Lewis Mumford

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Lewis Mumford
Lewis Mumford portrait.jpg
Born (1895-10-19)October 19, 1895[1]
Flushing, New York, U.S.[1]
Died January 26, 1990(1990-01-26) (aged 94)[1]
Amenia, New York, U.S.[1]
Occupation Historian,
Writer
Nationality American
Genre History, philosophy
Notable works The City in History, Technics and Civilization, The Myth of the Machine

Lewis Mumford, KBE (October 19, 1895 – January 26, 1990) was an American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic. Particularly noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, he had a broad career as a writer. Mumford was influenced by the work of Scottish theorist Sir Patrick Geddes and worked closely with his associate the British sociologist Victor Branford.

Mumford was also a contemporary and friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, Clarence Stein, Frederic Osborn, Edmund N. Bacon, and Vannevar Bush.

Life[edit]

Mumford was born in Flushing, Queens, New York, and graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1912.[2] He studied at the City College of New York and The New School for Social Research, but became ill with tuberculosis and never finished his degree. In 1918 he joined the navy to serve in World War I and was assigned as a radio electrician.[1][3] He was discharged in 1919 and became associate editor of The Dial, an influential modernist literary journal. He later worked for The New Yorker where he wrote architectural criticism and commentary on urban issues.

Mumford's earliest books in the field of literary criticism have had a lasting impact on contemporary American literary criticism. The Golden Day contributed to a resurgence in scholarly research on the work of 1850s American transcendentalist authors and Herman Melville: A study of His Life and Vision effectively launched a revival in the study of the work of Herman Melville. Soon after, with the book The Brown Decades, he began to establish himself as an authority in American architecture and urban life, which he interpreted in a social context.

In his early writings on urban life, Mumford was optimistic about human abilities and wrote that the human race would use electricity and mass communication to build a better world for all humankind. He would later take a more pessimistic stance. His early architectural criticism also helped to bring wider public recognition to the work of Henry Hobson Richardson, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

In 1963, Mumford received the Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism from the College Art Association.[4] Mumford received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.[1] In 1975 Mumford was made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.[1] In 1976, he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca.[1] In 1986, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.[1]

A white house with black shutters and brick chimneys seen from its front left corner. Shrubs and trees obscure the view on the sides.
Mumford's house in Amenia

He served as the architectural critic for The New Yorker magazine for over 30 years. His 1961 book, The City in History, received the National Book Award.[1][5]

Lewis Mumford died at the age of 94 at his home in Amenia, New York on January 26, 1990.[1] Nine years later it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. His wife Sophia died in 1997, at age 97.[citation needed]

Ideas[edit]

Mumford believed that what defined humanity, what set human beings apart from other animals, was not primarily our use of tools (technology) but our use of language (symbols). He was convinced that the sharing of information and ideas amongst participants of primitive societies was completely natural to early humanity, and had obviously been the foundation of society as it became more sophisticated and complex. He had hopes for a continuation of this process of information “pooling” in the world as humanity moved into the future.[6]

Mumford's choice of the word "technics" throughout his work was deliberate. For Mumford, technology is one part of technics. Using the broader definition of the Greek tekhne, which means not only technology but also art, skill and dexterity, technics refers to the interplay of a social milieu and technological innovation—the "wishes, habits, ideas, goals" as well as "industrial processes" of a society. As Mumford writes at the beginning of Technics and Civilization, "other civilizations reached a high degree of technical proficiency without, apparently, being profoundly influenced by the methods and aims of technics."

Megatechnics[edit]

In The Myth of the Machine Vol II: The Pentagon of Power (Chapter 12) (1970), Mumford criticizes the modern trend of technology, which emphasizes constant, unrestricted expansion, production, and replacement. He contends that these goals work against technical perfection, durability, social efficiency, and overall human satisfaction. Modern technology—which he calls 'megatechnics'—fails to produce lasting, quality products by using devices such as consumer credit, installment buying, non-functioning and defective designs, built-in fragility, and frequent superficial "fashion" changes. "Without constant enticement by advertising," he writes, "production would slow down and level off to normal replacement demand. Otherwise many products could reach a plateau of efficient design which would call for only minimal changes from year to year."

He uses his own refrigerator as an example, reporting that it "has been in service for nineteen years, with only a single minor repair: an admirable job. Both automatic refrigerators for daily use and deepfreeze preservation are inventions of permanent value.... [O]ne can hardly doubt that if biotechnic criteria were heeded, rather than those of market analysts and fashion experts, an equally good product might come forth from Detroit, with an equally long prospect of continued use."

