My most salient impression of this essay, and by, extension, Mechanization Takes Command as a whole, is of the singular nature of Giedion’s achievement. From the first sentences in the “Man In Equipoise” essay, one senses that Giedion was a man who did not gravitate towards facile conclusions and yet, the indictment of the technological society found here, largely revealed merely by dispassionate reporting of the developments in question, is one of unprecedented depth and scope. “The complexes of meaning thus arising have not been explicitly linked. In the mind of the active reader new interrelations and new complexes of meaning will be found.” (The chapter on the mechanization of death in the Cincinnati slaughterhouses in MTC is a partcularly chilling one.) In this connection, Giedion characterizes the state of affairs that arises from this example and innumerable others reveal a radical disjunct between thought and feeling. How else could such processes occur on an ongoing basis? As such, mechanization takes on an ideological character. What kind of personality is successful at negotiating such environments as the Cincinnati slaughterhouses? What kind of personality is successful at negotiating the slaughterhouses of Auschwitz? Civilizations develop in the shadow of an ideology. One sees clearly at such junctures that technology cannot be viewed as neutral. Mumford states early on in his great study Technics and Civilization that it was the clock that ushered in the new era of science and technology around 1000 AD. From this time forward the subjective experience of time itself became abstract, divorced from the real rhythms of lived experience.
“To control mechanization demands an unprecedented superiority over the instruments of production.” So says Giedion here. But Jacques Ellul has convincingly demonstrated that, failing an intervention at the level of a meaningful challenge to the principle of efficiency, that this will not happen. Efficiency in this system, it could be said, has become reified, has become a fixed idea, an obsession. It seems to me that this is the place where one must challenge the hegemony of mechanization and not in some appeal to ‘equipoise’, the phenomenology of which cannot be established at the stage of understanding of the human organism we have at present. Gestalt psychology and an appeal to an appreciation of the functions of the autonomic nervous system do not take us where we want to go. No, one must focus on the inner workings of the individual mind, on critiquing the internal psychic structures, mostly authoritarian in nature, that find themselves replicated in the institutional structures of our society. Theorists from Robert Michel to G.W.F. Hegel to Max Stirner come back again and again to what Hegel termed the master-slave dialectic. Democracy necessarily leads to oligarchy, says Michel. mainly because the rank-and-file need to have a leader. “If submission would cease, it would be all over with lordship, says Max Stirner. Mecahanization ocdcurreed because peoiple were hungry, but it took that pathway that it did because the ideological presuppositions of a crucially large contingent of the populace didn’t see fit to raise an objection. One looks to such theorists as Max Weber and his controversial thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism for guidance. Viewing this thesis in conjunction with Nygren’s Agape and Eros leads the mind in a direction which puts one on the terrain of the problems associated with the separation of thought and feeling. One then has to confront such questions as the tension between duty and inclination, made rather famous in intellectual circles in the writings of Immanuel Kant. “Alas, I serve my friends gladly, but I do it from inclination, and I am troubled because I am not good. Nothing else will do: I must learn to despise them, and do from a spirit of duty what the moral law impels me to do.” Only a spirit which harbors a strong distaste for what Luther calls “concupiscence” (a term which he applied to all instances of desire, sexual or otherwise) is at home with such a formulation.
Ultimately one is gravitating here towards a general critique of Enlightenment philosophy, what Giedion put such faith in in its early, “unadulterated” form, as sketched in “Man In Equipoise”. He apparently failed to see that this enterprise was doomed from the start. It is Rationalism itself which is responsible for the machinery set in motion under the aegis of the Will to Mechanization. But concurrently with the early efforts at mechanization there was already a counter-initiative that appeared in the guise of the Counter-Enlightenment: the work of the young Friedrich Schiller and the young Wolfgang Goethe, Johann Gottfried Herder and the obscure counter-Enlightenment philosopher Johann Georg Hamann. The Sturm und Drang, which indicted Reason as the reified master-myth of a death-oriented civilization, was a key impetus in the formation of the Romantic movement. F. M. Klinger, whose Kraftmensch was developed as a literary topos, embodied a radical degree of individualism which requires no outside authority to justify his actions nor be tempered by the spirit of rationalism. (Ladies, I am not leaving you out. Yes, I am speaking of “her” actions as well. But if you are in contact with certain currents of woman’s deep cultural legacy you already know that Rationalism is not for you; I am preaching to the converted in such a case.) It was perhaps Herder that traced this descent into the deepest reaches of the self with the greatest alacrity. He sought to harmonize his conception of sentiment with reason as proceeding from the idea that all knowledge is always already implicit in the soul; the most elementary stage of consciousness is sensuous and intuitive perception, which by the proper form of development can become self-conscious and rational in a far deeper sense than is attained by rationalistically-derived logical analysis.
I think Giedion was on the right track, however, about looking to psychology to elucidate a possible path forward. But Christian von Ehrenfels, champion of Gestalt psychology, was hardly the theorist who could offer something that could be translated into a society that valued love and caring. No, we don’t want a society where the women lived an separate barracks that the men would come to visit for unromanticized sexual couplings. All this formulated in the age just before the appearance of Freud, where the elucidation of unconscious processes could reveal that Eherenfels was likely theorizing as he did due to being a victim of an unhappy, sexually frustrated upbringing. Giedion wished to counter the positivistic tendencies of his time, however, and Gestalt psychology appeared as a pathway towards this outcome, however flawed. There were other, more potent tendencies which were in the air in the 1890-1914 period, perhaps most notably the writings of the renegade psychologist Otto Gross. “The psychology of the unconscious is the philosophy of the revolution!” he thundered in the early days of the century.
Ultimately, Giedion demonstrates that the revolution of the mind continues!