STEAM Before STEM: Lewis Mumford’s Ideas about Art and Technology

Digital Handout for:

“STEAM Before STEM: Lewis Mumford’s Ideas about Art and Technology and Why They Matter Today”

Stanley C. Pelkey, Director

University of Kentucky School of Music

2018 College Music Society National Conference

Vancouver, BC

Lewis Mumford (1895–1990)

Definition of “technics”:

The field of “practical arts” and “that part of human activity wherein, by an energetic organization of the process of work, man controls and directs the forces of nature for his own purposes.” Technics is “rooted in man’s use of his own body” (Art and Technics, 15), but technics move beyond the body by magnifying human power via machines (Art and Technics, 24). And “technics is that manifestation of art from which a large part of the human personality has been excluded, in order to further the mechanical process.” (Art and Technics, 21)

Definitions of art:

Art widens “the province of personality, so that feelings, emotions, attitudes, and values, in the special individualized form in which they happen in one particular person, in one particular culture, can be transmitted with all their force and meaning to other persons or to other cultures.” (Art and Technics, 16)

“Ritual, art, poesy, drama, music, dance, philosophy, science, myth, religion, are accordingly all as essential to man as his daily bread: man’s true life consists not alone in the work activities that directly sustain him, but in the symbolic activities which give significance both to the processes of work and their ultimate products and consummations.” (Condition of Man, 9)

Participation and imitation are implicitly aesthetic terms.

The “megamachine”: a large-scale controlling structure arising when keepers of knowledge, armies, and bureaucracies are combined with “a system of absolute power capable of conquering and controlling” vast populations, with the whole power complex grinding toward limited, limiting, and potentially destructive ends for the individual and for society as a whole. Megamachines existed in the Ancient World, arose again with industrialization, and (Mumford argued) became global-encompassing with the post-war era.

The (Mumfordian) goal: not more technological conduits for listening to music, but rather technology to facilitate greater participation in music making.

STEAM: “A” = “active arts making”


Key Texts:

Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics. Columbia University Press, 1952; 2000.

—. The Condition of Man. Mariner Books, 1944; 1973.

—. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. Harvest Book, 1961.

—. Findings and Keepings: Analects for an Autobiography. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975.

—. “The First Megamachines.” 1966. Reprinted in America, Changing… Essays Contributory to an Understanding of Contemporary Culture, edited by Patrick Gleeson, Charles E. Merril, 1968, pp. 381–394.

—. The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

—. The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967.

Other Readings:

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. Collier Books, 1955.  [cf: the “omnicompetent state”]

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Beacon Press, 1964.  [cf: the “society of total mobilization”]

Christopher Lasch and Philip Slater are particularly important examples of later American intellectuals whose works from the 1970s and 1980s echoed themes found in Mumford’s earlier writings. For interesting overlaps with a contemporary of Mumford, see books by Robert Elliot Fitch published in the United States during the 1940s through the 1960s.