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Cruel media: on F. T. Marinetti's media aesthetics.

On February 20, 1909 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti urgently appealed in his Futurist Manifesto (published in the French newspaper Le Figaro) to his Futurist friends: "Andiamo [...]. Andiamo, amici! Partiamo!" (Futurismo 3). This call to action--as urgent and spontaneous it may seem--was written almost three months earlier. Marinetti had waited to publish his new radical concepts rather than risking an earlier publication of the manifesto in December 1908, when daily press and public discourse were very much preoccupied with a recent earthquake that had shaken southern Italy. He waited in order to ensure that his founding manifesto would be received within an atmosphere in which nothing could have distracted the reader of Le Figaro from the news of the birth of a new artistic movement. (1) This example shows that Marinetti had a clear idea of how the medium of the newspaper operated: he recognized that the best ideas are worthless when nobody notices them. Moreover, this management of mass communication foreshadowed strategies of Futurist poetry and theater; namely, that Futurist art privileged the transmission of stimuli over the actual content of the sent message. Furthermore, these stimuli were supposed to affect the recipient in an immediate or tactile way. Futurist art did not address a particular sense but sought to excite the entire nervous system of the recipient. Although certainly no advocate of Futurist art, most famously Walter Benjamin, in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction," recognized the importance of tactility as the privileged mode of sense perception for the modern industrialized world in general. Benjamin understands "tactility" not merely as the sense of touch but as a stimulus that triggers the entire apparatus of perception. The perceiving subject does not have to contemplate to process tactile data, but rather intuitively reacts to it (241-43). This insight is not genuine to Benjamin; rather, it is part of a central discussion in the avant-garde from Futurism to Bauhaus. (2) Most importantly for the Futurist context, Marinetti developed his own idea of a tactile form of art in the manifesto "Tattilismo." (3) Here, he tries to establish a training program for human sensitivity that starts out from refining the sense of touch but should lead to the discovery of completely new or unknown psychic abilities of mankind.

These concepts of sense perception had consequences for Futurist aesthetics, and in this article I will show that the search for an interface that embedded the entire nervous system of the audience into the performance provides the basis for Futurist aesthetics. Such strategies can already be found in Marinetti's poetics; however, they become of paramount importance in the Futurist theater, and culminate in Marinetti's radiophonic experiments in the thirties.

The Pathology of Futurist Language

Modernism at the turn of the century began to recognize language as a useless tool for representing the world. Modernist authors saw that linguistic means failed to express thoughts or to communicate emotions to other human beings. Language was perceived as an odd and old system without any expressive power or as an organism corrupted by modern modes of speaking such as journalism and commercial advertisement, which only produces flat cliches of sentiments and experiences. The avant-garde movements shared this doubt in language as a sufficient mode for expression. Hugo Ball criticized words as empty shells (Riha and Schafer 29), Hugo von Hofmannsthal refers to words as rotten mushrooms in the famous fictitious letter of Lord Chandos (73), and Marinetti criticizes the syntactical structure of language as too slow for the Futurist world (Futurismo 77). All these approaches come to the same result: language itself is sick and has to be reconstructed according to a modern conception of the subject, the world, or media.

Marinetti's attempt to create a new form of expression not only criticizes such a pathological state of language, but also exhibits impaired or disturbed speech as the modern form of communication that corresponds to communication technologies such as the telegraph. Most centrally, in his text "Distruzione della sintassi," Marinetti describes how somebody who just left "una zona di vita intensa" (Futurismo 103) such as the battlefield, a revolution, or traffic would express his impressions:

Egli comincera col distruggere brutalmente la sintassi nel parlare. Non perdera tempo a costruire i periodi. S'infischiera della punteggiatura e dell'aggettivazione. Disprezzera cesellature e sfumature di linguaggio, e in fretta vi gettera affannosamente nei nervi le sue sensazioni visive, auditive, olfattive, secondo la loro corrente incalzante. L'irruenza del vapore-emozione fara saltare il tubo del periodo, le valvole della punteggiatura e i bulloni regolari del'aggettivazione. Manate di parole essenziali senza alcun ordine convenzionale. Unica preoccupazione del narratore rendere tutte le vibrazioni del suo io.

