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  • Propeller Talk *
  • Jeffrey T. Schnapp** (bio)

It pleases me to scrutinize and ascertain that which I truly possess in the propeller myth, and thus also the nature of the propeller’s impulsion or propulsion. One thing seems clear: that the propeller cannot be just “any old myth.”

—Carlo Emilio Gadda 1

Driven by the propeller myth of Carlo Emilio Gadda, this essay derives its title from the opening paragraph of Marinetti’s 1912 “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature”: to be precise, from its famous description of how the poet, seated on the fuel tank of a soaring biplane, first felt the need to free language from the prison house of traditional syntactical form. You will recall that this exordium is pronounced by a figure well known to readers of La Conquête des étoiles (1902), Mafarka le futuriste (1909), and the early Futurist manifestos: Marinetti’s boastful and boisterous first-person narrator/orator persona. The phrase “io sentii l’inanità ridicola della vecchia sintassi ereditata da Omero” (I felt the ridiculous inanity of the old syntax inherited from Homer) thus has a familiar ring to it, linked as it is with Marinetti’s usual claims of clairvoyance and prophetic urgency. By the paragraph’s end, however, this “I” has been recast in a less customary role, that of taking dictation...from a propeller.

“Ecco che cosa mi disse l’elica turbinante, mentre filavo a duecento metri sopra i possenti fumaiuoli di Milano. E l’elica soggiunse....” (This is what the swirling propeller told me as I sped along at two hundred meters above the powerful smokestacks of Milan. And the propeller added....) 2 Dictation taken [End Page 153] from an object. A cutting-edge object, to be sure, but a mere object, all the same, and one that is infringing on the place usually reserved for Marinetti’s blunt-edged egocentric muse. Yet the manifesto is unambiguous: a propeller, not a poet, will do the talking; a propeller will dictate from on high the laws that are to govern modern poetic discourse and define the desublimated forms of individuality and subjectivity attached thereto.

It might be objected that, despite this opening gambit, the poet-scribe’s silence does not last for very long. By article 7 of the manifesto his voice is cutting back into the propeller’s chatter, merging with its modernist whir as if to enact the manifesto’s closing dream of a fusion of motor and man, metal and flesh. 3 The takeover is complete once the properly “technical” portion of the argument has concluded, whereupon dictation ceases and the poet reasserts total control: “looking at objects from a new point of view,” he proclaims, “I have been able to demolish the old logical fetters and the leaden wires of ancient understanding.” 4 So, the “Technical Manifesto” animates the voice of a propeller only in order to absorb it within the poet’s own voice, and to remake that voice in the image of the new mechanical kingdom that Futurist poetry is called upon at once to presage and reproduce. The object world represented by the propeller is only a pretext, the true goal being the modernization and expansion of the poet’s subjectivity. But if such is an adequate account of the overall trajectory of the manifesto, I would like to return to and interrogate Marinetti’s opening fiction a bit further. For example, why is it desirable that this particular mechanical muse should propel the discourse of the “Technical Manifesto”? Why should a propeller stand in for the animated objects, courageous metals, and capricious motors that make up the manifesto’s redeemed material world? In what ways does Marinetti’s propeller prosopopeia regulate the manifesto’s argument and form? In the following remarks I will be addressing questions such as these through close scrutiny of the manifesto itself and by means of a lateral sectioning of the airspace in and around the manifesto’s propeller screw.

What I am especially interested in is the multiplicity of simultaneous semiotic chains, institutions, technologies, and historical circumstances whose determinations interconnect in the 1912 “Technical Manifesto”. Of particular concern to me, for example, will be emerging links among various...

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pp. 153-178
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