… I consider it immoral that I missed. I should have done target practice.– Valerie Solanas (Baer 1991: 56)
Symbolic struggles are always much more effective (and therefore realistic) than objectivist economists think, and much less so than pure social marginalists think.– Pierre Bourdieu (1990: 140)
After her attempted murder of Andy Warhol in 1968, Valerie Solanas was hailed as a heroine by certain sectors of the feminist movement. When Solanas was sentenced at the New York State Supreme Court, her feminist lawyer Florynce Kennedy, described her as ‘one of the most important spokeswomen of the feminist movement;’ also present at the hearing was the president of the New York branch of the National Organization of Women (NOW), Ti-Grace Atkinson, who described Solanas as ‘the first outstanding champion of women’s rights’ (see Baer 1991: 54). When she was serving her three year prison sentence—she got off lightly because Warhol refused to testify against her—the high profile radical feminist Robin Morgan demonstrated for her early release. In more recent years Claire Dederer has also read, and arguably fetishized Solanas’ attempted murder as a feminist act by placing it alongside Sylvia Plath’s suicide; she suggests that it may be considered one of the ‘two major acts of feminist violence of the 1960s’ (Dederer 2004: 56). It would seem that like Plath’s suicide, Solanas shooting of Warhol created a narrative which was received and understood as a myth, a primal scene upon which feminist dreams of emancipation could be imagined, thought about and celebrated.
Other feminists such as Jennifer Doyle are at pains to differentiate Solanas’ feminism from her shooting of Warhol. In her scathing review of Wayne Koestenbaum’s 2001 biography of Warhol, which refers to those who see a feminist or other ‘revolutionary meaning’ in the shooting, she pleads: ‘Can we at least entertain the possibility of reading Solanas’ act in relation to radicalism… for the sake of argument, without mistaking that thought experiment for an endorsement of violence’ (see Doyle 2006: 32)? While Doyle distinguishes theoretical radicalism (‘that thought experiment’) from how that radicalism may be translated into practice (in this case, shooting someone), the point should be made that radicalism—if it is to truly be radical—must not only ‘rock the boat’ but also cross boundaries in ways that substantively and permanently alter the nature of a relationship and the landscape or rules of the arena in which it is expressed (a problem which arguably limits much contemporary leftist attempts at radicalism; see Derbyshire 2009). Shooting someone obviously crosses the line of acceptability for most law abiding citizens and liberals, including liberal feminists, even if this may be less problematic—or even not at all—for some of their radicalising sisters. However, regardless of whether Solanas’ ‘thought experiment’ in the manifesto is read as visionary and revolutionary—or alternatively grandiose, psychotic and deeply flawed—it was, in either case, one that deliberately harnessed the charm associated with the radical activist and social renegade.
New Stories, Old Institutions
Solanas’ story—which may be familiar to us through Warhol’s memoir POPism (1980) or popular biographies of Warhol such as Victor Bockris’ Life and death of Andy Warhol (1989), Wayne Koestenbaum’s Andy Warhol (2001) or through films such as Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)—goes something like this: an impoverished Solanas was trying hard to ‘make it’; she gave Warhol a copy of her play Up Your Ass in 1967 with the hope that Warhol would produce it; Warhol apparently lost the play—something that did not go down well with someone who had paranoid and possibly schizoid tendencies (she feared her work was being stolen). While Warhol refused Solanas’ demand for money for the play, he offered her a role in his filmI, A Man (1968), a role which she took; but when Warhol paid her little for her acting and began actively snubbing her, she finally ‘lost it’, and came to The Factory and shot him. Legend has it that she painted her bullets silver and wrapped them in silver foil because she believed that Warhol was a vampire, and only a silver bullet in the heart could kill him (Warhol survived but continued his vampire-esque existence; he was, however, permanently traumatised). Solanas also shot the art critic Mario Amaya and attempted to shoot Warhol’s manager, Fred Hughes; fortunately for Hughes, her gun jammed, probably as a result of the silver foil getting in the way.
