Academic journal article Chicago Review

Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern

Article excerpt

Janet Lyon. Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Janet Lyon's study of the most polemical discursive form in the modern public sphere, the manifesto, seeks to understand the relationship between that ardent and sometimes scurrilous artifact, and political modernity itself. Her discussion, rendered with a view to the manifesto's historical conjunctures, begins with the mid-seventeenth-century Digger movement, wends through Jacobinism and female suffrage, and ultimately lights upon Donna Haraway's postmodern, self displacing address to cyborg consciousness. Her purpose is to convince anyone interested in the definition of the modern political subject that the history of the manifesto is also the history of that subject's evocation.

With a confident voice and a host of examples, Lyon illustrates the topsy-Curvy logic by which these tracts not only amplify the intentions of activists and revolutionaries but define and enact new identities. The manifestic format, in other words, doesn't merely serve an entity called "the People," but also elicits it. As she writes, the manifesto "is both a trace and a tool of change." It evokes the agents of change by positing a new speaking position while repudiating the very fact of its newness. There is an implicit rhetorical violence embedded in the moment when the manifesto registers its bombastic "we," what Lyon calls the manifesto's "seizing control of first causes"; it then galvanizes these enacted identities into action. As she illustrates, the manifesto positions itself within the evolving framework of new republics, new democratic ideals, women's enfranchisementsucceeding as a way of scripting new voices into the political sphere. Some of these voices sparked and then seemed to fade. Lyon not only resurrects them but reinserts them into a history of modern contestation, the results of which we live with today. For example, her book fills in vital gaps in our understanding of the avant garde by highlighting female artist-polemicists, namely Mina Loy and Valentine de Saint-Point, who were eclipsed by the legacy of their male compatriots. Her reconsideration of their manifestoes bridges a gap between their polemics and second-wave feminist thinking, continental and stateside; were this gap to persist, we would be left with an incomplete understanding of the "nonessentializing feminist aesthetic" the latter group sought to perfect.

One cannot fault Lyon for failing at what should be an impossible task. …

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