Sunday, September 11, 2011

It’s Mumford Time! Environmental Icarine Writers and the verification of spectacular claims

The case of the monastic clock and the invention of capitalism.

Fashioning an intellectual life is like unraveling a wooly sweater in reverse where instead of picking at a loose thread or two and witnessing the garment come asunder, one starts with sentence strands from a few books and knits these together to create from that growing ball of scholarly yarn, a suite of preoccupations and opinions that make up one’s worldview.  There was a short period of time when I was in college when I checked this process and was determined not to read and instead get my information exclusively from oral sources and directly from experience.  But the world was mute to me and my own thoughts were insufficiently intriguing so I broke down and became a voracious reader once again.  There are still direct connections between the books I read in youth and those that are still important to me now – books that led to others in the domino-heap of a reading lifetime.

Several of the strands that set me off along my scholarly way I picked up in volumes at a small local library near my home in Templeogue on the Dublin south side which I visited sometimes daily a teenager.  The work of Louis Mumford (1895 –1990) was one such significant discovery.  Mumford was one of those writers whose prose, it seems to me, works like Icarus falling back from the skies, their flight through air is so daring, the thrill of what they are attempting is so seductive, and yet the glint of the sun so brilliantly frames them that it is hard to tell if their wings are intact or not – is this, one wonders, flight or falling?  One rarely knows.  This display is quite unlike the writer who gains the high ground by laborious clambering from foothold to foothold – charting a slow methodical course up the rock-face, and whom we can, if we care to, follow behind and with whom, ultimately, we can share the vista from atop the peak.  The former Icarine writers eschew scholarly apparatuses, relying, as they do, upon the spectacle of the sky; the latter writers are replete with footnoted nooks and bibliographic crannies.  Icarine writers are especially delightful to the youth, and when I discovered Mumford I knew I had found a writer who would mark me.

Now that I have been rereading Technics and Civilization (1934), Mumford’s influential account of the significance of the machine for culture, which I spent time with in my late teens (I can’t say I read it all at that time – it is quite a tome and wearying to the young mind, no doubt), I realize there are some sentences – like bolts out of the clear blue sky – that have rattled about in my mind for three decades or so.  In poking around in the secondary literature on Mumford, I see that those passages that excited me are the ones that also made an impact on many of his more mature readers.  And yet – this being the claim of this little piece – since these spectacular statements are instances of Mumford’s Icarine aerial acrobatics, it is hard to know how to fully evaluate their truth claims.  

In the significant opening chapter of Technics and Civilization, Mumford itemized the cultural preparations that cleared the way for the development and influence of “the machine” over the past millennium.  Mumford identifies an especially interesting moment in these cultural preparations.  He says in relation to the monastic rule of St Benedict (480–547) that: “Within the walls of the monastery was sanctuary: under the rule of the order surprise and doubt and caprice and irregularity was put at bay.  Opposed to the erratic fluctuations and pulsations of worldly life was the iron discipline of the rule.  Benedict added a seventh period to the devotions of the day, and in the seventh century by a bull of Pope Sabinianus, it was decreed that the bells of the monastery be rung seven times in the twenty-four hours.  These punctuation marks in the day were known as the canonical hours, and some means of keeping count of them and ensuring their regular repetition became necessary.” 

The use of the clock which regulated the lives of the monks – there were as many as 40,000 monks at the height of Benedictine times – was motivated by a “desire to provide for the welfare of souls in eternity by regular prayers and devotions”, but clock-use diffused away from the monasteries and eventually regulated the striking of the bells in medieval urban centers, thus bringing “a new regularity of to the life of workman and merchant.”  So, order in the monastery, with its orientation to the heavenly world rather than our own bothersome one, was maintained by a mechanism, the monastic clock, the application of which ultimately rippled out to become the metronymic pulse of secular capitalism.  In the industrial age the ordering the hours of the day was momentous for working folk and their overlords in synchronizing their lives to the needs of machines. 

Now this observation of a link between the Benedictine monasteries and the temporality of capitalism is intuitive enough (despite the ironic flavour of the observation) and has been repeated often.  For instance in an early review, E W Zimmerman identified this observation as an especially striking one.  Zimmerman clarified:  “This account of the eotechnic period [Mumford’s first stage in technological development dating from AD 1000 to 1800] of cultural preparation is a high-light in a book of unusual brilliancy.  Not only the evolution of the time concept, but that of the space concept, of perspective, of chronological sequence and similar concepts essential to modern thinking are clearly developed.”   A little later in 1946 Scott Buchanan, the philosopher, in a reflection on the dawn of the Liberal Arts college observed: “As Lewis Mumford points out in his Technics and Civilization, the rule of the Benedictine monastery brought together for the first time in history the intellectual and the worker, not only into one institution, but also into the single soul of each brother.”   Mumford’s sparkling observation remained reportable throughout the last century and into our own, showing up in Herbert Applebaum’s The Concept of Work: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern in 1992 and even Bryan S. Turner’s The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory in 2000.  And lengthy retrospectives of the book written later in the 20th century, by Mumford and others again underscore the significance of this set-piece on the monastic clock. 

