Manifesto: A Lost Cause?
In his In Defense of Lost Causes, Slavoj Žižek offers the following provocation:
"The movie Borat is at its most subversive not when the hero is simply rude and offensive (for our Western eyes and ears, at least), but, on the contrary, when he desperately tries to be polite. During a dinner party in an upper-class house, he asks where the toilet is, whence he then returns with his excrement carefully wrapped in a plastic bag, and asks his hostess in a hushed voice where he should put it. This is a model metaphor of a truly subversive gesture: bringing those in power a bag of excrement and politely asking them how to get rid of it" (Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (New York: Verso, 2009)18-19.)
Could we perhaps think about Borat's gesture and Žižek's commentary as we prepare for our shift session? After all, the manifesto might well belong to the category of "lost causes" Žižek summons in his book, alongside the reign of terror instigated by Robespierre and Foucault's assertions on the power of the Event subtending the Iranian Revolution. In each case, the hegemony of ideological positions has silenced the cause by transforming it into a “lost cause” such that the politically subversive gesture folded within Robespierre's revolutionary terror becomes a bloody, not-to-be-repeated mistake; the Freedom recognized by Foucault within the Event of the Iranian Revolution has been dismissed as the skewed vision of a near-Orientalist white philosopher existing necessarily outside of Islamic subjectivity; the power of "making public" expressed through the manfesti of the Futurists, Amiri Baraka, and the National Theatre of Scotland (just to name three, seemingly unrelated figures/groups) dwindles within the commodified jargon of artistic praxis unfolding within the space of late capitalism. Defending these lost causes means recognizing Robespierre's impulses, Foucault's theorization, and Marinetti's Synthetic Theatre (for example) as right steps in the wrong direction, as radical gestures not taken far enough, as exemplary failures fitting Beckett's motto: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Another case study: Ruzzante. In 1521, Ruzzante, a Paduan performer, appeared before Cardinal Marco Cornaro to commemorate the Holy One's rise through the hierarchy of the Church. Instead of praising the religious figure, however, Ruzzante handed him a bag of feces and asked him to stow it, so to speak, by confronting the Cardinal with verbal abuse and a seven-point plan for religious reform.
To the mighty man in purple, Ruzzante offered the following observation: “And then I almost shit from laughing, when they said that you are a great man. But they don’t see you…You’re just a small man, right? You are a great small man, and not a great man.” The butt of the joke here is the Cardinal himself, specifically his short stature. This quip was a nice introduction to a more specific criticism:
So they say you are Cardinal, and that as Cardinal you are one of those who guards the gates to Heaven, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think those people have never seen it, Heaven, or the gates…Now, I’ll tell you: Cardinal means a great rich man, that in this world can do as he likes, and when he dies (because we all die), even if you haven’t been all that good, you can go straight to Heaven, and if the gate is barred, you ‘unhinge’ it [la scardinale], and you enter straight by any means and every hole. (Prima Orazione)
For Ruzzante, it was not bad enough that such a great small man had so much power over the daily lives of Paduan peasants (Ruzzante introduced himself as a spokesperson for that group of people), but that, in addition, the Cardinal used his earthly power to live it up and then used his celestial position to pass freely into Heaven by hook or by crook. Using his own status as an invited performer in front of a very powerful religious figure to the best possible advantage, Ruzzante made public the most visible (but seldom articulated) abuses of Church power for the benefit of a live audience, Cardinal Cornaro included. As with Borat, Ruzzante’s subversive gesture was polite: immanent criticism of the word “Cardinal” itself, as if to suggest that the very position of Cardinal carries within it a ruthless dishonesty. (“Scardenale” means “to unhinge” in Ruzzante’s dialect. The addition of the prosthetic “s” in front of the “cardinale” serves to negate the “Cardinal” and turn him on his head, as it were. Ruzzante’s most profound linguistic pun of this sort was “snaturale,” a word that signified the de-naturalizing of nature of that Ruzzante saw in his rural Padua during the Venetian development of that territory in the early sixteenth-century.)
Ruzzante's manifesto transitioned from a series of oblique etymological barbs and pun-ridden jabs to a provocative declaration that reads today like the manifesti of twentieth-century artists named above. In total, Ruzzante made seven requests that ranged in scope from proposed changes to the regulations for working on holy feast days and permitting one to eat before Sunday mass, to a demand for higher powers to castrate all philandering priests and to establish the right to take multiple spouses. In the end, the Cardinal made no changes to the Church regulations that governed the bodies and souls of the flock. Ruzzante returned to try his luck in front of the next Cardinal, but the outcome was the same. What can we learn from Ruzzante's failure? How can we fail better than he did?
While Ruzzante's name may not appear regularly in the annals of theatre history or performance studies, his form of expression has appeared time and again in various public fora. Žižek named Borat, but there are two more Ruzzantian figures that come to mind. First, there is Stephen Colbert. His address to the press association in 2006 carries a resemblance to Ruzzante’s brand of frank talk. Second, there is Ricardo Dominguez and his acts of electronic civil disobedience that have borne the signature characteristic of announcing their intentions to the very targets of their political dissidence: “Dear Department of Defense, on so-and-so a date and at so-and-so a time your computer system will crash. Make no mistake, this is an intentional act instigated by me, Ricardo Dominguez…”
In each case, the figures wrangled a viewing public into the subversive act as a kind of ready-made audience that would have no recourse but to watch the scene unfold and to contemplate it. Colbert was not asked to step away from the podium. To the contrary, George W. Bush, sitting no more than three feet away, giggled nervously while Colbert brought up one hot-button topic after another (Bush’s ineloquence, Christian fundamentalism, outsourcing jobs to China, global warming). Dominguez removed the anonymous threat of cyber terrorism by plainly announcing his plan for action to the staff of the DoD, thereby transforming the terrorist act into a space of contemplation. He was eventually sued by the U.S. Government but acquitted after arguing that his “virtual sit-in” that crashed the DoD’s computer system constituted an act of civil disobedience no different in scope and intention than those of the Civil Rights Movement. As for Ruzzante, his entire theatre practice involved these acts of making public that projected a perspective on daily life from the position of the lower classes, the very perspective that was blocked from the site of the wealthy by high villa walls and private inner chambers tucked away within Venetian palazzi. This “public” performance of dissent carries with it the gesture of the manifesto and by reevaluating the manifesto through the historical constellation of figures like Ruzzante we may be able to recharge the efficacy of the manifesto-as-lost-cause.
One final thought. Perhaps “public” here should be given a Kantian inflection?
"The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The private use of one’s reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. By public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him". (“What is Enlightenment?,” in Isaac Kramnick, ed., The Portable Enlightenment Reader, New York: Penguin 1995, p. 5.)
As scholars gathered at this conference, what should we make public? “Enlightenment” may serve as a guide, but only in the sense of “to enlighten,” as in “to make visible.” What do we manifest in Toronto? As Shane Boyle has suggested, the ironic manifesto may indeed offer a model, but I propose that the irony supplement an explicit, subversive gesture of some kind. I would like to see a manifesto workshop that moves beyond the establishment of a critical distance to and toward a Ruzzantian mode of intervention.
For the transcript to Colbert's address at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, go to: http://politicalhumor.about.com/od/stephencolbert/a/colbertbush.htm