‘Manifestos bring theory into the streets’ — An interview with Julian Hanna, by Thom Cuell

The Manifesto Handbook describes the hidden life of an undervalued genre: the conduit for declarations of principle, advertisements for new “isms,” and provocations in pamphlet form. Often physically slight and small in scale, the manifesto is always grand in style and ambition. A bold, charismatic genre, it has founded some of the most important and revolutionary movements in modern history, from the declaration of wars and the birth of nations to the launch of countless social, political and artistic movements worldwide. Julian Hanna provides a brief genealogy of the genre, analyses its complex speaking position, traces the material process of manifesto making from production to dissemination, unpacks its extremist underbelly, and follows the twenty-first century resurgence of the manifesto as a re-politicised and reinvigorated digital form.

manifesto

First of all, what was it that drew you to writing about manifestos?

My first awakening came when I stumbled by chance on a fantastic summer course as an undergraduate. I took it because I needed the credits, but it turned out to be life-changing. It was a course on Futurism, in the Italian department, and it was taught by a really far-out Romanian woman, an artist who had been part of the Neoist scene in Montreal in the 1980s. They wrote a lot of manifestos; Neoism was basically all the avant-gardes rolled into one. She split us into clusters and told us to form artistic movements; we made films and performance pieces and proclaimed our manifestos to each other. As I say in the preface, there was some nudity involved. Then after that summer I just kept bumping into manifestos in strange places until I decided to sit down and study them properly.

In your introduction, you discuss your childhood, and being torn between two different worldviews which you characterise by Speedway racing and existentialism. Did manifestos become a way for you to understand a difficult and confusing world?

Sort of, yes. Manifestos offer clarity and conviction; they promise to make sense of the world. But in my case the appeal lay more in bringing together two different worlds, the world of action that I associated with the speedway and the world of ideas that I was beginning to discover as a teenager in existentialism and other European cultural imports. I realised early on that manifestos bring theory into the streets.

You also mention using a manifesto as an aid to seduction, creating the First Manifesto of Amorisme for your future wife. Can manifestos be useful in your personal life, as well as a vehicle for polemic?

The Manifesto of Amorisme! Which I basically wrote straight overtop of the first Futurist manifesto, co-opting it in true manifesto style. It could have gone horribly wrong. But a manifesto is so much better than a boring letter – it’s pure lust, delirious and unselfconscious, full of burning passion, unfettered and totally committed. No half measures! And it worked.

In one of the 95 theses that make up the book I talk about Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop manifesto (‘What’s Goop?’), which is linked to the explosion in self-help and lifestyle manifestos over the past decade. Every start-up company also has its own manifesto, a militant makeover of the old mission statement. ‘Move fast and break things’ – wasn’t that the Futurists?

Leaving all that aside, I do believe it is helpful to write a manifesto, whatever the subject, personal or political. It helps you to gather your ideas and put them into words – from words the next step is action. In fact I find it hard to know what I think about anything until I start writing it down. And because manifestos use the language of advertising, they help you frame your ideas in way that is convincing – to explain why something matters, and why and how things should be different.

Manifestos are seemingly coming back into fashion at the moment – do you think, as a genre, they’re especially well-suited to digital culture? Or are there reasons beyond that?

I think they are well suited to digital culture, and there are also reasons beyond that. Manifestos are the original memes, in a sense: provocative and attention-seeking, they fuse simple, direct statements with bold images. They are custom-built to go viral and win converts, start movements. The language of social media, Twitter in particular, is very similar to the language of manifestos. We live in an increasingly agonistic world, and the manifesto is the primary mode of agonism. Manifestos speak to the desire, on the rise with Trump and Brexit – as you may have noticed – to simply fuck things up and see what happens. Especially when things get bad enough, this option looks pretty attractive, whether it’s actually the best way forward or not.

One feature of manifestos – including ones that you’ve created for Minor Literature[s] – is that content and design are really symbiotic. Is that close relationship part of the appeal for you?

Absolutely. The best manifestos have always fused text and image, again drawing on the language of advertising. It’s a two-way street, of course – the advertising industry coopts and pillages the avant-garde. I might add that it helps tremendously to have a graphic designer like Yanina Spizzirri to bring the words to life.

manifsto

Manifestos can also be performative, with groups such as the Futurists organising stunts to mark the publication of their manifestos. Is that close link between word and deed unique to manifestos? And what are your favourite examples of manifestos in action? 

