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Lewis Mumford : Diagnosis of our times

Dernière mise à jour : 6 mai 2023

{Lewis Mumford (1895 – 1990) was an American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic. Particularly noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, he had a broad career as a writer. Mumford made signal contributions to social philosophy, American literary and cultural history and the history of technology. Wikipedia}

Lewis Mumford

The Conduct of Life



"We have reached a point in history where man has become his own most dangerous enemy. At the moment he boasts of conquering nature, he surrenders his higher capacities, and he weakens his ability outside the limited framework of science for coordinated thought and disciplined action. Today it is man’s higher functions that have become automatic and constricted, and his lower ones that have become spontaneous and irrepressible: We arrest our inner creativity with external compulsions and irrelevant anxieties, at the mercy of constant interruptions by telephone and radio and insistent print, timing our lives to the movement of a production belt we do not control. At the same time, we give authority to the stomach, the muscles, the genitals — to animal reflexes that produce obedient consumers, whip-wielding man-trainers, slavish political subjects, push-button automatons.

The failure to respond to this situation is a symptom of the very disease that has brought it about. Unlike his electronic thinking machines, the civilization modern man has built is not so contrived that, when it goes wrong as a whole, it will issue a warning signal and halt in its operation. Indeed, our emotions and feelings, which would normally provide these signals, have in fact been deliberately extirpated, in order to make the machine work more smoothly. Worse than that: so habitually have our minds been committed to the specialized, the fragmentary, the particular, and so uncommon is the habit of viewing life as a dynamic inter-related system, that we cannot on our own premises recognize when civilization as a whole is in danger; nor can we readily accept the notion that no part of it will be safe or sound until the whole is reorganized.

Hence the fatuous degree of optimism people continue to exhibit, though valuable areas of our civilization are already destroyed and even greater sectors, perhaps, have become meaningless. The visible symptoms of our present state are numerous: if they are too well known to be repeated, they are also too generally neglected to be taken for granted. They range from the mass extermination of an estimated eighteen million people by the Nazis, some six million of these being Jews, extermination accompanied by every conceivable refinement of brutality and torture, to the cold genocide practiced by my own countrymen — the 180,000 Japanese civilians killed by fire bombs in Tokyo in one night, or the 200,000 people [final estimate] who were instantly incinerated, or mutilated and eventually doomed to die, in Hiroshima in the course of a few seconds.

During the last thirty years between forty and fifty million people, at a rough estimate, have met premature death through war and genocide alone. In such statistics one has the gross indications of the widespread miscarriage of all our humane intentions, so strenuously exerted in other departments. For every life we learn to save in childhood, through advances in hygiene, diet, and medical care, “civilized” governments, which still threaten each other’s existence, are now prepared to take away indiscriminately a score of lives, in acts of planned genocide. These acts, by their very nature, will make impossible any rational settlement capable of promoting fellowship and mutual aid. In such a situation the only remedy for total insecurity would be total extermination. Now there is no doubt that our recurrent world wars have brought to the surface more speedily many evils that might have remained latent for a longer period; but it would be foolish, I believe, to look to a single institution or a single set of events for the full explanation of our present condition.

All social phenomena, almost without exception, are the result of a multitude of converging and interacting events; and therefore to single out any one of them — as Christian theologians did in their providential interpretation of history, or as Marxians now do in their economic interpretation of history — is by that very act to misread the nature of human society itself. Wars have indeed aggravated all our difficulties today; but we would do ill to attribute to war alone the breakdown that was already visible to penetrating observers from one to two generations earlier, in a period that now seems incredibly peaceful. War is both the product of an earlier corruption and a producer of new corruptions. The wars of our time have only brought out a destructiveness and a denial of life that were latent in this society: they were in a sense the negative alternatives to a general renewal that no ruling class was self-denying enough to sanction.

At all events, our present moral breakdown has long been under way. Wholly engrossed in the fabrication of machines and the exploitation of nature, we had neglected the proper education of man. Through our skill in invention, we had created a highly complicated and interrelated world community whose very existence depended upon religious and moral values we permitted to lapse. Western civilization has lived for more than a century under the sign of power: forgetting, in our pride, that uncontrolled power in any of its manifestations, as heat, as light, as physical force, as political compulsion, is inimical to life; for life flourishes only to the extent that it is able to regulate power, screening off its direct impact and reducing it to those amounts that are favorable to vital processes.

