1. A vision
A vision of a different relationship between nature and machine: Menacing, precise, and fast, triangular blades on a reaper shave stalks of grain into thin slivers. Conveyors and chains of buckets replace hands. Endless belts of systematized production operate at alien rapidity. The pitches of grinding and squeaking are the new soundscape of life. Hiss, steam, churn, cog: this is an unfamiliar but promising reality of hammering pistons and clanking steam engines.
Mechanization Takes Command, Sigfried Giedion’s exhaustive account of technological progress, is an allegory for the relationship between organic life and its alternative forms in the modern world. Throughout the pages of his historical opus, Giedion offers a connect-the-dots across geographies and cultures, braiding together numerous inventions over multiple centuries. Examined through the lens of agriculture, the mechanization of food production appears as a powerful motif that demonstrates how the gradual substitution of the human laborer by the function of the machine also opened up a wellspring for new, more fluid definitions of nature. Indeed, for better or worse, it becomes clear there that the grotesqueries that would ultimately flow from its imagination possessed no discernment between innovation and deformation.
The tiller appears as a central figure whose form and function become slowly eclipsed by machines. For Giedion, the tiller is a mediator, not a master of nature. Presumably male, he, somewhat paradoxically, treads back and forth in a liminal space between the natural world’s curation (from the Latin curare, meaning ‘to take care of’) and its cessation. He is responsible for the cultivation of crops for their harvest, but their care is part of the process of preparing for their death.
The tiller also upholds an indeterminate place in time. For Giedion, he is an eternal figure that is always present as “a constant element within a civilization”— and thus, outside history—but a noble one at that: “blessed above all others, overranking the trader’s and even the warrior’s” since the days of Homer. Responsible for nature’s endless creations and civilization’s bounty, he is part of the landscape itself. Indeed, Emerson described him as “cling[ing] to his land as rocks do.” Yet the tiller possesses a certain ability to be conversant with nature’s instincts, while being obedient to his own. A primal connector, he is also a part of a culture and crucial to its economic and biological survival.
The figure of the tiller is particularly apt in regard to the themes explored in Giedion’s account, for there is uncertainty, etymologically speaking, in the meaning of ‘tiller’ itself. Rather ambiguously, it can refer to both someone and something that cultivates the land. In the twelfth century, it was used to suggest the growth of a stalk or sprout. But by the thirteenth century, its meaning had split in two, referring to someone who cultivates the growth of crops, and the stock of a crossbow (from the Anglo-French root teiler, which in German means ‘divider’). Thus the tiller is indeterminately a person and a thing, a hand and instrument, one that shaves the razor thin line between death and life.
It is somewhat ironic that a split within tilling, between its literal practice and study, would ultimately contribute to the farmer’s replacement by his own machines. By the mid-nineteenth century, over twenty agricultural colleges were founded in German speaking lands. Their curricula demonstrate that agricultural development ran alongside the development of related trades such as brewing, leather preparation, soap making, dyeing and printing (referred to as Gewerbeindustrie), enabling what historian Robert Bud has referred to as “organic change.” In addition to improving farming practices, research for these trades entailed a foundation in chemistry, to change organic substances in various admixtures into other states. It would be only a matter of time before the sciences of machines and chemicals would operate in concert to reimagine a neo-Lamarckian vision of a new and improved nature, one that operated outside of human grasp.
Likewise, Giedion’s fulsome descriptions of agricultural advancements point to the central roles that agriculture and chemistry played in the development of biotechnology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was in the early nineteenth century that the term “biotechnie” first appeared in the work of French naturalist and anthropologist, Julien-Joseph Virey. Virey’s work often rendered humans and machines a homology; his doctoral thesis in medicine, for example, proposed a study of how internal biological rhythms were dictated by environmental stimuli, which would later inform the field of chronobiology. He suggested that “biotechnie” was an innate human trait, externalized through tools and techniques, to counter a loss of natural instincts. The Scottish biologist, sociologist and urban planner, Patrick Geddes, and his American acolyte, Lewis Mumford, would further develop this theory of “biotechnie” in their respective theories of biotechnics. This notion of homo faber thus relegated technology as a literal and metaphorical arm of—and even a surrogate to—human intuition. By extension, it was part of the same conceptual project to propose that its agricultural products could merit the same status, too.
