Somebody once called me “a walking manifesto”. They were pretty surprised and pissed off when I laughed out loud—because what a terrific compliment, right? You will not be surprised that the person who meant to insult me was a man, and that following closely on the heels of this insult was an admonition to “tone it down”. Then it was my turn to get pretty pissed off—but I was far from surprised.
Has anything like this ever happened to you? If not, I’m glad cave-dwelling is working out for you. But if you are acquainted with what I like to call the Standard American Male (a “walking manifesto” himself, given his hatred for voices other than his own), I cannot recommend the new anthology Burn It Down! highly enough. Subtitle: Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution. Editor: Breanne Fahs, she of the legendarily great book Valerie Solanas, on the legendary “walking manifesto” of same name.
Any Gender Studies professor who isn’t teaching this book is missing something important in their curriculum. This anthology has everything. It includes a few of the usual suspects—Sojourner Truth, Andrea Dworkin, Simone De Beauvoir, and so on—but the bulk of the material in here is much more current and edgy. For those of us that tend to keep to the edgy, we have already gelled some of those into a canon of sorts, and so there are also heavy hitters from the margins—ACT UP, Black Lives Matter, Donna Haraway, Jenny Holzer, and of course Solanas, for starters.
But the deepest delights come from the obscurest corners of the revolution, and no matter how long you’ve been knee-deep in Gender Studies, I promise there are at least a dozen manifestos in here that you have never seen or heard of before: Laboria Cuboniks on alienation, The Bloodsisters Project on tampons, Claude Steiner on psychiatry, Peter Grey on witches, just to name a few. Plus, musicians! Classics from Ani DiFranco and Bikini Kill, and one from the now-defunct cult hero band of Bitch and Animal.
This book is a true feminism buffet, no matter what angle is of interest to you. This is 500 pages of solid gold, and if you teach one of its eight sections per week, that’s half your entire semester already mapped out. The eight sections are: queer/trans, anticapitalist/anarchist, angry/violent, indigenous/women of color, sex/body, hacker/cyborg, trashy/punk, and witchy/bitchy. That’s a pretty exhaustive taxonomy, and a method of division that will no doubt enrage some people. Fahs knows that and does it anyway, and she is absolutely right in doing it anyway. Because any method of organizing manifestos will fail.
Newsflash: they are all intersectional, all full of feeling, and all against some aspects of institutions. Any critics of this book will inevitably fall into one of three categories: those who say it isn’t progressive enough because of its structure, those who say it’s too radical because of its content, and those Standard American Males you can file away under “who cares what they say.” Fahs is ready for all that with an excellent introduction, both to the collection and for each section.
On the issue of structure: what organizing principle would be more suitable than to arrange by content? A chronological approach would equally isolate most folks in the indigenous/women of color group, and to assume the necessity of historicizing each manifesto is often to miss the point that the bedrock complaints of feminism have not really changed in over 200 years. Plus, I would argue that using political identities as an organizing principle does a better job of juxtaposing the internal conflicts within each group, usefully highlighting the fact that not all queer feminists or anarchofeminists or technofeminists believe the same things within their areas of interest. Fahs chooses a structure that is thus least likely to encourage essentialist thinking.
As to the radicalism of the content, well—Hooray! A manifesto is by its very nature impolite. A manifesto is often internally contradictory, or guilty of some of the same sins it critiques, or lacking any alternative prospects that serve as a suitable replacement for those institutions it wishes to tear down. A manifesto is always impractical, always requires the giving up of privilege and complacency, always tries to roller skate uphill.
Of course this anthology is radical. Yet, far more crucially, it cannot be said that Fahs has compiled an anthology that doesn’t reflect the multifaceted prospects and concerns of feminists. On the contrary, her selections showcase an editorial instinct that aims for the truly exhaustive. No feminist who picks up this book is going to feel unheard or left out based on the comprehensive material included in it.
Burn It Down! is particularly necessary right now. To put it mildly, the American political scene has never been more chaotic and dangerous. We are living in a season of manifestos. The ones in this books are generally not half-baked. Often as I read them, I found myself treating them like a fashion magazine’s personality quiz: What kind of feminist are you? I processed each line based on its relationship to my opinions and what kind of feminist work I prefer to do. Often I agreed, sometimes I disagreed. Often times I felt validated in the work I’ve already chosen to do, sometimes I felt able to move toward a different kind of work.
It’s in the type of debates generated by Burn It Down! that we can clarify our thinking and focus on what changes to this world will be best to make. Unless you are pro-confusion or pro-complacency, Fahs has got you covered.