“Man In Equipoise” Commentary part II

Giedion ends this section of the essay with the chilling words “Means have outgrown man.”  This idea leads directly to the work of Jacques Ellul, whose unsparing indictment of mechanization and what he calls “technique” in general, The Technological Society, followed Giedion’s book by a mere 6 years.  Ellul’s take on the phenomenon of technology leaves no room for optimism.  In his view, advanced technology is something that leads to mass enslavement, of necessity, period.  I follow here with an excerpt from my paper, a version of which I presented at a conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society at Columbia University in 2014,  “The Great Refusal Versus the Technological Imperative: The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object”:

“Ellul begins with a basic definition: ‘Technique certainly began with the machine. It is quite true that all the rest developed out of mechanics; it is quite true also that without the machine the world of technique would not exist. But to explain the situation in this way does not at all legitimize it. It is a mistake to continue with this confusion of terms, the more so because it leads to the idea that, because the machine is at the origin and center of the technical problem, one is dealing with the whole problem when one deals with the machine. And that is a greater mistake still. Technique has become almost completely independent of the machine, which has lagged far behind its offspring.’

“Ellul continues his critique of technique by making the case for its full autonomy, an autonomy which subordinates ends to means and is fully independent of any specific form of social organization. Technique, in this reading, follows a protocol that proceeds without regard to context: ‘The primary aspect of autonomy is perfectly expressed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, a leading technician. He takes, as his point of departure, the view that the industrial plant is a whole in itself, a ‘closed organism’, an end in itself. Giedion adds: ‘What is fabricated in this plant and what is the goal of its labor—these are questions outside its design.’ The complete separation of the goal from the mechanism, the limitation of the problem to the means, and the refusal to interfere in any way with efficiency, all this is clearly expressed by Taylor and lies at the basis of technical automony.’   Efficiency in its most general form somehow becomes the overriding concern, with no effective opposition, a phenomenon known today as instrumental or technological rationality. This privileging of means has far-reaching consequences, of course. In Ellul’s view, even economic and political development are subordinated to technical development: “Technique elicits and conditions social, political, and economic change. It is the prime mover of all the rest, in spite of any appearance to the contrary, and in spite of human pride, which pretends that man’s philosophical theories are still determining influences…”

Giedion in his essay offers an explanation as to why Turgot’s vision failed: it was “because it stepped down from Turgot’s visions to the lowest reaches of materialistic interpretation.  It no longer correspsonded to the modern conception of the world.”


The end of mechanistic conceptions

This is the heading of the next section of “Man In Equipoise”.  What a beautiful sentence follows.  “Mechanization is the outcome of a mechanistic conception of the world, just as technique is the outcome of science.”  One could build a whole new ideational structure, a philosophical movement as profound as the upheaval of the Renaissance, on this statement and its implications.  That is what we will be doing.  But all the asterisks, all the incoherencies, would have to be cleaned out.  I gather up the crumbs of great ideas.  And throw away the rest, one might add.  But this involves the thoroughgoing critique of positivism.  Daniel Dennett, take notice.  Giedion continues: “In every sphere a revolution, arising from the depths of our mind, has shattered the mechanistic conception of the world.”  If only his sentiment had carried over, past the breakwater of 1970 and into our own time.  It partly has, but only in carefully screened-off compartments.  We had ’em where we wanted ’em, and we let ’em off the hook.  Grandmother would have been so chagrined, we just didn’t have the heart.  This reminds me of Paris ’68, but that’s another story, as Le Moustache might say.

Giedion goes on to discuss Gestalt psychology.  “Gestalt psychology ended the pseudo-mathematical mechanistic laws that nineteenth century psychology had established for the human mind. ”  The the American Psychological Association and its DSM has seen to it that this “advance” did not carry the day.  We must build this edifice almost from the bottom up all over again.  Giedion extends his discussion to the biological realm and cites the work of J.C. Smuts (take your titter moment) who characterized the modern view of biology as pointing to “the nature of wholes as a fundamental feature of the world”, a world in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  Giedon sums up his position: “The mechanistic outlook of the nineteenth century, involving interest in every detail, lost the power to integrate.”

end part II





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