Manifesto: A Century of Isms edited by Mary Ann Caws (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press)
Village Voice, May 16 - 22, 2001
by Simon Reynolds
If writing is a pharmacopoeia (and why else read, if not to reach altered states of consciousness?), then the manifesto surely corresponds to the amphetamine. Ingest, and the world becomes wonderfully crisp and clear; you feel both a hunger and a readiness for action. Committed speed freaks often experience sensations of gnosis and revelation. The manifesto fiend reaches this state of grandeur through word magic alone. Perhaps they should really be called mania-festos: Only cranks and madmen are ever this certain about anything.
A chunky compendium drawing on the textual output of modernism's myriad sects, Manifesto pulsates with that special eureka! euphoria of those who believe they've located the right path to the future. Fittingly, it was the Italian futurists who peddled the manifesto rush in its purest, fiercest form, with their fevered calls for total aesthetic renewal in painting, music, sculpture, poetry, and even cuisine (Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wanted to replace pasta with more, ah, rigorous dishes, such as perfumed sand).
The Futurists glorified war, worshiped machines, and exulted in speed. Speaking of which, if you think my manifesto-as-methedrine analogy far-fetched, check this: The first words of Marinetti's 1909 screed "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism" are "We had stayed up all night." Anyone who's written to the end of the night knows about the eerie switchpoint that occurs round dawn's first glimmer, when the brain starts flooding your system with neurochemicals that induce a giddy triumphalist feeling. Futurist texts all seem to be written from inside that grandiose delirium: It's almost as if they became hooked on the body's own natural stimulants. Indeed, there's a persistent thread of imagery throughout the futurist oeuvre that exalts "feverish insomnia" and equates sleep with death and emasculation.
The futurists' rantings and ravings highlight a notable aspect of the manifesto, literally spelled out by the word's first three letters: MAN. With a handful of exceptions ("SCUM Manifesto" by Valerie Solanas, Guerrilla Girls, certain cells within the riot grrrl movement), this genre has tended to be dominated by men. Once again, Marinetti and company took this to the limit. Their language is riddled with erectile and ejaculatory imagery. The futurist exaltation of "the dynamic of the male vertical" is a barely concealed figure for a kind 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!" Word-as-seed, heedlessly spilled: Marinetti, prolific penner of manifestos and indubitably something of a wanker, left a sticky trail across Europe.
The bulk of this anthology stems from what editor Mary Ann Caws dubs the Manifesto Moment, 1909-19 (which, non-coincidentally, was also modernism's peak). Along with the usual suspects (cubism, dadaism, expressionism, vorticism, Bauhaus), Caws has gleaned a nice crop of lesser-knowns: face-painting wannabe savages the Rayonists, the witty Nunists, and the primitivists, whose Polish chapter is represented here by a little gem of an address to the world from one Stanislaw Przybyszewski, who calls for "streetfights with the beethovenists" and promises that if we only open our 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. Many of Caws's selections, though, lack the imperious or rallying tone. Gary Snyder's 1967 "Poetry and the Primitive," for instance, seems more like a brilliant essay about poetry's archaic origins in Paleolithic pantheism than a tell-it-like-it-is manifesto. Others, like the prose poems by Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, are so abstract and imagistic, they are really embodiments of cubist aesthetic principles rather than their articulation. Not that the classic BAM-BAM-BAM style of manifesto, with its numbered decrees or bulleted points, is the genre's sole format. One entertaining subgenre is the fake dialogue, in which a fictitious interlocutor has the role of skeptic and Aunt Sally.
As Caws notes, the manifesto's essence is now-ness and new-ness. These calls to seize the time induce nostalgia for the days when exhibitions or concerts (like futurist composer Luigi Russolo's clangorous symphonies of "noise sound") could actually trigger riots in the audience; a time when the bourgeoisie was still capable of being épaté. The fervor of these texts seems to reach us from across an unbridgeable divide, which could be dated to approximately 1950. Caws's chronological chart at the start of the book shows that 32 of the movements included in the book were in full swing by 1918; of the remaining 19, there's only five from the second half of the 20th century. This suggests that in the postmodern era, the amphetamine emotions that accompany certainty, belief, and readiness-for-battle have faded away; ambivalence, doubt, what Fredric Jameson identified as "blank irony" have all conspired to disable the manifesto-mongering impulse.
If selection is a covert form of argument, this seems to be what Caws is saying. Actually, it only takes a cursory Web search to reveal the absolute contrary: One could almost say we are living through a new boom time for the manifesto. The Web allows almost anybody to nail a broadsheet to the virtual wall for all to see. And cyberculture's neophiliac tendencies lend themselves to the manifesto format: Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" and the many screeds issued by cyberfeminists, cyberpunks, hackers, extropians, and the like, none of which are included in Caws's collection. Another curiously neglected area is that entire realm of post-situationist writing that ranges from Hakim Bey to anarcho-surrealist pranksters like the International Association of Astronomical Artists. Music criticism has its own microtradition of aesthetic clarion calls: Classics of the last decade include Kodwo Eshun's Afro-futurist foreword to his book More Brilliant Than the Sun and "riot boy" band Nation of Ulysses's 13 Point Program to Destroy America (complete with echo-of-Marinetti diatribes against "sleep's supplicating arms"). Someone has even written a manifesto of avant-garde librarianship! And let's not forget the Unabomber.
All this is obviously well outside the remit Caws has set herself: modernism. But the inclusion of more recent material would have mitigated the sepia-tinted melancholy that unavoidably suffuses the book. As conveniently copious and endlessly fascinating as Manifesto is, perusing its pages is akin to strolling through a mausoleum of expired revolutionary enthusiasms, movements now immobile, and new days that never quite came.