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The Hudson Review, Inc

Encyclopedic Unities
Vision in Motion by L. Moholy-Nagy; Mechanization Takes Command by Siegfried Giedion
Review by: H. M. McLuhan
The Hudson Review, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Winter, 1949), pp. 599-602
Published by: The Hudson Review, Inc
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Encyclopedic
Unities
H. M. McLUHAN
VISION IN
MOTION,
by
L.
Moholy-Nagy.
Paul Theobald.
$10.00.
MECHANIZATION TAKES
COMMAND,
by Siegfried
Giedion. Oxford
University
Press.
$10.00.
THESE
TWO WORKS ARE of the utmost relevance alike to the
student,
the
teacher and the critic of literature. For
thirty years
or more it has been the
function of
English
in
high
school and
university
to train the student in the
awareness of civilization. But
English
took over the former functions of Greek
and Latin after these had been narrowed to
philology. (The
murder of classical
education was an inside
job.)
So that the formal
teaching
of
English began
and has continued
along
the lines which first
destroyed
classical education.
The
present
volumes
suggest
a
variety
of means
whereby English might
in
large
measure resume the
plenary
functions of the older classical education.
To the teacher of
English Moholy-Nagy
and Giedion offer a set of master
strategies
for the extension and unification of
literary
with all the other arts
and even with the sciences. This sounds
Spenglerian,
but is
fortunately
otherwise. For there are two
great
schools of German
encyclopedic study
of
society
and the arts.
Riegl, Worringer
and
Spengler
stem from
Hegel,
while
Frobenius, Woelflin, Giedion,
and
Moholy-Nagy
are in the humanist
tradition of Burckhardt. For the first school
society
and the arts are
merely
the clothes of the
time-spirit,
or a means of
illustrating
a
system
of ideas.
For the
second,
ideas
merely
serve as a
preliminary
means to
bringing percep-
tion and
judgment
to an ever
riper
fulfillment
by
contact with
society
and
the arts. The first school is
speculative
and
dialectically
divorced from sensi-
bility.
The second carries the tradition of
particularist
humanism,
recognizing
the
specific diversity
of arts and artists as well as the need for careful
training
of
sensibility
and taste. The
attaining
of a
contemporary
awareness is an
easy
matter of
conceptual adjustment
for a
Spengler,
but for Giedion it is the
result of alert and
prolonged
attention to a
great range
of
things
and
activities,
an affair of
thought
and
feeling working
in the
completest harmony.
And in
this
respect
Giedion is not
only superior
to
Moholy-Nagy
but to Woelflin as
well. He makes
very heavy
demands of his readers since he
presents
ideas not
as
things
to be known or
argued
about but as tools with which the reader
must work for
many years.
Giedion once
complained
to me about the
difficulty
of
getting
his
thought
into
English
and I
suggested
that he would find
help
in the
prose
of T. S.
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THE HUDSON REVIEW
Eliot. He read Eliot with
delight
and instant
understanding, seeing
him as
a writer who had
conquered
the same new
territory
as himself. And for
any-
body
who has worked for
years
with the tools
provided by
Eliot,
Giedion
will make readier sense. For his entire work is an
exploration
of the causes
and effects of the
split
between
thought
and
feeling
as it concerns both
plastic
and
engineering
arts. What Eliot has done for the revaluation of
English
letters from this
point
of
view,
Giedion has done for the successes and
failures of the
past
four centuries in the
organization
of interior and exterior
space.
It is this intense
preoccupation
with
contemporary problems
of
thought
and
feeling,
and with the occasional
triumphs
of a unified
sensibility,
that
has led Giedion to a
study
of American life which has been
rivalled,
and at
a different
level,
only by
De
Tocqueville.
His reason for
making
a
genetic
study
of American
architecture,
(Space,
Time and
Architecture, 1939)
was
the same as that which led him to devote most of the
present study
to
American methods of
production
and
conceptions
of comfort and
hygiene.
Namely,
that in America in the nineteenth
century
the mind was least
fettered
by
the
depraved ruling
taste which stultified the best
insights
of
European
architects and
engineers.
It was
merely
an accidental
advantage
which Americans
enjoyed
in the nineteenth
century,
and it was one which
was not much
exploited.
But in
facing
the
problems
of machine
production
this
advantage
consisted in the American
ignorance
of traditional crafts and
indifference to dominant
European
standards of
prettiness.
A
persisting
short-
age
of labor in America coincided with the mechanization of
production
and
permitted
the best talents a free hand in
solving problems
the readiest
way.
The result was often
apparent
in
tools,
buildings
and
objects
of novel
yet
unconscious
beauty.
So that in the mid-West
especially,
the untrammeled
engineer
moved
swiftly
towards
conceptions
and
objects
which not
only
anticipated
their
European colleagues
but which were in advance of the
painters
themselves.
