Classics Revisited

CLASSICS REVISITED: Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization

Published in Technology and Culture, Vol. 43, No. 1 (January 2002): 139-149.

Note: The version below is slightly different from the published one.

When I was asked to write this review, I had not reread Technics and Civilization in its entirety since 1987, when I participated in a conference on Lewis Mumford at the University of Pennsylvania. [1] Returning to the book after more than a decade was a shock. In my writing and teaching, I had become used to calling it “pathbreaking” and “irreplaceable.” When I began to read it again, the adjectives that came to mind were “annoying” and “turgid.” Flashes of brilliant insight were nearly obscured by billowing clouds of pompous oratory, unsupportable generalizations, and smug self-absorption.

My mother once told me that her father, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT, had read Technics and Civilization when it was first published in 1934. She remembers standing in the front hallway as he descended the staircase from his second-floor study, holding the book in his hand, shaking his head and muttering “That poor damn fool Mumford.” I had always blamed his response on the unwillingness of engineers to confront the cultural dimensions of technics. Now I found myself uncomfortably close to agreeing with him. Writing this review has been an effort to recover a usable Mumford.

To some extent, my disillusionment was an outcome of the Penn conference. That meeting was part of a larger effort to reassess Mumford’s legacy toward the end of his long life (born in 1895, he died on January 26, 1990). The Penn proceedings were published in 1990, [2] not long after the publication of Donald L. Miller’s anthology of Mumford’s writings and his biography of Mumford [3]. In Miller’s biography, Mumford’s intellectual contributions were less attention-grabbing than the revelations about his extramarital affairs. More troubling than the affairs themselves (at least for this reader) was their revelation of the self-focus and even cruelty in his treatment of his wife Sophia. In her review of Miller’s biography, Ada Louise Huxtable comments that even by the standards of the time,

This totally chauvinist domestic routine of support and sacrifice…does seem to have been carried to extremes….Early in his marriage, [Mumford] had two bedrooms joined to serve as his room and study while his wife slept on a sofa behind a screen….
But why go on? I for one, would rather not…I do not find that the feet of clay do much to illuminate the quality of the mind. [4]

But it is more difficult to separate life and work, feet and mind, when the work is one of self-declared moral prophecy. For example, I can no longer read the passages in Technics and Civilization that run on and on about “life insurgent” as the creative force of history without recalling that Mumford justified his affair with Catherine Bauer as a period of disequilibrium necessary for him to achieve a new synthesis in his own life. Like a high priest, he ritualistically reenacted the drama of life’s renewal-while Sophia slept on a sofa, took care of two small children, and tried to provide her husband with ample time for creative concentration. Having peeked behind the domestic curtain, I can no longer see Mumford as a wizard.

As is so often the case, however, his great and real intellectual strengths are inextricably related to his personal failings. Just because Mumford conflates the historical with the personal, he apprehended technology from a new angle. His singular innovation and enduring contribution is his insistence on technics as an expression of human personality. [5] The essence of history, in his view, is the process by which human beings create symbols to endow life with order and meaning: the “translation of brute experience into significant cultural forms,” including technological forms. [6] Mumford emphasizes that many human needs other than functional or utilitarian ones are involved in technics. The human mind, even more than the human body, drives technological development. In an appraisal of Technics and Civilization that Mumford himself wrote 25 years after its publication, he quotes a key passage from the book:

Technics and civilization as a whole…are the result of human choices and aptitudes and strivings, often irrational when apparently most objective and scientific: but even when they are uncontrollable they are not external. [7]
The book we know as Technics and Civilization is an accident. Mumford intended to write a book not about the technological past, but about the cultural future. He planned a brief discussion of machinery as a preface to a far more comprehensive cultural study to which he gave the working title “Form and Personality.” He believed that the first step in re-orienting our civilization was understanding the machine, as a means toward understanding society and knowing ourselves. In the initial draft, written in the summer of 1930, Mumford’s treatment of the origins of machines takes up one third of the first chapter. It is an extremely short section compared to subsequent long draft chapters on buildings, cities, regions, and modern art, all focused on cultural values that were necessary for civilization to regain order after “loss of form.” [8]

