LEWIS MUMFORD AND THE DISCIPLE'S REBELLION
"An age that worships the machine and seeks only those goods that the machine provides, in ever larger amounts, at ever rising profits, actually has lost contact with reality: and in the next moment or the next generation may translate its general denial of life into one last savage gesture of nuclear extermination. Within the context of organic order and human purpose, our whole technology has still potentially a large part to play; but much of the riches of modern technics will remain unusable until organic functions and human purposes, rather than the mechanical process, dominate."
Lewis Mumford was a versatile cultural critic who became famous for his views on the city and who's prodigious writing life is marked indelibly across American disciplines. In 1950 at the prestigious Benjamin Franklin lecture series he described himself thus: 'Like Carlyles' mouthpiece in Sartor Resartus, I am a professor of things-in-general; and my duty is to tear down the fences and the "No trespassing" signs that keep people from taking advantage of wider views and more significant prospects.'
The lecture was published with the others from the series in a book called The Arts in Renewal (1951). Reviewing the book at the time Gore Vidal wrote: 'Although these essays were well-intentioned, only Mr Mumford has kept to the spirit of the theme and he alone has succeeded in making a major statement: one humanist's true opposition to the anti-human, to the machine which in this century has replaced Lucifer as the solemn image of darkness in our lives.'
His first book, the Story of Utopias (1922) secured his reputation in New York's literary circles. A series of controversial books on Western culture came next: Sticks and Stones (1924), The Golden day (1926), Herman Melville (1929) and the Brown Decades (1931). Mumford took his writing seriously and held a commitment to style unusual in non-fiction writers. His scope was historical and his aim was always to enhance his readers understanding of the social and technological forces, as well as the aesthetic impulses, that had shaped American art, architecture, literature and philosophy.' In the 1930s he undertook an ambitious four volume text titled The Renewal of Life (1934, 38, 44, 51). According to Robert Wojtowicz, Mumford: 'Advocated a new regional order, one driven by organic needs rather than technological invention As the possibility of war loomed in Europe, he warned his countrymen of the totalitarian threat in Men Must Act (1939) and Faith for Living (1940).' As we shall see this ongoing theme of Mumfords' for a regional decentralised and co-operative society and against the 'pentagon of power' has been reassessed in recent years.
Donald Miller's 1989 biography of Mumford is the first major biographical work. It was based on ten years research and intensive discussion with Mumford and his wife Sophia. Also, clearly for our purposes the recent publication of Frank Novaks edited collection of the sixteen year correspondence between Geddes and Mumford, and the Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual edited by Thomas and Agatha Hughes, have offered great insight. However, as the Indian environmental writer, Ramachandra Guha has noted in a recent essay: 'They carefully appraise Mumford's contributions to architecture, technology, urban history, regional planning and literature, but contain little awareness of his ecologically oriented writings.' While there is insufficient room for a comprehensive review of Mumfords writings, I would like to comment briefly on his supposed pessimism, his concept of the 'usable past', and the ecological aspect of his work.
The Usable Past
A key preoccupation for Mumford, which was clearly inspired by Geddes was a preoccupation with history. Mumford visited Europe in 1925 and letters reveal him reflecting on what he came to term 'the usable past'. The idea stems from Mumford's colleague, Van Wyck Brooks,who first wrote of it in an essay for the Dial. Brooks and Mumford suggested that the 'European emigrant lost the security of his past in order to gain a better stake in his future.'
'This trial, according to Mumford, requires neither the rejection of modernity nor its blind acceptance Mumford rejected both sides of the prevailing cultural debate: a Eurocentric romanticism that annihilated modernity by reviving the ancien regime and a modernism that accomodated the megamachine by deriving its aesthetic sensibility and spatial form from the new technologies for Mumford this unsatisfactory polarity mirrored an equally inadequate political discourse between collectivism (socialism) and individualism (reactionary capitalism).'