If the scenario has aspects which seem eerily comical and surreal, in the curious and inimitable way in which violent revenge can sometimes be—recall the Mystery Woman played by Carrie Fisher in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers?—it does so because of a certain distance in terms of time and space, enhanced in part by Warhol’s cartoon-like public persona. It should be noted, however, that this distance was and is not enjoyed by Warhol’s friends and admirers who understandably, to this day, maintain their hatred of Solanas. Regardless of what distance we may have to the incident, through this act of violence, Solanas projected a narrative about herself and her (then) recently published book, one that was simultaneously fascinating and frightening. While The SCUM Manifesto (1968) encapsulated some of the key arguments of feminism, her act—with which the book has become inextricably linked—invites us to think about Solanas’ overall radical feminist project as well as more generally about the type of acts (theoretical or otherwise) that may be useful to engender social change along feminist or other libertarian lines (on the historic link between feminism and Enlightenment theory and humanism, see Curthoys 1997).
When confronted by the press about her attempted murder of Warhol, Solanas said, ‘I have a lot of reasons. Read my manifesto and it will tell you what I am’ (Baer 1991: 53). The statement was a fortuitous one for the book: The SCUM Manifesto would, thereafter, gain a certain notoriety and cultural capital from the fact that it was written by Warhol’s would-be killer. Solanas, in losing no time to link her book to her act, effectively stamped into its aura an edginess and real-life radicality; consequently, it is difficult, if not impossible, to read it outside of this context. But while it remains difficult to know whether it was publicity and notoriety, rather than sheer rage or a mental breakdown that was the primary reason for Solanas’ attempt at murdering Warhol—and it almost certainly in reality was a combination of all of these factors—what we see in Solanas’ story is a desperate attempt at recognition, the transformation of a social non-entity, an ostensibly ‘hidden’ subject, into what is commonly referred to as a ‘somebody’: a person of public significance even if that significance arises from notoriety. The shooting, like the publication of the book, was Solanas’ attempt at publically affirming her identity; both acts were acts of proclamation and not only did they illuminate each other, they also illuminated Solanas’ narcissism: her apparently staged act and self-serving narrative not only tell us something about who she was but also who she wanted to be—the uber magnetic renegade.
Supporting the construction of Solanas’ public persona as virago was the polemic of the SCUM Manifesto. In broad terms, the agenda of the book was clear: first, the exposure of the patriarchal operations of society; second, the affirmation of the need for symbolic and real violence to correct patriarchy’s impasses on women; and third the creation of new stories, myths and paradigms to enable women’s emancipation. The much quoted opening passage of the manifesto introduces this agenda:
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 (Solanas 2004: 35).
The call-to-arms is of a would-be revolutionary: never mind the tension or conflict between being ‘civic-minded’ and ‘thrill-seeking’ or overthrowing government while also instituting ‘complete automation’—this is after all a polemic, and the text has a generic license for such inconsistencies. It is less about the presentation of an immaculate argument than it is about provocation, ideas and inspiration.
Composed as a series of simplistic assertions, and framed by an incoherent logic when read as a whole, the provocations of the manifesto are sometimes charming, sometimes alienating. Its charm is often generated from its insults, which can be enjoyed by anyone who is not the direct target. Consider, for example, its characterisation of the role of fathers in patriarchal societies:
The effect of fathers, in sum, has been to corrode the world with maleness. The male has a negative Midas touch—everything he touches turns to shit (Solanas 2004: 45).
The charm of statements like this is in the vivacity of its apparent refusal of petit-bourgeois politeness: its rudeness, its refreshing and humorous reworking of mythical tropes and English expressions, and its proto-punk style of delivery. That is, its charm is in the renegade nature of its aesthetics and politics. And if the barrage of insults that it directs at men makes it at times amusing to read, this amusement is double-edged: it simultaneously threatens to eclipse Solanas’ apparent political intentions while also ramping up its aggressivity. If the text gives rise to uncomfortable laughter and a certain level of amusement, it is not clear whether this will diffuse, contain or amplify its politics—something that is impossible to predict but that also, perhaps, is one of the signs of the texts vitality.
The SCUM Manifesto puts forward its revolutionary message by inverting, or otherwise reworking, misogynist ideas. By reversing conventional discourses that are now notorious for their articulations of the hatred of women, Solanas’ text celebrates the pleasures of misandry. It outlines a seemingly endless litany of men’s deficiencies: men suffer from an inability to escape egocentrism, an inability to engage in genuine mental interaction and intellectual passion, an inability to be productive, to love, to be generally useful, and so on. The key point, however, is that the flaws of men arise from the nature of their bodies; man’s sexuality becomes his destiny:
Eaten up with guilt, shame, fears and insecurities and obtaining, if he’s lucky, a barely perceptible physical feeling, the male is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him. He’ll screw a woman he despises, any snaggle-toothed hag, and furthermore, pay for the opportunity (Solanas 2004: 37).
