Revenge as Radical Feminist Tactic in the SCUM Manifesto – Moynan King

Dropping out is not the answer; fucking up is. Most women are already dropped out. They were never in. Dropping out gives control to those few who don’t drop out; dropping out is exactly what the establishment leaders want; it plays into the hands of the enemy; it strengthens the system instead of undermining it, since it is based entirely on the non-participating, passivity, apathy and non-involvement of the mass of women.

– Valerie Solanas

Acts of revenge rely on the mobilization of retributive justice. Revenge is a form of re-activism, it requires retaliation (payback), and seeks a kind of relief that can only be achieved with the harm or humiliation of an enemy who has done harm or humiliation to the revenger. Revenge is violent and energetic; it wants to be known, it wants to draw attention to its motive, and to expose a wrong done. Revenge, in effect, always perpetuates the very kind of assault it seeks to stand against. Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, in a decidedly vengeful tone, engages these qualities of violence, energy and retribution. It is a passionate, driving text whose auditory rhythms evoke the hammering, spewing, shooting rage of the wildly wronged and infinitely trapped.  Emerging from an abject abhorrence of the male sex, the text ultimately encompasses a much larger critique of capitalism and the entire hegemonic power structure as designed and controlled by men. The radical inversion of power and power systems espoused by Solanas summons the ideology of decolonization described by Franz Fanon, which suggests that: “Decolonization is always a violent phenomenon,” (Fanon 35) and as a “a program of complete disorder… cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding” (Fanon 36). Solanas’s program of “complete disorder” suggests an impossible brand of subterfuge – a nihilistic shriek positing a near-complete retraction of history. The pain of her shriek is almost too much to bear at times (too much to read), but Solanas’s extreme and radical style may be justified because, as Avital Ronell reminds us in her brilliant introduction to the 2004 edition of SCUM, “Sometimes you have to scream to be heard” (Solanas 3).

The SCUM Manifesto is a call to “civic-minded, responsible, thrill seeking females” to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex” (Solanas 35). It is a transgressive inversion of gender roles that drives head-on into the traffic of the one-way street that constitutes historical gender binary oppression, and emasculates the male by assigning to him historical traits branded onto women. “[T]he male is psychically passive,” Solanas extols, “he hates his passivity, so he projects it on to women, defines the male as active, and sets out to prove that he is” (Solanas 37). This inverted gender branding may be viewed as a form of literary drag; the male is dressed up in the social and psychic costume traditionally assigned to women, resulting in a textual appropriation of gender norms that seeks to invert a dichotomy – a dichotomy that “hierarchizes and ranks the two polarized terms so that one becomes the privileged term and the other its suppressed, subordinated, negative counterpart” – and ride it out to its extreme (Diamond 3). But Solanas’s rendition of patriarchy does not, as Judith Halberstam has suggested, “neatly divide positive and negative human traits between men and women” (Halberstam 109), but rather constitutes a mass of contradictions incorporating binaries within the binaries, multiple sexualities that do not resist, but rather support, the very limited dichotomy from which they emerge. For example, Solanas’s inverted binaries express disdain for sycophantic “Daddy’s girls” and reverence for faggots, “who, by their shimmering, flaming example, encourage other men to de-man themselves” (Solanas 72-3). The web of contradictions that she weaves (with a heady combination of bile and humour) only serves to highlight the problem of theorizing a utopia of non-history by a woman who herself is thoroughly inserted into the “phallocentric crush of the linguistic grid” (Ronnel qtd in Solanas 15). Solanas’s revenge-styled text creates an inverted system of thought, redoubled onto itself, with some gunfire thrown in.