Mumford believed America to be very European. He believed that America had inherited the twin revolutions of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and that this inheritance included a process of abstraction which involved an attempt to 'isolate, deform, and remove historic connections.' Having no past, and no continuity we have no future. Such a position engenders independence, self-reliance and is the bedrock of capitalism.
Two writers in particular have focused on Mumford's preoccupation with this notion. John L. Thomas notes that Mumford had, 'Long ago learned how to appropriate a city by walking through it, but now he was acquiring a felt sense of the past and its uses he knew exactly what he was seeking in history - 'a vision to live by again.' Casey Blake has written that: 'far from bending the past to fit current ideological imperatives, the 'usable past' that Mumford sought in his writings was intended to give a historical dimension to a common culture History, in his view, was 'usable' insofar as it allowed citizens to reflect on the past conditions that shaped their experience, and to grasp the potential for change that lay within themselves and their society.' This is a Geddes inspired statement which displays that the generalist view is intended to have a perspective that is both broad and deep. By linking ourselves with societies and communities of the past, we are also acknowledging our own contemporary connections and disavowing the atomism which modern society encourages. In 1920 Mumford wrote that, 'Establishing its own special relations with its past each generation creates anew what lies behind it, as well as what looms in front; and instead of being victimized by those forces which are uppermost at the moment, it gains the ability to select the qualities which it values, and by exercising them it rectifies its own infirmities and weaknesses.'
Given the particularly fraught relationship that America has with its recent history, this evocation by Mumford is important. I think also that it should be recognised that this temporal dimension is crucial to Mumford's importance as an ecologist. Whether we are taking the standard definition of sustainable development 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,' or the Iroqois idea that any decision should be made considering what its consequences might be for seven generations to come, long term thinking is central to an ecological world view. This idea of the 'usable past' then, should be seen as a precursor to Mumford's growing ecological sensibility rather than a quirky notion or eccentricity.
Over the past thirty years or so, Mumford's reputation has been slowly forming around the misapprehension that he is a dire pessimist. It's certainly true that Lewis Mumford was profoundly influenced by the growth of fascism in Europe, the Second World War, and the ensuing Cold War. Personally he was devastated by the death of his son Geddes, and took time to recover from this blow. To other writers such as Hannah Arendt, Oswald Spengler, Walter Benjamin Theodore Adorno, and Horkheimer, these events were symptomatic of a wider crisis in modernity. Not to be deeply affected by them would be a superficial response. The charge of pessimism laid against Mumford is therefore hard to uphold. He had seen his ideas of the RPAA concreted over as the post war American boom glossed the reality on which it was based. Not only did Mumford have every reason to be disconsolate, but he found within him the strength to write a clear analysis of the meaning of the unfolding tragedy of the 20th Century.
Reflecting on this crisis of the modern world Mumford would write that:
'The change in the direction of our civilization has long been overdue; and the proof that it is overdue lies in the wholesale miscarriage of human hopes and plans that has taken place during the last fifty years: a miscarriage that has caused the century of progress, as people fondly called the 19th C, to give way to half a century of savage regression. I need hardly call to your minds the too familiar proofs of this fact: the glaring paradoxes of starvation in the midst of plenty, of increased impotence through the magnification of power, of brutality and barbarism through the one-eyed devotion to truth, of the threatened extermination of man, either slowly and indirectly, or swiftly and overwhelmingly, as the result of our total commitment to the machine, and of our childish failure to exercise control over the nightmarish inventions we have created. In a brief thirty years, punctuated by two world wars and a series of almost equally grisly revolutions, we have prematurely wiped out between forty and fifty million lives, on the most conservative calculation.'
