“Novelty, give us novelty, seems to be the cry, heaven and earth and the wide sea cannot obtain the forms and fancies that are here displayed . . . like the whimsies of madness.”
Henry Cole, Journal of Design vol. 1, p.74 (1849)
I am still working my way through Mechanization Takes Command by Sigfried Giedion, and it is a monster of an analysis. His book, from 1948, tries to encompass nearly every strata of civilization affected by the advent of mechanization, and remarkably he is spot on more often than off the mark. In earlier chapters he has tackled the mechanization of lock making, slaughterhouses, agriculture, home comfort, libraries, bread-making, scientific management, tools, furniture, and even devoted a chapter to incubating eggs.
His personal specialty, however, is architecture, and in particular the historical human relationship to space. After a hundred or so pages delving into rococo, high Gothic and Flanders styles, Romanesque chairs and Dutch kitchens, he is finally getting back to the focus of his argument, and it is diverting me from all kinds of work I should be doing for school.
I can remember, since my freshman year of high school when I first really thought about the Industrial Age, being obsessed with the meaning of mechanization. For me, to understand what industrialization wrought is the key to comprehending our lives today. America was always central to the global shift toward mechanization, since we obliterated whatever history pre-existed us. We simply do not live intimately with history the same way that the rest of the world does. I’ve traveled enough to feel, if only for a short while, what it is like to live side by side with history.
I am thinking of: Rotterdam’s new architectural face after war-time obliteration; the bombed out cathedral in Coventry’s city center, left in ruins as a powerful memorial; many thousands of Buddhist Wats co-existing with modern Thailand, tucked behind state of the art hospitals, in the heart of the Golden Triangle, or nestled amongst the gaudy glitter and pomp of Siam Square, Bangkok; or perhaps Luang Prabang in Laos, a UNESCO world heritage city, whose central planning and roadways have not changed for over a thousand years, except for a paved central road.
For me, it’s a very emotional aspect of spending time with people, while I’m visiting their homeland…growing to understand a little bit of where I am, what shaped it over time, and how my momentary companions live in it. It’s hard to explain, now that I am putting it in words, and I probably should quote bits from my travel journals, if I could find the right passages. I’ve all-too rarely felt it, so meaningfully, but in every place I’ve mentioned, the weight of history was a palpable presence — a communicative quality.
I am certain that the power of history affects me the way it does because of my parents as well. I am first generation American; my parents are Hungarian refugees who fled Soviet occupied Hungary in ’56, during the revolution. Growing up I was always aware of this, even if I was mostly silent about it, and the trips my family made to Europe in the eighties are with me still today. Berlin before the wall fell, waiting in food lines in Hungary, and seeing the tanks with manned, roof-mounted howitzers…
So I continue to read Giedion, and think about what he is implying. For him, mechanization is a neutral phenomena. The crux of the 18th century societal sea change is in the mindset that encouraged a spread of mechanization to all spheres of life, the underlying cultural milieu. Our industrial age is not yet over, despite the death knell sounded by many supposed “experts” over the years. It inhabits, and shapes, our emerging information age, and historically it is quite young. So what is it, exactly, that changed all those years ago?
As a good friend of mine, Bobby, once realized, “everything is design.” Really, one morning he woke with this realization, and he hasn’t quite been the same since. He even went into newspaper design as a result, after 14 years as a bookseller, and soon he hopes to expand his professional duties. What he meant, the realization that knocked him flat on his ass, was this: from the minutiae to the grand, every aspect of our environment is designed in some way.
And he’s right. From the architecture of our language, the cut of our clothes, hair and appearance, from the streets to our airspace, to our food and water, our homes, the framework of our relationships, it’s all in some way designed. Even supposedly open public spaces are increasingly compartmentalized, parsed out to various special interests for any number of purposes: burning, clear cutting, fishing, off-roading, etc. As many recent articles have discussed, dogs are currently a massive experiment in eugenics, the playground for ambitious geneticists. No longer content to selectively cross breed as agriculturalists have done for centuries, no longer content to grow ears on the back of mice and add jellyfish genes to rabbits to make them glow, we will likely have few dogs left in a generation or two that are not in some way reshaped by human science.
(Alba, the glowing bunny, is a link to an article from American Scholar about the Human Genome Project)
All of this comes back to mechanization for me, and our relationship to the symbols that make up our lives. Giedion talks about the degradation of symbols, how 18th century France under Napoleon’s rule was a hotbed of modernist re-imagination. By widely disseminating an opulent, disassociated relationship to the symbols of status and statehood, Napoleon encouraged a nascent mindset that thrives today. Essentially, coincident with the rise of rationalism and the foundation of the United States, emerged widespread devaluation of natural resources and symbolic imagination. Where up until that point objects were valued for their utility and function, now the object in and of itself was valued.
Giedion’s argument is extensive and thorough, and I can hardly touch upon the details here. The main point is that, with a shift from valuing the material used to fabricate goods to valuing the goods themselves, we completely reorganized our mental and physical relationships with each other and our environs. We began to ignore the connection between ourselves and what is external to our immediate senses, by willfully placing our own system of understanding before any shared relationships. This is how we came to use stopwatches to break down the work day into discrete motions by assembly line employees with scientific management. This is how Harold Edgerton was able to capture the movement of a bullet through a playing card, or an apple. This is why the nude descended the staircase. Like mechanization, a potentially neutral shift, but one with unavoidable consequences if left unexamined.
In the first generation or two, several movements emerged to counterbalance this shift, such as Henry Cole’s reformists, but … time marches on.
“We have left no imprint of our age either on our dwellings, on our gardens, or on anything else…we have culled something from every century but our own…we live off fragments.”
Alfred de Musset, 1836.
I have a love affair with Max Ernst, I must admit. Siegfried Giedion uses a lot of artwork to supplement his points, and I really appreciate that approach. He focuses a lot on collage, and especially my idol, Max Ernst. When I was 16 years old I came across a copy of Un Semaine de Bonte, one of his collage novels. It struck me like a thunderbolt, and each year as I get older I feel like it grows with me, continually nudging me a little further toward understanding my age, and my contemporary brethren. I am only now starting to appreciate what the dadaists and surrealists were really exposing, what Aleksandr Rodchenkho, Dziga Vertov and their fellow artists in Russia were unconsciously making sense of. I opened up Un Semaine de Bonte today, after a few years absence, and right on the first “day” of the novel is a lion, staring at Napoleon. I feel like Giedion is gently whispering to me, as he lifts my head and my eyes, tying a loose string across my heart…
“You will not be able to take joy in the world until you feel the ocean flowing in your veins, until you clothe yourself with the heavens and crown yourself with the stars, and see yourself as the sole heir of the whole world — and more than that, for there are people living on it who, like you, are the sole heirs.”
Thomas Traherne Centuries of Meditation (1638-1674)