“Future Shock”: Manifestos in the Digital Age
Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute
Citation: Hanna, Julian. ““Future Shock”: Manifestos in the Digital Age.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 20, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/020.ex02
Abstract: The manifesto is currently one of most useful and vital online forms. There are many reasons for its resurgence, including the return of radical politics in the West since the 2008 financial crisis and the 2016 United States presidential election, and the rapid rise of social media. There have been several waves of manifesto writing since Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and F. T. Marinetti’s “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” appeared on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909. The latest return follows a long decline of the genre into near obscurity. Today the manifesto is more relevant than ever: no grassroots political movement or artistic collective is complete without a declaration of principles. Once again, “isms” and social movements—from 3D Additivism to Accelerationism, Black Lives Matter to #MeToo and #NeverAgain—are using manifestos to proclaim themselves to the world. This essay describes the rebirth of the manifesto as a networked digital genre that pushes the boundaries of aesthetic, technological, and political expression, prying open new discursive and imaginative spaces and forcing new ideas into the public sphere. It closes by introducing “Words in Freedom,” a new project that is part “Manifesto Machine”—a collaborative environment for drafting, designing, and disseminating manifestos—and part manifesto research database.
Keywords: manifesto, avant-garde, digital activism, social media, futurism, political movements.
In the following series of brief reflections on the manifesto and its transition from the machine age to the digital age, “manifesto” will always refer to the revolutionary model, whether cultural or political. What was originally a form of authoritarian discourse underwent in the nineteenth century what Judith Butler might call a “subversive resignification”: it became, in Marjorie Perloff’s words, “the mode of agonism, the voice of those who are contra” (82). In the digital world, manifestos have been there since the beginning: with the hackers, the cyberfeminists, the techno-utopians. They have “high art” credentials—the manifesto is arguably the defining genre of modernism—but they are also “contaminated” by politics, pop culture, advertising, and the desire for a mass audience. Which means they are right at home in our present post-everything era of glitches, fake news, filter bubbles, and context collapse.
Today we are all fluent in manifesto-ese. Our writing is not only rapid and concise but also exudes boldness and even arrogance. We throw out statements to an unseen and potentially limitless public audience. We aim to provoke sharp, immediate reactions that will be rewarded quantifiably with likes, retweets, and other forms of instant feedback and gratification. We court engagement through witty aphorisms, calculated emotional appeals, and striking visual images. Our intention is to elicit an immediate response from the reader, and our tactics are growing sharper every day. Our language on social media and even in private chat groups has become increasingly polemical, attention-seeking, and extreme. We are led by Silicon Valley companies that seek to optimize engagement and shape habits—addiction that is literally engineered and wholly by design. We craft epigrams that seek to shock, to stand out in a sea of other declarations. If our quips are often couched in irony, this only makes our language more like the manifestos of the avant-garde, not less. At the same time there is a growing and very real fear of public shaming, accompanied by a curtailing of risk in the public sphere—a zeitgeist captured in Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015).
Can manifestos bring about change? Yes—by presenting alternative possible futures, and in some cases outlining concrete actions; by making it clear that the status quo is intolerable. Manifestos are the first stop for visionaries. The avant-garde being by its very nature and definition ahead of its time, many ideas now coming into the mainstream have been the subject of manifestos for ages. Eco-manifestos began in seventeenth-century England with the Diggers and workers’ rights with the Levellers. LGBTQ rights are championed in the manifesto of the Gay Liberation Front (1971), formed after the Stonewall Riots, and “Queers Read This” (1990), an anonymous leaflet distributed at the New York Pride March that declared during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis: “An army of lovers cannot lose.” Mina Loy wrote about escaping the shackles of biological determinism and traditional marriage to embrace something very like polyamory in her “Feminist Manifesto” in 1914. UpWingers: A Futurist Manifesto (1973) by FM-2030 (Fereidoun M. Esfandiary), the “Transhuman Manifesto” (1982) by Natasha Vita-More, and the “Carnal Art Manifesto” (1989) by Orlan all describe different forms of transhumanism—as do the manifestos of the Russian Cosmists in the early twentieth century. Accelerationism? Marshall McLuhan described the “acceleration of evolution” in 1969, in his Vorticism-inspired post-media manifesto Counterblast (53). Scanning the horizon, critiquing the present, and pushing forward new futures are the manifesto’s primary tasks. Many of the dreams first articulated in manifestos keep recurring: down through the decades, even centuries.
