Bad Manifestos: A History of Violent Speech
by Julian Hanna
The so-called ‘Dylann Roof manifesto’ – the white supremacist material allegedly posted on a website by the Charleston church shooter – is only the latest example in a long line of disturbing declarations of principle and intent by killers of various kinds, a line that can be traced back to Hitler’s 800-page manifesto, Mein Kampf. But as a genre the manifesto has always traded in disturbingly violent rhetoric. Since at least as far back as The Communist Manifesto, and even further back to the Diggers and Levellers of the mid-seventeenth century, it has been a bastion of intemperate speech, favoured by terrorists, revolutionaries, avant-garde artists and provocateurs of every stripe. The threat of violence can at times be thrilling, as in the case of the Italian Futurists’ cartoonish attempts to ‘introduce the slap into the artistic battle’. But it can also cross the line from incendiary speech to deadly real-world consequences. There is blood on the genre: the time is ripe for an interrogation of the manifesto’s violent heritage.
The nearest antecedents of Dylann Roof’s manifesto are similar terrorist rants claiming to justify murderous atrocities. As the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik showed in 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, a rambling and incoherent 1,500-page collage of racist and misogynistic propaganda, the Internet provides endless cut-and-paste content for such manifestos. One of the numerous sources copied into Breivik’s manifesto, along with passages from Orwell and Thomas Jefferson, was Ted Kaczinski’s 35,000-word essay Industrial Society and Its Future, also known as the ‘Unabomber Manifesto’. (Breivik substituted the names of his preferred enemies, including ‘multiculturalists’, for Kaczinski’s ‘leftists’.) Disseminating the manifesto was Kaczinski’s final demand: his bombing campaign, which had begun in 1978, and ended in 1995, the same year the manifesto was published as a pamphlet in The New York Times and The Washington Post. He was arrested in 1996. Kaczynski, arguably, used his deeds to draw attention to his words. Roof, in contrast, was all too set on putting theory into action: it was through his actions that he hoped to start a race war in America.
Kaczynski’s manifesto is easier to read than the manifestos of Roof, Breivik, or Elliot Rodger, the 2014 Isla Vista killer who emailed a manifesto called My Twisted World to his family and friends. Kaczynski’s critique of modern society and the ‘industrial-technological system’, though certainly extreme, is sympathetic, even prescient, in many of its points. It is objectionable mainly for its extension into real-world violence. The same cannot be said of the poet Ezra Pound’s infamous Radio Roma broadcasts, a series of manifesto-like polemical arguments made in his own name between 1941 and 1943. Pound’s critique of world economic and political systems may have contained at least a few valid points, but it was tainted throughout by its use of extreme anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist language. Pound’s broadcasts included countless statements like: “it might be a good thing to hang Roosevelt and a few hundred yidds IF you can do it by due legal process”. In Pound’s case, however, it was the writer himself who suffered the worst real-world consequences: his Pisan Cantos, arguably his best work, were written in the wake of his arrest for treason and immediately following his mental breakdown during a prolonged incarceration in a metal cage, exposed to the elements, on an American military base outside Pisa.
Pound started his manifesto-writing career much earlier, before the First World War, as a propagandist for the Imagist and Vorticist movements. The Vorticist magazine BLAST, edited and largely written by the artist and writer Wyndham Lewis in collaboration with Pound, exploded onto the London avant-garde scene just weeks before the outbreak of war. It is full of the kind of rhetorical violence favoured by Italian Futurism, its main influence. In BLAST, even more than in Futurist publications, the violent rhetoric is always couched in humour, and seems aimed only at achieving cultural renewal, not violent uprising: “BLAST First (from politeness) ENGLAND”. This is likely down to Lewis’s wit; the poetry that follows by Pound is humourlessly puerile and proto-Fascist in its anger: “Let us be done with Jews and Jobbery, / Let us SPIT upon those who fawn on the JEWS for their money”; “HERE is the taste of my BOOT”; and on and on. When they met in Venice near the end of his life, Pound famously renounced his poisonous views to Allen Ginsberg, saying: “The worst mistake I ever made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.” Ginsberg forgave him; many others, understandably, did not.
Italian Futurism created the template of the avant-garde manifesto adopted by all the ‘isms’ that followed, and violence was in it from the start. “Violence and precision”, the Futurist leader Marinetti proclaimed, is the recipe for a successful manifesto. Marinetti also called war “the world’s only hygiene”, and promoted “militarism” and “scorn for women”. His apologists argue that this was merely rhetorical flourish, like his call for the destruction of museums and libraries. It is true that he marched with Suffragettes during their window-smashing campaign in London in 1912; and it is possible that his scorn was really for middle-class domesticity. But his love of war and violence was indisputably real, and it led to a brief interwar alliance with Mussolini’s Fascists, albeit a complicated alliance that included militants from across the political spectrum. Even after the Futurists split from Mussolini, they accommodated themselves within his Fascist state, and thus implicated themselves in the thuggish street violence of the Blackshirts even as they disagreed with Mussolini’s increasingly reactionary views. “This is evidently the culmination of l’art pour l’art’”, argued Walter Benjamin: the aestheticized violence of a Futurist-Fascist alliance, embodied in many of the Futurists’ scores of manifestos.
Violence and fanaticism have always been an integral part of the manifesto. Even Valentine de Saint-Point’s ‘Manifesto of Futurist Woman’, which attacks Marinetti’s misogyny and calls for strong women, embraces extreme violence with lines like: “Let woman find once more her cruelty and her violence” and “Lust is a strength, because it destroys the weak, excites the strong to exert their energies”. Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol in 1968, is a direct descendent of de Saint-Point. Her SCUM Manifesto, which she had self-published the year before the Warhol attack, has perhaps the best opening line of any manifesto in the twentieth century, exemplifying what is at once most thrilling and most disturbing about the genre: “Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.” Thrilling – or chilling? It depends on how seriously you take the rhetorical violence.
The manifesto has also always been a militant genre. Many of the words used to describe provocative culture – ‘manifesto’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘underground’, and ‘guerrilla’ – have military origins. Manifestos like to blur the line between rhetorical and actual violence, and this performativity gives them their provocative charm. But when the energy of the complex and often surprisingly subtle genre is usurped and adopted by cold-eyed killers, who cut and paste half-understood propaganda (tl;dr?) into their ‘statements of principle’, perhaps it is time to ‘make it new’, in the words of Pound’s least controversial manifesto, and attempt to draw the line between one rhetorical form and the other.
About the Author:
Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver, Canada. Having spent time in Montreal, London, Dublin, Iowa City, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Madrid and Lisbon, he is now self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism, manifestos, and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals, while his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], Numero Cinq, Flash and elsewhere.