Futurism and the reversal of the future

Franco Berardi

London, 2009

One hundred years ago, on February 20th 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published the first Futurist Manifesto. In the same year, Henry Ford put into operation the first assembly line in his car factory in Detroit. Both events can be considered as the inauguration of the century that placed trust in the future. Making the mass production of cars possible, the assembly line is the technological system that best defines the age of industrial massification: the mobilisation of social energies is subjected to the aim of speeding up productivity.
Acceleration, speed, the cult of the machine: these are the values emphasized by the Futurist Manifesto. The text written by Marinetti is a hymn to the disruptive modernity that was changing the face of the world in those decades, especially that of industrialised countries. Italy was not one of them: having only recently achieved national unification, its economy was based on agriculture, and lifestyles and consumption were traditional and backward. Unsurprisingly, the Futurist movement emerged in Italy and Russia. These two countries shared a common social situation: scant development of industrial production, marginality of the bourgeois class, reliance on the cultural and religious models of the past, attractiveness of foreign culture (especially French) to urban intellectuals. This is the background of the Futurist explosion, in both Italy and Russia, but we should not see this movement merely as a reaction against national backwardness. On the contrary, it was the activator of an aesthetic energy that would spread all over Europe in the following decades, and the artistic core of the enthusiastic belief that the future was going to be the fulfilment of great expectations in the field of politics, science, technology and new life styles.

‘We affirm that the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath - a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.’

The Futurist Manifesto affirmed the aesthetic value of speed. The myth of speed sustained the whole edifice of the imaginary of modernity and the reality of speed played a crucial role in the history of capital, whose development is based on the acceleration of labour time.
Productivity in fact is the growth factor of the accretion of relative surplus value determined by the speed of the productive gesture and the intensification of its rhythm.

‘We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicoloured, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervour 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 Manifesto asserted the aesthetic value of the machine. The machine par excellence is the speed machine, the car, the airplane, tools that make it possible to mobilise the social body. Marinetti dedicated a poem to the racing car:

To my Pegasus
Vehement god of a race of steel,
space-intoxicated Automobile,
stamping with anguish, champing at the bit!
O formidable Japanese monster with eyes like a forge,
fed on fire and mineral oils,
hungry for horizons and sidereal spoils,
I unleash your heart of diabolic puff-puffs,
and your giant pneumatics, for the dance
that you lead on the white roads of the world.(1)

All'automobile da corsa

Veemente dio d’una razza d’acciaio,
Automobile ebbra di spazio,
che scalpiti e fremi d’angoscia
rodendo il morso con striduli denti
Formidabile mostro giapponese,
dagli occhi di fucina,
nutrito di fiamma
e d’olî minerali,
avido d’orizzonti, di prede siderali
Io scateno il tuo cuore che tonfa diabolicamente,
scateno i tuoi giganteschi pneumatici,
per la danza che tu sai danzare
via per le bianche strade di tutto il mondo!

For us, dwellers of the postmodern conurbation, driving back home from the office, stuck and immobile in rush-hour traffic, Marinetti’s adoration for the car seems pretty ludicrous.
But the reality and the concept of machine, one hundred years after the Futurist Manifesto, are different.
Futurism exalted the machine as an external object that was visible in the city landscape, but now the machine is inside us: we are no longer obsessed with the external machine; instead, the ‘info-machine’ now intersects with the social nervous system, the ‘bio-machine’ interacts with the genetic becoming of the human organism.
Digital and bio-technologies have turned the external machine of iron and steel into the internalised and recombining machine of the bio-info era.
The bio-info machine is no longer separable from the body and mind, because it is no longer an external tool, but an internal transformer of the body and mind, a linguistic and cognitive enhancer. Now the nano-machine is mutating the human brain and the linguistic ability to produce and communicate. The Machine is us.

In the mechanical era the machine stood in front of the body and changed human behaviour enhancing its potency without changing its physical structure. The assembly line, for instance, whilst improving and increasing the productive power of labourers, neither modified their physical organism nor introduced mutations in their cognitive ability. Now the machine is no longer in front of the body but inside it. Bodies and minds therefore cannot express and relate anymore without the technical support of the bio machine.
Because of this change, political power has changed its nature too. When the machine was external the State had to regulate the body and used the law for this purpose. Agents of repression were used to force the conscious organisms to submit to that rhythm without rebellion. Now political domination is internalized and undistinguishable from the machine itself.
In this shift, not only the machine but also the machinic imagination undergoes a mutation. Marinetti conceived of the machine, in the modern way, as an external enhancer. In the bio-social age the machine is difference of information, not exteriority but linguistic modelling, logic and cognitive automatism, internal necessity.

