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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Birth Of All That Is Us

Posted by on June 28 at 9:36 AM

I’ve been reading Lewis Mumford’s The City in History. It’s a book that takes forever, not because of its length (576 pages), but because it begins with prehistorical human settlements and slowly (stone by stone, log by log, brick by brick) moves through the ages—Egypt, Mesopotamia, Athens, Rome, and so on and so forth. The cities developed by each of these stages are essentially dull cities, and reading about them requires several cups of coffee—the Hellenic polis, the temples, the fortification of towns—nothing really happens until the 19th century.

Now Mumford, an American historian who lived in Manhattan in the middle of the 20th century, had very little love for the subject of his most famous book, the city. For him, it is the source, the locus of so much that is bad in human history. For example, he argues that war is not natural but entirely social—it has its birth in the city. Without cities, there would be no such thing as war. Cities are also less about people and more about kings and princes who expend massive amounts of human energy on monuments that symbolize their power. Mumford mumbles and grumbles through each of these early concentrations of misery. But when he gets to the 19th century, he becomes hysterical:

“From the eighteen-thirties on, the environment of the mine, once restricted to the original site, was universalized by the railroad. Wherever the iron rails went, the mine and its debris when with them. Whereas the canals of the eotechnic phase, with their locks and bridges and tollhouses , with their trim banks and their gliding barges, had brought a new element of beauty into the rural landscape, the railroads of the paleotechnic phase made huge gushes: the cuts and embankments for the greater part remained unplanted, and the would in the earth was unhealed.”

But it is the 19th century that awakens this book. All of a sudden, humans are up and busy and doing things that amaze and make the pages fly:

“Food-chains and production-chains of a complicated nature are being formed through out the planet: ice travelled from Boston to Calcutta and tea journeyed from China to Ireland, whilst machinery and cotton goods and cutlery from Birmingham and Manchester found their way to the remotest parts of the earth. A universal postal service, fast locomotion, and almost instantaneous communication by telegraph and cable synchronized the activities of vast masses of men…”
Wow! Who cares about pharaohs and slaves. What’s exciting is this new race of capitalists and industrial workers. They will animate the great novels of that period, and force Western philosophy to finally abandon the endless path of ontology and turn to the information of sociology. Everything that matters—that speaks to us, that is us—makes its first appearance in the penultimate century of the last millennium.

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War isn't born in cities. Chimps have wars.

Mumford has his moments but his understanding is tainted by the laughable state of cultural anthropology when he wrote it. His work has no relevance now. You should be reading something more modern, like Guns, Germs and Steel.

Murder is commonplace in small-band and tribal societies, and war in larger ones. Civilizations capable of cities are where the drive to prevent murder and war arose (though also where slavery took hold).

Take the time to study an ancient city where we have a decent archeological record, say Teotihuacán and you find the same trends that Mumford sees as quintessentially modern. Technology is just as effective there transforming society by creating a whole range of new desires, ways of life etc. as it is in modernity.
Mumford's tendency to see history as somehow divided into a before where technology serves to satisfy existing needs and wants and an after where technology is used to create new needs and wants and ways of living, only seems plausible because he's viewing the past through a woefully incomplete archeological record.

From Civilization and Its Discontents, by Freud:

"At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is I love declares that ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact."

He goes on to remark that the ego can melt too easily into the external world. And that modern civilization is like a fairy tale.

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