Scott McLemee
Dark Superstar
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The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2 July 2004

It was called the Factory, and what it manufactured was a new sensibility. It was the studio where, during the mid-1960s, Andy Warhol mass-produced his pop-art canvases, and "directed" underground films in which his entourage shot up drugs, bent their genders, and threw histrionic fits. What fueled creative production at the Factory was the energy of psychic disintegration. Everybody was a social outcast -- and everybody was a "superstar," to use the expression Warhol coined. Everybody, that is, except Valerie Solanas, a writer and sometime prostitute. Even the most extreme Factory personnel considered Solanas a basket case.

Solanas was the founder and sole member of the Society for Cutting Up Men. She distributed copies of her book, SCUM Manifesto, to women who she thought might be interested in her theory that the Y chromosome was a biological accident that should be rectified immediately. (She was also willing to sell the Manifesto to men, at a higher price.) Convinced that Warhol was part of conspiracy to exploit her, Solanas shot him, almost fatally, in June 1968. "I have a lot of very involved reasons," she said following her arrest. "Read my manifesto and it will tell you what I am."

As the elegant new edition of SCUM Manifesto just published by Verso may attest, fascination with Solanas has only grown with time. After three years of institutionalization, Solanas returned to the streets; she died in 1988. An unforgettable performance by Lili Taylor in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol portrayed Solanas as brilliant, funny, and unhinged -- prone to violence, but also capable of fleeting moments of charm. The director, Mary Harron, in introducing a book based on her script, described spending years tracking down elusive bits of information about Solanas's life -- a project driven by the overwhelming emotional impact of reading the Manifesto. "Valerie, who grew up in a world where male supremacy was taken for granted," wrote Ms. Harron, "was possessed by a vision that everything she had been told about the natural order of society was a lie. ... The Manifesto has a primal kick; it reached a core of anger in me I didn't know I possessed."

Accompanying the Verso edition is an essay by Avital Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University, who finds Solanas embedded within a cultural tradition running from Friedrich Nietzsche through Jacques Derrida (who was writing about the erasure of "Man" as a transcendental signifier at just about the time Solanas was rallying forces to liquidate men as a gender). Solanas "carries theoretical issues to their assigned limits," writes Ms. Ronell. Her manifesto was, in effect, an "untimely meditation," to borrow the title of an early work by Nietzsche, another loner and intellectual extremist who spent some time in an asylum.

***

Marginal though Valerie Solanas was, she was not quite alone. In New York, she had some contact with the Lower East Side branch of Students for a Democratic Society -- a collective of artists and radicals also known as the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. "The relationship with Solanas is shrouded in mystery," says John McMillan, a tutor in history and literature at Harvard University, who is researching the group for a book on '60s radicalism. "They were very unsavory," he says, "but some were surprisingly smart and knowledgeable."

Following Solanas's arrest, the group issued a leaflet in solidarity with her. Their prose poem called Warhol a "plastic fascist ... nonman shot by the reality of his dream as the cultural assassin emerges -- a tough chick with a bop cap and a thirty-eight -- the true vengeance of Dada … the Sweet Assassin lives."

The notoriety gained from shooting Warhol also created an audience for her ideas within the embryonic women's-liberation movement. In Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975, published by City Lights in 2001, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz quotes from a letter she wrote in 1968, after spending "three intense hours with Valerie" in an institution for the criminally insane. "Perhaps destroyers like her can never transform their energy but only inspire others," wrote Ms. Dunbar-Ortiz, who is now a professor emerita of ethnic and women's studies at California State University at Hayward. She recalls quoting passages from the Manifesto during early debates within the radical feminist movement.

In 1970, excerpts from Solanas's work appeared in Sisterhood Is Powerful, an influential anthology published by Random House. Within a few years, the Manifesto was translated into several languages; by 1994, it had become available on the Internet. After all these years, its opening sentence still rings the utopian note with a certain manic intensity: "Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex."

Which implicitly raises some questions about the new Verso edition. Given that Solanas's work is freely available online -- not to mention that she hated capitalism -- why sell it in hardback for $16? Why is there a box cutter on the cover? Not to mention the attractive little promotional box cutters distributed by Verso, with the words "SCUM Manifesto" imprinted on the handles. The book's design is as eye-catching as Verso's 1998 edition of The Communist Manifesto, which won a marketing award. But isn't turning extremist literature into a hip coffee-table ornament an example of what Marx called commodity fetishism?

"We really enjoy the irony of it," says Amy Scholder, the U.S. editor for Verso. "We have an impeccable reputation for publishing radical books that are appealing on many levels, including the aesthetic." About the box cutters, she says: "We wanted an iconic cover. We were thinking about how radicals were being called terrorists, regardless of their politics or their actions. It was a kind of tongue-in-cheek thing to do, to say we're offering our own brand of terrorist."

Something about her response sounds suspiciously Warholian: a cool, ironic detachment, far from SCUM's earnest urgency. Contemplating the promotional box cutter, a reader of the Manifesto must ponder the fine line between radical chic and cutesy terrorism. Just remember, it's not a toy. Like the language of the manifesto, it is sharp. Be careful or somebody could get hurt.