12 May 2011

A public intellectual: Lewis Mumford, for One

I’m rereading Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization. I think I studied it originally almost thirty or more years ago. I was more radical and so much younger then. Well maybe not, but at that moment in my life I described myself then as an avowed Marxist. On the night John Lennon was shot, I was walking home from a class at the Marxist School then located on the Upper West Side. I believe that at the time I was attending a series of classes offered by Michael Harrington on Capital. As I walked home I heard the sirens. 
Technics and Civilization is a study how civilization has developed as a result of the technics, and how the machine derived from the development of civilization. Mumford’s volume is a wonderful example of a work of cultural studies. He writes, “[T]o understand the machine is not merely a first step toward re-orienting our civilization: it is also a means toward understanding society and toward knowing ourselves. The world of technics is not isolated and self–contained: it reacts to forces and impulses that come from apparently remote parts of the environment.” For Mumford, technics is not equivalent to technology; rather, technology is part of technics. Technics refers not to the machine itselftechnologybut to the human investment in the machine and the social environment that produces that machine and the society into which it enters and which the machine then alters and by which it is subsequently altered. Technics refers to the interplay between human desire and how humans use the machine to realize those desires. The machine embodies that desire. Art, too, Mumford will later write, expresses that desire. In order to understand technics one must engage, then, in multidisciplinary study: one must learn to read the world to discover the world in the machine. 
Mumford is a public intellectual.  I think what I mean by that term is this: a public intellectual speaks to a public about matters that specifically address the quality of life of that public. A public intellectual proposes as his life-work to understand and to explain in public and to the public her/his understanding of elements of the public sphere and to address public forums in language specifically meant to address that public so as to offer insight into the relations of power that have impact on the essences of daily life. The public intellectual thinks always of the public, and it is to that public that a public intellectual does not talk condescendingly; in the non-technical language of the disciplines the public intellectual speaks of those disciplines. After all, the public intellectual must speak to the public and not merely about that public. Thus, the public intellectual reads and studies interdisciplinarily in the attempt to understand and to explain the complex of conditions that interact in the formation of a social world. A public intellectual works for the public and her work attempts to throw light on society for the enlightenment of that public.  I think enlightenment is always a type of freedom. 
One interesting note for now about Mumford’s style: his use of the colon.  Many grammar teachersI am very much interested in grammarwould circle in red many of his sentences for the use of too many colons. Now, I have learned that a colon announces “look at what comes next,” and I think that Mumford uses them because he means to make what he is about to say emphatic: he makes a generalization and then follows it with a series of examples to prove his point. His style is declamatory because he is urging an understanding on the public for its liberation, in this case, from the physical and psychological grip of the machine. A colon focuses on what comes next: Pay attention!!


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