At the same time, if provocation is the principal mode of the manifesto, and utopian dreams are its content, failure might be its most inevitable outcome. The failure rate of manifesto writing is much higher than average since manifesto writers are working in a performative space in which words are often forced, against the odds, “to do things”—as the British philosopher J. L. Austin described it in a series of Harvard lectures published in 1962 as How to Do Things with Words. Doing things with words, especially making things happen in the world through sheer force of rhetoric (what Austin calls “perlocutionary acts”) is hard work (101). As a result, there is a sadness about most manifestos, a sense of belatedness and hopelessness. The last century is littered with manifestos full of broken promises and failed dreams. Walter Gropius, in his founding manifesto for the Bauhaus art school in 1919, declared the noble aim of admitting “Any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex.” But while enrolment of female students was initially high, Gropius soon began to limit their numbers, and women at the Bauhaus found themselves guided towards so-called “feminine subjects.” Only a minority of manifestos actually mark the beginning of a successful path to realization.
Manifestos in (and out of) Cyberspace: “Total Noise” and Quiet Resistance
On February 8, 1996, John Perry Barlow published his landmark manifesto “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” In the short text Barlow shunned the hoary old world of “flesh and steel” for the brave new one of pure disembodied “Mind.” He declared: “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind” (n.p.). In fact, Barlow was not writing from cyberspace at all; the manifesto was written in a hotel room in Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Summit. Its other signs of naiveté aside, one particular blind spot of the manifesto seems obvious: bodies always matter. We can never entirely escape our embodied realities, just as we cannot easily escape our economic ones. And while manifestos might sometimes pose as abstract universal truths—principles far removed from situated realities and the concerns of everyday life—they invoke bodily metaphors with a frequency that belies any claim to ethereal transcendence. Bodies matter. Manifestos are material, even when they are digital.
Manifestos are clear and decisive. Hence their increasing attraction in a world of what David Foster Wallace called “Total Noise”—the overwhelming stimulus of contemporary life and the feeling that will never get on top of all the information available (301). Wallace was writing in 2007, the year a new media age was just getting started with the iPhone, Twitter, Tumblr, Netflix, and so on. Like the companies of Silicon Valley, manifestos tend to follow the motto “move fast and break things.” Futurism is a dramatic case in point: burn the libraries, flood the museums, abolish pasta. “When the world feels stuck, the manifesto—like the work of art—is a mode to disrupt it,” as Daniel Rourke, co-author with Morehshin Allahyari of “The 3D Additivist Manifesto” (2015), told me regarding their choice of medium. Of course there are important differences between true social and artistic disruption, on one hand, and the disruption of platform capitalism. The former, seen for example in grassroots online social movements like #MeToo, seeks to disrupt and overturn a corrupt and toxic status quo that has existed, unchallenged, for far too long. Big tech companies plunder this vocabulary of radicalism, using it to describe exploitative business practices that use legal loopholes to get around minimum working conditions and other hard won basic human rights.
