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1948 __ « Mechanization Takes Command : A Contribution to Anonymous History »
Siegfried Giedion (1888-1968)
Comment : Siegfried Giedion's “Mechanization Takes Command - a contribution to anonymous history” (1948), an erudite, far-ranging survey of how mechanization "has split our modes of thinking from our modes of feeling." Mechanization introduced an equally radical transformation in the body’s occupation of temporal space. Human beings have always modified their surroundings using their hands, as Siegfried Giedion, an art and architecture historian, points out in “Mechanization Takes Command” (1948). The hand is an organic tool that can grip, grasp, press, beat, pull, form, massage, squeeze, scratch and point. The hand is extraordinarily flexible. It is also a highly intelligent and hypersensitive surveying instrument. It really only has one limitation : it cannot carry on working endlessly. But the machine can. In Hamlet, Shakespeare even speaks of the body as a machine. In this period no conceptual conflict existed between body and machine, between the human and the mechanical. “Industry”, was understood differently from how we understand it today ; “industry” was a matter of being industrious. Siegfried Giedion's “Mechanization Takes Command” (New York, 1948), remains the foremost examination of the impact of mechanical process on human activities and perceptions; although the book is global in its coverage, it draws many of its primary examples from the American experience, especially in regard to the assembly line, the industrialization of agriculture and meat production, the interiors of railroads and households, the mechanization of bathrooms and bathing. (Compiled from various sources)Siegfried Giedion (1888-1968) was a Swiss art historian who pioneered the history of technology while helping bring forth modernity, born of the convergence of revolutionary transformations in science, technology, and the arts, and identified with such names as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Sigmund Freud, Henry Ford, and the Wrights (both Frank Lloyd and the brothers Wilbur and Orville). Together, “Space, Time and Architecture” and “Mechanization Takes Command”, originally published in English in 1941 and 1948 respectively, shed light on this convergence -- showing, for example, how such abstruse concepts as the special theory of relativity drifted from physics and entered the popular idiom in painting, architecture, and literature. Giedion believed passionately in bridging disciplinary and cultural boundaries. It was through his artist friends that Giedion discovered a new world of science. He then coupled art and science to create a fresh vision of technology, his best hope for restoring the "equilibrium" he desired between man and machine. (Arthur P. Molella)While war raged in Europe, Swiss architect and historian Sigfried Giedion roamed the remote backwaters of American patent archives, exploring and charting the anonymous history of the age of mechanical invention. In 1947 he published his landmark treatise “Mechanization Takes Command”. The title's active present tense conveys the once-fresh immediacy of the bygone mechanical age which spanned the 19th century, during which human invention overwhelmed and redefined human being. Contrasting the natural resources, availability of skilled labor, and historical proclivities of Europe and America, he examines, chapter by chapter, the intrusion of mechanization into diverse realms of human endeavor. The lock and key, bread baking, slaughterhouses, furniture and the very notion of comfort, kitchen appliances, and bathing are among the subjects of Giedion's scrutiny. Ever attentive to the impact of mechanization on the organic world, our lives and our bodies, Giedion's critical perspective surpasses mere historical documentation, teleological theory, or scientistic adulation: he bares the roots of the many contradictions underlying our current global crises of life and humanity versus the corporate mechanism and the ruling taste. “Mechanization Takes Command” is a sourcebook of problems, solutions, and solutions that became problems. Our sciences rely upon technical intermediaries to detect and measure dimensions we cannot observe with our senses. While it is no longer possible to conceive of a science without machines, we encounter everyday machines without science – and this is the real science fiction. Daily we witness a panorama of seemingly autonomous machines which have colonized our planet, from the innocent improvisations of children and folk technology to the haphazard bricolage of our great industrial complexes. The blindness, power and the collective lack of any purposeful direction allow these great cumulative machineries to inexorably erode a world whose wholeness we cannot grasp and have only recently begun to appreciate. We now linger at the end of the electronic information age. Perhaps it is our indecision which keeps us from choosing one of two equally threatening options: abandoning our tired paradigms to embrace a new wholer conception of ourselves and the environment, or sticking to our guns and annihilating it. It may now be elucidating to reconsider the path taken by our predecessors in the bygone age of machines. Giedion has considered the machine as dictator of social & ethical values, of aesthetics, as a mirror of nature and as model of mind. All these things were variously attributed to or projected onto the machine during its heyday a century and a half ago. Within these patterns there may lie habits which our culture will repeat even as paradigms shift. It seems