(Futurismo 103)

What Marinetti describes as the excited state of mind, and therefore as the origin of modern poetics, is a well-known pathological phenomenon in his time. Passengers or soldiers confronted by a sudden accident or bomb explosion experienced psychical trauma, sometimes even without any traces of physical injuries (Schivelbusch 144). Commonly known symptoms of such shocks were disturbances of the senses and movements, especially contractions and tremors of the muscular system. (4) Marinetti parallels these pathological disturbances with the mode of language use, arguing that a traumatized person would not be able to communicate in whole sentences, because shock undermines language competence and destroys learned schemata of communication. Expressions are not governed anymore by the rules of the language but by distress of the nervous system: the functions of the body replace the functions of the mind. (5)

Marinetti uses this neurological model to compare human trauma with the explosion of machines by describing the linguistic structure expressed by the traumatized victim as an old steam engine that is not strong enough to handle the pressure of the experience of the battlefield or of the traffic. The steampipe of the engine explodes; hence, regulation of the energy is no longer possible. The machine explosion replaces the pathological state of man. This metaphorical shift highlights that Marinetti's poetics is based on a hardware problem: the material devices are not able to process information anymore. The vibrations produced by the steam engine or the experience on the battlefield are much too strong for the technology they are applied to; what is needed instead is a different, a modern channel to transmit and process the "vibrations" of the subject. This engine cannot process information based on the electric currents of the nerves and the medium that uses electrical tension per se is the telegraph: indeed, the telegraph becomes for Marinetti the proper device for articulating the experience of the soldier:

Egli dara cosi il fondo analogico della vita, telegraficamente, cioe con la stessa rapidita economica che il telegrafo impone ai reporters e ai corrispondenti di guerra, pei loro racconti superficiali.

(Futurismo 103)

The excited expressions of the soldier refer back to the electrical current that drives his nervous system; his nervous physical condition is the material precondition of his narration in the same way as an electrical current is the precondition for a message transmitted by a telegram. This connection between telecommunication and nervous system was not developed by Marinetti, but entered with the invention of the electrical telegraph into the technological imagination of the nineteenth century. (6) When psychophysical scientists in the early twentieth century such as William James described nerve cells as "telephones into which the material world speaks, [....]" (11), they just connected to a common understanding about the interplay of biological and technical systems into which Marinetti loved to tap with his technological metaphors.

Keeping such interplay between neurology and electrical communication in mind, the nervous state of the soldier is not only a narrative device for representing the activities in the war zone; it is also a technology for distributing a high amount of information. As Marinetti puts it, the soldier wants to throw his impressions into the nerves of the audience, that is, he connects the audience to his nervous system. Every listener should get the same amount of tension, and should be in the same nervous state of mind. The soldier wants to parallel the circuits of his and the audience's nervous system. The audience cannot decide whether to listen or not, because one cannot simply close one's eyes. The narrator affects the audience's entire system of experience, forcing the spectators to participate. This effect is based on the structure of the nervous network in which the soldier wants to embed his listeners. He extends his sensory network to the receiver's sensibility; if the audience does not leave immediately, it is imprisoned to this system.

The actual message conveyed by the soldier is thereby not important. The excitement, transmitted through the nerves, is seen as a stimulus provoking some reflexes depending on its quantity, rather than on its details or meaning. The war report of the soldier states no information from the war zone; rather, it testifies to the speed and mode of communication in modern warfare. Accordingly, the aim in Marinetti's poetics of parole in liberta is not simply to represent the noises of the battlefield. Futurist poetry mimics the telegram style not for representing an icon of the modern world--the telegraph--but for supplying a highly efficient mode of expression. The most eminent feature of Marinetti's poetics is not to represent battle sounds, but rather to accelerate the processing rate of lyrical language. In the quotation given above, Marinetti privileged the processing speed of the telegraph ("rapidita economica") over the content the media transmits ("racconti superficiali"); and in the "Manifesto tecnico della letteratura futurista," he states that language is incarcerated and slowed down by the syntax. Accordingly, Marinetti calls for a liberated language that matches up with the speed of aeronautics and telecommunication.

