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


  1. That is a great point about futurism as a reaction to the oppressive burden of Italy's past.

    What responses are we going to see as Britain similarly sinks under the weight of its own history?

    And what will America's equivalent be, when its turn comes?

    It makes sense that America never really had its own equivalent of Futurism - at least, not in popular culture - because the whole country is, or perhaps was, futuristic.

    It's funny that nowadays in the US you most often hear "futurist" being used to describe a certain kind of business pundit, a trend-spotter or techno-optimist who purports to be able to tell executives where markets are going. It's a long way from Marinetti. Or even from Gary Numan.

    1. While you're on this subject, I have to recommend my favourite novel of the 21st century: Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers. Joins the dots between the history of the motorcycle, the New York art scene, and Italian politics, in a genuinely thrilling way.

    2. 'It makes sense that America never really had its own equivalent of Futurism - at least, not in popular culture - because the whole country is, or perhaps was, futuristic.' Well, yes, which is why the American equivalent is 'hard' science fiction written by engineers and scientists on their off time, and Disney 'Tomorrowland' specials from the 50s - fully entwined with the status quo, fetishizing rationalism without actually being rational, superficially friendly and cheerful, and approved of by government and industry alike - eventually fathering Silicon Valley, a place/state of mind constructed solely around US Futurist culture

    3. I looked up Buckminster Fuller, to make sure he was American not Canadian, and on Wiki his official description includes the word "futurist" - "architect, systems theorist, writer, designer, inventor, philosopher, and futurist".

      One of his metaphors, Spaceship Earth, is a kind of machinification of Gaia.

    4. Howard Hughes seems to be of this American can-do / will-do type. In the movie The Aviator, if I remember rightly, his last words - muttered softly, over and over - are "wave of the future".

    5. Fuller and Hughes are great exemplars - Fuller because he was a minimally trained technician with a great knack for self-promotion who managed to schmooze all ends of society, from establishment business to counterculture, with ideas that sounded interesting in their vaguest outlines but fell apart when they became even close to concrete; Hughes because he was both a prototypical 'reactionary modernist' (endless zest for high tech combined with regressive, even antiquarian morals - McLuhan, democracy skeptic and devout Catholic, would also fit) and a good example of someone whose vast riches and enthusiasms progressively destroy him, body and mind, which make him a forerunner for today's tech moguls (I've said elsewhere that Musk is 'late Hughes with a smartphone')

    6. John Ganz has a very good piece here expanding on reactionary modernism

    7. That is a good piece. The discussion of antisemitism seemed a bit simplistic at first glance, but I think he's definitely on to something.

      I liked the juxtaposition of Marinetti / Wyndham Lewis / Henry Ford. One of these is not like the others!

      The other thought that occurs to me is that the masses are very often not futurists, in any sense. They are various kinds of small c or large C conservatives. So if you really want to embrace the future, you often have to reject the opinions of the majority. Modernism by its nature becomes anti-democratic. It's a tendency you can see cropping up all over the place, from Bolshevism to Peter Thiel.

  2. Futurism as an art movement seems to had salience most in countries that were less industrialized at that point - like Italy and Russia - where modernity is this bright, gleaming but quite circumscribed element within a largely agrarian society.... it's like the herald of a new world that fighting its way out of century upon century of peasant pastness, a fundamentally static society + culture, at the mercy of the elements and the cycles of Nature

    1. Pankaj Mishra has written a lot about this, including how the best comparison for modern India and China are late 19th/early 20th Eastern and Southern Europe (and vice versa)

  3. More of an aside than anything, but as a seeming contrast with the futurists' modish automobile fetishism, in the Sherlock Holmes stories Watson is an early adopter of the Ford Model T. Watson was also a bit of a ladies' man as I recall, and Holmes has to be the most famous literary cokehead. A writer needn't have been a futurist to recognise the modern world.

  4. Oh, and did you ever get round to seeing that Club X show, the late 80s Channel 4 arts show that was quite possibly the worst TV show ever made? The episode I sent you revolved around a recreation of a futurist meal, and had Paul Morley thumping someone for drizzling a watering can on him.

    1. "The episode revolved around a recreation of a futurist meal, and had Paul Morley thumping someone for drizzling a watering can on him." Sounds like the best TV show ever made, not the worst!

    2. Here it is. It misses the first minute or two, and despite the length of the video, only lasts 80 minutes. It's then followed by a broadcast of live jazz, which cuts out halfway through and finishes with American football. That was Channel 4 in the 80s.

      Looking it up, I don't know if Club X was cancelled midway through its intended broadcast of 23 episodes. It's a regular staple of those list shows about the worst of British telly (along with Minipops, Triangle, Naked Jungle etc.) Here's the Wikipedia article:

    3. The video has a performance by Pere Ubu! I'd completely forgotten.

    4. Haha having watched a bit I can see why people hated it! Incredibly flat didactic presentation that could not be more antithetical to the spirit of Futurism. About as much adrenaline as watching an Open University lecturer in a tweed jacket.

    5. A "smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians" for real.

    6. But a professor or an antiquarian might come up with an interesting titbit. Club X was a smelly gangrene of former NME journalists.

    7. I think I must have watched a few minutes of this and then put off by the length of the program.

      I have to say, my initial reaction to it, on paper, was like Ed's initial reaction - "this sounds incredible!".

      I feel like when you mentioned it before I probably started going on about how amazing Channel 4 was in its first decade but also how I had missed most of its output because during the Eighties I rarely had access to a TV. And especially after moving to London, and starting out as a music journalist, I was always out and about, seeing bands and stuff.

  5. Here's Jonathan Meades' idiosyncratic take on the architecture of Mussolini's Italy (the third in his four surveys of European tyrants' architecture; his survey of Stalin may be the best thing Meades has ever done). Anyway, he discusses Italian futurism from about 1 hour and 3 minutes in, and treats it with extremely dismissive contempt; marvel at his line: " 'Manifesto' turns out to be an anagram of 'I am a no-hoper dork who knows a curator or two and prays not to get found out, but can't write and can't paint."
    Though I wince at the word "dork". Couldn't he have said "prat"?


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...