The manifesto is a frequently bombastic and aggressive genre. But not every manifesto has to tear down walls, burn libraries, flood museums, or kill all men. There are gentler and subtler ways to write manifestos that are also effective and still, in their way, provocative. A case in point is Joichi Ito’s manifesto “Resisting Reduction” (2017). Ito uses the manifesto as a “seed essay” for starting discussions and gathering commentary (which highlights the collaborative potential of online manifesto writing). New iterations of Ito’s manifesto will incorporate the feedback collected online. Collaborative writing and transparency are two of the manifesto’s best features, as is the use of provocation, gentle in this case, to generate new ideas. With its rich history of manifesto writing, Europe still produces a lot of socially engaged and often government funded plans for change. A manifesto written in 2009 by the Polish committee for Radical Change in Culture is one example that pushes back against the privatization of culture and calls for recognition of the important role the arts play in a free and democratic society. Its demands include increased public education about contemporary art as well as the “elimination of the centralized, bureaucratic model of governing culture” in favor of local councils (n.p.). Another example is “A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife” (2018), launched in the United Kingdom by the English naturalist Chris Packham. Written with substantial contributions from leading academics and government ministers, the manifesto is political but non-partisan, “written to be accessible to everyone” and “deliberately incomplete” so as to encourage contributions from the public.
Increasingly, academics and curators are seeking not only to study social, political, artistic, and environmental movements from the outside, but also to work with and from within these movements. In contrast to traditional academic papers or monographs with their strict format and limited reach, manifestos serve this purpose. (There are endless examples, including Rosa Menkman’s “Glitch Studies Manifesto,” Robert Pepperell’s “Posthuman Manifesto,” and Cary Nelson’s still relevant Manifesto of a Tenured Radical.) The manifesto may be viewed as a gathering point or intersection to promote positive collective action and resistance, prying open discursive and imaginative spaces and forcing new ideas into the public view. As Garnet Hertz states in his five-point manifesto for Disobedient Electronics: Protest (2016): “If we are living in a post-truth time, we should focus on trying to make progressive arguments and facts more legible and engaging to a wide and diverse audience” (Figure 1). In their case for “platform cooperativism,” Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider posit that the source of platform capitalism’s power is the culture or ecosystem built up by its corporations: “the festivals, the meetups, the memes, the manifestos—that share norms for what kinds of practices are expected and celebrated” (10). Redefining and changing norms, they argue, requires the cultivation of an alternative discursive ecosystem to that of platform capitalism, which includes writing new manifestos.
Manifest Violence and Failed Masculinity
Manifestos may be full of hope, bright futures, and noble principles—but violence is also baked into their DNA. The first Futurist manifesto states that art “can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice” (Apollonio 23). Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” about the way Futurism and Fascism aestheticize violence, and this is nowhere more evident than in the Futurist manifestos (242). The 1960s were full of armed liberation struggles that paired images of revolutionaries with guns and slogans like “By Any Means Necessary.” The essential dichotomy in all revolutionary manifestos lies between the desire to transgress and the will to authority. As the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik demonstrated in 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, a rambling 1,500-page collage of racist and misogynistic propaganda, the Internet provides endless content for manifestos promoting hatred and violence. One of the numerous sources copied into Breivik’s diatribe, along with passages from George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson, is Ted Kaczynski’s “Industrial Society and Its Future,” the “Unabomber Manifesto.” Disseminating the manifesto was Kaczynski’s final demand; similarly, Breivik’s manifesto begins with meticulous instructions for translating and spreading it across the Internet via social media and torrent sites. (Long before the Unabomber, the Front de Libération du Québec made Canadian history by having their manifesto for an independent Quebec read in full on state television, in October 1970, as a ransom demand for the release of kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross.)