One hundred years after the publication of the Futurist Manifesto, speed has been transferred from the realm of external machines to the information domain. Speed itself has been internalised. In the twentieth century, the machine of speed accomplished the colonisation of global space; this was followed by the colonisation of the domain of time, of the mind and perception; and so the future collapsed. The collapse of the future is rooted in the acceleration of psychic and cognitive rhythm.
Thanks to the external machine, the colonization of the space of the planet has been accomplished: means of transport have enabled us to cover every inch of the Earth and given us the possibility of knowing, marking, controlling and exploiting every single place. Machines have made it possible to displace fast, to penetrate the bowels of the Earth, to exploit underground resources, occupy every visible spot with the products of technical reproduction. While spatial colonization was going on, the external machine could move onto new territories, and a future was still conceivable, because future is not only a dimension of time, but also a dimension of space. Future is the space that we do not yet know and are to discover and exploit. When every inch of the planet has been colonized, the colonization of the temporal dimension has began, - i.e. the colonization of mind, of perception, of life. So the century with no future has began.

The question of the relationship between an unlimited expansion of cyberspace and the limits of cyber time opens at this juncture. Being the point of virtual intersection of the projections generated by countless issuers, cyberspace is unlimited and in a process of continuous expansion. Cyber time, which is the ability of social attention to process information in time, is organic, cultural and emotional: therefore it is anything but unlimited.
Subjected to the infinite acceleration of the info-stimuli, the mind reacts with either panic or de-sensitisation.
The concept of sensibility (and the different but related concept of sensitivity) are crucial here: sensitivity is the ability of the human senses to process information, and sensibility is the faculty that makes empathic understanding possible, the ability to comprehend what words cannot say, the power to interpret a continuum of non-discreet elements, non-verbal signs and the flows of empathy. This faculty, which enables humans to understand ambiguous messages in the context of relationships, might now be disappearing. We are currently witnessing the development of a generation of human beings that lacks competence in sensibility, the ability to empathically understand the other and decode signs that are not codified in a binary system.

When a group of British musicians cried No future, in the turning point of the year 1977, that cry seemed a paradox not to be taken too seriously, but it was actually the announcement of something quite important, that the perception of the future was changing.
Future is not a natural dimension of the mind, it is rather a modality of perception and imagination, a feature of expectation and attention, and this modalities and features change with the changing of cultures.
Futurism is the artistic movement that embodies and asserts the accomplished modernity of the future. The movement called Futurism announces what is most essential in the twentieth century because that century was pervaded by a religious belief in the future. We do not believe in the future in the same way. Of course we know that a time after the present is going to come, but we don’t expect that this time will fulfil the promises of the present.
The Futurists - and the moderns in general - thought that the future was reliable and trustworthy.
In the first part of the century Fascists, Communists and the supporters of Democracy had very different ideas and followed divergent methods, but all of them shared the belief that the future would be bright, no matter how hard the present was. Our post-futurist mood is based on the consciousness that the future is not going to be bright, and at least we doubt that future means progress.
Modernity started with the reversal of the theocratic vision of time as Fall and a distancing from the City of God. Moderns are those who live time as the sphere of a progression towards perfection, or at least towards improvement, enrichment, and rightness.
Since the turning point of the century that trusted the future - and I like to place this turning point in the year 1977 - humankind has abandoned this illusion.
The insurgents of 1968 believed that they were fulfilling the Modern Hegelian Utopia of the becoming true of thought, the Marcusean fusion of reason and reality.
The integration of Reality and Reason (embedded in social knowledge, information and technology) turned history into a code-generated world. Terror and Code took over the social reationship and Utopia went Dystopic.
The century that trusted the future could be described as the systematic reversal of Utopia into Dystopia. Futurism sang of the Utopia of Technique and Speed and Energy, but the result was Fascism in Italy and Totalitarian Communism in Russia.

London, May 2009

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