Marinetti's poetics does not simply function as a representational tool for displaying the experiences of the battlefield. Marinetti's poetological writings establish a form of coding that is reminiscent of communication in warfare. The entire catalog of the Futurist language as developed in "Manifesto tecnico della letteratura futurista" and "Distruzione della sintassi," which contains the privileged use of nouns and verbs in the infinitive as well as the replacement of words by mathematical symbols, points directly towards an acceleration of communication ("Propugnavo invece un lirismo rapidissimo, [...]" Futurismo 108). Also Marinetti's emphasis on the use of onomatopoeia and noise in poetry is also not so much directed towards an exact form of representation, but leads to transmitting a high amount of information without a lot of words. The use of such non-linguistic elements should not be understood as an attempt at detailed representation, but rather as a form of data compression for exposing the audience to a maximum rate of data (Futurismo 108). Not the exact representation of the goings-on of the battlefield, but rather an analog transmission of the force and the impact of such experiences is intended.

The strength and material quality of the stimulus is central for this forceful mode of communication. This strategy is already apparent in the publication of the Futurist Manifest on the title page of Le Figaro. The success of Marinetti's carefully composed manifesto depends on an initial sensory input, the headline. The position of the headline "Le Futurisme" on the front page of Le Figaro, which Marinetti arranged so masterly, is the most decisive factor for the birth of Futurism. This headline has a signaling effect and can be described as the first parola in liberta ever created by Futurists. The reader of Futurist poetry does not have to reflect consciously on the symbols, but has to be attracted intuitively and immediately by the letters. Similarly, a headline, at first, provokes an automatic reaction rather than a hermeneutical impression, and the semiotic level of this kind of data processing is not a symbolic decoding, but the reception of a signal.

For semiotics, communication theory, and psychology, signals do not presume a receiver in the same manner as symbols do. Bussmann writes: "Signals are potential carriers of information and, thus, have in and of themselves no symbolic character" (436). The receiver of signals does not interpret signals for a meaning; such a receiver reacts purely in a programmed way to a stimulus, as Pazukhin points out: "[...] signals are identified with specific interactional units, which are described as elementary, substantial, and operative. These cause immediate reactions in men as well as in animals and automata" (951-52). The information will not be transformed into a meaning but instead it will be transmitted by a different impulse to another location in the circuit: in physiological terms, a reflex will be activated (952).

The term "signal" is widely used in contemporary discussions in technology, biology, and psychology, but it became important in the late nineteenth century with the development of electric telecommunication, in which "signal" denotes the physical impulse transmitted through a communication system. In the early twentieth century the term "signal" was mostly used for forms of communication at sea and in war, but also a whole system of train and traffic signals was about to be developed. Therefore the semiotic category of "signal" became central for different media technologies. For example, Marinetti speaks about "segnali" in respect to train traffic signs (Futurismo 106). However, already the German encyclopedia Meyers Lexikon from 1905 determines the signal more generally as calculated sensorial input. The signal has to be designed as so strong that even under very bad conditions an immediate communication is possible. The signal has to be so simple that a fast reaction is possible and no complex interpretation is required. It is not ambiguous aesthetic information; it is a specific sensory sign.

Exactly this quality made signal and communication technologies interesting for Futurists when they started to design an art that aggressively integrated the audience in the work of art. It follows that the task of the Futurist author is to create sufficiently strong stimuli (signals) and to ensure that these signals are transmitted with the same impact to every receiver of Futurist art. This is a strategy that is especially central to the theatrical praxis of Futurism.