Historical tradition offers the female only two potential affective responses to what Solanas sees as the systemic oppression of women under patriarchy; she can either internalize (neurotic style), or she can risk expression and render herself psychotic. Solanas is, what I call, a radical anti-fragile feminist. As anti-fragile, and not strong, sturdy, confident, secure or any of the standard antonyms of fragile, I am suggesting that Solanas’s force and conviction rely on an acute awareness of the social binaries that historicize the female as implicitly fragile, and, as well, on a sustained connection to her own oppression and victimization. This sustained connection to oppression, combined with the deliberate and violent inversion of gender dichotomy, renders Solanas a sort of binary terrorist. Rebecca Schneider defines binary terror as the fear “that accompanies the dissolution of a binary habit of sense making and self fashioning” (Schneider 13). In this sense, Solanas’s metonymic conflation of the male and patriarchal oppression “invites a kind of hysteria, a psychosis of the overly real” (Schneider 6). Solanas resists her status as supporting actor in the social order and declares possession of the leading role in a calcified gender dichotomy. “Maybe,” Ronell posits, “the Solanas tract was payback; it was clocked to strike the time of response to all shameless woman-hating manifestoes and their counterparts, the universalizers. No matter how you cut it, universal – whether common or communist – meant ‘man’” (Solanas 5). As a manifesto, SCUM’s intention is to make manifest, to render perceptible, a new order of ideas. Derived from the latin manifestus (apparent, palpable) whose etymological roots are mannus (hand) and festus (struck), the manifesto is an apt, if not ideal, form for Solanas’s revenge-styled counter-hegemonic tract.

What the text always wants to render perceptible is a systemic manipulation of power by the male who, Solanas asserts, “attains to masterfulness by the manipulation of money and everything controlled by money, in other words, of everything and everybody” (Solanas 41). Further, the control that man wields is a violation of the “female’s rights, privacy and sanity” (Solanas 48), a violation inspired by his need to deny the female her true social function, which, according to Solanas, is to “explore, discover, invent, solve problems, crack jokes, make music – all with love,” because:

The female’s individuality, which he is acutely aware of, but which he doesn’t comprehend and isn’t capable of relating to or grasping emotionally, frightens and upsets him and fills him with envy. So he denies it in her and proceeds to define everyone in terms of his or her function or use, assigning to himself, of course, the most important functions – doctor, president, scientist…  (Solanas 47)

Solanas inverts the psychoanalytic model of feminine identity by deploying precisely the tactics of historical misogyny, which results in an act of binary terror that converts female penis envy, for example, to the male’s envy of the female’s free wheeling individuality.

The SCUM Manifesto recalls the tenor and tone of its schematic opposites, such as (to name only a transhistorical few): Plato’s The Republic, a series of dialogues whose social principles relegated women to the lowest position within a tripartite system of value, equating woman with animal; John Knox’s sixteenth-century critique of women in positions of power, First Blast of the Trumpet Against This Monstruous Regiment of Women; the Malleus Malificarum (or The Witch Hammer) a seventeenth-century text that targeted women as inherently evil in a tract that was sanctioned by a papal bull and detailed a calculated and cruel directive for the treatment of witches (primarily female); and the Futurist Manifesto of Marinetti that calls out to “glorify…contempt for women.” Indeed, Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1909) – a fascistic, misogynist tract, demanding the dismissal of history and the destruction of great art in the name of progress, speed, war and a new definition of culture for the future – is taught regularly in college and university art programs as a seminal text in modernist art theory (Andy Warhol’s post-modern genealogical trajectory touches this tradition in more ways than one). So, I wonder, as an aside, if we can absorb the violent vision of Marinetti into a mainstream cultural theoretical framework, then why not Solanas’s as well?

As a manifesto SCUM heralds a new order, it makes a promise and it follows through (to some degree, at least), as evidenced by Solanas’s shooting of at least three men, most famously her attempted murder of post-modern art icon Andy Warhol. This live act of violent revenge activates the directive that due to “[t]he male artistic aim being, not to communicate (having nothing inside him, he has nothing to say)…he resorts to symbolism and obscurity (deep stuff),” SCUM females must stalk and kill “great male artists” (Solanas 27). Her metonymic conflation of the human male and oppressive patriarchy results in an aggressive call to action that details the necessity of destroying the male sex in order to relieve society of the historical mess created by patriarchal social systems.  Overall, though, as an authentic performative (one that wholly follows through on its promise), the SCUM Manifesto it is doomed to fail. The grand design of Solanas’s revenge fantasy is literally impossible. SCUM is ultimately a society of one, and further, of “one” whose performance of self embodies isolation – Solanas is, paradoxically it seems, an anti-social personality with a social agenda. Revenge acknowledges that the communication of pain (via retribution) is the only way to end the pain; it seeks its relief there, and Solanas understood that words, like bodies, can be hurled to injurious effect.