Only in the spring of 1932 did the “Form and Personality” project begin to focus more on machines, for a number of unpredictable reasons: an invitation to teach a course on technics in the Columbia University Extension Division, the psychologically liberating death of Patrick Geddes, and, most crucial, a four-month trip to Europe where Mumford discovered books, museums, cities, and colleagues which, in his words, “altered the scope and scale of the entire work.” [9] As he wrote-and it is critical to remember that first and foremost Mumford was as a writer-the force of literary momentum grew stronger, and the prologue on machinery became ever longer and more complicated. By the spring of 1933 the planned book on “Form and Personality” had become three volumes: eventually it became the four-volume “Renewal of Life” series. [10]

Through the manuscript that became Technics and Civilization, Mumford’s approach to technics is shaped by his quest to explain the origins and prospects of modern culture. He defines this quest in the opening sentences of the book:

During the last thousand years the material basis and the cultural forms of Western civilization have been profoundly modified by the development of the machine. How did this come about? Where did it take place? What were the chief motives that encouraged this radical transformation of the environment and the routine of life: what were the ends in view: what were the means and methods: what unexpected values have arisen in the process?[11]
In his retrospective appraisal of Technics and Civilization, Mumford reflects that his primary purpose “was to set modern technics in a larger historic framework and to correlate the changes that had been taking place in our physical environment with changes that were taking place in the mind.”[12] The “larger historic framework” takes him beyond his mentor Geddes’s categories of paleotechnics and neotechnics as technological phases. Mumford gazes back even further to discern an eotechnic phase, roughly equivalent to medieval technology.[13]

While expanding his historical framework in time, he also expands it in space. The bibliography of Technics and Civilization, so rich in Continental sources, is evidence of Mumford’s conviction that the “current interpretation of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century was a British provincialism,…”[14] Finally, and most important, he connects technological and cultural history, relating changes in the physical environment with changes in the human mind. Making these connections represented, in Mumford’s own words,

a shift in the whole point of view, which made technics an integral part of higher civilization. This was quite different from an earlier evaluation that made man’s development dependent almost solely on his being a “tool-using” animal-as if he could have transcended the limitations of his immediate environment without his greatest invention, language and formal symbolism.[15]
Thus Mumford-again in his own words from Technics and Civilization–“enlarges the canon of culture”[16] to include machines and machine-makers. In that book he most successfully shows technics as “an integral part of higher civilization” in the famous set pieces where he examines particular objects, materials, and sites-the clock, the mine, glass, wood. In these passages he analyzes the interplay of external constraints and internal needs in a way that no one had done before, and few have done since. They show Mumford at his best, as he combines sensitive analysis of forms with that of the social and physical realities of labor, landscape, and capital.

He is considerably less successful in explaining larger historical change. Intent on refuting economic determinism as the driver of technological history, Mumford substitutes an equally rigid organic determinism, further complicated by an unrelenting moralism with which he equates the organic with the good. He cannot tolerate the idea that history is (in the phrase of Henry Adams) “In essence incoherent and immoral…”[17] Instead, according to Mumford, the coherence and the morality of history both arise from the same force, “life insurgent.”

The three-act drama of Life–equilibrium, breakdown, and renewal–informs nearly everything Mumford wrote, from The Story of Utopias to Interpretations and Forecasts, but Technics and Civilization presents a special challenge because here he has to fit a great deal of historical evidence into this narrative arc. Mumford does this by describing the three technological phases as corresponding to the three-act drama of life: the eotechnic is life’s synthesis or equilibrium, the paleotechnic is its breakdown, and the neotechnic is its renewal.