2. The Organic
The first American industry that made use of a continuous production line in the late eighteenth century focused on an elemental ingredient of life: grain, a central staple of the human diet and symbol of the agricultural revolution. To imagine that such a vast orchestration of choreographies would converge on the manufacture of this small, ancient substance so fundamental to civilization since the Middle Stone Age echoes Burke’s account of the sublime. For Giedion’s narrative of technological evolution, wheat’s harvest was an act of life affirming provision. But the growing scale of demand caused by the movement from a local to a global market would further complicate human sustenance. As an ever-expanding industry, agriculture quickly sought to multiply its yields to accommodate its commercialization, while territorializing its intellectual property.
One of the primary dilemmas of the late eighteenth century concerned the replacement of the hand in the tilling of wheat. To till by way of the reaper is no longer to cultivate, it is intent to kill, swiftly and economically. By Giedion’s account, a mechanical device that acted as an extension of human limbs in motion was achieved in 1811. Its design involved a circular cutting blade, set on the edge of a conical drum, based on the circular saw invented by Samuel Bentham (brother of Jeremy). The contraption was considered an achievement, but still failed. The need for “long fingered reapers” to lacerate wheat stalks as the handheld instrument would informed the next patent: McCormick’s version of 1834. For Giedion, this model signals a paradigm shift, evinced by its sales of 4095 reapers in 1858. It is at this point that mechanization forever changed the farmer into a commercial producer. In the next fifty plus years, further adjustments to the design that combined processes would help the reaper achieve its ideal form: an elevated delivery, a knotter the “size of a chicken’s beak” for binding, and other improvements solved the additional tasks of putting grain into sheaves. By the 1860s, Midwestern states were shipping over twenty million bushels of wheat annually, and human and animal labor in their traditional forms were reduced drastically. As Virey predicted, the tempo of the tractor would eventually merge with the human tiller, to produce a new type of biomechanics of labor, one that left the twentieth century American farmer little to do than drive his tractor around the field by guiding a steering wheel.
Oliver Evan’s eighteenth century grain mill further liberated the agricultural laborer. Its clever design perfected the mechanized grain-milling process to achieve the ultimate goal in continuous assembly line design, securing the laborer’s status to that of mere watcher and tester. But time and time again, we witness that the machine strove to not only address all the aspects of grain production, but to also change the very nature of the object of production itself. Millstones that previously crushed elements of the grain berry together would find new grinding mechanisms that sifted and separated its various components, over and over, to abolish the unwanted oleaginous germ from the mix, which created an unpleasant appearance and texture, and a higher risk of spoilage. The result was a whiter and brighter flour. But it didn’t stop there: chlorine gas was administered in high voltage currents for artificial bleaching, ensuring a gleaming alabaster dust, pulverized into but the finest flecks.
Mechanization was also applied to the staff of life: bread. But in so doing, machines would become mired in the complex technique and chemistry of dough-making, resulting in ever-growing and complicated technical procedures. Although the radical potato advocate, and founder of the l’Ecole de Boulangerie, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier defined dough as, simply, “the soft, flexible, and uniform substance obtained by thoroughly mixing flour, water, air, and leaven,” there was, quite frankly, nothing simple about its engineering. Giedion recognized dough as a more complex organism in its own right: “The bread-making process refuses to be hastened beyond narrow limits,” he observed, “for mechanization here encounters an organic substance whose laws are inviolable… Wherever mechanization encounters a living substance, bacterial or animal almost indifferently, it is the organic substance that determines the law.”
Despite its complexity, like other biological phenomena, dough could not escape the machine’s insatiable desire for optimization. With the rising population and the onset of industrialization, the demand for machine kneading came to the fore. Just as the design for the reaper had reached its zenith, the mid-nineteenth century also focused its attention to experiments in bread making “in the most diverse directions, to the end of performing the complex work of human hand by mechanical means.” While the kneading experiments by the Romans and during the late Renaissance entailed whacking dough on boards, nineteenth century technologies aimed to integrate the three phases of production—mixing, rolling, and molding—into a single production line, using unique measures. Giedion tells us of the elaborate arrangement of the Parisian Mouchon brothers in the 1840s, who arranged large kneading machines driven by “well-drilled dogs” tethered to a tread wheel outside of the baking room; when a whistle blew signaling the mixing was complete, the dogs would stop their labor and the loaves would be sent to bake in aerotherme ovens.
