Thursday, May 30, 2024

Softcore Futurism


"Close your eyes / kiss the future / junk the morgue"

The "morgue" bit does remind me of Marinetti's museums-as-cemeteries line

Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Futurists (slight return)

some earlier thoughts on the Futurists

1/ Futurism contra the Museal (from Retromania)

Punk seems hostile to museum-ification on account of its iconoclastic contempt for the past.  With rave, it's the movement's orientation towards the future that should really repel the dustiness of the archive's embrace.  The punishing minimalism of early techno especially--music stripped to rhythm and texture, a true art of noises--recalls the spirit of the Italian Futurists circa 1909-15. As much as I love history and poring over the past, there's a part of me that will always thrill to, and agree with, the Futurist manifestoes, which showered scalding scorn over "the passéists":  antiquarians, curators, tradition-loving art critics.  Italian Futurism was a response to the spiritual oppression of growing up in a country that pioneered tourism as time travel (for it is nearly always the past of a country you visit on vacation, at least in the Old World), a land covered with magisterial ruins, venerable cathedrals, grand squares and palaces, the monumental residues not just of one golden age (the Roman Empire) but of two (the Renaissance).   

Futurist leader F.T. Marinetti's founding manifesto proclaimed "we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards….  Museums: cemeteries!... Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another." Continuing  the sexual imagery, he ranted about how "admiring an old picture is the same as pouring our sensibility into a funerary urn instead of hurtling it far off, in violent spasms of action and creation."  To venerate artworks from the past was like wasting one's élan vital on something inert and decayed; like fucking a corpse.  

Marinetti imagined setting fire "to the library shelves" and redirecting "the canals to flood the museums" so that "the glorious old canvases" bobbed "adrift on those waters". What would he, writing in 1909, have made of the state of Western culture a hundred years later?  The last decades of the 20th Century saw what Andreas Huyssen has called a "memory boom", with a surge in the foundation of museums and archives being just one facet of a culture-wide obsession with commemoration, documentation, and preservation

2/ on the dodgy side of the Futurist imaginary / Futurist libido (from The Sex Revolts)

For Devo, the uniform was a shell holding in the squishy mess of the body's interior, like armour.  The proto-fascist imagination is riddled with an envy of  the machine, its invulnerability and impenetrability.  Being a good soldier  means mechanising your responses, becoming a cog in the killing machine of the army.

Similar longings and loathings throbbed in the writings of the Italian Futurists and the British Vorticists, two early twentieth century art movements  with fascist tendencies.  Wyndham Lewis, chief Vorticist theoretician,  worshipped machines for their dynamism and hygiene, and recoiled from  the 'naked pulsing and moving of the soft inside' of organic life.  'Deadness is the first condition for art,' he declared in the novel Tarr (1918).  'The second  is the absence of soul, in the human and sentimental sense...good art must have  no inside.'  Good art betrayed no sign of its fluid interior; it was all 
exteriority, stark lines and sharp contours. For Lewis, the formless goo of biology was a threat to reason and the detached artistic eye.

The Futurists, too, repudiated the curvacious organicism and blurriness of Romantic art.  Umberto Boccioni declared: 'Poetry must consist of straight lines and calculus.' F.T.  Marinetti's The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism (1909) could almost be a manifesto for heavy metal: 'We will glorify war--the world's only hygiene--militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.' His polemic ends at a bombastic pitch of priapic
triumphalism: 'Look at us!  We are still untired!  Our hearts know no weariness because they are fed with fire, hatred, and speed!... Erect on the summit of the world, once again we hurl our defiance at the stars!'  Like the speed-crazed punks, the Futurists disdained sleep, languour, gentleness. They wanted to break with nature in a violent gesture of severance, and impose themselves like a monument on the landscape.

 For the Futurists, the machine was the embodiment of an anti-natural but self-sufficient potency. They were the first to identify with the car or motorbike as an expression of virility. This emerges as a theme in rock'n'roll very early on--from Chuck Berry's and the Beach Boys' nonchalant cruising anthems to Steppenwolf's 'Born to Be Wild' (which contained the first rock usage of William Burroughs' phrase 'heavy metal'). More suggestive, however, is the case of Kraftwerk, whose first big hit, 'Autobahn', was a twenty-minute-long freeway hymn. One of the first groups to base their entire aesthetic on synthesisers rather than the 'dirtier' electric guitar, Kraftwerk's image was futuristic and technocratic.  They were the first full-blown example in rock of the desire to become machine-like (with the possible exception of James Brown's 'Sex Machine').