The SCUM Manifesto takes aim at, while simultaneously and blatantly revealing its genesis in, misogynistic polemics throughout history. It is worth noting that the definition of polemic (according to Merriam-Webster) is: “an aggressive attack on, or refutation of, the opinions or principles of another.” A polemic therefore has a revenge-like reaction-against built into its form, rendering Solanas’s manifesto a polemic against polemic, a war against war. Solanas has rendered herself a scourge of feminism, forgoing her own utopian vision of the female function “to create a magic world,” and to do so, “all with love.” (47).  “SCUM,” Solanas asserts “is too impatient to wait for the de-brainwashing” (Solanas 71); it wants revenge and it wants it now. The violence, she reminds the reader, is a necessary but temporary measure because, “after the elimination of money there will be no further need to kill men; they will be stripped of the only power they have over psychologically independent females” (Solanas 78). But the road to her post-history utopia must be paved with violence, humiliation and death. Because revenge always perpetuates the very kind of assault it seeks to stand against, one has to wonder if it can it ever be mobilized as an effective feminist tactic? I don’t (obviously) have the answer, but will reiterate, all the same, that if the alternative is utter silence, then sometimes you really do have to scream to be heard.

Works Cited

Diamond, Elin. 1997. Unmaking Mimesis. New York, New York: Routledge Press.

Fanon, Franz. (trans. Constance Farrington) 2001. The Wretched of the Earth. New York, New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Halberstam, Judith. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Marinetti, F.T. The Futurist Manifesto, 1909. http://www.italianfuturism.org/manifestos/foundingmanifesto

Schneider, Rebecca. 1997. The Explicit Body in Performance. New York, New York: Routledge Press.

Solanas, Valerie. 2004. SCUM Manifesto (With an introduction by Avital Ronnel). New York, NY: Verso.

Moynan King is a Toronto based director, writer, actor, curator, performance artist and scholar.

A theatre and performance artist with twenty years of professional experience, Moynan has worked with many major and alternative Toronto based companies and travelled widely as a creator, director and actor. As an actor she has over forty professional film, theatre and television credits. She has acted as dramaturge for some of Canada’s finest and most radical theatre artists including: d’bi young, RM Vaughan, Keith Cole, Ann Holloway, Nathalie Meisner, and Nathalie Claude, and assisted in the translation of Nathalie Claude’s Le Salon Automate (scheduled for publication in 2013). Moynan was resident dramaturge for the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada’s Women’s Caucus from 2002 – 2007 and has led dramaturgical workshops in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg. She is the author of six plays and is currently developing The Proust Project, a stage adaptation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which had its first public workshop presentation at The Canadian Stage Company in 2011. Moynan’s performance installation works, both solo and collaborative, have been presented across Canada and in New York City. Most recently Moynan co-created TRACE, an interactive sound installation, with Tristan Whiston for FADO Performance Art, which is slated for a national tour in 2014.

As a curator and festival director, Moynan was the co-founder and director of Hysteria, the country’s largest and most diverse multi-disciplinary festival of work by women, for five years, and was co-director of the Rhubarb! Festival of New Plays, for a total of five years. Moynan is the founder and director of Hardworkin’ Homosexuals, producers of the wildly successful Cheap Queers, from 1995 – 2009 (and other queer performance events such as Explain Yourself! in 2012).

She is currently a working on her PhD at York University, and is a director on the board of the Toronto Arts Council.