It is here that Giedion's
rigorous analysis
of the
specific
modalities of vision
and
apprehension
in the arts enables him to
produce
a
triumphant
demonstra-
tion of the
precise
function of the arts in a
living society.
He is able at once
to train taste and to fuse it with creative
thought
in
facing
the exact
conditions in which
thought
and
feeling
interact in a
particular
set of condi-
tions. So that he can
say,
for
example,
without fuzziness or
impropriety:
The adulteration of
taste,
similar to the one that
accompanied
the
mechani7ing
of
bread,
was witnessed a
century
earlier in a
quite
different
field. The
ruling
artistic taste in the nineteenth
century
was formed
by
exploiting
certain dormant tastes of the
public.
The
public
loves what
is
sweet, smooth,
and
outwardly appealing.
These desires can be
strength-
600
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RvEVLWS
ened, weakened,
or diverted into
positive
channels. The
painters
of the
ruling
taste set out to
satisfy
this
public
demand more and more ....
The outcome was a
blurring
of the instincts in all classes of
society,
a
disorientation that is
doing
its
damage
even
today.
For the student and teacher of literature the formation of a
just
taste in
bread and books alike is the
primary
concern. And Giedion offers to him a
new set of tools for
working
not
only
with the materials of
writing
and the
plastic
arts,
but with the entire
range
of
daily objects
and actions. Central
to his
procedure
is his distinction between "constituent" and
"transitory"
in
facing styles
and
periods.
The one is the incarnation and vehicle of creative
force,
the other derivative
display.
But from these
conceptions
he
vigorously
excludes the idea of
"progress,"
as alien to valuation in the arts.
The title and theme of his latest work indicate a natural dislike of most
current
developments
as subversive of
any
conceivable human welfare. So that
it is well to notice the exact
point
at which Giedion draws attention to the
motives behind mechanization. His conclusion is
that,
preceding
mechaniza-
tion,
or the need for
it,
was the universal wish for it:
The
growth
of the
assembly
line with its
labor-saving
and
production-
raising
measures is
closely
bound
up
with the wish for
mass-production.
We find it used
shortly
after 1800 for
complicated products,
such as
the manufacture of biscuit in a
victualling
office of the British
Navy,
on
a
purely
handicraft
basis;
i.e. without the use of
machinery.
That irrational wish continues to manifest itself in an interest in
production
for its own sake. Human
goals
were,
initially,
incidental to this wish.
They
are now irrelevant to it. So Giedion takes his stand
firmly
on the
conception
of human
autonomy, ruthlessly
and
patiently demonstrating
where it has
been
lost and how it can be
recovered,
granted
the wish to recover it.
Moholy-Nagy's
Vision in Motion is a book to be used
only by
those who
have mastered Eliot and Giedion. Not because it is more advanced but
because
it is less
responsible.
The book swarms with brilliant
insights
into
parallel
effects and intentions between the most diverse activities of
contemporary
science,
photography,
engineering,
art and literature. Pictures of "don'ts"
for
airmen
put
out
by
the
Army may suddenly
illuminate a whole side of
Picasso's
rhetoric of
pathos.
A view of obsolescent farm
equipment
will
provide
a
striking counterpoint
to the vision of
Leger,
intercellular
photography
sud-
denly
links
up
with stream of consciousness,
and
Finnegans
Wake
appears
as
the
encyclopedic
filter for old
knowledge
and new hunches. In
short, Moholy-
Nagy
here
presents
in compendious
form a
resume
of the Bauhaus
program
601
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THE HUDSON REVIEW
with its
superb
methods for
training
the senses and
feelings
in
harmony.
But
the relations between these and
thought
are less
happily adjusted. Moholy-
Nagy being quite
often a naif of sensation almost at the Gertrude Stein or
Watsonian level of behaviorism. Vision in
Motion, however,
in the hands of a
serious teacher would be
unsurpassed
as a baedeker of
contemporary
arts,
crafts,
and
engineering
seen in a
single
vortex of interfused interests and
activities. In
fact,
it is
quite plain
that with such books as these the twentieth
century
has
emerged
from the era of isolated
specialisms
which was
begun
with
the rise of
biologism
a hundred
years ago.
For the
past thirty years
we have
been in a new era which is both
encyclopedic
and unified. The
key
men of
this
period,
like
Joyce
and
Giedion,
exhibit
great
traditional
knowledge
together
with a universal
contemporaneity.
SEARCH FOR THE REAL
by
Hans Hofmann
Edited
by
Sara T. Weeks &
Bartlett H.
Hayes,
Jr.
Being
the
presentation of
a vital
philosophy
wherein
certain technical
factors
in modern
painting
are recon-
ciled with the world
of
the
spirit.
92
pages,
43
pages
of
illustrations,
15 color notes
Price $4.50
Addison
Gallery
of American
Art, Phillips Academy,
Andover,
Mass.
Order direct or
from your
own bookseller
__ __
602
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