Most of the examples that come to mind are in some way violent, and show a frustration with words alone: Valerie Solanas shooting Andy Warhol, or the Unabomber’s long campaign of terror, or the recent spate of mass shootings with a manifesto attached. As I discuss in the book, the manifesto is a genre with a lot of bloody baggage. Violence runs right through it. An angry manifesto is as close as writing comes to physical assault, and the line is often crossed between rhetoric and real-world violence. So there’s that side. But then there are a whole host of manifestos that have inspired positive change – centuries of feminist manifestos, for example, from Olympe de Gouges’s Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1791) and Mary Wollenstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), to Valentine de Saint-Point’s Manifesto of Futurist Woman (1912), Mina Loy’s Feminist Manifesto (1914) and Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938), to the Redstockings Manifesto (1969) and the Black Women’s Manifesto (1970) by the Third World Women’s Alliance, to Kathleen Hanna’s Riot Grrrl Manifesto (1991), to the Xenofeminist Manifesto (2015) and Sara Ahmed’s A Killjoy Manifesto (2017). Or manifestos for LGBTQ+ rights, anti-colonial manifestos, eco-manifestos, manifestos for workers’ rights (back to the Digger and Leveller manifestos of the 17th century), and so on.

Manifestos are mostly written by people in precarious positions, on the fringes of mainstream society. Not only do these voices deserve and demand to be heard, they also provide a wealth of fresh ideas and perspectives. Those are good reasons to read manifestos. The manifesto’s job, in one important sense, is to make it clear that the status quo is intolerable – hopefully leading to action and change.

Early on, you say that manifestos are ‘refreshingly biased’ – do you think that’s part of the appeal in the present day, the demand to the reader to pick a side?

All authority is a performance, a mask, and thus open to critique. Manifestos represent one view forcefully, though not always rationally or objectively. But at least they are honest in their biased nature – that’s probably what makes them appealing in our present moment, which like the 1930s demands that people take sides (I’m thinking of the Left Review pamphlet Authors Take Sides in the Spanish War, which is full of manifestos – the best is Samuel Beckett’s one-word contribution: ¡UPTHEREPUBLIC!). I wouldn’t want the manifesto to be the only form of expression, but it serves a valuable function, especially in times of upheaval – which certainly describes our own time. Manifestos are repositories for elaborate fantasies about the future of art and society. They usually overreach – and often fail – but in the process they produce some astoundingly valuable visions and insights.

You note that long manifestos are often the product of a diseased mind – pointing to Anders Breivik, Hitler and the Unabomber as examples. Why do you think that is?

I suppose that was a broad claim to make – naturally there are exceptions. But I do see a link between a sort of monomania and the sheer volume of text produced. Copy/paste has only made things worse. Ted Kaczynski had to type his 35,000-word manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, on a manual typewriter in his cabin in rural Montana, while Anders Breivik simply stole snippets from all over the internet to create his 1,500-page nightmare screed — if you read it, which I don’t recommend, you’ll find bits of Orwell and Thomas Jefferson side by side with the voices of fascism, just because there is so much of everything thrown into the mix. The intention of these longer manifestos seems to be a will to power via the word count, like a dictator’s endlessly droning speech, a verbal bludgeoning of the audience into submission. Shorter manifestos are more appealing because they only shout at you for a few pages – they give you a short sharp shock, a wake up call, and then leave you alone. The longer ones more often put you to sleep.

Following on, what’s your favourite long manifesto?

I walked right into that one! Well, I love Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, which is longish but exhilarating to read, unlike the turgid tomes I just mentioned – extreme, yes, but also brilliant and packed with ideas and surprisingly funny, and still very relevant in all sorts of ways about gender and society. The writing is visceral and electric: ‘If SCUM ever marches, it will be over the President’s stupid, sickening face; if SCUM ever strikes, it will be in the dark with a six-inch blade.’

If you were an Egyptian Pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

Now we’re getting to the really good questions! I’d take a lot of books – but which ones, which ones? Maybe books I’ve always meant to read, like the middle volumes of Proust, or old favourites like Ulysses and Pale Fire … or just whatever I can grab from the new releases section. The rest would be easier. A blackened stovetop espresso pot. A bottle of Campari. An extra change of clothes just in case. I’d like to bring my cat, but I guess that would be selfish. A notebook and pencil for jotting down epigrams.

Do you have a favourite joke, proverb or quotation?

‘In principle I am against manifestos, as I am against principles.’ The inimitable Tristan Tzara, from his Dada manifesto of 1918.

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

There’s a portrait of a young woman by Rembrandt in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts that I used to go and visit every week when I lived there. I don’t know why I liked it so much – something in the eyes. Apparently not everyone liked it, however; there was a robbery in the 1970s when an armed gang raided the museum, taking advantage of the crumbling state of public institutions in Quebec at the time. They made off with the museum’s other Rembrandt, along with a dozen or so masterpieces. None of the paintings were ever recovered, but they left his portrait of the young woman hanging where it was – and still is to this day.


Julian Hanna is a writer and academic who lives on the island of Madeira, where he is currently sweating through a new book called Island Fever. His manifestos and other pieces have appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Minor Literature[s], and We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater). The Manifesto Handbook: 95 Theses on an Incendiary Form is published by Zero Books. Twitter: @julianisland Instagram: @manifestohandbook

Featured image by Santeri Viinamäki / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)