A vision of a different relationship between nature and machine: Menacing, precise, and fast, the reaper’s triangular blades shave stalks of grain into thin slivers. Conveyor belts and chains of buckets replace hands, operating at inhuman rapidity. Grinding and squeaking compose life’s new soundscape. Hiss, chug, and churn — these constitute the unfamiliar but promising reality of hammering pistons and clanking steam engines.
Mechanization Takes Command (MTC), Sigfried Giedion’s exhaustive 1948 account of technological progress, is an allegory for the relationship between organic life and its alternative forms in the modern world. In the pages of his historical opus, Giedion connects the dots across national borders and cultures, linking 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 labourer by the machine also opened up a wellspring of new, more fluid definitions of nature. Indeed, for better or worse, it is clear the grotesque results of the machine’s imagination exhibit little 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 destruction. He is responsible for the cultivation of crops for harvest, but this care is part of the process of preparing for their death.
The tiller also holds an indeterminate place in time. For Giedion, he is “a constant element within a civilization”— thus, outside history—and his calling is a noble one: “blessed above all others, overranking the trader’s and even the warrior’s” since the days of Homer. Responsible for bringing nature’s bounty to civilization, he is part of the landscape itself. Indeed, Emerson describes him as “cling(ing) to his land as rocks do.” Yet the tiller possesses a certain ability to be conversant with nature’s exigencies, 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 pertinent to the themes explored in Giedion’s account, for there is uncertainty, etymologically speaking, in the meaning of the word itself. Rather ambiguously, it can refer to both a person and an implement that cultivates the land. In the 12th-century, it was used to denote the growth of a stalk or sprout. But by the 13th-century, its meaning had split in two, referring to someone who cultivates crops and to 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 an 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 its study, ultimately contributed to the farmer’s replacement by his own machines. By the mid-19th century, more than twenty agricultural colleges were found in German-speaking lands. Their curricula demonstrate that agricultural development ran alongside the development of related trades (referred to as Gewerbeindustrie), such as brewing, leather preparation, soap making, dyeing, and printing, enabling what historian Robert Bud has referred to as “organic change.” In addition to improving farming practices, research in these trades entailed a foundation in chemistry as this related to changing organic substances in various admixtures into other states. It would be only a matter of time before the study of machines and that of chemicals would come together in a neo-Lamarckian vision of a new and improved nature, one that operated outside human agency.
Giedion’s descriptions of agricultural advances point to the central role that agriculture and chemistry played in the development of biotechnology in the 19th-and 20th-centuries. It was in the early 19th-century that the term biotechnie first appeared, in the work of French naturalist and anthropologist, Julien-Joseph Virey. Virey’s work often treated humans and machines as homologous; 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 developed this theory of biotechnie in their own theories of biotechnics. This notion of homo faber relegated technology to the status of a literal and metaphorical arm of—even surrogate for—human intuition. By extension, it could be proposed that agricultural products merited the same status.
The first American industry that made use of a continuous production line, in the late 18th-century, focused on an elemental ingredient of life: grain, a central staple of the human diet and symbol of the agricultural revolution. The convergence of such a vast orchestration of technologies on the manufacture of this modest ancient foodstuff so fundamental to civilization since the Middle Stone Age echoes Edmund Burke’s account of the sublime. For Giedion’s narrative of technological evolution, the harvesting of wheat was a life-affirming act. But the growth in demand caused by the movement from a local to a global market complicated the process of providing human sustenance. As an ever-expanding industry, agriculture quickly sought to increase its yield to accommodate its commercialization, while territorializing its intellectual property.
One of the primary dilemmas of the late 18th-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 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 did informed the next patent, that for McCormick’s version of 1834. For Giedion, this model signals a paradigm shift, evidenced by sales totalling 4,095 in 1858. It was at this point that mechanization forever changed the farmer into a commercial producer. Over the next fifty-plus years, adjustments to the design combining processes helped the reaper achieve its ideal form: an elevated delivery platform, a knotter the “size of a chicken’s beak” for binding, and other improvements that addressed the task of bundling grain into sheaves. By the 1860s, Midwestern states were shipping more than twenty million bushels of wheat annually, and human and animal labour in their traditional forms were reduced drastically. As Virey predicted, the tempo of the tractor eventually merged with that of the human tiller to produce a new biomechanics of labour, one that left the 20th-century U.S. farmer little to do other than drive his tractor around the field sitting at the steering wheel.
Oliver Evan’s 18th-century grain mill further liberated the agricultural labourer. Its clever design perfected the mechanized grain-milling process to achieve the ultimate goal in continuous assembly-line design, relegating the labourer to mere watcher and tester. But time and time again, we see the machine not only addressing all the aspects of grain production but also changing the nature of the object of production itself. Millstones that previously crushed the grain berry were replaced by grinding mechanisms that also sifted and separated the ground grain into its components, removing the unwanted oleaginous germ, which imparted an unpleasant appearance and texture and increased the risk of spoilage. The result was a whiter and brighter flour. But the process didn’t stop there: Chlorine gas was used to bleach the flour into a gleaming alabaster product, pulverized into the finest dust.