(Again we can see the appeal of the text in moments like this: its vulgarity makes it a riotously fun read). In tying men to their bodies, the text inverts misogynist claims about women’s bodies, their periodic toxicity and the aetiological discourses which account for their supposed predisposition to hysteria. The polemic reverses ancient claims about women’s obsession with the bedroom: a charge that was made, for example, in Euripides’ tragedy Medea by Jason about women generally and Medea in particular (Warner 1968: 76). While Solanas was not alluding to Euripides, she was responding to the testimony of the long lineage of western philosophy and medical thought that tied women to their bodies in a way that was dissymmetrical to the ways in which it conceptualised the male subject, the theories of hysteria being the most notorious. Rightly criticised in feminist discourse as a relic of Victorian misogyny in particular, the SCUM Manifesto mocks these theories with no little amount of glee.
The SCUM Manifesto accounts for man’s obsession with sex via Freudian transference, cast in the language of neo-Freudian ideas of projection and compensation. After asserting that man is in fact ‘psychically passive’ the text explains that:
He hates his passivity, so he projects it onto women, defines the male as active, then sets out to prove that he is (‘prove that he is a Man’). His main means of attempting to prove it is screwing (Big Man with a Big Dick tearing off a Big Piece). Since he’s attempting to prove an error, he must ‘prove’ it again and again (Solanas 2004: 37)
Here, man is characterised by lack and seeks solace in the repetition of his sexual conquests; his sexuality is symptomatic of his vulnerability, a compensation for his deep-seated insecurities about his masculinity. It is as if all men are anxious, pathetic creatures, doomed to perpetually live out the popular myth of the mid-life crisis. Despite this characterisation, we could read this passage, and indeed the SCUM Manifesto, in a rather different way: it is Solanas’ relentless criticism of men, her neurotic repetition of fantasies of the symbolic castration of her enemy, which is significant here. The text effectively repeats and affirms a myth which she casts as foundational, akin to the psychoanalytical theories that it reformulates. In ossifying men as perpetually pathetic, Solanas affirms and celebrates a fantasy of the decapitation of the patriarchal oppressor, one that has, significantly, been affirmed and celebrated by many feminists, radical or otherwise. At best this is a productive and enabling wish-fulfilment and narcissism: one that is characteristic of institutional foundation stories—be they of people, nations or political movements—insofar as they all necessarily contain elements of fantasy, imagination and fabrication. In this respect, Mary Daly’s brilliant but problematic re-reading of foundational myths as well as modern history in Gyn/Ecology (1978) is a case in point (for a critique see Morris 1988: 27-50).
Intermittently, the SCUM Manifesto makes recourse to the language of genetics to supplement its use of psychological discourse. It claims that:
It is now technically feasible to reproduce without the aid of males (or, for that matter, females) and to produce only females. We must begin immediately to do so. Retaining the male has not even the dubious purpose of reproduction. The male is a biological accident: the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, it has an incomplete set of chromosomes. In other words, the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples (Solanas 2004: 35).
The use of genetic theory, as with psychoanalysis, is significant insofar as both have been powerful and authoritative and carry social capital. They are, however, being mimicked here: Solanas remains the dilettante, and her use of genetic theory is merely another fabulous vehicle for directing insults at men—just as the physiological sciences in earlier eras directed insults at women. Significantly, the symbolic violence of such scientific discourses was similarly reworked by Germaine Greer a couple years later in the The Female Eunuch (1970), where she reads the incomplete Y gene of men as indicative of ‘the greater vulnerability of males’ (see Greer 1993: 31). It would seem that both feminists use genetics to first, evoke its cultural capital, and second, to construct the idea of the ‘incompleteness’ and inherently diseased nature of the male sex, constructions that ape theories of woman as incomplete men, ideas that have been the subject of feminist criticism throughout the twentieth century.
