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  • How to Do Things with Futurism: Traces of Futurism in Hebrew Culture
  • Nana Ariel (bio)

“[T]hey added a name to mine: Futurist. And I knew that this name is for the Italian Marinetti, not for me, a terrible Jew.”1 This complaint on the part of the Hebrew poet Uri Zvi Greenberg about his association with the futurists, in a 1926 essay, not only denotes a highly ambivalent and complex relationship of a Hebrew writer with Italian futurism; it also indicates that futurism is used as a highly fluid “name,” a generic title, a “catchphrase with a semantic field that could be markedly different from how Marinetti defined it.”2 This process of futurism’s reception, faulting the specificity of its avant-garde endeavor, paradoxically also structured it as a model: not another avant-garde movement, but the emblem of the avant-garde as such. Futurism was constructed as “a state of mind,” a cultural “moment” that Italian futurism just “had the great merit of fixing and expressing.”3 The scandalous publication of the first futurist manifesto by Filippo Tomaso Marinetti in 1909—a ne plus ultra of textual violence glorifying machinery, war, and all that is “new” while demolishing all that is “passéist”—served as only the beginning of this cultural turn.

Indeed, as Geert Buelens and Monica Jansen suggest, “Futurism is always in the plural.”4 Rapidly internationalized, futurism caught on not only in Russia and in multiple European regions but also in England, Latin America, the United States, Japan and Egypt.5 Although established as a nationalistic Italian movement, in practice it was a powerful trigger for the creation of multi-national and often anti-national futurist offspring. Increasing interest in futurism scholarship in recent years has shifted attention to this diversity and emphasized the transnational proliferation of the movement, revealing the multiplicity of the [End Page 1] “futurist moment.”6 Futurism was also abundantly imitated, mutated, and re-created in heterodox forms, which are often retroactively granted titles such as epi-futurism, para-futurism, and, as suggested here, post-futurism and meta-futurism.7 “The most creative Futurists,” Günter Berghaus suggests, “were those who declared Futurism to be dead and buried and created something new” (“International Impact,” 15).

Contributing to this inclusive internationalized perspective, this article presents the surprising and often amusing journey of futurism into a particularly intriguing context—that of the cultural space of Hebrew writing. The radical transformations that futurism undergoes when it is integrated and translated (or mistranslated) into Hebrew throughout the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, reflect the complex relations between the well-established European culture and the newly established modern, secular Hebrew one, which often shared the same bilingual cultural actors. This inquiry into traces of futurism in Hebrew also emphasizes the movement’s far-reaching impact and its altering functions under changing historical and cultural circumstances.

The emergence of futurist sensibilities in Hebrew was far from immediate and simply manifested, as Greenberg’s complaint suggests. Such profound difficulties, though, are not unique to the Hebrew case. One of the central issues in any embrace of futurism was what might be referred to as the ontological fallacy of belatedness. The belatedness inherent to any embrace of an avant-garde trend imposes paradoxical temporal relations, as the avant-garde position is bound with a notion of precedence (inherently occupying the temporal dimension of being “avant,” or “before,” in addition to being a special metaphor meaning in front, or ahead). This paradox is exacerbated in the futurist case with the even more troubling notion of “belated Futurism.” It is precisely because of this temporal trouble that Russian cubo-futurists tried to perform pseudo-epigraphic mischief by dating some of their works earlier than Marinetti’s manifesto of 1909—providing what is nowadays termed “alternative facts” to prove precedence over the Italian group.8

The political and ethical problem was certainly no less severe. Notwithstanding the actual political diversity of Italian futurism, the movement remained fascist in its public reputation. The glorification of violence and war espoused by the movement, its ethos of aggressiveness and destruction, and its notorious misogyny created a common split between fascination with futurist aesthetics...


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