Monday, February 15, 2010

first draft and notes for what was printed as this

Manifesto: A Century of Isms
edited by Mary Ann Caws
Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, pp 713, $????

If writing is a pharmacopia (and why else read, if not to alter, intensify, expand one's perceptions, enter into states of consciousness other than the everyday?), then the genre of manifesto corresponds to amphetamine. Imbibe, and the world becomes crisp and clearly divided, you feel both a hunger and a readiness for action. Committed speedfreaks, the intravenous sort, typically experience sensations of gnosis and eureka!, become flooded with will-to-belief. The manifesto fiend can reach this state of grandiosity through word-magic alone. Pardon the pun, but maybe they should really be called mania-festos: the fiercest, purest manifesto-mongers achieve something close to madness, for only the un-sane are ever this certain about anything.

By far the most thrilling exemplars of the genre (if you're the least bit susceptible to this sort of stuff, thing, that is) are the Futurist manifestos---pure crystal meth next to the adultered sulphates and trucker's speed of other, lesser manifestos. A recovering addict (consumer and producer, but let's not go there...) I've got to admit that as the second my gaze alights upon Marinetti & Co's febrile paeans to velocity and technology, I'm powerless to resist. The obvious and proven proto-fascist leanings, the anti-Futurist jeremiads of melancholy Catholic Paul Virilio (critic par excellence of speed culture)... nothing can dissuade me from succumbing to these texts's almighty rush.

If you think my amphetamine analogy a tad stretch, check this: the first words of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's 1909 screed The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism are "we had stayed up all night" [P. 187]. Anyone who's written to the end of the night and beyond with deadline breathing down their neck knows that there's an eerie switchpoint that occurs roundabout dawn's first glimmer, when the brain, finally accepting that it's not hitting the pillow any time soon, starts pumping these weird triumphalist chemicals through your nervous system. The Futurist Manifestos all seem to be written from that grandiose mind-state: it's almost like they became hooked on the body's own amphetamines. There's a persistent thread of imagery throughout the Futurist discourse that exalts "a feverish insomnia" [p. 187] (Marinetti actually wrote an essay called 'The Caffeine of Europe'), Sleep is equated with death, effeminacy, the supine drowsy bliss induced by bosomy Mother Nature. Rejecting pastoralism, the Futurists created a kind of Romanticism of the man-made. Their rabid neophilia was targetted the nostalgia/necrophilia of "the passeists", denizens of "musems: cemetries" [p188]. Along with the past, Marinetti spurned pasta: the stolid soulfood of Italian traditional cuisine, which he proposed replacing with more rigorous dishes such as perfumed sand. Who says fanatics are always humorless?

The Futurist manifestos exemplify a crucial aspect of the manifesto, something spelled out only too clearly by the word's first three letters, MAN. With a few notable exception (Valerie Solanas, Guerrilla Girls, certain Riot Grrls), the manifesto is a supremely masculine form of discourse. The Futurists, as you might expect, took this to the limit, both in the substance of their ideology (their infamous "scorn for woman" [p.187], opposition to feminism, and militarism) and their language, which is riddled with erectile and ejaculatory imagery. The Futurist exaltation of "the dynamic of the male vertical" is a barely concealed figure for a sort of priapism of the spirit. And the Founding and Manifesto of Futurism climaxes, twice in short succession, with a trope of cosmic onanism: "Erect on the summit of the world, once again we hurl our defiance to the stars" [p189]. Word-as-seed, heedlessly spilled: Marinetti, uncontrollably prolific penner of manifestos and arguably something of a wanker, left a sticky trail across Europe.

Your latterday French feminists would tag this kind of thing "phallogocentrism", and would probably go on to diagnose manifestos as a byproduct of generational struggle within the patriarchy (prodigal sons attempting to usurp the Lawmaker role of their fathers). Then again, if poets are unacknowledged legislators of the world, perhaps the manifesto--as an attempt to lay down laws or identify their natural equivalents, is an unacknowledged genre of poetry: at their utmost, "a poem in heightened prose" as Mary Ann Caw nicely puts it in the introduction to this massive compendium of manifestos. The bulk of them comes from Caw calls the Manifesto Moment, 1909--1919, which, no coincidence, also happens to be the high water mark of modernism. Along with the usual suspects (Cubism, Dadaism, Expressionism and Fauvism, Vorticism, Bauhaus), there's a fine crop of lesser-knowns: the face-painting Rayonists, the witty Nunists (and their kindred spirits the Presentists), and the Primitivists, whose Polish chapter is represented here by a little gem of an address to the world penned by Stanislaw Przybyszewski, who calls for "streetfights with the beethovenists" and beseeches readers to open their eyes " then swine will seem more enchanting to us than a nightingale."

