Essay by Lidija Haas: “Manifesto is the form that eats and repeats itself. Always layered and paradoxical, it comes disguised as nakedness, directness, aggression. An artwork aspiring to be a speech act—like a threat, a promise, a joke, a spell, a dare. You can’t help but thrill to language that imagines it can get something done. You also can’t help noticing the similar demands and condemnations that ring out across the decades and the centuries—something will be swept away or conjured into being, and it must happen right this moment. While appearing to invent itself ex nihilo, the manifesto grabs whatever magpie trinkets it can find, including those that drew the eye in earlier manifestos. This is a form that asks readers to suspend their disbelief, and so like any piece of theater, it trades on its own vulnerability, invites our complicity, as if only the quality of our attention protects it from reality’s brutal puncture. A manifesto is a public declaration of intent, a laying out of the writer’s views (shared, it’s implied, by at least some vanguard “we”) on how things are and how they should be altered. Once the province of institutional authority, decrees from church or state, the manifesto later flowered as a mode of presumption and dissent. You assume the writer stands outside the halls of power (or else, occasionally, chooses to pose and speak from there). Today the US government, for example, does not issue manifestos, lest it sound both hectoring and weak. The manifesto is inherently quixotic—spoiling for a fight it’s unlikely to win, insisting on an outcome it lacks the authority to ensure.
Somewhere a manifesto is always being scrawled, but the ones that survive have usually proliferated at times of ferment and rebellion, like the pamphlets of the Diggers in seventeenth-century England, or the burst of exhortations that surrounded the French Revolution, including, most memorably, Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The manifesto is a creature of the Enlightenment: its logic depends on ideals of sovereign reason, social progress, a universal subject on whom equal rights should (must) be bestowed. Still unsurpassed as a model (for style, force, economy, ambition) is Marx and Engels’s 1848 Communist Manifesto, crammed with killer lines, which Marshall Berman called “the first great modernist work of art.” In its wake came the Futurists—“We wish to destroy museums, libraries, academies of any sort, and fight against moralism, feminism, and every kind of materialistic, self-serving cowardice”—and the great flood of manifestos by artists, activists, and other renegades in the decades after 1910, followed by another peak in the 1960s and ’70s.
After that point, fewer broke through the general noise, though those that have lasted cast a weird light back on what came before: Donna J. Haraway’s postmodern 1985 “A Cyborg Manifesto,” for instance, in refusing fantasies of wholeness, purity, full communication—“The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams . . . of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one”—presents the manifesto as a form that can speak from the corner of its mouth, that always says more and less than it appears to say, that teases and exaggerates, that usefully undermines itself. Haraway makes an explicit case for “serious play” and for irreconcilable contradictions, introducing her “effort to build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism. . . . More faithful as blasphemy is faithful, than as reverent worship and identification.” By directly announcing its own tricksiness (an extra contradiction in itself), “A Cyborg Manifesto” seems both to critique its predecessors and to hint that even the most overweening of them were never quite designed to be read straight….(More)”.