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The Manifesto Handbook

Julian Hanna has read and pored over manifestos for decades. His new book on the subject, The Manifesto Handbook: 95 Theses on an Incendiary Form, will be published by Zero Books in January 2020. From the island of Madeira, where he lives and works, Julian corresponded via email with our editorial assistant Andres Castro.

NEW ORLEANS REVIEW

In The Manifesto Handbook, you write that now is the “perfect” time for manifestos, can you elaborate more on why it is? Especially as you’ve read and examined manifestos for many years.

JULIAN HANNA

Yes, I’ve been reading (and writing) manifestos for far too long—starting in the late-90s, when they were very uncool and unstudied. The manifesto has always had its ups and downs: some of the ups include the revolutionary mid-to-late-19th century and the avant-garde period of the early 20th century, especially in Europe, and the political, social and artistic upheavals of the 1960s all over the world. Now is a perfect time for various reasons, some positive and some negative. I first noticed manifestos popping up after 2008, which was the starting point for a return to political radicalism as the global financial crisis set in (leading to Occupy, the Arab Spring, protests across Europe, etc.). In terms of technology, the explosion of internet and smart phone use over the past decade has also been a huge factor. Social media is teaching us to write short, sharp little manifestos every day—what else are manifestos but compact provocations, declarations of principles and opinions, crafted for maximum engagement in the style of advertisements? Manifestos are perfectly suited to short attention spans and the “post-truth” era. They are tribal, passionate, loud, angry, attention-seeking, not to mention prone to violence and achieving aims “by any means necessary.” In other words, they are very now.

NOR

Of all the manifestos you’ve read, which one is your favorite?

HANNA

What I love about manifestos is their unbridled energy, which is what makes them so different from essays and other kinds of writing. A great example of this kind of visceral, over the top energy is Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto. Just read the first sentence and your hair starts blowing back with the force of her rhetoric: “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 eliminate the male sex.” You may not agree with her, but she definitely gets her point across.

I also love the declarations of early avant-garde movements like Dada and Vorticism, which I quote a lot in the book, as well as revolutionary political manifestos from any group of people fighting for their freedom: anti-colonial manifestos, civil rights manifestos, anything where you can feel that the authors are putting it all on the line and everything is at stake. And then there are oddball manifestos like “Personism” by the poet Frank O’Hara, which are incredibly charming and show the infinite possibilities of the form.

NOR

You state that a manifesto is a form of art, yet the debate of art vs. politics is forever on-going. How many manifestos can be split along such a dichotomy?

HANNA

Basically artists and writers stole the manifesto, with all its passion and drama, from the revolutionaries. They made it their own, a work of art, but the political residue stuck. So it’s not as much split as fused: the artistic manifesto is tied to the history of revolution, including a lot of violent history (Italian Futurism, which flirted with Fascism, is a good example). Sometimes it comes through as parody or imitation, with artists acting as revolutionaries (or dictators), or politics is used as the provocative material of art—I’m thinking of Jenny Holzer’s manifesto-like “Inflammatory Essays” and “Truisms” (“Abuse of power comes as no surprise”). Other times it’s completely sincere, with artists taking up a moral and social role, reflecting Shelley’s idea of poets as “unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

NOR

As you mentioned, some manifestos claim they will achieve their goal by “any means necessary.” Do you think violence is necessary for change? Why or why not?

HANNA

I wouldn’t like to say that violence is necessary for change, although revolutions very rarely happen without it. More to the point with manifestos is that they often use violent rhetoric as a shortcut to making an impact—which might sound pretty irresponsible, but it’s also pretty effective. So the Futurists talk of destroying museums and libraries and dying for ideas; Valerie Solanas talks of eliminating all men. Their extreme rhetoric is what makes manifestos so exciting and edgy. But it also makes them dangerous, as we’ve seen recently in their use by “incels” and white supremacists who leave them like calling cards at murder scenes and use them to attract followers online.

NOR

Early in your book you state that social media platforms such as Twitter aid in voices being heard and serve as a melting pot for those seeking change. Do you believe this is mostly talk and no action?

HANNA

No, I believe there’s a lot of action too. I’ve just been describing how the return of the manifesto is double-edged and comes with a dark side. And sure, there’s a lot of performing and virtue signalling and activist LARPing on social media. But on the positive side, manifestos are great tools for inspiring collective action, as we’ve seen with movements like Black Lives Matter, the Global Climate Strike, or the Parkland students’ campaign against gun violence. At their best, manifestos provide a feeling of hope and change at a time when we’re all prone to feeling a bit hopeless and stuck. They help us take a more active role in shaping our futures, to articulate what we want and how we might achieve it. If you look back at the past couple of hundred years there are a lot of failed manifestos—because manifesto writers tend to dream big—but on the other hand wherever there is a positive step forward, in art or in life, there’s usually a manifesto leading the charge.

NOR

Do you think in some ways that your book is itself a manifesto?

HANNA

I’m glad you noticed! The subtitle is a call-back to Martin Luther and the manifesto he nailed to the church door in Wittenberg four centuries ago, according to legend. As I say in the introduction, the book was written very rapidly and rashly and with a certain amount of passionate conviction over several weeks–in other words in the true manifesto style. It seemed like the only way to write such a book. So it is a kind of manifesto, or “meta-manifesto” as McKenzie Wark called it. For what exactly I’m not sure. For manifesto writing—which I think is a worthwhile activity.

NOR

What manifesto would you like to see that’s not yet been written?

HANNA

A really good manifesto for action on climate change. I like the way Greta Thunberg speaks—she says we need to get angry, our house is on fire, she doesn’t want us to be hopeful, she wants us to panic and then to act. That is true manifesto rhetoric. But I would still like to see a definitive manifesto that forms the basis of a worldwide movement, one that brings in all people, from all walks of life and from all over the world, something that nobody can ignore. Maybe it’s wishful thinking but I’m waiting for that manifesto to be written and for real change to follow.

NOR

Has reading and examining closely so many manifestos over the years—and now completing this book–made you more likely to take action—to be revolutionary/reactionary? Or has the task sublimated any such impulses you’ve had over the years?

HANNA

That’s a very interesting question. I think for a long time I was a bit detached, looking at manifestos primarily as a literary genre, wooed by art for art’s sake, not thinking too much about real world impact. But I feel like that’s changed a lot in recent years, for the world and for me personally in writing this book. I do want to effect change, and I want to help others express themselves and declare their principles and confront the status quo and push for necessary changes to whatever is holding them back. Some friends and I created a card game recently called MANIFESTO! as a tool for writing group declarations and generating discussions about change, and I’m proud of that kind of practical engagement. At the same time, part of me will always love manifestos just for themselves as texts, as a unique form of writing. But of course literature doesn’t have to be this or that, one thing or the other, disengaged and “pure” or committed to the struggle, it can be all of these things—aesthetic, playful, ironic, and political. Even Oscar Wilde wrote manifestos and tried to change the world in his own inimitable way. I’m sublimating my revolutionary impulses slightly now that I’m writing another book, this time about islands—but it will still probably start with a manifesto.

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