Futurist Theater

Jeffrey Schnapp, in his introduction to the edition of Marinetti's theatrical plays, attests that the Futurist theater has a preeminently transgressive character, and Marinetti formulates a model for this "teatralita senza confini," as Schnapp calls it in his manifesto about the variety theater (Teatro V). Marinetti's teatro di varieta abolishes a clear distinction between stage and hall; the cigar smoke in the auditorium already closes the gap between spectators and actors. Marinetti sees variety as the only theater that includes the audience; moreover, the theater should force the audience to act:

Introdurre la sorpresa e la necessita d'agire fra gli spettatori della platea, dei palchi e della galleria. Qualche proposta a caso: mettere della colla forte su alcune poltrone, perche lo spettatore, uomo o donna, che rimane incollato, susciti l'ilarita generale (il frac o la toilette danneggiato sara naturalmente pagato all'uscita)--Vendere lo stesso posto a dieci persone: quindi ingombro, battibecchi e alterchi.--Offrire posti gratuiti a signori o signore notoriamente pazzoidi, irritabili o eccentrici, che abbiano a provocare chiassate, con gesti osceni, pizzicotti alle donne, o altre bizzarrie. Cospargere le poltrone di polveri che provochino il prurito, lo sternuto ecc.

(Teatro 703-04)

The variete uses all spatial and temporal dimensions of the theater and communicates to the senses of each member of the audience. Smell, itching powder, glue, smoke and the stage-act are equal parts of the theater; hence the entire theater is affected by surprises and necessities. Marinetti develops a further understanding of the structure of these surprises in his manifesto on the synthetic theater (1915). "Synthetic" is here understood as a reduction of performance, of surprises and of the theatrical actions in order to enable a high economy of transmission: "Stringere in pochi minuti, in poche parole e in pochi gesti innumerevoli situazioni, sensibilita, idee, sensazioni, fatti [...]" (Teatro 708). This cannot be a theater with an allegoric or symbolic meaning. The symbolic meaning of acts is not important. The importance lies in the endless stream of shocks created by the attractions appearing on stage. Therefore, the synthetic theater is a theater of signals, for it is not understanding but, instead, reaction that is expected. Marinetti presupposes an immediate understanding or rather contact between the performance and the audience. His reference to itching powder or glue makes clear that the entire body is affected and embedded in a multi-sensory performance. The task of the Futurist author is to create a channel for activating the audience and not for sending a message that should be understood. The spectators should not be informed, but surprised and trained by the impression of the theatrical acts; furthermore, they should be affected in an immediate way. The stimulus in the variety theater should provoke an immediate response, similar to signals such as the ringing bell in Pavlov's famous experiment with dogs or the military command for the soldier. Signals and tactile stimuli affect their receiver immediately; they do not offer room for discussion but provoke a reaction. The dichotomy of input/no input constitutes thereby the signaling system that the Futurist dramatists adopt in their theatrical performances. This binary switching with the human psyche is the central aesthetic or neurological operation in the Futurist theater for constructing an immediate or tactile connection to the recipient. Francesco Cangiullo's play Luce and Marinetti's radio plays are examples of these features:


The curtain rises. The apron, stage, and auditorium of the theatre are in darkness. Dark pause. Until someone shouts LIGHTS! (Still darkness.) Then two spectators shout LIGHTS! LIGHTS! (Still darkness.) Then four, then the impatient shout becomes magnified, contagious, and half the theatre shouts: LIGHTS LIGHTS LIIIGHTSSS! The entire theatre: LIIIIGHTSSSS!!! Suddenly, the lights come up everywhere on the apron, stage, and in the auditorium. Four minutes of blazing fear. CURTAIN. And everything is clear.

(Kirby 255)

This play by the Futurist playwright Francesco Cangiullo is very short and simple. The most striking feature of this play is its medial structure. The main character, if we assume one, is light, or--in the beginning--it is the absence of light. Light establishes the dramatic conflict. This conflict is not anymore a staged problem between characters; it relies on the possibility of the stage play itself. Without light there is no stage. At least this is true for the stage of the variety theater. The play does not refer to cognitive assumptions of the audience but to the physiological fact that the spectators cannot see in darkness. Cangiullo does not assume that the audience will start a discussion on the apparent failure of the play to begin. The audience simply produces a reflex. The utterance "light" is not a result of a cognitive reflection. It is far more the expression of the instinctive desire for light in darkness.

The mode of information distribution in this play is quite remarkable. It constitutes a good example for Futurist strategies of signal transmission. The darkness is not aesthetic information; it is, far more, the absence of any input. Light is the condition for input and the spectators are disturbed by this lack of stimuli. The message "light" is the reaction to an error in the system.

