Ouro em Mumford (1934)

Presently, on the basis laid down by the painter and the cartographer, an interest in space as such, in movement as such, in locomotion as such, arose. In back of this interest were of course more concrete alterations: roads had become more secure, vessels were being built more soundly, above all, new inventions – the magnetic needle, the astrolabe, the rudder – had made it possible to chart and to hold a more accurate course at sea. The gold of the Indies and the fabled fountains of youth and the happy isles of endless sensual delight doubtless beckoned too: but the presence of these tangible [35] goals does not lessen the importance of the new schemata. The categories of time and space, once practically dissociated, had become united: and the abstractions of measured time and measured space undermined the earlier conceptions of infinity and eternity, since measurement must begin with an arbitrary here and now even if space and time he empty. The itch to use space and time had broken out: and once they were co-ordinated with movement, they could be contracted or expanded: the conquest of space and time had begun. (It is interesting, however, to note that the very concept of acceleration, which is part of our daily mechanical experience, was not formulated till the seventeenth century.) (Mumford 1934:34-5)

The romanticism of numbers had still another aspect, important for the development of scientific habits of thought. This was the rise of capitalism, and the change from a barter economy, facilitated by small supplies of variable local coinage, to a money economy with an international credit structure and a constant reference to the abstract symbols of wealth: gold, drafts, bills of exchange, eventually merely numbers. (Mumford 1934:23)

Karl Marx well summed up this new process of transmutation: “Since money does not disclose what has been transformed into it, [24] everything, whether a commodity or not, is convertible into gold. Everything becomes saleable and purchasable. Circulation is the great social retort into which everything is thrown and out of which everything is recovered as crystallized money. Not even the bones of the saints are able to withstand this alchemy; and still less able to withstand it are more delicate things, sacrosanct things which are outside the commercial traffic of men. Just as all qualitative differences between commodities are effaced in money, so money, a radical leveller, effaces all distinctions. But money itself. is a commodity, an external object, capable of becoming the private property of an individual. Thus social power becomes private power in the hands of a private person.” (Mumford 1934:23-4)

This last fact was particularly important for life and thought: the quest of power by means of abstractions. one abstraction re-enforced the other. Time was money: money was power: power required the furtherance of trade and production: production was diverted from the channels of direct use into those of remote trade, toward the acquisition of larger profits, with a larger margin for new capital expenditures for wars, foreign conquests, mines, productive enterprises … more money and more power. Of all forms of wealth, money alone is without assignable limits. The prince who might desire to build five palaces would hesitate to build five thousand: but what was to prevent him from seeking by conquest and taxes to multiply by thousands the riches in his treasury? Under a money economy, to speed up the process of production was to speed up the turnover: more money. And as the emphasis upon money grew in part out of the increasing mobility of late medieval society, with its international trade, so did the resulting money economy promote more trade: landed wealth, humanized wealth, houses, paintings, sculptures, books, even gold itself were all relatively difficult to transport, whereas money could be transported after pronouncing the proper abracadabra by a simple algebraic operation on one side or another of the ledger. (Mumford 1934:24)

Magic, like pure fantasy, was a short cut to knowledge and power. But even in the most primitive form of shamanism, magic involves a drama and an action: if one wishes to kill one’s enemy by magic, one must at least mould a wax figure and stick pins into it; and similarly, if the need for gold in early capitalism promoted a grand quest for the means of transmuting base metals into noble ones, it was accompanied by fumbling and frantic attempts to manipulate the external environment. Under magic, the experimenter acknowledged that it was necessary to have a sow’s ear before one could make a silk purse: this was a real advance toward matter-of-fact. “The operations,” as Lynn Thorndike well says of magic, “were supposed to be efficacious here in the world of external reality”: magic presupposed a public demonstration rather than a merely private gratification. (Mumford 1934:39)

No one can put his finger on the place where magic became science, where empiricism became systematic experimentalism, where alchemy became chemistry, where astrology became astronomy, in short, where the need for immediate human results and gratifications ceased to leave its smudgy imprint. Magic was marked above all perhaps by two unscientific qualities: by secrets and mystifications, and by a certain impatience for “results.” According to Agricola the transmutationists of the sixteenth century did not hesitate to conceal gold in a pellet of ore, in order to make their experiment come out successfully: similar dodges, like a concealed clock-winder, were used in the numerous perpetual motion machines that were put forward. Everywhere the dross of fraud and charlatanism mingled with the occasional grains of scientific knowledge that magic utilized or produced. (Mumford 1934:39)

