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Imagining an Atemporal Utopia: Marjorie Perloff on Italian and Russian Futurism

[This post serves as the introduction for a soon-to-be-published interview with Perloff.]

The present liminal state of literature—and its anxious reexamination of questions about materiality, representation, ethics, communication, community, and even the purpose of writing—seems to not merely suggest but demand a return to the Futurists, those fire-breathing poets and pamphleteers who obliterated, for better or worse, the distinction between the political and the aesthetic in order to promulgate an approach to art that thrust itself unremittingly forward. Such a directed pressure is not foreign to anyone writing today; increasingly, Marjorie Perloff noted in her 1991 volume Radical Artifice, “the poet’s arena is the electronic world—the world of the Donahue Show and MTV, of People magazine and the National Enquirer, of Internet and MCI mail relayed around the world by modem, as in the case of the new journal <Postmodern Culture>, which publishes fiction, literary and cultural criticism via electronic mail.” More than two decades later, cellular phones have shrunk to the size of a deck of cards, and some of those technologies now seem more fit for a museum than a monograph on the relationships shared by “low” and “high” culture (though, as Perloff reminds us, “the discourses of art and the mass media are not merely exchangeable; rather, theirs is a relationship of enormous variation and complexity”), by media and its consumers, by writers and readers, and by all the constituents of a society now constituted as much in an ethereal flux of code as in shared physical spaces. We can, however flatly, characterize this alteration as just another accommodation of new ways of life by the old, but this would fail to capture the way the apparent non-spatiality of the electronic takes on a supervening quality, as though it not merely inhabited the world as another feature but fundamentally refashioned it, and our experiences, as well. Perloff puts it in a way that brings out both the fluctuating yet lingering character of the post-print age: in The Futurist Moment, she speaks of “the charged landscape of the avant guerre, which technology has created, a landscape that surpasses the poet’s wildest fantasies.” Five years later, in Radical Artifice, she would go on to claim that there exists today “no landscape uncontaminated”—a word that speaks to this sense of the inescapability of the virtual—“by sound bytes or computer blips, no mountain peak or lonely valley beyond the reach of the cellular phone and the microcassette player.” The microcassette player lies quiet in its grave, but the force of the point remains.

Marjorie Perloff's The Futurist Moment
Marjorie Perloff’s The Futurist Moment

The Russian and Italian Futurists of the early 20th century were prefigured by a number of other movements with similar aims; though the Futurists would rid us of history, it is a fact of history that the futurist impulse is less a revolution than a trope. The French mathematician and philosopher Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert proposed a periodic book-burning to cleanse the world of what H.R. Trevor-Roper calls, describing d’Alembert in his introduction to a collection by Giorgio de Santillana, “the irrelevant matter of the past”—all that did not facilitate the completion of the Grande Encyclopédie, which he co-edited with Diderot. De Santillana, speaking of the momentum of the Enlightenment, called this “illuministic arrogance,” and it might be a fair characterization of the more zealous components of these anticipatory movements. They were prone to manifestos, mottos, and slogans; war—and the drama of the first World War, in particular—was synonymized with revolution, the destruction and re-creation of societal bounds. On February 20, 1909, F.T. Marinetti published his famous Futurist Manifesto on the front page of the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro, a list of principles and commandments prefaced by a creation narrative (“The Joy of Mechanical Force”) that imagined “electric hearts” and the “red-hot iron of joy” accompanied by the technocentric age to come; Kasimir Malevich, Russian artist and founder of the Suprematist movement—which, as specified in his 1927 book The Non-Objective World, touted anti-materialist, anti-representational impulses—would likewise take on a polemical tone. “The academy is a moldy vault in which art is being flagellated,” he wrote; much like Marinetti, he would go on to praise “[g]igantic wars” and “great inventions.” But he also felt that the “new life of iron and the machine, the roar of motorcars, the brilliance of electric lights, the growling of propellers, have awakened the soul, which was suffocating in the catacombs of old reason and has emerged at the intersection of the paths of heaven and earth.” Inflated, pretentious, and with a penchant for fetishizing violence it had little stake in, Malevich’s statement nonetheless reveals the humanism cowering in the bowels of Futurism’s metal body. Futurist works are symptomatic of a new type of monument in that they “are not built for the ages, but rather against the ages,” in Robert Smithson’s words—but they are still built by and for purposeful beings. The new age conceived by these architects, after all, was not one in which there were no humans, but one in which humans lived—necessarily but euphorically—in the shadows of machines.

