A Hundred Years of Futurism
20 February 2009
Recently we have celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the births of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin (on the same day, no less), as well as the sesquicentennial of the statehood of Oregon (on Valentine’s day, no less), so it seems appropriate to here commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of Futurism, in so far as Futurism can be precisely dated to the original Futurist manifesto of F. T. Marinetti, published in Le Figaro on 20 February 1909. Happy Birthday Futurism!
The Futurist manifesto of Marinetti was not a one-off event: it was followed by a veritable flood of manifestos. Many of those immediately following in the tradition of Marinetti have been made available at a futurist website. There was a manifesto of Futurist painting and a manifesto of Futurist sculpture and a manifesto of Futurist musicians and so on and so forth. All of them make for great reading, but whether we want to follow their prescriptions in practice is another matter.
I have a soft spot for manifestos. I formulated my own Political Economy of Globalization in the form of a manifesto — albeit a long manifesto — by stating one hundred theses, further developed and explained in the text. (Also, the preface of that work discussed several recent economic manifestos.) I could have limited myself to the theses only and explicitly called it a manifesto, but, of course, I had more to say. I like the literary form of the manifesto. Perhaps I will return to that form at some point; in fact, I plan on doing so.
A proper manifesto has all the virtues of sententiousness: brief, concise, and to the point, it wastes no words. The writer of a manifesto wants to engage others on the level of ideas, and, truth be told, most ideas can be communicated in relatively brief compass. We all know the man of one idea who spends his life penning a series of volumes in order to give a more-than-full exposition to his one, single idea. This is tiresome. It is also a waste of ink and trees (or cotton, if the publisher uses a better quality of paper). We have all heard the warning cave ab homine unius libri, and we should extend it to beware the man of one idea. Most ideas can be stated clearly in a sentence or two — in a long paragraph at the outside. It is probably the fact that most writers don’t have a clear idea of their own ideas that they end up spilling so much ink and burning the midnight oil over their inadequate conceptions and formulations.
Western civilization has a long history of manifestos. The Nicene Creed is a Christian manifesto. Luther’s ninety-five theses served as the manifesto that launched Protestantism. L’art pour l’art was a one-line anti-manifesto that nevertheless served as an manifesto for a movement that eschewed manifestos in favor of art itself. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, mentioned yesterday in relation to logical space, is essentially a philosophical manifesto. Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” (also frequently called “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) is another manifesto that was not called a manifesto, perhaps because its lacks a certain positivism in its proclamations. The most famous manifesto is no doubt that of Marx and Engels.
So I say let’s have more manifestos: let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred manifestos contend. Let more programmatic and principled thinking state its program and its principles up front, making them as clear and and explicit and as unambiguous as the form of the manifesto demands.
We have dealt with futurism in another of its guises — not that of art, but of prediction tinged with utopia — when we recently discussed Kurzweil’s technological singularity. After posting my piece on Kurzweil’s particular brand of futurism, I received a comment from a reader who wrote, “I’ve seen several cycles of failed futurology myself.” This is a nice way to put it: cycles of failed futurology. These does seem to be something cyclical about it. This is probably because one visionary advances a compelling vision that is then taken up by lesser lights, and if such speculations happen to find their way into the mass media at some point, they quickly peak as public interest is piqued, and then gradually settle into obscurity (with the fortunate consequence that the visionary is never held to account for the failure of his vision). The cycle then repeats with the appearance of another impractical visionary.
It must be admitted that, whatever its shortcomings, futurism is a lot of fun, whether it comes in the form of radical (perhaps even irresponsible) art or naïve utopianism. Indeed, the whole futurism industry is such a hoot I have to wonder what it takes to break into the “old boy network” of futurists. I would love to become a full-time professional futurist and hit the lecture circuit with a suitcase filled with questionable wonders. What does a gig like this pay? Are health benefits available? Is dental coverage available for an extra charge? Will I be held responsible for predictions that don’t pan out? Anyone with inside information on the futurism industry is encouraged to contact me. I’ll cut you in on my take.
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