22 December 2021

Mumford—Art and Technics (postlude)

Once we have achieved the right form for a type-object, it should keep that form for the next generation, or for the next thousand years. Indeed, we should be ready to accept further variations only when some radical advance in scientific knowledge, or some radical change in the conditions of life has come about... This interpretation of the path of technics, as leading to a series of flat plateaus rather than as a steady climb upward is, I know, a baffling contradiction to the popular one. ...The animus of the last three centuries has been toward improvement, innovation, invention without end; and the chief duty of man, according to the utilitarian catechism, is to adapt himself to such mechanical changes as rapidly as is necessary to make them profitable. But this stale view assumes that we are capable of learning nothing, that we are incapable of mastering the machine we have created and putting it in its place; that we shall not emancipate ourselves from the manias and compulsions that our preoccupation with the machine has brought into existence; that philosophy and religion and art will never again open up to man the vision of a whole human life. ...But once we arrive at a fuller degree of self-understanding, we shall render unto the machine only that which belongs to the machine; and we shall give back to life the things that belong to life: initiative, power of choice, self-government—in short, freedom and creativeness. Because man must grow, we shall be content that the machine, once it has achieved the power and economy of a good type, should stand still—at least until the creator again places himself above the level of his mechanical creature.
(pp. 83-84)
This is Mumford at his most Situationist, making a connection which the Situationists themselves were too self-absorbed and self-important to make. This is the case for Functionalism itself as a weapon against wasteful consumption and alienated expression, for an ascetic rather than a hedonistic resistance to entrenched power. This is how technology can free us from the burdens of mere survival now rather than at some yet-to-be-determined time in the future.

[December 2019. Like most concluding remarks, this was originally written first rather than last.]

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