Let’s have a shift of focus


Richard Moore

Bcc: interested parties


We’ve gotten a few more contributions on our belief thread, and I’ll send those out as a dialog posting tomorrow. This has been perhaps the most energetic thread we’ve ever had on cyberjournal. If more contributions come in, I’ll publish them, but I’d like to suggest a shift of focus as we more forward.

I had a book lying around for years, and I finally got around to reading it. It’s by Lewis Mumford, and it’s called The Story of Utopias. It was published in 1922, and the edition I have includes a Preface by the author, written in 1962. 1922 seems like a long time ago, but the book makes just as much sense today as it did then.

The 1920s were an overture to the modern world. In an overture we get previews of each of the movements in the symphony. Glimpses into where we’re going. The 1920s were ushered in by the first world-scale conflagration; they brought us the first really impactful mass communications with films and radio; automobiles were being mass-produced for the first time; the PR industry was being born; the US was experiencing its first economic boom as the new world power; and the 1920s were ushered out by the first Fed-designed economic collapse. And culturally, the US was having its first experience as a “special” people, more privileged than the rest, able to hang out in Paris in style, while Europeans were struggling. All the familiar instruments in our modern world symphony played a few bars of their theme during the 1920s.

Also, the 1920s were closer to a previous age, so Mumford had a clearer perspective on the architecture of the being-born modern world. What has become background to us was foreground to him; it stood out more clearly.

This is a profound book, the best thinking I’ve seen on the subject of social transformation. If you feel like running out and buying a copy, you’d be well advised, and I’d welcome your contribution to the discussion.

He starts out by reviewing and critiquing the various classical Utopias: Plato’s The Republic, More’s Utopia, Bacon’s The New Atlantis, etc. If that were all there were, the book would still be valuable, for folks like me who’ve never read those classics. (For non-fiction books about ideas, a good review is often – not always – more useful than the book itself, besides taking less time to read.)

Mumford’s canvas is much broader than that however. The title does not do the book justice. If I were to offer a sub-title, it might go like this: how the dynamic relationship between human vision and social reality has played out over the centuries. Mumford can be forgiven for choosing a short title instead.

He next investigates utopias of another kind. Utopias which were never articulated as utopias, but which became implicit models that society developed and elaborated. An example is what he calls the Country House. The image is the country house of a wealthy Londoner when Britain ruled the waves. A weekend place of indulgence, socializing, fox-hunting, enjoyment of art and music, and absolutely no productivity. Productivity is passe in this place. 

He traces this model, and lo and behold, it’s where most of us live today: in a house with a decorative garden, appliances instead of servants, TV instead of planned entertainments, CDs instead of a chamber orchestra, and where indulgence and enjoyment prevail, productivity being located in other places. We’re all emulating the Utopia of the Country House.

Mumford’s final theme involves contemplation of the various stories he has presented. He proposes no utopia of his own, but he discusses the scope that would need to be covered by a useful utopian vision. He points out the fundamental limitations in the thinking in the explicit and implicit utopias he has surveyed. 

In addition, Mumford is a joy to read. He never seems rushed, the writing flows smoothly and casually, and yet he covers all these complex themes in a mere 300 paper-back pages. His writing is not academic in style, although it’s extremely well-informed and rigorous. He writes as an ordinary person for the ordinary person, but with extra-ordinary insight.

What I’ve given you here is an overture of what I’d like to say about the book. A few bars from each theme. To be continued and expanded.

As I mentioned in the just-previous posting, I am encouraged when my own conclusions match up with the conclusions of thoughtful people who have come at the same problem from another perspective. Mumford’s methods of investigation are quite different than mine, and he has considered many things I have ignored. And yet, in his final theme, I find a great deal of resonance with my own thinking about community and social transformation. 

If there is a real path, it is not strange that different scouts would find it, regardless of where they started their search. As my path crosses Mumford’s, I see where he had his campfire, and I wish he could be here for a campfire chat. 


Lewis Mumford

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Lewis Mumford
Born 19 September 1895
Died 26 January 1990 (aged 94)
Occupation Historian,
Nationality American
Genres HistoryPhilosophy
Notablework(s) The City in HistoryTechnics and CivilizationThe Myth of the Machine
Lewis Mumford (October 191895 – January 261990) was an American historian and philosopher of technology and science. Particularly noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, he had a tremendously broad career as a writer that also included a period as an influential literary critic. Mumford was influenced by the work of Scottish theorist Sir Patrick Geddes.
Mumford was also a contemporary and friend of Frank Lloyd WrightFrederic J. OsbornEdmund N. Bacon, and Vannevar Bush.