The influence of technology on society and culture skyrocketed in the second half of the 19th century. By the time of the modernist poets, technology had changed or created industries spanning every facet of modern life. Militarization, industrialization, and transportation had severely uprooted many of the traditional topics of poetry and art and, as a result, called into question the validity of the artistic styles of the time. Modern poetry and art often focuses on this shift in lifestyle, whether it be by praising it–as is the case with futurism–or by warning readers of the potential harm technology can cause.
The romantic aspect of technology was discovered early on, even if it was used as a way to fight against the entire notion of romanticism. In F.T. Marinetti’s 1908 poem “To My Pegasus,” Marinetti offers a depiction of driving as a freeing power fantasy. “I finally release your metallic bridle, and voluptuously you rush into infinite freedom,” Marinetti writes (425). The use of the term bridle draws comparison between the car and a horse. Up until this point, horses were essentially the only means of personal transportation that the driver could entirely control. Trains had been in use for nearly a century when the poem was written, but they are constrained by tracks. The car, along with the airplane, was the first time people were able to have a vehicle controlled independently by them that could travel at high speeds. The high speed is essential to the poem and to the culture of the car at large. Marinetti writes “the setting Sun pursues your speed, accelerating its bloody palpitation.” This signifies the car’s triumph over nature. The sun itself is made to look slow and outdated. Its “bloody palpitation” is like a heartbeat of somebody too tired to continue running. The sun, which throughout human history was commonly worshipped, is now irrelevant. This makes Marinetti’s triumph over nature also a triumph over God. Because of his ingenuity, man is able to conquer everything, including the sun.
Later in the poem, Marinetti makes more comparisons to nature. “Mountains, monstrous herds! Mammoths that trot heavily, bending your immense backs, you have been surpassed, drowned in a gray tangle of fog!” (426). Drowning the mountains in a tangle of fog is Marinetti being pleased that he covered them in pollution. The “fog” is his exhaust. He wants to leave a physical imprint on the nature he passes. He doesn’t just want to ignore the mountains himself, he wants to cover them up with his smog because they aren’t important enough to notice.
Again we see Marinetti making nature seem small compared to him and his car. And he isn’t making that much of a stretch in this comparison. Driving a car in nature is a completely different experience from walking and it changes the way you perceive it. There is no time to focus on minor details when driving. A mountain that would normally require days to climb can be passed in a matter of minutes or hours in a car. If Henry David Thoreau had taken a car to Walden Pond, he probably would have driven past without noticing it. There is a fundamental shift in perception when high-speed travel is added to human life, and the new poetry of the modernists tries to convey that.
The poem also has a sexual element. Marinetti writes “I am at your mercy . . . Take me! . . . Take me!” and “And from time to time I straighten my back and feel my vibrating neck embraced by the fresh velvet arms of the wind . . . they are your distant arms that cast spells and draw me in, and the wind is you breath like an abyss as you joyfully absorb me, o bottomless infinite!” The car is fetishized. While these depictions of driving initially appeared romantic to me, this is where that romanticism devolves. In his manifesto “The New Religion-Morality of Speed,” Marinetti makes a direct comparison between driving and sex. He writes:
This “horizontal lust” of “earth-women” is compared to driving. Not only does he objectify women by comparing them to driving, he refers to them as “earth women,” as if there’s any other kind. The disconnect between Marinetti’s view of relationships and his love of sex parallels his view of technology and his love of driving. He has no interest in any real human connection in the same way he has no interest in achieving a deeper understanding of the actual science behind the technology he loves. He also doesn’t want a nuanced analysis of its place in the world. The patient reflection that is essential to romanticism has been replaced with brute, violent sexuality. It still revels in the beauty of, for instance, driving through mountains, but it revels in a base and almost hedonistic way.
Technology had other impacts on modernism besides being porn-fodder for Marinetti. Technology–like photography, film, and radio–changed the way people viewed art. Poetry had to change to reflect that. In response, poetic form made massive departures from ways that had been standard in previous centuries. The poem “Noise-Making Onomatopoeia Typewriter” by Giacomo Balla instructs twelve readers to each read one line simultaneously for one minute. The effect is to use poetry to create the sounds of a typewriter. It uses the antiquated medium of poetry to convey the sound of a modern machine. The poem “Bombardment” by F.T. Marinetti has a similar approach. It contains the words “TURKISH STOPPED BALLOON” in the shape of a balloon, with words like “vibbrrrrrrrate” and “RADIO” darting across it, symbolizing radio waves (431). Again, the medium of poetry is being used to show sounds and images. Futurists visual artists used similar methods to convey movement in their paintings. Giacomo Balla’s 1912 painting Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash blurs out the legs and leash of a dog walking with its master, which mimics the motion blur created by film.