Mechanization was also applied to the staff of life: bread. But in so doing, machines became mired in the complex techniques and chemistry of dough making, resulting in ever more complicated procedures. Although Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the radical potato advocate and founder of an école de boulangerie, 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 considers dough a complex organism: “The bread-making process refuses to be hastened beyond narrow limits,” he observes, “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, dough was no more able than other biological phenomena to 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. In the mid-19th-century, just as the design for the reaper reached its zenith, attention shifted to experiments in bread making “to the end of performing the complex work of human hand by mechanical means.” While the kneading experiments conducted by the Romans and during the late Renaissance entailed punching and pulling dough on boards, 19th-century technologies aimed to integrate the three phases of mixing, rolling, and molding into a single production line, using unique measures. Giedion describes how the Parisian Mouchot brothers, in the 1840s, created large kneading machines driven by “well-drilled dogs” tethered to a tread wheel outside the bakery; when a whistle blew signalling that the mixing was complete, the dogs would stop, and the loaves would be sent to bake in fan-equipped ovens.
But members of Canis lupus familiaris were not the only biological entities involved in the baking process. Indeed, it was another, eukaryotic organism that caused one of the major dilemmas for producing that humble symbol of human sustenance: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or yeast. In industrialized countries, brewer’s yeast and, later, fast-fermenting commercial yeast replaced the traditional leaven: the sourdough starter, a small batch of fermented dough that typically contained a Lactobacillus culture. This substitution reduced the time needed for fermentation by half but required an interlude to allow the yeast enzymes to form gas. Yeast proved a recalcitrant labourer, not exactly an ideal team player when time was short. Measures to circumvent the chemical laws by which this unassuming microorganism operated were elaborate and varied. In 1836, Dr. John Whiting developed chemical baking powder. But the more popular solution involved injecting carbonic acid gas under pressure into the dough as a time-saving measure, producing an unfermented bread that could keep indefinitely.
Still, each solution for expediting bread’s production caused a chain reaction of other problems. High-speed mixers changed the quality and colour of the bread. Large amounts of carbonic acid caused the loss of aroma. Bread soon became unrecognizable. In Giedion’s account, the crust was hard and the interior tasteless. Biotechnology turned to chemistry once again to remedy this situation with a cosmetic up-do. As early as the mid-18th-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. Sugar was added for sweetness and colour. 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."
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 19th-century provided a way for the commercial imagination to consider altogether radically different configurations and substances for sale and consumption. In his discussion of the meat industry—“the mechanization of death”— Giedion demonstrates that hogs were not treated too differently from wheat kernels. Cudgelled, drained, quartered, and shipped in huge quantities, they, too, gave rise to a massive industrial infrastructure. The rhythmic precision of the assembly line replaced the biological laws and cycles that govern an organism’s birth, growth, and death. Indeed, Giedion notes that “the greater the degree of mechanization, the further does contact with death become banished from life.” Even when organic elements refused to participate, mechanization proved they could be coerced. Like the aerated bread of the 19th- and 20th-centuries, meat adopted fantastic, 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, the meat in its reconstituted form was an 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 processes became normative. Giedion suggests that even peasant farmers participated in the process of agricultural industrialization, albeit scaled down to suit 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 the damage mechanization had inflicted on the realm of the organic and the increasing unreality of the situation; that he, too, was a consumer of the unnatural products created by the industrial revolution. Margarine presents a particularly pertinent case study, in this regard, although it receives little attention in Giedion’s text. Its development, which lies within the timeline of his history, is an ideal example of how biotechnology sought to solve the problems of portability, quantity, and economy caused by geopolitical circumstance by creating a different kind of “life product” for human consumption.
In 1813, the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul made a wonderful discovery while researching the chemical composition of animal fats: a colourless and saturated fatty substance based on a combination of stearic and palmitic acids. He named it margaric acid, from the Greek word margaron, meaning “pearl,” because of its nacreous appearance. Chevreul’s invention came at the perfect time. The steady economic and industrial progress experienced during the Second French Empire brought a movement of the population from rural to city centers that, in turn, created a massive butter shortage. To combat the soaring price of butter, and to satisfy the desire of his poorly nourished but growing labourers and army for this staple, Emperor Louis Napoléon III announced a competition at the 1866 Paris World Exposition to produce a substitute. Three years later, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, a French chemist engaged in dairy research on the imperial farm in Vincennes, developed a technique, based on Chevreul’s discovery, of mixing clarified beef fat (known as oleo oil), water, and milk to produce a substance that had the consistency of butter. He named it oleomargarine, and thus margarine, as it came to be known, was born.
