“Sometimes you have to scream to be heard” — Avital Ronell on the aims of Valerie Solanas
"Solanas shows up as a victim of the failed performative, as one who felt her verbal velocities could reach no one in a way that would truly mark or unhinge the brutal protocols of lived reality. At the same time, Valerie Solanas, who took no prisoners, took pleasure in the injurious effects of language and, with Lacanian precision, understood that words are bodies that can be hurled at the other, they can land in the psyche or explode in the soma. A hurtful utterance can give you hives, make you want to throw up, put a dent in your appetite, or summon up any number of somatic responses and physical collapses." — Avital Ronell
In this edited extract from the new paperback edition of SCUM Manifesto, Avital Ronell reconsiders Solanas's infamous text in light of her social milieu, Derrida's The Ends of Man (written in the same year), Judith Butler's Excitable Speech, and notorious feminist icons from Medusa, Medea and Antigone, to Lizzie Borden, Lorenna Bobbit and Aileen Wournos, illuminating the evocative exuberance of Solanas's dark tract. She also examines Solanas' shooting of Andy Warhol a man that had "exercised too much control over her life".
To mark the paperback edition of this book, SCUM Manifesto, along with all our feminist reading, is 50% off on our site until June 6th. Full details here.
In 1968 Jacques Derrida brought out his pathbreaking essay, “The Ends of Man,” and Valerie Solanas began earnestly distributing [self-published] SCUM Manifesto. In June of that year she gunned down Andy Warhol as he was speaking on the telephone. These events may seem miles apart on the cultural shock charts, yet they are linked in ways that urge us to reflect on their ineluctable contiguities. Both Derrida and Solanas are interested in the aims and finality of the concept “man.” Admittedly, that may be where their improbable rendezvous ends, some here on an existential corner of 1968, situated among the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Hampton, and Bobby Kennedy, at the moment they shared the beat of a feverishly agitated Zeitgeist. This was the moment in any case when “man,” getting a political pounding, was up against the philosophical wall and steadily losing ground. Derrida, conceptually fitted for the job, was concerned with the excess of man, which Solanas, we could say, enacted. Where he exposed the Greek ideal of anthropos, she went for the jugular of referential man, busting through layers of philosophical history to put out her own “ends of man,” her own limit case of the classical unity of man.
More than anything else, Valerie Solanas wanted to be a writer. When she couldn’t distribute her work, she went after metonymies of her declared targets. But now I am shooting off too rapidly. Let us back down in order to get a sense of Valerie Solanas and the nonplace that she rigorously occupies. Barely representable or representative, she was a speck and spectre on the margins of extremist writing. Her texts were loaded with irony yet pointed at the real. Confined to the precincts of parasitical utterance, she adopted the language of a pest, plugging the kind of speech that counters while resembling hate speech. Strangely, she was meant to ride the dark side of a foreclosive wave, opening up a field of startling intensities by saying the unspeakable and then vanishing with the near notarization of what she had dared to say. She was on the verge of instituting her sexual hermeneutics, at least in terms of language games. But Solanas was not about to acknowledge her part or participation in any male-driven language game. Perhaps it would be helpful to allow that she had positioned herself on the other side of hate speech. When launching a verbal assault she struck where no terror had been located. Or, the terror against which she set up her linguistic shop had not been heeded, addressed. Not even recognized: “Most philosophers, not quite so cowardly [as most men], face the fact that male lacks exist in men, but still can’t face the fact that they exist in men only. So they label the male condition the Human Condition; pose their nothingness problem, which horrifies them, as a philosophical dilemma”.
So. Sometimes you have to scream to be heard. This is what Heidegger says regarding Nietzsche in What Is Called Thinking? Nietzsche, the shiest and most quiet of men had to scream, instituting the famous inscribing/cry – the schreiben/schrei, cri/écrit or gritto/escrito – with which philosophy must evermore contend. The subtitles will come in handy later in our discussion of Solanas’s foreign currency. The game suspended, language falters, starts sputtering, turns into a cry. Interestingly, when Heidegger in Lecture V of Thinking? has him screaming – the translation came out also in 1968 – he also has Nietzsche figured as a woman, even momentarily as a scolding mother. The passage to transgendered Nietzsche is sudden; it occurs without transition or argument. Miss Nietzsche is suddenly screaming. We do not have to get into the particulars of his philosophical sex change at this point, but only to retain the feminization that occurs, even to Friedrich Nietzsche, when a thinker must scream to get her thoughts across. A voice carries over the recalcitrant expanse. When the rules are bent and the thinking field is not level – a constitutive predicament for the girlie-men at the writing desk – an inscribing/cry gets transmitted across the desert of unheeding. If you are pegged as a woman your scream might be noted as part of an ensemble of subaltern feints – the complaint, the nagging, the picking, the chatter, the nonsense by which women’s speech has been largely depreciated or historically tagged. Other quasi-linguistic worlds open up in this space, springing from the noncanonized tropes of moaning and bitching. Few would want to scan the realm of garbled language games.