In Marinetti’s model, the manifesto’s strength—the Nietzschean force of will—is also its greatest weakness. The manifesto’s “hysteria” is masculine, it is an overcompensation, a performance anxiety that is assuaged through the unleashing of violence. The avant-garde manifesto after Marinetti modeled itself in part on “war manifestos” of the past. Futurism in particular exhibited a proto-fascistic desire for domination and exploitation, a mindset masked as, or mistaken for bold adventure—like the old settler’s cry of “manifest destiny,” the supposed God-given right and duty to conquer and colonize foreign lands. Applied to art this meant destroying everything in its path in order to rebuild from a clean slate. As one Futurist theater manifesto from 1915 declares: “ABOLISH THE FARCE, THE VAUDEVILLE, THE SKETCH, THE COMEDY, THE SERIOUS DRAMA, AND TRAGEDY, AND CREATE IN THEIR PLACE THE MANY FORMS OF FUTURIST THEATER” (Apollonio 196). But why the need to shout? In the SCUM Manifesto, Valerie Solanas describes male violence as stemming from a deep-seated sense of inadequacy:
The male is eaten up with tension (…) eaten up with hate—not rational hate that is directed at those who abuse or insult you—but irrational, indiscriminate hate… hatred, at bottom, of his own worthless self.
Gratuitous violence, besides “proving” he’s a “Man,” serves as an outlet for his hate and, in addition (…) provides him with a little sexual thrill. (64)
Judith Butler has argued that the performative is always melancholic, since the performer knows the role is only a fantasy. In his essay “Screeching Voices: Avant-Garde Manifestos in the Cabaret” (2000), Martin Puchner argues that the avant-garde manifesto, from Italian Futurism to Dada performances in the Cabaret Voltaire, “compensates for [its] lack of authority (...) through the demonstrative over-confidence and aggressiveness that will remain the marks of the genre” (114). The screeching also mimics the amplified, hyped up sound and appearance of modernity: the advertising copy and eye-catching tricks, and the screeching tabloid headlines so deftly adopted by the Vorticist magazine BLAST in 1914 (Figure 2).
The issue of “wounded” or “failed” masculinity and manifesto violence has resurfaced recently in media coverage of terrorist attacks by so-called “incels”—“involuntary celibates”—starting with the 2014 Isla Vista shootings by Elliot Rodger and his widely distributed 100,000-word manifesto My Twisted World. In Cory Doctorow’s first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), death has been cured and recreational assassination is the norm, so you can kill someone just to make a point, as a kind of rhetorical flourish. This seems like a suitable analogy for “bad” manifestos and their fantasy of stepping beyond the limitations of language—beyond rhetorical into actual violence. It speaks to a desire to bridge the virtual and actual, which has a new poignancy in the Internet age, where there exists a split between social media use that brings people together around a common cause, and social media use that increases social isolation to the point of profound alienation and anti-social violence.
Utopian Dreams and “New Dark Ages”
The word “utopia,” first used in the 1516 book by Thomas More, literally means “good place” and “no place” (Greek ou “not” + topos “place”), and this no-place-ness is a weakness in many utopian manifestos. The weakness comes in two main varieties: either the utopia described is too nice, impossibly perfect—huge societal problems are too easily and mysteriously solved—and thus it lacks both narrative stakes and relevance to the urgent problems of our world; or the utopia is creepily perfect: a panopticon, heavily surveilled and eerily calm, a place where nothing happens—a no chewing gum, no picnicking on the grass, no transgressions, rule-bound paradise. Georges Perec once wrote: “All utopias are depressing because they leave no room for chance, for difference, for the miscellaneous” (185).
Futures tend to go stale over time: the same old imaginaries, the same old tired dreams. This is particularly a concern in dealing with technological futures. Many of the dreams of the Italian Futurists before the War—the dream of speed, the war machines—can still be seen in the dreams of techno-capitalists like Elon Musk (the Hyperloop, the flamethrower, the moon rocket). Oscar Wilde’s dream of robot slaves enabling a life of leisure in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891)—“On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends”—is a dream that still figures heavily in the promises of advertising, despite equally persistent evidence that leisure will always be a privilege of the rich (269). Then there is the problem of what Fredric Jameson called “nostalgia mode” and Franco “Bifo” Berardi termed the “slow cancellation of the future.” Why do our technological dreams stagnate and repeat? Examples of recurring technological dreams are the jetpack and the flying car, or the futuristic “autonomous vehicle” that looks more or less the way cars have always looked. Faced with imminent planetary collapse, can we not do better? Manifestos, like speculative design, help us to think radically outside of incremental evolutionary models and safe predictability, the reselling of old goods.
