The Road to Necropolis: Technics and Death in the Philosophy of Lewis Mumford

History of the Human Sciences 16 (4):39-59 (2003)
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Abstract

The purpose of this article is to explore the close link between technology and death in the philosophical writings of Lewis Mumford. Mumford famously argued that throughout the history of western civilization we find intertwined two competing forms of technics; the democratic biotechnic form and the authoritarian monotechnic form. The former technics were said to be strongly compatible with an organic form of life while the latter were said to be allied to a mechanical power complex. What is perhaps less well known is the extent to which Mumford characterizes the authoritarian technical form as being a technics of death. This article will argue that the connection between death and technics is a key theme in Mumford’s philosophy of technology. In addition to elaborating this theme and detailing how it informs Mumford’s other positions on the nature of technology, this article will also argue that Mumford’s theory of a technics of death bears witness, both implicitly and explicitly, to the influence of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the death instinct. Freud’s account of the death instinct will be outlined briefly and its influence on Mumford’s writings will be explained. Death, in Mumford’s technological writings, has a generally negative function and serves to warn humanity of the perilous course that its technological civilization is set upon. However it also has a positive function in that it encourages man to transcend its biological existence in acts of creativity and purpose. Death, in this positive sense, serves the purpose of life whereas, in the negative sense, it hinders it. The role of death, in both aspects, will be explored and related to Mumford’s overall perspective on technics and life. It is argued that Mumford’s philosophy of technology cannot be fully understood without an awareness of his views on death and its role in the life of technological society

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