Reversing Freudian and neo-Freudian misogyny, women no longer become the hapless victims of penis envy; instead men suffer from pussy envy:
Being an incomplete female, the male spends his life attempting to complete himself, to become female… The male claim that females find fulfilment through motherhood, and sexuality reflects what males think they’d find fulfilling if they were female. / Women, in other words, don’t have penis envy; men have pussy envy (Solanas 2004: 38).
It is thus, not so much that women suffer from a female Oedipus complex (as Freud once tentatively put forward) but that men suffer from a male Electra complex. If the Electra complex was a concept dreamt up by Carl Jung and taken up by certain neo-Freudians to neatly conceptualise Freud’s theory of penis envy along the lines of his Oedipus complex, Solanas reworks the psychoanalytic subject and the object of Electra’s envy. The paradigm and the Manichean attitude towards the sex organs remains the same but the key details are tellingly different. It is of no consequence here that Freud was in fact reluctant to theorise the ‘dark continent’ of female sexuality; what matters is the currency of psychological paradigms that have had a powerful and formative affect on the ways in which we conceptualise sexuality.
The point of the manifesto’s exegesis on male sexuality, however, is not just to say that men are incomplete women or of premature development. Rather, it is the rationale informing the manifesto’s literal (but not necessarily serious) suggestion for feminist praxis: as the opening passage makes clear, men should be put to death—systematically aborted and destroyed. If ‘Nazi feminism’ was a term invented by anti-feminists to sensationalise the perceived threats of the modern women’s liberation movement, here we have a type of feminism that, in the heat of its polemic, advocates a Nazi-esque eugenic cleansing of men from the human species. Such a cleansing of men from the world is not unique to Solanas’ utopian vision but a structural and central part of the feminist imaginary. Mary Daly’s Quintessence (1999), for example, presents a woman-only utopia, where procreation takes place without men, and where male ‘contamination, both physical and mental,’ has been corrected by Mother Nature (see Bridle 1999). Andrea Dworkin in her work also uses the idea of a feminist utopia; however, positioning herself as a Jew, she is circumspect about the price of realising an idyllic society through eugenics. While, in one of her many polemics from the seventies she famously said that ‘Only when manhood is dead… will we know what it is to be free,’ a year later she presented a faux Nietzschean feminist vision of the future: the emergence of a superwoman, Ubermensch ‘Womon,’ whom she said would appear after the eugenic cleansing of ‘biologically inferior’ men (see Dworkin 1993: 111). Significantly, this was a provocation, designed to test the level of fanaticism amongst her feminist sisters; the response, Dworkin reported, was disturbing. The incident is a telling reminder of the tension between the joy of the revolutionary fantasy, and the very real problem of violence that is the likely cost of realising it; the question it seems becomes one of value: when does it become valuable to not only fantasise but act out our fantasies, following the courage of our convictions? It would seem that Solanas had the courage of her convictions; and while it is a moot point whether we should essentialise her act of violence as a ‘feminist act,’ it should be recognised that this is precisely how she characterised it in her press statement immediately after the shooting by telling the media to consult her book.
Fantasies about Amazonian societies—ala Solanas, Daly, Dworkin or for that matter their ancient counterparts—have a dialectical relationship to the more complicated and multifarious reality of the society that led to their production. As such, these Amazonian fantasies provide a platform from which we can imagine and ask fundamental questions about how men and women are to live together, how power has been organised historically, and how it can and should be organised now and in the future. While the idea of sexual difference is always at risk of subscribing to a simplistic, essentialist logic about insurmountable or innate, deterministic differences—ala the logic of the pop psychology bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (Gray 1992; see Cameron 2007)—we should not lose sight of the fact that it is social structures and institutions that control and organise sexual difference; indeed, such structures are probably responsible for creating the idea of ‘innate difference’ in the first instance. Recognition of the oppressive operations of such social structures and the ideologies that they perpetuate led to the revolutionary zeitgeist of the late sixties: hence the exceptional vitality and energy of various civil rights movements—including feminism—at that particular historical moment. Hence also the historical conditions that brought about the production of a text like the SCUM Manifesto, even if we acknowledge that this is not the entire story.