But canis lupus familiaris were not the only biological specimens involved in the baking process. Indeed, it was another eukaryotic organism that caused one of the major dilemmas for producing that humble symbol for human sustenance: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or yeast. In mechanized countries, brewer’s yeast, and later, high fermenting commercial yeast replaced traditional leaven (which took the form of a “starter”, a small batch of previously fermented dough which typically contained a _Lactobacillus _culture). This drastically reduced the time of fermentation by half, but not without the interlude required to allow its enzymes to form gas. Yeast thus proved a stubborn and recalcitrant laborer in the process, not exactly an ideal team player when in a time crunch. Measures to combat the resolute chemical laws dictated by this unassuming microorganism were elaborate and varied. In 1836, Dr. John Whiting developed chemical baking powder. But the more popular solution involved injecting the dough under pressure with carbonic acid as a time-saving measure, producing an unleavened bread that could keep indefinitely.
Still, each solution for expediting bread’s production time caused a chain reaction of other problems. High-speed mixers changed the quality and color of bread. Large amounts of carbonic acid caused the loss of aroma. Bread soon became an all-together unrecognizable creation. In Giedion’s account, the crust was hard, with a tasteless interior. Biotechnology turned to chemistry one again to remedy this situation with a cosmetic updo. From as early as the mid eighteenth century, chemicals such as alum, plaster, and copper sulfate were added to increase the loaf’s density and impart a bleached sheen that regular flour could not achieve. Lost nutrients were re-added using vitamin paste, to resuscitate the otherwise deformed mucilage, albeit artificially, with a sense of alimental value. Sugar was added for sweetness and color. The result was a bread product that possessed “the resiliency of a rubber sponge. When squeezed it returns to its former shape. The loaf becomes constantly whiter, more elastic, and frothier.”
3. The Composite
If design, as a creative act, is a glimpse into the future of what is possible, then the various arrangements by which biological life was formed and reformed through biotechnology in the nineteenth century provided a gateway for the commercially-minded imagination to consider altogether radically different configurations and substances for its sale and consumption. Giedion’s account of the meat industry—“the mechanization of death”—demonstrates that the hog was not treated too differently from the unit commodity of the wheat kernel. Pulverized, drained, quartered, and shipped in harrowing quantities, it, too, gave rise to the growth of a massive industrial infrastructure. The rhythmic precision of the assembly line replaced the biological laws and cycles that would otherwise determine the fate of an organism’s birth, transformation, and death. Indeed, Giedion notes that, “the greater the degree of mechanization, the further does contact with death become banished from life.” Even when the organic refused to participate, mechanization proved it could be coerced. Like the dirigible bread of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, meat, for instance, adopted fanatical, elastic forms such as the “truncated pyramid” of corned beef: “a solid cake, without a particle of gravy, in a natural and palatable condition … cooked, ready to be sliced and eaten.” Chopped, sorted, compressed, squeezed, and molded, its reconstituted form was a literal index of the growing surreality and unforgiving tyranny of market forces.
We get the sense that the manufacturing of biological life went unquestioned, to a degree, and that these conventions became normative. Giedion suggests that even peasant farmers were participants in this culture of agricultural industrialization, albeit scaled down to local and regional contexts: “Even in Europe, behind the reassuring façade of the peasant, the same specialization is taking its path, although reduced to handicraft dimensions,” he writes. “Thus in many of the high valleys of the Grisons in Switzerland, the farmer increasingly concentrates upon one product, milk. He makes neither cheese nor butter, but delivers milk in summer from the high Alp to his co-operative dairy, perhaps many miles distant, where the product is processed. For his own family he frequently buys margarine.”
