Commentary on “Man In Equipoise” part I

“Man In Equipoise” is the postscript to Siegfried Giedion’s monumental work Mechanization Takes Command of 1948.  In it, he exhaustiviely catalogues the development of technology from its humble beginnings in the mid-eighteenth century to the development of the atomic bomb and the computer.  It’s such a masterpiece of analysis I will reproduce it in its entirety as an appendix in these pages in the coming days, since there doesn’t appear to be a fully articulated iteration of this text on the internet.

“Never has mankind possessed so many instruments for abolishing slavery.  But the promises of a better life have not been kept…future generations will perhaps designate  this period as one of mechanized barbarism, the most repulsive barbarism of all.”  I think it is important to keep in mind at this juncture that this was written in the shocked aftermath of the mass utilization of the Nazi apparatus of mechanized death (a model based on the Cincinnati abbatoirs, the development and implementation of which are thoroughly documented in Mechanization Takes Command), and the sudden appearance of the atomic bomb.  The sheer shock of this turn of events seemed to have opened a window onto a view of the myth of progress that was at odds with that of its positivistically-minded propagandists, people such as Condorcet and Turgot, who I will discuss in some detail below.  I will also be returning often to this tacit belief in what can be called the Myth of Progress, or as Lewis Mumford terms it, the Myth of the Machine, with its rooting in base scientistic assumptions.

Giedion, early in the essay, mentions in passing some pertinent thoughts of George Sorel, whose book Reflections on Violence was quite influential in the early twentieth century.  “George Sorel castigated bourgeois society as synomymous with ‘les illusions du progres” (Paris, 1908).  By illusions of progress Sorel, who began as an engineer, meant those illusions of social life and habits of thought.”  Giedion goes on the cite Thorstein Veblen who around this time accused science of a sea-change that involved science’s acquiescence to “an imputation of brute activity only.”

“Man In Equipoise” is quite revealing from a historical point of view.  For Giedion is operating from an assumption, widely accepted in intellectual circles of the time, that a change of heart had set in among a large contingent of thinking people that undercut, to a critical degree, the belief in the Myth of Progress:  “”Now, after the Second World War, it may well be that there are no people left, however remote, who have not lost their faith in progress.  Men have become frightened by progress, changed from a hope to a menace.  Faith in progress lies on the scrap heap, along with many other devalued symbols.”  This fear that Giedion speaks of perhaps reached its peak in the 1965-70 period in Western Europe and America, the moment of the counterculture.  But it is a far different situation now.  Scientism has roared back, and aided by the same contingent that was so skeptical in 1967. ( I am speaking of Stuart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalogue phenomenon documented recently in the valuable study of the impact of technology on modern society World Without Mind by Franklin Foer. )

Giedion moves on to discuss the history of the scientistic/positivistic outlook, which received an early impetus in Turgot’s essay “A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind” (1750).  An influential statement on the belief in human perfectibility, it furthermore placed its faith in science as the primary agent of this perfectibility.  Giedion quotes Turgot on this point:  “Les sciences sont immenses comme la nature.  Les arts, qui ne sont que des rapports à nous-mêmes, sont bornés comme nous.”   This aggrandizement of science at the expense of the arts is an abiding feature of the scientistic outlook.  Giedion moves on to cite Comte as a key consolidator of  the myth of progress as rooted in this new “spirit of science”, and accuses Marx of promulgating this notion of progress as embodied in his theory of historical materialism.  After this brief discussion, Giedion offers a lament:  “How was it possible for the foundation and very core of 19th century thought and action to collapse so hopelessly?  Without a doubt, it was that mechanization was misused to exploit both earth and man with complete irresponsibility.”   (At this point I offer this parenthetical aside.  Giedion’s assertion that mechanization was misused is undoubedly true, but it seems to me that he does not go far and deep enough in his critique.  In my opinion he underestimates the depth of change that the Myth of Progress effected in the collective psyche and in the outer world.  Comte’s efforts to quantify sociology, for example, were deeply implicated in the structures of detachment from human values which characterized the bureaucratic age of the later nineteenth century and beyond.  Nevertheless, Giedion’s stance offers us a telling indictment of the thrust of 18th century scientific values as they came to fruition in the early 20th century.)

End part I

 

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