Thus, the distribution of input can be described as the transmission of no signal, more precisely as the signal "darkness." But this signal becomes only an informative category, when it is followed by light, because only this light creates a recognizable difference or dramatic action in the theater. This play does not stage a narrative but rather constitutes a physiological test unit that exposes the audience to two different sensations. Furthermore, Canguillo adopts a binary form of signaling that is reminiscent of the Morse code as it was used in wired and wireless telegraphy. When Marinetti turns towards the technology of radio in his later work, he apparently uses Canguillo's play Luce as a model for a new form of mass media theater, because several of his radio sintesi adopt precisely such a binary strategy that also refers back to the telegraphic roots of the radio.

Radio Play

As Jeffrey Schnapp outlines, Marinetti began to use the medium of radio in order to transmit proclamations and poetry from 1926 on (Teatro 631). The development of more programmatic work that involved the radio--most importantly his "Manifesto della radio futurista" (Teatro 769-74) written together with Pino Masnata and his radiophonic sintesi--was undertaken by Marinetti in the early thirties (Teatro XXXIX-XLIII). These writings coincided with the great media political projects of European fascist states such as Hitler's introduction of the Volksempfanger (People's radio receivers) and Mussolini's distribution of radios to the underdeveloped Italian countryside. These socio-political interactions became crucial for Futurist radio aesthetics, because they emphasized the quality of the radio as a medium that could reach everybody simultaneously. Accordingly, Marinetti highlights in his 1933 radio manifesto the ability of the radio to send signals to almost every desired place and he understands this as the next step towards the Futurist aim of the condensation of space and time (Teatro 771).

As Marinetti points out in his radio manifesto, neither space nor time bothers the radio signal. The equal presence of a signal at every receiver at all times is not a problem anymore; it becomes the specific feature of the medium for radio is the medium of permanent and immediate contact. Furthermore, distortions and interferences between radio stations are not understood as disruption (773), but are part of the signal "radio transmission" and even highlight the simultaneous presence of different places. This is an effect that Marinetti explored more thoroughly in his radio play Dramma di distanze, where he planned to transmit sound bits of eleven seconds in length from different places all around the globe, such as religious music from Tokyo, a boxing match in New York, or a military march in Rome (Teatro 634). In this play it is not the story, but the specific structure of the medium radio that is central. What Marinetti stages is the medial quality of wireless communication, for the actual messages transmitted through the ether are secondary. Marinetti's radio plays are self-referential systems that highlight the technology of wireless transmission, and try to embed the physiology of the spectator into this media spectacle. The two radio plays I silenzi parlano fra di loro and Un paesaggio udito attempt this experiment by addressing the audience through a binary logic that was already present in Canguillo's play Luce:

15 secondi di silenzio puro.

Do re mi di flauto.

8 secondi di silenzio puro.

Do re mi di flauto.

29 secondi di silenzio puro.

Sol di pianoforte

Do di tromba.

40 secondi di silenzio puro.

Do di tromba.

Ue ue ue di pupo.

11 secondi di silenzio puro.

1 minuto di rrrr di motore.

11 secondi di silenzio puro.

Oooo stupito di bambina undicenne.

(Teatro 635)

Instead of a narration Marinetti's play I silenzi parlano fra di loro stages a dialogue between the two possible categories of radio transmission: silence and noise. As in Cangiullo's play Luce, the absence of a signal dominates the play, and in this instance it is silence and not darkness that plays the role of absence. What is expected from the audience is not an interpretation but rather a reaction to the signal, because the play relies on the tension created by the missing input. The listener waits in front of the radio to process information, and he or she is forced to wait actively. The audience is not merely receptive; on the contrary, the listeners are pro-active in a kind of stand-by mode.

