A cathedral is a tribute to God. A skyscraper is a tribute to capital. Cathedrals reflect the glorious narratives of faith. Skyscrapers reflect the profits of capital. This could be an impotent anti-materialist moan. What interests me, though, is something these constructions share: the ostensible status of a human space and the actual devotion to a superhuman force.
In The Thirst for Annihilation, Nick Land writes of “the wild beasts of the impersonal”; thinkers are who are marked by “fatalism, atheism, strangely reptilian exuberance, and extreme sensitivity for what is icy, savage, and alien to mankind.” Perhaps excepting the initial adjective I can think of no more accurate a description of the author of the 1914 document the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture.
“The Futurist house must be like a gigantic machine,” the author insists. This was a prescient proclamation, coming as it did from the times before houses were wrapped in electronic wires. The author has even more ambitious ideas in mind. “We must invent and rebuild the Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, agile, mobile and dynamic in every detail.” How man is supposed to live amid tumult goes unexplored. Does he care? Such details do not seem to trouble him:
The lifts must no longer be hidden away like tapeworms in the niches of stairwells; the stairwells themselves, rendered useless, must be abolished, and the lifts must scale the lengths of the façades like serpents of steel and glass.
There is that reptilian exuberance! In the Bible, of course, it is the serpent which tempts Eve with apples from the Tree of Knowledge, and the promise, “Your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods.”
Most researchers have concluded that the author of the manifesto – which followed Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, published five years before – was Antonio Sant’Elia. Dying before the age of thirty, on the battlefields, he designed little in his short and precocious life, yet influenced more fortunate, productive architects (as well as Ridley Scott, who modelled his designs for 2019 Los Angeles on Sant’Elia’s drawings.)
The manifesto bristles with a strange, inhuman energy, proclaiming a desire for skyscrapers that “soar up on the brink of a tumultuous abyss”; “the architecture of calculation, of audacious temerity”; “the use and original arrangement of raw or bare or violently colored materials.”
…just as the ancients drew inspiration for their art from the elements of nature, we—who are materially and spiritually artificial—must find that inspiration in the elements of the utterly new mechanical world we have created…
Why? For the sake of energy; for the sake of dynamism; their power and violence being their own achievement. “To transform the world of things into a direct projection of the world of the spirit.” One has the distinct sense of the people living for the city, not the city for the people; blood pumping around its great, metropolitan frame.
Futurism emerged in the 1900s, as radical theorists welcomed the industrial revolution and the emergence of the motorcar as a chance to shake the recently unified Italy from its stale, nostalgic state and give it fresh meaning and purpose. Enough with the “smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians.” It was time for bold originality and innovation. It was time to make the fatherland a fierce and energetic youth.
Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!
Led by the eccentric poet Marinetti, futurists insisted on the value of speed, and disruption, and, as George L. Mosse wrote in “The Political Culture of Italian Futurism”, “the spontaneity of experience.”
Futurists were antihumanists. “Man is something that must be overcome,” wrote Nietzsche, and that was a sentence Marinetti would have echoed. The first long, ferocious sentence of his Futurist Manifesto references the “electric hearts” of his colleagues (here, again, one finds the image of the serpent, describing “great tubes” on “racing automobiles”.)
Marinetti’s taste for the machine was fetishistic. He authored the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking and organised “aerobanquets”, at which, Alex Revelli Sorini and Susanna Cuttini write, the tablecloth was “replaced by sheets of aluminum and metal plates”, “the table was shaped like an airplane”, and diners roared, “We want fuel!” This is a vivid, if comical, demonstration of a transhumanist urge; a desire to soar, freed from the shackles of physical limitations and humanist sentiments, through the clouds of the unknown. In Marconi’s Wireless, Aaron A. Toscano writes that Marinetti held that humans should be “fast like cars, explosive like bombs, super productive like factories and as free as wireless signals.”
“His polemics rarely focus on concrete possibilities for new machines,” Toscano writes, “Instead he made bombastic claims about an unrealistic…utopia brought about through technology.” This is true enough, yet the utopian – and the dystopian – ideologue can have insights that the realist cannot in tracking implications of events through their potential evolution. One finds echoes of the futurists in the Big Tech enthusiasm for “disruption”, though this a far moderate form of social innovation. The dreams of the futurists had more to do with the Übermensch than with Uber. Their descendants have more radical ideas about the future of technology and men.
Futurism was something of a forerunner to transhumanist and artificial intelligence research. The Italian transhumanist Stefano Vaj has claimed Marinetti as an influence on what he calls “overhumanism”, a controversial synthesis of transhumanist science and anti-egalitarian thought. The “neoreactionary” sphere formed around the right-accelerationist Nick Land and the “formalist” ideologue Curtis Yarvin is a more explicitly right wing phenomenon that has been influenced by futurist ideas.