This was not pessimism but the outgrowing of the idealism of his youth and more widely the change in world view which marks the 19th and 20th Centuries. Namely, the crises of the 20th Century have undermined our belief in progress, and led to a realisation, amongst some, that the roots of our predicament are deep. Mumford therefore sees the ecological crisis not as a unique and recent phenomenon but the culmination of forces that relies on an entirely instrumental reason. Mumford attempts a reconstructive analysis as well as a damning critique, he writes that:
We must re-examine man's needs and re-establish more human goals than those we have mistakenly pursued: we must choose the road to life, which of old was called the road to salvation, and which now is also the road to survival. We need more knowledge still, but of a different kind from the fragmentary, unco-ordinated triumphs of modern specialists; we need more wealth, but a wealth measured in terms of life rather than profits and prestige; we need more power too, the human power to control, to inhibit, to direct, to restrain, to withhold, in direct proportion to our augmented physical power to explode and destroy.
The American author, Paul Boyer, in his recent study 'By the Bomb's Early Light', notes that "the most exhaustive post-Hiroshima reflections and predictions regarding the bomb's psychological impact were those of Lewis Mumford.' In this multiple crisis - political; economic, technological, spiritual, ecological, such a generalist view as Mumford had inherited was able to shed real light on what was at stake. Again, this cycle of war and renewal that we have seen from Geddes after the First World War, with Mumford after the Second is witnessed again today, when in the aftermath of the Cold war the challenge again is to reconstruct democracy, and socio - ecological infrastructure. In this fashion to highlight the ecological aspect of Geddes and Mumfords work is both to validate and to continue their work.
The Indian writer Ramachandra Guha has recently written of Mumford as 'the forgotten American environmentalist'. Guha argues that the American environmental history has been written around themes of nationalism and wilderness and that in doing so they have avoided one of their 'most authentic voices'. Guha writes that: 'The commonly acknowledged 'patron saints' of American environmentalism are the naturalist and nature lover John Muir, and the forester and biologist Aldo Leopold'. Others such as Henry Thoreau, Edward Abbey and Joseph Wood Krutch all have a profile above that of Mumford. Yet for Guha, Mumford's writing contains, 'some of the earliest and finest thinking on bioregionalism, anti-nuclearism, biodiversity, alternate energy paths, ecological urban planning and appropriate technology - all this combined with the deeply humane sensibilities of a democratic socialist.'
Guha points out that Mumford explicitly acknowledges this debt to Geddes. In a 1950 essay Mumford wrote that by 'both training and general habit of mind Geddes was an ecologist long before that branch of biology had obtained the status of a special discipline And it is not as a bold innovator in urban planning, but as an ecologist, the patient investigator of historic filiations and dynamic biological and social relationships that Geddes's most important work in cities was done.' This is a definitive statement on Geddes and one that is central to my own assessment of his lasting value.
Geddes, as Guha points out, suggests Mumford look at George Perkins Marsh's early ecological thinking. It was Marsh, a Vermont naturalist who wrote that 'The equation of animal and vegetable life is too complicated a problem for human intelligence to solve, and we can never know how wide a circle of disturbance we produce in the harmonies of nature when we throw the smallest pebble in the ocean of organic life'. Contemporary ecologists will recognise that the idea of deference and the precautionary principle are imbedded in such a statement - again clues that Geddes and Mumford were drawing on a more radical environmental roots. It is from Marsh that Mumford develops his own ecological history of America. These writings are contained in a series of essays on regionalism published in the The Sociological Review. As Guha points out 'these essays constitute Mumford's first systematic attempt to apply the Geddesian ecological framework to historical phenomena. Mumford described Americas recent history as one of 'irregionalism'. 'In America during the last century we mined soils, gutted forests, misplaced industry, wasted vast sums in needless transportation, congested population and lowered the physical vitality of the community without immediately feeling the consequences of our actions.'
By contrast, Mumford and his associates advocated a regionalism which 'must not merely, through conservation, prevent waste: it must also provide the economic foundations for a continuous and flourishing life.' Mumford, after Geddes, outlined what Guha has termed ' a three stage interpretation of the development of industrial civilisation'.
