Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Invisible Machine

I'm studying up on Utopias to teach a couple of courses aligned with the Modernism exhbitiion planned for the Corcoran in Spring 2007. Every time I take on a topic, it seems to me the one thing that explains everything in the world that we're not getting (even though it's always some point that's painfully obvious--my whole life theme seems to be that what's most important is what we're overlooking). But this passage from Lewis Mumford's essay, "Utopia, the City and the Machine" is particularly clarifying:

The many genuine improvements that science and technics have introduced into every aspect of existence have been so notable that it is perhaps natural that its grateful bneficiaries should have overlooked the ominous social context in which these changes have taken place, as well as the heavy price we have already paid for them, and the still more forbidding price that is in prospect. Until the last generation it was possible to think of the various components of techonology as additive. This meant that each new mechanical invention, each new scientific discovery, each new application to engineering, agriculture, or medicine, could be judged separately on its own performance, estimated eventually in terms of the human good accomplished, and diminished or eliminated if it did not in fact promote human welfare.
This belief has now proved an illusion. Though each new invention or discovery may respond to some genuine human need, or even awaken a fresh human potentiality, it immediately becomes part of an articulated totalitarian system that, on its own premises, has turned the machine into a god whose power must be increased, whose prosperity is essential to all existence, and whose operations, however irrational or compulsive, cannot be challenged, still less modified.
The only group that has understood the dehumanizing effects of the Invisible Machine are the avant-garde artists, who have caricatured it by going to the opposite extreme of disorganization. Their calculated destructions and "happenings" symbolize total decontrol: the rejection of order, continuity, design, significance, and a total inversion of human values which turns criminals into saints and scrambled minds into sages. In such anti-art, the dissolution of our entire civilization into randomness and entropy is prophetically symboliozed. In their humorless deaf-and-dumb language, the avant-garde arrtists reach the same goal as scientists and technicians, but by a different route--both seek or at least welcome the displacement of and the eventual elimination of man. In short, both the further affirmation of the mechanical utopia and its total rejection would beget dystopia. Wherever human salvation may lie, neither utopia nor dystopia, as now conceived, promises it.

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