July 2004

Dana Stevens

nonfiction

SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas

There are many reasons why now is a good moment to bring back the SCUM Manifesto, the wild-eyed treatise by Valerie Solanas, a lesbian drifter, psychotic and would-be writer who is best known for shooting Andy Warhol nearly to death in June 1968. As the new Verso edition, with its sleek cover photo of a boxcutter, not so subtly suggests, Solanas, the founder and sole member of SCUM (the Society for Cutting Up Men) was, in her own way, a terrorist, and her text may have something to teach us about the way righteous anger can transmute into political outrage and from there, turn into murder. The Manifesto is a text that tries to do many things – everything -- at once. It’s gleefully incoherent, crackling with the energy set up by its impossible, mutually contradictory demands. It’s a fierce call to arms for the destruction of the male sex; a manic re-imagining of the world economy, in which capitalism will be undone from within by women’s “unwork”; and a vision of the coming utopia -- technological, artistic and political – whose main selling point is an undefinable female “grooviness,” a kind of lesbian sublime: “ …in a female society the only Art, the only Culture, will be conceited, kooky, funky females grooving on each other and on everything else in the universe.”

Then there’s Solanas’s peculiar reading of gender, with men and women constantly imitating and becoming one another in a series of crisscrossing exchanges. At one moment, the male is “an incomplete female, a walking abortion”; the next, the terms shift, as Solanas affirms that gender labels are simply reversible: men have “done a brilliant job of convincing millions of women that men are women and women are men.” The male homosexual, a figure whose “shimmering, flaming example” Solanas cites again and again in the Manifesto, seems to be one of the prime loci of this crossing, the site of an almost complete meltdown of the meaning of “male” and “female”: “The fag, who accepts his maleness, that is, his passivity and total sexuality, his femininity, is also best served by women being truly female, as it would then be easier for him to be male, feminine.” Writing in 1967, at the origins of the movement then known as “Women’s Lib,” Solanas seems to be anticipating the vertiginous grammar of 90s queer theory.

Unfortunately, most of these richly suggestive connections between Solanas’s moment and our own go unaddressed in Avital Ronell’s 35-page essay, “Deviant Payback: The Aims of Valerie Solanas,” which takes up nearly half of this slim 80-page volume. Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University, clearly identifies with something about Solanas, and she’s at her best when imagining the internal life of this lonely, fucked-up woman, whom she refers to, almost affectionately, as “Valerie” (“Our Valerie, by contrast, was a psycho.”) In many ways, Solanas and Ronell share a not-so-secret affinity as writers. Both are allusive, sidewise thinkers, advancing by stealth, living on their wits. They’re riffers, their prose fueled by a combination of rage at injustice and a dark, sly humor – both halves of this book contain moments of sheer iconoclastic glee. But Ronell, unlike Solanas, is not writing only from the position of a marginal, institutionalized “psycho” (though she might be eager to claim that writerly identity among others.) Ronell is also a scholar and teacher, and her references to Solanas’s unconscious intellectual parentage with thinkers like Derrida, Deleuze and Judith Butler require careful explication. Instead, the names of these theorists tend to function as designer labels, scattered throughout the text to lend it style and clout, without adding much of substance to the argument (with one exception: Ronell’s reading of Solanas as a “mutant Nietzschean” is brilliant, if quickly sketched out.) If I understand what Ronell is getting at, she’s right in suggesting that there are important echoes of poststructuralist thought everywhere in Solanas’s rantings. But if so, isn’t it her job to create a space where those echoes can be heard?

Provocative and entertaining as Ronell’s preface is, it leaves some of the liveliest questions provoked by the Manifesto unanswered. For example: why Warhol as a specific target for Solanas’s rage against men, “Great Art” and capitalism? Ronell’s deconstructive name-play (Warhol is a “war-hole,” Valerie seeks valorization) only goes so far. I also wish Ronell had taken on the fascist moments in Solanas’s text: her quasi-Futurist love for the politics of pure destruction, her references to the “degenerate art” produced by male artists (here again, the connection to Warhol begs to be spun out), or to the “friendly suicide houses” where, in the utopian SCUM world of the future, men will be “quietly, quickly and painlessly gassed to death.” Not that Ronell gives Solanas a moral pass; she’s careful to observe early on that the Manifesto is “an indefensible text.” In other words, however lucid and at times compelling Solanas’s voice may be, we’re dealing with a dangerous, violent lunatic. To that end, it would have been interesting to see Solanas placed, not only within an intellectual tradition, but within a genealogy of radical nutcases, from Futurism to fascism.

”Deviant Payback” does offer a tantalizing, all-too-brief reading of what Ronell calls Solanas’s “uchronia,” her aspiration toward a time beyond time, when technology will have eclipsed the need for reproduction itself (“Why produce even females?” asks Solanas at her most plaintively apocalyptic. “Why should there be future generations? What is their purpose? […] Why should we care what happens when we’re dead?”) It’s clear that Solanas’s political project for the extinction of men and, eventually, all humans enacts some personal death drive of her own on a grand scale. But Ronell seems to shrink from the pathos of a biographical or worse, psychological reading of Solanas (who, she briefly mentions, was sexually molested by her father as a child.) Ronell’s essay ends on the starkly dramatic observation, delivered in a deadpan postscriptum, that “In college, Valerie Solanas majored in psych.” Yeah, so? Seems like a likely enough subject of study for a bright, politically motivated young woman in the 1960s. Once again, Ronell seems to be darkly hinting at something important that is never quite brought into focus. To the extent that Solanas is still “our Valerie,” a Cassandra-like harbinger of our postmillennial anxieties about violence and gender, she deserves a better ending than a cryptic joke.

SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
Verso Books
ISBN 1859845533
80 pages