In other cases, some manifesto dreams simply lose their luster over time, or prove difficult to realize. John Perry Barlow’s dream, for example, of an online world “where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity,” is not how most people would describe the current atmosphere of social media platforms such as Twitter. And Norman Bel Geddes’s vision of an America connected by clean, efficient super-highways, unveiled at “Futurama,” the General Motors Pavilion of the 1939 World’s Fair, soon gave way to J. G. Ballard’s dystopian vision of a degraded, polluting, and dangerous system in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and Crash (1973). The flipside of Futurism is obsolescence: Marinetti recognized and embraced this built-in risk, promising that future generations would continue to overthrow the old, but obsolescence continues to haunt technological manifestos of all kinds. Perhaps this is why many manifestos choose to cast a critical eye on the past and present, as much as attempting to imagine a bold new future. They emphasize the intolerable status quo, rather than a “brave new world.” As James Bridle writes at the close of his book New Dark Age (2018):
(…) any strategy for living in the new dark age depends upon attention to the here and now, and not to the illusory promises of computational prediction, surveillance, ideology and representation. The present is always where we live and think, poised between an oppressive history and an unknowable future. (252)
In 2017, the Canadian artist Grimes (Claire Boucher) used Instagram and Tumblr to launch a new music genre. The posts had an audience of more than a million followers, and the Tumblr post included what she called “the first paragraph of my manifesto.” It begins: “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.” It is a good start to a manifesto, self-defining and suitably apocalyptic. The manifesto is accompanied by a playlist and an image drawn by Grimes in her usual faerie-anime-graffiti style. (The official Instagram account for Grimes’s visual art uses Marx as the avatar.) Comments, hundreds of them, appeared below the posts, indicating that this manifesto reached a large audience. But inevitably one day social media will die or be superseded beyond recognition, as will mobile phones. Yet the manifesto, if the last two centuries are anything to go by, will continue to adapt and thrive, always using the latest technology to reflect its future-oriented ideas. In William Gibson’s words: “the street finds its own uses for things” (186).
Automobilism, Accelerationism, and Context Collapse
Have new modes of dissemination and expression changed the manifesto itself? Yes, although exactly how is a complex question. One major shift is what has been called “context collapse” (Marwick and Boyd 122). When “-isms” went to war a century ago, they were fighting on solid ground. They shared the same vocabulary and similar points of reference. The dissolution of this context means you now need to shout even louder to be heard. It also means that you are less sure of who you are shouting at, and you are more likely to be misunderstood. The journalist Quinn Norton used “context collapse” as her defense in an essay-manifesto published in The Atlantic in February 2018, titled “The New York Times Fired My Doppelgänger.” The essay was a response to being unceremoniously fired over controversial opinions revealed in past tweets. Norton states: “I was accused of homophobia because of the in-group language I used with anons when I worked with them. (‘Anons’ refers to people who identify as part of the activist collective Anonymous.)” The end of Norton’s essay gestures strongly towards manifesto style in its sweeping vision of the present and our navigation of possible futures: “No one prepared us for this, no one trained us, no one came before us with an understanding of our world. (…) We have to build our own philosophies and imagine great futures for our world in order to have any futures at all.” When she was fired some people sympathized with her, while many others did not. The same thing almost happened again at The New York Times a few months later with the hiring of Sarah Jeong, but in this case the allegations based on old tweets failed to stick.
