ABSTRACT: The archive of Valerie Solanas, an assemblage comprised of her actions, writings, and their circulation and reception, is marked by deep tensions between history, fiction, and critical thought. Whether read as a homicidal inpatient, a near-fictional cartoon character, a militant writer, or a groundbreaking revolutionary, Solanas’s entire project has either been dismissed as driven by madness, or defended and in turn recommended for inclusion in mainstream discourse. In both approaches, Solanas’s archive is caught within a dichotomy of forced inclusion or complete exclusion from public discourse. These two approaches reveal an underlying binary between madness and normality, wherein madness has little or no agency and the “normal” is sanitized and reduced to select emotions. Reading Solanas as a feminist feeler driven by vision, intuition, and affect can offer an alternative to the binary that emerges from the hegemony of rationality in Western thought and society.

Solanas’s attempted murder of artist Andy Warhol took place in 1968, the same year that she self-published SCUM Manifesto, constituting a powerful attack on the human male. Ever since, the connection between the shots and the manifesto has been discussed. In the critical responses to Solanas’s history there is a divergence in terms of how they treat the relationship between text and action. I assign to these diverging accounts either a humanist or an avant-garde tendency. While the former insists on a separation between the attempted murder on Warhol and the feminist treaty SCUM Manifesto, the latter argues for a generative interplay between writing and performance, art and violence.

The humanist account becomes an attempt to recast Solanas into a position as a feminist icon that aims to (reductively) explain the events in her life and the SCUM Manifesto. The violence of Solanas’s assault on Warhol is ultimately circumvented in order to prevent it from contaminating the legitimacy of the (already and in itself violent) manifesto and the legacy of Solanas as a feminist icon. By contrast, an avant-garde reading of Solanas refuses to separate manifesto and assault, but inscribes instead the famous shooting of Andy Warhol into Solanas’s project, a project that both exceeds as well as it invokes art, writing, and life. [1] Understood performatively, Solanas’s act can no longer constitute a singular biographical event, but is instead rendered as a multiple, unstable, and dangerously productive enterprise.

I draw the concept of the avant-garde tendency from James Harding’s essay “The Simplest Surrealist Act: Valerie Solanas and the (Re)Assertion of Avantgarde Priorities.” Harding argues that Solanas’s manifesto and assault of Warhol situated her within the boundaries of the avant-garde. Harding stresses the importance of feminist writings in the reception history of Solanas; however, he argues that the tendency to see the assault on Warhol and the violent content of the manifesto as indications of social problems faced by women is problematic. He suggests that a more fruitful reading of Solanas would be to see her more in alignment with the avant-garde. Following Harding, my claim is that much of Solanas’s reception takes a reductionist approach to Solanas’s defiance in order to include it into the feminist canon; ultimately, this approach works to reinstate the deviant female figure into the humanized discourse it originally seeks to avoid. In addition, I use the term humanist to describe a general orientation towards the human. This orientation is essentially centered on the traditional idea of the human as a thinking subject derived through the Cartesian Cogito (Derrida 2008, 76). Also, it privileges the position of “human perfectibility, rationality, and agency inherited from the Renaissance” (Wolfe 2010, 38) that renders what is defined as human in a superior position to what is defined as non-human (as for example animals).

In Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death, Judith Butler detects a loss of Antigone’s defiance due to a “trend championed by recent feminists to seek the backing and authority of the state to implement feminist policy aims” (Butler 2000, 1). While not a mythological figure, Solanas’s legacy of defiance has been subject to much the same trend, and its loss and misinterpretation are due to a “”humanization” of female defiance. As defiant female figures sharing much the same fate in terms of how they are used and misused in order to be included into a feminist discourse, it is useful to compare Antigone and Solanas here.

In Avital Ronell’s preface to the latest English edition of the SCUM Manifesto, “Deviant Payback: The Aims of Valerie Solanas,” Ronell points out that Solanas’s defiance is a process of “becoming man,” which leads Solanas’s project into confusion, if not even failure (Ronell 2004, 18). I interrogate this concept of becoming, opposing a becoming in language to a becoming as a body. Ronell’s reading of the becoming process of Solanas situates gender as a concept in language, whereas Solanas’s utopian visions for a purely female society are based on the concept of gender as a physical attribute. While the former is defined in terms of culture and residing within a “human” territory, the latter surpasses and exceeds the humanized territory of language.

An avant-garde reading places Solanas’s actions within a staged and to some extent premeditated context of the aesthetic event. In this context the act of violence becomes aestheticized. Such a reading does not only alter what an aesthetical event can be, but the direction from which Solanas is arriving. As part of the avant-garde, the loner and misfit Solanas is walking in the fore-guard. Defiant (and criminal) female figures such as Antigone, Medea, Medusa, and Aileen Wournos share what Susan Suleiman coins a “double marginality.” They are marginal by way of being both women and criminal. They arrive from the rear, the same direction from which Solanas traditionally has been seen arriving. A double marginality could easily be seen as a lack in (political) power and result in a desire to re-position these women to the “front.”

However, in Sara Ahmed’s view the “rear” does not need to become the “front” in order to gain force and political potential. Rather, its potential resides in it exactly being the “rear”:

We have to walk differently: it is not that those behind come to the front, but that staying back gives you the time to question, to ask rather than tell. A politics of the rear is still a movement. When the wretched are walking, the feet are talking. To keep walking, to keep going, to keep coming up, is a certain kind of talking, talking to not talking at (Ahmed 2013).

