The Meaning is the Question

[O]ne might refer without irony to man’s superior irrationality. Certainly human development exhibits a chronic disposition to error, mischief, disordered fantasy, hallucination, ‘original sin,’ and even socially organized and sanctified misbehavior, such as the practice of human sacrifice and legalized torture.
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (11)


I love that excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s Myth of the Machine because it appeals to our myopic sense of superiority and then makes plain that, truly, it is our irrationality with which we maintain a clear lead. As I always say, if you’re not laughing—it’s just fucking depressing. I am not suggesting that Mumford’s book is a laugh-riot, only that he does have a certain level of wryness which he employs to point out many ridiculous qualities of the culturally induced assumptions that we seem to hold dear about ourselves.

For man to feel belittled, as so many now do, by the vastness of the universe or the interminable corridors of time is precisely like his being frightened by his own shadow (33).

Why? Because “time,” as we understand it, is a human construction—the vast universe cares nothing about the particular matrix we use to describe time. But this misunderstanding of how we see ourselves in relation to all else is at the heart of Mumford’s thesis. The myth is that human beings are foremost toolmakers, and machine makers—that our tools describe us better than any other measure, and therefore our tools are our only means of progress.

In short, if technical proficiency alone were sufficient to identify and foster intelligence, man was for long a laggard, compared with many other species. The consequences of this perception should be plain: namely, there was nothing uniquely human in tool-making until it was modified by linguistic symbols, esthetic designs, and socially transmitted knowledge (5).

We are so inured in the idea that our tools have been the formative objects of our human development we can hardly see that tools are merely the formative objects our our human history. It’s simply the story as we tell it. Just think of how we define the ages: the stone age, bronze age and, iron age without ever taking into account the more ephemeral aspects of our history—the greatest of which must be language. And what of our imaginative minds? our playful (and ernest)curiosity? which are elements without which we can not even begin to explain ourselves.

[F]or ninety-five percent of man’s existence, as Forde points out, man was dependent upon food-gathering for his daily nourishment. Under these conditions his exceptional curiosity, his ingenuity, his facility in learning, his retentive memory, were put to work and tested. Constantly picking and choosing, identifying, sampling, and exploring, watching over his young and caring for his own kind—all this did more to develop human intelligence than any intermittent chipping of tools could have done (101).

This book was first published in 1967, and so there were times when I felt it was, of course, dated—there seems to me much more consensus on these ideas by this point in time. But it is still well worth the read because what Mumford does is alter the reader’s perspective, and then shows other possible explanations for rituals, social organization, and onto the “magamachines” (his term) which are “composed solely of human parts.” Meaning our long history of kingships, priesthoods and bureaucracies that make these human machines (slavery, feudalism, serfdom, slave minimum-wages, debt-based societies) a necessity for their own existence: “forced poverty made possible forced labor” (206). The ritualization and moralization of work have long held sway and are forces that, in many ways, describes capitalism.

In sum, where capitalism prospered, it established three main canons for successful economic enterprise: the calculation of quantity, the observation and regimentation of time (‘Time is Money’), and the concentration on abstract pecuniary rewards. Its ultimate values—Power, Profit, Prestige—derive from these sources and all of them can be traced back, under the flimsiest of disguises, to the Pyramid Age (279).

What happens if one acknowledges that there may be something built into the power structure that gives us a propensity to view ourselves as inherently selfish and warlike beings, and that that may in fact, and very likely is, simply untrue? What is not, and never will be dated about Mumford’s work is that one must always question. Question our beliefs, question authority, question! That is our human gift.

Is intelligence alone, however purified and decontaminated, an adequate agent for doing justice to the needs and purpose of life? (288)

The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development
Lewis Mumford
London, Secker & Warburg, 1966

15 responses to “The Meaning is the Question

  1. Good post, as always. I don’t really see chaos as being at odds with technology; the latter helps us deal with it, and together they keep us on our toes. Technology can also provide objects of great beauty. the shape of a cloud or some feature in nature can inspire great art. And within each society of course there are a range of people and attitudes, so nothing is simple.

  2. Michio Kaku believes that our species is, at this point in human history, on the cusp of becoming very advance — at least technologically, at an exponential rate.

    I have questions.

  3. Love the picture. And yes, questioning is everything to me but it doesn’t help earn money I find. Interesting about the tools; we just happened to accessorize along the way.

  4. Mumford is a bit harsh on tools. I think they generally advance curiosity, ingenuity, etc. more than they retard that all. Tools can be useful or not—consider blowers, snow and leaf—but I think tools are neither good nor bad, those are qualities only of humans. Its less the tools than who has access to them that makes the difference.

    • I don’t think he is necessarily harsh on tools. I think he is simply trying to show the fallacy of thinking the tools make us amazing. Tools are not so amazing in the scheme of human development, or at least, I think he is saying, they are not the amazing thing about our particular development. That doesn’t mean the tools themselves cannot be amazing in themselves, after all, a screwdriver is an amazing thing.

  5. Thx for bringing this one into view!

  6. Thanks again, dearest!
    This one I must read! It seems to be quite an exciting viewpoint on how easily we project our inner “self” into tools… Our learning ability, intellectual development, emotional development, even happiness, and how “tool invention” has turned us into dependent, passive human souls with no soul at all.
    It has made us irrational because we’ve allowed it.
    I think tools in themselves are not the guilty ones. In the use we make out of them relies the difference between smart human beings and intelligent ones. And an entire sea of characteristics distinguishes both types.
    Time’s notion has made us all slaves, but it has arisen in the so-called “smart ones” a way of taking advantage out of it. Profit carries on being rule no.1. At all costs. And that’s a shame.

  7. Reblogged this on nós and commented:
    this one… I must read!

  8. I also would like to know of your reading choices. Not just because you are your father’s daughter, but from reading this/these postings. Is this a blog? I am so ignorant.

    • Yes! This is a blog. This is my blog. I write on a range of topics but it is dominated by what I am reading. In this way I accomplish two important things : I have a record of what I have read and how I responded to it (I joke that the blog is my external hard drive–I often search it for the books I know I’ve read but can’t quite remember!) and occasionally strangers become friends who recommend other books for me to read!

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