Scouring the hetero-rhetorical unconscious of the social milieu through which she ventured, Valerie Solanas found herself 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 – by the mere fact of its incessant institutional collaborations. Maybe she exploited the failed performative for all its worth, knowing all along that failure was a matter only of degree. Who, besides the occasional psychoanalyst, imagined themselves not to fail in the domain of fateful utterance? Judith Butler has devoted the book, Excitable Speech, to a wide range of linguistic vulnerabilities. At one point she explains the stakes besetting one who tries to hit a linguistic target. When I say, “I condemn you,” Butler writes, should I not be “in a position to have my words considered as binding[;] then I may well have uttered a speech act, but the act is in Austin’s sense, unhappy or infelicitous: you escape unscathed.” In some ways, Solanas shows up as a victim of the failed performative, as one who felt her verbal velocities could reach no one in a way that would truly mark or unhinge the brutal protocols of lived reality. At the same time, Valerie Solanas, who took no prisoners, took pleasure in the injurious effects of language and, with Lacanian precision, understood that words are bodies that can be hurled at the other, they can land in the psyche or explode in the soma. A hurtful utterance can give you hives, make you want to throw up, put a dent in your appetite, or summon up any number of somatic responses and physical collapses.
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 – appears to indicate the scope of its dilemma. Valerie wanted to draw a contract, the urgency of which was to be impressed upon any number of potential signatories. She took her petition, her social contract, to the streets – something Rousseau had done when he was cooking up his revolution. Like all social contracts, it had an anti-social edge. But this was different, to say the least, though it participated in the destructive demands of prior manifestos. One thinks of the Futurist Manifesto with its uncringing attack on women: “We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman … We will destroy … feminism.” Maybe the Solanas tract was payback; it was clocked to strike the time of response to all shameless woman-hating manifestos and their counterparts, the universalizers. No matter how you cut it, universal – whether common or communist – meant “man.” Solanas was intent on ending it and tightening the noose around the finitude of man.
Solanas herself, through all sorts of detours and grammatical aberrations, was bent on showing through her writings and actions that the presumed unity of man was a dangerous fiction. Sometimes she would escape the fictional layerings, as if she had forgotten, and upset herself with real, particularized men (who themselves weren’t so real as all that). There were moments when she disclaimed the acronymization of her title, refuting that it stood for “Society for the Cutting Up of Men”. A mere “literary device” and belated add-on, the gloss on SCUM permitted the title to pass into other languages with annihilating precision: Manifest der Gesellschaft zur Vernichtung der Männer (1969), Manifesto de la Organización para el Extermino del Hombre (1977), Manifesto per l’eliminzione dei masch (1994), and whatever it says to the same effect in Czech (1998). The only break in the exterminating inflection of the presumptive title occurs in the French rendering: L’Unique et son ombre (1987). With the exception of the French, then, SCUM, or rather the extraction, “Cutting Up,” has been translated bluntly as extermination, annihilation, elimination.
One cannot deny the pernicious soundtrack that Solanas lays down in her text – on every interpretable level there are indexes of rage, murderous intention, finality and telic purpose. There was androphobic noise at every turn. At the same time there is evidence of other sound tracks that run interference with the dominant tones and semantic registers of the text’s purported meaning. There are orchestrated slippages, unstoppable flipsides, countermanding orders, measured contradictions, internal freakouts and logical insurrections. Valerie steers clear of replicating masculinist topoi and the simple call to arms with which we might associate other historically outraged petitions. Instead, she introduces static and interference to bear on every possible referential stronghold without, however, loosening her grip on the troubled signifiers she has in her sights: Man, Father, State, Money. Models melt, offering no solid grounding for the expression of outrage. Revolution is itself tainted by the insufficiency of the signifier, the corruption of male-marked colonizations of language. “No genuine social revolution can be accomplished by the male … The male ‘rebel’ is a farce”. Still, the revolutionary and rebel start out and up as “male.” In terms of her sense of slippage, Valerie Solanas runs with the best of them. None of these terms stick, which is why she remains a chronic misfirer.
