The Birth of Meaning: Lewis Mumford

February 18, 2018

Lewis Mumford on Time Magazine cover

"The Myth and the Machine Volume One: Technics and Human Development"
By Lewis Mumford, 1967

Selfies and porn.

When the cave people first realized that they could inscribe likenesses of things onto cave walls, what did they use their newfound powers for? To carve out images of themselves and sexually desirous attributes of others. Selfies and porn.

Odd how we've always considered such offhand tendencies such as taking selfies as trivial -- if not harmful -- and yet they have subsisted pretty much through the entirety of humankind's existence, aided by the technology of the day.

In his 1966 book, "The Myth and the Machine Volume One: Technics and Human Development." Mumford set out to "re-examine the nature of man and the whole course of technological change." He wanted to refute the then widely-held idea that what makes man different from all the other beasts was his ability to make and use tools. Instead, he argues, it was culture that is the primary force driving consciousness and progress. Sometime in the past, Mumford argued, our predecessors "mistakenly coupled their particular mode of mechanical progress with an unjustifiable sense of increasing moral superiority."

In fact, the opposite is true. Man's most serious undertaking has never been work nor tool making, but playfulness. Predecessors who mistakenly coupled their mechanical progress with an unjustifiable sense of their increasing moral superiority. But without human's capacity to give symbolic form to experience, the universe would be empty of meaning.

Lewis Mumford, on how man created meaning

What first set humankind apart from other creatures was the ability to make meaning, Mumford argued. Born from dream and excess psychic energy, meaning made the universe around us, helping not only to describe what was in front of us, but what could be, or what might have been. Philosopher Max Müller called it the "Fundamental Metaphor," a "universal mythology, this flowing of our spirit into objective chaos and recreating it in our own image."

Early humans enjoyed "highly-organized nervous equipment" and big brains, allowing them to take more risks than other animals, course correcting along the way. It freed them in large degree from the immediate surroundings, not to mention the tyranny of instinctual patterns. The nimbleness of a person's digits helped with the picking, carrying, and eating of food, liberating the mouth for speech.

This fortune bequeathed humans with a "tremendous overcharge" of mental energy. "Man had to re- form and re-instate [animal instincts] at a higher level, illuminated by consciousness," Mumford wrote. The philosopher suspected that it was the dream that showed the way forward into this higher- consciousness. "Creativity begins in the unconsciousness; and its first manifestation is the dream," he wrote. Dreams opened human minds to what wasn't there. The imagination showed what could be possible. And these brought meaning to chaotic surroundings, recreating, in effect, the entire universe, in our collective consciousness.

It was this intensification of consciousness, however evanescent, that led to the creation of language, tool-making and culture, all of which raised human from the other animals. "In short, without man's cumulative capacity to give symbolic form to experience, to reflect upon it and re-fashion it, and project it, the physical universe would be as empty of meaning as a handless clock: its ticking would tell nothing," Mumford wrote. "The mindfulness of man makes the difference."

Language was slow in coming. Can you imagine your life without words, for communicating and for thinking? We have all had the experience, same as early man, "when we find that a dawning intuition cannot be translated into communicable speech for a lack of a fresh vocabulary."

Kyosi and Jo on stage

Generation upon generation of humans must have permanently lived in a state of inarticulation, with an urge to make sounds, but not attaching any meaning to the resulting babble. They must have just been delighted in their joys of making noise, long before they would associate certain sounds to particular meanings. What kept the noise-making alive was ritual, which was, according to Mumford, "older than language in man's development and played an indispensable part." For humans, the mechanical nature of ritual may have warded off compulsion neurosis.

"The original purpose of ritual was to create order and meaning where none existed," Mumford wrote.

"Before man could discover and project order outside himself he had first by constant repetition, to establish it within." Magic incantations were an early form of language without specific meaning, but with power through the repeated incantations of nonsensical phrases.

Over time, they may have attached certain sounds to certain objects in their surroundings, just as in the way an infant learns that "special sounds stand for things, relations, acts, feelings, desires." But what no doubt required additional time was for us to all agree on what we were uttering. Without some standardization of meaning, each person would speak a private language, and the subsequent invention of writing would have been lost.

Anthropologists suspect that the formation of a shared language through the successive glacial periods when humans depended on big game to feed themselves-thus requiring a coordination of plans across the tribe. Cave-art could have been early re-enactments of a successful hunt, or a planning of a new one.