For his own family, he buys margarine? It is puzzling to imagine that the farmer—that wise advocate and mediator of nature—lacked the discernment to recognize mechanization’s mutiny inflicted upon the realm of the organic, and the increasing otherworldliness of the situation at hand; that he, too, was a consumer of the arcane products brought forth by the industrial revolution. Margarine presents a particularly unique case study, in this regard, though it receives little attention in Giedion’s text. And yet, its development, which runs alongside the timeline of his historical compendium, demonstrates an ideal example of how biotechnology sought to solve problems of portability, quantity, and economy caused by geopolitical circumstances as a matter of “design”, by creating a different kind of “life product” for human sustenance.
In 1813, French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul came upon a wonderful discovery in his research into the chemical composition of animal fats: a colorless and saturated fatty acid, based on a combination of stearic and palmitic acids. He named this substance margaric acid, from the Greek word margaron to refer to its pearly appearance. Chevreul’s invention came at the perfect time. As the second French empire experienced steady economic and industrial progress, the population’s movement from rural to city centers created a massive butter shortage. To combat the soaring prices of butter, and to satiate his poorly nourished but growing laborers and army with the staple foodstuff, Emperor Louis Napolean III issued a competition at the Paris World Exposition in 1866 to produce a butter substitute. Three years later, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, a French chemist engaged in dairy research on the Imperial Farm in Vincennes, developed a technique of mixing clarified beef fat (known as “oleo”), water, and milk to produce a substance that had the same consistency of butter. He named it oleomargarine, based on Chevreul’s discovery, and thus margarine, as it came to be known, was born.
In 1869, just as the reaper was being perfected, a patent for margarine was awarded, and sold to the Dutch company Jurgens (now part of Unilever) two years later. A shortage of beef fat in 1871 lead to a switch to vegetable oils, and its ingredients would continue to undergo shape shifting over time. Notably, that same year, the first margarine factory would appear in Germany, launching a new advent of food production though engineering, which took place in the laboratory and factory, independent of field and animal alike. The product was alluring for industrialists due to its ability to yield high profits during times of economic recession. But this was not without consequence: margarine’s threat to the dairy industry resulted in its precarious legal standing as a food product. Its controversial status would continue to preoccupy government policy makers and the dairy industries in the United States, United Kingdom, and throughout Europe, for over three quarters of a century, resulting in laws such as Britain’s “Margarine Act 1887”, or the “Oleomargarine Act” passed by the United States Congress, which imposed a two-cent per pound tax on the “counterfeit butter.”
Considered a pioneer of biotechnology, Mège-Mouriès revolutionized food production by proposing a model of edible virtuality, a synthetic foodstuff with little to no nutritive value, that became popularized based on the basis of its mimetic capability. Its value was its appeal to the senses. Devised as a simulacra of butter, the highly contested product would, for many years, be sold with a packet of yellow dye that consumers could mix like paint to recreate the appearance of the original. In this regard, it is ironic that along with his discovery of margaric acid, the chemist Chevreul was also a visual theorist obsessed with the perception of colors and the creation of illusory effects. His theory of “the law of the simultaneous contrast of colors” formed the basis of the most widely used color manual in the nineteenth century, which was an important resource for the French Impressionists.
Mège-Mouriès’s invention seemed to prove that the senses beget memory, further complicating the growing impression that manmade products seemed just like biological ones. This was no longer the Darwinian model which dictated evolution through the randomness of natural selection. Rather, just as Lamarck suggested that the design of nature led to increasing optimization, margarine, and other creations of biotechnology, seemed to be the logical neo-Lamarckian coda to modern agricultural progress and to the industrialization of the modern human lifestyle as a whole. Perhaps this was the advent of a second nature. Certainly Giedion echoed this idea that biological systems resembled machines by possessing the ability to improve themselves, and that, in this regard, technological progress and human evolution went hand in hand. Orthogenesis seemed to play out at every scale and stage of the agricultural process. Even the average apple was a highly engineered object: its standardization produced a specific experience of ‘appleness’ characterized by a particular red hue and neutralized flavor to appeal to the aesthetics and taste of a mass market.