 But where the Futurists and heavy metal bands imagined technology as an expression and a reinforcement of their virility, for Kraftwerk, machines usher in a world where gender is abolished.  Their ideal being, the Man-Machine, was a sexless androgyne stripped of its animalism, possessed of
a superhuman grace.


'Meanwhile, down to our nerve cells, everything in us resists paradise.'--E.M.Cioran, Thinking Against Oneself

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Henry Adams contrasted The Virgin and The Dynamo as symbols for two incompatible realms of human consciousness.  With her divine passivity, the Virgin Mary stood for sacred mystery, a force once strong enough to erect cathedrals, but now fading from the world.  The electrical dynamo represented the dawning era of scientific mastery, in which men could become godlike through harnessing the forces of Nature.  A decade or so later, the Futurists exalted the same dynamic forces (electricity, speed) and explicitly identified them with male will-to-power and phallic thrust.

 Futurist rhetoric offers another version of Camus' opposition between rebellion and grace, or Adams' mastery/mystery dichotomy.  Rejecting Romanticism's quest for the lost state of grace in Nature's bosom, the Futurists extolled disrespect for Mother Earth....  F. T. Marinetti decried not only 'nostalgia' but 'the picturesque, the imprecise, rusticity, wild solitude': all the things that the mystical tradition in rock celebrates.  Ardently urban and secular, the Futurists pitted themselves against
the pastoral, poured scorn on the 'holy green silence'; they celebrated sharply defined edges rather than blurred borderlines.

     Rock'n'roll throbs with a Futurist exultation in speed, technology, neon and noise.  But there is another strain of the rock imagination that isn't madly in love with the modern world, but is instead nostalgic and regressive: psychedelia.  Defined in the broadest sense to encompass everything from the Byrds, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, the Incredible String Band, to Can, Brian Eno, My Bloody Valentine,  and ambient house--psychedelia is a resurgence of Romanticism's pastoralism and pantheism.  Above  all, psychedelia is the quest for a lost state of grace.


As mentioned by Stylo in comments, Channel 4's Club X and the preparation of futurist meal - 1989

Saturday, May 18, 2024

future-talk down under

Had a great in-depth talk with Melbourne radio host Charlie Miller about Futuromania for his show Frantic Items, which is airing on 3RRR FM later today (meaning Sunday, since Australia is already in the future - 6pm local time). 

Update: the show is archived here.  

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The Mania-festo

In the No Tags podcast, I mention being influenced by The Futurist Manifesto. What stirred my interest must surely have been Zang Tuum Tuumb and The Art of Noise. I seem to remember borrowing a big book of Futurist manifestos by Marinetti and crew off of David Stubbs and photocopying the most incendiary ones.

I also mentioned having done various bits of writing in the manifesto mode over the years, including a piece on Mantronix that was notionally an interview but in fact only had a few quotes from Man like Mantronik and was structured in a sort of bullet point style with stark declarative subsection headings like FORGET THE SONGFORGET SOULFORGET THE HUMAN.  The "forget"        bit probably came from those Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents little-black-paperbacks with titles like             Forget  Foucault.  

      The Man(tronix)ifesto can be read here, a bit further down from the review of Music Madness.

No Tags helpfully added a footnote pointing out what "bastards" the Italian Futurists were. 

Of course, I am well aware that the Futurists were Mussolini fans and enthusiasts for modern warfare ("Zang Tuum Tuumb" is a poetic simulation of the sound of siege-cannons). But who can resist all the stuff about flooding the museums, the canvases of Old Masters bobbing along the canals of Venice, etc? Not me. 

I suppose I've always imagined that, as with Nietzsche, you can ignore the "scorn for women" bits and just exult in the exaltation of speed - let yourself be carried away by the fever of the prose itself. But perhaps I am kidding myself here. 

(Mind you, you do find a similar sort of anti-retro stance in modernist manifestos from the other end of the political spectrum - the Communism aligned movements in Russia, for instance. And in recent years there has been an attempt to construct a form of left accelerationism. What you don't find is the manifesto form coming from the Centrist Dad sector, either in politics or the arts). 

A few weeks ago, a person who tweets "uplifting" and "inspirational" quotations and maxims from great thinkers, amused me by turning The Futurist Manifesto into a kind of bulleted power point. 


Now this person is actually a modern day non-believer in democracy, a champion for the restoration of  aristocratic ideals of beauty etc. (Ironically, they tweet a lot of images of classical and pre-20th Century art of exactly the kind that Marinetti wished to pile on the blazing pyre). 

But yes I know there's aspects of the accelerationist libidinal economy that are worth probing - and have in fact done some probing of said libidinal economy in the past. 

