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Technology and Culture 43.1 (2002) 139-149

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Classics Revisited

Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization

Rosalind Williams

When I was asked to write this review, I had not reread Technics and Civilization in its entirety since 1987, when I participated in a conference on Lewis Mumford at the University of Pennsylvania. 1 Returning to the book after more than a decade was a shock. In my writing and teaching, I had become used to calling it "pathbreaking" and "irreplaceable." When I began to read it again, the adjectives that came to mind were "annoying" and "turgid." Flashes of brilliant insight were nearly obscured by billowing clouds of pompous oratory, unsupportable generalizations, and smug self-absorption.

My mother once told me that her father, a professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had read Technics and Civilization when it was first published in 1934. She remembers standing in the front hallway as he descended the staircase from his second-floor study, holding the book in his hand, shaking his head and muttering "That poor damn fool Mumford." I had always attributed his response to the unwillingness of engineers to confront the cultural dimensions of technics. Now I found myself uncomfortably close to agreeing with him. Writing this review has been an effort to recover a usable Mumford.

To some extent, my disillusionment was an outcome of the Penn conference. That meeting was part of a larger effort to reassess Mumford's legacy toward the end of his long life (born in 1895, he died on 26 January 1990). The proceedings were published in 1990, 2 not long after the publication [End Page 139] of Donald L. Miller's anthology of Mumford's writings and his biography of Mumford. 3 In Miller's biography, Mumford's intellectual contributions were less attention-grabbing than the revelations about his extramarital affairs. More troubling than the affairs themselves (at least for this reader) was the self-focus they revealed and the cruelty of his treatment of his wife, Sophia. In her review of the book, Ada Louise Huxtable commented that even by the standards of the time "This totally chauvinist domestic routine of support and sacrifice . . . does seem to have been carried to extremes. . . . Early in his marriage, [Mumford] had two bedrooms joined to serve as his room and study while his wife slept on a sofa behind a screen. . . . But why go on? I for one, would rather not. . . . I do not find that the feet of clay do much to illuminate the quality of the mind." 4

But it is more difficult to separate feet and mind, life and work, when the work is one of self-declared moral prophecy. For example, I can no longer read the passages in Technics and Civilization that run on and on about "life insurgent" as the creative force of history without recalling that Mumford justified his affair with Catherine Bauer as a period of disequilibrium necessary for him to achieve a new synthesis in his own life. Like a high priest, he ritualistically reenacted the drama of life's renewal while Sophia slept on a sofa, took care of two small children, and tried to provide her husband with ample time for creative concentration. Having peeked behind the domestic curtain, I can no longer see Mumford as a wizard.

As is so often the case, however, his great and real intellectual strengths are inextricably related to his personal failings. Just because Mumford conflates the historical with the personal, he apprehends technology from a new angle. His singular innovation and enduring contribution is his insistence on technics as an expression of human personality. 5 The essence of [End Page 140] history, in his view, is the process by which human beings create symbols to endow life with order and meaning, the "translation of brute experience into significant cultural forms," including technological forms. 6 Mumford emphasizes that many human needs other than functional or utilitarian ones are involved in technics. The human mind, even more than the human body, drives technological development. In the appraisal of...


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