We have now, perhaps, forgotten what the cultural revolution of the late sixties meant and what it might mean today: hence the apparent currency of modish and pretentious theories such as ‘post-feminism’—to which, I think, the radical feminists rightly respond with their brilliant quip ‘I’ll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy’ (see Bell & Klein 1996). The SCUM Manifestoreminds us of the battle for sexual equality in the late 1960s as well as comparable battles for civil rights (obviously, in terms of race, class and indeed the broader sexual liberation movement). While the First World has clearly made ‘progress’ according to liberal democratic ideals in recent decades, the reality of inequality is not completely masked by bourgeois or First World insularity or hegemonic structures. This, I think, is the reason for the ongoing relevance of Solanas’ text. It is not, in the end, just a text of historical interest to feminists; rather, through its commentary on the operations of power in society—its articulation of visceral anger directed at perceived injustice—it provides a platform and space for thinking more broadly about the affects of symbolic violence and the need for social change against the shifting forms, contexts and contradictions of our contemporary society.
The Breaking of the Icon
The notoriety and appeal of the SCUM Manifesto was, and is, inextricably linked to the author’s attempt at iconoclasm: the destruction of the idol that was the public persona of Andy Warhol. Solanas may have been a ‘loser’ from the perspective of the most conservative standards of the American middle class (unemployed and impoverished, a drop-out of Graduate School, for the most part homeless, unmarried, mentally unhinged—and god forbid with lesbian tendencies) but she was successful, I argue, in at least one thing: her attempt at a defining act, one that could—and did—imbue her with a certain level of charisma. While the ‘charm’ that Solanas generated most strongly affected certain radical feminists who, on reflection seem rather ‘unhinged’ insofar as they appear to celebrate such violence, it should be acknowledged that Solanas’ charm spreads beyond them and stems from her self-characterisation as renegade.
The SCUM Manifesto argues that the institutional notion of Great Art supports patriarchy by supporting hegemonic beliefs about both genders:
‘Great Art’ proves that men are superior to women… Great Art… as the anti-feminists are fond of reminding us, was created by men. We know that ‘Great Art’ is great because male authorities have told us so, and we can’t claim otherwise, as only those with exquisite sensitivities far superior to ours can perceive and appreciate the slop they appreciate (Solanas 2004: 58).
The claim about Great Art as an exclusively male institution may now be a familiar or even a tired one, recalling as it does well-rehearsed feminist arguments about the historic phallocentricity of the western canon in literature, visual art and music. But if the familiarity of that argument today seems to detract from its one-time revolutionary force, the fact that patriarchal hegemony remains an undeniable feature of our cultural history should nonetheless remain stunning to modern liberal sensibilities; it adds, and can only add, to Solanas’ self-characterisation as an underdog, even if that position was ultimately appropriated in deliberate and self-serving ways.
In the SCUM Manifesto the dominant discourses of art obtain their power through indoctrination and obscurantism:
The male ‘artistic’ aim being, not to communicate (having nothing inside him he has nothing to say), but to disguise his animalism, he resorts to symbolism and obscurity (‘deep’ stuff). The vast majority of people, particularly the ‘educated’ ones, lacking faith in their own judgment, humble, respectful of authority (‘Daddy knows best’), are easily conned into believing that obscurity, evasiveness, incomprehensibility, indirectness, ambiguity and boredom are marks of depth and brilliance (Solanas 2004: 58)
In the scepticism it directs towards the pretentiousness of the art scene, and by extension the indulgences of a middle class education, the text recalls Althusserian arguments about educational institutions as ideological state apparatuses (Althusser 1977). And as with the charge of obscurantism aimed at (for example) particular schools of post-structuralist critical theory (for example, Paglia 1993; Sokal & Bricmont 1998), the manifesto here reads the discourses of art as one of the weapons of the paternal order’s indoctrination: articulating doublespeak, it purports to advance sophistication, culture and ‘deep stuff’ when in fact it is only covering up the reality of pretence, vacuity and superficiality—criticisms which immediately recall those directed at Warhol’s brilliant nonsense.
Following the SCUM Manifesto’s questioning of the notion of Great Art, the text claims to see the shitty reality that the ideology of culture masks:
‘Culture’ provides a sop to the egos of the incompetent, a means of rationalizing passive spectating; they can pride themselves on their ability to appreciate the ‘finer’ things, to see a jewel where there is only a turd (they want to be admired for admiring). Lacking faith in their ability to change anything, resigned to the status quo, they have to see beauty in turds because, so far as they can see, turds are all they’ll ever have (Solanas 2004: 59).