It would be unwarranted to turn Valerie Solanas into a blindingly lucid catalogue of contemporary theoretical thought; at the same time, however, it would be ignorant to disavow what made her language, her appeal, her compulsive effacement, burdened confusion and Hegelian struggle for recognition possible. Whether Solanas knowingly climbed into the think tank with the rest of them is immaterial. She borrowed the language and flashed the enduring complicities of urgent philosophical concerns. She was “inscribed” and as such took to the margins of major philosophemes or writers’ blocs. She belongs with them, even if only as a limping straggler and wounded anomaly. The questions for us today might be: What made it possible for Valerie Solanas to shoot off the way she did? Why is she rebounding and returning now, in arguably the most masculinist-imperalist phase of the American world takeover? and, Where do we locate her – how and when does she arrive?
On June 3, 1968, Solanas blasted Andy Warhol three times with a .32 caliber automatic. She got him when he took a call. Pronounced clinically dead, the famous white zombie revived after five hours of surgery. When giving herself up, Solanas told the cops that Warhol had exercised too much control over her life. He had promised to produce her play, promptly lost her manuscript, and then “refused to pay attention to me.” (Andy had liked her title, “Up Your Ass,” but wondered if Valerie wasn’t a female cop trying to bait him.) The Factory was not open to her. He stalled on giving her a free pass, even when his suspicions were allayed, and eventually threw her a role in “I, a Man.” Solanas, playing a lesbian, added spunk to the film, but Warhol was not inclined to move forward with her. That was well and good, bad enough, but what did he mean he lost her manuscript? In May, 1967, Warhol says he has lost the script, he is overwhelmed with unsolicited materials, he receives tons of manuscripts and can’t manage to hold on to them. This is the time before Kinko’s or PCs or what have you. Warhol had thrown the script in the garbage, just like that, she thought, or – inversion – he had held on to it, stolen it right from under her. Valerie began telephoning incessantly. She starts calling him at home. Warhol is alarmed that she had his home number.
Her assaults begin – and end – telephonically. After his recovery she calls him again, threatening, extorting, demanding. She got him while he was on the phone, there and not there, turning his attention from her, addressing an absent other. This was intolerable to Valerie Solanas. The telephone was turned against her, its umbilicus twisting. There was something about Warhol’s nonpresence that infuriated her. She had entered a struggle for recognition of nearly Hegelian proportions with a ghost. A ghost who presided over an alternative universe – one of outcasts, queers, sexual radicals – from which she had been banished. She could not even obtain the password to this world of landed lunatics! Too or insufficiently deviant, she had no home among the homos, finding herself – if at all – locked out of her only or last chance to belong somewhere. He was on the other end. Click … Click … Click … phone, gun, film, clicking in her head, shooting … Click … Strangely, shooting him was connecting with him, becoming his addressee.
After the attempted murder – she had turned herself in the same evening to a rookie traffic cop – newspaper headlines stated “Actress is Held.” Valerie was concerned. “I’m really a writer,” she advised reporters. That identification is about the only “I am” declaration one gets from her besides the title into which she insinuated herself, “I, a Man.” Otherwise one is confronted with a host of denials: “I’m no lesbian. I have no time for sex of any kind,” is more her style – she mostly inhabits the no, the non bound by the nom, as Lacan would say. As one of her critics rightly observes, she was nonliberal, nonmarketable, a reflector of nonbourgeois feminism, if that’s what it is.
Valerie Solanas, for her part, came out shooting, and, by means of typewriter and armament, shot her way through repressed levels of enemy positioning. Most enemies, if they are women, are detained, tagged, put under house arrest, stung in ways that keep them working on the signifying chain gang of the patriarchal order, serving the Man. Valerie broke out momentarily, broke the chain in what amounts to a psychotic outburst, before she was snuffed out. But her momentary flash opened the lens on what they always suspected, whether she was part of the girl gang of Ovid’s Heroides or her name was Medusa, Medea, Antigone, Lizzie Borden, Lorena Bobbitt, Aileen Wournos, Christine and Lea Papin, Solanas: a terrible cutting machine was set in gear. The cutting that Valerie officially prescribed was that of unworking. Women were to join the workforce in order to disrupt smooth operations, in order generously to unravel and disburse. Telephone operators were to give out free phone calls and scramble the master codes; others were to introduce a system of covert glitches and general sabotage in order to destroy the vital order of things. No sudden blowups but a steady undermining, a kind of viral integrity meant to bring the whole house down. Again, these strategies were intended to accelerate the effects of an already immunodeficient social and fiscal order. Her goal was to abolish money, the symbolic exchange of value.
