Kraftwerkdenken 2: We Used to Have a Remarkable Future, Jamming, 01/04/2014

Yesterday’s post about the thoughts Kraftwerk’s 3D show inspired in me may have considered the ontological and existential question of what we would be if we conceived of ourselves as machines. A different aspect of this is inherently political. And I’m not just talking about the songs Kraftwerk writes and performs, like “Computer World” and “Radio-Activity,” that are explicitly political anthems, though I can rock to the principle of each. After all, I regularly rock out while working to Rage Against the Machine. So I’m well okay with music that incorporates blatant political sloganeering. 

Marinetti's art was a collision of energy and motion. He
painted the explosion of humanity itself.
But this post is about more profound politics, the orientation of humanity itself, how our technology and our dreams of its potential shapes our society and our yearnings. One figure who first inspired my Utopias project was Filippo Marinetti, the Italian poet, artist, and philosopher who articulated one of the earliest visions of futurity in philosophy.* It isn’t a futurity I think anyone would actually like or want to live. Intrigued by the potential of the automobile for social transformation, he saw the car as a means of emancipation from the constraints of culture or traditional morality. It was a means of total freedom.

* Literature had included plenty of visions of the future, thanks to authors like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. But these weren’t about futurity. Essentially, they depicted and critiqued the cultures and problems of their own era, the Victorian Age of Western Europe, using imagery of advanced technology. A standard, and important, practice of science-fiction. This should be distinguished from futurity, which actually imagines wholly different cultures and ways of life, without necessarily having any relation, critical or otherwise, to the current era. The only two authors I’ve come across who have done this are Iain M. Banks and Patrick White. And White wasn’t even a sci-fi writer; I just consider the ethics of his novel Voss so utterly strange to modernity that it seems innovative in its own right.

And this total freedom was the freedom of a people without personality in the conventional sense. Marinetti was was poor students of Nietzsche believe him to be: the glorifier of speed, aggression, and war. The man of Marinetti’s Futurist vision was the embodiment of a lone car (without seatbelts, of course) flying down a highway at absurd speeds. Urban technology would not only master nature, but annihilate it under a superior order. The Futurist man would literally be a machine man. The highways of modern, urban Europe would combine with the wars of mass destruction and death to forge a superior man that would remake the Earth in his image.

But Marinetti passed in the last years of the Second World War, and his dream of a factory-made future lay fallow and disregarded for decades. And then, the industrial heartland of Europe, Germany itself, produced a group of men whose name was the literal expression of the worldly striving (Werk) for power (Kraft), making art entirely using electronic machines synthesizing sounds that heralded waveforms themselves that had never been heard on Earth, expressing images and songs of men literally becoming machines, robots, men who were no longer even human. These men sang of the highways, the concrete streets that would transform man into pure motion, the fires of destruction. They sang of the Autobahn.

That really is the narrative of the 21st century. Do you see why I’m so interested in the Italian Futurists for the Utopias project? They express the dreams of progress that drove the 19th and 20th centuries to create the absolutely mad and self-destructive worlds we live in today. They embody more purely than any other group of artists and theorists I know of the profound hubris of humanity that’s landed us in this ecological/nomic pickle.

Marinetti dreamed of a new kind of man forged by the
speed of the highway and the grind of war. He got traffic
jams and Jeremy Clarkson.
Introducing the culture of the year 2010 to the TARDIS Eruditorum, Phil Sandifer wrote about the initial dreams of the internet. He knows it from the inside, as one of the earliest editors of Wikipedia, the dream that the internet would usher in a new era of super-fast communication, a kind of universal education and enlightenment through the exchange of knowledge faster than any mere state could regulate. The internet was supposed to be the vehicle of an anarchistic utopia. Instead, we got Facebook, cat photos, and the collective ignorance of believing you could fight breast cancer by posting a selfie without your eyeshadow on. The Venture Bros. has a similar aesthetic, as the fantastic dreams of animated adventure sci-fi in the 1970s give way to the creep of bureaucracy and middling performance of a generation that has run out of steam. 

Likewise, Marinetti dreamed of a human race that would transform its very nature technologically. He romanticized the highway into the blood vessels of a mechanized continent, with cars speeding around, experiencing life at its fullest and purest as we become machines of pure motion. Today, we’re stuck in traffic jams choking on our own exhaust fumes. 

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