According to Ahmed, it is not the ones in the front who can change the course of history, but rather the ones coming from behind. As opposed to the avant-garde, the force of the rear-guard rests exactly in the fact that they arrive from this “marginalized” position. Unlike the “fore-guard” that only possesses the power to align itself with the already existing political structures, the rear-guard can transform the direction of politics and “can rewrite that history from this view” (Ahmed).

Legacies of Defiance

Solanas’s act is usually told to have taken place according to these lines: On June 3 1968, sometime around 9 A.M, she went to the Chelsea Hotel and asked if her publisher Maurice Giordias was there. After being told that he was away for the weekend, she waited around, with the hope that he might still show up. After several hours of waiting, she left, and headed to Andy Warhol’s studio, the Factory, to see if she could get hold of Warhol instead. Meeting Warhol’s associate Paul Morrisey outside, she told him, “I’m waiting for Andy to get money.” Morrissey told her that Warhol was out, to which she replied “Well that’s all right. I’ll wait.” At 4:15 P.M., Warhol finally arrived and Solanas accompanied him up the elevator. She was dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and a raincoat, her hair was styled, and she was wearing lipstick and make-up. She was carrying a small brown paper bag. Warhol commented on her appearance saying, “Look, doesn’t Valerie look good!” Warhol received a phone call. As he spoke on the phone, Solanas shot him three times. The first two shots missed, at which point Warhol pleaded with Solanas not to do it. The shot went through several of Warhol’s vital organs. Solanas proceeded to fire more shots against art critic and curator Mario Amaya; one shot hit him above his right hip. She also turned to Fred Hughes, Warhol’s manager. She put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger, but at this point the gun jammed. The elevator door opened with no one in it. Hughes suggested that Solanas get on the elevator. Solanas replied that that was a good idea, and left the scene.

The question I want to pursue is in this paper is: after Solanas left the scene, did her act end? As opposed to Solanas, Antigone is a fictional character. According to Butler, Antigone’s crime was to bury her brother Polyneices after her uncle King Creon had prohibited such a burial. Polyneices leads an army against his other brother, Eteocles, claiming what he believes is his rightful place as the inheritor of the throne. Both brothers die, and, as a punishment, Creon wants Polyneices’s body to be left outside the city to be “dishonored and ravaged” (8). Antigone defies Creon and buries her brother twice; the second time, the guards report seeing her.

Butler considers Antigone’s crime in two stages: the physical crime of burying her brother, and her refusal to admit to the burial when standing in front of Creon. Antigone refuses to deny that it was she who did it, but, as Butler points out, Antigone does not simply say, “I did the deed.” By refusing to be forced into denial, Antigone takes on the language of Creon himself. Butler asserts that Creon “expects that his word will govern her deeds, and she speaks back to him, countering his sovereign speech by asserting her own sovereignty […] her autonomy is gained through the appropriation of the authoritative voice of the one she resists” (11).

Throughout the scholarship on Antigone her intentions have been debated, whether they are due to gender issues, incestuous love and a confused sense of kinship, an intention to follow divine law, a strive for self-annihilation, or as a conflict between the state and family (Mader 2005, 19). Since Antigone’s defiance leads both to an alignment with the voice of her opponent and to her death, Butler questions whether Antigone is able to escape from the forms of power that she opposes. In Butler’s argument Antigone’s orientation changes as she takes up the “fore-guard.” As an alternative to the impasse described by Butler, Antigone’s intentions may, in much the same way as Solanas’s, be seen through the scope of the feral creature, motivated by vision, intuition, and affect. We can therefore see both Solanas and Antigone as taking up space, and as continuously arriving from of the “rear.”

Similar to Antigone’s acts, Solanas’ acts are delivered in stages: the physical crime of the shooting and a verbal testimony in front of the court. Brought before Manhattan Criminal Court, Solanas told the judge: “It’s not often that I shoot somebody. I didn’t do it for nothing. Warhol had me tied up, lock, stock and barrel. He was going to do something to me which would have ruined me” (Ebert 2010, 92). When asked if she could afford an attorney, she replied: “No, I can’t. I want to defend myself. This is going to stay in my own competent hands. I was right in what I did! I have nothing to regret!” (Bockris 2009, 305) Her comments were stricken from the court record and she was admitted by the judge to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric observation.

Both Antigone and Solanas refuse to deny the accusations against them. Antigone refuses to deny disobeying Creon’s decree, and Solanas refuses to deny the attempted murder on Andy Warhol and three others. Solanas openly declares to have not only broken the law, but also to have acted correctly in doing so. Solanas claims her act before the court of law. By performing these speech acts, Solanas, with an affirmation, and Antigone with a double negation in the refusal to deny as well as the refusal to confess, both articulate the discontinuities in legal discourse and in fact resist its performativity.

Solanas affirms her act. To say “Yes, I did it” is to “claim the act, but it is also to commit another deed in the very claiming: the act of publishing one’s deed, a new criminal venture that redoubles and takes the place of the old,” as Butler writes (8). And so Solanas publishes her deed. As such, her deed is redoubled—in fact her deed is no longer only one deed but a set of two, the original and the one she claims.