The positive information--noise--transmitted by the radio is only a very short signal. The silence between almost every stimulus is much longer than the sound itself, and the difference of these noises is not meaningful. The varied noises are created only to keep the listener interested. It is enough that the signals are only noises with different acoustical values. To interpret the signals can only mean that the listener recognizes a pattern to predict the following noise. If the listener were able to do this, the play would lose its shock value and would become boring. But the listener is incapable of leaving the play and remains in front of the radio, like a soldier in his trench waiting for the next attack. This aesthetic of binary switching is also of paramount importance for the radio play Un paesaggio udito. Although Marinetti does not work with the binary opposition of silence and sound, he alternates between the two acoustic sensations of lapping water and crackling fire. Only in the end does the sound of a blackbird appear:

Il fischio del merlo invidioso del crepitio del fuoco fini per spegnere il pettegolezzo dell'acqua.

10 secondi di sciacquio

1 secondo di crepitio.

8 secondi di sciacquio

1 secondo di crepitio.

5 secondi di sciacquio.

1 secondo di crepitio.

19 secondi di sciacquio

1 secondo di crepitio

25 secondi di sciacquio

1 secondo di crepitio

35 secondi di sciacquio

6 secondi di fischio di merlo.

(Teatro 633)

Marinetti stages this radio play as a struggle between the acoustic phenomena of lapping, crackling, and the whistling of a blackbird. For the listener, however, the acoustic experience is quite similar to I silenzi parlano fra di loro: sound bits of different length are interrupted by an exact second of a different noise. Binary logic is central here also. The difference, however, is that the final sound (the blackbird), in its categorical difference from the prior sounds, signals the end of the play, so that the listener can withdraw from the radio receiver, a liberty that the audience of I silenzi parlano fra di loro does not have. Here, the listener is not capable of deciding whether the silence following the play denotes the end of the play or if it is still a pause and thus part of the sintesi. This strategy is also a central aesthetic feature in Battaglia di ritmi:

Una lentezza prudente e paziente espressa con un tac tac tac di goccia d'acqua prima tagliata poi uccisa da Una elasticita volante e arpeggiante di note sul pianoforte prima tagliata poi uccisa da Una scampanellata di campanello elettrico prima tagliata e poi uccisa da Un silenzio di tre minuti tagliato prima e poi ucciso da Un affanno di chiave in serratura ta trum ta trac seguito da Un silenzio di un minuto.

(Teatro 636)

This play stages in a way similar to Un paesaggio udito the struggle among different acoustical phenomena. Although this play represents a rather random selection or "struggle" of different noises and sounds, silence also performs here a decisive function. The introduction of silence into this play, ironically, does not close, but rather opens up the play infinitely. Since Marinetti uses silence as an aesthetic element within the play, the final silence loses its potential to bring closure to the play, and the listener, like the soldier in the trench, is left alone to wait for the next impact provided by the ongoing battle of rhythms.

Marinetti experimented with different ways to use the radio; for example, the radio play Violetta e gli aeroplani differs decisively from the model he adopted in the more abstract radio sintesi entitled Un paesaggio udito, I silenzi parlano fra di loro, and Battaglia di ritmi.7 In fact binary logic seems to be of paramount importance for the conception of his radio plays. With the exception of Violetta e gli aeroplani, the radio sintesi do not unfold a complicated narrative, but adopt an absolutely minimalistic aesthetic based on alternating sounds, noises, and silence. To spell it out more concretely, what Marinetti tries to affect with his radio sintesi is not the critical mind of the audience but the nervous system of the listeners.

Cruel Media

The aggressive strategies for conveying signals in Futurist poetics, theater, and radio plays seem to be a general feature of media technology in the early twentieth century. All analog media such as phonograph or film integrate the human body into their radius and influence its physiology in a direct and deterministic manner. Wolf Kittler observes a similar feature of modern media technology and relates the impact of film to Artaud's concept of cruelty:

The detour via representation, which literature and other classical arts including the theater are taking, is nothing else than the implementation of an especially noisy channel. Contrastingly, a cruel medium [like film] operates automatically, mechanically. By not appealing to the intellect--like a drug--, but by literally penetrating the skin, the cinema reduces the noise-factor of understanding to a minimum.

