We Are All Presidents of Manifestos!. Chris Mansour in Conversation with Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is distinguished professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of CUNY, and editor of the book Manifestos: A Century of Isms that surveys literary manifestos of the twentieth century. When prompted for her favorite quote from any manifesto, she replied, “We are all presidents of Dada,” because it alluded to the “non-hierarchical” way of approaching the manifesto.  If we are all indeed presidents of any given manifesto, as both readers and authors we manifest our moment by seizing interpretive control over its latent opportunities and possibilities. Given that at this moment manifestos are still being written but nevertheless fail to catalyze the effects they once did, I sat down with her to discuss the various meanings of what manifestos are, and of what use they could be for both today and the future.

photo by Mary Ann Caws

Chris Mansour: Can you start off by defining the manifesto? What are their fundamental principles and underlying structures? When did they come into use and to serve what ends?

Mary Ann Caws: It stems from the word “manus“, which means “hand” in Latin, and also means “bearing witness”. The tone is usually very loud and very anti-everything that was there before, and everything around it. The perfect manifesto, to me, would be like a momentary flash, or sound bite—not spread out in prose. I write a lot about how the aphoristic style is itself  a manifesto. It’s like a proverb but an inner statement that is tense and small, getting across its message immediately. The aphorism is consumable in one quick moment.

Some manifestos can be stretched-out in prose, and long too. But they work with one idea and still manage to create that kind of momentary flash. So the manifesto is really shouting for what it believes in. I think the point of the manifesto is to bear witness to something believed.  It’s like a credo. It says, “I want to bear witness to what I believe, and screw what you believe!”  It opposes everything that is irrelevant to  what “I” believe. You can’t make or perform a manifesto if it seems that no one is against you. There is no manifesto in the desert. Yet, on the other hand, the “I” quality of the manifesto gets to be a “we” through those who believe it. After all, the “I” does always want to be a “we,” even if secretly. The exception is the spoof on manifestos that Frank O’Hara created in his “Personism,” a made-up movement, based on the single personality.

CM: So would you say that manifestos are trying to forge their own enemies?

MC: Very often. If we think back to James Abbott McNeill Whistler‘s “Ten O’clock“, it worked that way. And then he wrote The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. He makes it more interesting then setting up straw men: he makes the Other into someone opposing him. I think it is very funny and he does it brilliantly.

CM: One other thing that I noticed from manifestos is that the “Other” they create is, in part, a facet of themselves. The manifesto is trying to supersede from its prior moment, like from Futurism to Dadaism, or to Surrealism for example. A lot of the people who were writing these new manifestos were actually part of the earlier movements that they write against.

MC: Yes, they have the attitude that says, “I know this book or movement because I’ve been there, so lets do something else.” Its the sensibility of saying “down with the pastness.” The 1909 Futurist Manifesto says “Down with Venice!” “Down with pastness!” “Down with everything that’s slow!” and Tzara’s Dada shout: “Let’s scream and let’s be like a volcano and rush down the slopes, as opposed to the chocolate in the veins of all men!”

CM: But do you think that these manifestos are trying to speak to a greater whole, an international phenomenon?

MC: They would like to. There are some problems and contradictions, however. For example, the Surrealist manifesto says both things. It says, “Let’s not distribute this forbidden bread, let’s not distribute this thing that we are doing, to the sparrows.” But its also saying lets’ all take part in our ambitions. It becomes both elitist and selective. But I think this is also the joy of manifestos. This is opposed to a political program, where you do not want a lot of contradiction.

CM: So you would say that there is a self-conscious act of creating contradictory statements or calls?

MC: Absolutely. The manifesto is a performance. And it performs verbally or visually, or both. It creates the stage for its performance, whether there is anybody out there or not. All manifestos, to me, are meta-manifestos: they are manifesting the performance of their manifestos. A manifesto could also be a non-performance, a manifesto that doesn’t happen. For example, Arakawa and Madeline Gins manifested something called Reversible Destiny: they decided that they were not going to die. All their work for the last ten years has been about that. Well, Arakawa just died. So we all went to the Guggenheim to celebrate Arakawa while he was in the hospital and he died right after that. But the occasion was celebrating the belief–which of course has no relation to truth–of being able to avoid death.

CM: So are manifestos essentially always rhetorical, speaking something that does not or will not always be true?