According to Butler, the female crime, when enacted in language, becomes a male crime whereby female defiance is caught in a problem of circularity. The publishing of the crime takes place in language and, as Butler notes, by acting in language Antigone cannot survive the act as a woman, for she is implicated in “the masculine excess called hubris” (10). The female perpetrator, paradoxically, embodies ‘the norms of the power she opposes’ (10). ‘And so, as she begins to act in language, she also departs from herself” (10). In her preface to the SCUM Manifesto, Avital Ronell makes a similar claim when she asks, “how can you launch a war against war?” (14). In order to go to war against war, Solanas ironically must embody the war machine of her opponent. She inevitably has to take on manhood, whereby she is reproducing “the war zone of her declared target,” in Ronell’s words (14). Solanas then comes to embody the full arsenal of the violence of her opponent, and this exchange of affect is how she re-enacts, with a difference, the assemblage of patriarchy: she comes to it through irrational language and perhaps insanity, pushing to the foreground, rather than towards the “double margins” of the defiant female character.

What is then the purpose of that act–how can defiance be possible if acting against an opposing force simply works to reinstate the opponent? Butler’s solution is that the distinction between the two principles is confounded on the rhetorical level, whereby the stability of the distinction is brought into crisis. This might be sufficient for a linguistic act, but what if the distinction between the two principles is not enough? What if the crisis that is sought goes beyond a crisis within mere “language” and seeks to enter “bare life,” the “zone of indistinction and continuous transition between man and beast” (Agamben 1998, 109).

If Solanas’s target was precisely “life,” a life that exceeds the boundaries of language, then it might be helpful to follow James Harding in his argument that Solanas performed an avant-garde act that impatiently sought to exit the realms of reason or language in order to enter life, affect, and bodily matter itself. In his essay, Harding attempts to situate Solanas’s manifesto and assault within the boundaries of the avant-garde as well as cutting these very boundaries open. The key to Harding’s argument is his reading of the shooting and the manifesto as part of the same performance, bringing Solanas’s archive into an altogether different course than the one described above.

At the basis of Harding’s reading is the small brown paper bag that Solanas was carrying on the day of the shooting. Solanas left the bag on the table close to where Warhol was talking on the phone. The bag contained three items: a pistol, Solanas’s address book, and a woman’s menstrual pad. The items echoed “a sense of incongruity” that “ha[d] been hovering about Solanas,” the incongruity being a sense that these small but “not insignificant” items served to stage the assassination” (Harding 2001, 147). Of course, Harding stresses that the actual violence of Solanas’s act served as a harsh reminder that the assassination was not merely staged (147). But in the in-between of violence and art, in between the small items and the pistol shots, Harding finds a Solanas who “constructed a mode of performance that absolutely defied the conventions of mainstream theatre and tore at the very conceptual fabric of the avant-garde” (147). In doing so, the little brown paper bag played a major part, since it not only established Solanas’s act as an aesthetic performance but also as a performance that “transgressed decorum by calling attention to basic feminine experiences that were publicly taboo and tacitly elided within avant-garde circles” (147).

According to Harding, Solanas both employed and resisted avant-garde methods, and thus she reinvented the avant-garde for her own ends. The brutality of the shooting is not a problem in Harding’s argument; instead, it works to exceed language only to re-enter it immediately when her act, staged as a performance, becomes a union between radical art and radical politics. When he emphasizes the “avantgarde dynamic”[sic] between the manifesto and the shooting of Warhol, Harding establishes a connection between art and violence—if shooting and art can indeed share such an intimacy—that, he argues, is also included Solanas’s writing.

The Physical Act and the Manifesto

In “We Who Are Free, Are We Free?” Hélène Cixous describes A Society of Lies that distinguishes between acceptable and unacceptable murder—if a man murders and rapes it is “pitiful and therefore acceptable,” but when a woman enacts the same it brings about an altogether different result (Cixous 1993, 212):

Inexplicable, monstrous, appalling, incomprehensible is the crime of that unnatural woman who has poisoned her husband. A woman kills: we are horrified. A man kills, nothing could be more natural. That’s what our society thinks: if a woman gets killed, we’re used to that, we understand that. I’m talking about my country. And here, how are things here? What I have just said is one of the ethical and statistical truths that disgust our society. It mustn’t be said. It mustn’t be touched. It’s foul (212).

As Harding has pointed out the sheer violence of Solanas’s shooting has tended to be silenced and reduced, reaching a marginalized state outside the human realm, much like what Hélène Cixous describes. However, as Harding notes, it is not only the female crime that places women on the margins. Harding links Susan Suleiman’s term “double marginality” to Solanas’s archive, as he observes “a fundamental and uncompromisingly irreconcilable antagonism between the cultural margins occupied by the avantgarde and the cultural margins occupied by women” (147).