And here is something that language may have enabled: A move beyond the concrete. Language could not only give a name to something, but can also be used to recall the past and anticipate the future, imaging the invisible, or what was possible. Names become symbols, which now can be manipulated, reasoned against. "A general improvement in symbolic thinking was what possibly gave Homo sapiens the edge over the earlier Neanderthal types," Mumford wrote.

See more on Mumford think-em-ups here: ""Democratic and Authoritarian Technologies."


from Lewis Mumford's The Myth and the Machine Volume One: Technics and Human Development"

"With this new 'megatechnics' the dominant minority will create a uniform, all-enveloping, super- planetary-structure, designed for automatic operation. Instead of functioning actively as an autonomous personality, man will become a passive, purposeless, machine-conditioned animal whose proper functions, as technicians now interpret man's role, will either be fed into the machine, or strictly limited and controlled for the benefit of de-personalized, collective organizations."

"Our predecessors mistakenly coupled their particular mode of mechanical progress with an unjustifiable sense of increasing moral superiority." P. 4

"More than a century ago Thomas Carlyle described man as a 'tool-using animal,' as if this were the one trait that elevated him above the rest of creation." P. 5

"What is specially and uniquely human is man's capacity to combine a wide variety of animal propensities into an emergent cultural entity: a human personality." P. 6

Kyosi and Jo on stage

"Modern man has formed a curiously distorted picture of himself, by interpreting his early history in terms of his present interests in making machines and conquering nature." P. 14

"In the realm of prehistory the generalist has a special office, that of bringing together widely separated fields, prudently fenced in by specialists, into a larger common area, visible only from the air." P. 16

"It is wiser to assume ... that Home sapiens fifty thousand years ago more closely represented ourselves than any remoter animal ancestor." P. 22

"Our chief reason for over-rating the importance of tools and machines is that man's most significant early inventions, in ritual, social organization, morals, and language, left no material remains..." p. 23

"The difference between the brain and the mind is surely as great as that between a phonograph and the music that comes forth from it." P. 27

"Not how long you live, but how much you have lived, how much meaning your life has absorbed and passed on, is what matters." P. 33

"It is only through the light of consciousness that the universe becomes visible, and should that light disappear, only nothingness would remain." P. 33

"If survival were all that mattered to primitive man, he could have survived with no better equipment than his immediate hominid ancestors had possessed." P. 45

"Though dogs may dream, no dream ever taught a dog to imitate a bird or to behave like a God." P. 49

"But the fact that tools, not just slivers, were produced shows that there is a counter-tendency in man, equally innate, and even more deeply, or at least more permanently, satisfying: the arts of creation and constructive organization, the deliberate forming of patterns, the putting together of ordered whole." P. 55

Kyosi and Jo on stage

Savage pathology: "The formidable, irrational components that remain in civilized man's own code of conduct." P. 56

"Ungoverned creativity in science and invention has reinforced unconscious demonic drives that have placed our whole civilization in a state of perilous unbalance." P. 57-58

While ritual played an important role in man's development, it "succeeded only with a certain loss of creativity."

"The prevalence of ritual and all its derivative institutional manifestations accounts therefore for both the facts of early human development and its extreme slowness." P. 68

"Against the lawless absolution of his unconsciousness, man needed a lawful counter-force equally absolute. At the beginning the taboo alone provided this necessary balance." P. 70

"As for the effort to do away with emotionality, presupposing that respect for emotional values necessarily brings about a betrayal of truth, this view overlooks the fact that the very 'dryness' of so- called objective description may in itself be an indication of an unfortunate negative state, with equal dangers of distortion." P. 73

"A lion says 'lion' by its own presence far more emphatically than the word 'lion' even if shouted"

"If man had originally inhabited a world as blankly uniform as a 'high-rise' housing development, as featureless as a parking lot, as destitute of life as an automated factory, it is doubtful if he would have had a sufficiently varied sensory experience to retain images, mold language, or acquire ideas."

"For the dream can present ideas only in disguised story form, a wild masquerade."

“No mechanical system knows the meaning of meaning.”

So they true evolutionary value of hands, for humans, was that they "liberated the mouth for speech."

Man's most serious undertaking has never been work nor tool making, but playfulness.

Predecessors who mistakenly coupled their mechanical progress w/ an unjustifiable sense of their increasing moral superiority

Without human's capacity to give symbolic form to experience, the universe would be empty of meaning.

“Against the lawless absolutism of his unconscious, man needed a lawful counter-force equally absolute.”

While ritual played an important role in man's development, it "succeeded only with a certain loss of creativity."

