Futurism Revisited: An Interview with Marjorie Perloff, Part III

Andrew David King
September 29, 2013
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[This is the third part of a series. This post was preceded by an introduction, a first segment, and a second segment; you can read the introduction here, the first segment here, and the second here.]

KR: In your estimation, what was the most significant contribution Zaum made toward avant-garde, avant guerre, or even contemporary poetics? In 1900, Petersburg University philology professor F. D. Batyushkov published an article, “Struggle with the Word,” in the Journal of the Ministry of Education, pointing out, according to Gerald Janecek in his comprehensive 1996 account Zaum: The Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism (dedicated to “all who work to keep human nature indeterminate”), that there is a deviation between “the ‘sound image’ which we call a word” (Batyushkov) and its “abstract ideal” in language (Janecek). “…[T]here is no direct connection between a word and its significance… The ‘life of language’ leads to a constant destruction of the original relations between form and content, to the creation of neologisms, finally,—in rare instances, it is true,—to the formation of new words.” What does Zaum bring to the table in terms of Futurism’s engagement with materiality, with performance, with motion? This question takes on a particular weight with Khlebnikov, who, according to Bob Perelman in The Marginalization of Poetry, is said to have read Temptations of Saint Anthony by burning each leaf in turn to read the next. I’m thinking also of Victor Shklovsky in “Art as Technique”: his attempt to dethrone the familiar, the process of thinking in images, and the relation of that objective to Zaum.

MP: I discuss Khlebnikov’s zaum more fully in my book 21st Century Modernism (Blackwell, 2002).  But briefly here: Khlebnikov was essentially a Cratylian in Platonic terms: he believed that there is a magical, quasi-mystical connection between sound and meaning. Not that in an ordinary sentence, signifier and signified are connected—of course not—but that sound determines etymology, so that similar sounds create related words. If you trace a word to its roots, you will thus understand its sound structure. Accordingly, a great deal of attention must be paid to sound in poetry; sound is never just a support structure for some prior meaning. In this sense, Zaum looks ahead to such poets as Ian Hamilton Finlay, Susan Howe, or, more recently, Craig Dworkin.

KR: Besides the ways in which Futuristic motifs and ideas are already present in today’s coming-of-age discourse where old media formats are crumpling beneath new ones, what might today’s art world—in terms of, say, poetry and painting—take from the early 20th-century Futurists? Are we lacking in the sort of Fascist provincialism that Martin claims the second phase of Italian Futurism attempted to combat, or are we in excess of it? You write about related concerns in “Poetry on the Brink,” where, just as in Radical Artifice, you note that “identity politics has produced a degree of variation” in contemporary poetry that is, nonetheless, a commoditized; much of contemporary poetry is formulaic, and lacks Russian Formalism’s interest in “the word as such.” Conversely, however, is there any risk of over-glorifying or over-emphasizing the dominancy, present or forthcoming, of electronic means of communication—or other postmodern apparatuses? With regard to the latter I think of Kenneth Goldsmith, in particular the titular claim in his essay, “If It Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist.”

MP: In “The Audacity of Hope: The Two Futurisms,” I cite Marinetti’s essay “Electrical War,” in which he promulgates an “aesthetics of speed” that would “abolish the year, the day, and the hour” and “melt together day and night.”[i]  Here is the poet’s vision of a “dielectric” future:

Through a network of metal cables, the double force of the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas climbs to the crest of the Apennines to be concentrated in great cages of iron and crystal, mighty accumulators, enormous nerve centers sited here and there along Italy’ mountainous dorsal spine.  Penetrating into every muscle, artery, and nerve of the peninsula, the energy of distant winds and the rebellions of the sea have been transformed by man’s genius into many millions of kilowatts, spreading everywhere yet needing no wires, their fecundity governed by the control panels, like keyboards, throbbing under the fingers of the engineers.  They live in high-tension rooms where 100,000 volts vibrate behind the plate-glass windows.  They sit before switchboards, with dials to right and left, keyboards, regulators, and commutators, and everywhere the rich lucidity of polished levers.  These men have finally won the joy of living behind walls of iron and glass.  They have steel furniture, twenty times lighter and less expensive than ours. . . . They write in books of nickel no thicker than three centimeters, costing no more than eight francs, and still containing one hundred thousand pages.

Notice how prophetic this passage is: it anticipates the invention of the computer, and indeed we now have those steel chairs and “books of nickel.” In the same vein, at midcentury, John Cage and other avant-gardists saw the potential of magnetic tape in producing poetry and sound works layering multiple voices. And, to get to your question, Kenneth Goldsmith was one of the first to understand the potential—or rather the necessity—of the internet in everything artists now do. This doesn’t mean that poetry becomes a digital practice, but that the availability and ubiquity of the internet and its modes of dissemination has inevitably transformed the way we understand the arts. The Age demands a new way of seeing and thinking.

But, just as was the case in 1913, most of what is called art or literature represents the status quo even as there are pioneers who understand that “It must change.” The Establishment always prevails. This can be understood more clearly in the case of theatre than in lyric poetry. Despite the amazing innovations of the 1960s and 70s when the proscenium stage gave way to theatre in the round and other possibilities, and when performance art produced a new relationship between artist and audience, Broadway continues to churn out realistic “problem” plays about feminism or AIDS or family problems—a slice-of-life theatre that ignores the very existence of such phenomena as the Internet and what it means to us today.

Identity politics has changed the subject matter but not the ontology of artwork itself. In this sense, Futurism, the first of the great 20th century avant-gardes, was prophetic: it made clear that the new industrial age demanded new art forms. This doesn’t mean that the basic modes of art change dramatically, but the questioning, say, of “plot” and “character” in Futurist drama, represents a genuine rupture with the immediate past.  Tatlin’s great tower (the Monument to the Third International), even though never built, provides a marvelous image of what architectural space could be, and Sant’Elia’s fantastic cityspaces look ahead to our own. So I regard the Futurist Moment as a brief opening of the field that too quickly morphed into Fascism in Italy and in Russia was displaced by Stalinism. By 1930, when Mayakovsky committed suicide, it was all over.  But not really over, of course: today, Futurist notions of speed, hybridity, iterability, of intermedia, “destruction of syntax,” and words-in-freedom as well as zaum, have become central to the art and literary world. But—and I suggested this in The Futurist Moment—in 2013 what was part of a Utopian drive has had to be adapted to entirely different circumstances. Self-mockery, distance, a sense of limits, and especially the language of irony qualify the new “futurist” imagination.


[i]“Electrical War” was also published in Le Futurisme (Paris 1911); the book was reissued as a more militant and nationalist book in Italy in 1915: see Rainey, 529-30.  For the essay itself, see Rainey 98-104.

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