The Spectacle Pantheon honors artists, activists, and scholars who influence this project and exemplify its ideals. In accordance with The Spectacle Manifesto, I consider these major influences “mutants” and use the term as the highest form of praise: a designation for those rare, courageous truth-tellers who remain human in a dehumanized world.
It is with profound respect, appreciation, and commitment to the great man’s legacy that I introduce Lewis Mumford as the Pantheon’s first inductee.
If Lewis Mumford was an absolute fool, and our superficial, self-serving, self-righteous techno-utopians were great prophets, we’d be doing pretty well right now.
And, as my father used to say, if my grandmother had balls, she’d be my grandfather.
In a writing career that spanned seven decades, Lewis Mumford left us with 35 books and hundreds of articles to help us understand and attempt to transcend the predicaments of advanced technological civilization. Today, unfortunately, these writings don’t generate clicks for click-mongers, ratings for egomaniacs, dollars for advertisers, or cover for corporate corruption, which explains why the vast majority of Americans haven’t heard of him. There is, after all, only so much bandwidth and attention to go around, and circulating Beyoncé’s butt to every inch of the globe doesn’t just pay for itself.
No, Mumford doesn’t generate clicks or dollars or legitimacy to an illegitimate corporate regime. All he does is help us understand the world we’ve inhabited, and provide ways of thinking that might, just might, keep us from destroying it.
Mumford died in 1990 at the age of 94. In the last decade of his life he saw eight years of Ronald Reagan and two years of George H.W. Bush, passing away six months before the start of the Persian Gulf War. Perhaps he had seen enough. Perhaps he was just old. But he was once, like millions of hopeful Americans today, young and strong and idealistic and concerned with the fate of his country.
Mumford witnessed the turn of the 20th century at the age of five, the outbreak of World War I at the age of 19, and the stock market crash and Great Depression fifteen years later.
In his late 40’s he saw his only son Geddes die in battle in World War II, followed soon after by the devastating and horrific culmination of the war with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
He lived through the McCarthy witch hunts, confronted the infiltration of TV into American culture, and watched the raucous populist youth rebellion of the 60’s decimated by the killings of JFK, MLK, RFK, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X.
From 1967 to 1970, he published the culmination of his life’s work, his magnum opus “The Myth of the Machine.” Toward the end of his life he witnessed the rise of Reaganism, the beginning of the end of The American Dream.
Contributions and Accolades
Through it all, Mumford expressed in unique and vivid prose what America was experiencing and becoming. He wrote about history, art, architecture, literature, American culture, urban design, regional planning, technology and more. He practically invented the field of Science and Technology Studies. A man who never earned a college degree excelled in every subject he tackled. In a bygone age when America actually celebrated its public intellectuals, Mumford made the cover of Time Magazine in 1938, won the National Book Award in 1962, and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
He even managed to get a street named after him in New York City:
Taking it To the Streets
Despite all his literary accolades, Mumford was more than just an armchair warrior. He took the fight to the streets—literally, in the case of his battle with highway maven Robert Moses, the building God with the ironic Biblical surname. Far from liberating his people, this Moses displaced entire neighborhoods to bequeath to the world such oxymorons as Utopia Parkway and other modern horrors such as the Long Island Expressway, known to those it daily tortures as “the world’s largest parking lot.”
While most lauded Moses as a master builder, Mumford challenged him as a destroyer of communities. He raised awareness of the social and environmental impact of Moses’ vast construction projects, and led the campaign to prevent him from building a highway through the heart of Greenwich Village. Mumford was also instrumental in the success of a preservation movement at Oxford University. But back in the States, the spirit of the age, “progress at any cost,” smiled decisively on Moses, and one need only glimpse the nightmare that is New York City traffic today to see whose vision of modernity won out, and whose, to our great detriment, was largely ignored.
Mumford was not against progress or technology: He advocated for a “democratic technics” over the “autocratic technics” he believed has infused Western civilization. Simply put, he proposed a world in which technology and development serve humanity, not the other way around. And he understood a half century ago the essence of the existential danger that our unquestioned allegiance to to our hyper-mechanistic worldview presents:
What Mumford understood was that it’s not the mere existence of nuclear weapons that’s most dangerous, but rather the underlying, dehumanizing, mechanical ethos that led humanity to create them—an ethos that presupposes a denial of both reality and life that threatens to consume us, via nukes or otherwise. The corporate-driven onslaught destroying the world right before our eyes in its frenzied quest to put a dollar sign on every single thing on the planet, humans included, takes many forms, all lethal to humanity in the end.
But it’s the root cause of this disease, the underlying denial of life inherent in advanced technological civilization’s mechanistic way of being, that ultimately elevates profit above people and destruction above creation. That’s the decisive factor Mumford struggled valiantly to elucidate. Blind adherence to The Myth of the Machine—“the unquestioned notion that technological progress and the advancement of power are the chief goals of the human endeavor”—remains a major element of our predicament grievously ignored in our happy-go-lucky bubble of techno-reverence.
Don’t let the tweed jacket fool you: Lewis Mumford was one badass prophet—more intelligent and prescient than our corporate-shilling pundits, more honest and humane than our sociopathic politicians.
It’s true that in his later years Mumford often despaired for the future of the American and human experiments. In a letter to his friend and fellow critic Roderick Seidenberg, he wrote: “I think, in view of all that has happened the last half-century, that it is likely the ship will sink.” Still, this is a man who closed every book, and nearly every chapter, with rays of hope—none so bold as the last sentence of his final masterpiece, the massive two-volume work “The Myth of the Machine”:
Considering all that’s happened in the half-century since these words were written, “the ship will sink” seems a more likely outcome than the quaint optimism Mumford musters in closing his oeuvre. But wait: If there’s not some truth to this final pronouncement on humankind’s potential for transcendence, then why the billions of dollars worth of propaganda each year to make even the conception of such a liberation from technology unimaginable?
Perhaps our tech titans dost protest too much....
Gone, Not Forgotten
Lewis Mumford fervently hoped that societal developments would prove his prognostications so ludicrous that his foolishness would be proclaimed post-mortem throughout eternity. I was unable to find a picture or the precise location of Mumford’s grave, so an artist’s rendering will have to suffice:
If we do summon the will to recognize and transcend our technocratic prison, and create from the present chaos a tolerant, equitable, sustainable society, I have no doubt that Lewis Mumford’s voice and spirit will help pave the way.
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