This tripartite scheme, his personification of life as an historical agent, and his organic moralism lead Mumford into all sorts of confusion about historical change. In particular, the drama of life insurgent leads him to treat the industrial revolution in quasi-theological terms. For him, it poses the dilemma of the origin of technological evil. If history expresses Life Insurgent, he asks, how did the human spirit succumb to the dark paleotechnic night? To explain how the eotechnic synthesis broke down, Mumford mounts another historical drama, which in his earliest drafts for Technics he called “the drama of the machines.” While he rejects any overarching economic determinism, to explain the Technological Fall he relies upon local determinisms. To simplify his conspiratorial plot-though not by much-members of certain occupations (miners, monks, soldiers, financiers) were “mechanized” by their tools and other “external” conditions associated with their work, and they eventually acquired power over Western civilization at large.

Mumford’s emphasis on occupational types shows the influence of Patrick Geddes, who used the ahistoric concept of the “valley section” as a basis for occupational analysis. In Mumford’s hands, the analysis of occupational types, while unsatisfying for explaining the origins of industrialization, leads him into subtle case studies in the interplay of internal and external factors in technological change. He uses occupational types to relate technologies with mentalites, showing how occupational systems that include bureaucracies, physical environment, labor practices, and economic goals. Occupational analysis, generously defined, underlies his wonderful essays on monasteries, mines, and the military in the early pages of Technics and Civilization.

Many critics have noted how this kind of analysis disappears from the latter half of Technics and Civilization. They point to a striking asymmetry: the first half of the book describes the “cultural preparation” that generated paleotechnic forms, but in the last half neotechnic forms precede and themselves generate cultural changes. Towards the end “the neotechnic” becomes a disembodied historical agent, along with “life.” The more specific human agents of the past (miners, soldiers, and so forth) drop out of history, replaced by the mysterious animism of a renewed technological determinism. When artifacts embody values like efficiency and democracy, Mumford assumes-or rather wishes–they will help usher in an efficient and democratic culture. In one passage he contends:

The machine, which reached such overwhelming dimensions in Western Civilization partly because it sprang out of a disrupted and one-sided culture, nevertheless may help in enlarging the provinces of culture itself and thereby in building a greater synthesis: in that case, it will carry an antidote to its own poison. So let us consider the machine more closely as an instrument culture and examine the ways in which we have begun, during the last century, to assimilate it.[18]
Elsewhere he puts it more succinctly, “Whatever the politics of a country may be, the machine is a communist…”[19]
Having enlarged the canon of culture, Mumford still assumes there is a canon. In the latter half of Technics and Civilization, he acts as a cultural guide, an arbiter of taste and sensibility, discoursing at length on streamlined machine design and the values of austerity and efficiency that modern machines supposedly represents. Culture becomes an array of well-designed things, not a social process, as Mumford relentlessly tries to teach, in the French expression, “a lesson of things.” In the midst of exhortations about improving cultural values, he throws in seemingly every opinion he has about art, architecture, literature, sex, sport, food. We learn, for example, that American camembert cheese is “vastly inferior” to European varieties but American gruyere “compares favorably with that produced in Switzerland.”[20] It goes on and on until, as Samuel Johnson said of Paradise Lost, “No man every wished it longer.”

In his forthcoming book on the origins of feedback, control, and computing, David Mindell notes the curious indifference of Mumford, in his “landmark study” Technics and Civilization, to “technologies of control and human-machine interaction:[21]

For all his progressive hopes and his insight into the human dimensions of technology, Mumford defined the neotechnic by its materials and sources of energy, not by its inhabitants. The clean spaces of the neotechnic world had no people operating its machines….In this vision, people disappear from even the shiniest vehicles: for Mumford, automobiles and airplanes were about gasoline and speed, not about driving and piloting. However clean and electrical, machinery for Mumford remained inert and mechanistic, not actively involved with human beings.[22]
Mindell explains Mumford’s indifference to technologies of control and human-machine combinations by historical timing: when Mumford was writing in the early 1930s, those technologies “were just beginning to crystallize and converge.”[23] Timing is surely a factor, but I believe there is an even more fundamental one: Mumford’s awareness of the importance in technics of symbolic representations of worldly reality. These representations are especially crucial in machines of control, feedback, and computation.
On the one hand, Mumford deeply understood the power of techniques of abstraction. As he said in his 1959 Appraisal of Technics and Civilization, through “his greatest invention, language and formal symbolism,” humankind has transcended the local environment. But this triumph is also a tragedy, because the astonishing ability of human beings to create symbols also withdraws them from their immediate earthly surroundings, even from their own bodies. Mindell comments that in Technics and Civilization

