Wednesday, April 10, 2013
140: Siegfried Giedion's Mechanization Takes Command
Working from a wide range of sources, including models, manufacturing records, catalogues, advertising leaflets, etc. (he was frustrated to find that most inventors and businesses did not keep records of failed inventions), Giedion traces the development of mechanization in Western history, from ancient and medieval times to the mid-20th century, with an emphasis on the 19th and 20th century. The books is arranged first thematically and then chronologically, and technologies, photography, painting, and business history are all intermingled, so that the reader can get a sense of the social and cultural context of different kinds of technologies in addition to a general sketch of their development. For instance, his section on movement includes Oresmi's 15th century diagrams of planets in motion, Marey's 19th century photographic studies of birds in flight, Muybridge's photos of men at work and Gilbreth's abstract lines of time and motion studies; as movement becomes more abstract, representations of it (Joyce, Picasso) become more fragmented and sad about the loss of human continuity. Perhaps mechanization, as linked to this rationalization of living movement, separates thought and feeling?
Giedion uses this vast and rather fragmented anonymous history of technology to caution against the "illusion" of progress, arguing that we have never had so many tools to abolish slavery, but all we show for it is an inability to organize the world or even ourselves. We live in age of "mechanized barbarism, the most repulsive barbarism of all," where a fragmented, mechanized view of the world has prevented us from seeing the whole picture even as revolutions in art and culture since the 20th century have tried to head in a more holistic direction, but it doesn't have to be that way. Giedion argues that in order to achieve an equilibrium between humans and technology, we need to reconnect some of the fragments: individual with community, thinking with feeling, specialized knowledges with one another, and the human body with "cosmic forces," or both man-made AND organic environments.
Basically, we need to become human again, and take a more holistic, contextual approach to technological development. In the wake of WWII and the atomic bomb and fears of nuclear annihilation, this book must have been a welcome relief to those who read it.