When connecting Solanas’s writing and shooting, Harding’s aim is not to contest earlier feminist readings of Solanas’s significance, which have understood the shooting to have been dictated by the manifesto. However, he finds that, in these readings, Solanas’s act of violence has been justified as the misguided solution to the “real social problems that real women face” –the result of historical conditions, but not something that can be seriously endorsed (157). The result of these readings, according to Harding, is that they embrace Solanas’s writing (to some extent) but that they exclude the shooting in order to preserve the value of the manifesto as a feminist text (157). Because it is important to Harding’s argument that Solanas’s feminist concerns “derive much of their force from the avantgarde [sic] context that generated them,” he proposes a re-reading of Solanas’ significance (147). What Harding finds is that this re-reading encompasses a revision of the reception of Solanas’s work as well as the history of the American avant-garde itself. According to Harding, this revision begins with a “fundamental realignment of the respective cultural values that critics have given to her manifesto and to her act of violence” (147). Through such a realignment, Harding counters the tendency to force either shooting or manifesto to the background.

Both the avant-garde and Solanas’s projects can arguably be seen as failed (Heyd 1991, 69), and through his argument Harding shows that this assumed failure can be subverted for both by way of Solanas’s actions and writings. The important shift in Harding’s argument is a turn away from a biographical understanding of Solanas towards an understanding of her writing and action as part of a larger political and artistic movement. Harding’s aim is not to include Solanas within mainstream society, but rather to expand the reading of her project. Solanas’s role as a woman is of essence here. In acknowledging that Solanas’s and the avant-garde’s aims are directed towards the outskirts of the human field, or even towards a non-human or post-human existence, they can attain their force from the “rear” as described by Ahmed or as a “double marginality” as described by Suleiman. As when tracing the passage of the agent’s action into language in Butler’s argument, language’s means to reach into a de-humanized field is under inquiry here. If language does not possess this ability, I ask whether the non-human field can only be reached by way of the very action itself. In particular, I inquire as to whether the defiant female act, such as Solanas’s, is especially prone to reaching this realm.

Although the woman who kills is apparently unspeakable, untouchable, and foul, she still lingers through history never to be quite forgotten. Here we find Antigone, Medea, Medusa, and Wournos residing alongside each other. Some are mythical and fictional figures and some are actual historical women. The incomprehensible monstrosity of a woman who kills brings the very real act of Solanas towards a ghostly appearance, paradoxically giving it what I call a “double ability.” As Harding has shown us, the ability to wound, to render both physical as well as cultural wounds, to align with the avant-garde as well as to exceed it, shows that a female crime causes wounds that are different than male crimes. Female crime is marginalized, but not failed. Rather, as a mystery, it attains a power that transgresses the borders of time, space and history into what can be called the archive of Solanas.

The Manifesto

As discussed above, Solanas’s acts inflicted bodily wounds, and exceeded the territory of language even as they were infiltrated by it. With the writing of her manifesto, she performed a double act of signification, wherein language becomes active and in fact catalyzes events. Solanas conceived of her text as divided into two sections: “the first part of the Manifesto is an analysis of male psychology, and the second is what to do about it” (Heller 2009, 143). SCUM Manifesto’s declared opponent is man: “a walking abortion…the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, it has an incomplete set of chromosomes,” employing scientific language to make her argument (Solanas 2004, 35-6). To be male, according to Solanas, is to be deficient; in fact, he is a disease and emotionally he is crippled (37). Man is in fact half-dead, “halfway between humans and apes,” (1) and “to call man an animal is to flatter him” (37). Not quite human and close to the animal, he is also a machine and “a walking dildo,” for the drive of his sexual desires lies as the basis for his every action (37).

According to Solanas, the male is utterly egocentric, unable to relate to others, to have empathy or to identify, and more importantly, he is inherently passive. What man does with his passivity is to hate it, and because man is unable to bear his passivity he projects “it onto women, defines the male as active, then sets out to prove that he is a Man” (61). His main means of proving that he is not passive is by “screwing,” as Solanas puts it. But since he is “attempting to prove an error,” he must “prove it again and again. Screwing, then, is a desperate compulsive, attempt to prove he’s not passive, not a woman; but he is passive and does want to be a woman” (37). In Solanas’s terminology, man is not really a man but spends his life becoming female, a continual attempt that he tries to accomplish by “constantly seeking out, fraternizing with and trying to live through and fuse with the female, and by claiming as his own all female characteristics” (37-8). The female characteristics man takes on as his own are: emotional strength and independence, forcefulness, dynamism, decisiveness, coolness, objectivity, assertiveness, courage, integrity, vitality, intensity, depth of character, and grooviness, among others. Having taken on these qualities, he then projects his own traits onto women: vanity, frivolity, triviality, and weakness. Man does excel in one field though, Solanas concludes, and that is in public relations, where man has done a “brilliant job convincing millions of women that men are women and women are men” (38).

Aside from being passive, and projecting his weaknesses onto women, he is responsible for various crimes and unnecessary duties. He is responsible for war, as a compensation for not being female (38). He is the inventor of money, but “there is no human reason for money” (39). He works, but there is no reason for anyone to work, for “work could have been automated long ago” (39). He created the institutions of marriage, prostitution, and fatherhood, which “lead[s] to a lifelong obsession with being approved of” (43). Because he is deeply ashamed of his animality, man furthermore enforces a “social code” that suppresses his individuality. Man is, Solanas writes, merely a member of the species, he does not have individuality and is interchangeable with every other man: “males differ from each other only to the degree and in the ways they attempt to defend against their passivity and against their desire to be female” (46). What he is, however, “acutely aware of” is “female individuality” (46). He doesn’t comprehend it, it frightens him and fills him with envy; he therefore denies it and instead produces “identity,” which is the definition of everyone in terms of their function, and so “assigns himself of course the highest positions, president, doctor, scientist” (46).

