Mumford at last rejected altogether the optimism that underlay Technics and Civilization. He had, he said in a retrospective essay on the book, erred fundamentally in attributing to the machine itself “positive qualities that were in fact due to human intentions‑‑qualities that often disappeared... at the very moment the technical processes themselves were being simplified and perfected.” 37 The compulsions and aberrations which had accompanied technology in its quarter-century advance since 1934 could no longer be explained as “recessive” holdovers from the paleotechnic period. They were, Mumford was now convinced, integral to technology itself, or at least to large-scale technology. The characteristic inventions of the neotechnic period (although Mumford no longer called it that) were the super bomb, the space rocket and the computer, all representative of the authoritarian tendency of the age. 38
His successive technological stages were now swept aside, and indivisible technology, the neutral agent, was replaced by two distinct forms of technics, the democratic and the authoritarian or “small-scale association and large-scale organization, personal autonomy and institutional regulation,” diffused local initiative and remote control. 39 The collective of the Thirties had been replaced by the cooperative of the Sixties, and the danger of a return to nature by the threat of a complete alienation from it.
Democratic technics, as Mumford defined the form, came very near to excluding the machine altogether. It was, he said, a “small scale method of production, resting mainly on human skill and animal energy but always, even when employing machines, remaining under the active direction of the craftsman or the farmer.” 40 In the first volume of The Myth of the Machine, published in 1967, Mumford said that democratic technics in its purest form had existed before the rise of civilization in the pastoral tribal village. Later in the book, Mumford described the self-sufficient medieval monastery as a setting in more recent history in which the conditions for a democratic technics had most nearly been met. 41 But the methods of the ancient tribe fulfilled those conditions best, for even the medieval monks were curious, inquiring men, carrying within them the germs of future innovation. At times, indeed, the state of primitive innocence seemed an ideal in The Myth of the Machine, an irrecoverable utopia as inflexible as Plato’s Republic.
In the second volume of the series, The Pentagon of Power, Mumford altered his emphasis. While he still thought that the best examples of “plenitude,” as opposed to unlimited plenty, were to be found in “quite primitive communities,” he observed that plenitude on such a solitary, meager basis “too easily sinks into torpid penury and stupefaction.” Then, after excoriating modern technics for four hundred pages,. Mumford wrote that “paradoxically” only by putting the modern power system to proper use could plenitude be extended to the whole human race. 42
Still, one could not know from The Pentagon of Power which features of modern technics Mumford would retain and which he would abandon. Evidently, computers would go. He would retain electric power, but would mass production be abandoned—along with “mass association, mass communication, [and] mass organization,” all of which, he had said in the first volume, were the antithesis of democratic technics? On the one hand, Mumford said that “no one but an idiot” would belittle the benefits of modern science and technics. On the other hand, he would banish not only pesticides and chemical fertilizers from agriculture, but machines as well. Such “irrational methods” would be reversed “by restoring manpower for mixed farming... reclaiming the countryside for human occupation and continuous cultivation.” To illustrate the irrational nature of agricultural mechanization, Mumford chose the cotton picking machine. 43 Did he wish to restore that kind of labor? Did this city-born scholar, who spelled his labors at the typewriter by digging in his garden, really think that his own pleasurable pursuits were comparable to picking cotton, work in which, as James Agee wrote, “a consciousness beyond that of the simplest child would be only a useless and painful encumbrance?”
Although one cannot be sure, one has the impression in reading The Pentagon of Power that Mumford’s country of the blessed would be a backward place indeed, a land in which the only democracy might be the democracy of common toil.
And yet if the alternative order hazily visible in The Pentagon of Power seemed a bleak one, there was no denying the essential justice of Mumford’s indictment of the established order. By the mid-Seventies, the Baltic Sea was dead and the Mediterranean dying; whole species of waterfowl were being decimated by biocides; the salmon, noblest of game fish, was near extinction; incredibly flimsy supertankers of one million deadweight tons were on the drawing boards and the United States was contemplating the destruction of its mountain west in a futile pursuit of “self-sufficiency” in energy through the conversion of shale to petroleum. Folly mounted upon folly, and Mumford’s prediction that “if the forces that now dominate us continue on their present path they must lead to collapse of the whole historical fabric” seemed not in the least overwrought. 44 One might only wish that Mumford in his old age would recognize that there were successors in his work‑‑that in part because of his example and his counsel, a whole generation of young Americans had become aware of the dangers they faced. But he turned away in anger and contempt. The future had long since ceased to invite the American scholar.