Valerie, she wanted a more direct assessment of value. She abhorred abstract capital fluctuations; she dreaded substitutive tradeoffs. Men had created capital flow as part of an exploitative economy. Plus everything started off with borrowing power, borrowing off women, inventing property, gambling on an originary, projective deficit. In the mean and lean time, Valerie wanted to be valued. Warhol hadn’t paid enough … attention to her. She lacked credit and credibility. Warhol was a substitute. She first went after her publisher, we know that. He was himself no doubt a replacement for someone or something situated in the substitutive chain of soul embezzlers. Something was stolen from Valerie Solanas. That is how she expressed herself – a manuscript, a life, a chance, a place, her say, her bodily integrity (her father had molested her), her dignity (“No wonder you’re a dyke,” Viva, egged on by Warhol, derisively had said; “You typed this yourself? Why don’t you work for us as a receptionist?” Warhol had hissed at her.) In writing and as writing Solanas thought she could even the score and reimburse herself, borrow against herself, draw interest, secure some futures – yes, save herself, build some credit and maintain a savings account, balance the existential books. She wanted money abolished, but the value of the foreclosed systems would inevitably return and rebound, they would necessarily grow. She could, she thought, start from scratch.
Valerie Solanas was only ever starting from scratch. She was always scratching at the surface, at the door. As personalities go, she was in fact shy. At some level she wanted to trade in her name value; a lot rode on the valorization of Valerie. This may seem lame but some Daseins are attached to their names, commanded by secret, if anasemic voice controls that prompt them to affix their signatures on texts or deeds, or even to just write themselves out on tree trunks. Anyway, it was she who said time and again that Andy Warhol hadn’t paid her enough attention. With nearly ironic fatefulness, Warhol was a stand-in, part of a serialized chain linking back to primal indignities. She was bereft, exploited, chronically undervalued. Warhol was only the last in the series, which is to say that, in picking him off she was shooting at the whole series, popping all the spinoffs and simulacra of man for which Andy stood – and fell. It could be that when Valerie broke out of her text, firming up her adversarial stance, she did not intend to go for the jugular of a person or human being. She was plotting against a placeholder or symbolic clip that held every oppressive signifier together as a screen for a more original injury. He was at once the most singular and most general of provocative object choices. She was fighting a ghost or a mere alias of meaning, which is why she was bound to misfire and fail to kill. Warhol was on the telephone, part of a machine that refused her calls. In any case, her calls were transferred in such a way as to assure that she did not feel addressed. Warhol was not just a person or interlocutor, if he had ever been these things to her. She pounced where he began to generalize and dominate, where he bloated up as an idea and hardened as a cultural icon. He fanned out to assume different morphs and meanings. In her mind he grew into the generality of man. It is hard to kill a generality, a genre or gender. As said, she ended up shooting two men that day, just as she had gone looking for two men, Maurice and then Andy. It was always double-barreled, bifocalized, two men in her lens. If at all linkable to the body crimes of her father, her sights were set by a Lacanian angle. There are two fathers, the imaginary and the real father – the father as Great Fucker, the funnel to a thoroughly disappointing God. There are two enemies, which is why she also had to divide men into two – the so-called straight, incomplete female-males and the queers.
When she names the enemy he tends to come in twos: SCUM refutes “faith in the essential goodness of Daddy and policemen”. Here the goal is set not merely on subversion. Subversion is dependent on the system it criticizes. Her relation to the enemy will prove more subversive than subversion because the invasion which Solanas envisions involves secret strikes, consistently covert actions – invasions on the order of microbial assault: “SCUM will always be furtive, sneaky, underhanded (although SCUM murders will always be known to be such)”. Her attack plan is also, for the most part, decidedly low tech: “If SCUM ever marches, it will be over the President’s stupid, sickening face; if SCUM ever strikes, it will be in the dark with a six-inch blade”. She cannot abide forms of violence that implicitly honor the law or seem addressed by the law. She seeks an exteriority to law and the governmental apparatus based on law, an abiding place for the outlaw:
SCUM will always operate on a criminal as opposed to a civil disobedience basis, that is, as opposed to openly violating the law and going to jail in order to draw attention to an injustice. Such tactics acknowledge the rightness of the overall system and are used only to modify it slightly, change specific laws. SCUM is out to destroy the system, not attain certain rights within it. Also, SCUM, always selfish, always cool – will always aim to avoid detection and punishment.
