The Futurist Manifesto was first published in 1909. It was written by Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a celebration of speed, youth, violence and technology. It was also a declaration of the author’s hopes for his country in the 20th century: a country of industry, innovation and dynamism, fully engaged with the world. It decried Italy’s main identity as the seat of a long-dead culture, to be admired for its past achievements. Futurism explicitly rejected the “innumerable cemeteries” which plagued the Italian peninsula: museums, libraries, and antiquaries. Although politically associated with Italian Fascism, Marinetti’s ideas never managed to establish themselves as the official aesthetic of Mussolini’s regime. Fascist glorification of Roman grandeur and its strong ties to Roman Catholicism prevented this from happening.
In love with Modernity, Futurists vowed in their Manifesto to “sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons”. Eight years ago, Kanye West and Jay-Z released their music video for “No Church in the Wild”. An aesthetic primer for this week’s riots, it featured a mass of violent protesters confronting a disciplined, brutal and militarized police force. All the fighting in the video is set to a background of classical-looking buildings and statues. The lyrics are somewhat cryptic, with references to luxurious cocaine runs and nightly excess; the general message of the song seems to be revolve around existential meaning in a godless world, devoid of truth and morality. The whole thing is full of occult and masonic imagery, something not that unusual in Western mainstream cultural production. The protesters turn cars over; fireworks fall from above like fallen stars. They charge against the police under a pyramid of light, formed by green laser pointers shooting to the sky. All participants in the video seem to be possessed by a kind demonic energy. As twilight gives way to the night, illuminated by green and red light, the old pagan statues of the seem to participate in the upheaval. They alternatively cover their eyes in distress, rally the masses to battle or stare approvingly at the violence, hieratically contemplating the ordeal with dead eyes and a petrified smirk.
The real-life, ongoing disturbances in mainland cities of the American Empire have themselves generated a lot of less stylized images of fire and violence. Countless fights and beatings; a woman set aflame while mishandling a Molotov cocktail. A man ran over and dragged through the asphalt by a FedEx truck he was trying to loot. The motor of a stolen Mercedes-Benz roaring through the shattered windows of a store, amid shards of flying broken glass and cheering crowds. Heavily armed policemen on the run. Thanks to Twitter, images of the riots are broadcast almost in real time. Usually, we can hear the commentary of the person filming; mixed with the anxiety, there is almost always a tone of striking glee and excitement. Laughter, combustion engines and shattered windows: the sounds of ecstatic urban violence. Meanwhile, among the clouds, the SpaceX Dragon Crew rocketflies into (outto?) the dark, silent abyss of Outer Space. There is no contradiction: together, both contexts compose a coherent example of Futurist aesthetics: the same type of image that the now-defunct neoreactionary tumblr Post-Anathema tried to create.
And what is an aesthetic? Basically, it is a memeplex which is not conceptual, but sensual. The word shares the same Greek root as anesthesia: αισθητικος (aisthetikos), meaning “sensation” or “perception”. Because Futurism is an aesthetic and not an ideology, it has aged much better as a meme than its conceptual fellow travelers, Fascism and German Socialism. That’s why, in his Manifesto, Marinetti was able to praise in the same sentence both militaristic, First World War patriotism and “the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas that kill”. As anybody working on marketing knows, aesthetics are impervious to attacks based on ideas and arguments. They operate at a lower and deeper cognitive level, far out of the reach of the evolutionary pressures imposed by rational, sophisticated discussion. Rival ideologies can share an aesthetic space: that’s why Communists and Nazis look so similar. Like the protesters of Jay-Z and Kanye’s video, they are all under the spell of the same demons.
The Manifesto of Futurism claims: “Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed”. An accurate assessment, for there are few spatial boundaries on Twitter. Advanced communication technologies have brought immediacy and virality to a whole new level, saturating the world with visual perception. The Internet is a festering wound for visual memes. Any aesthetic, noble or abhorrent, smart or stupid, can thrive in such a rich environment. Obviously, viral Internet aesthetics manifest themselves in real life: just look at the riots. In contrast, conceptual memes find the Internet a harsh environment. Every idea can be ruthlessly put to the test, criticized, made bare and exposed to ridicule. Now, drug-resistant pathogens grow in hospitals, where they are constantly under the threat of lethal chemicals and antiseptic measures. What do you think happens to memes?