Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

The "Futurist" Aesthetics of ISIS

Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

The "Futurist" Aesthetics of ISIS

Article excerpt

"We had stayed up all night, my friends and I, under hanging mosque lamps with domes of filigreed brass, domes starred like our spirits, shining like them with the prisoned radiance of electric hearts. For hours we had trampled our atavistic ennui into rich oriental rugs."

These are the first sentences of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's "Founding and Manifesto of Futurism." Soon the idyll is disturbed by the "famished roar of automobiles" and the group decides to leave the mosque chasing "after Death" like "young lions" (Marinetti 1909, cited in Rainey, Poggi, and Wittman 2009, 49-50). The juxtaposition of an orientalist idyll, a modern techno-world, and death is intriguing and reminiscent of the aesthetic universe most recently produced by the propaganda of the Islamic State (ISIS).1 ISIS does not only excel through the extensive use of high-tech weapons, social media, commercial bot, and automated text systems. By putting forward the presence of speeding cars and tanks, mobile phones, and computers, ISIS presents jihad life as connected to modern urban culture. I want to show that the aesthetics of ISIS is "futurist" by comparing it with Italian Futurism. Futurism glorified cars, industrial machines, and modern cities while praising violence as a means of leaving behind imitations of the past in order to project itself most efficiently into the future. Some scholars have suggested Islamic Fundamentalism is "futurist" because here "traditionalism becomes a by-product of modernity" (Inayatullah and Boxwell 2003, 13). I want to go one step further and examine whether one has the right to label the most recent propaganda work of ISIS as "Islamic Futurism."

One of the most remarkable features of ISIS propaganda is the implication of aestheticizing approaches towards politics with a strong emphasis on technology. A futurist form of modernism has become palpable since the action-movie-style and "bullet time" effects reminiscent of The Matrix became the trademark of countless ISIS videos. The term "modern jihad" is not new: it first referred to foreign fighters fighting in the Afghan-Soviet war. However, in the case of the newest jihadi aesthetics, "modern" cannot merely be understood in the sense of "contemporary": it is now deliberately linked to the image of high-tech savvy young people emerging from an urban environment. As a result, modern life appears very much as an enactment of style or lifestyle. ISIS can therefore be interpreted as an intensification of the "modernity as an attitude" philosophy that was also important for futurists. Very striking is the ISIS emphasis on communication technology. The international media keeps pointing out that ISIS is an "internet phenomenon as much as a military one" (David Talbot in the MIT Technology Review 2015). ISIS uses technology better than most tech start-ups and created its terror network with an unusual efficiency. ISIS utilizes almost every social app available to communicate its messages. Futurism specialist Giovanni Lista said that "a Futurist of today would be a fan of computerCONTACT generated images" (Lista 2001, 10). Futurists would certainly also use the most recent communication methods. In 1910, Marinetti threw eighty thousand leaflets from the tower of St. Mark's in Venice demanding that the city's palaces be ripped down. Communication-wise futurists were always one step ahead.

Futurists and ISIS are "primitives of a new sensibility" (the expression is taken from "Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto"). A profound sense of crisis produces in both Futurism and ISIS jihadism a nihilistic attitude toward the present state of society, a state that is supposed to be overcome through an exaltation of technology. As "primitives of a new sensibility," Futurists and ISIS decide to transform horror "into elation, but elation so extreme that it suggests horror" (Rainey, Poggi, and Wittman 2009, 6). At the same time, both ISIS and Futurism have moralistic concerns regarding the "danger of corruption by the materialism, mechanization, and hedonism" inherent in "Americanism and its degraded popular culture" (Payne 2003, xvi, on Futurism); both also share a disdain for the ruling class. …

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