Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lewis Mumford

The technical review

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One of my favorite works of science fiction, if we define the term as broadly as possible, is Space Colonies, a collection of articles and interviews edited by Stewart Brand that was published in 1977. The year seems significant in itself. It was a period in which Star Trek and Dune—both of which were obviously part of the main sequence of stories inaugurated by John W. Campbell at Astounding—had moved the genre decisively into the mainstream. After the climax of the moon landing, the space race seemed to be winding down, or settling into a groove without a clear destination, and the public was growing restless. (As Norman Mailer said a few years earlier on the Voyage Beyond Apollo cruise, people were starting to view space with indifference or hostility, rather than as a form of adventure.) It was a time in which the environmental movement, the rise of the computer culture, and the political climate of the San Francisco Bay Area were interacting in ways that can seem hard to remember now. In retrospect, it feels like the perfect time for the emergence of Gerard O’Neill, whose ideas about space colonies received widespread attention in just about the only window that would have allowed them to take hold. During the preparation and editing of Space Colonies, which was followed shortly afterward by O’Neill’s book The High Frontier, another cultural phenomenon was beginning to divert some of those energies along very different lines. And while I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the reception of his work, or at least the way that people talked about it, would have been rather different if it had entered the conversation after Star Wars.

As it turned out, the timing was just right for a wide range of unusually interesting people to earnestly debate the prospect of space colonization. In his introduction to Space Colonies, which consists mostly of material that had previously appeared in CoEvolution Quarterly, Brand notes that “no one else has published the highly intelligent attacks” that O’Neill had inspired, and by far the most interesting parts of the book are the sections devoted to this heated debate. Brand writes:

Something about O’Neill’s dream has cut deep. Nothing we’ve run in The CQ has brought so much response or opinions so fierce and unpredictable and at times ambivalent. It seems to be a paradigmatic question to ask if we should move massively into space. In addressing that we’re addressing our most fundamental conflicting perceptions of ourself, of the planetary civilization we’ve got under way. From the perspective of space colonies everything looks different. Choices we’ve already made have to be made again, because changed context changes content. Artificial vs. Natural, Let vs. Control, Local vs. Centralized, Dream vs. Obey—all are re-jumbled. And space colonies aren’t even really new. That’s part of their force—they’re so damned inherent in what we’ve been about for so long. But the shift seems enormous, and terrifying or inspiring to scale. Hello, stars. Goodbye, earth? Is this the longed-for metamorphosis, our brilliant wings at last, or the most poisonous of panaceas?

And the most striking parts of the book today are the passionate opinions on space colonies, both positive and negative, from some very smart respondents who thought that the idea was worth taking seriously.

Leafing through the book now, I feel a strange kind of double awareness, as names that I associate with the counterculture of the late seventies argue about a future that never happened. It leads off with a great line from Ken Kesey: “A lot of people who want to get into space never got into the earth.” (This echoes one of my favorite observations from Robert Anton Wilson, quoting Brad Steiger: “The lunatic asylums are full of people who naively set out to study the occult before they had any real competence in dealing with the ordinary.”) The great Lewis Mumford dismisses space colonies as “another pathological manifestation of the culture that has spent all of its resources on expanding the nuclear means for exterminating the human race.” But the most resonant critical comment on the whole enterprise comes from the poet Wendell Berry:

What cannot be doubted is that the project is an ideal solution to the moral dilemma of all those in this society who cannot face the necessities of meaningful change. It is superbly attuned to the wishes of the corporation executives, bureaucrats, militarists, political operators, and scientific experts who are the chief beneficiaries of the forces that have produced our crisis. For what is remarkable about Mr. O’Neill’s project is not its novelty or its adventurousness, but its conventionality. If it should be implemented, it will be the rebirth of the idea of Progress with all its old lust for unrestrained expansion, its totalitarian concentrations of energy and wealth, its obliviousness to the concerns of character and community, its exclusive reliance on technical and economic criteria, its disinterest in consequence, its contempt for human value, its compulsive salesmanship.

And another line from Berry has been echoing in my head all morning: “It is only a desperate attempt to revitalize the thug morality of the technological specialist, by which we blandly assume that we must do anything whatever that we can do.”

What interests me the most about his response, which you can read in its entirety here, is that it also works as a criticism of many of the recent proposals to address climate change—which may be the one place in which the grand scientific visions of the late seventies may actually come to pass, if only because we won’t have a choice. Berry continues:

This brings me to the central weakness of Mr. O’Neill’s case: its shallow and gullible morality. Space colonization is seen as a solution to problems that are inherently moral, in that they are implicit in our present definitions of character and community. And yet here is a solution to moral problems that contemplates no moral change and subjects itself to no moral standard. Indeed, the solution is based upon the moral despair of Mr. O’Neill’s assertion that “people do not change.” The only standards of judgment that have been applied to this project are technical and economic. Much is made of the fact that the planners’ studies “continue to survive technical review.” But there is no human abomination that has not, or could not have, survived technical review.