The Silicon Valley sage-cum-critic Jaron Lanier has written several manifestos about our relationship with technology. They include “One-Half of a Manifesto” (2000) and the bestselling You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (2010). In Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), Lanier discusses not only the perils of context collapse but also the way in which algorithms encourage us to stick to a limited number of groups and issues, reinforcing this sense of identity every time we go online (67). This is good for the manifesto, in a sense, but it is bad for individual and critical thought. On the positive side, as Lanier points out, algorithms can help build support. Movements like the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter or #MeToo might not have happened without the visibility and sheer force of numbers afforded by social media acceleration. The same could be true, however, for the rise of so-called “white nationalism” or Islamic State. Because with social media comes the constant push—pressure by design—to form and declare strong opinions, to argue with opponents, to give voice to negative feelings and outrage—all as a means of soliciting and securing content and engagement for the platform itself.
Understandably, there has been a backlash against the pace of technological innovation and the lack of control we often feel as a result. A century ago, the Vorticists scoffed at Futurism’s enthusiasm for the latest technologies. In the opening manifesto of BLAST they affected a seen-it-all-before world weariness: “AUTOMOBILISM (Marinetteism) bores us. (…) Wilde gushed twenty years ago about the beauty of machinery” (Lewis 8). Since the 1990s one reaction has been Accelerationism, which has called in several manifestos for the acceleration of capitalism’s already breakneck tempo, either to revel in it (on the Right) or to bring about its early demise (on the Left). There are various kinds of neo-Luddite responses as well, such as the 2017 arson of the Casemate fablab in Grenoble, France. In their manifesto issued after the attack, the self-described anarchists declared: “our communiqué [is] an inseparable echo of our incendiary act against this institution which is notoriously harmful for its diffusion of digital culture.” The “slow” movement is yet another reaction. Following the “Slow Food Manifesto” (1989) and the “Slow Media Manifesto” (2010), Vincenzo Di Nicola’s “Slow Thought: A Manifesto” (2018) elucidates seven principles, including the practice of being “asynchronic” or resisting the speed of modern time in favor of “the slow logic of thought” and working towards greater focus.
Everything Will Be Fine
A manifesto written by high school students in Parkland, Florida after a school shooting is a good example of activism and manifesto writing in the United States since 2016. The manifesto, published in The Guardian, highlights the combination of online and real-world action, the manifesto’s return to prominence and relevance, the new militancy of youth movements, and the questioning of what can and cannot be challenged in public and by whom. In the digital context, manifestos provide both a model and a warning: on one hand, they demonstrate how to inhabit a direct, critical, public voice; on the other, they are prone to all the familiar online traps of propaganda, dumbing down, “fake news,” and aggressive behavior. The Parkland manifesto pushes back against the nihilistic rhetoric of manifestos issued by young mass shooters like Dylann Roof and Elliot Rodger, replacing it with utopian ideals and proposals for democratic change. At the same time, there is a danger in reusing old resistance tropes in uncritical ways. In her own manifesto of sorts, called “Art Won’t Save Us” (2018), the New York-based writer Anna Khachiyan advocates for a cautious and critical approach. She is wary of the “vapid sloganeering” that marked the initial response to the Trump presidency (e.g. Marilyn Minter’s “PUSSY GRABS BACK” and Barbara Kruger’s “PRUMP/TUTIN”), while she cites Angela Nagle’s argument in Kill All Normies (2017) that as the alt-right borrows strategies from the New Left, and politics move beyond clear binaries things generally are becoming a lot more complicated. Khachiyan’s last point is especially important to keep in mind regarding manifestos—that while Trump makes a satisfying enemy, “Any truly serious political project to emerge from the art world” should take “a long, hard look at its own participation in platform capitalism instead of seeking solace in rehashing the battles of the past” (Khachiyan n.p.)