The language of the archetypal manifesto lies somewhere on the continuum between the aphorism and the slogan, and some of Caw's inclusions lack the imperious or rallying tone: Gary Snyder's 1967 Poetry and the Primitive, for instance, seems more like a brilliant essay than a proper manifesto. Others, like French Cubists Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, are so imagistic and abstract they enter the terrain of prose poetry: they seem more like embodiments or enactments of the aesthetics principles in question, rather than their declaration. Not that the classic style of manifesto, with its numbered or bulletted points, BAM BAM BAM--is the only format available. One important sub-genre is the fake dialogue in which a fictitious interlocutor has the role of sceptic. A classic example, not included here, is the postscript to the Archaelogy of Knowledge, with Foucault eventually vanquishing a tenacious humanist adversary. And in the Nunist Pierre Albert-Birot's Z and A in Front of of Modern Paintings.

There's hard to avoid a certain sepia-tinted melancholy as peruse the pages of Manifesto: the book is like a mausoleum of expired and outmoded revolutionary enthusiasms. As Caw notes, the manifesto's essence is now-ness and new-ness. These calls to seize the time and demands for total transvaluations stir nostalgia for a time when performances and exhibitions could actually triggers riots in the audience, when the bourgeoisie was still epate-able. The text's fervor and commitment seem to speak from across an unbridgeable divide, which could be dated to approximately 1950. The chronological chart at the book's starts shows that 32 of the movements documented within got started before 1919; of the remaining nineteen, there's only five from the second half of the 20th Century. It's hard to imagine a Pop Art manifesto, after all, and although John Cage is included here with the ultra-brief piece Bang Fist, his sensibility seems too Zen-passive: hashish rather than speed.

All this suggests that in the postmodern era, the amphetamine emotions--certainty, belief, militancy--have faded away; that ambivalence, doubt, disengagement, mixed emotions, what Fredric Jameson identified as "blank irony", have all disabled the manifesto impulse. If selection alone is argument, that seems to be the case presented by Caw's collection. Yet it only takes a web-search to reveal that recent years have seen an new boom for manifesto-mongering. Digital culture has played a big part in this. On a practical level, the web allows anybody to nail their broadsheets to the virtual wall for all to see. And on a more
more tangentially, cyberculture has created a neophiliac, I-have-grokked-the-future sensiblity that lends itself to manifesto: Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, VNS-Matrix's A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, Robert Pepperell's Posthuman Manifesto, renegade cybertheorists like Orphan Drift and CCRU and Matthew Fuller Cypherpunk, the Hacker's Manifesto, the Extropians.

You'll find none of this in Manifesto. Another area that's curiously neglected is an entire realm of post-Situationist writing, , prankster and absurdist and anarcho-surrealist, International Association of Astronomical Artists, Luther Blissett,
the Critical Arts Ensemble's Tongue Spasms, The End of Music, Hakim Bey's Chaos: The Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism, The Temporary Autonomous Zone, and other communiques of "immediatism"

and just as extreme but to the far right, there's Unabomber, the anti-feminist MANifesto, the Emperor of America's within music writing, and in music itself, there's a whole mini-tradition of screeds and aesthetic manifestos, most notably recenlty the intro to More Brilliant Than The Sun -- the ravings of Huggy Bear

it depends how far you want to stretch it: Malcolm McLaren's script for The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle is essentially a retroactive manifesto, an attempt to spin the recent past and make it look like a masterplan

see also the KLF's How To Have A Number #1

there's even a manifesto of avant-garde librarianship

problems with Manifestos include a lack of contextualisation -- some of the references, being topical, are lost -- Oscar Wilde's disses of unnamed contemporaraneous poets in his 1887 The Poets and the People -- generally, you'd like to know more about this strange men who wrote them, and what became of them -- but, then of course, the book would become a vast and unmanageable miasma of annotations and footnotes

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