These successive, overlapping and interpenetrating phases should be seen essentially as ecological histories. Guha points out that each of these phases has changed the landscape, altered the physical shape of cities, used certain resources and favoured certain types of commodity. In the Greek view this is the concept of technics - that is the wider general approach that a society applies - the tools that it uses. Viewed from the point of view of characteristic inputs of energy and materials:
It may well be that we are now in a fourth stage, that of the plastic, silicon, and nuclear complex. I would suggest that we are now in a fast developing neotechnics where the challenge is whether we can utilise our technology to overcome problems or whether we will be overcome by our technology, which is developing adrift of ethical context and outwith democratic control. The commercially driven agribusiness, biotechnology, and human genome project threaten to overcome our latent potential for appropriate technologies, organic farming, urban agriculture and other appropriate 'technics'.
Mumford outlines these phases as being between 1300 - 1700 (Eotechnic) 1750 - 1900 (Paleotechnic), and Neotechnic 1900 - ? Remembering that these phases are successive, overlapping and interpenetrating and also that today, whilst we are all under the same development process and ruled by the same economic orthodoxy, we are at desperately varied levels of technical and industrial development in different parts of the world. Eulogising the eotechnic, Mumford writes: 'The energy of the eotechnic phase did not vanish in smoke nor were its products thrown quickly on junk-heaps: by the 17th century it had transformed the woods and swamps of northern europe into a continuous vista of wood and field, village and garden.' After about 1750, according to Mumford industrial development had 'passed into a new phase, with a different source of power, different materials, different social objectives.' This paleotechnic era was characterised under Geddes and Mumford's analysis as living, for the first time in human history, on natures capital, rather than nature's income. This could be characterised, for example, as the difference between coppicing and deforestation. Mumford, though he wrote dramatically and darkly about the industrial era of 'carboniferous capitalism' thought that the paleotechnic era could be, ' a period of transition, a busy, congested, rubbish strewn avenue between the eotechnic and neotechnic economies.'
The neotechnic era could be seen as emerging away from this disorder into energy based on renewable sources rather than fossil fuels. Mumford laid great store in hydroelectricity, which he saw as being a benign and universal source of energy which would have the knock on effect of being equally available on all continents and thereby an equaliser to European hegemony. Mumford was also advocating solar energy in the 1930s. This neotechnic era, Mumford hoped, would restore the relationship between man and nature; industry and agriculture and in population between birth and death rates. If some of Mumford's views seem naive nowadays, his holistic, generalist and dialectical approach was ahead of his time. In all of this we can see a clear lineage of thought from Geddes to Mumford, and yet, as we shall see their collaboration was far from harmonious.
Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes - The Disciple's Rebellion
Looking at Geddes through Lewis Mumford holds several advantages. Mumford is both Geddes's intellectual equal and close ally. We therefore avoid hagiography whilst still allowing keen personal insight. Disentangling Geddes, as we know is possible only with these twin advantages. For example when comparing Geddes and George Bernard Shaw, Mumford says:
' Geddes was committed to the frontal attack and to direct action, not because he coveted power, but because he put the needs of life first. Even when Shaw was most verbally revolutionary, he usually played the game and sought the rewards of the game; while even when Geddes was most loyal to become a university teacher, but refused to qualify for a degree; and though the Martin White Chair of Sociology at the University of London was founded for his occupancy, he did so little in his probationary lecture to win the approval of the University Committee that they turned him down....if Geddes had studied the arts of winning an audience as carefully as Shaw, and if Shaw had acquired any of Geddes's gift for detachment and impersonality, they both might have left a deeper mark on their age.'
At the first face to face meeting of Geddes and Mumford, in New York in 1923 after much correspondence, Mumford recalls the Professor saying to him: 'You are the image of my poor dear lad and almost the same age he was when he was killed in France. You must be another son to me, Lewis, and we will get on with our work together.' Mumford adds 'There was both grief and desperation in this appeal: both too violent, too urgent, for me to handle. The abruptness of it, the sudden overflow, almost unmanned me, and my response to it was altogether inadequate, not so much from shallowness of feeling as from honesty.' Mumford, as Murdo Macdonald has pointed out twice lost a father. In 1944 Mumford's son Geddes was killed in combat in Italy.