The female has to take complete charge “whether she likes it or not,” Solanas argues, because man is in the process of “gradually eliminating himself” through wars, race riots, and because men are “becoming fags or are obliterating themselves through drugs” (67). Man is in the process of destroying himself but the process is slow and “SCUM” is impatient: “SCUM is not consoled that future generations will thrive; SCUM will grab some thrilling living for itself” (69). The key strategy needed for SCUM to take over, which can be achieved in a few weeks if a large majority of women became SCUM, is “simply by withdrawing from the labour force, thereby paralyzing the whole nation” (69). Additional measures that will be “sufficient to disrupt the economy and everything else” are for women to “declare themselves off the money system, stop buying, just loot and simply refuse to obey laws” (69). Women can also “simply” leave men, Solanas suggests. SCUM will become members of the “unwork force, the fuck-up force, they will get jobs of various kinds and unwork” (71). But beyond unworking, exiting the monetary system, and leaving men, SCUM will also actively “kill all men who are not members of the Men’s Auxiliary for SCUM. Men in the Men’s Auxiliary are those who are working diligently to eliminate themselves, men who regardless of their motives are doing good, men who are playing pal with SCUM” (72).

Defining SCUM

SCUM, according to Solanas, comprises those “females…who trust only their own animal, gutter instincts, who equate Culture with chicks, whose sole diversion is prowling for emotional thrills and excitement.” SCUM is also those who “by the standards of our culture are SCUM…these females are cool and relatively cerebral and skirting asexuality” (61). SCUM is those females who do not belong to a specific group but who possess certain characteristics: they are dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, and they “consider themselves fit to rule the universe” (70).

SCUM is usually read as an acronym for “Society for Cutting Up Men” (Heller 2009, 168) and as an illustration of Solanas’s intentions for “what to do about” the male problem (143). The manifesto, however, never mentions the acronym, and in “Shooting Solanas: Radical Feminist History and the Technology of Failure,” Dana Heller argues that there is no reliable evidence that Solanas intended her title to be an acronym. In fact, as Heller states, “one source suggests that Solanas never intended SCUM as an acronym at all” (168). The source is an unpublished 1975 interview with Solanas. Jane Caputi, one of the interviewers, recalls Solanas insisting that “the acronym ‘Society for Cutting Up Men’ was the fabrication of her publisher, Maurice Girodias” (168). Solanas, Heller continues, did not intend any connection between the manifesto and the shooting, and her usage of the term “scum” was, Caputi recollects, “based on a subversive appropriation insofar as ‘scum’ signifies women’s debased status in a male-defined system of social values.” Solanas intended to playfully reverse this meaning so that SCUM would mean “female genius…the females who are the grooviest and most cerebral” (168). Solanas’s version of a genius or of the “relatively cerebral” comes to mean something else than greatness within what is culturally acceptable; in Solanas’s words, the female SCUMs are inverted into greatness, but simultaneously the implications of “greatness” and “acceptable” are confronted with new meanings (168).

Harding reads SCUM along a similar line as does Heller, and finds the term SCUM to be “the most famous but oddly the least discussed aspect of Solanas’s work” (148). Harding claims that the term suggests a more literal meaning, with reference “to the derisively low social status that, according to Solanas, women are relegated to in patriarchal society,” emphasizing the powerful inversion of “scum” (148):

one of the first instances of an individual or a group publicly embracing and appropriating an offensive characterization for a political agenda running directly counter to its derogatory implications. SCUM thereby subverts an accepted linguistic order as a titular point of departure for a group of women actively and radically engaged in subverting the social order that represses them (148).

SCUM, as Harding sees it, is the subversion of the derogatory status of women and here he is in alignment with Heller’s reading of Solanas’s intention. He departs, however, from Solanas’s rejection of the acronym when he continues to read it in terms of a striking back, although not physically, where the acronym SCUM “threatens a graphically violent response to the violence that historically has been perpetuated against women” (148). By the simultaneous inversion of the meaning of SCUM as well as the threat it poses, the manifesto’s title becomes a break with what Harding reads as “the existing traditions of the avant-garde,” and it becomes instead “a countervailing point of critical tension in a radical juxtaposition of irreconcilable, mutually exclusive aesthetic agendas” (148).

Ronell finds in SCUM the same double connection between female violence and the avant-garde. Ronell comments on “the unreadability” of the title and notes that if we accept the acronym, the “cutting up” links Solanas to Lorena Bobbitt. However, beyond a violent female background, Ronell observes that the title also links Solanas to avant-garde techniques such as “laughter, montage, editing” (11). In the juxtapositions between the verb “cutting,” as either a disfigurement of a body or as a collage technique employed by the avant-garde, Ronell’s argument parallels Harding’s:

[The verb “cutting”] may strike directly at male anxieties about dismemberment, there is a more subtle allusion in Solanas’s acronymic title. It recalls perhaps the most innovative aesthetic strategy of subversion historically employed by the avant-garde, namely the subversive cutting up, recontextualization, and radical juxtapositions that are the basic techniques of collage itself (148).

