Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Amazing Mumford

Before salt, cod, coal, poisons, spice, coffee, tobacco, caviar, and mauve, inspiring and grandiose topics served as the focal point for freewheeling explanatory histories of human activity.

Lewis Mumford’s The City in History (1961) is an example of the more ambitious sort of historiography. It may lack a quirky, NPR-worthy hook, but at least the idea is philosophically interesting, for it can plausibly be argued the history of humans on earth just is the history of cities; the same cannot be said for caviar or cod, no matter how important their causal role in the sequence of human events.

John asked me to let him know what I thought of this book, since he's been curious about Mumford ever since he (John) literally tore in half a novel in which one of the characters was said to have written her dissertation on him (Mumford).

In place of a summary or evaluation of Mumford’s text, I substitute a selection of entries from its index, along with the passages to which they refer. Obviously, this selection is organized in a highly subjective fashion, and unhelpful to anyone who would like to understand Mumfordian theses on civilization. Several of the quotations are long, so I invite you to skim for items of your interest (as indeed I have); there’s probably something for everyone. Ellipses are mine.

Archers, Scythian: “Ominously, the [Athenian] polis had need of twelve hundred Scythian archers to police the Assembly and the law courts.”

Buddenbrooks: “a last faltering glimpse of that patrician burgher life”

Defoe: “Again I must quote the invaluable Defoe: ‘Every tailor invents new fashions, the mercer studies new patterns, the weavers weave them into beautiful and gay figures, and stores himself with a vast variety to allure the fancy; the coachmaker contrives new machines, chairs, Berlins, flies, etc., all to prompt the whimsies and unaccountable pride of the gentry.’

Dichtung und Wahrheit: “Goethe, in his ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit’ describes such a fine rear garden in old Frankfurt, so favorable to family life.”

Emerson: “Our civilization and these ideas are reducing the earth to a brain. See how by telegraph and steam the earth is anthropolized.”

Fortifications, nature of: “It emphasized the difference between the insider and outsider, between the open field, subject to the depredations of wild animals, nomadic robbers, [and] invading armies, and the fully enclosed city, where one could work and sleep with a sense of utter security, even in times of military peril.”

Great Expectations: “…the dreamful unexpectedness of suburban architecture, the sudden lift of a gable, the bulge of an oriel or a tower, the outburst of ungrammatical chatter in a foreign language, the eruption of an oasis of bewildered rocks in the middle of a velvety greensward: cheap excursions into distant lands or into past moments of history. …Dickens caricatured these private crotchets in ‘Great Expectations,’ in his picture of the Old ’Un, Mr. Wemmick’s father, with his castellated house, his moat and his drawbridge and his sunset salute with a toy cannon. But something that had been lost in the city was here coming back in an innocent form—the power to live an imagined life, closer to one’s inner grain than what the daily routine imposes. Thus in its earliest form, the suburb acknowledged the varieties of human temperament and aspiration, the need for change, contrast, and adventure, and above all, for an environment visibly responsive to one’s personal efforts, as even the smallest flower garden is responsive.”

Hegel: The Hegel reference is a dud, but on the same page one finds a discussion of a special English court charged with regulating trade at fairs and markets: “the Court of Pie Powder—anglicized Norman for ‘dusty feet.’”

Lenin: “mummified in Pharaoh-fashion after death, for worship”

Marx (and this the only listing for Marx in the index): “…hostile expropriation on one side, with seething revolt and counter-challenge on the other: in short, the class war, in which no quarter was expected or given—precisely in the classic sense that would have gratified Karl Marx.”

New England: “In the early regulations, according to William Weeden, no one was permitted to live more than half a mile from the meeting house lest, in the rigors of a New England winter, he should evade his social obligations as a member of the Church.”

Pittsburgh: “Even after strenuous efforts to reduce smoke pollution, a single great steel plant in the heart of Pittsburgh still makes mock of these efforts at improvement—indeed, so heavy is the hold of paleotechnic tradition, that the municipal authorities only recently helpfully connived at the extension of this plant, instead of firmly demanding its removal. So much for pecuniary losses. But what of the incalculable losses though disease, through ill-health, through all forms of psychological deterioration from apathy to outright neurosis?”

Proudhon: “Private property begins, not as Proudhon thought with robbery, but with the treatment of all common property as the private possession of the king, whose life and welfare were identified with that of the community.”

Rabelais: “The motto written over the door of Rabelais’ Abbey of Thelema was: ‘Do as You Please.’”

Sumer: “The Sumerian sign for slave is ‘mountain woman.’”

Vico: “These forms of legalized violence were not holdovers from an even more vicious previous regime, as the old apostles of progress liked to believe: they were rather, like war itself, a new kind of ferocity peculiar to urban culture: what Giambattista Vico properly characterized as the ‘barbarism of civilization.’”


Blogger Alphonse van Worden said...

I love Mumford too.

Here's a snip from The Machine as Pedagogue:

Almost every classic philosophy terminates in a system of education, and this holds for the mechanical world picture" indeed its first and perhaps clearest expression accompanied the treatises of Descartes and Hobbes. I refer to 'The Great Didactic' by John Amos Comenius, the Moravian teacher and theologian. As a pilosopher Comenius established his general theory of teaching on the necessity of order, in its most generalized aspects, but he was completely under the spell of the new mechanical models. Note his description of the clockwork 'movements of the soul.' "The most important wheel is the will; while the weights are the desires and the affections which incline the will this way or that. The escapement is the reason, which measures and determines what, where and how far anything should be sought after or avoided."

With that ideological basis, it is not surprising Comenius' whole conception of education is based on the requirements for mass production. In his endeavour to make education cheap enough to include the poor, he sought to effect economies by the skillful arrangement of time..."I maintain," he said, "that it is not only possible for one teacher to teach several hundred scholars at once, but that it is also essential."On no account, Comenius, warns, was the teacher to give individual instruction. In the light of contemporary educational theory, we must now recognize Comenius, as the precursor if not the inventor of mechanically programmed education: nothing separates him from those who now have at command the necessary electronic and mechanical apparatus for carrying his method out. Is it surprising that he also provided for the eight-hour working day and the forty-eight-hour week?
-- Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power

3/29/2005 4:06 AM  

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