(Kittler 82; my translation)

Kittler interprets the representational function of classical art as noise, which requires a hermeneutical interpretation and therefore has no immediate influence on sensibility. Modern media technologies such as film, gramophone or radio, however, do not deal with the meaning of their content; they merely store, process and reproduce plain analog signals. Thus, these analog signals do not have to be understood by the intellect, but they should reach and satisfy the sensorial apparatus of the recipient. Therefore, one is limited to physical responses in one's reaction to these signals. This is a deterministic feature that meets Artaud's definition of cruelty: "[...] cruaute signifie rigueur, application et decision implacable, determination irreversible, absolue" (121).

Signal technology is cruel in exactly this sense. Men as well as machines, which react to signals, are determined in their behavior. "Signal" in opposition to "symbol" is a semiotic category that requires no interpretation, but provokes reflexes. What distinguishes an interpretation and a reaction from each other is that while interpretations vary, reactions are determined by socio-physiological training. The reflexes of every spectator should be more or less the same: only a channel that does not transmit the same value of information to each spectator could cause variability. Differences in the responses of the audience do not depend on different individual judgments, but on the different physiological setups of the spectators. Signals like drugs evoke immediate physical responses, which cannot be controlled by conscious processes. Deterministic cruelty and physiological controlling are therefore two sides of the same medal, and Marinetti intends to use the radio for a similar control on a mass scale.

The radio constitutes a ubiquitous space in which information can be transmitted at all times. The radio signal (especially in early radio technology) is not determined for one single destination, but directed towards all radio receivers. (8) Marinetti uses exactly this potential of the radio to be able to transmit a signal to everyone at any time, connecting the listener to the radio. He does not send a specific aesthetic content, but rather exhibits the medial structure of the radio itself--as he puts it, a "puro organismo di sensazioni radiofoniche" (Teatro 772). He does not stage a story or transmit a message, but merely uses the ability of the radio to send any kind of acoustic information regardless of its meaning. This exhibition of merely technical qualities shows the abilities of the radio, but at the same time it is reminiscent of earlier wireless technology. Because of a high amount of distortion through environmental noise, in its early age, the radio could only transmit simply coded signals. (9) The language of the first wired and wireless telegraphs was the Morse code, which could distinguish among three signs: long, short, and none. The central semiotic distinction between long and short signal was nonetheless based on the binary logic of signal or no signal.

Marinetti short-circuits in his radio experiments the most advanced use of radio technology (to transmit all kinds of acoustic data) with the primal function of wireless telegraphy (to transmit a simple binary code). He thereby constructs an immediate contact between audience and machine based on a process of on/off switching. The construction of tension is based on the fact that the signal can be turned on at any time. Marinetti's reliance on this on/off structure enables an immediate and permanent involvement of the audience. The audience functions as a simple detector; its only task is to distinguish between on (input) and off (no input).

The main intention of Futurist poetics, stage as well as radio plays, is to involve the audience. The Futurist theater and radio are media which build up an immediate contact to the recipient from which he or she cannot escape. The variety theater was the first scenario for such an attempt. The endless procession of acts appearing on stage constitutes a permanent contact with the audience. In addition, Marinetti transcended the distinction between hall and stage for keeping the spectator in a constant state of alert. The medium of radio increases this effect of immediacy: while the variety audience member is only temporarily imbedded in the performance as long as s/he is in the theater, the radio constitutes the possibility of a permanent, never-ending show. Marinetti's radio show mimics the most central ability of broadcasting technology to transmit signals or not. This binary structure is supposed to cause a permanent tension in the audience. Physiological irritation functions as a strategy for connecting human receivers to the radio system waiting for a new message, in the same way as a telegraph office clerk has to wait for incoming messages from the ether, or the soldier, for the next bomb shell. (10) Radio transmission finally enables an immediate contact to the "Volkskorper," as Dominik Schrage points out in his book Psychotechnik und Radiophonie: "Radiophony stands for a new kind of coupling of sense impressions and social reality, and thus brings about a new, highly abstract facet of artificial reality: the radio-public" (9; my translation). Everybody becomes part of the radio public (Radiooffentlichkeit) and stays receptive all the time. The radio constructed an intimate immediacy that was able to connect the fascist state to its subjects through technological media. The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan clearly understood this ability of the radio, which short-circuits a highly anonymous media with a private experience:

Radio affects most people intimately, person-to-person, offering a world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker and listener. That is the immediate aspect of radio. A private experience. [...] This is inherent in the very nature of this medium, with its power to turn the psyche and society into a single echo chamber.


