:: Article

The Words Don’t Give a Fuck

By Tom Tomaszewski.

Julian Hanna, The Manifesto Handbook: 95 Theses on an Incendiary Form (Zero Books, 2019)

Manifestos give vent to thoughts of things that are desperately wanted, which may never happen, but which might. The original Communist Manifesto even began by mentioning the ghost of something that hadn’t happened. The spectre of Communism: a ghost of the future. Manifestos are for writers what two tails might be to a dog — although, if one thinks about it, very few writers, characters better known for their writing in other places, are renowned for their writing of manifestos. Words in manifestos often take on a life of their own and maybe that’s disconcerting to a certain kind of writer, the kind that cleaves to authorship.

Julian Hanna’s absolutely wonderful little book continually riffs over these kinds of thing. His ninety-five mini theses, written ‘rapidly and rashly, with passionate conviction and not a lot of forethought,’ does the best job anyone ever could of showing us the true hand of the manifesto.

It’s fireworks, but repeatable. This book will not haul you into a world of strategy, aetiology, science or any tedious continuum between right and wrong. This book has no sense of propriety, piety, shame or proprietorial ownership. It may help that the author has chosen to tell us he has abandoned all pretence at living for tomorrow (or any time other than today). He is the manifesto man somewhere: apparently, a lonely island, ‘owning nothing but books’, with ‘no house, no savings, no tenure.’ I hope it’s true. If Marx can have his ghosts of the future then why not Hanna a romantic backstory any manifestoist might crave an association with.

And association is very important. Freud’s fundamental rule (to agree to say whatever comes into your head, however absurd, unimportant, embarrassing, apparently unhelpful or distressing it may be) is a very good starting point to think about how a manifesto can end up declaring more than its writer intended. The spirit of that rule haunts these pages. Hanna moves from thesis 4, Attention grabbing, in which he describes how the ‘battle of Turin’ lent itself to the lively start of a Futurist manifesto, to thesis 5, Fight songs, in which he quotes George Carlin: ‘People are wonderful. I love individuals. I hate groups of people … because pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs.’ Thesis 6 comes as no surprise: We. Manifestos are often solo endeavours masquerading as group efforts, but even when there’s just a single name at the end of the text there’s the unconscious, a conspicuous, flashy, other. Manifestos can feel at the same time unmistakably attributable and curiously anonymous, as if the writer is somehow not all there — an alluring cocktail of revelation and secrecy.

Some manifestos are short, such as Samuel Beckett’s single word effort: ¡UPTHEREPUBLIC!, (thesis 12: Taking sides). Others are very long. These, Hanna writes, touching on Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the Unabomber’s Industrial Society and its future, ‘are usually the products of disturbed minds’ (thesis 18: Pure excess). Relentless documents, all density and ‘physical bulk’, they carry with them an excruciating force that seems to hunch belligerently in the words. Manifestos, in their crudity, allow us to see writing exposed in ways that other texts do not. Manifestos are writing, naked, perhaps.

Which takes us to thesis 21: Language of Desire, in which Valentine de Saint-Point’s Futurist Manifesto of Lust prompts Hanna to ask: ‘What else is the manifesto but lust as art?’ Apollinaire, with his advice to poets, told us: ‘You should compete with the labels on perfume bottles.’

What isn’t there here to keep readers coming back? We have Frank O’Hara’s Personism: ‘It’s a very exciting movement that will undoubtedly have lots of adherents’(thesis 34: Fleeting). There’s Tristan Tzara and the 1918 Dada Manifesto: ‘I am neither for nor against and I don’t explain because I hate common sense’ (thesis 48: Anti-). There are the artist Grimes’ apocalyptic words from 2017: ‘The fae are the children living at the end of the world, who make art that reflects what its [sic] like to live knowing the earth may not sustain humanity much longer’ (Thesis 78: Children living at the end of the world).

‘Like journalism,’ Hanna remarks, ‘manifestos are caught in the daily trench warfare of the present’. DH Lawrence wrote a poem about the present called Manifesto (both, thesis 35: NOW). What of the present? This ‘incendiary form’, the form Jenny Holzer said inspired her posters because it was ‘uneasy and hot’ and she ‘wanted things to really flame’ (thesis 36: A little violence), was the spectre of Social Media. Here, in that gutless phenomenon, truth and accountability appear to be on the verge of extinction.

What comes after truth and accountability?

Let’s have a manifesto for that.

The 2019 Labour and Conservative party manifestos contain extraordinary claims about giving things away and getting things done. What can we start to see if we wonder what’s to come? Studying manifestos tells us to look for breakdowns or breakthroughs of unimaginable kinds. Not the kind that present alternatives, a Left wing to the Right, for instance, but more something like Marinetti’s ditch, where he hurls himself and drinks from the polluted water as if he is sucking from a breast. Hanna writes: ‘Manifestos have no idols; there is no moderation. Any manifesto worth reading or writing must demand the impossible’ (Thesis 95: The uplifting conclusion.)

A manifesto for today, one for what might come after truth and accountability, might — if we follow Marx — only be seen from the future. There can’t be any working it out now. In the future the kind of spectre I have described may emerge as a more corporeal thing, whatever corporeal becomes. Right now we are merely haunted, distressed and antagonised (or, if we vote Tory, perhaps engorged, enflamed) by newspaper front pages in which some awful bodies, nobodies, Andrew, Boris, and Donald hunch in alignment with the party-political manifestos, shamelessly voicing unbelievable claims — about giving things away and getting things done.

If Genet wrote ‘The words don’t give a fuck’ what might that mean now? Words have their own kind of association, one we might call the Secret Way of Words. Membership is only open to words. If you’re not a word it’s very hard to get it, so let’s not try. Interpretation is a fool’s errand, really. The best answers are realizations that come from paying attention to what’s happening rather than trying to work out why.

Understanding ‘Post-truth’ means asking what words can do that offers something other than the familiar truth but which is not a lie. And manifestos aren’t to do with ‘truth’, anyway. Here we are in the ‘digital context’ where ‘manifestos provide both a model and a warning: on the one hand, they show us how to inhabit a direct, critical, public voice; on the other, they are prone to all the online traps of propaganda, dumbing down, “fake news” and aggressive behaviour’ (Thesis 88: Manifestos in an age of post-truth). Manifestos, raw and naked as they are, can help us appreciate the ideologies, the politics, and the other secret ways of the digital context before they fuck us up forever: extinction. Manifestos throw words at us and if we are open enough to receive them, not too busy trying to work them out or expecting them to do what the dictionary says, we can gather what is happening, and to us as we read them. (Like reading poetry.) Maybe manifestos show us we must make the future up as we go along, unlearning, opening, loosening, as psychoanalysis might have it. It’s not a bad idea: the future, undecided.

Thank you, Julian Hanna, or whoever.

Tom Tomaszewski is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist practicing in Central London. He has written two novels: The Wisdom of Uncle Kashmir (Bloomsbury, 2005) and The Eleventh Letter (Dodo, 2016). He also writes and performs short pieces for specific events.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 7th, 2019.