In 1869, as the reaper was being perfected, a patent for margarine was awarded; two years later, it was sold to the Dutch company Jurgens (now part of Unilever). A shortage of beef fat in 1871 led to a switch to vegetable oils, starting a process of modifications of the substance’s composition that continued over time. Notably, that same year, the first margarine factory appeared in Germany, launching a new stage in food production through engineering 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 consequences: The threat margarine posed to the dairy industry resulted in its precarious legal standing as a food product. Its equivocal status preoccupied government policymakers and the dairy industry in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe for more than three-quarters of a century, resulting in laws such as Britain’s Margarine Act 1887 and the U.S.’s Oleomargarine Act of 1886, 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 popular because of its mimetic capability. Its value was its appeal to the senses. Devised as a simulacrum of butter, the highly controversial product was, for many years, sold with a packet of yellow dye that consumers could mix in to imitate the appearance of the original. In this regard, it is ironic that along with being the discoverer of margaric acid, the chemist Chevreul was also a visual theorist obsessed with the perception of colours and the creation of illusory effects. His “law of the simultaneous contrast of colors” formed the basis of the most widely used colour manual in the 19th century, which was an important resource for the French Impressionists.
Mège-Mouriès’s invention seemed to prove that the senses beget memory, complicating the growing impression that man-made products were just like biological ones. This was no longer the Darwinian model of evolution through random natural selection. Rather, in accordance with Lamarck’s vision of natural design proceeding through increasing optimization, margarine and other creations of biotechnology seemed to represent the coda of modern agricultural progress and the industrialization of the modern human lifestyle. Perhaps this was the advent of a second nature. Certainly Giedion echoes the idea that biological systems resemble machines in their ability to improve through adaptation 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, standardized to produce an experience of “appleness” characterized by a particular red hue and neutral flavour that appealed to the mass market.
Indeed, the underlying tension that the reader senses throughout the pages of MTC is the seismic shift from creating foodstuffs for their content—nutritive or otherwise—to manufacturing them to induce a visual and sensory experience. New, standardized forms of meat and produce developed together with uniform packaging for them, signalling a move away from a logic of cultivation toward one of commercial 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 makeup and its agronomic cultivation were now closer to methods for embalming. Flavourings and colourings could be injected. The life cycle of organic matter could be halted.
Giedion’s observations point to the new composite nature of modern life, combining economic rationality, animality, the mechanical, the human, the organic, and the inorganic—and representing a flattening of categorical distinctions. Written at the time of the Modern Synthesis in biology, merging Mendelian genetics with evolutionary biology, his text raises the issues that were then being debated 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. Although he touches on the philosophical implications—that is, the biopolitical implications—of such engineering, he stops short of directly addressing them.
The architectural historian finds himself suspended in a moment of uncertainty about the thresholds not only of form but of type. Similar to the tiller, there is a slippage between person and thing. As his book attests, biotechnology has brought people and things into closer alignment, 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 commingling does not always have a negative effect; perhaps there is still some chance these conditions of alterity might offer a way to bridge the human-machine divide. But how do we know which way mechanization will take organic life at a time when things and worlds are remixed ?
Whereas the tiller represents a delicate balance between nature and human consciousness, the machine represents an unexamined version of culture characterized by indifference to epistemology and ontology. What becomes evident is that the mechanization of food production, which resulted in a movement away from agricultural products cultivated through slow, subtle and often uncertain processes, to the mass production of commodities engineered for 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 transformed into sawdust or pabulum. Giedion tends to impart a sense of nobility to the machine throughout the book, along with insisting that technology has a usefulness that transcends the blandness of its products. The effects of mechanization are not described through the lens of an austere and alienating factory. Rather, he revels in the image of the machine as an innovative, streamlined organism that possesses a particularly seductive velocity. It has a certain familiarity. And it is capable of a great deal. Its capacity for self-improvement seems like self-awareness (with claims for more and better-quality goods); its remoteness and precision are often confused for objective rationality and standardization. The agricultural technologist is presented as a creative artist and intellectual, if sometimes lazily ignorant to the acknowledgment of moral or political conventions and the practice of self-reflexive interrogation.
Giedion’s occasional lapses into anxiety offer the critical reader a reprieve. Observing that “after 1900 we enter the period when anonymous corporations penetrate nearly every province of life," he seems troubled by how we might handle 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 MTC demonstrates that the building blocks of human sustenance are at the mercy of a fluctuating stock exchange and subject to the whims of supply and demand, it should lead us to question how our own biology might be determined by market forces through the physiological and psychological changes imposed by a food supply that is 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, we must ask ourselves if the distinction between homo faber and alieni iuris has collapsed to produce a new type of subjective condition—a seemingly self-fashioned identity in which we are both 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 not at all as they seem?