“Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!”
– F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto
In Lisbon, a month or so ago, still sweaty from our show at the Rabbit Hole queer party, we talked with our host about a film program he is curating on the topic of Afro-futurism. The conversation stirred memories of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the Italian futurists and I wondered if there was a connection.
Futurism is an Italian artistic movement from the early twentieth century which celebrates the destruction of the past to make way for the future. The futurists felt that Italian culture and society was decaying and laid the blame at a reverence for the past: “To admire an old painting is to pour our sensitiveness into a funeral urn”.
To break out of this anomie, Futurism makes no firm distinction between creation and destruction; in fact it closes the two into an Ouroboros circle:
“Let the good incendiaries come with their carbonized fingers!… Here they are! Here they are!… Set the library stacks on fire! Turn the canals in their course to flood the museum vaults!… There go the glorious canvases, floating adrift! Take up the picks and the hammers! Undermine the foundations of the venerable cities!”
There isn’t a connection between this and Afro-futurism, or at least none that I could discern from my cursory research (more on Afro-futurism here). My research did however re-evoke for me a kind of revulsion for the archetype of futurism: masculinity in control of an automobile, two things towards which I am deeply ambivalent.
In his “Manifesto of Futurism”, Marinetti declares his desire “to sing the man who holds the steering wheel whose ideal stem pierces the Earth, itself launched on the circuit of its orbit.”
In place of a reverence for ancient and renaissance culture, the futurists prefer “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.”
It’s desire is its death drive and so the futurists gladly cheers militarism as well as industrialism, with Marinetti even celebrating the catastrophe of World War One in a poem titled “War is the World’s Only Hygiene”, in which the War is the only solution for cleansing the society of its passivity and dullness. The War, as we now know, produced only a decidedly undynamic and unproductive churning of human flesh in the trenches, something which greatly undermines Marinetti’s coupling of unreserved creation and destruction.
Wrong, in so many ways, in their understanding of what the Machine Age would produce, there is something nonetheless attractive about the Futurist ideology for an artist, a musician and a political activist.
There was a time, up until very recently in fact, where I devoured every morsel of the past, or at least a past centred on the nucleus of 1984: the year of my birth. David Bowie, Visage, Liquid Sky.
Ironically this vision of the past I coveted was the future as imagined from the past: a future of geometric lines cut in cloth and etched in make-up, of smoke machines and flashing lights, an aesthetic. I devoured this future-past in order to escape the now, the dry cultural landscape of suburban Australia in 1996 or thereabouts.
Perhaps this fascination with the 1980s has to do with a desire for the music from early childhood: the sound of music intertwining with the beating of my mother’s heart in a fantasy of inter-uterine existence.
If this is the case then it falls into the always tragic category of longing an impossible return, our dance a desperate flailing against the diaspora into which every human being is cast by being exiled from the first homeland – the womb. Such nostalgia removes us from political agency, entangles us in an impossible, backwards journey, turns us away from the future, from its hazard and risks, but also the opportunities it presents.
As a musician, I face the question: Why spend creative energy rebuilding analogue synthesisers designed forty years ago when we can design digital modes of synthesis for sounds never heard before?
So I find it hard to dance to the old songs any more – Blue Monday, Sweet Dreams, all the rest – not because they are not good – they most definitely are – but because of what the dance entails, not only nostalgia, but a nostalgia for a nostalgia, wretched invocation of neurons excited by the sounds of a synthesiser decades old.
This temporal cringe is not just about musical novelty. If I think of any account of what the future might look like, the one which I find the most compelling, disturbing and frustrating is that of Ray Kurzweil – futurologist (not futurist) and now Director of Engineering at Google who observes and predicts a rapid acceleration of technological development in all fields, but especially in artificial intelligence known as the Singularity. This acceleration culminates in an event some time around 2045 where artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence and a superintelligence saturates civilisation and eventually the entire universe.
When I read about the Singularity, a little pit of despair emerges, the fear that the future does not belong to us after all, but to the technocrats, to Kurzweil’s employer Google, to the NSA and the rest, that what the human technological development has set in train is a hyper-intelligent algorithms in the service of a capitalistic authoritarianism, ice-cold to culture, beauty and freedom, a future where knowledge subsumed to data, building, expanding, producing, but oblivious, contemptuous even to the costs for human consciousness.
By obsessing over movements from the past – the music of the 1980s, classical humanism, analogue, whatever it may be – we become ever more disconnected from the tools which might help us to define a future which is beautiful, queer, transhumanist, multiple, anarchist.We need to assert the values which will guide the machines, we need to extend our vision of what life might be when our bodies become truly saturated with machine intelligence.