”For among most primitive peoples, matters of fact and matters of magic are equally real.”

“A large part of all magic formulae consists of a precise series of nonsense syllables repeated as nauseam. This is perhaps the buried bedrock foundation of all language.”

“By sedulously cultivating metaphor, I suggest primitive man first developed playfully and dramatically the art of language, well before he learned to put it to effective use for accurate description and record...”

“So remarkable is the actual power of words that man often succumbed to the temptation ... to apply verbal incantations or exhortions in situations where they could have no efficacy.”

“Language has surpassed any other form tool or machine as a technical instrument.”

“Because of the stability of every language, each generation has been able to carry over and pass on a significant portion of previous history.”

Early man lived by his wits: “At the beginning ‘braininess’ stood him in better stead than either ferocity or dogged industry.”

For early man, “tradition was more precious than invention. To keep even the smallest gain was more important than to make new ones at the risk of forgetting or forfeiting the old.”

“The pursuit of significance crowns every other human achievement.”

“Though words are often described as tools, they may be more properly regarded as the cells of a complex living structure, units quickly mobilized in orderly formations to function on particular occasions for particular uses.”

Language “all too easily inflated the ego and made people over-rate the efficiency of words in controlling the visible and invisible forces that surround man.”

Caveman selfies: “Ancient cave finds show that one of the phenomena man investigated most eagerly and altered most ingeniously was his own physical body.”

“In collecting food man was also incited to collect information.”

For 95% of his existence, mankind was dependent on daily food gathering: “Under these conditions his exceptional curiosity, his ingenuity, his facility in learning, his retentive memory, were put to work and tested.”

“Such searching and experimenting demanded plenty of motor activity; and this exploratory foraging, along with ritual and dance, must be given a fuller share of credit for man’s development.”

“What is missing from the usual petrified model is all the knowledge and art and equipment passed on by example from man’s early exploration of his environment.”

“Primitive man, less cultivated but perhaps more fully human, was content to visit the most fiendish tortures upon himself, and some of these mutations turned out to be far from futile.”

Humankind’s first machine could be the bow-and-arrow. Like nothing in nature, and drawing on the “primitive technics” of wood, stone and animal guts, this weapon is “a pure abstraction translated into physical form.”

The feathering of the bow-and-arrow’s arrow, which improved the accuracy, was “possible due to a purely magical identification of the arrow of the arrow with the wings of a living bird.”

“Partly through working stone, early man learned to respect the ‘reality principle’: the need for persistence and intense effort in order to achieve a distant reward.”

“Originally all the arts were sacred, since it was only to achieve communion with sacred forces that man would make the necessary efforts and sacrifices for esthetic perfection.”

Early cave paintings’ “exuberant display of sexuality,” showed a “deliberate effort, by means of symbolic images, to hold it and prolong its effects in the mind, instead of letting it be dissipated in immediate copulation.”

...As a result, “sexual intercourse, the earliest form of social communion and cooperation, was now directed and enriched by the mind.”

“Man alone dared play with fire: so he learned to court danger and to discipline his own fears.”

Kyosi and Jo on stage

“An extra encouragement to sexual activity may have been imperative in a harsh climate whose long winters and forced hibernation ... depleted sexual interest and lowered sexual performance.” -- Mumford on a possible social benefit of cave painting porn.

“...horticulture—with its prizing of single fine specimens—preceded agriculture, with its emphasis on larger yields.”

Stored grain was potential energy; also the oldest form: also the oldest form of capital—witness pre-monetary commercial transactions in measures of grain.”

... “So when Neolithic people’s turned to work, one need hardly wonder that woman, with her patient, inexorable ways, took command.”

“Paleolithic males, if we judge by most surviving hunting peoples, had an aristocratic contempt of work in any form: they left such drudgery to their womenfolk.” ...

Industriousness as a new human trait first appeared in #neolithic culture: “the capacity for assiduous application to a single task, sometimes carried over years and generations.”

“Clay sickles in Palestine show that grain was being systematically garnered before it was deliberately planted.”

“What neither the miner nor the hunter had been able to accomplish, the woodman and the farmer, able to support larger numbers in a small area, actually achieved: An increasingly humanized habitat.”

“With command over words and images, no part of his world, inner or outer, animate or inanimate, lay beyond his reach or his mental grasp. Man had at last perfected the kind of artifact, the symbol, upon which his highly organized brain could work directly.”

Images and video of NYC experimental electronic music artist Kyosi folding the voice and words of Jo Annesta into her own shimmering music, H0L0, NYC