As we travel deeper into what an increasing number of researchers are calling the “Anthropocene” to describe the changed conditions we are living in, extreme climate change scenarios are now not only looming menacingly in our near future but can even be experienced in the present as a kind of “future shock.” (“Future shock” is defined in the classic 1970 book by Alvin Toffler as “too much change in too short a period of time” .) In another sense, climate change may be added to the list of “shocks” (media, advertising, and so on) that Walter Benjamin wrote about in his essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939)—shocks that characterize the traumatic experience of modernity itself, overwhelming and inhibiting our comprehension of the world (161). Added to our shock is the sense that we must do something, while at the same time we may feel both helpless to act and strangely at home in the “new normal.” Born out of modernity, manifestos have always been both a reflection of, and a shaping force on the future—and therefore they are essential to any attempt we make to deal with climate futures, whether psychologically or actually. Like their feminist peers, what might loosely be termed “ecological manifestos” have a long history: from counterculture manifestos of the 1960s like “The Unanimous Declaration of Interdependence” (published in Holocene Gazette and Country Traveller in 1969), to Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto (2003), “a political act of hope in a world on the edge of global war” (95), to a new generation of digital age manifestos including Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s “#Accelerate Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” (2013), to similarly apocalyptic but more neo-Luddite manifestos such as “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto” (2009) by Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth, which declares “There is a fall coming” and warns darkly: “We do not believe that everything will be fine.”
At the end of the 2010s it is hard to argue that “everything will be fine.” As some of the manifestos cited above make clear, technology is not what is killing us so much as capitalism: our desire, addiction, distraction, and consumption. The two things are not easy to separate, of course, and technology is not neutral—as Cameron Tonkinwise has stated, “Design is both the product of and the producer of modernism” (n.p.). So what can manifestos do? As The Communist Manifesto continues to prove, manifestos make useful tools of theory and critique. Manifestos tend to appear at times of radical upheaval, claiming to offer answers or a path through the crisis. The more broken and ineffectual the normal channels seem, the more reassuring is the manifesto’s confident tone, and the more people look for bold new disruptive alternatives. When civic systems and civil behavior fails, quasi-civic and “uncivil” forms of protest are needed to disrupt the status quo and overcome barriers to justice. Manifestos provide hope in an era of political hopelessness. They help us steady our gaze on the “big picture,” rather than being kept constantly distracted by the daily news cycle. Debates are now circling in the United States about the loss of civility in public life, with some voices seeming to suggest that protest itself should be disallowed if it is deemed uncivil. The avant-garde manifesto is the ur-genre of incivility—to cause offence to the status quo is both its aim and its modus operandi. Revolution and disruption are uncivil. But what if no one is less civil than the commander in chief? How do we disrupt disruption? Should we, as Gilbert and George recommend in “The Laws of Sculptors” (1969), remain “relaxed and friendly polite and in complete control” (Danchev 380)? Or, like the Accelerationists, do we take disruption as far as it can possibly go—in the hope of hastening revolutionary change?
Conclusion: Manifesto Machines and Tools of Change
I will close this essay by mentioning a related experiment I am working on at the Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute with my colleagues Simone Ashby and Sónia Matos, along with our students (Figure 3). The “Words in Freedom” project involves building a research database by scraping a wide range of manifestos from the web, sifting and tagging them, and publishing a curated sample of what we find. We are also gathering data on how people work together to create these documents, and why. Moreover, we are currently building and testing various “manifesto machines”—collaborative environments that give people “the tools and inspiration to draft, design, and disseminate coherent and persuasive manifestos,” and encourage people to think about what they believe in and how they can take action to shape the future (Ashby et al. 557).
The return of the manifesto also marks a return to activism and engagement. The Internet, that “first universal medium” (Mirzoeff 5), has helped the manifesto to achieve many of its most positive and fundamental aims: making manifest, bringing to light what has been kept in darkness, saying out loud what has been unsaid, saying enough is enough, initiating change. But the return of the manifesto is undeniably double-edged—it is often violent, driven by emotion, and immune to facts. Manifestos hold great potential for constructive change, but they also reflect the dangers that come with extremism and a fragmented populace. The return of a form that was so ubiquitous in periods of crisis is symptomatic of our present upheaval. On balance, however, I choose to think of the manifesto as more cure than cause: as a unique and indispensible tool for activists in challenging and uncertain times.
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