By something closer than a mere figure of speech, what is true for the jungle organism is likewise true for the whole civilization. Our very will-to-survive is subject to destructive irrational turnings upon itself, as people lose the sense of a goal and a purpose beyond mere animal existence. Life proceeds by measure and balance: unlimited and undirected power is another name for suicide. The deeper grounds for this relapse into nihilism have still to be adequately explored. The English poet, A. E. Housman, pictured himself “a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.” But the fact is that in the mechanistic world conceived and fabricated by science, man has become even more of a stranger, and has even more reason to be afraid. Western culture no longer represents man: it is mainly outside him, and in no small measure hostile to his whole self: he cannot take it in. He is like a patient condemned in the interests of X-ray photography to live upon a diet of barium sulphate.

Indeed, the more intense modern man’s effort to take in this culture, the more pitiable his actual condition. There is no inner relation between man’s organic and personal needs and the special institutions he has created for the expression of the power complex. The great city, with its drone of unceasing mechanical activities, is no longer man writ large: at best, to adapt himself to his environment, man has reduced himself to a minor mechanism: the machine writ small. The autonomous activities of the personality, choice, selection, self-regulation, self-direction, purposiveness, all the attributes of freedom and creativeness, have become progressively more constrained, as external pressures become more pervasive and overbearing. In the end, as Samuel Butler satirically prophesied, man may become just a machine’s contrivance for reproducing another machine.

But something even more disastrous has happened within this machine culture: life itself, for the ordinary man, though protected and furthered by a hundred devices that increase his expectation of life, has become less interesting and less significant: it is at best a mild slavery, and at its worst, the slavery is not mild. Why should anyone give to the day’s work the efforts and sacrifices it demands ? By his very success in inventing labor-saving devices, modern man has manufactured an abyss of boredom that only the privileged classes in earlier civilizations have ever fathomed: the small variations, the minor initiatives and choices, the opportunity for using one’s wits, the slightest expression of fantasy, have disappeared progressively from the daily tasks of the common man, caught in big organizations that do his thinking for him. The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that, apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, it is not humanly interesting.

To alleviate his boredom modern man has invented an extravagantly complicated outer life, which fills up his leisure hours with forms of play that are hardly to be distinguished from his work. As man s inner life has shriveled, he has recovered a sense of vitality and purpose by giving release to the most primitive elements in his unconscious : the crimes and guilts of Electra, Orestes, Hamlet, Macbeth, are relatively human expressions compared to the calculated cruelties and infamies so-called civilized nations have introduced, both in fantasy and in deed.

Apart from these pathological results, our mechanized culture has produced a pervasive sense of frustration. No one can possibly know more than a fragment of all that might be known, see more than a passing glimpse of all that might be seen, do more than a few random, fitful acts, of all that might, with the energies we now command, be done: there is a constant disproportion between our powers and our satisfactions. The typical role of the personality today is an insignificant one: non-commanding, unpurposeful. The walls of the outer shell of our life have thickened, and the creature within has diminished in size in order to accommodate himself to this inimical overgrowth. The contents of modern man’s daydreams too closely resemble those of Bloom in Ulysses, filled with the dead tags of newspaper editorials, the undigested vomit of advertising slogans, greasy crumbs of irrelevant information, and the choking dust of purposeless activity.

The duty to become part of this chaos, to keep up with it, to accept it internally, is the bitter duty of modern man — most adequately described and analyzed by Waldo Frank, in his description of The American Jungle, in The Rediscovery of America. Unfortunately, the more busy the mental traffic, the emptier becomes the resultant life: therefore the more abjectly dependent the individual atom in this society becomes upon the very stimuli which— though they have, in fact, caused his emptiness — divert his attention from his plight. Such a mechanical routine results in a loss of self-confidence and self-respect that few primitive communities would countenance: indeed, the “machine-herd,” as we should properly call this passive creature, is a poorer animal than the stolidest cow-herd, largely because he “knows so much that ain’t so.”

Hence the current spread of quackery, superstition, fanaticism, comparable to that which marked the decline of the Hellenic and Roman order: a growing tendency to gamble and to believe in Chance as the supreme Goddess of human destiny: the erratic Wheel of Chance being the only possible happy alternative to the undeviating iron rails of Fate, on which a declining civilization helplessly rolls. Unable to create a meaningful life for itself, the personality takes its own revenge: from the lower depths comes a regressive form of spontaneity: raw animality forms a counterpoise to the meaningless stimuli and the vicarious life to which the ordinary man is conditioned. Getting spiritual nourishment from this chaos of events, sensations, and devious interpretations is the equivalent of trying to pick through a garbage pile for food. Even those who have direct access to the kitchen do not get properly fed.

