Death and the Automobile

On September 7, 2012 by admin

Priyasha Mukhopadhyay    

The driving force behind every nation’s story of progress is a motor car


In his introduction to Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics Benjamin Bratton writes of how a history of compensating for the vulnerability of the human body has led to universal prosthetisation of various kinds and to various degrees: from the military tank that in its ability to assault, destroys the concept of territorial boundaries, to the sports shoe. Transforming the possessors into “metabolic bodies,” these come together to supplement the human in the drive towards efficiency, excellence and logistical power.[i] This is a universe in which everything is a machine.

The ubiquity of the mechanical in everyday life has forced us to reexamine not only the nature and extent of our reliance on such objects, but also how technological encounters shape our understanding of contemporary subjectivity. Thinking through the relation between the human and the machine is not a new gesture; widespread industrialisation in Europe ensured that the machine was a tangible presence in most nineteenth and early twentieth century documents. Critical studies however, even history indeed, mostly limit themselves to the uncovering of technophobia[ii] – horror at the debilitating effects of long hours of work in factories, the gradual isolation of the human subject from the need for human contact, the fascist undertones of the production of something as loved as Volkswagen cars in Nazi Germany.[iii]

This article is an attempt, alternatively, to rethink technophilia in one of its most historically violent forms, Futurism. Taking as its focus the body of the machine, it will examine the manner in which manifestos written by its prime proponent, F.T. Marinetti, evolve an oppositional political and aesthetic mythology, one that is dependent not on the mere interactions between the human and the non-human, but on a complex set of processes by which the ideal human is, in its essence, not human at all. In writing the machine into (paradoxically) this futurist history, I am not critiquing or attempting to thwart the inevitable mechanisation of human existence, but trying to understand how such transformations and interactions can become coherent models of political and social action. I will thus make a preliminary attempt to trace how it becomes symbolic of the uncertain and scattered ways in which we “do” politics, and in turn, what politics does to us.

As Fast as You Can

Casually thrown before its readers is the following scene from Mario Morasso’s The New Weapon (1905):

“Here is something heroic; a man seated on a rigid seat, like a barbarian king, with his face covered by a hard visor, like a warrior, with his body leaning forward almost to provoke the race and to scrutinize – not just the course, but destiny. With his hand secure on the inclined steering wheel, with all his faculties in a state of vigilance, he seems truly the lord of a whirlwind, the tamer of a monster, the calm, absolute sovereign of a new force, he who stands straight in a vortex. “(qtd. in Poggi 10 )

The focus here is the driver of the racing car, the “man seated on a rigid seat.” Rather than being a symbol of middle-class affluence, the car is instead thrown into an imaginary space of multiple contexts: there is war that the driver-warrior is prepared for; his hand is “secure,” his body leaning forward, alert and ready for combat with skill and precision that ensure that he alone is “the tamer of a monster.” Language deceives us here; on a first reading, the monster and whirlwind seem to be self-evidently the car being driven. In such a scheme of things, the man quickly becomes emblematic of humanity’s conquest over the machine, able to control it with a firm grip of the steering wheel. What makes this passage extraordinary, and anticipatory of how Futurism was to revolutionise the man-machine relation, is the manner in which the act of control transforms the man into something other than himself, superhuman. Standing in the vortex of mechanical strength, he is not merely “the sovereign of a new force,” he is that new force.

Morasso’s novel was published five years before F.T. Marinetti’s “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” appeared in Le Figaro, bringing in its wake the call for the destruction of tradition, metallisation and the pure power of speed. These are not all incidental players in the configuration of the manifesto, but rather, seem to draw from a seemingly insignificant event in Marinetti’s life: his Fiat collided with a bicycle and skidded into a ditch.  He was left unscathed, but in the manifesto, this is replayed as the moment when Marinetti is “transformed” into a Futurist; nothing less than a miraculous moment of religious baptism:

I gulped down your bracing slime, which reminded me of the sacred black breast of my Sudanese nurse. . . . When I climbed out, a filthy and stinking rag, from underneath the capsized car, I felt my heart—deliciously—being slashed with the red-hot iron of joy! (50)

At one level, the accident reveals what Jeffrey Schnapp calls Futurism’s delight in “trauma-thrills,” modern forms of the sublime that derive from the excitement that lurching towards the limits of death and pulling back creates (4). The accident changes Marinetti; he will keep looking for opportunities to recreate this experience throughout his life and writing (a point I will return to later in this article). This transformation is undeniably psycho-somatic: the slashing of the red-hot iron through Marinetti’s heart is both literal and metaphorical, and in the process, solders the fragmented parts of his self together to make him the very object that is most likely to survive the encounter, a machine. This is addressed more clearly in a section of a later work, Le Futurism (1911), “The Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine”:

