Summary

  • Mumford’s study is the history of technics and the rise of technical civilization. Its basic argument is now commonplace but no less revolutionary: that technics (a better frame than technologies) emerge from a complex interplay of social, material, cultural, and economic milieux, and in turn feed back into those milieux. Mechanization is a social condition that pre-dates the emergence of machines as things. Mumford elaborates Marx’s analysis, arguing that machines emerge from and further permit the instrumentalization and standardization of human life. Mumford initiates the humanistic analysis of technology; moreover, he puts the machine in a social context that allows us to see its “spiritual contributions to our culture,” as his intro states.
  • I want to do more digging as to how much Mumford gets taken up as foundational to media archaeology and media theory. Certainly Parikka cites his paleotechnics section, but Mumford’s whole approach seems vital for understanding the emergence of media materialism as well as for conceptualizing periodization in media studies.

Keywords

  • technics: in the sense of tekne, not only technology but rather techniques for mediating the world. (Compare to Siegert’s cultural techniques). “A translation into appropriate, practice forms of the theoretic truths, implicit or formulated, anticipated or discovered, of science” (52).

Notes

Objectives

  • Major claims of the book: the Machine Age began far before the Industrial Revolution; the turn toward machines is better thought as a turn toward mechanization, which is as much psychic as material; “Not merely must one explain the existence of the new mechanical instruments: one must explain the culture that was ready to use them and profit by them so extensively. For note this: mechanization and regimentation are not new phenomena in history: what is new is the fact that these functions have been projected and embodied in organized forms which dominate every aspect of our existence” (4).
  • Mumford takes a dim view of industrial capitalism: like Marx, the machine provides an avenue by which to internalize mechanization such as to cut oneself off from larger social obligations: “External regimentation and internal resistance and disintegration went hand in hand: those fortunate members of society who were in complete harmony with the machine achieve that state only by closing up various important avenues of life” (5).
  • Three waves of technical progress:
    1. Eotechnic: first wave, c. 10th cent. to 17th cent.
    2. Paleotechnic: second wave, c. 18th cent. to 19th cent. [fossil fuels]
    3. Neotechnic: third wave, present day [electricity]

1. Cultural Preparation

  • Issues of time and space abound: “The application of quantitative methods of thought to the study of nature had its first manifestation in the regular measurement of time; and the new mechanical conception of time arose in part out of the routine of the monastery” (12).
  • For Mumford, the clock is the foundational technic: “for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but synchronizing the actions of men” (14). [Connect to the rise of computing and the computer as functionally a clock.] “And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time—what Bergson calls duration—is cumulative in its effects” (16). Interesting to see some of the foundational thinkers in vitalist/speculative thought (Bergson, Whitehead) popping up in this and other similar works.
  • Time and space first separate in medieval moment (this isn’t necessarily true, but part of Mumford’s analysis), allowing for space to be theorized as a hierarchy of aesthetic/moral value; perspectival rev. in 14th cent. changed to “system of magnitudes,” emergence of representative regime (20).
  • For Mumford, the emergence of capitalism was absolutely vital to the spread of a technical regime: “The development of capitalism brought the new habits of abstraction and calculation into the lives of city people” (23). “The quest of power by means of abstractions . . . time was money: money was power: power required the furtherance of trade and production . . .” (24). “The power that was science and the power that was money were, in final analysis, the same kind of power: the power of abstraction, measurement, quantification” (25).
  • Return to these sections on animism in light of Anthropocene readings; animism and anthropomorphism as final barriers to the institution of a technical regime (33). Magic as a shortcut to domination; the drive to technical development as mastery over nature (40).
  • Social regimentation works hand-in-hand with capitalism to produce machines out of men; mechanization proceeds the technical in institutions like slavery (41).
  • The method of physical science relies on three principles:
    1. “the elimination of qualities”
    2. “concentration on the outer world”
    3. “isolation” or “specialization” (46)
  • Science demands abstraction and isolation and finds its ideal subject in the machine: “Machines—and machines alone—completely met the requirements of the new scientific method and point of view: they fulfilled the definition of ‘reality’ far more perfectly than living organisms” (51).
  • “The ultimate goal of [the development of machines] was however not the mere conquest of nature but her resynthesis: dismembered by thought, nature was put together again in new combinations . . .” (52). In this rubric, invention becomes a more duty, an unfettered good (53).
  • Key point: all these dimensions are not causal in and of themselves but rather form a mesh that supports the general emergence of The Machine as an ideological concept (59).