that in our modern western culture, technology assumes the position of the "intermediary," the mythical, magical or oracular fetish onto which we project an inner dimension which we cannot express directly and from which, in turn, we seek answers about the world and our place in it. Machines afford us a sort of trinity of dialog among self-as-subject/machine/self-as-object. The barber's chair, the Barbie doll, the desktop computer, the smart bomb – each mute object is a participant in a discussion of which it understands nothing. Our obsession with keys, codes, special control buttons, may be a contemporary manifestation of special formulae, incantations which we once used to communicate with the unknown, the "disembodied powers." Could it be that the "genii loci," woodland spirits and others we once revered to increase our understanding and participation in our environment are now embedded in technology? Does this ever-present need to validate oneself through reiteration of technology come out of desperation or fear of "emptiness"? (In a recent news account, a hostage in Iranian prisons described recreating the mathematical formulae and theorems he knew using only breadcrumbs and dust. Never did he consider exploring his loneliness, helplessness and the lack of any possibility of expressing himself.) For the present performance we have chosen a few of the more quirky or romantic passages from Giedion's text to set to music: the chapters covering slaughter, the mechanics of the hand, and bathing form the nucleus of our text. By a process of computer analysis, we convert the naturally occurring melodies and rhythms of the speaking voice into musical material. Applying the results to digital speech and music synthesizers and samplers, we have created a series of "songs" or settings which both derive from and portray the subject matter of Giedion's writings. The sounds of animals, machines and the echoes of now distant memories are blended and fused intimately with the sounds of words. The use of computers and synthesizers in the present performance serve to exaggerate the dissociation between the minimalism of gestural and performative actions and the massive control of the experience suggested by the sound and imagery. The material, not the performer, now carries the richness of experience toward its target. Like modern architecture, audio technology gives us a means to create elaborate set of transparencies which coexist in time and space. Like architecture, audio always retains a sense of the illusory, creating spaces which, without our awareness, modifies our sense of self. The controls at hand, however, allow "painless" instantaneous disintegration without smart bombs. Again, divorcing of action from result squelches opposition. There is an irony in the contrast between natural live voice and synthesized voice. The voice, once taken away from the body and reconstituted as a being without corporeal substance, without status or place, without viewpoint, without the fleshy vulnerability a bared throat offers, is reincarnated as a new being. Perhaps a voice of authority, or an oracle which can speak from beyond the grave. It gives us a deliriously false confidence, this chest resonance without chest, these nasals without nose, plosives without lips or tongue, this singer of songs-without-throats. The voice, encountering the machine, suffers the same series of dislocations which are perpetrated upon the animal bodies in the slaughterhouse. Unlike the random destruction of a road-kill, they are distilled, transformed – made into something else. Here we have excised melodies like bodily organs, trimmed away fat and gristle of meaning to reveal underlying harmonic and rhythmic skeletons. We have filleted and sliced the synthetic voice away from its bones only to reconstitute it again in a new guise, to ressurect it as a god, daemon, or spirit. Who is saying these things? Am I the only one who hears these voices? Giedion has created a panorama of found images, creating a fertile visual dialectic – images by Marey, the Gilbreths and Muybridge appear opposite Duchamp, Ernst and Klee, all illustrating the encoding of human motion in shape and form. Nineteenth century engravings of McCormick's reaper, patent drawings of animal skinning devices which were never practicable, accompany us on our walk through Giedion's anonymous history. The more than five hundred illustrations which accompany the text of “Mechanization Takes Command” constitute a brilliant kaleidoscope of visual anthropology, revealing paradoxes, hidden agendas and sheer blind optimism as they appear in successive turns along our path. We have incorporated these etchings and line drawings into the projections for our performance along with photographed images in color, again pointing out the parallels and contradictions between the mechanical and the actual, that which is meant to be seen and what cannot be hidden. (Laetitia Sonami & Paul DeMarinis, 1991, In Ars Electronica catalog)