Futurism is irrevocably linked with fascism, not least as Marinetti wrote “The Fascist Manifesto” during his close though not untroubled alliance with Mussolini. He and others shared the fascistic lust for violence while rejecting its anti-modernist elements. They were also nationalists, reaching, as Mosse wrote, “to pull down a piece of eternity into rush and bustle of time.” Still, they were a more significant precursor to right-accelerationism, the idea that capitalism will, and should, become more powerful and innovative till it transcends its hapless anthropological managers in the form of the superintelligent machine. Just as futurists saw the industrial revolution as a thrilling vehicle for social dynamism, right-accelerationists see an intelligence explosion as a thrilling vehicle for evolutionary progress.
What can make futurism a closer relative to right-accelerationism than fascist politics is its clear emphasis on the machine over the man, either in an egalitarian or elitist sense. Marinetti held that there could be, in Eugene Ostashevsky’s words, “a humano-mechanical new man.” Unlike Marinetti, Sant’Elia ignores man in his actual or idealised forms. There are references to the places in which he is active, but there is almost no interest in his activity. Statues, theatres and opera houses go unmentioned, while he claims to stand for “the great hotels, the railway stations…[the] colossal ports.” (What happens there? It barely matters, as long as it is activity.) The art that he values is “the superb grace of the steel beam” and “the delicacy of reinforced concrete.”
It is interesting to compare Sant’Elia to a more infamous and influential architect who shared his passion for concrete and steel, his polemical style and his iconoclastic impulse. Le Corbusier had a similar taste for the skyscraper, but a clear, if totalitarian, emphasis on buildings as functional anthropocentric entities. In Sant’Elia’s image of the futurist city as an “immense and tumultuous shipyard” there is an inchoate antihumanist element. Man is not the ship, and we know from Sant’Elia’s anti-traditionalism that nor is civilisation. The ship is the spirit. And what if it leaves?
Recent years have offered eerily substantive analyses of the potential for a posthuman world. In “Meditations on Moloch”, Scott Alexander quoted Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Moloch”:
What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Alexander reflected that as mechanisation increases further into the realms of artifical intelligence “capitalism becomes more and more uncoupled from its previous job as an optimizer for human values.” He sketched out a plausible situation where:
…most humans are totally locked out of the group whose values capitalism optimizes for. They have no value to contribute as workers – and since in the absence of a spectacular social safety net it’s unclear how they would have much money – they have no value as customers either. Capitalism has passed them by. As the segment of humans who can be outcompeted by robots increases, capitalism passes by more and more people until eventually it locks out the human race entirely, once again in the vanishingly unlikely scenario that we are still around.
It is obvious that cities can be immense engines of dehumanisation. Buildings – tall, dark, abstracted from history, myth or ritual – stand like alien statues. Streets, too big and busy for pedestrians or drivers, become navigable by systems of passenger trains. Heights, too tall to climb, demand the use of elevators. Work often involves the refinement of systems and products that will make labour and play easier, more efficient and more novel if outsourced, in whole or in part, to machines, not men.
Accompanying enormous economic and technological opportunities is a decline in fertility. Nick Land calls advanced cities “IQ shredders”. The IQ shredder:
…skims the human genetic stock…in large part due to the exceptional opportunity it provides for the conversion of bio-privileged human capital into economic value. From a strictly capitalistic perspective, genetic quality is comparatively wasted anywhere else. Consequently, spontaneous currents of economic incentive suck in talent, to optimize its exploitation.
“The most hard-core capitalist response to this,” he writes, “Is to double-down on the antihumanist accelerationism. This genetic burn-rate is obviously unsustainable, so we need to convert the human species into auto-intelligenic robotized capital as fast as possible, before the whole process goes down in flames.”
We know man and nature exist uneasily. We know that something has to change. We look, forlornly, across the “ingenuity gap” that separates our challenges and our abilities and draw our own conclusions. Some advocate “uncivilization” as a Jeffersonian (that is, Robinson Jeffers) attempt to abandon humanist hubris and reconnect with the non-human world of animals, and plants, and landscapes. Right-accelerationists advocate ultracivilization, which aspires to abandon humanist hubris and await a posthuman world of superintelligences. Here, a city is as natural as a savannah.
Land wrote in “Machinic Desire”, collected in Fanged Noumena:
Machinic desire can seem a little inhuman, as it rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities, and hacks through security apparatuses, tracking a soulless tropism to zero control. This is because what appears to humanity as the history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy’s resources.
The argument is not that capitalism is a conscious force but that “Gnon” – “Nature or Nature’s God” – proceeds according to remorseless evolutionary logic, driving ever more intelligent and innovative entities across the bones of their outdated predecessors. Capitalism, and its associated scientific and technological trends, unloosed its bonds. Anthropological redundancy is an inevitable end.
The city, in this narrative, is a posthuman factory, exhausting the economic value of its oblivious proletariat. Men walk streets and corridors but in the service of that which ensures their obsolescence. The gigantic machine, with its serpents of steel and glass, aims itself towards a faster, more dynamic and more powerful future.