The relationship of irony and the manifesto is, at best, a fraught one. Often understood to be earnest, heady, if not a bit heavy-handed, the manifesto has conventionally been approached by artists, activists, and ideologues as something akin to the antithesis of irony’s duplicity. Yet as both a scholar and an activist, I find myself regularly attracted to documents that combine irony and the manifesto in felicitous and not to mention humorous ways. The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army’s provocative press releases before the 2007 G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany. The Yes Men’s maddening prefigurative declarations in their faux newspapers. Kommune 1’s notorious department store manifestos. The list could go on. In both my dissertation research on the relationship of irony, activism, and performance in times of crisis, as well as my own experiences as an activist-performer, I have found the ironic manifesto to be a formidable and performative form of protest. For this workshop, I will be presenting on both my scholarly and activist experiences with the fraught yet felicitous bedfellows of irony and the manifesto. I will offer an excerpt from research I have conducted for a dissertation chapter on a series of manifestos produced by the 1960s West German activist-collective Kommune 1. In addition, I will share examples of ironic manifestos I have produced with the activist-performance group, the UC Movement for Efficient Privatization (UCMeP).
Burn Department Store Burn!: The Manifesto as a Performative Form of Protest
In July 1967, a highly publicized trial commenced in West Berlin against two student activists, Rainer Langhans and Fritz Teufel. The pair were accused of inciting “life threatening violence” after handing out a series of manifestos on the campus of the Free University, Berlin. With other members of the West Berlin activist collective Kommune 1, Langhans and Teufel produced the manifestos to parody the conservative West German media who just days earlier had dubiously connected a recent accidental department store fire in Brussels to a series of anti-Vietnam War protests in the Belgian capital. The faux manifestos ironically praised the fire as a victory for the peace movement in Europe and declared arson to be a new, innovative form of protest. In the trial that ensued, the prosecution, lacking both confessions and witnesses attesting to the authors’ malevolent intentions, commissioned a panel of artists and professors to determine whether the manifestos were artistic statements or incitements violence. Following the panel’s judgment that the manifestos were “only provocative statements,” Langhans and Teufel were released. Yet just a week later, future Red Army Faction founders, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, both friends of the Kommune 1 defendants, answered the manifestos’ provocative call by setting fire to a pair of department stores in Frankfurt, marking the start of nearly three decades of left-wing political violence in Germany.
By drawing on archival research documenting Kommune 1’s so-called “flier trial”, this paper explores the performative potential of the ironic manifesto. In addition to mounting a clever critique of West Germany’s reactionary mainstream media, the Kommune 1 manifestos produced legal consequences and made interventions into the public sphere that its writers never intended. Considering their efficaciousness as well as the indeterminacy of their effects, how might the Kommune 1 fliers contribute to our understanding of the manifesto as a performative document? Given the significant and varied political fallout they produced, how might one think of the manifesto as a performative form of protest? How can the written manifesto as a performative form of protest challenge our understanding of the relationship between performativity and protest as hinging on rituals of embodiment? And what questions does the reliance of the Kommune 1 fliers on the media for their mass circulation raise about both the limits and the possibilities of the manifesto’s ability to intervene in the public sphere?