This connection between psyche and society stands at the end of Marinetti's phantasmagoria of immediate contact. On the one hand, his radio plays are supposed to be transmitted to individuals in front of their radio receivers, and the radio performances should constitute a personal and immediate contact to every subject of society. On the other hand, these signals are transmitted to the entire group of the Italian people without regard for any difference or reflection on their individual needs and desires.

Works Cited

Artaud, Antonin. "Lettres sur la Cruaute." Oeuvres completes. 13 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1961-1976. 4:120-24.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. 219-53.

Brecht, Bertolt. "The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication." The Weimar Republic Source Book. Ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg. Berkley: U of California P, 1994. 615-16.

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Arndt Niebisch

University of North Carolina at Greensboro

(1) For a discussion of the delayed publication see Orban's book The Culture of Fragments (29) and Schnapp's introduction to Marinetti's texts for the theater (Teatro XIII-XIV).

(2) The special interest in a tactile form of perception originated at the turn of the twentieth century in psychophysical research. The most famous scientists who dealt with the question of tactility are Mach and Poincare. The Dadaist Hausmann emphasizes the importance of the haptic sense in his text "Presentismus" and Moholy-Nagy discusses the importance of tactility for Bauhaus design in his book Von Material zu Architektur.

(3) Marinetti published manifestos on tactility in 1921 and in 1924. A collection of these texts can be found in Mango's book.

(4) One could argue that Marinetti already described in this scenario a phenomenon that achieved its name only in the trenches of the First World War: shell shock.

(5) What Marinetti describes in this text is, in modern terminology, nothing else than Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a disease many soldiers suffer from when returning from the war zone. A brochure issued by the National Center for PTSD in November 2005 describes as a typical symptom for PTSD the re-experiencing of the combat situation: "After returning from combat, you may continue to think about things that happened in the war zone. You may have nightmares about events that you have witnessed or actual combat situations. At times, you may feel as though you are actually back in the war zone" ("Returning form the War Zone" 3). The constant drive to re-experience the traumatic events is also typical for Marinetti's understanding of how a soldier would represent his experience. The contemporary and the Futurist understandings of PTSD, however, differ in the fact that Futurism recognizes this reaction as a kind of neurological reflex, whereas the National Center for PTSD emphasizes its character as a mental disorder that strongly affects and impairs social contact and psychological behavior.

(6) Siegert highlights that already the Soemmering telegraph, invented in 1809, worked on the basis of contemporaneous neurological knowledge, and also Sarasin emphasizes the importance of the telegraph as a model for explaining neurological processes (Siegert 165-66; Sarasin 345-53).

(7) While most of Marinetti's radio sintesi represent experiments with sound, noise, and silence (which are almost reminiscent of New Music), Violetta e gli aeroplani (Teatro 638-56) is a radio play about Giunco, a heroic boy and his girlfriend Violetta, that is based on dialog and that unfolds a narrative in which the sound effects are used as realistic elements that support the story. In my discussion, I focus on Marinetti's abstract or formal radio plays, because they adapt the anti-hermeneutic and non-representational aesthetic that he developed in his radio manifesto.

(8) Marinetti clearly conceptualizes the radio as a one-channel mass medium that broadcasts to a great amount of receivers, without giving the listeners a chance to reply. His radio aesthetics can be understood as the diametrical counter model to Brecht's radio theory, in which every receiver would have the possibility to engage in the ongoing radio communication.

(9) As Huurdeman points out, early spark radio transmitters were only able to transmit simple semiotic structures such as the Morse code (274). However, Marinetti's reliance on such a binary coding constitutes a technological anachronism, because the first successful radio transmission of sound was already done by the engineer Werner Alexanderson on Christmas Eve, 1908, over a distance of 320 km (278).

(10) Campbell emphasizes correctly that the activity of the marconistas, the clerks in the telegraph offices who transcribed the signals beeping through the ether had to be a physical response, a mere material and non-hermeneutical reaction to the signals (11).
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Author:Niebisch, Arndt
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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