In sum, magic turned men’s minds to the external world: it suggested the need of manipulating it: it helped create the tools for successfully achieving this, and it sharpened observation as to the results. The philosopher’s stone was not found, but the science of chemistry emerged, to enrich us far beyond the simple dreams of the gold-seekers. The herbalist, zealous in his quest for simples and cure-alls, led the way for the intensive explorations of the botanist and the physician: despite our boasts of accurate coal tar drugs, one must not forget that one of the few genuine specifics in medicine, quinine, comes from the cinchona hark, and that chaulmoogra oil, used with success in treating leprosy, likewise comes from an exotic tree. As children’s play anticipates crudely adult life, so did magic anticipate modern science and technology: it was chiefly the lack of direction that was fantastic: the difficulty was not in using the instrument but in finding a field where it could be applied and finding the right system for applying it. Much of seventeenth century science, though no longer tainted with charlatanism, was just as fantastic. It needed centuries of systematic effort to develop the technique which has given us Ehrlich’s salvarsan or Bayer 207. But magic was the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfillment. The subjective confidence of the magicians, seeking to inflate their private egos with boundless wealth and mysterious energies, surmounted even their practical failures: their fiery hopes, their crazy dreams, their cracked homunculi continued [41] to gleam in the ashes: to have dreamed so riotously was to make the technics that followed less incredible and hence less impossible. (Mumford 1934:40-1)

There is no sharp breach between grubbing, quarrying and mining. The same outcrop that shows quartz may equally hold gold, and the same stream that has clayey banks may disclose a gleam or two of this precious metal – precious for primitive man not only because of its rarity but because it is soft, malleable, ductile, non-oxidizing, and may be worked without the use of fire. The use of gold and amber and jade antedates the so-called age of metals: they were prized for their rareness and their magical qualities, even more than for what could be directly made of them. And the hunt for these minerals had nothing whatever to do with extending the food-supply or establishing creature comforts: man searched for precious stones, as he cultivated flowers, because long before he had invented capitalism and mass production he had acquired more energy than he needed for hare physical survival on the terms of his existing culture. (Mumford 1934:66)

Just because the erotic impulses seek extra compensation for their denial, they flow over and pervade every activity: the courtesan consumes the substance of the warrior’s conquests. A plethora of physical goods gives special point to the triumphs of the soldier and justifies the pillage he brings home with him. Shakespeare has given us an acute study of the relationship in Antony and Cleopatra; but the economic results of it are more important here than the psychological consequences. Economically, the conquest of Mars by Venus means the heightened demand for luxuries of all sorts: for satins, laces, velvets, brocades, for precious stones and gold ornaments and finely wrought caskets to hold them: for downy couches, perfumed baths, private apartments and private gardens enclosing an Arbor of Love: in short, for the substance of an acquisitive life. If the soldier does not supply it, the merchant must: if the loot be not taken from the Court of Montezuma or a Spanish Galleon, it must be earned in the counting house. Religion itself in these courts and palaces had become an empty ceremony: is it any wonder that luxury became almost a religion? (Mumford 1934:98)

Now observe the contrast. Private luxury was not looked upon with favor during the Middle Ages: indeed, a private life, in the modern sense, scarcely existed. It was not merely that the sins of pride, avarice and covetousness, with their possible by-products of lechery and fornication, were, if not serious offenses, at least hindrances to salvation: it was not merely that the standards of living, judged by purely financial ideals, were modest. But the Middle Ages, with their constant tendency to symbolize, used gold and jewels and artful workmanship as emblems of power. The Virgin could receive such tributes because she was Queen of Heaven: the [99] earthly king and queen, pope and prince, representatives of the heavenly powers, might also have a certain measure of luxury to indicate their station: finally, the guilds in their mysteries and pageants might spend lavishly upon public shows. But luxury here had a collective function: even among the privileged classes it did not mean merely sensuous ease. (Mumford 1934:98-9)

Not merely did life as a whole become the mean handiwork of coachman, cook and groom: but the court began likewise to take a leading part in industrial production, too: the new luxury of China for the table became a monopoly of the royal porcelain factories in Prussia, Saxony, Denmark, Austria, and for woven goods the big Gobelins factory became one of the main production centers in France. In the effort to put on a front, the use of adulterations and substitutes became common. Marble was imitated in plaster, gold in gilt, handwork in moulded ornament, glass was used instead of precious stones. The reproduction for mass consumption of substitutes, as in the jewelry of Birmingham, took the place of the slow original creation of genuine handicraft: the systematic cheapening through mass production and inferior materials for the sake of achieving an effect beyond one’s means, occurred in ornament long before it was applied to objects of use. With the spread of courtly ideals through society, the same change took place in the eighteenth century as happened with the introduction of the “democratic” ideal of military conscription. The standardized manufacture of cheap jewelry and domestic ornaments and textiles went along directly with the standardization of military equipment. And one notes ironically that it was out of the capital Matthew Boulton had amassed in his brummagem works at Soho that he was -able to support James Watt during the period when he was perfecting the steam engine. (Mumford 1934:100)