Biotechnics[edit]

Mumford describes an organic model of technology, or biotechnics, as a contrast to megatechnics. Organic systems direct themselves to "qualitative richness, amplitude, spaciousness, and freedom from quantitative pressures and crowding. Self-regulation, self-correction, and self-propulsion are as much an integral property of organisms as nutrition, reproduction, growth, and repair." Biotechnics models life in seeking balance, wholeness, and completeness. Mumford was an avid reader of Alfred North Whitehead's philosophy of the organism. [7]

Polytechnics versus monotechnics[edit]

A key idea, introduced in Technics and Civilization (1934) was that technology was twofold:

  • Polytechnic, which enlists many different modes of technology, providing a complex framework to solve human problems.
  • Monotechnic which is technology only for its own sake, which oppresses humanity as it moves along its own trajectory.

Mumford commonly criticized modern America's transportation networks as being 'monotechnic' in their reliance on cars. Automobiles become obstacles for other modes of transportation, such as walking, bicycle and public transit, because the roads they use consume so much space and are such a danger to people. Mumford explains that the thousands of maimed and dead each year as a result of automobile accidents are a "ritual sacrifice" the American society makes because of its extreme reliance on highway transport.

Three epochs of civilization[edit]

Also discussed at length in Technics and Civilization is Mumford's division of human civilization into three distinct Epochs (following concepts originated by Patrick Geddes):

Megamachines[edit]

Mumford also refers to large hierarchical organizations as megamachines—a machine using humans as its components. These organizations comprise Mumford's stage theory of civilization. The most recent Megamachine manifests itself, according to Mumford, in modern technocratic nuclear powers—Mumford used the examples of the Soviet and United States power complexes represented by the Kremlin and the Pentagon, respectively. The builders of the Pyramids, the Roman Empire and the armies of the World Wars are prior examples.

He explains that meticulous attention to accounting and standardization, and elevation of military leaders to divine status are spontaneous features of megamachines throughout history. He cites such examples as the repetitive nature of Egyptian paintings which feature enlarged Pharaohs and public display of enlarged portraits of Communist leaders such as Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. He also cites the overwhelming prevalence of quantitative accounting records among surviving historical fragments, from ancient Egypt to Nazi Germany.

Necessary to the construction of these megamachines is an enormous bureaucracy of humans which act as "servo-units", working without ethical involvement. According to Mumford, technological improvements such as the assembly line, or instant, global, wireless, communication and remote control, can easily weaken the perennial psychological barriers to certain types of questionable actions. An example which he uses is that of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who conducted logistics behind the Holocaust. Mumford collectively refers to people willing to carry out placidly the extreme goals of these megamachines as "Eichmanns".

The clock as herald of the Industrial Revolution[edit]

One of the better-known studies of Mumford is of the way the mechanical clock was developed by monks in the Middle Ages and subsequently adopted by the rest of society. He viewed this device as the key invention of the whole Industrial Revolution, contrary to the common view of the steam engine holding the prime position, writing: "The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age. [...] The clock [...] is a piece of power-machinery whose 'product' is seconds and minutes [...]."[8]

Urban civilization[edit]

The City in History won the 1962 U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction.[5] In this influential book Mumford explored the development of urban civilizations. Harshly critical of urban sprawl, Mumford argues that the structure of modern cities is partially responsible for many social problems seen in western society. While pessimistic in tone, Mumford argues that urban planning should emphasize an organic relationship between people and their living spaces.

Mumford uses the example of the medieval city as the basis for the "ideal city," and claims that the modern city is too close to the Roman city (the sprawling megalopolis) which ended in collapse; if the modern city carries on in the same vein, Mumford argues, then it will meet the same fate as the Roman city.

Mumford wrote critically of urban culture believing the city is "a product of earth ... a fact of nature ... man's method of expression."[9] Further, Mumford recognized the crises facing urban culture, distrusting of the growing finance industry, political structures, fearful that a local community culture was not being fostered by these institutions. Mumford feared "metropolitan finance," urbanisation, politics, and alienation. Mumford wrote: "The physical design of cities and their economic functions are secondary to their relationship to the natural environment and to the spiritual values of human community."[citation needed]

Suburbs[edit]

Suburbia did not escape Mumford's criticism either:

In the suburb one might live and die without marring the image of an innocent world, except when some shadow of evil fell over a column in the newspaper. Thus the suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion. Here domesticity could prosper, oblivious of the pervasive regimentation beyond. This was not merely a child-centered environment; it was based on a childish view of the world, in which reality was sacrificed to the pleasure principle.[10]

Influence[edit]

Mumford's interest in the history of technology and his explanation of "polytechnics", along with his general philosophical bent, has been an important influence on a number of more recent thinkers concerned that technology serve human beings as broadly and well as possible. Some of these authors—such as Jacques Ellul, Witold Rybczynski, Richard Gregg,[11] Amory Lovins, J. Baldwin, E. F. Schumacher, Herbert Marcuse, Murray Bookchin, Thomas Merton, Marshall McLuhan, and Colin Ward[12]—have been intellectuals and persons directly involved with technological development and decisions about the use of technology.