Indeed, the underlying tension that the reader senses throughout the pages of Mechanization Takes Command is the seismic shift from the manufacture of products for their content—nutritive or otherwise—to the creation of foodstuffs to produce a visual and sensory experience for its own sake. New, standardized forms of meat and produce grew alongside their uniform packaging, signaling a move away from a logic of cultivation towards a logic of commercialized display. “The housewife,” Giedion writes, “feels the bread through the wrapper, and if it is not so soft and elastic that her fingers can almost meet in the middle, puts it back. Only thoroughly fresh bread is tolerated in the home—a factor conducive to waste. This schooling in waste works more in favor of expanded production than to the advantage of human digestion.” Food’s make-up and its agronomic cultivation were now closer to methods for embalming. Substances with flavorings and colorings could be injected. The life cycle of organic could be halted.
Giedion’s observations point to the new, composite status of modern life, one operating at the intersections of economic rationality, animality, machine, human, organic, inorganic—a kind of pervasive flattening of categorical distinctions. Writing at the time of the Modern Synthesis in biology, when popular genetics merged with evolutionary biology, his text is endemic of new questions that surfaced about the nature of life. The few pages he includes on genetics, examined through the use of biological engineering in animal husbandry, are largely speculative, tentative, unsettled, and unsettling. Though he treads on the philosophical implications—that is, the biopolitical implications—of this question, he stalls.
This is a moment in which the architectural historian finds himself suspended in a moment of uncertainty about not only the thresholds of form, but of type—like the tiller itself, there is a kind of slippage between person and thing. As his book attests, biotechnology has brought persons and things in closer alignment through the body, evoking philosopher Roberto Esposito’s proposition that “through the use of biotechnologies, people who at one time appeared as individual monads may now house inside themselves elements that come from other bodies and even inorganic materials. The human body has thus become the flow channel and the operator, certainly a delicate one, of a relation that is less and less reducible to a binary logic.” We might consider, rather optimistically, that this comingling is not always in service of a negative effect; perhaps there is still some chance these conditions of alterity might offer a way out of the human-machine divide. But how do we know which way mechanization will take organic life in this day and age when things and worlds are remixed uninsured?
Whereas the tiller serves that delicate balance between nature and human consciousness, the machine serves another: an unexamined version of culture, characterized by its indifference to epistemology and ontology. What becomes evident is that the mechanization of food production, which resulted in the movement away from nonpareil agronomic products created out of slow, subtle and often uncertain processes, to the mass production of commodities engineered with certainty to satiate populist appetites, did not so much ‘serve’ the public as take it for a joyride. Nevertheless, the public, it seems, has always been happy to acquiesce, to witness the sanctity of nature transform into sawdust pabulum. Similarly, Giedion’s tendency to impart a sense of nobility to the machine resonates throughout the book, along with his insistence that there is a usefulness to technology beyond the blandness of its products. The effects of mechanization are not described through the lens of an austere and alienating industrial factory. Rather, he cannot help but luxuriate in the image of the machine as an innovative, streamlined organism that possesses a particularly seductive velocity. There is a sense of familiarity to it. Indeed, it is capable of a great deal. Its pretense for self-improvement seems like self-awareness (with claims for more and better quality goods); its remote aloofness and measure are often confused for detached rationality and ‘best interest’. The agricultural technologist is presented as a creative artist and intellectual (though sometimes lazy to moral or political conventions and self-reflexive interrogation).
Yet Giedion’s occasional lapses into anxiousness offer moments of reprieve for the critical reader. Observing that “after 1900 we enter the period when anonymous corporations penetrate nearly every province of life, he seems troubled by how we might navigate the increasing mass acculturation of the human body in this composite universe. What deal has the machine made with humanity? What is paid in recompense? Indeed, if Mechanization Takes Command demonstrates that the products of human sustenance are at the mercy of a fluctuating stock exchange, and subject to the whims of supply and demand, it stands to reason that a profound questioning should take place of how our own biology might be determined by market forces, through the physiological and psychological changes imparted by a food supply that is, in fact, an index of the market. If we, as descendants of the tiller, assume the ethical-political responsibility for the stewardship of our relation to bios, nomos, and logos alike, we must ask ourselves if somehow the distinction between homo faber and alieni iuris has collapsed to produce a new type of subjective condition altogether—a seemingly self-fashioned identity in which we are entirely and not at all the masters of ourselves. For in this era of rampant contradiction and simulation, characterized by the epistemology of margarine, how are we to determine what is true when things are, at once, exactly and nothing as they seem?