On the Need for Provocation: A Response to Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto (1968) 

Written by Georgia Smith

Content Warning: This article contains considerations of sexual abuse, mental illness and violence.


Who wants to be pedantic? Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto is as infamous as it is neglected. It is not the extent of her genocidal diatribe but her act – the actuality of violence – which lends Solanas her salience. When she shot Andy Warhol in 1968 it is undecided if Solanas considered the morbid seductivity of her act as it would go on to relate to her words. It is, however, significantly more likely that such considerations were eclipsed by the paranoid delusion of a woman perpetually impoverished and abused. As an attempt at radical philosophy, fame itself was not one of Solanas’ aims – a voice beyond even extremist ideology; Solanas is one of the most idiosyncratic thinkers in modern feminist thought. As Mailer describes her, she is “the Robespierre of feminism”.  

Reading Scum Manifesto is as absurd as it is potentially revelatory and, at times, ridiculously rich in comedic value. Her own penchant for objectification may be profoundly hypocritical, but at least it grants the reader the salacious image of man as “a walking dildo”. Solanas wrote SCUM Manifesto in 1968, potentially unconsciously driven by the spirit of this age of social revolutions. Self-published, she distributed her work on the street for one dollar, symbolically begging for the recognition of her experience beyond normative reality. A person perpetually excluded from social organisation, sexually abused as a child, and permanently impoverished, Solanas’ overt lesbianism and tendency for aggression marked her as a truly marginal figure. To Olivia Laing she is “an outlier and anomaly even amidst the flamboyant freak-show” with which she associates. Solanas is the eternal iconoclast mounting her attack on all social function.    

As an intellectual exercise, SCUM Manifesto suffers from a set of serious contradictions, being described as beautiful in theory yet tragic in reality. The semantic choice within this criticism is haunting. The suggestion that there is something beautiful about an ideation which openly boasts of formalised genocide is a tragic symptom of a culture poisoned by its own need to define itself. “Beautiful” should be taken here not in the sense of strict aesthetic pleasure but rather as symbolic of an idea of innocence, an optimistic or utopian view of the world. This reading initially appears oxymoronic, yet it highlights the potential centre of Solanas’ desire; encased in her genocidal rage is the hope for a society not permeated by masochistic male violence but instead enveloped in a desirous feminine hierarchy. This is a point which equally demands ethical questions over the hypocrisy of any gender-derived power system. However, Solanas’ logic of gender is not one of dichotomy but focused on innate femininity. As Ronell suggests, Solanas has a unique capacity to destruct “symbolic security systems” and as such she “pierces through to the real with a series of highly calibrated psychotic intensities”. In ultimately destructing all our referential systems, Solanas gifts us alternative logics through which to imagine new modes of organising social life. Solanas’ inversion of Freud is a prime example of this. She replaces phallic envy with the notion of maleness existing primarily as the desire to be female, the insistence on female passivity simply a projection, formulated into a symbol of the whole human condition. This is the attempt to deny the male experience of a “grotesque self” characterised by feelings of animalism, deficiency, and overall emotional limitedness.  

Most potently, there exists Solanas’ failure to acknowledge the innate versus the constructed in matters of gender, blaming a distinct biological “maleness” as opposed to a constructed masculinity. Perhaps this is a product of the character of Solanas’ text as a manifesto, a form adept to eruptions of irrational catharsis, to provocation, to fits of wild and political intent. This is something which is naturally not the product of normative intellectual consideration but is in fact the representation of a pure, unbridled, perhaps distinctly feminine, rage. To Laing this is an isolated language which is “palpably buckling and rupturing, exploding out of silence, splattering itself onto the page”.  In her introduction to the Verso edition of the manifesto, Deviant Payback: The Aims of Valarie Solanas, Avital Ronell offers considered comparisons of Solanas to the works of Derrida, viewing SCUM Manifesto as commentary on the end of man, and earlier to Rousseau through a reading of Solanas as in a tradition of social contract. As such, she boldly situates Solanas as a figure worthy of intellectual note. Ronell goes on to position Solanas as the inheritor of the Nietzschean scream, suggesting that the discursive realm in which Solanas operates is one in which “other quasi-linguistic worlds open up . . . springing from the noncanonized tropes of moaning and bitching”. They suggest that female language has an inherent philosophical potential and is therefore intellectually essential. Solanas feeds the question of what constitutes intellectuality. Should thought be emotive? Provocative? Irrational? These questions appear at first to be contradictions but in challenging our dependence on a fatigued rationalism, there is the capacity to explore the function of ideologies as distinct emotionalities. The implicitly emotional quality of all such texts associated with the history of ideas is the area in which they are most intellectually fecund. It is regretful that they are often pathologised, adamantly so if they happen to be written by women.  