MC: Rhetoric sounds so negative, it sounds like it is something not real. So a kind of rhetorical statement that would not be real is seen in Reversible Destiny. It becomes a possible impossibility, in a kind of philosophically Wittgensteinian way. It is taking rhetoric not as a negative term, but something that does and undoes and performs itself, even if it is never a “real” performance.

CM: In your book you say, “the manifesto makes an art of excess.” In the interview you contrast the word “excess” to “conservative forms” of artistic creations. What do you mean by the word “excess” here?

MC: I think that everything about excess is good. Everything about manifestos is loud, they consume lots of energy and are energizing in their “too-muchness.” The non-excess is very bourgeois in its ideology of moderation—it has become a platitude. The Surrealists and manifestos in general want to be too much to handle. I declare that I am bigger and better than you! It becomes very macho. This is why the feminist manifesto is interesting in this respect. But one I don’t include in my anthology of Manifestos is Valery Solanas’ The Scum Manifesto—the woman who shot Warhol—because it seems to be on the side of politics and not on the side of manifesting literary devices.

CM: In the an interview you had with Curtis Fox, you also talked about how manifestos are easily incorporated into advertising slogans. It seems to me that the word excess immediately draws an association to the notion of surplus value. Could it be that manifestos are easily subsumed into the logic of creating surplus value because of their emphasis on excess?

MC: They are very much like an ad. They basically yell “BUY this!,” or “BUY what we believe in!”. It is a credo done large, everything is very big about manifestos. A question I often try to address is “could you have a whispering manifesto?” It doesn’t seem to make lots of sense. But I do understand that if you want to have an art of silence, an art of non-excess, a sort of humility manifesto, what would that be? We are more modest than you? A whispering manifesto would be inaudible; nobody would hear it.

CM: But perhaps with the whole history of the loudness in manifestos, the “silence” of the whispering manifesto could be “deafening,” as the phrase goes. I wonder if it would be possible to reach the same kind of effects through a whispering manifesto.

MC: John Cage’s Bang Fist, and the book on Silence are in fact manifestos on silence. But not everyone could have such an immense impact through such style as Cage’s approach.

CM: Thinking about how a whisper manifesto could be considered a non-manifesto, I noticed some of the stuff you picked in the book might not be traditionally understood as manifestos. For instance, you included the Introduction to Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Grey. Do you think Wilde himself would have considered that piece a manifesto, or do you consider this your own interpretation?

MC: It’s my interpretation. But I think he would have liked it read as a manifesto. He liked what was loud and vivid, like the manifesto style. The one I liked was Whistler’s “Ten O’clock.” It is also deeply anti-political. It basically says, “I don’t want anything to do with the ‘real’ world.” Whistler himself lied about everything. For example, he was an American but said he was born in Russia.  He would say, “If I say it, then it is the truth. This work completely fulfills my idea of a manifesto.

Andre Breton

CM:  It seems to follow then that Whistler emphatically stated that his literary manifesto is not tantamount to a political manifesto. Could you please elucidate on the differences of the two—i.e., their differences in technique, form and content, means and ends, etc.? Also, in what ways are they related?

MC: I do not think they are related—literary manifestos are about the aesthetic. The manifesto wants to be about the current moment, but not the worldly moment. Political manifestos seem to me much more simplistic, much less interesting. They are obvious, whereas the literary manifesto is not as obvious—it draws you in by being so damn intelligent.  Political manifestos are not as complex because they are usually making a point, trying to construct a program. I do not think a manifesto is a program; the manifesto is a statement. On the aesthetic side, though, I think the architectural manifestos are about building real things from the mind into the world. So they do both, the aesthetic thing and the program thing.

CM: So would you say that all manifestos are in some sense dissenting against the status quo, or trying to move beyond it?

MC: Yes, all are. They say, “Look, this is new! I’m going to shout it out, and join me if you believe it!” The manifesto is in general fast and loud.  It is not trying to repeat what we have always believed—the manifesto is always new.

CM: By doing this, though, it seems that manifestos are trying to build upon an already existing narrative in order to transform it, thus creating something “new.” But they are not always moving on a linear track.

MC: No, not linear. They were very often written simultaneously and disconnectedly from the manifestos that preceded them. You cannot divorce what you know from what you are reading or what you are seeing.  So manifestos are about style, their own style of reading and seeing and being.