Now my point is not to challenge the veracity of Mumford’s claim.  No, the claim seems all-in-all to be quite a reasonable one!  After all, Alfred North Whitehead in Science and the Modern World (1925) had already surmised that the monastic communities provided a context in which the practical, the artistic, the technological and the scientific mingled.  However, the claim that the Benedictine order founded capitalism is one that Mumford got, not from Whitehead (though Whitehead is  listed in Mumford’s bibliography), but from the German economist and sociologist Werner Sombart whose four volume Der Moderne Kapitalismus was published in the 1920s.  Or so it would seem.  However, it is hard to track, from Mumford’s text, exactly what he regarded his debts to Sombart to be.  In his bibliographical annotations (his rare concession to academic formalities) he noted that Sobert’s modern capitalism work “parallels the present history of technics, as the Mississippi might be said to parallel the railway train that occasionally approaches the banks.”  Entertainingly, he goes on to say that “While sometimes Sombart’s generalizations seem to me too neat and confident… I have differed from his weighty scholarship only when no other course was open.”  So in the section on the monastic clock Mumford refers to Sombart as “looking upon the Benedictines, the great working order, as perhaps the original founders of modern capitalism.” 

The specific suggestion of the crucial role of the monastic clock in influencing capitalism seems to come from Mumford, and is therefore is a deepening and a concretizing of the claim that monastics invented capitalism.  We might assume that Mumford’s is purely a metaphorical device for implying that the monastic regimen laid out the track that led us to the factory gates.   However, it is pretty clear that Mumford means to insist on a quite literal connection between the clock and industry meant in its broadest cultural sense.  The problem in reading Mumford, though, is that he is, like many writers in the environmental canon, an Icarine writer, and thus he sweeps down from the upper ether with a compelling claim, but it is hard to establish whence the claim came.  And it is no easier to discern by what mechanism did this state of affairs he described precisely came to pass.  So the link between the Benedictines and capitalism is anchored in Sobert and perhaps Whitehead.  The more specific claim that it is the clock per se that was crucial to capitalism seems to be Mumford’s own and though it is intuitively appealing, it nonetheless seems deductive and not based upon any particular act of historical scholarship – at least it is not one that he has revealed to us.  In the text, as we have seen, Mumford refers to the bull of the pope calling for the ringing of the canonical hours. The ringing of the hours one can assume permeated the more practical affairs of these assiduous monks.  The bells permeate into the towns, the clock permeates into the minds of these urban denizens, and the clock, whose “‘product’ is seconds and minutes… helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science.”  Voila! Capitalism!  

The scheme that Mumford presented by which the monastic clock transforms the world by rupturing our temporal sense: wrenching it away the rhythms of nature, and attuning it to the inorganic world of mechanism succeeds, I think, because it just sounds right, but a reader will either “get it” or not having read the account Mumford gives in Technics and Civilization. The claim is worked out a little more rigorously, mechanistically, so to speak, in later scholarship.  For instance Eviatar Zerubavel, a half century after Mumford, reviews the influence of the Benedictines on the “Modern Spirit of Scheduling” and more patiently comes to similar conclusions.   There Zerubavel confirms that “It would probably be impossible to maintain temporal regularity were it not for the invention of the clock”, and then goes on to say that although “we do not go as far as to claim that the clock “is the key-machine of the modern industrial age" (Mumford, 1934: 14), it is difficult not to appreciate its unique social role in modem Western civilization of the mechanical clock…”.  After this Zerubavel meticulously lays out his claims regarding the migration of Benedictine time to the workaday world of calendars and schedules, (and we might add, Blackberry task lists, regular faculty meetings, Sunday afternoon walks and so on.)  The details need not detain us; the point is that a statement dropped into our laps can in fact be supported even if Icarus is not prepared to do that work for us.

Mumford makes a claim in the 1930s; it is echoed through the next three-quarters of a century, with enthusiasm but with little inspection.  Subsequent scholarship confirms the broad strokes of his plausible claim.  But this is but one of the spectacular Icarine claims in the book.  For instance, a few pages after the luminous passage on the monastic clock passage, Mumford argues that by the dawn of the modern era, and largely as a consequence of our new inorganic chronological sense, “[life] in all of its sensuous variety and warm delight was drained out of the Protestant’s world of thought: the organic disappeared.”  The implication of this he goes on to say was the birth of the “will to dominate the environment.” [p43] That is, the will “to dominate, not to cultivate, to seize power, not to achieve form”.

For environmentalists claims such as these are part of the furniture of our worldview.  There is a cottage industry of speculation about how we humans have redirected ourselves away from nature and towards mechanism and as a consequence have unraveling our world.  Generally, these foundational, splashy and influential ideas are under-inspected, often because they are echoed by writers as beautiful in the arc of their flight as was Mumford.   But the question is: are such statements true?  We are obliged to go beyond Mumford to establish whether or not they are.

Big thanks to John Lynch for tracking down the Zerubavel paper for me.
[1] E. W. Zimmermann Review: Philosophers Appraise the Machine Source: Social Forces, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Oct., 1934 - May, 1935), pp. 145-149.
[2] Scott Buchanan (1946) The Binding of Prometheus College Art Journal Vol. 5, No. 3 (Mar., 1946), pp. 186-193
[3] Zerubavel, Eviatar (1980). "The Benedictine Ethic and the Modern Spirit of Scheduling: on Schedules and Social Organization.". Sociological inquiry 50 (2), p. 157.

1 comment:

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