French comment : Historien de l’architecture (1888-1968), le suisse Siegfried Giedion a longtemps marqué de son empreinte l’image que l’on se fait de l’architecture moderne. Diplômé ingénieur de l’Université Technique de Vienne en 1913, il a fait ensuite des études d’histoire de l’art à Munich. Sa thèse porte sur le classicisme. Mais Giedion est surtout connu pour son ouvrage intitulé "Mechanization Takes Command" paru en 1947 . Dans ce livre, Giedion ne s’intéresse pas au dessin des objets usuels mais aux représentations exprimées par l’usage qui en est fait. Cet intérêt repose sur l’expérience qu’il fit de l’ Amérique à partir de 1938 où il découvre un monde marqué par la mécanisation. Ce qui retient son intérêt ce sont les choses de la vie de tous les jours, un terrain de recherche où la mécanisation est le plus immédiatement perceptible. Avec le recul, ce livre représente une des contributions parmi les plus importantes à l’histoire de la civilisation. Ayant eu recours à des documents provenant des offices américains de brevets d’invention, Giedion a une approche pénétrante du XIX° et du XX° siècle. (Compiled from various sources)Il ne s’agit pas tant pour Siegfried Giedion (Prague 1888 – Zürich1968) de questions de style que de comprendre les mécanismes d’une architecture conçue comme un « organisme » en interférence avec la société. Son rôle a été analysé par Pierre Francastel dans Art et Technique au XIXe et XXe siècles. Il en démontre les fondements idéologiques : « réquisitoire contre la mécanisation de toutes les activités humaines », espoir de régénération d’une humanité réconciliée avec la nature grâce à l’intuition du créateur inspiré et à l’avènement d’une architecture organique (dont l’architecte Frank Lloyd Wright est le grand représentant). L’ouvrage de Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (1948), est également considéré comme fondateur dans toute historiographie du design. L’approche de l’objet n’est plus ici celle de l’icône mais « de choses humbles, d’objets auxquels on n’attache généralement pas une grande importance, ou tout au moins auxquels on n’attribue pas de valeur historique. (…) Une cuiller à café reflète bien le soleil ! Collectivement, toutes ces humbles choses dont nous allons parler ont ébranlé notre vie jusque dans ses racines les plus profondes. Modestes objets quotidiens, ils se coalisent pour agir sur quiconque se meut dans l’orbite de notre civilisation ». Il s’agissait pour l’auteur d’entreprendre, au-delà de l’objet, une histoire du processus de mécanisation et de ses influences et conséquences sur l’être humain. (Jocelyne Lebœuf, “ De l’Histoire de l’art à l’histoire du design industriel”, Ecole du Design Nantes Atlantique)
Original excerpt : « At the origin of the inquiry stood the desire to understand the effects of mechanization upon the human being; to discern how far mechanization corresponds with and to what extent it contradicts the unalterable laws of human nature. The question of the limits of mechanization is bound to arise at any moment, as the human aspect, which is fundamental, cannot be disregarded. [...] The slow shaping of daily life is of equal importance to the explosions of history; for, in the anonymous life, the particles accumulate into an explosive force. Tools and objects are outgrowths of fundamental attitudes to the world. These attitudes set the course followed by thought and action. Every problem, every picture, every invention, is founded on a specific attitude, without which it would never have come into being. The performer is led by outward impulses - money, fame, power - but behind him, unbeknown, is the orientation of the period, is its bent toward this particular problem, that particular form. [...] To visualize movement as it evolves in space, Marey first tried describing his name in mid-air with a shiny metal ball, and found his signature clearly written on the plate. He attached a strip of white paper to the wing of a crow, which he let fly before a shiny black background (c. 1885). The trajectory of each wing beat appeared as a luminous path. Around 1890 he placed a brilliant point at the base of the lumbar vertebrae of a man walking away from the camera. In a later lecture (1899) he speaks of these curves as “a luminous trail, an image without end, at once manifold and individual.” [...] Beyond enumeration are the domains of mechanization and all the techniques that have gone to build up the life we know today. But the method that forms the basis of all mechanization is amazingly simple. The human hand is a prehensile tool, a grasping instrument. It can seize, hold, press, pull, mold with ease. It can search and feel. Flexibility and articulation are its key words. The triple-articulated fingers, the wrist, the elbow, the shoulders, and, on occasion, the trunk and legs heighten the flexibility and adaptability of the hand. Muscles and tendons determine how it will seize and hold the object. Its sensitive skin feels and recognizes materials. The eye steers its movement. But vital to all this integrated work is the mind that governs and the feelings that lend it life. The kneading of bread; the folding of a cloth; the moving of brush over canvas: each movement has its root in the mind. For all the complicated tasks to which this organic tool may rise, to one thing it is poorly suited: automatization. In its very way of performing movement, the hand is ill fitted to work with mathematical precision and without pause. Each movement depends on an order that the brain must constantly repeat. It wholly contradicts the organic based on growth and change, to suffer automatization. [...] »
Source : Giedion, Siegfried (1948), “ Mechanization Takes Command”, New York : Oxford University Press, 1948.
Source : Giedion, Siegfried (1948), “ La Mécanisation au Pouvoir - Contribution à l’histoire anonyme”, Paris : Centre Georges Pompidou / CCI, 1980.
Source : Molella, Arthur P. (2002), “Science Moderne: Sigfried Giedion's Space, Time and Architecture and Mechanization Takes Command”, In Technology and Culture, Volume 43, Number 2, April 2002, pp. 374-389.
Urls : http://www.espacestemps.net/document1153.html (last visited ) http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=acls;idno=heb01139.0001.001 (last visited ) (last visited )

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