Viz, this book review, and below it, a review of some actual Futurist music. 

Manifesto: A Century of Isms edited by Mary Ann Caws (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press)

Village Voice, May 16 - 22, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

If writing is a pharmacopoeia (and why else read, if not to reach altered states of consciousness?), then the manifesto surely corresponds to the amphetamine. Ingest, and the world becomes wonderfully crisp and clear; you feel both a hunger and a readiness for action. Committed speed freaks often experience sensations of gnosis and revelation. The manifesto fiend reaches this state of grandeur through word magic alone. Perhaps they should really be called mania-festos: Only cranks and madmen are ever this certain about anything.

A chunky compendium drawing on the textual output of modernism's myriad sects, Manifesto pulsates with that special eureka! euphoria of those who believe they've located the right path to the future. Fittingly, it was the Italian futurists who peddled the manifesto rush in its purest, fiercest form, with their fevered calls for total aesthetic renewal in painting, music, sculpture, poetry, and even cuisine (Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wanted to replace pasta with more, ah, rigorous dishes, such as perfumed sand).

The Futurists glorified war, worshipped machines, and exulted in speed. Speaking of which, if you think my manifesto-as-methedrine analogy far-fetched, check this: The first words of Marinetti's 1909 screed "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism" are "We had stayed up all night." Anyone who's written to the end of the night knows about the eerie switch point that occurs round dawn's first glimmer, when the brain starts flooding your system with neurochemicals that induce a giddy triumphalist feeling. Futurist texts all seem to be written from inside that grandiose delirium: It's almost as if they became hooked on the body's own natural stimulants. Indeed, there's a persistent thread of imagery throughout the futurist oeuvre that exalts "feverish insomnia" and equates sleep with death and emasculation.

The futurists' rantings and ravings highlight a notable aspect of the manifesto, literally spelled out by the word's first three letters: MAN. With a handful of exceptions ("SCUM Manifesto" by Valerie Solanas, Guerrilla Girls, certain cells within the riot grrrl movement), this genre has tended to be dominated by men. Once again, Marinetti and company took this to the limit. Their language is riddled with erectile and ejaculatory imagery. The futurist exaltation of "the dynamic of the male vertical" is a barely concealed figure for a kind of priapism of the spirit. And "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism" climaxes, twice in short succession, with a trope of cosmic onanism: "Erect on the summit of the world, once again we hurl our defiance to the stars!" Word-as-seed, heedlessly spilled: Marinetti, prolific penner of manifestos and indubitably something of a wanker, left a sticky trail across Europe.

The bulk of this anthology stems from what editor Mary Ann Caws dubs the Manifesto Moment, 1909-19 (which, non-coincidentally, was also modernism's peak). Along with the usual suspects (cubism, dadaism, expressionism, vorticism, Bauhaus), Caws has gleaned a nice crop of lesser-knowns: face-painting wannabe savages the Rayonists, the witty Nunists, and the primitivists, whose Polish chapter is represented here by a little gem of an address to the world from one Stanislaw Przybyszewski, who calls for "streetfights with the beethovenists" and promises that if we only open our eyes, "then swine will seem more enchanting to us than a nightingale."

The language of the archetypal manifesto lies somewhere on the continuum between the aphorism and the slogan. Many of Caws's selections, though, lack the imperious or rallying tone. Gary Snyder's 1967 "Poetry and the Primitive," for instance, seems more like a brilliant essay about poetry's archaic origins in Paleolithic pantheism than a tell-it-like-it-is manifesto. Others, like the prose poems by Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, are so abstract and imagistic, they are really embodiments of cubist aesthetic principles rather than their articulation. Not that the classic BAM-BAM-BAM style of manifesto, with its numbered decrees or bulleted points, is the genre's sole format. One entertaining subgenre is the fake dialogue, in which a fictitious interlocutor has the role of skeptic and Aunt Sally.

As Caws notes, the manifesto's essence is now-ness and new-ness. These calls to seize the time induce nostalgia for the days when exhibitions or concerts (like futurist composer Luigi Russolo's clangorous symphonies of "noise sound") could actually trigger riots in the audience; a time when the bourgeoisie was still capable of being épaté. The fervor of these texts seems to reach us from across an unbridgeable divide, which could be dated to approximately 1950. Caws's chronological chart at the start of the book shows that 32 of the movements included in the book were in full swing by 1918; of the remaining 19, there's only five from the second half of the 20th century. This suggests that in the postmodern era, the amphetamine emotions that accompany certainty, belief, and readiness-for-battle have faded away; ambivalence, doubt, what Fredric Jameson identified as "blank irony" have all conspired to disable the manifesto-mongering impulse.