This inhuman and mechanical type, constructed for omnipresent velocity, will be naturally cruel, omniscient, and combative. He will be endowed with unexpected organs: organs adapted to the exigencies of an environment made of continuous shocks. Already now we can foresee an organ that will resemble a prow developing from the outward swelling of the sternum, which will be the more pronounced the better an aviator the man of the future becomes, much like the analogous development discernible in the best fliers among birds. (91)

The less than subtle overlap of the organic and the inorganic here is startling: Marinetti’s Multiplied Man is the product of a slow evolutionary process that affects both sensibility and body and mimics the natural process of species adaptation. “Constructed for omnipresent velocity,” these changes are wrought on steel, the “outward swelling of the sternum” makes him sound remarkably similar to the mechanical equivalent of a bird, an aeroplane.

Not just anyone can become a machine, however. One must show tendencies, proclivities. In a move that is strikingly similar to the evolutionary theories of Fascism to come, Marinetti and his cohort anticipate the Nazi search for the primitive Aryan man with their model of the multiplied man. Old people and women are unlikely candidates for transformation. For his ideal type, Marinetti turns to another nineteenth century discourse of the human –– the Marxist theory of labour alienation, and in doing so, inverts it. The most obvious candidate for this new type is the worker, whose long hours of work and dulled sensibility ensure that he has become related to the “the family of motors,” touched by the hand of “mechanical divination” (“Multiplied” 91). This is no longer alienation to be critiqued, but an alienation to be embraced, desired.

These characteristics that signal perfection coax Futurism into a love of the machine; its dependability (so much unlike the much-maligned women Marinetti never loses an opportunity to attack), its tenacity, its possession of a symmetry that the search for the ideal Aryan man in later in the century will never successful find. The automobile thus replaces the human body (though more specifically, the female body) as the worthy object of the Futurist’s affections:

Have you ever observed them [mechanics] washing the huge, powerful body of their locomotive? Theirs are the attentive, knowing endearments of a lover who is caressing a woman he adores. (“Contempt for Women” 90)

It is a fact that in the recent strike of French railroad workers, organizers of sabotage could hardly persuade even a single machinist to sabotage his locomotive. That strikes me as perfectly natural. How could one of these men ever have wounded or murdered his great girlfriend, faithful and devoted, with her quick and ardent soul, this beautiful steel machine that had so often glowed with sensuous pleasure beneath his lubricating caress? (“Contempt for Women” 90)

But what ultimately brings the alienated worker and the accident survivor together in Marinetti’s work and makes them multiplied men is a single conceptual category – death. Both remind us once again of the vulnerability of the human body, a fact that the proximity of the First World War must have constantly reminded Marinetti of. This is also a vulnerability that is naturally lost when humanness is shed, so as to speak, whether through organic death, or by moving onto another plane of existence altogether, the mechanical. While Hal Foster, for one, evocatively argues that the treatment of the body as machine seems to suggest that “the only way for the body to survive in the military-industrial epoch of capitalism was for it to be already dead, in fact, deader than dead” (7), it would do well to remember that the Futurist’s death never carries these overtones of poignant pessimism. It is the ecstasy associated with death and the prospect of it that becomes the starting point of a very new kind of politics.

Let us return to the sections of the Futurist manifesto before Marinetti’s accident. Even before the crash, death is a state that Marinetti constantly, though uncertainly swings towards. Stretched out on his car “like a corpse in its coffin” he is “revived at once under the steering wheel” of his car: what does not strike the reader immediately is the description of the steering wheel that follows. It is “a guillotine blade that menaced [his] stomach” (“Founding” 49) – the blade that at once holds the power to kill and save. This is existence on the threshold, and it is from such experiences that the Futurist draws his power. Stuck in what Jeffrey Schnapp calls the “addiction loop,” Marinetti remains, “threatened, on the one hand, by monotony” and on the other, “by the need for ever new stimuli in order to maintain the same level of intensity” (4).