In the end, the battle lines are redrawn: “The conflict, therefore, is not between females and males, but between SCUM”. By now, something seems to have been switched on us. Either Solanas has already discursively eliminated the male of the species or her furtive target zone had always been determined by two types of women vying for domination against each other. (The state psychiatrist stipulated that it had always been about the maternal function, her mother’s extreme withholding pattern and not so much the paternal intrusions.) Women, she states, are responsible for a demented relation to men. Men in fact are “docile and easily led, easily subjected to the domination of any female who cares to dominate him”. The war she wages turns out to be against the type of woman who relinquishes her capacity for domination – the “nice, passive, accepting, ‘cultivated,’ polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy’s girls, who can’t cope with the unknown; … who feel secure only with Big Daddy standing by, with a big strong man to lean on and with a fat, hairy face in the White House; who are too cowardly to face up to the hideous reality of what man is, what Daddy is”. And so forth. The point to be assured here is that, even for Valerie Solanas, woman is the enemy of the community. For all her efforts at detaching from the grip of legal, conceptual, technoscientific, crushingly misogynist law, Solanas, at least momentarily, scapegoats and minoritizes women. To be fair, the emphasis should be placed on a type of woman she goes after. She fusillades the one who supports the masks and charades of masculinist fictions, refusing to get her ontological bearings on the essential being of man (“what man is”). Her decision to pinpoint women grows out of a logical promotion of what she says. If men are weak, reactive, submissive beings, destroyed by an unbreakable complicity clamping together biology and technology – if they are bound to crumble and their game is cosmically called off – then the only troubling site of interference or subterfuge belongs to woman, or women. They are the ones to be feared, the very ones who play power as so many forms of weakness, strength as masochistic fatefulness – systematically downplaying a tremendous endowment of strength. They hold the cards only to deal against themselves. This is the perversion against which Valerie lashes out. The “secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females” are few. “SCUM is too impatient to hope and wait for the debrainwashing of millions of assholes”. It’s getting lonely as a top.
When she bottomed out, Solanas, homeless and destitute, is said to have passed away in San Francisco. It was 1988. Whether or not she had lost her brutal ironic edge, nobody knows. Her mother claims that she lived a happy life, populated with friends and gentle experiences, to the end. One of the questions that the name Valerie Solanas continues to raise, at least for me, concerns those who have an acute sense of injustice. They drag around at the end, stuporous, drained, shivering in near autistic spheres of solitude. Their language shivers still. I think of Nietzsche, slumped over. I see the others, the “men,” the “women,” whatever they are or thought they were. On some nights, Valerie’s weariness washes over me. I hear her typing out in the apartment above mine: “The shit you have to go through in this world just to survive.”
PS – In college, Valerie Solanas majored in psych.
— Avital Ronell, "Deviant Payback: The Aims of Valerie Solanas", lightly edited and taken from the introduction to SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
SCUM Manifesto is out now in paperback and 50% off when you buy it alongside another book on our Feminist Reading List (until June 6th). See more details here.
#Killallmen: 7 things you need to know about the SCUM Manifesto — Ray Filar, journalist, editor and performance artist, gives us the rundown of the best and the worst of Valerie Solanas' controversial SCUM Manifesto.
SCUM Manifesto Revisited: The Verso Podcast with Juliet Jacques, Ray Filar and Sophie Mayer — taking a historical view on its problematic elements, Juliet Jacques, Ray Filar and Sophie Mayer discuss the SCUM Manifesto's violence and gender and biological essentialism in light of feminist and queer discourses since it's first publication — as well as Solanas' visions of work and automation, and why the text still thrills today.
Verso is launching the new paperback edition of Valeria Solanas' SCUM Manifesto with a competition where you could win a limited edition Rosa Luxemburg tote bag containing the SCUM Manifesto, Dialectic of Sex AND some special SCUM badges emblazoned with three of Solanas' key demands, ‘Overthrow the government’, ‘Eliminate the money system’ and, of course, ‘Destroy the male sex.’
To win this bundle, all you need to do is to share Verso's Scum Revisited podcast on Twitter mentioning @VersoBooks with the hashtag #ScumRevisited, or reblog the podcast on Tumblr using the hashtag #ScumRevisited. The competition will finish Monday 6th June, 4pm GMT and winners will be picked at random. Good luck!