The Art of Touch

I’ve reached the last Marinetti manifesto on my list, “The Manifesto of Tactilism” (1921), at a point way past futurism’s prime. There’s a tone of nostalgia in the essay (which is anti-futurist) and a sense of reflection (also, anti-futurist). Marinetti takes a turn here — away from stance, technique, and performance and into audience. We experience a strange humanism develop, as if the futurist project naturally ends in shaping the audience, of bringing poet and audience into a truly pedagogical relationship. Marinetti himself seems a bit taken aback by this humanity, and tries to trace this stance to historical phenomena:

“Having fun making little boats?!”

I answered: “Yes, I’m building a craft that will take the human spirit to unknown waters.” Here are my reflections, the reflections of a swimmer: The unrefined and elemental majority of men came out of the Great War concerned only to conquer a greater material well-being. The minority, composed of artists and thinkers, sensitive and refined, instead displays the symptoms of a deep and mysterious ill that is probably a consequence of the great tragic exertion that the war imposed on humanity.

This illness displays, as symptoms, a sad listlessness, an excessively feminine neurasthenia, a hopeless pessimism, a feverish indecision of lost instincts, and an absolute lack of will.

The rough and elemental majority of men tumultuously hurls toward the revolutionary conquest of the Communist paradise and definitively storms the problem of happiness, convinced that it has solved it by satisfying all material needs and appetites.

The intellectual minority ironically scorns this breathless attempt, and no longer enjoying the ancient pleasures of Religion, of Art, of Love, which previously constituted its privilege and its shelter, brings life, which it no longer knows how to enjoy, to a cruel trial, and abandons itself to refined pessimism, sexual inversions, and to the artificial paradises of cocaine, opium, ether, etc. That majority and this minority both denounce Progress, Civilisation, the mechanical powers of Speed, of Comfort, of Hygiene, Futurism in short, as being responsible for their past, present, and future misfortunes.

Almost everyone proposes a return to a savage life, contemplative, slow, solitary, far from the hated cities.

As for us Futurists, we who bravely face the agonising drama of the post-war period, we are in favour of all the revolutionary attacks that the majority will attempt. But, to the minority of artists and thinkers, we yell at the top of our lungs: Life is always right! The artificial paradises with which you attempt to murder her are useless. Stop dreaming of an absurd return to the savage life. Beware of condemning the superior powers of society and the marvels of speed. Heal, rather, the illness of the post-war period, giving humanity new and nutritious joys. Instead of destroying human throngs, it is necessary to perfect them. Intensify the communication and the fusion of human beings. Destroy the distances and the barriers that separate them in love and friendship. Give fullness and total beauty to these two essential manifestations of life: Love and Friendship.

Isn’t the post-war Marinetti just down right lovable. His valorization and fetishizing of war crumbles under the war itself. The true dangers of the futurist project is exposed by the fulfillment of that project historically. Futurism has been rightly blamed for the misfortunes of modernity, and the primitivist response to industrilaim (a kind of Pastism) is gaining ground artistically in the 20s, with DADA, surrealism, cubism, and even modernism, which its return to myth and history. But Marinetti is right, primitivism is absurd (and other problems i wont get into here). My favorite line follows: “Heal, rather, the illness of the post-war period, giving humanity new and nutritious joys.” Ah, nutritious joys. This tenderness is suddenly lost and he goes back to his masculine, patriarchal tone of wanting to “perfect” humanity — an extension of the futurist project, to “futurize” all of humanity in thier own image. The Love and Friendship is touching, at the end…and brings us to the topic of this essay in the first place: Tactilism:

In my careful and anti-traditional observations of all the erotic and sentimental phenomena that unite both sexes, and of the no-less-complex phenomena of friendship, I have understood that human beings speak to each other with their mouths and with their eyes, but do not manage a true sincerity because of the lack of sensitivity of the skin, which is still a mediocre conductor of thought.

While eyes and voices communicate their essences, the senses of touch of two individuals communicate almost nothing in their clashes, intertwining, or rubbing. Thus, the need to transform the handshake, the kiss, and the coupling into continuous transmissions of thought.

I started by submitting my sense of touch to an intensive treatment, pinpointing the confused phenomena of will and thought on various points on my body, and especially on the palms of my hands. This training is slow but easy, and all healthy bodies can, through this training, give surprising and exact results.

On the other hand, unhealthy sensibilities, which draw their excitability and their apparent perfection from the very weakness of the body, will achieve great tactile power less easily, without duration or confidence. I have created a first educational scale of touch, which is, at the same time, a scale of tactile values for Tactilism, or the Art of Touch.

Now this is strange and wonderful. Teaching through poetry leads to actual teaching. Transforming the audience leads to actual transformation of the audience. This concern for humanity, developed through their poetic sensibility, become fully realized here. Reminds me of both surrealist dream laboratories and Big Sur experiments (culminating in the Esalen Institute) and the anti-war movement (am thinking of Vietnam particular, with Levertov, Ginsberg, et al).

In my own careful and anti-traditional observations of all the erotic and sentimental phenomena that unite both sexes, i have discovered that Poetry does indeed provide that touch between writer and world (am thinking of Whitman here).

Marinett’s project here involves creating an educational scale of touch (a scale of tactile values) and then inventing “hand journeys” or “tactile boards” for both sexes to “better explain their rival sensations.” He also wants to create “tactile pillows, sofas, beds, shirts, rooms, streets, theatres. To train yourself for the sense of Touch:

1. It will be necessary to keep the hands gloved for many days, during which the brain will attempt to condense in them the desire for varied tactile sensations.

2. To swim underwater, in the ocean, trying to distinguish tactilely the plaited currents and different temperatures.

3. Enumerate and recognise every evening, in absolute darkness, all of the objects in the bedroom. It was precisely with giving myself over to this exercise in the underground darkness of a trench in Gorizia, in 1917, that I made my first tactile experiments.

Tactilism must “indirectly collaborate in the perfecting of spiritual communication between human beings through the epidermis.”


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