Mumford also had an influence on the American environmentalist movement, with thinkers like Barry Commoner and Bookchin being influenced by his ideas on cities, ecology and technology.[13] Ramachandra Guha noted his work contains 'some of the earliest and finest thinking on bioregionalism, anti-nuclearism, biodiversity, alternate energy paths, ecological urban planning and appropriate technology."[14]

Mumford's influence is also evident in the work of some artists including Berenice Abbott's photographs of New York City in the late 1930s.[15]

Works[edit]

  • The Story of Utopias (1922)[16]
  • Sticks and Stones (1924)
  • The Golden Day (1926)
  • Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision (1929)
  • The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865–1895 (1931)
  • The City (1939, a film)
  • Men Must Act (1939)
  • Faith for Living (1940)
  • The South in Architecture (1941)
  • "Renewal of Life" series
  • City Development (1945)
  • Values for Survival (1946)
  • Art and Technics (1952)
  • In the Name of Sanity (1954)
  • The Transformations of Man (1956 New York: Harper and Row)
  • The City in History (1961) (Awarded the National Book Award)
  • The Highway and the City (1963, essay collection)
  • The Myth of the Machine (2 volumes)
    • Technics and Human Development (1967)
    • The Pentagon of Power (1970)
  • The Urban Prospect (1968, essay collection)
  • My Work and Days: A Personal Chronicle (1979)
  • Sketches from Life: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford (1982 New York: Dial Press)
  • The Lewis Mumford Reader. Donald L. Miller, ed. (1986 New York: Pantheon Books)

Articles

  • Mumford, Lewis (8 January 1949). "The Sky Line: The Quick and the Dead". The New Yorker 24 (46): 60–65. 
Reviews the Esso Building, Rockefeller Center
  • Mumford, Lewis (4 February 1950). "The Sky Line: Civic Virtue". The New Yorker 25 (50): 58–63. 
Reviews Parke-Bernet Galleries, Madison Avenue
1946 diatribe against nuclear weapons

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Chronology of Mumford's Life". Lewis Mumford Center. Retrieved 12 October 2010. 
  2. ^ Wojtowicz, Robert (January 2001). "City As Community: The Life And Vision Of Lewis Mumford". Quest (Old Dominion University) 4 (1). Retrieved 2007-10-31. 
  3. ^ Sorensen, Lee (ed). "Mumford, Lewis". Dictionary of Art Historians. Retrieved 12 October 2010. 
  4. ^ "Awards". The College Art Association. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  5. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 1962". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-19.
  6. ^ Mumford, Lewis (1974). "Enough Energy for Life & The Next Transformation of Man [MIT lecture transcript]". CoEvolution Quarterly (Sausalito, CA: POINT Foundation) 1 (4): 19–23. 
  7. ^ E.g., he published a critical review of Process and Reality: “Metaphysics and Art. Review of Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, by Alfred North Whitehead; Essays in Philosophy,edited by Thomas Vernor Smith and William Kelley Wright; The Philosophic Way of Life, by T.V. Smith.” The New Republic, December 18, 1929: 117–118, reprinted in Alan Van Wyk and Michel Weber (eds.), Creativity and Its Discontents. The Response to Whitehead's Process and Reality, Frankfurt / Lancaster, Ontos Verlag, 2009, pp. 13-17.
  8. ^ Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. London: Routledge, 1934. Print. 14–15.
  9. ^ Mumford, The Culture of Cities, 1938
  10. ^ Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York, 1961), p.464; quoted in Jackson, Kenneth T. (1985). Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-504983-7. , pp.155-156
  11. ^ Gregg, Richard. The Value of Voluntary Simplicity. Pendle Hill, 1936, p. 32.
  12. ^ Ward, Colin. Influences: Voices of Creative Dissent. Green Books, 1991, pp. 106–07.
  13. ^ Wall, Derek. Green History, Routledge, 1994, pg. 91.
  14. ^ Quoted in Guha, Ramachandra & Martinez-Alier, J. (1997) Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South. London: Earthscan (1997). For other works on Mumford’s ecological and environmental thought, see: David Pepper Modern Environmentalism, Routledge, 1996, Max Nicolson, The New Environmental Age, Cambridge University Press, 1989, and BA Minteer, The Landscape of Reform: Civic Pragmatism and Environmental Thought in America MIT Press, 2006.
  15. ^ Barr, Peter. "Becoming Documentary: Berenice Abbott's Photographs, 1925–1939," PhD dissertation, Boston University, 1997.
  16. ^ "The Story of Utopias Index". Sacred-texts.com. Retrieved 2013-11-10. 

Further reading

  • Lasch, Christopher. "Lewis Mumford and the Myth of the Machine," Salmagundi, No. 49, Summer 1980.
  • Miller, Donald L. (1989). Lewis Mumford: A Life. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 
  • Hughes, Thomas P.; Hughes, Agatha C., eds. (1990). Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506173-X. 

External links[edit]