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Taking Dictation: Collage Poetics, Pathology, and Politics

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 5, Number 2, April 1998
pp. 123-153 | 10.1353/mod.1998.0043

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Modernism/Modernity 5.2 (1998) 123-153

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The "Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature," a brief work written and published by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in May of 1912, has acquired extraordinary status among critics of recent years, increasingly considered one of the pivotal documents in the history of twentieth-century aesthetics. Issued three years after Marinetti first launched the movement of Futurism in 1909, it announces, by any standards, a radical departure from previously accepted norms of literary discourse. While proclaiming eleven rules that are to govern the new mode of Futurist writing, the manifesto enjoins the elimination of adjectives, the abolition of adverbs, and the suppression of all punctuation. It stipulates that verbs be used only in the infinitive form, a practice that would effectively sever logical connections between subject and predicate (e.g., "he to fly"). It insists that the new writing consist primarily of "images or analogies"; that the "analogies or comparisons be composed of terms as divergent as possible"; that all connecting conjunctions such as like, similar to, and so on be abolished; and even that the first term of any comparison be suppressed in favor of a continuous image-flow, a language composed of pure metaphors. Finally, it urges that onomatopoeia acquire an unprecedented prominence, and it advocates a dynamic typography modeled on the most recent graphic practices. The writer, Marinetti summarizes, should "destroy syntax and scatter one's nouns at random as they are born." The result will be "words-in-freedom" (le parole in libertà), a new expressive language that will finally be commensurate with what Marinetti terms the "wireless" or "radio imagination" of advancing modernity, an idiom synchronized to the cutting-edge technologies of the day -- the telephones, radios, phonographs, airplanes, cinemas, and mass-circulation newspapers which are inundating the new century.

Daring and deliberately provocative, the program of the "Technical Manifesto," for one critic, "stands behind or anticipates virtually ever ism" of the first half of the twentieth century. It outlines, one art historian has stated, nothing less than "a new concept of the . . . work of art as an ideal synthesis . . . in which the practice of collage play[s] a dominant role." More simply, another scholar writes, it announces, "although Marinetti never uses the word, collage" (FM, 58). Here, in short, is the birth-scene of aesthetic modernism, the initial formulation of principles widely held to stand at the foundation of twentieth-century experimentalism. Moreover, the "Technical Manifesto" happens to be published at exactly the moment when Picasso is creating the famous Still Life with Chair-Caning (May 1912), and several months prior to the making of Braque's first papier collé that September, Fruitdish and Glass, the two works traditionally thought to point ahead to the great achievements of collage in the later cubism to follow. As prescient as it is provocative, the "Technical Manifesto" is a path-breaking work that suggests voyages of artistic discovery whose endpoints have not yet been reached.

Although critics have rarely agreed upon a precise definition of collage, a rough consensus has nevertheless emerged about some of its essential traits in both literature and the visual arts. In textual collage, David Antin tells us, the "logical relations between word groups" give way to relations of equivalence, similarity, and identity, just as in visual collage a single coherent picture gives way to relations of juxtaposition and difference. In both, writes Marjorie Perloff, "hierarchy gives way to parataxis" and "there is no longer a central ordering system" (FM, 75). Collage, Rosalind Krauss urges, enjoins "a systematic exploration of the conditions of representability entailed by the sign," a procedure in which presence is replaced by discourse, a "discourse founded on a buried origin." Such remarks implicitly commend collage as an oppositional practice, a process of "systematic exploration" and "radical questioning" (FM, 75) which undermines received assumptions about the foundations of representation and thereby works "to break down existing economic and political structures and to transcend nationalist barriers" (FM, xviii). Yet these increasingly common observations may obscure as much as they reveal, slighting other dimensions of collage -- or at least Marinetti's version of it in the "words-in-freedom" endeavor -- that cannot be easily assimilated to a...


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