Words like “divorce,” “dissociate,” and “division” pepper his text-referring to the separation of the world of abstractions (e.g. words, symbols, and codes) from the world of the concrete.[24]
Mumford frequently refers to the drive towards abstraction as a “mechanistic” impulse that will endanger the “organic.” Logically, this makes no more sense than calling wood an “organic” material and iron a “mechanical” one (something Mumford also does). How can the drive to create symbols be called “mechanistic” when it is such a fundamental, irrepressible part of human personality and culture? The urge to represent sense perceptions as symbols (like language) is just as much human, and so in its own way just as “organic,” as the sense perceptions themselves.

For Mumford, the dilemma is deep and unresolvable. In his later writing, he kept returning to the theme that the development of technics inevitably leads to increasing alienation from the world:

…our age is passing from the primeval state of man, marked by his invention of tools and weapons for the purpose of achieving mastery over the forces of nature, to a radically different condition, in which he will not only have conquered nature but detached himself completely from the organic habitat. With this new megatechnics, he will create a uniform, all-enveloping structure, designed for automatic operation.[25]
The preachy passages of Technics and Civilization, where Mumford delivers cultural pronouncements, raise but do not begin to answer this central issue: how do we humans reconcile our desire for techniques of representation, which inevitably lead to increasing detachment from physical reality, when sustaining the world as the site of human life depends upon a sense of our connection with its concrete reality? In other words, how can humans live in virtual reality?
Mumford’s intellectual career drew to a close just as the information age was coming to dominate technology. Because computers process consciousness rather than matter, because they depend upon and amplify the human power to invent symbolic representations, more than other machines they raise this dilemma. As he grew older, Mumford was understandably obsessed by nuclear technology as the dominant expression, in the late twentieth century, of “human aptitudes and choices and strivings.” What would he have concluded if he had lived long enough to turn his full attention to information technology? Would he have been able to reconcile his very mixed feelings about the human capacity to create and manipulate abstract representations? Or is the dilemma one that cannot be reconciled, only managed?

In the end, however, it is not fair to assess the value of Technics and Civilization by its predictive powers about technologies that did not exist when it was written. As Henry Adams wrote (of his friend Clarence King),

Since the beginning of time no man has lived who is known to have seen right; the charm of King was that he saw what others did and a great deal more.[26]
In Technics and Civilization Mumford-not so much with charm but with passion-saw a great deal more than others had because he saw “technics and civilization as a whole…as a result of human aptitudes and choices and strivings.” Mumford slyly adds that while this statement might seem obvious as he writes it in 1959,
…in 1934 the notion that man internalizes his external “world” and externalizes his internal “world” was not yet a commonplace of anthropology, still less of economics and history-and perhaps even now it is not such a commonplace as it should be. [27]
And now? Has this notion become commonplace? Many would argue that it has if this “notion” is equated with what is commonly called the contextual study of technology. Melvin Kranzberg, in a 1967 review of Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development, noted that the Society for the History of Technology, after considerably debate, had titled its journal Technology and Culture, and that the journal “emphasizes the interrelations of technology with society and culture and adopts a very broad view of what constitutes technology. Mumford’s ‘Technics and Civilization’ helped.”[28]

As John Staudenmaier’s study of this journal shows, contextual studies have been its dominant historiographical style, and he too cites Technics and Civilization as a forerunner. Staudenmaier reviews some serious limitations in practice of contextualism, such as the lack of historically based studies of technology transfer, including lack of attention to cultural conflict in technology transfer.[29] Another limitation, from the perspective of Technics and Civilization, is that relatively few historians define “context” in a way that would have most interested Mumford-as the interplay between technology and the internal world of personality, creativity, desires, values, meaning.

