Mumford: The Pentagon of Power

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power. New York: Columbia UP. 1970. Print

Technics, Industrialization, Western Civilization, Mechanization, Power

First, an attempt to describe Mumford’s The Pentagon of Power. A grand, sweeping narrative that reads part scholarly opus, part novel, part manifesto, part historical polemic, etc. The primary thread, it seems, begins with the terrestrial and mechanical new worlds of the late 15th Century forward through the major figures of Galileo, Descartes, and Bacon into the post-industrialized Western world order dominated by Mumford’s description of a megamachine. The roots of Mumford’s modern history stretch back into ancient civilizations with their own version of an ancient megamachine. Mumford’s work acts, at times, as corrective: arguing for a reevaluation of medieval polytechnics as precursors to the modern monotechnics; suggesting the steam engine was more product of the industrial revolution than catalyst, a revolution brought about through the convergence of the factorization of military, monastic, and bureaucratic institutions. Power, historically, shifted from manual labor to the machine to paper work and into electronic (digital) realms. The power complex (166) is the contemporary manifestation of the grand forces Mumford discusses throughout.

Here are what I take to be major themes: Galileo’s distinction of the primary and secondary modes of knowledge parallels the objective/subjective binary with the positivist/empiricist orientation privileging the objective (exclusively through the figures of Descartes and, later, Bacon). From that historiography, Mumford provides a critical analysis seeking to explain the contemporary symbiotic power systems of militarized, technologize nation-states and their bureaucracies and technocracies in alignment with privatized corporations as allied providers and maintainers of the psychological and economic ground from which the megamachine and megatechnics self perpetuates, in large part after the people and aims of science became profitable and corporatized through “power-oriented technics” (123).

Some impressions: a thrill ride of a read, but, from a scholarly bent, it seems far too sweeping, too totalizing, too neat and tidy to be entirely convincing. I mean, how could such a battleship of scholarship not have difficulty exploring the nooks and crannies of the expanse it covers? I stopped counting major figures in the first hundred pages at 30 (not counting the scattering of minor figures he mentions), and those major figures ranged in culture and history from Montezuma to Whitman to Schrodinger to Freud. From a macro standpoint, though, without too close an observation, the history and analysis feels cohesive.

My takeaway here, in light of the trajectory we have planned [as part of a directed study on digital rhetoric], is to pocket the concepts of mechanization and technics, the contours of which have been shaped through materials and (often tacitly formed) philosophies. The critical spirit of Mumford’s work is what I find invigorating, notably his exploration of how materials, knowledge, and power dynamics shaped contemporary circumstance. I’m most interested in the trajectory Mumford only begins to explore from 1970: the shift toward cybernetics, computers, and the “Big Brain” (188-196), and the underlying power dynamics that the digital world affords and constrains.

A few avenues that occur to me for possible further discussions, numbered for convenience, not necessarily notability.

  1. How comfortable do I/you feel with Mumford’s sweeping claims?
  2. What, exactly, would I/you boil down his argument to?
  3. What factors are the most underdeveloped in this account?
  4. What factors are overemphasized?
  5. What factors are absent in this account?
  6. What questions/directions does this account raise/point to in terms of understanding or theorizing digital rhetoric?

(I aspired to begin each item in this list with the letter “P.” Alas)




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