The inversion of “scum” into SCUM and the acronym’s juxtapositions between violence and an avant-garde technique enforce a willingness to exit writing and to perform transformations in minds as well as bodies. Further, the manifesto genre has been strongly tied to the avant-garde movement, but it is also a genre that aims to transgress the separation between the written word and the world as such.

The Genre

In “Manifesto = Theatre,” Martin Puchner examines “the history of the manifesto, with an emphasis on the manifesto’s particular form of performativity” (Puchner 2002, 451). According to Puchner, the manifesto is one of the “least understood and at the same time most important inventions of what is now called the historical avant-garde” (172). Its morphology includes: numbered theses, denunciations of the past, an aggressive attitude toward the audience, a collective authorship, exaggerated, shrill declarations, varied, often bold, letters, and mass distribution in newspapers, bill-boards, and flyers (172). These features, Puchner claims, characterize “the avant-garde manifesto from Marinetti to the seventies and beyond, spanning what one might call the era of the manifesto” (172).

Solanas’ manifesto can be said to share all of these traits: the past is denunciated; the manifesto’s tone is certainly aggressive, particularly for those readers who are not SCUM; its statements are possibly [“shrill”] (172) exaggerations; its claims belong to a collective (SCUM); and Solanas went to the streets to distribute it. The tone of the manifesto makes it unclear as to whether each statement should be read literally. Heller notes a possible connection between “the brutally ironic tone of the SCUM Manifesto” and how Solanas was described by almost everyone who knew her as “terrifically angry and terrifically funny” (172). In reading the manifesto alongside a history of manifestos, the aggressive and “shrill” tone of Solanas’s text becomes a response to the Futurist Manifesto’s violent attitudes towards women.

Puchner notes that another “female” manifesto, “Isabella Rossellini’s Manifesto,” itself an ad for lipstick and makeup, departs from the traditional avant-garde manifesto in several ways. In particular, it transforms the writing of the manifesto into an individual and private (as well as a commercial) exercise (455). But it also lacks numbered theses and is primarily addressed to women. Interestingly, as it directs itself just to women Puchner notes that Rossellini’s manifesto opposes the traditional male manifesto:

[Rosellini’s manifesto] takes a stance toward the gender history of the manifesto. At least in the hands of Marinetti, a chief inventor of the avant-garde manifesto, the manifesto had been a genre celebrating the masculine: aggressive posing, virility, force. Pound and Lewis, for example, use their Blast manifesto to threaten the Suffragettes, whose cause they otherwise endorse. To say that the avant-garde manifesto is often masculinist is not to say that there are no manifestos by women—Rosa Luxemburg’s Sparakus Manifest, Valentine de Saint-Point’s Manifesto della donna futurista, and Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto testify to the opposite (445).

The Rosellini manifesto is written by a woman, directs itself to women, and encourages women to “write [their] own manifesto” (184). Puchner finds that the Rosellini manifesto diverges from the standard manifesto from Karl Marx through Rosa Luxemburg to Guy Debord, many of which were “written collaboratively and always on behalf of a group” (93).

Similarly, SCUM Manifesto does not direct itself to everyone, and is one person’s address to potential female members of the revolutionary organization and (possible) collective known as SCUM. However, as Heller points out, Solanas later asserted that SCUM is a “purely metaphorical function. It’s just a literary device” (183). In a 1977 interview with The Village Voice Solanas claimed that “there’s no organization called S.C.U.M. There never was and there never will be…I mean, I thought of it as a state of mind…women who think a certain way are in SCUM” (172). If the manifesto does not direct itself towards a group as such, and if SCUM is to be read as a mental state, to be shared as an invisible inter-subjective collectivity, then the violence that is to be performed by the “SCUM” comes into question.


In terms of the connection between the manifesto as a genre and violence, Solanas’s manifesto is historically typical. Janet Lyon writes:

Linked with the form’s passion for truth-telling is its staging of extreme rage. David Graham Burnett has offered the thesis that the “manifesto” derives etymologically from a Latin composite of manus and fectus, or hostile hand, and this translation acknowledges the nascent fury embodied in the form. (148)

The violent implications of the SCUM Manifesto are particularly shared by the Futurist Manifesto with regard to how the latter embraces war as not only an efficient method of sanitization, but also an aesthetical one: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gestures of freedom bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman…We will destroy… feminism” (Ronell 5). Not only do the manifestos share a common beautification of violence, but as Ronell observes the Futurist Manifesto’s “uncringing attack on women” is returned by SCUM Manifesto as “payback,” and thus it shares an “anti-social edge with the destructive demands of prior manifestos” (5).

In its urge to transgress its own textual limits and in the spirit of the avant-garde perform alterations on life itself, SCUM Manifesto has a problem, Ronell notes. SCUM Manifesto’s dilemma, in “tripping over the pitfalls that await any speech act, the Manifesto nonetheless seeks to make itself binding; the fervent hope – that we would be bound by its effects (…),” is the problem of any text or speech act that aims to make any changes on the receiving end (5). According to Ronell, Solanas is unable to reach her goals and “shows up as a victim of the failed performative” (4). Solanas’s act not only fails as a performative act, but it is also restricted by the fact that she is a woman acting within a male language. As Ronell puts it, Solanas was “disabled by the very fact of language, by its phallic lures and political usages, by its disturbing record in the human sciences and liberal arts” (4). Although caught within a male-driven language, Solanas did know how to make use of it in order for it to “hurt,” Ronell concludes. Solanas inflicted wounds on the body as well as the mind, and her words could “land in the psyche or explode in the soma” (4). However, Ronell argues, Solanas wanted to go further than that; she “wanted to draw a social contract,” a revolution against the avant-garde, and against the male. In fact, she wanted an “end to all ends” (14). This further adds to Solanas’s dilemma:

Revolution is tainted by the insufficiency of the signifier, the corruptions of the male marked colonizations of language. “No genuine social revolution can be accomplished by the male . . .(…) Still, the revolutionary rebel starts out as “male”: in terms of her sense of slippage, Valerie Solanas runs with the best of them, none of these terms stick. [This] is why she remains a chronic misfire (7).

