Beyond Futurism to Ecological Humanity, Research Time, 22/06/2015

This weekend, I had a sudden moment where so much of what I hated in university culture became clear, an insight where I realized that I won’t really miss working there. What I loved were the good people in that system, the friendly spirit and inquisitive minds that made them good, and the thick, constant flow of new ideas. But that spirit and atmosphere can continue in my life while I walk away from the sneering classism and hypocrisy.

So I can come back to writing about my research for my next big book, and reading Filippo Marinetti. I’ve rarely read a writer so dense – there’s so much in these quick little essays. I sometimes wonder if social media are the right places to publish incendiary manifestos today, but I feel like there are already so many that they’d be lost in the din.

Giacomo Balla's 1909 depiction
of moonlight's death at human
Here’s one idea that’s meaningful in the light of this week’s official declaration that we are now living in Earth's sixth Great Extinction. Among Marinetti’s Futurist rhetoric was the phrase “Kill the moonlight!” It referred to fellow Futurist Giacomo Balla’s painting of Alessandro Volta’s first arc lamp, its flickering explosions of electricity a violent rupture in the darkness.*

* Reading Marinetti can sometimes rub off on you, and all of a sudden every sentence you write (and sometimes say) is delivered with this weird tone of apocalyptic intensity.

Every great punk movement has a decadent society to rebel against. The actual London punk scene of the late 1970s had snooty prog rock and the rise of Thatcher. The Italian Futurists had Romantic art. A huge target of their rebellion against Romanticism was the way Romantic poets wrote such rapturous poetry about nature.

Now, this nature fetish — actually, I should say Nature fetish, because their style was so reifying that it deserved a capital letter. This Nature fetish caused enough problems of its own. When I was first researching Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity at McMaster, I discovered some essays that made a solid case that the Romantic love of nature actually helped American deforestation. 

The irony is delightful, if also incredibly depressing. Romantic poetry tended to idolize Nature as a living Eden, and often treated humanity as inherently corrupt and debased. The Christian cultural legacy was all over Romanticism, as they continued to play up the hyper-separated duality of the Fallen humanity and the pure, divine Nature. 

We were so alienated from Nature, so goes the Romantic image, that we needn’t even acknowledge it as anything we owed. So a colonial settler could cut down as much forest as needed to build his new city. Nature exists so far outside our order of being that we don’t even need to acknowledge it, except to exalt it in poetry.

Marinetti and the Futurists rebelled against Romanticism, but not the alienation of humanity from nature. They wished for a world where human technology would completely annihilate nature, like the triangular blades of artificial light pushing against the borders of night-time, overpowering the soft light of the moon. Marinetti wrote the philosophy that accompanied Balla’s painting.

I imagine that if Marinetti could have read Isaac Asimov’s descriptions of Trantor, the world that was entirely encased in an enormous, planet-wide, multi-story city, he would have wept with joy at the image.

The world of nature and humanity’s cultural worship of it, says Marinetti, was growing decadent, putrefying so that it can regenerate into a fully technological world. The triumphal new epoch of Earth would be the anthropocene. Look where that got us.

Marinetti thought that being the vanguard of pushing the world to a total embrace of technological power and innovation would introduce a glorious new era. That unrestrained development seems instead to have put us solidly in a category of greatness: as the creators of a literal planetary catastrophe. 

The real challenge is to adapt our technology so that we can keep the benefits of improved health care and nutrition, scientific investigation, communication, transportation, and media (delivered in as egalitarian a mission as possible), while leaving behind the parts of our civilization that destroy the ecologies we need to survive.

We don’t need the violent, dominating technology that was Marinetti’s reified fetish. We need a technology of negotiation and compromise. If we can even manage it.

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