There are novels that do this (to take two recent examples, Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Alan Lightman’s The Diagnosis). There is a whole realm of popular non-fiction on time management and self-organization-the airport reading of the world–with the self-announced purpose of helping human beings live more successfully in a technological world. And there are cultural studies of scientists and engineers (sometimes explicitly anthropological, sometimes not) that analyze, in a fashion Mumford would appreciate, the shaping power of such occupations on personality and organization. But these studies are typically not linked with historical analysis, while most historical studies of technological change, even the avowedly contextual, typically focus on economic, political, and sociological structures and events, not on “personality” or cultural values.

Indeed, in the history of technology, the terms “internal” and “external” have become reversed from the way Mumford used them in Technics and Civilization. “Social context” (which is today understood to mean non-internalist, in the sense of looking beyond the particular machine) did not especially interest him. He was more interested in the individual mind than in social organization. Mumford was in his own way an “internalist”-but the internal workings that interested him are not those of machines, but of the human beings who create and use them. “Internalist” studies in this sense, which relate the evolution of machines to the evolution of personality–or, to use a word that is now more familiar, to the evolution of identity-are relatively uncommon. The social sciences, not the humanities, have been the major frame of contextual reference in technological history.

The closest analogue to Technics and Civilization that I know has been written by a profoundly humanistic sociologist, Manuel Castells. Like Mumford, Castells set out to write an ambitious series of books to provide a holistic orientation for our times: the result is his three-volume The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture. Also like Mumford, Castells focuses on the interplay of technology and personality: the first volume focuses on machines, the second on identity, and the last on current events interpreted as the interaction of the two.[30] Castells’ thesis is that the development of technical networks and that of human identity are proceeding interactively and dynamically:

People increasingly organize their meaning not around what they do but on the basis of what they are, or believe they are. Meanwhile, on the other hand, global networks of instrumental exchanges selectively switch on and off individuals, groups, regions, and even countries,,,in a relentless flow of strategic decisions. There follows a fundamental split between abstract, universal instrumentalism, and historically rooted, particularistic identities. Our societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between the Net and the self.[31]
Although Castells does write perceptively on the emergence of the information age, he refrains from tackling the longue duree of technological history as did Mumford. Yet the publication and reception of Castells’ trilogy suggest that in the midst of the information revolution-or whatever we want to call the current period of intense development of computers and networks–we will inevitably reexamine the issues of personality and culture raised by Mumford.

For all my disappointment in Mumford’s clay feet, I still admire him for defining those issues. The questions posed in the first paragraph of Technics and Civilization still deserve our attention, nearly three quarters of a century after they were written. If the book has serious flaws-if its moralism makes large swaths of it virtually unreadable-if it is illogical and inconsistent in its historical theorization-then it is the responsibility of those of us who call ourselves cultural historians to do better, to reconsider the interplay of mind and matter, of internal and external, of identity and technology, in a way that is readable and persuasive for our own times.

In his 1959 appraisal of Technics and Civilization, Mumford concluded that “it still unfortunately possesses its original distinction: it stands alone, an ironic monument if not an active influence.”[32] The appropriate homage to Technics and Civilization would be to give it some more competition as cultural history. It will always be pathbreaking, but it should be less irreplaceable.

