A Hundred Years of Futurism

20 February 2009


marinetti_figaro

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!

F. T. Marinetti: "We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd."

F. T. Marinetti: "We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd."

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.

A futurist painting by Giacomo Balla, converted to Futurism by Marinetti himself.

A futurist painting by Giacomo Balla, converted to Futurism by Marinetti himself. Balla was a signatory of the manifesto of futurist painters, which vowed to, "Support and glory in our day-to-day world, a world which is going to be continually and splendidly transformed by victorious Science."

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.

Antonio Sant’Elia penned the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, in which he proclaimed, "Futurist architecture is the architecture of calculation, of audacious temerity and of simplicity; the architecture of reinforced concrete, of steel, glass, cardboard, textile fiber, and of all those substitutes for wood, stone and brick that enable us to obtain maximum elasticity and lightness."

Antonio Sant’Elia penned the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, in which he proclaimed, "Futurist architecture is the architecture of calculation, of audacious temerity and of simplicity; the architecture of reinforced concrete, of steel, glass, cardboard, textile fiber, and of all those substitutes for wood, stone and brick that enable us to obtain maximum elasticity and lightness."

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.

The Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture by Umberto Boccioni announced, "Sculpture cannot make its goal the episodic reconstruction of reality. It should use absolutely all realities in order to reconquer the essential elements of plastic feeling. Consequently, the Futurist sculptor perceives the body and its parts as  plastic zones,  and will introduce into the sculptural composition planes of wood or metal, immobile or made to move, to embody an object; spherical and hairy forms for heads of hair; half-circles of glass, if it is a question of a vase; iron wires or trellises, to indicate an atmospheric plane, etc., etc."

The Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture by Umberto Boccioni announced, "Sculpture cannot make its goal the episodic reconstruction of reality. It should use absolutely all realities in order to reconquer the essential elements of plastic feeling. Consequently, the Futurist sculptor perceives the body and its parts as plastic zones, and will introduce into the sculptural composition planes of wood or metal, immobile or made to move, to embody an object; spherical and hairy forms for heads of hair; half-circles of glass, if it is a question of a vase; iron wires or trellises, to indicate an atmospheric plane, etc., etc."

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.

Wittgenstein's philosophical manifesto: brevity is the soul of ratiocination.

Wittgenstein's philosophical manifesto: brevity is the soul of ratiocination.

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.

Many volumes have been devoted to past futurisms.

Many volumes have been devoted to past futurisms.

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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2 Responses to “A Hundred Years of Futurism”

  1. Chris Jensen Romer said

    Good luck on the career in Futurism, and my sentiments entirely – irresponsible but fun! 🙂

    cj x

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear CJ,

      Thanks for your support regarding my futurism career. I’m still searching for the perfect gig – short hours, high speaking fees, generous benefits, and no embarrassing questions about past predictions – but I’m afraid that my career in futurism will be permanently postponed into the future.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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