Lewis Mumford was at first inspired by Geddes, then frustrated, exasperated and re-inspired over a thirty year period. This relationship is documented in the letters between them, and in three documents written by Mumford as he looked back on his career. The first is a note written after a visit with Geddes in Edinburgh , the second is 'The Disciples Rebellion' and the third 'The Geddesian Gambit' written in 1976 . We thus have a detailed insight into one of the most creative collaborations of the 20th Century, one that offers us a unique insight into human psychological dynamics, and a crucial perspective on Geddes himself. Even at his most exasperated, Mumford's analysis is that Geddes's value is in his personal drive, his elan vital, his 'insurgency'. In Mumford we have the most prestigious writers evaluation of Geddes:
'Posterity might leave Geddes's papers to moulder as long as Leonardo's, that would be a loss, but not irreperable. For what distinguishes Geddes's thought, what sets it apart from the special researches he has drawn on or swiftly anticipated, is the total personality behind it. Since men value the equanimity of Socrates or the vision of Plato, they will come, I think, to treasure likewise the life-insurgence of Patrick Geddes.'
This juxtaposition of brilliance and awfulness is apparent from the many comments made about Professor Geddes. Delilah Loch, writing to Mumford of Geddes's imminent arrival said: 'So I lay a serious charge on (you) - Geddes must be accepted (as good Catholics accept grief) with an open heart and no reserves, if he is to benefit those whom his presence scourges. He will brook no reserves Don't forget he is an old man and lonely - the very-most-vicious-cave barbarian when sad, angered, or thwarted.' It has been claimed (largely by Mumford) that Geddes's thought ossified as the years went by. This, I think is in part a fair charge, yet also a distraction. Geddes was clearly frustrated, but he also kept an outpouring of creative energy which was astounding. Mumford, although he becomes frustrated with his 'Master' ultimately acknowledges this creativity as his main legacy.
The key to this frustration I think lies in this comment from Mumford looking back on the relationship when he says: 'In his final will Geddes designated me as his biographer: but even after his death I was unwilling to undertake that task; for I had work of my own to do. In time this would validate what was sound in Geddes's audacious career, expose the ideological weaknesses of his system, and explore realms not charted or chartable on his graphs.'
Mumford is yearning to see what his contribution to the growing body of regionalism will be. He must break from his master and yet his loyalty, their personal intimacy and the tragic nature of Geddes's later years makes this break difficult, 'I had work of my own to do'. Mumford was later to write of their relationship: 'This cracked gem; this vase too beautiful to be broken, and too broken to be wholly beautiful. The tantalizing nearness of everything we want most; were it not for some fatal, stubborn grain in both of us, Geddes and I, linked together, intellectual and emotional, might still conquer the world. For lack of this he will be imperfectly articulate, and I, perhaps, will have nothing worth articulating.'
Certainly, Geddes was a stubborn man, this weakness would have to be apparent for him to push through, cajole and harass so many of his projects to fruition. For Mumford, also there is the frustrating completeness of the Geddes 'school'. Geddes's generalism, his enthusiasm and his scholarly nous allows him to appear simultaneously invincible and excruciating to Mumford, who writes in thinly veiled praise: 'The weakness of the Edinburgh school so far has been the weakness of the Aristotelian school after Aristotle: the work of the founder has been so comprehensive and magnificent and inspiring that it has in appearance left nothing for scholars to do except to go over and annotate and dilute the master's work.'