2. Agents of Mechanization

  • “The age of invention is only another name for the age of man. If man is rarely found in the ‘state of nature’ it is only because nature is so constantly modified by technics” (60). This chapter is most useful for how it situates the earliest site of technical development at the interface of humans and the natural environment.
  • Compare section on mining to Parikka’s A Geology of Media. “The mine, to begin with, is the first completely inorganic environment to be created and lived in by man . . .” (69). “The mine is nothing less in fact than the concrete model of the conceptual world which was built up by the physicists of the seventeenth century” (70). “The practices of the mine do not remain below the ground: they affect the miner himself, and they alter the surface of the earth” (70). Toxic dust; deforestation (71–72).
  • Think also with Marx: “The miner’s notion of value, like the financier’s, tends to be a purely abstract and quantitative one. . . . The classic curse of Midas became perhaps the dominant characteristic of the modern machine: whatever it touched was turned to gold and iron, and the machine was permitted to exist only where gold and iron could serve as foundation” (77).
  • Puritanism and Protestantism vital to Mumford’s argument for why production and mechanization became fetishes w/i Northern European culture, whereas in others (he argues) they are purely instrumental (102–03). “Goods became respectable and desirable apart from the life-needs they served . . . Idleness was in itself a sin” (104).
  • The machine solves the problem of disorder and chaos: “it promised fulfillment for that emptiness” (106).

3. Eotechnics

  • “Speaking in terms of power and characteristic materials, the eotechnic phase is a water-and-wood complex: the paleotechnic phase is a coal-and-iron complex, and the neotechnic phase is an electricity-and-alloy complex” (110).
  • Mumford marks the Renaissance as the downfall of the “humane arts”: “In short, the Renascence was not, socially speaking, the dawn of a new day, but its twilight. The mechanical arts advanced as the human arts weakened and receded, and it was at the moment when form and civilization had most completely broken up that the tempo invention became more rapid, and the multiplication of machines and the increase of power took place (112).
  • “At the bottom of the eotechnic economy stands one important fact: the diminished use of human beings as prime movers, and the separation of the production of energy from its application and immediate control” (112). Ecotechnics as increase in nonorganic energy sources (which will exponentially increase in the fossil fuel regime). “Wood was the universal material of the eotechnic economy” (119). Okay wait but a few pages later it’s glass (124). Mumford puts focus on the wood of ships (for colonialism) and the glass of cathedrals (for religious spectacle and communications).
  • Glass also entails optics, which entails the primacy of vision as a mode of understanding (127). Glass “helped to alter the very concept of the self” (128).
  • The most important invention of the eotechnic period isn’t an industrial product, but rather the experimental method in science (132). Experimental method as “labor-saving device”: “It cut a short straight path through jungles of confused empiricism and laid down a rough corduroy road over swamps of superstitious and wishful thinking” (133).
  • Printed paper as “space-saver, time-saver, labor-saver”; print frees communication “from the restrictions of time and space and makes discourse wait on the convenience of the readeR” (136–37). Print also merge with the clock in record-keeping.
  • Anticipating Edgerton: “Since genius is almost never the sole work of a single inventor, however great a genius he may be, and since it is the product of the successive labors of innumerable men, working at various time and often toward various purposes, it is merely a figure of speech to attribute an invention to a single purpose: this is a convenient falsehood fostered by a spurious sense of patriotism and by the device of patent monopolies” (142).

4. Paleotechnics

  • This is the coal-and-oil section, the one that gets taken up in Parikka the most.
  • Post-1750: “This second revolution multiplied, vulgarized, and spread the methods and goods produced by the first: above all, it was directed toward the quantification of life, and its success could be gauged only in terms of the multiplication table” (151).
  • Why does this age get so much play in the press, as it were? Mumford’s speculation is that it happened in England, which was otherwise “one of the backward countries of Europe,” and didn’t really participate in the eotechnic regime until the 1700’s. Plus the economists then writing the history books (e.g., Adam Smith) were ignorant of technical history more generally (152).
  • Paleotechnic industry as the epitome of “disruption”: “There was a sharp shift in interest from life values to pecuniary values: the system of interests which only had been latent and which had been restricted in great measure to the merchant and the leisure classes now pervaded every walk of life. It was no longer sufficient for industry to provide a livelihood: it must create an independent fortune: work was no longer a necessary part of living: it became an all-important end.” (153).
  • Okay “carboniferous capitalism” is an amazing phrase (156). Also proto-Anthropocene: “The reckless, get-rich-quick, devil-take-the-hindmost attitude of the mining rushes spread everywhere: the bonanza farms of the Middle West in the United States were exploited as if they were minds, and the forests were gutted out and mined in the same fashion as the minerals that lay their hills. Mankind behaved like a drunken heir on a spree” (158).
  • Turn toward steam depends on monopoly markets: “Wind and water power were free; but coal was expensive and the steam engine itself was a costly investment; so, too, were the machines that it turned” (161). Steam introduces the 24/7 regime to all industries, previously only in mining.
  • “Iron became the universal material. One went to sleep in an iron bed and washing one’s face in the morning in an iron washbowl . . .” (164).
  • Huge: “The Destruction of Environment” (167). “The first mark of paleotechnic industry was the pollution of the air.” “In this paleotechnic world the realities were money, prices, capital, shares: the environment itself, like most of human existence, was treated as an abstraction. Air and sunlight, because of their deplorable lack of value in exchange, had no reality at all” (168).
  • [Much of this paleotechnic stuff is a recapitulation, vectored along technology, of the most horrifying parts of Capital.]
  • “The state of paleotechnic society may be described, ideally, as one of wardom. Its typical organs, from mine to factory, from blast-furnace to slum, from slum to battlefield, were at the service of death. Competition: struggle for existence: domination and submission: extinction” (195). The question is: have we in fact escaped the paleotechnic?
  • As a counter to the bleakness of the general tenor of the paleotechnic era, it developed “esthetic compensation,” i.e. machine-as-art (199). Fog / light / color.