Solanas sets out to revolt and rebel, but in doing so she becomes a part of what Butler describes as the “masculine excess called hubris.” Similarly, the dilemma that Ronell finds Solanas to occupy is that when she rebels against “man,” she also takes on his shortcomings in accomplishing a revolution. This failure, which Solanas sees as a specifically male failure, appears to be transmitted onto Solanas herself. But if Solanas becomes “man,” what does that becoming mean? Masculinity, in Butler’s argument, stands for “kinship and state,” and resides as an entity within culture that also is transferable. However, as I mentioned above, Solanas posits herself directly in antagonism with the traditional feminist view on the gendered body as a social construct. In Solanas’s argument, gender is defined in terms of the biological body, anatomically if not genetically defined, and if gender is transferable it is only through physical alterations; men can become women solely through the use of technological intervention.

In her preface, Ronell points out that Solanas inverts basic assumptions around gender (that women are passive, men are active) because she establishes a new language around lack. Ronell writes, “it is no longer woman who is organized as and around lack, but man, trapped in his pernicious projection booth, who tries to come to terms with the desperate situation of lack: he is the woman-in-lack” (15). Turning ideas about gender around, her opponent is a man who is really a woman, and she is really a woman who is a man—thus a certain confusion around gender arises.

In Ronell’s argument, Solanas’s willingness for violence backfires against herself, and she becomes the negative being in lack (the male) that she was striking against. Yet if Solanas’s manifesto (and also her shooting) is payback for male crimes historically inflicted on women, how can the answer to the violence inflicted on women become the same violence against which she reacts? One comes before the other, and the other is payback to the former, a payback that would not be necessary if it were not for the initial male violence. Following Butler’s and Ronell’s arguments, it seems there is no difference between an abusive language and the answer to that abusive language, or between the ethical repercussions of an act that occurs chronologically before another.

Harding reads Solanas’s performance and manifesto as involved in a highly interactive relationship, wherein the two can be described more in terms of a becoming similar to a living organism—a process of interaction and redoubling. Ronell finds a performative lack in Solanas’s text—yet if the text is a performative failure, it becomes the opposite of the process of interaction that Harding describes. As a performative failure, the text is unable to reach outside its own ends and can only happen within its own limitations, with the ultimate result that as the text is written it has reached its closure, and has become something of the past.

SCUM Manifesto is “an indefensible text,” Ronell writes (15). Yet which part cannot be defended? Is it indefensible because of the connection between the assault and the propagation of violence in the text? To this question, Ronell does not give a clear answer. It seems there is no actual distinction between act and text in Ronell’s view, instead the two appear to become the same, one indicating the other, foreclosing, introducing, permeating, continuing the effect of the other. The actual violence is, however, separated from Ronell’s text, transformed into a cartoon-like event, performed by a person Ronell is intimate with, as she is referred to by her first name, Valerie.

Harding points out that in spite of the fury of language in the avant-garde texts, Solanas’s shots were unparalleled in the history of the avant-garde. Theoretically, it parallels André Breton’s “First Manifesto of Surrealism,” in which Breton asserts that “the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd” (150). Harding points out that Solanas’s act “called the bluff” in Breton’s statement, as well as “cut through the rhetorical posturing of the Futurists (150). On the day of her arrest, Solanas was asked why she shot Andy Warhol, to which she replied “I have lots of reasons. Read my manifesto and it will tell you who I am” (147). Harding notes that feminist critics have understood Solanas’s statement to the reporters as an “indication that she was acting under the guidance of the dictates of her manifesto and that her act of violence was an understandable albeit misguided reading of the vitriolic implications of her text” (157).

Harding argues that feminist readings have tried to save Solanas’s text from the implications of the shooting by “advocat[ing] a separation of Solanas’s shooting of Warhol from discussion of the SCUM Manifesto” (157). However, as Harding points out, there is no clear indication in Solanas’s statement to the reporters that the contents of the manifesto would explain the specifics of her action, for the manifesto does not, as Harding puts it, “provid[e] a script for those actions.” The sections of the manifesto that contain passages that advocate a selective and discriminate use of violent destruction, as well as sections describing how SCUM will “coolly, furtively stalk its prey and quietly move in for the kill” cannot be used to explain the act itself (147).