Ultimately both men know that for there to be a synthesis, a progression, Mumford must break with Geddes. Mumford again: 'I have no private utopia for life has still too many potentialities to be encompassed by the projects of a single generation, by the hopes and beliefs of a single thinker.' Although Geddes was a supreme internationalist and corresponded and interacted with an array of writers, gurus and thinkers such as Rabindranath Tagore, Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, Mumford was in a sense, in a more fervently intellectual setting. Savant, modernist, socialist, humanist - fringe member of New York's thirties avant garde, Mumford was of a different age from Geddes. Arguably, Geddes is more intellectually isolated than Mumford.
But it is not just Geddes and Mumford occupy different intellectual milieux, and are separated socially and geographically. They are separated by a generation, and there is something of the classical scholar about Geddes and the contemporary sophisticate about Mumford. Yet they are bound by their common ideals, their idealism and their belief in progress, a key modernist notion. Among the issues that are raised in the discourse between Geddes and Mumford is, the history of progress. The development of the idea that man has the capacity to control, shape and improve their destiny, and by virtue of our amazing power over the organic world, the destiny of the natural environment.
This idea feeds out of the Renaissance, into the Enlightenment and is thrown into relief again by the industrial revolution. Geddes, is from Scotland who's cities were the power base of the industrial revolution. Mumford, is witness to that great industrial experiment, the United States of America. Mumford realises the disjunction that American society has with its own history, being an emigrant nation based on genocide and seizure of native people's lands. These issues come to the fore again and again, and in a letter to Geddes, Mumford touches on these issues saying:
'...there is a real barrier to understanding between us in the fact that you grew to manhood in a period of hope, when people looked forward with confidence to the 'great world spinning forever down the ringing grooves of time'; whereas I spent my whole adolescence in the shadow of war and disappointment, growing up with a generation which, in large part, had no future.'
Ultimately, Mumford draws sustenance from Geddes life and work and uses it to overcome his own, personal and intellectual despair, stating: 'Geddes's essential doctrine was a doctrine of life: its inception, its growth, its crises, its insurgence, its self-transcendence those who look for Patrick Geddes in the libraries will never find him: they will be put off by his crabbed, somewhat Carlylean style, by his incomplete thoughts, by his impatient shortcuts and his willful exagerrations - all apparent weaknesses which were rectified in real life by his stern commonsense, his massive practical grasp, his astonishing breadth of scholarship, his relentless confrontation of reality.'
This 'confrontation of reality' is a good way of summing up Geddes's life, a struggle against circumstance for his beliefs. It is reminiscent of the later anarchist slogan - Demand the Impossible! And the old Scottish saying An Fhirinn an aghaidh an t-Saoghail! (The Truth Against the World).
Frank Novak, who has done most to analyse the Mumford - Geddes relationship points out that in fact, Mumford distills and projects onto Geddes their shared ideals: 'In the Condition of Man Mumford asserts that 'the Geddesian doctrine of life' offers a new sense of the organic,' a vision of 'growth, reproduction, renewal, and insurgence' that might renew and redeem human life and culture after the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.' In the essay 'What I Believe', Mumford describes Geddes as the embodiment of and the inspiration for his own philosophy of 'organic unity':
Geddes showed that a conception of life, unified at the center and ramifying in many interrelations and comprehensions at the periphery, could be rationally lived; that it had not been outmoded by the age of specialization but was actually a mode that might, through its superior vitality and efficiency, supplant this age; that one could practice in one's own person, in the germ, a type of feeling and acting which might ultimately be embodied, with fuller, deeper effect, in the whole community; that, even on the crude test of survival, a life that was organically grounded and pursued with a little courage and audacity had perhaps a better chance than the narrow goals and diminished possibilities of our dominant civilization. My utopia is such a life, writ large.
This inspirational quality is perhaps the greatest legacy Geddes left Mumford, and hints at the true goal of the 'life insurgent' that Geddes and Mumford pursued. This is a rounder, fuller conception of life, which suggests that individual and collective fulfilment would go hand in hand with an ecological society.
Chronology of Lewis Mumford's Life and Writings
Born October 19 in Flushing, New York
Lewis Mumford at 100 (pamphlet)