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.


  1. One issue with the Futurists is whether they are a historical curio or current force. 10 year ago, you could read the Futurist Manifesto as literature but now it seems that rich and powerful people (like Marc Andreessen) are taking it deadly seriously.

    Likewise, manifestos have a different vibe in 2024 to 2001. After Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant, "manifesto" doesn't evoke art school shenanigans so much as justifications for atrocities.

    Marinetti himself was an amazing quote machine.

    As for a Centrist Dad manifesto, two contradictory thoughts come to mind:
    - Manifestos are fundamentally adolescent (and that's not necessarily a pejorative). The Centrist Dad disdains the unreasonableness of the manifesto's call to action.
    - Centrist Dads do produce manifestos - in the endless Substacks and podcasts and YouTube channels that we create. It's just that its Jeremy Clarkson rather than Filippo Marinetti.

    1. Ecology and Green politics are intrinsically anti-Futurist - 'you've got to slow things down". Homeostasis. Zero growth.

      Good point re the manifestists who act it out. Could also say the same of the Unambomber Manifesto.

      That's a funny parallel to bring up - Jeremy Clarkson versus Filippo Marinetti. Given that both of them love cars and both like driving dangerously fast.

    2. I was going to say - you could categorize the recent spate of post-Trump/Bernie/under-300-pages books by prominent columnists defending liberalism - Adam Gopnik's A Thousand Small Sanities, which is literally positioned as a rebuttal to his college-age daughter; George Packer's Last Best Hope; Anne Applebaum's Twilight of Democracy - as Centirst Dad (or in the last case Mom) manifestos

      The big dividing line between both anti-futurist and tech agnostic varieties of Green thinking and Futurist thinking of varying stripes (the proto-/explicitly fascist right and the more industry-fetishistic Communist left) is humanism vs anti-humanism. Even if you tried to narrow it down feeling about 'retro' or small c-conservatism, that doesn't track neatly - a lot of modern "futurists' desire both a fulfillment of a Jetsons era vision of the shiny chrome American future and a reversal or negation of the later Enlightenment and its development of universal suffrage

  2. There are multiple strands of Green thought. There is absolutely an anti-Futurist branch. But there's also Technophilic strands of ecology - renewable power, geoengineering, etc. However I think there is a division in that Futurism arises towards the end of the industrial revolution and has a naive (almost childlike but probably more pubescent) love of technology. Whereas Green has a post-industrial / post-innocence view of technology.

    Speaking of anti-technologists, I was actually thinking of the Unabomber and Manifestos while writing the previous comment. Is he the first Manifesto Mass Murder? The big differences are that he's pre-internet and that he kills at a distance. He isolates himself from society in Montana. He keeps up his bombing campaign for 17 years. Eventually he sends his manifesto to the press. Modern Manifesto Mass Murders are often part of online forums and tend to prefer singular acts of personal violence.

    Clarkson is the Aldi Marinettti perhaps.

  3. Regarding Nietzsche and women, there is a means of integrating such sentiments into his philosophical method without generating quite as much queasiness. If we take Nietzsche as taking arms against any and all ideologies that arose subsequent to the death of God (the revaluation of all values, if you will), then nascent feminism becomes just another opponent, like democracy or nationalism. Of course, this leads to the valid criticism that Nietzsche missed a trick by not condemning male misogyny on similar grounds. Still, it's a more nuanced reading than just saying that Nietzsche hated women.


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 ...