Monday, March 1, 2010

Lewis Mumford, "Technics and the Nature of Man," Technology and Culture 7 (1966): 303-17

In this article, Mumford is challenging the basic assumption that defines man as a tool-using animal.  Many anthropologists and ethnologists have made the claim that it was tool use that led to the development of the human brain, but as Mumford rightly points out, there are other species that use tools (chimpanzees, for example) and their tool use has not led them into the same developmental pathways that man has followed.  He would argue that it was the creation of significant modes of symbolic expression, rather than more effective tools, that was the basis of Homo Sapiens’ further development.  As evidence to back up this claim he points out the creation of the cave paintings by an early man that was still quite primitive in terms of the tools he had.

The fixation upon man as the tool user, which may also be an expression of presentism, casting our modern day obsession with machines back upon our ancestors, has led to a fascination with the machine to the exclusion of other aspects of humanity’s existence.  But, Mumford, would argue, at its origins, technics was life-centered, not work-centered or power-centered.  The greatest technical feat of early man was the domestication of plants and animals, a feat that did not require great sophistication in our tools, but did require a concentration upon sexuality in all its varied manifestations, a concentration that was abundantly evident in cult objects and symbolic art (the Venus sculptures, for example).

The mechanization and regimentation of society through industrial and bureaucratic organization eventually replaced religious ritual as a means of promoting the stability of mass populations.  Leading us, ultimately to a present in which the focus of human activity has shifted form an organic environment to the Megamachine, and a future in which all forms of life and culture will be reduced to something that can be translated into the current system of scientific abstractions and transformed en masse to machines and electronic apparatus.

In order to bring technics back into the service of human culture, we need to cease our further expansion of the Megamachine and instead concentrate on the development of those parts of the organic environment and the human personality that have been suppressed.  We must replace automation, the proper end for a machine, with autonomy, the proper end for a human being.

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