Glass itself was a very ancient discovery of the Egyptians, or possibly even of some more primitive people. Beads of glass have been found as far back as 1800 B.C. and openings for glass windows were found in the excavation of Pompeian houses. In the early Middle Ages, glass furnaces began to come back, first in the wooded districts near the monasteries, then near the cities: glass was used for holding liquids and for making the windows of public buildings. The early glass was of indifferent texture and finish: but by the twelfth century glass of intense color was made, and the use of these glasses in the windows of the new churches, admitting light, modifying it, transforming it, gave them a sombre brilliance that the most ornate carving and gold of the baroque churches only feebly rival. (Mumford 1934:124)

As a result of systematic experiment in metallurgy a revolution took place here comparable to that which was involved in the change from the steam-engine to the dynamo. For the rare metals now have a special place in industry, and their careful use tends to promote habits of thrift even in the exploitation of the commoner minerals. Thus the production of rustless steel will decrease the erosion of steel and add to the metal worth redeeming from the scrapheap. Already the supply of steel is so large and its conservation has at last become so important that over half the burden of the open hearth furnaces in the United States is scrap metal-and the open hearth process now takes care of 80 per cent of the domestic steel production. The rare elements, most of which were undiscovered until the nineteenth century, cease to be curiosities or to have, like gold, chiefly a decorative or honorific value: their importance is [232] out of all proportion to their bulk. The significance of minute quantities – which we shall note again in physiology and medicine – is characteristic of the entire metallurgy and technics of the new phase. One might say, for dramatic emphasis, that paleotechnics regarded only the figures to the left of the decimal, whereas neotechnics is preoccupied with those to the right. (Mumford 1934:231-2)

This solution was perhaps almost a too perfect one: for the new settlers and pioneers not merely satisfied their own spiritual needs by colonizing the less inhabited areas of the globe, but in the act of so doing they provided raw materials for the new industries, they likewise afforded a market for their manufactured goods, and they paved the way for the eventual introduction of the machine. Rarely have the inner impulses of different parts of society balanced so neatly with the outer conditions of its success: rarely has there been a social situation which was satisfactory to so many different types of personality and so many varieties of human effort. For a brief hundred years – roughly from 1790 to 1890 in North America, and perhaps a little earlier and a little later for South America and Africa – the land pioneer and the industrial pioneer were in close partnership. The thrifty, aggressive, routinized men built their factories and regimented their workers: the tough, sanguine, spirited, non-mechanical men fought the aborigines, cleared the land, scoured the forests for game and clove the virgin soils with their plows. If the new agricultural opportunities were still too tame and respectable, even though old customs and solidarities were disregarded and old precedents flouted, there were horses to be roped on the pampas, petroleum to be tapt in Pennsylvania, gold was to be found in California and Australia, rubber and tea to be planted in the East, and virgin lands in the steaming heart of Africa or in the coldest north could he trodden for the first time by white men, seeking food or knowledge or adventure or psychal remoteness from their own kind. (Mumford 1934:296)

The dogma of increasing wants, like so many other dogmas of industrialism and democracy, first appeared in the counting house and the court, and then filtered down into the rest of society. When abstract counters in gold or paper became the symbols of power and wealth, men began to value a form of commodity that had in fact no natural limits. The absence of normal standards of acquisition first manifested itself among the successful hankers and merchants; yet even here these standards lingered on far into the nineteenth century in the conception of retiring from business after achieving a competence – that is, the standards of one’s class. The absence of a customary norm of consumption was most conspicuous in the extravagant life of the courts. To externalize the desire for power, wealth, and privilege, the princes of the Renascence lavished upon private luxury and display enormous amounts of money. They themselves, unless they happened to rise from the merchant class, did not earn this money: they were forced therefore to beg, borrow, extort, steal, or pillage it; and truth to tell, they left none of these possibilities unexplored. Once the machine began to increase the money-making capacities of industry, these limits were extended and the level of expenditure was raised for the entire society. This phase of capitalism was accompanied, as I have already pointed out, by a widespread breakdown of social institutions: hence the private individual often sought to compensate by egocentric getting and spending for the absence of collective institutions and a collective aim. The wealth of nations was devoted to the private gratification of individuals: the marvels of collective enterprise and cooperation that the machine brought into play left the community itself impoverished. (Mumford 1934:392)

MUMFORD, Lewis. 1934. Technique and civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.