5. Neotechnics

  • Paleotechnic ideals still dominate; the neotechnic is an inversion but also elaboration of the paleotechnic and its full consequences have yet to be seen (212–13).
  • Mumford seems pretty optimistic about the liberating power of the neotechnic, and more afraid that the paleotechnic still lingers and will destroy neotechnic progress (215). Neotechnic is reflexive: science turned on our own physiological mechanism; biology, quantum physics. (We haven’t done the nuclear yet.)
  • Harbinger of the neotechnic: electricity (221). With it, standardization, automation, the shrinking of factories and “displacement of the proletariat” (226–27). Electricity leads to assembly line: but in truly neotechnic society the worker would be eliminated altogether (228). (In Mumford we hear early cries for a fully automated communism.)
  • Neotechnic materials: “the new alloys, the rare earths, and the lighter metals.” (cf. the Rare Earth collection I have in my office.) (229). In Mumford we find the basic arguments that Parikka makes about neo-colonialism and the geography of media’s geology (232).
  • Communication: “instantaneous personal communication over long distances is one of the outstanding marks of the neotechnic phase” (241); Mumford is unsurprisingly a little skeptical about the value of networked communication though: “With the telephone the flow of interest and attention, instead of being self-directed, is at the mercy of any strange person who seeks to divert it to his own purposes” (240).
  • “New forms of permanent record,” by which Mumford means reproducible media (read this against Benjamin) (242). Mumford as media critic is less perceptive than Mumford as media archaeologist; still, it’s all an important forerunner to later media criticism.
  • “The Influence of Biology” (250): neotechnics are clean, cooperative, regimented. It takes an interest in reproducing and improving biological apparatus (flight, sensation). Efficiency. Mumford also presages work on technological waste (255): neotechnics thinks conservation where paleotechnics is rampant use: “Against all these wastes the neotechnic phase, with its richer chemical and biological knowledge, sets its face. It tends to replace the reckless mining habits of the earlier period with a thrifty and conservative use of the natural environment” (255). (This is so optimistic, and so fundamentally wrong, but perhaps only because we never really passed past the paleotechnic phase!)

The final three chapters are less immediately pertinent, but I’ll still record some useful passages:

  • The jumbled temporality of media archaeology: “Each of the three phases of machine civilization has left its deposits in society. Each has changed the landscape, altered the physical layout of cities, used certain resources and spurned others, favored certain types of commodity and certain paths of activity, and modified the common technical heritage. It is the sum total of these phases, confused, jumbled, contradictory, cancelling out as well as adding to their forces that constitutes our present mechanical civilization. Some aspects of this civilization are in complete decay; some are alive but neglected in thought; still others are at the earliest stages of development” (268).
  • “purposeless materialism”: the disproportionate focus on the materiality of living characteristic of live with/under machines (273). Leads to desire to institute machine practices where biosocial ones previously existed or were doing well (hellooooo Silicon Valley)
  • “The regularization of time, the increase in mechanical power, the multiplication of goods, the contraction of time and space, the standardization of performance and product, the transfer of skill to automata, and the increase of our collective interdependence—these, them, are the chief characteristics of our machine civilization” (281).
  • “We must abandon our futile and lamentable dodges for resisting the machine by stultifying relapses into savagery, by recourse to anesthetics and shock-absorbers. . . . On the other hand, the most objective advocates of the machine must recognize the underlying human validity of the Romantic protest against the machine . . . they point to a synthesis more comprehensive than that developed though the organs of the machine itself. Failing to create this synthesis, failing to incorporate it in our personal and communal life, the machine will be able to continue only with the aid of shock-absorbers which confirm its worst characteristics, or with the compensatory adjustment of vicious and barbaric elements which will, in all probability, ruin the entire structure of our civilization” (319–20).
  • Ends w/ a call to communism.

Archive and Impact

  • periodization of technical history (useful to think alongside Anthropocene periodization); language of technical development reminds me of Simondon two decades later
  • Mumford’s analysis follows Marx and indeed is really great to read following Capital; where he differs from Marx: reads the machine not just as its own isolated thing but rather the interactive development of social and material qualities.
  • Mumford also divides up his technical phases in terms of material processes; in this he’s channeling Marx and also anticipating the materialist media turn.