Ethically, Solanas demands a lot. Men are “emotional parasites” and as such are “not ethically entitled to live”. Solanas has a tendency to highlight the equally tyrannical quality of her proposals. Her logic of “maleness” as an inclination for death does maintain the notion that she would be acting ethically in committing genocide, allowing a view to how previous logics of murder have functioned historically. The tendency for reading Solanas’ propensity for violence as carnivalesque or farcical reveals something about how we handle female charges of violence. Fascistic texts of equal violence are amongst some of the most politically contentious artifacts of intellectual history, marked by reactions of horror, disgust, and trepidation. By virtue of her femininity, we believe that Solanas only wants to play fight. While it may be obvious that we should deny her homicidal ideation, is there some form of validity in the point concerning the emotional rights of the individual? This is an interesting question to ask.  

The supposed “telic purpose” of man on which Solanas comments and her reliance on automation and eugenics underlines the ambiguity on which the manifesto rests. Elements of her philosophy are as conservative as they are liberatory, thrashing through and amalgamating various established thought systems. Following from deeply anachronistic considerations of philosophy, religion, the nuclear family and conformity she goes as far as to offer commentary on both “ugliness” and the condition of “fatherhood and mental illness” as “fear, cowardice, timidity, humility, insecurity, passivity”. Solanas’ only vaguely plausible proposal beyond the complete eradication of the capitalist system focuses on a new conceptualisation of community as related to individuals, an idea which sits in direct contradiction to the entirety of the manifesto as a coherent project. This is confusing too in its fundamental aversion to the notion of community as practiced. However, the intellectual stability of Solanas’ text is wildly unrelated to the text’s significance. Provocation bites. Solanas’ work exists as a testament to the need for alterity, as a notion inherently tied to the ideal of progress. As Ronell notes, figures like Solanas offer a “disruptive laugh” uttering with it some form of truth, here particularly in relation to male conformity, identity, despicability and dependence.  

This issue of intellectuality is particularly evident in a mode of thought which is often framed as “punk feminism”, a category which Solanas’ work conforms to or may even be the pinnacle of. As such, this thought becomes laden with not only the traditional implication of bra-burning lesbianism, but the texts become over-supplemented with a demonic or an archaic edge. With the exception of Solanas’ overtly genocidal ideation, works like Virgine Despentes’ King Kong Theory (which may equally flirt with a form of female incel culture) are deeply and profoundly revelatory. They constitute what should and what will likely come to be foundational texts. This potentially reveals something about the relationship between provocation and time, the human need for adjustment, not shock. Therefore, thought has a need for provocation. As Srinivasan suggests, works like SCUM Manifesto serve to highlight the importance of “the outrageous and carnivalesque in feminism” equally as in all thought. Simply inviting visceral criticisms strengthens and expands existing discourse. Even if the histories of thought persist in their denial of the truth contained in the provocation, the provocative has a way of fashioning itself into the eventual norm – principally through its relation to progress. As Barthes notes, there is an inherent value in the unreadable.  


Bibliography

Despentes, Virginie. 2021. King Kong Theory. Great Britain: Fitzcarraldo Editions. 

Ronell, Avital. 2004. ‘Deviant Payback: The Aims of Valarie Solanas’. Great Britain: Verso.  

Laing, Olivia. 2016. ‘My Heart Opens to Your Voice’ in The Lonely City. Great Britain: Canongate Books.  

Srinivasan, Amia. 2021. “Books about feminism recommended by Amia Srinivasan.” YouTube.com. August 21. Accessed September 10, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FL6J2CKVLg

Solanas, Valarie. 2015. SCUM Manifesto. Great Britain: Verso.  


Featured image credit: Manifestació feminista (Madrid, 1986). Photograph by Carolina Latorre Canet via Wikimedia Commons. CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

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