The modernist movement didn’t just adapt older media to portray modern life. Several artists used new technology in their art. Oftentimes, their art even pushed the boundaries of the new technology. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, one of the most influential and well-remembered films of the silent era, is a reaction to industrialization as well as futurist and fascist ideals. It contains science fiction elements that would appeal to the Italian futurists, including shots of moving gears, pulleys, and other mechanisms in its opening. It contains one of the first filmic representations of an android, and the Metropolis’s upper city if shown to be full of cars and planes. It’s plot, however, kills the dream of that utopia by showing what is required to create the paradise of the upper city. Early shots in the film show identically-clothed workers in the lower city marching in unison with their heads down back to their homes in the lower city. Then, the action moves to the upper city, where the protagonist, Freder, is exercising in a lavish garden. There he sees Maria, who has led a group of sick-looking lower city children into the upper city. Freder is shocked by the sight of these children and decides to venture into the lower city. There, he witnesses an explosion in a power plant and is shocked by the conditions for the workers, whom he call his “brothers.” Eventually, he sees Maria give a sermon about the Tower of Babel, in which she claims there needs to be a “mediator” between the head and the hand. The head is the leader of the society who designs and commissions the society, and the hand is the actual laborers who construct it. The mediator, then, is the “heart” between the head and the hand. Maria and Freder agree that he is the “mediator” sent to both save the workers and support the “head,” his father, who is the leader of the Metropolis.
Some of the scenes in Metropolis can be read as having multiple meanings. For instance, in one recently-restored scene that is only available in the 2010 edition of Metropolis, Freder saves Georgy 11811, a worker who is about to collapse while running his machine. Freder takes over the machine and instructs Georgy to wait for him at his home. On the way to Freder’s home, however, Georgy’s car is littered with pamphlets advertising Yoshiwara, the night-life portion of the city. Georgy decides to visit the nightclub instead and his captured by the spy Freder’s father sent to discover information about Maria and Freder’s plot. This scene could be read as suggesting that the poor workers are not to be trusted and that Freder is naive to think they are capable of becoming more than an unthinking proletariat. It could also be seen as saying that the lavish, sexualized, and materialistic upper city is capable of corrupting anybody who enters it regardless of their good intentions.
Similarly, there is a scene in which Freder rescues Josephat, his father’s secretary. After Josephat fails to tell Freder’s father about the explosion in the power plant, Freder’s father fires him and sends him to live in the lower city as a worker. Josephat decides to kill himself rather than live as a worker. Freder saves him, and instructs him to go to his home. Again, this scene could be making a statement about Freder’s naivety and inability to do what is necessary to create a society like the Metropolis. Another reading is that the society’s conditions for workers are so horrible that any educated man, like Josephat, realizes that death is preferable to living in such a society.
Whether or not these scenes make a statement about technology itself is another area of debate. Near the end of the film, the workers are incited to revolt by an android copy of Maria. This, however, is not because of any malevolence on the part of the robot herself. She is controlled by Rotwang, who is working for Freder’s father. Just like the machines the laborers work at and are often killed by, the robot Maria is only evil because of her association with the people controlling the Metropolis. The machines, while a part of their system, are only a symptom of their oppression, not the cause. The real Maria would argue that the Metropolis itself–played by the biblical Tower of Babel in her sermon–is a goal to strive for. She views the technology as great creations that are destroyed only because of the breakdown between the relationship between the workers and the rulers. She believes that by mediating this relationship by using Freder as the “heart,” the two classes can work together.
The film is a reaction to industrialization and new technology, but without more context it is impossible to say with certainty whether it is condemning or embracing the technology. Regardless of its views on technology, it is a prime of example of new technology being used by artists. Whether they are marveling at it or condemning it, modernist artists acknowledged that technology changed the world in ways they felt they needed to convey through their art.
Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Perf. Alfred Abel and Brigitte Helm. UFA, 1927. Netflix.
Rainey, Lawrence S., Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman. Futurism: An Anthology. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Web.