Instead of a separation, Harding’s project is to emphasize an avant-garde dynamic that he argues is to be found between SCUM Manifesto and the shooting of Warhol. He clarifies that his reading does not stand opposed to a more “traditional” feminist reading of Solanas’s significance. According to Harding, “that reading has its own value, and, more importantly, is indispensable to understanding the manner in which Solanas ultimately revitalized the otherwise seemingly exhausted aesthetics of the historical avant-garde” (147). But he does however find that Solanas’s feminist agenda derived “much of [its] force from the avant-garde context that generated [it]” (147). This fact has been “generally overlooked,” he observes. According to Harding, the new way of seeing Solanas’s act and her manifesto begins with a “fundamental realignment” of how critics have read each act (the manifesto and the shooting) as separate entities, each with its own significance and cultural values:

The avantgarde dimensions in Solanas’s activities are located in the dynamic between the text she produced (the manifesto) and the performance she enacted (the shooting of Warhol), a dynamic which arguably corresponds to the theatrical avant-garde’s reconceptualization of text and performance as a radical juxtaposition of two equally weighted, autonomous art forms (147).

Harding finds that when, on the day of her arrest, Solanas refers to her manifesto (“it will tell you what I am”), she “establishes an identity and thus serves as a kind of credential,” thereby positioning herself among the likes of avant-garde figures such as Filippo Marinetti, Tristan Tzara, and André Breton (147). At the same time as Solanas makes use of the avant-garde rhetoric, she places herself in direct competition with the long history of misogyny that the historical avant-garde “uncritically absorbed” (147). The SCUM Manifesto, Harding concludes, “thus usurps the mantle of the avant-garde by skillfully inverting and thereby exposing its historically unacknowledged, gendered tropes” (147-8).

From Avant-garde to Rear-guard

In my introduction I proposed a distinction between two main tendencies in the archive of Valerie Solanas: an avant-garde and a humanist tendency. Throughout my argument, I have attempted to demonstrate her confrontation with the marginal, the other, and the non-human. Through an avant-garde reading, Solanas as the defiant female figure releases a set of possibilities, whereas a humanist perspective encloses her archive within a set of impossibilities, restricted by the limits of gender, language, or the “human.”

“We have to work from behind to challenge the front,” Sara Ahmed states. Instead of following “a part that fronts,” in the sense of the vanguard or the avant-garde (which literally means “front” or “before”), Ahmed proposes that we can work differently, aiming to transform by positioning ourselves differently from the “the rear-guard,” not the avant-garde. In Solanas’s case, she always approaches us from the outskirts and from behind, often read in terms of failure, because her presumed goals were not successfully executed. Seeing Solanas’s project as failed implies that it is terminated, concluded, and historical. I propose here that Solanas exceeded the territories of humanity, femininity, or writing by bringing about ruptures that are still taking place, still very much a part of our lives. Solanas was a human being, a woman, a writer and a feminist, but she was also the embodiment of an extreme otherness, an otherness that contradicts and complicates those very categories. Perhaps one of the lingering questions Solanas haunts us with is, “What in the human are we not willing to see as human?” Arriving from the rear, Solanas imposes her presence upon us and continues to linger as she participates in the conversation between the human and what has been pushed to its margins.


1. I use Harding’s concept of the avant-garde here, that largely is based on an understanding of the avant-garde in terms of the historical avant-garde as well as the neo-avant-garde. In following Solanas’s role within the avant-garde, I will work with simplified versions of the avant-garde and the humanist tendencies. These are more complex in their workings than have the time and the space to look into here, instead my focus will be to describe a general interplay between the two tendencies.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller- Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998. Print.

Ahmed, Sara. “A Phenomenology of the Vanguard.” 2013. Feministkilljoys. Jan 1, 2014. http://feministkilljoys.com/2013/12/01/a-phenomenology-of-the-vanguard/

Bockris, Victor. Warhol: The Biography. London: Da Capo Press, 2009. Print.

Butler, Judith. Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death. New York: Columbia, 2000. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. “We Who Are Free, Are We Free?” Critical Inquiry. Trans. Chris Miller. 19:2. 1993. 201-219.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Ed. Marie-Loise Mallet. Trans. David Willis. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Print.

Ebert, John David. Dead Celebrities, Living Icons: Tragedy and Fame in the Age of the Multimedia Superstar. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010. Print.

Harding, James H. “The Simplest Surrealist Act: Valerie Solanas and the (Re)Assertion of Avantgarde Priorities.” 2001. TDR 45:4. 142-162.

Heller, Dana. “Shooting Solanas: Radical Feminist History and the Technology of Failure.” 2009. Feminist Studies. 27:1. 167-189.

Heyd, Thomas. “Understanding Performance Art: Art Beyond Art.” British Journal of Aesthetics 31: 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. 68 -73.

Mader, Mary Beth. “Antigone’s Line.” Bulletin de la Société Américaine de Philosophie. 2005 15:1. 1-32.

Puchner, Martin. “Manifesto = Theatre.” Theatre Journal 54:3. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2002. 449-465.

Ronell, Avital. “Deviant Payback: The Aims of Valerie Solanas.” SCUM Manifesto. London/New York: Verso, 2004. Print.

Solanas, Valerie. SCUM Manifesto. London/New York: Grove Press, 2004. Print.

Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.

Marit Bugge is an independent scholar based in Berlin. She holds a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Oslo, where she specialized in feminist and avant-garde literary theory. In 2015, she will be presenting at the Lesbian Lives conference and at the American Comparative Literature Association annual meeting.

Previous Piece

Comments are closed.