The Myth of the Machine
by Lewis Mumford
(Harcourt, Brace and World; $8.95)
Here comes Lewis Mumford again, sailing majestically down the river of time. Having illuminated the history of architecture and the phenomenon of cities (among other subjects) on previous voyages, he makes the journey once again out of different scholarly and humane concerns. Let him describe his new book himself. He wrote a sort of overture to it in a recent issue of the American Scholar, in which he said:
Modern man has formed a curiously distorted picture of
himself by interpreting his early history in terms of his present
interests in making machines and conquering nature... I have
found it necessary as a generalist to challenge this narrow view.
There is sound reason to believe that man's brain was from the
beginning far more important than his hands … that ritual and
language and social organization, which left no material traces
whatever, were probably man's most important artifacts from
the earliest stages on; and that … primitive man's first concern was
… to give form to a human self, set apart from his original animal
self by the fabrication of symbols- the only tools that could be
constructed out of the resources provided by his own body:
dreams, images and sounds."
The first third of the book is mainly devoted to all the self-discoveries that man made before he made tools; discoveries that--as Mumford demonstrates fascinatingly, even thrillingly--had to precede the invention of tools. Commenting on the chronology implicit in most museum displays, he says that collections of such devices as flint arrowheads and knives distort the scale of progress. "If each foot represented a year, these improvements would have to be strung along a distance of roughly ninety miles, of which only the last five or ten miles would denote a period of rapid advance." The great precedent period, a period more consistently fertile in advances, was that of man's discovery and investigation of "the domain of significance." Other animals shared some of man's discoveries and contrivances, but "here and here alone man reigned supreme." Or as Jacquetta Hawkes put it in her Prehistory:
Nothing has greater significance than the development
and exercise of the combined mental powers of intellect
and imagination, the two springs of human greatness. This
must be the estimate of the humanist; if it were added that
it is through these gifts that God has made us aware of divinity,
then there are few people who would challenge it.
The intellectual and imaginative miracles of prehistoric man are Mumford's first concern. "No modern technological device surpasses in its articulation of its parts or its functional fitness the qualities of the least important language"; and language was developed long before history began. Again, if the term "invention" can be applied to plant hybridism and refinement as well as to mechanical appliances, then, says Mumford, "Infinitely more was accomplished in this line of inventions in the five thousand years before the Bronze Age than has been achieved by civilization in an equivalent period since."
On mechanical devices themselves "The fact is that most of the components of later complex machines were either invented by the Greeks, between the seventh and the first centuries B.C., or were manufactured with the aid of machines and mechanical parts the Greeks first invented." He lists a number of inventions, quintessential to our own lives that not only predate the Christian era but in substantial part predate history. And he cites the anomaly of disappearance. For example, he notes that glass, which existed before the end of the first century B.C., virtually disappeared; became a rarity in Rome and throughout Europe until after the 16th century A.D. In sculpture he notes: "Some of the earliest Paleolithic art is more accomplished, both technically and esthetically, than comparable images done tens of thousands of years later in Azilian, Halafian, or Cycladic cultures." On a smaller time scale, I can remember wondering, while looking at Pompeian murals, why the laws of perspective had to be rediscovered 1,400 years later.
In the quotations above, I have skipped back and forth over the millenniums to convey Mumford's basic view-which is not one of ancestor worship but of the primacy of unique human values in prehistory and of the continuity of those values. After he has established the priority of human imagination and self-investigation over mechanical invention; after he has investigated the subsequent but still very early mechanical ingenuity of man, then Mumford considers the emergence and mythology of the machine. He postulates that the first machine was human--the impressment and coordination of mass labor:
If a machine be defined, more or less in accord with
the classic definition of Franz Reuleaux, as a combination
of resistant parts, each specialized in function, operating
under human control, to utilize energy and to perform work,
then the great labor machine was in every respect a genuine
machine; all the more because its components, though made
of human bone, nerve, and muscle, were reduced to their bare
mechanical elements and rigidly standardized for the performance
of their limited tasks. ... Such machines had already been
assembled if not invented by kings in the early part of the Pyramid
Age, from the end of the Fourth Millennium on."
He shows the relation of the idea of kingship to the emergence of the machine; how kingship itself derived from religious concepts and priestly hierarchy; and how the introduction of the machine--which he calls the megamachine, the Big Machine--polarized the loci of personality in society. The kings and the powerful had freedom of personal scope, the human machine components had not. "Ideally, the megamachine's personnel should consist of celibates, detached from family responsibilities, communal institutions, and ordinary human affections," It has a military ring, quite modern.
Consequently, Mumford examines the close relation between mechanical development and the history of war. His italics: "Through the army, in fact, the standard model of the megamachine was transmitted from culture to culture." He points out that the progress of invention is linked to military needs, from the first armies through Da Vinci and onward. Any spectator of the current space race can only grin in agreement. After millions of years of progress to achieve the ability to explore space that exploration is being done in paramilitary competition: to establish national claims Out Yonder and to prove that one portion of one flyspeck in one of the countless universes is better than another portion of that flyspeck.
What comes clear to a reader in this account of invention is that the conscious and unconscious goal of man has been to countervail fact: to allow him to move without walking, to speak and see without being in the presence of the person spoken to or seen, to move on and through the water, to fly. The basic aim has been to master environment less in prosaic terms than in imaginative ones: to change the geography of reality and fantasy, to move the border of the first further and further into the territory of the second.
Not everything Mumford tells us is or could be new. He himself has told us some of it before, particularly in his towering tetralogy on culture and technics called, overall, The Renewal of Life and in the monumental study. The City in History. Even his initial thesis here--the fallacy of defining man as a tool-using animal--is not original with him; he acknowledges that Loren C. Eiseley, "more than anyone else, had sparked this approach." In developing his own interpretations and speculations, Mumford is sometimes repetitious and not infrequently pontifical. His revisionism of other authors, though apparently sound, is sometimes drastic, as when, with two comments, he dismisses Max Weber's equation of the rise of capitalism with the rise of Protestantism. Even when he praises, he can occasionally set at least a few of our teeth on edge. And for one lay reader there was insufficient ecological material: explanation of why certain developments occurred in one place on earth and not elsewhere.
But this is the work of an orchestral stylist, of a rich and easy mind, powerful in knowledge, sensitive in inquiry, and purposeful. We hear a great deal these days about physics and higher mathematics as the avenue to--if not the residence of--20th-century philosophy. But social and cultural anthropology, in the hands of such writers as Eiseley, Miss Hawkes and Mumford, by demythologizing the past, by anatomizing its truths, makes at least an equivalent contribution. If it is a truism that the future depends on the past, then at least it has never been more true, A book such as Mumford's gives any reader a sense of heritage that dwarfs any merely ethnic or national tradition and provides-both in terms of the possible and the impossible-some clues to a rationale.
Mumford does not wallow in facile humanism. He waves no Technicolor banners about man's unconquerable spirit and eventual triumph. But he knows that human history is, among other things, wonderful; and that, if it ends in self-annihilation, this fact in itself will not disprove the wonders. And since he knows exactly how much Homo sapiens has accomplished and has failed to accomplish, he is awestruck, loving and ironical.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic at The New Republic.
By Stanely Kauffmann