Our leaders are themselves the victims of the very system they have helped to create. What Dr Sheldon has called “psychological overcrowding” is the typical mischief of Western civilization in its present aspect. As a result of our very ingenuity in inventing reproductive and manifolding devices, even the economy of a stable, abstract medium like print has been lessened; a clumsy concreteness retards the whole process of thought, and we are as much handicapped by an excess of data as by a lack of it. So instead of producing a new gain of time and energy for the consummations of life, our uncontrolled mechanization has made it necessary to spend a larger part of the day on the preparatory means. Final results: a surfeit of tasks, interests, stimuli, reactions: an absence of valuable order and purpose.

In the end, such a civilization can produce only a mass man: incapable of choice, incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree, but increasingly irresponsible as his choices become fewer and fewer : finally, a creature governed mainly by his conditioned reflexes —the ideal type desired, if never quite achieved, by the advertising agency and the sales organizations of modern business, or by the propaganda office and the planning bureaus of totalitarian and quasi-totalitarian governments. The handsomest encomium for such creatures is: “They do not make trouble.” Their highest virtue is: “They do not stick their necks out.” Ultimately, such a society produces only two groups of men: the conditioners and the conditioned; the active and the passive barbarians. The exposure of this web of falsehood, self-deception, and emptiness is perhaps what made Death of a Salesman so poignant to the metropolitan American audiences that witnessed it.

Now this mechanical chaos is plainly not self-perpetuating, for it affronts and humiliates the human spirit; and the tighter and more efficient it becomes as a mechanical system, the more stubborn will be the human reaction against it. Eventually, it must drive modern man to blind rebellion, to suicide, or to renewal: and so far it has worked in the first two ways. On this analysis, the crisis we now face would be inherent in our culture even if it had not, by some miracle, also unleashed the more active disintegrations that have taken place in recent history.

In his final state, on the highest levels of our society, modern man becomes a mixture of two prophetic nineteenth century heroes: Hawthorne's Ethan Brand and Melville’s Captain Ahab — both fanatically concentrated upon a single end. Ethan Brand, pursuing his quest for truth, becomes entirely indifferent to the human results of his work; rigorously suppressing his emotions, he cuts himself off from the “magnetic chain of humanity.” This dearth of feeling and emotion, this lack of human-heartedness, is the typical by-product of our traditional conceptions of science. In the same mood of withdrawal modern physicists concentrated on the development of atomic theory and on the perfection of instruments leading to the release of atomic energy, without the faintest concern — until they finally faced the results of their “disinterested” activity in a last moment of remorseful panic —about the social destination of their scientific experiments, though as early as 1914 H. G. Wells had prophetically outlined, in vivid detail, the consequences we now face. This monomaniac concentration on a limited order of truth, intensified by the withdrawal of human feeling, is, as Hawthorne saw, the unforgivable sin of modern man.

But there is another side to the modern personality, that of Captain Ahab : full of pride, anger, self-righteous aggression, conscious through little Pip of the claims of love, but brushing them aside in order to pursue his demonic hunt of the White Whale, taking on in his pursuit of the monster the very character of unreasoning aggression of which he himself had been the victim earlier. Brand throws himself into his charcoal furnace, as the physicist may yet consume himself in his atomic pile; Ahab throws overboard every scientific instrument that might guide him homeward in order to confine in still narrower channels his unqualified aggression. Both cases — one through passive withdrawal and through the drying up of feeling and emotion, the other through the active expression of the more aggressive and dominating sides of the personality — result in a fatal extinction of the human, and a final terminus to further development. Here, rather than in the Faust legend, are the true myths of modern man.

The conclusion should be plain. All the resources our society now possesses, all its present energies and vitalities, all its funded values and ideas, must be concentrated on the upbuilding and regenerative functions, in both the personality and the community. Where do these forces exist ? By what method can we tap them and apply them ? To what goals shall we direct them ? What discipline must we establish for the daily life, and what system of thought, what body of ideals, must guide both the person and the community ? These questions are now uppermost in all awakened minds."

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