Seeing ‘a jewel where there is only a turd’: this point is resonant to the criticisms against Warhol’s pop art itself and indeed perennial debates about what art actually is. Insofar as the manifesto’s main point here concerns the wicked spell of patriarchal indoctrination via the discourses of art, Solanas’ argument lends itself to a Marxist commentary on class: the point, surely, is about the perceived excesses of bourgeois pretentiousness and the decadence with which art criticism has long been associated. Never mind that Solanas was complicit with the artsy film productions of Warhol; or that she aspired to realise the production of her plays in the uber cool New York art scene (is that not also the ‘culture’ to which she refers?); the point is that in the heat of her polemic, Solanas is happy to act as if she were anti-establishment in some meaningful sense, that ‘meaningful sense’ being her apparent championing of the sorry plight of women in contemporary society. But it would seem that insofar as she was desperate to be accepted by the art establishment, she was much more conventional than what she was willing to admit: not so much a social renegade as a failed groupie of the Warhol set. Germaine Greer in relation to the Solanas’ debacle referred to that set as a ‘three-ring circus of exploited nuts’ (1993: 347); if we accept that unkind characterisation, we might well say that Solanas, in failing to become a Warhol nutter, instead fashioned her own persona of nuttiness—and like the artist who finally discovers their style, she did it with a conviction that was hitherto unseen or even repressed; in her case, the effects were potentially deadly.
The manifesto explicitly calls on women to refuse the passive role of victim under patriarchy. Solanas’ mission, here, includes rescuing the women who don’t even realise that they are complicit in the very regime that exploits and oppresses them. The manifesto’s demeanour, however, is not benign: it is downright bitchy to those who are perceived to be the betrayers of the cause. Referring to the patriarchal order as ‘Daddy,’ the SCUM Manifesto condemns and infantilises those that it describes as ‘Daddy’s Girl,’ the figure that represents the hapless sisters who have betrayed the feminist cause:
Daddy’s Girl, always tense and fearful, uncool, unanalytical, lacking objectivity, appraises Daddy, and thereafter, other men, against a background of fear (‘respect’) and is not only unable to see the empty shell behind the facade, but accepts the male definition of himself as superior, as a female, and of herself, as inferior, as a male, which, thanks to Daddy, she really is (Solanas 2004: 44).
The call is for women to stop being like Daddy’s Girl, docile instruments of the patriarchal order, as summarised by and symbolised within the bourgeois ideal of the nuclear family. The rhetoric here is brilliant, mirroring that perennial insult against masculinity—the ‘mummy’s boy.’ And the paradigm is basically neo-Freudian: just as Oedipus’ is required to displace his love for his mother, the ‘Electra’ here should destroy any love or complicity that she may have with her father. Instead, the manifesto will go on to suggest, women should become model members of the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM); that is:
…hateful, violent bitches given to slamming those who unduly irritate them in the teeth, who’d sink a shiv into a man’s chest or ram an icepick up his asshole as soon as look at him, if they knew they could get away with it… (Solanas 2004: 61)
The depiction may be two dimensional, resembling Miss Piggy doing a series of ‘hey-yahs’ on crystal meth, but the point is clear: nice daddy’s girls should instead be Angry Grrls. After all, why be docile when you can be violent? Why be an empty vessel of patriarchy? If SCUM refers to an imaginary organisation, and is a literary device that signifies a ‘state of mind,’ as Solanas claimed in 1977, many years after the shooting and the manifesto’s publication (Baer 1991: 51), then the violence to which it refers is not to be taken literally. Rather, it would seem that the manifesto is meant to be taken along the lines that Robin Morgan suggests in her commentary on radical feminism; she says that the movement has a political strength that arises from ‘its dynamism, in the fluid energy that links unapologetic intellect with unashamed passion; it is a means, not an end; a process, not a dogma’ (1996: 6). The problem, however, is the uncertainty of this ‘fluid energy’: does it, for example, include shooting people? If Solanas’ feminism was also characterised by a dynamic fluid energy, it remains unclear whether this led to her attempted murder of Warhol.