CM: Is there a strong relationship to the avant-garde and manifestos; are manifestos their trademark or product, so to speak?

MC: The manifesto always thinks itself as avant-garde. There can also be an arrière-garde [a manifesto that seems to be treading backwards]. Whistler’s “Ten O’clock” is pretty arrière-garde, since everybody was doing something seemingly more adventurous than what he was doing by refusing the “real” world. He was saying, “lets let life be there and I am doing what I am doing over here.” That’s already in a sense arrière-garde, and certainly not avant-garde, so I think the relationship is whatever it chooses itself to be.

The Death of the Grave Digger

CM: I find the notion of the arrière-garde very interesting. Despite the fact that manifestos have a kind of “prophetic” vision, you claim in your book that they are “haunted by nostalgia, [and] they have the feeling of longing rather than constructing, like a post-manifesto moment in a too-lateness.” What is the cause of such conflicting sentiments? Could it be that manifestos are a desperate attempt to make up for the failed workers’ revolutions of 1848 and 1917, for example, by trying to “keep culture moving,” as Clement Greenberg put it?

MC: I cannot imagine how literary manifestos compensate for anything in the political world. I don’t think they do, I don’t think they want to, that’s not the way it works. But keeping culture moving seems to me using the same tradition: you re-use it, you alter it, and that longing, every time you do feel that longing its prompted by looking at the future and thinking about the past and the future together. But the manifesto in general seems to me to be about the present, even though looking forward means you are looking back too. I think that the question is always “what can we change?,” so that nostalgia for the time we used to be able to change things is what you feel longing for. It’s very much not about politics.

CM: It seems that there was a kind of recognition that artistic and literary movements were bound up with the political temper of the times, so I do not think that literary manifestos were necessarily trying to create a “political program”, as you call it, but creating a kind of aesthetic intervention that may have indirect political implications. I was struck by the sense of longing or too-lateness in manifestos because many of the direct revolutionary political events that could have seized the movement of history failed, effecting the mindsets of the revolutionary manifesto writers such as the Surrealists. From their vantage point of experiencing the aftermath of WWI, the source of their longing could have been in the belief that the 20th century was in decline, experiencing a regressive period. In what ways can our literary manifestos push culture and society or encapsulate some kind of utopian vision?

MC: We can live here, but we cannot live there, in Utopia. The thing Breton always said that Surrealism changed both life and human nature. It would change life and human nature and the way things are. Literary manifestos are always about changing the way things are and the way we read them. Thus it goes past the political into, as you say, the utopian: another place we can live and dwell, be and think.

CM: So the point is to create some contemplative or imaginary state of some utopian future through recognition of the present? It seems that if the literary manifestos are not political in any way, they are at least trying to fish out where the utopian potentials of the present reside.

MC: Yes, it is sort of the possibility of the impossible through aesthetic means. This is what could be. That’s the same as political programs, but it doesn’t talk about health care and all that, it talks about humans looking around them beyond the present.
CM: I actually want to talk more about the possibility of the impossible. I think this could also be linked to the utopian aspirations of some manifestos. As you know, the definition of utopia is that it is not here; it is in the imagination, always on the horizon line. Utopia becomes something than that is unreachable, not able to be grasped by the present, proving it as an “impossible” world. Leszek Kolakowski even called utopian visions a “pathology” of a sort. But at the same time, we can imagine it, which is real in its own right. Marx kind of speaks to this when he wrote, “mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve.” By trying to draw out new ways of seeing, it would in turn create new ways of acting and new forms of social relationships and social productions, that to some extent, is political in nature.

MC: That’s why Aragon left the Surrealist movement for the Communist Party. Originally, after it was La Révolution surréaliste (The Surrealist Revolution), their journal became Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution. (“Surrealism at the Service of the Revolution”) But there was a split between the Marxist view of the world and the Trotsky view, and Breton was definitely on the side of Trotsky, even writing a manifesto with him. A crucial circumstance was Aragon’s poem called “Le Front rouge,” about violence against the bourgeois consumers sitting outside the cafes sipping drinks with their straws. The French government condemned him and his poem. Then Breton protested that it was “a poem,’ and not a statement in the real world.  But Aragon responded, that it was a real statement, a political one, and not just concerned with the world of poetry.  The entire argument clarifies the difference between political and aesthetic manifestos.