International Symposium on Lewis Mumford, University of Pennsylvania, November 5-7, 1987.
Thomas P. Hughes and Agatha C. Hughes (eds.), Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
Donald L. Miller (ed.), The Lewis Mumford Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1986); Donald L. Miller, Lewis Mumford: A Life (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989).
Ada Louise Huxtable, “The Sage of the Skyline,” The New York Times Book Review (November 26, 1989): 3, 24.
Mumford’s use of the term “technics” is discussed at several points in the Hughes and Hughes (eds.) collection. The term is found both in the German intellectual tradition (Introduction, p. 9) and also in the works of Patrick Geddes, (Leo Marx, “Lewis Mumford: Prophet of Organicism,” in Hughes and Hughes, eds., p. 175), both of which are major influences on Technics and Civilization. Marx comments that Mumford uses the term “as the umbrella category of tools and utensils that figure in all of recorded history,” and therefore his use “enables him to stress the relatively brief history, hence the distinctiveness, of machine technologies.” The term “technics” therefore has a wider historical range than “technology,” which in popular discourse today “is assumed to refer almost exclusively to technologies developed in the modern era….”(Marx, 175). Mumford wrote to Melvin Kranzberg that he preferred “technics” because it refers more concretely to the industrial arts whereas “technology” is often taken to refer to “an abstract, rational pursuit” (Arthur P.Molella, “Mumford in Historiographical Context,” in Hughes and Hughes, eds., p. 41).
To make the distinction between specific objects and the larger more abstract pursuit, Mumford preferred the terminology of machines as objects and the machine as the abstraction (Introduction, p. 9; see further discussion of the machine and the megamachine on p. 10). These issues of terminology are raised in the very first section of Technics and Civilization (Chapter I, Part l, “Machines, Utilities, and `The Machine.’” Mumford later regretted that he did not spend more time on the distinction between the first two terms: machines and utilities, or tools and utensils. “In general, historians of technics have overestimated the role of tools and machines, the dynamic, mobile, masculine components…they have overlooked the more passive, static, feminine aspectslllthe role of the container and the internal transformer…Cellars, bins, cisterns, vats, vases, jugs, irrigation cancals, reservoirs, barns, houses, granaries, libraries, cities…” Lewis Mumford, “An Appraisal of Lewis Mumford’s `Technics and Civilization’ (1934), Daedalus, Vol. 88, No. 3 (Summer 1959): 529.

The quotation is from Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: II. The Pentagon of Power (New York: Harvest Books, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), p. 417; quoted in the useful discussion by Frank G. Novak, Jr. “Lewis Mumford and the Reclamation of Human History,” Clio, Vol. 16, No. 2 (1987): 164-65.
Mumford, “Appraisal,” 528.
Rosalind Williams, “Lewis Mumford as a Historian of Technology in Technics and Civilization,” in Hughes and Hughes (eds.), pp. 43-44.
Williams, p. 49; Mumford, “Appraisal,” 528. He emphasizes the importance of his discovery of French, Italian, and especially German sources on technics, especially in the Deutsches Museum in Munich.
The dust jacket of my copy of Technics and Civilization prominently advertises on the back the next two volumes in the series (The Culture of Cities [1938] and The Condition of Man [1944]) and notes that the author “is now engaged in writing the successor to The Condition of Man as the final volume in the series” (it was titled The Conduct of Life, published in 1951).
Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934), p. 3.
Mumford, “Appraisal,”
Williams, 51, 56-59.
Mumford, “Appraisal,” 528.
Mumford, “Appraisal,” 531.
Mumford, Technics and Civilization, pp. 324-25.
Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography (Boston and New York: Houghton Mufflin, 2000 [1918], p. 301.
Mumford, Technics and Civilization, pp. 325-26.
Mumford, Technics and Civilization, p. 354.
Mumford, Technics and Civilization, p. 388.
David Mindell, Between Human and Machine, The Johns Hopkins Press, forthcoming 2002, mss. pp. 1-3.
Mindell, pp. 1-1.
Mindell, pp. 1-3.
Mindell, pp.1-3.
Mumford, “Technics and the Nature of Man,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Summer 1966): 303.
Adams, 311.
Mumford, “Appraisal,” 528-29.
Melvin Kranzberg, “Man and Megamachine,” The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Autumn 1967): 689.
John M. Staudenmaier, S.J., Technology’s Storytellers: Reweaving the Human Fabric (London and Cambridge, MA: Society for the History of Technology and The MIT Press, 1985), pp. 12-13, 128-134, 174-81.
Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd ed. (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000 [1996]); The Power of Identity (Blackwell, 1997); and End of Millenium (Blackwell, 1998).
Castells, Rise of Network Society, p. 3.
Mumford, “Appraisal,” 536.