This much may be said, however: Solanas’ act of violence complemented the symbolic and real violence apparently advocated by the manifesto, and Solanas herself deliberately blurred them in her press statement directly after the shooting. Despite attempts to isolate the text from its context, it is undeniable that shooting someone like Andy Warhol was consummate with the manifesto’s call for a violent assault against men and a dismantling of the patriarchal institutions that oppress women; this includes the cultural institutions of art, even though these are not necessarily the type of institutions that are closely identifiable with power (unlike, say the judiciary, education and the constitution, which the manifesto deals with cursorily at best). Insofar as Warhol was the fetishized object of Solanas’ frustration, and quite possibly (to her) a representative of the hegemonic structures that she saw as systematically depriving her of success, he became the object of a public performance in which ‘the world’ literally became the stage. Read sympathetically, Solanas took out her anger about her thwarted dreams on Warhol, probably rationalising her murderous act on the grounds of his notorious and (what she saw as his) despicable personality (see McIntyre 2006). Read less sympathetically, Solanas’ was a product—dare I say empty vessel?—of a vacuous society that values celebrity culture and she sought ‘15 minutes of fame’ through her staged and costumed and what James Harding has described as her ‘calculated aesthetic performance’ (Harding 2001: 142). Even less sympathetically: SCUM may indeed represent a ‘state of mind’—one that is unhinged, on fire with anger, verging on psychosis if not actually in it, one in which myth and symbol displace reality.
If we read the SCUM Manifesto with cynicism, we may well say that Solanas appropriated the ‘privileged’ space of ‘the outsider,’ cast in simplistic and absolutist terms and on the basis of her womanhood. By virtue of the fact that she was a woman, she become an authentic subject of oppression, a relic of the systematic oppression of women that has lasted since time immemorial, and therefore—to quote the feminist theory of Luce Irigaray—‘indefinitely other’ (Irigaray 1985: 28; for a critique, see Moi 1985: 145-7). Read less cynically, the manifesto is a testament to Solanas’ very real alienation as a woman and her frustrations are not reducible to what appears to be her self-serving narcissism. And while her subject position as a woman may have been a key part of her alienation, Solanas’ biography suggests that she suffered from a litany of other—related but not necessarily consequent—alienations. She had omnipresent difficulties with childhood abuse; ongoing battles with medical (psychiatric) institutions; a curiously ambivalent attitude towards her lesbian sexuality (conspicuously absent in the manifesto); for much of her adult life she lived in poverty, which led to begging and prostitution; she was at odds with bourgeois intellectual sensibilities and aestheticism; and—perhaps this was the clincher—she was unable to break into the New York art scene. The SCUM Manifesto is arguably the product of all of these alienations.
Circumstances, it seems, did not change for the better for Solanas. Her biography paints the picture of a tragic, broken figure: despite the promise of her play Up Your Ass, somehow she never realised her literary ambitions or earned the recognition that she was convinced she deserved. It is thought that Solanas spent much of her life in and out of mental institutions, living in poverty, and that in the final decade of her life she was addicted to drugs, supporting her habit through prostitution. In 1988, she died in a welfare hotel in San Francisco (see Baer 1991: 57).
Solanas’ act of violence, in the end, is what some might describe as an impotent passage á l’act. It was less a revolutionary act than it was a confirmation of her defeat and her inability to ‘make it.’ Her shooting of Warhol did, however, gain her notoriety; and she evidently had—and has—sympathisers. And notwithstanding her despicable violent act, her tragic story, in the end, is as affecting as it is troubling. If charm requires absorption into others, as the SCUM Manifestosuggests (2004: 36), it would seem that many women in particular are ‘absorbed’ by the persona of Solanas as it is constructed by the story of her life, her defining act, and her book. The critics Jennifer Doyle, Avital Ronell and the film maker of I Shot Andy Warhol, Mary Harron, for example, each talk about their affective identification with Solanas and sometimes her anger (see, respectively, Doyle 2006: 33; Ronell 2004: 31; Heller 2001: 167); she also has many sympathisers in the online world. It seems there are many women out there, desiring identifications with this radical, troubling figure. And like the classical mythic figure of Medea, the historic figure of Valerie Solanas has become a feminist icon not in spite of but because of her violence: Solanas’ radical act provides the basis of her appeal and charm, alongside an enigma and a moral problem. If Solanas’ manifesto incarnates a Medea-like fury at the institutions that perpetuate sexual inequality and dissymmetry (see Carr, 2003; Kvistad 2005), Solanas’ life, also after the manner of Ancient Greek drama, begs us to contemplate the sometimes tragic conflict between the individual and the state, generating no little amount of pity and fear in the process.
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