Breton himself tried to join the party, and he was assigned to a cell of gas workers but it did not work out. There was absolutely no communication between him and his way of thinking and the gas workers in the cell. And, when he returned to France having spent the war years in the United States, he seemed to be more on the way to the mystical than the political.

Chris Burden

CM: You mentioned earlier the total transformation that manifestos could bring about like ways of seeing, ways of creating, ways of being, and so on. In some sense, the Communist Manifesto was itself calling for a total revolution in mankind, a revolution that you would imagine would open up all different kinds of pathways for ways of seeing and creating, etc. Is this akin to the kind of transformations literary manifestos were looking for?

MC: Breton did not think the manifesto of communism went far enough; he did not think it would not change human nature. This is what motivated him to go back to poetry.

CM: Upon reflecting on this rich history of Surrealism, it got me thinking of manifestos in our day in age. What would you consider to be some manifestos produced today, whether written, performed, or both?

MC: Tino Sehgal’s work called This Progress at the Guggenheim that happened this year is a good example.

CM: You actually participated as a performer in that, right?

MC: Yes, I did. It was an interesting experience. It was certainly like a contemporary manifesto; it was a manifesto as a performance.  For example, I went to Chicago for an art historians meeting (the College Art Association’s annual conference), and there were three talks about Tino Sehgal. There were not many talks about anyone else really. So I ask, “why is it that in a certain moment, everyone wants to talk about one thing that is going on now?” –The issue of this work all of a sudden spontaneously rose up like a flash. What was fascinating about it is that we talked to people, but there could be no trace: there could be no notes, no recording, no camera. It was like a manifesto of something invisible and its import was just that.

CM: Would you consider this as another example of a whisper manifesto?

MC: Yes, for sure. And to participate in it was very different from being a visitor. I of course played at being a visitor too, we all did. The fact was that  the experience of walking up the seven levels of the Guggenheim’s ramps, with no art on the walls to look at, just conversation, changed every time. It  was never the same experience twice. The control of the whole situation was fascinating too, and the amount of freedom we had as participants in the situation: it was situation art, but with a difference.

CM: I hear it was very controlled for the performers.

MC: At the top of the Guggenheim, where I participated, it was both controlled and uncontrolled. There were a lot of things we had to do and be trained in. If you were a Surrealist participating in a Surrealist manifesto, you would have to obey the certain strictures that Breton as the leader set-up. So it was very much like that, controlled by Tino. But conversely, at the top we had the liberty to talk about anything we wanted to, so that was not controlled. It was the form of the performance that was controlled. So when people agreed to enter into the circuit of the performance, it seemed a very energizing process. It pulled people in, and got them to talk and get into conversations that are normally non-existent.  When in ordinary life will you be talking to strangers in this form? Bringing together such a collective endeavor in this manner felt very much like a manifesto to me.

CM: Thinking of what Sehgal is doing, what do you think are some of the other most imperative issues for cultural actors to tackle?

MC: I think to see exactly where one stands, as well as where “we” stand in the world today. And they should be very clear about what they believe about it. So I would stand with Charles Bernstein and the others who performed during the Manifesto Celebration at MOMA, manifesting about the manifesto. We believe that different people around the world should read works around the world.  Now that’s a manifesto.

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the Gradute Center of the City University of New York, recipient of Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities, Getty, and Rockefeller fellowships, past president of the Modern Language Association, the American Comparative Literature Association, the Association for the Study of Dada and Surrealism, the Academy of Literary Studies, and has served on many editorial boards and national committees. She is the author of numerous volumes on art and literature, including The Surrealist Look: An Erotics of Encounter; Picasso’s Weeping Woman: The Life and Art of Dora Maar; Robert Motherwell with Pen and Brush; Virgina Woolf; Marcel Proust; To the Boathouse: A Memoir; Pablo Picasso; Henry James; Surprised in Translation; Salvidor Dali; and Provencal Cooking: Savoring the Simple Life in France. She is the editor of Surrealist Painters and Poets; Surrealist Love Poems; Surrealism; the Harper Collins World Reader; and the Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009. She lives in New York with her Husband, Dr. Boyce Bennett. <www.maryanncaws.com>


About Bret Schneider

www.brtschndr.com, sixseventytwo.tumblr.com

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