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Lewis Mumford : The Modern Metropolis

Mis à jour : juin 25

{Mumford (October 19, 1895 – January 26, 1990) was an American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic. Particularly noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, he had a broad career as a writer. Mumford made signal contributions to social philosophy, American literary and cultural history and the history of technology. Wikipedia}

Extract from :

Mumford, Lewis

The City in History



"The image of modern industrialism that Charlie Chaplin carried over from the past into 'Modern Times' is just the opposite of megalopolitan reality. He pictured the worker as an old-fashioned drudge, chained to the machine, mechanically fed while he continued to operate it. That image belongs to Coketown.

The new worker, in the metropolis, has been progressively released from the productive process: the grinding, impoverished toil that made the the nineteenth-century factory so hideous has been lifted by social services and security, by mechanical aids and by complete automation. Work is no longer so brutal in the light industries: but automation has made it even more boring. The energy and application that once went into the productive process must now be addressed to consumption.

By a thousand cunning attachments and controls, visible and subliminal, the workers in an expanding economy are tied to a consumption mechanism: they are assured of a livelihood provided they devour without undue selectivity all that is offered by the machine, and demand nothing that is not produced by the machine. The whole organization of the metropolitan community is designed to kill spontaneity and self-direction. You stop on the red light and go on the green. You see what you are supposed to see, you think what you are supposed to think ; your personal contibutions, like your income and security taxes, are deductible at source.

To choose, to select, to discriminate, to exercise prudence or continence or forethought, to carry self-control to the point of abstinence, to have standards other than those of the market, and to set limits other than those of immediate consumption — these are impious heresies that would challeng the whole megalopolitan myth and deflates its economy. In such a 'free' society, Henry Thoreau must rank as a greater public enemy than Karl Marx.

The metropolis, in its final stage of development, becomes a collective contrivance for making this irrational system work, and for giving those who are in reality its victims the illusion of power, wealth, and felicity, of standing at the very pinnacle of human achievement. But in actual fact their lives are constantly in peril, their wealth is tasteless and ephemeral, their leisure is sensationally monotonous, and their pathetic felicity is tainted by constant, well-justified anticipations of violence and sudden death. Increasingly they find themselves "strangers and afraid," in a world they never made: a world ever less responsive to direct human command, ever more empty of human meaning.

To believe, therefore, that human culture has reached a marvellous final culmination in the modern metropolis, one must avert one's eyes from the grim details of the daily routine. And that is precisely what the metropolitan denizen schools himself to do: he lives, not in the real world, but in a shadow world projected around him at every moment by means of paper and celluloid and adroitly manipulated lights : a world in which he is insulated by glass, cellophane, pliofilm from the mortifications of living.

In short, a world of professional illusionists and their credulous victims.

The swish and crackle of paper is the underlying sound of the metropolis. What is visible and real in this world is only what has been transferred to paper or has been even etherialized o a microfilm or a tape recorder. The essential daily gossip of the metropolis is no longer that of people meeting face to face at a cross-roads, at the dinner table, in the marketplace : a few dozen people writing in the newspapers, a dozen or so more broadcasting over radio and television, provide the daily interpretation of movements and happenings with slick professional adroitness.

Thus even the most spontaneous human activities come under professional surveillance and centralized control. The spread of manifolding devices of every sort gives to the most ephemeral and mediocre products of the mind a temporary durability they do not deserve: whole books are printed to justify the loose evacuations of the tape recorder.

All the major activities of the metropolis are directly connected with paper and its plastic substitutes; and printing and packaging are among its principal industries. The activities pursued in the offices of the metropolis are directly connected with paper: the tabulating machines, the journals, the ledgers, the card-catalogs, the deeds, the contracts, the mortgages, the briefs, the trial records: the prospectuses, too, so, advertisements, the magazines, the newspapers. As the early as the eighteenth century, Mercier had observed this metropolitan form of the White Plague. Modern methods of manifolding have not lessened the disease: they have only exchanged easygoing slipshod ways, which often sufficed, for a more exact record, whose elaboration and cost are out of all proportion to the value of what is recorded. What was a mere trickle in Mercier's day has now become a ravaging flood of paper.

As the day's routine proceeds the pile of paper mounts higher : the trashbaskets are filled and emptied and filled again. The ticker tape exudes its quotation of stocks and its report of news; the students in the schools and universities fill their notebooks, digest and disgorge the contents of books, as the silkworm feeds on mulberry leaves and manufactures its cocoon, unravelling themselves on examination day. In the theater, in literature, in music, in business, reputations are made — on paper. The scholar with his degrees and publications, the actress with her newspaper clippings, and the financier with his shares and his voting proxies, measure their power and importance by the amount of paper they can command.

No wonder the anarchists once invented the grim phrase:"Incinerate the documents !" That would ruin this whole world quicker than universal flood or earthquake, if not as fatally as a shower of hydrogen bombs. That life is an occasion for living, and not a pretext for supplying items to newspapers, interviews on television, or a spectacle for crowds of otherwise vacant bystanders — these notions do not occur in the metropolitan mind. For them the show is the reality, and "the show must go on !"

This metropolitan world, then, is a world where flesh and blood are less real than paper and ink and celluloid. It is a world where the great masses of people, unable to achieve a more full-bodied and satisfying means of living, take life vicariously, as readers, spectators, listeners, passive observers. Living thus, year in and year out, at second hand, remote from the nature that is outside them, and no less remote from the nature that is within, it is no wonder that they turn more and more of the functions of life, even thought itself, to the machines that their inventors have created.

In this disordered environment only machines retain some of the attributes of life, while human beings are progressively reduced to a bundle of reflexes, without self-starting impulses or autonomous goals : 'behaviorist man'."

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