F.T. Marinetti
F.T. Marinetti

In a 2009 issue of Poetry, Mary Ann Caws explicated the etymology of “manifesto”: “beginning with the manus, or Latin for hand— so, handcrafted—and then a fest (from festus) for its tight-fisted grip on whatever occasion it might be.” She mentions Tristan Tzara—“Papa-Dada himself”—who in 1918 said that in order to proclaim a manifesto “you have to want: A.B.C., thunder against 1, 2, 3.” The Futurists had plenty of ambitions, and enough electric thunder to set ablaze, or so they thought, the sanctified but repressive institutions of a Europe steeped in religious heritage and the histories of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Today, the manifesto might seem old hat, its reduction of political sentiment to a series of bullet points unsophisticated and silly (cf. Mary Ruefle in Madness, Rack, and Honey: manifestos are a “crock of shit”). Caws rightly mentions O’Hara, who in his manifesto of “Personism” mocks “the grand style and the great moment”: his movement, he writes, “was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959.” Hardly an epic beginning—but then the gist, once the satire has been sifted out, is that even the most successful campaigns were born from the banal. The grandiosity of the Futurists, trite as it may be, shouldn’t categorically discredit them or label their claims unworthy of our attention in the new millennium. The Futurists are both vindicated (their concerns, it turns out, were not trivial and idiosyncratic) and refuted (they failed to get traction a century ago; why should things unfold differently now?) by the recurrence of many of the same issues, themes, and motifs with which they were preoccupied. Osip Mandelstam once said that all revolutions end up being classical; even the Futurists, who pitched themselves against the time-honored and the handed-down, were consumed by the conservatism their cause required of them. This conservatism often became, in view of the hybridization of aesthetics and politics, a pretext for Fascism, even as it also posited the possibility of a better, more ideal world. Timothy Yu, in Race and the Avant-Garde, notes that the political plans of groups like the Russian and Italian Futurists “can be seen less in their explicit allegiances to political movements of the left or right—rarely apparent in their works themselves—but in the utopian allegories they offer, the models of revolution and of future social organization they create in their shattering of traditional forms and their embrace of new poetic languages.” It is no accident, then, that Marinetti, who found philosophical precursors in Bergson and Nietzsche, among others, also considered choosing “Dynamism” as the name of his fledgling movement.

An issue of Poesia, a journal founded by Marinetti
An issue of Poesia, a journal founded by Marinetti

None of this is to say that my impression of the Futurists is wholly cynical and fatalistic—there is much to be salvaged, and the drive they embodied, incarnated as it had in others before them, reincarnates again and again today. In a letter to Victor Smirnoff from December 1913, the Swiss novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars (born Frédéric-Louis Sauser) insisted: “The role of the new poetry is to throw one’s treasures out the window, among the people, into the crowd, into life.” Such an emphasis on what one might call the “dailyness,” “everydayness,” or “ordinariness”—sometimes underhandedly, even chauvinistically (when applied to women poets) classed as the “domestic”—appears in too many artistic categories to count, but is especially noticeable in the ruminations of mid-century American confessional poetry; it shows up, too, though with an ostensibly opposite aesthetic and ethical purpose, in the work of those Language Poets whose commitment to a new mode of realism, sometimes understood to be heralded by Stein, drew them to a refreshed engagement with the objects of common experience—Lyn Hejinian calls it the “level of everyday life.” Central, in any case, is some notion of the destruction of the divide between theory and praxis, mimesis and its objects. “The implication of ‘machineworks,’” Perloff writes, “whether those of the avant guerre or of our own time, is that the ‘aesthetic’ domain has been contaminated by the ‘practical,’ that the ‘order’ of art is no longer opposed to the ‘disorder’ of life.” Arthur C. Danto, in his 1986 volume The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, suggests that the avant-garde is an endgame in itself—he talks of “the end of art” and argues that an avant-garde invested in dissembling the edifice of art proper “ends with the advent of its own philosophy”—but this issue is particularly complex in terms of the Futurists, fixated as they were on the prospect of demolishing of institutions and, in Poggioli’s words, “the arena of agitation and preparation for the announced revolution,” a state of flux.

The cover of Velimir Khlebnikov's 1922 book Zangezi
Cover of Velimir Khlebnikov’s 1922 book Zangezi

If the Futurists can be understood as a more militant version of a desire to reunite art with the lives in which it emerges, it seems sensible to ask what consequences this bears for today’s book-object. Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà Futuriste, Olfattive, Tattili, Termiche and the 1934 L’anguria Lirica, two books constructed of lithographic prints on metal, pushed the standard conception of the book—as an item of bound paper—to its limits. Already, with massive progress made in digital editions and continued experimentation with publishing materials, the book is increasingly seen as one form of conveyance among a plurality of such forms; there’s William Gibson’s photosensitive, disappearing text in Agrippa (a book of the dead), Brian Dettmer’s work with dissected volumes, Stevie Ronnie’s Brass Book (which incorporates technological features into traditionally-bound books), Tom Phillips’s A Humument, Timothy Ely’s Countercode archeo-logic, Clair Van Vliet’s Aura, Johanna Drucker’s aluminum-bound Stochastic Poetics, and a minor literature of hypertext works and artists’ books (N. Katherine Hayles discusses Drucker’s work in Writing Machines). Though it purports to deny history, Futurism’s history is long; as Trotsky wrote in 1922 in Literature and Revolution, “Futurism is no less a product of the poetic past than any other literary school of the present day. To say that Futurism has freed art of its thousand-year-old bonds of bourgeoisdom [sic] is to estimate thousands of years very cheaply.” Futurist proclivities were noted by Russian critic Zinaida Vengerova in Ezra Pound—that “English Futurist,” he wrote—when the former interviewed the latter for the Petersburg periodical Strelets; in Radical Artifice, Perloff locates an anticipation of new media forms particularly in Cage. Burnham P. Beckwith traces the roots of scientific futurism—latently related to the movements considered here—to the French scientist and theorist Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, author of the 1795 book Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. And fifty years before Marinetti’s first and seminal manifesto, with its “barbaric ferocity” of language, Marianne W. Martin points out that Edmond Duranty had published a statement calling for the burning of the Louvre in order to free artists from the past; John Rewald, in his History of Impressionism, recalls Pissarro being said to have advocated the same. But these instances don’t necessarily impede the Futurist project that bears their name; they validate its aims while confirming its short shelf-life, in turn authorizing some Futurists, like the playful Aldo Palazzeschi—author of the 1910 book of poems The Arsonist, dedicated to Marinetti, “soul of our flame”—to endorse political claims while approaching politics with irony.

Cover of Giovanni Papini's 1914 book, My Futurism
Cover of Giovanni Papini’s 1914 book, My Futurism