Replace “space colonization” with “geoengineering,” and you have a paragraph that could be published today. (My one modification would be to revise Berry’s description of the morality of the technical specialist, which has subtly evolved into “we can do anything whatever that we must do.”) In a recent article in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert throws up her hands when it comes to the problem of how to discuss the environment without succumbing to despair. After quoting the scientist Peter Wadhams on the need for “technologies to block sunlight, or change the reflectivity of clouds,” she writes: “Apparently, this is supposed to count as inspirational.” Yet the debate still needs to happen, and Space Colonies is the best model I’ve found for this sort of technical review, which has to involve voices of all kinds. Because it turns out that we were living on a space colony all along.

Quote of the Day

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Those who seek an exact scientific transcription of abstracted events rightly choose to use the translucent symbols of mathematics. But those who would use language to deal with cosmic processes, organic functions, and human relations, as operative interacting wholes, must realize that they can only be represented loosely in the language of myth: in their dynamic complexity and wholeness, they evade other modes of abstraction and representation.

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Human Development

Written by nevalalee

May 3, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Lewis Mumford

It is no accident that the epic of Moby-Dick was written by a common sailor, that Walden was written by a pencil-maker and surveyor, and that Leaves of Grass was written by a printer and carpenter. Only when it is possible to move from one aspect of experience and thought and action to another can the mind follow its complete trajectory.

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization

Written by nevalalee

November 5, 2014 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Lewis Mumford

One of the marks of maturity is the need for solitude: a city should not merely draw men together in many varied activities, but should permit each person to find, near at hand, moments of seclusion and peace.

Lewis Mumford

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The Book of Dreams

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Not surprisingly, I went back to the Newberry Library Book Fair. In fact, I went back three times, determined, for whatever reason, to squeeze every last drop out of this particular sale. Along with the finds I mentioned last week, I emerged with a copy of the original edition of Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, its pages still uncut, famous as the primary source for T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land; John Canemaker’s Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists; Jack Woodford’s amazing book Plotting, about which I hope to have a great deal to say later on; wonderfully musty books on The Art of Play Production and Everybody’s Theatre, the last of which turns out to involve puppets; my two missing volumes of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, Our Oriental Heritage and The Reformation; Technique in Fiction by the editors of The Kenyon Review; Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Human Development; Leslie A. Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel; and studies of two of literature’s great magicians, T.H. White and Alexander Pope. Total cost? Something like thirty dollars.

But my real prize was a book, or rather a set of books, that I’ve wanted for a long time. I first saw them in a box under a table at the book fair on Thursday, but I held back until Sunday, when I knew everything would be half price. In fact, there were three different editions on sale, one in twenty-nine small volumes, one in soft leather covers, one in sixteen big tomes. When I came back yesterday to claim my haul, the first two sets were gone, but the third was still there, in two enormous boxes. I lugged them over to the squirreling area and managed, with some help, to get them downstairs to the cashier and loading dock. A few minutes later, they were in the trunk of my car. And now they’re on my bookshelves, although it took a bit of rearranging to find room for them all. They’re big, cumbersome, not especially convenient to read—almost too heavy for the average reader’s lap—but to my eyes, they’re beautiful, even awe-inspiring. They’re the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Regular readers will know how much this encyclopedia means to me, but even I was unprepared for the level of rapture that followed. I spent at least three or four hours yesterday just turning the pages, marveling at the riches on display. This edition, which is generally considered to be the greatest encyclopedia of all time, was first published in 1911, with supplementary volumes bringing it up to date through 1922, and what I’ve found is that the gain in accuracy in more recent versions isn’t nearly as meaningful as the loss of material. This edition of the Britannica isn’t so much a reference book as a Borgesian universal library, an attempt to get everything in. The article on “Horses,” for instance, spends sixteen dense pages on their anatomy, history, and management, only to conclude with the sentence: “Overhead hay-racks are unnatural and are liable to drop seeds into a horse’s eye.” Every article of any length is crammed with opinion, common sense, prejudice, and personality. It’s the best book I’ve ever seen.

It takes a while to get used to the Eleventh Edition. There are very few conventional cross-references, so for those of us who have been spoiled by hyperlinks, finding a particular piece of information can be something of a treasure hunt, especially if you refuse to use the index. (For example, I had a hard time finding an entry on the modern Olympic Games: there wasn’t one under “Olympiad” or “Olympia” or “Games, Classical,” and I nearly gave up entirely before finding a column or two under “Athletic Sports.”) But then, this isn’t really an encyclopedia for casual reference—although I expect that it will become my first stop for information on any major subject from now on—but a book for dreaming. And while all this material is available online, the best way to experience it is as a long, deep dive, preferably in a comfortable armchair. Each volume casts an uncanny spell, as you find yourself going from “Dante” to “Dragon” to “Drama” to “Dredging,” with a stop for “Dream” somewhere along the way. I’m off to take another dive now. If I don’t come up again, you’ll know where to find me.

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