If selection is a covert form of argument, this seems to be what Caws is saying. Actually, it only takes a cursory Web search to reveal the absolute contrary: One could almost say we are living through a new boom time for the manifesto. The Web allows almost anybody to nail a broadsheet to the virtual wall for all to see. And cyberculture's neophiliac tendencies lend themselves to the manifesto format: Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" and the many screeds issued by cyberfeminists, cyberpunks, hackers, extropians, and the like, none of which are included in Caws's collection. Another curiously neglected area is that entire realm of post-situationist writing that ranges from Hakim Bey to anarcho-surrealist pranksters like the International Association of Astronomical Artists. Music criticism has its own microtradition of aesthetic clarion calls: Classics of the last decade include Kodwo Eshun's Afro-futurist foreword to his book More Brilliant Than the Sun and "riot boy" band Nation of Ulysses's 13 Point Program to Destroy America (complete with echo-of-Marinetti diatribes against "sleep's supplicating arms"). Someone has even written a manifesto of avant-garde librarianship! And let's not forget the Unabomber.

All this is obviously well outside the remit Caws has set herself: modernism. But the inclusion of more recent material would have mitigated the sepia-tinted melancholy that unavoidably suffuses the book. As conveniently copious and endlessly fascinating as Manifesto is, perusing its pages is akin to strolling through a mausoleum of expired revolutionary enthusiasms, movements now immobile, and new days that never quite came.

Various Artists
Futurism & Dada Reviewed

by Simon Reynolds

This compilation is a time capsule from early Twentieth Century Europe, when the continent swarmed with -isms: not just famous ones such as Cubism and Constructivism, but nutty lesser-knowns like the Nunists and Rayonists too. Although they differed on the precise details, these manifesto-brandishing movements typically called for an utter overhaul of established ideas of art, arguing that Western Civilisation, enervated and sagging into decadence, needed an invigorating injection of barbarian iconoclasm to renew itself.

The material from the Italian Futurists on this anthology overlaps somewhat with LTM’s Musica Futurista collection, but includes a much longer version of “Risveglio di una Citta,” a symphony of scrapes and whirs woven by Luigi Russolo, the movement’s chief musical theoretician and coiner of the enduring buzz-concept “the art of noises.” His brother Antonio’s “Chorale” sounds like a conventional classical overture, except there’s this roar of turbulence that intermittently rears up, as though’s there’s a gale raging outside the concert hall. 

Wyndham Lewis, British futurist sympathizer and leader of his very own -ism Vorticism, recites a poem that once probably seemed audaciously “free” with its run-on stanzas, but now positively creaks with starchy quaintness.

The Dadaist material, however, retains a good portion of its originally scandalous shock of the new. On the noise-poem “L’Amiral Cherche Une Maison A Louer”, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck unleash a polyphonic babble of multilingual nonsense, punctuated with circus-clown irruptions of  rude noise, enough to get your blood boiling with excitement almost a century later. Huelsenbeck also contributes a great reminiscence of the genesis of Dada, incongruously backed with a Indian raga drone. 

Kurt Schwitters’ life-long work-in-process “Die Sonate in Urlauten”, captured for posterity in 1938, is a tour de force of phonetic poetry, peppering your ears with flurries of phonemes and scattering consonants like confetti around your head.

 It’s oddly reassuring that works by the Socialist-leaning Dadaists have aged far better than the efforts of the Futurists, Mussolini fans almost to a man.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Chatting with Matos

I had a great discussion with Michaelangelo Matos at Beat Connection - about Futuromania, electronic music, dance culture, radio, my other books - with the chat structured around five deejay mixes,  as that is his substack's focus. 

The selection was bookended by two Radio One classics: John Peel's legendary Punk Special from December '76, Rustie's Essential Mix of April 2012. 

From back-to-barebones rock 'n'roll  to maxed-out neo-prog digi-dance. 

Thursday, May 9, 2024

chatting with Tom & Chal

I had a great chat with Chal Ravens and Tom Lea for their new-ish podcast No Tags - talking about Futuromania and touching on topics including science fiction, neophilia, the rhetorics of temporality, the manifesto mode, speeding up and slowing down music,  "the cartoon continuum", amapiano, my next book, and a favorite film. 

Talking "sonic fiction" and Futuromania in LA (and beyond) - July 17

  I'll be making a guest appearance at the  Sci-Fi Short Story Club , discussing  "The Sound-Sweep"  - one of a couple of acut...