While the accident cannot be replayed, the conditions and factors that bring it about can be, and it is within the frame of this logic that Marinetti finds an alternative god to worship, speed. The subject of the death-drive thus collides with the kinematic subject[iv], constant motion prevents stasis (stasis entails death, and not of the desired kind), and it is from the give and take of life, war and moving at high speeds, that the possibility of a new political subject arises for Marinetti. Take for example, that strange piece of writing, “Let’s Murder the Moonlight!” Written shortly after “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” and often read as a rearticulation and defence of its primary arguments, it takes the form of allegory (not unlike Pilgrim’s Progress), tracking the journey of four futurists to Hindustan, where they will reach the summit of the world and build a military railroad, in a bid to rid men of the “peacocks’ tails…and perfumed handkerchiefs” (“Murder” 56) that they keep hidden in their hearts. Like a pilgrimage, this is read as a transformative journey, with the men anticipating that “soon [they’ll] reenter [their] mother[s’] womb[s]” (56) and reemerge, multiplied.[v] The city they start from is called Paralysis; this is where the old are “dying too slowly” (54):

As I turned my back, I could sense from the pain in my spine that for too long, in the great black net of my speech, I’d been dragging along that moribund populace, like a heap of fish that are flapping ridiculously beneath the last flood of light thrown by the evening against the cliffs of my forehead. (55)

This is what Marinetti will later call “sin[ning] against speed” (“New Religion”225) the refusal to move, change and remain thus in a stultifying existence. Adopting the language of moral ethics, it is no longer Christianity that will hold reign, but velocity:

Christian morality protected man’s physiological structure against the excesses of sensuality. It blunted and counterbalanced his instincts. Futurist morality will protect man against the inevitable decay produced by slowness, memory, analysis, rest, and habit. Human energy, multiplied a hundredfold by velocity, will dominate Space and Time. (“The New Religion: The Morality of Speed” 224)

Speeding ahead, Marinetti quips “time and space died yesterday” (“Founding” 51). In that death, lies the rebirth of the Futurist subject, existing not merely outside the human limits of time and space, but constantly challenging them to catch up to him, and then running ahead.

Marinetti is a difficult man to write a conclusion for. What needs to be remembered is that Futurism is not anarchy, though it may at times seem to be. Driven by the desire to constant feel alive, awake, it is in this manner that Marinetti hoped to bring the Italian nation together anew. But, ironically, to be most alive, is to be almost dead.


 Works Cited

Bratton, Benjamin. Introduction. Virilio 7 – 25. Print.

Foster, Hal. “Prosthetic Gods.” Modernism/Modernity 4.2 (1997): 5-38. Web. Project Muse. 25 Aug 2012.

Ketabgian, Tamara S. The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 2011. Print.

Marinetti, F.J. “Let’s Murder the Moonlight!” 1909. Rainey et al ed. 54 – 61.

—. “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism”. 1909. Rainey et al ed. 49 – 54.

—. “The New Religion: The Morality of Speed”. 1916. Rainey et al ed. 224 – 29.

—. “The Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine”. Rainey et al. ed.  89 – 93.

—. “Contempt for Women”. Rainey et al ed. 86 – 89.

Poggi, Christine. Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008. Print.

Rainey, Lawrence, Christine Poggi, Laura Wittman, eds. Futurism: An Anthology. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print.

Schnapp, Jeffrey T. “Crash (Speed as Engine of Individuation).”Modernism/Modernity 6.1 (1999): 1-49. Web. Project Muse. 1 Sep 2012.

Virilio, Paul. Speed and Politics. 1977. Trans. Mark Polizzotti and Introduction by Benjamin Bratton. Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2006. Print.

[i]  See Bratton 7 – 25.

[ii]  This, is the general apocalyptic overtone to Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics. An example of a recent study that is exceptional in this regard is Tamara Ketabgian’s The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture.

[iii] Hitler was key to the nationalisation of Volkswagen factories in Nazi Germany, and the production and development of “the people’s car,” capable of carrying a family at the speed of 100 kilometres/hour was central in establishing the government’s concern for the common man. Virilio does, however, read this as initiating a shift from the road to the highway, from a space of protest to one dominated by regularity and surveillance. This for him was the “political aim” of the Volkswagen (49).

[iv]  The term “kinematic subject” is Schnapp’s. See Schnapp 14.

[v] I do not examine the gendered aspect of Marinetti’s machines: for a comprehensive discussion of this see Poggi (esp. Chapter 5) and Foster.


Priyasha Mukhopadhyay   will be reading for the DPhil in English at Wolfson College, Oxford; Her  academic interests are in late nineteenth and early twentieth literature, colonialism and the history of science and technology.

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