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Issue 131

Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future

Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2010)

BY Quinn Latimer, Owen Hatherley AND Jerome Boyd-Maunsell in Critic's Guides | 01 MAY 10

In 1996, right before I started college, I went to see the exhibition ‘Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History’, curated by Amelia Jones at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. I attended the exhibition with my excited feminist mother, who historicized Chicago’s seminal 1974–9 installation for me. I had spent my high-school years making profane feminist ’zines and attending Riot Grrrl shows, and, as I examined the ceramic place-settings, which open like vaginal/floral arrangements above the lilting cursive names of Sojourner Truth and Virginia Woolf, Dinner Party (though tellingly, not the women it celebrates) seemed more than two decades away from my feminist experience; it seemed to connote a different world entirely.

Just four years later, in 2000, it was this generational, political and aesthetic dissonance that two young feminist activists, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, would explore in their political tract, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future. Though the book was nominally for the third-wave generation (discussing benchmarks like the Riot Grrrl movement and Sassy, the hip and ill-fated magazine for teens), it was hailed by second-wave grand dames Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin. Now, a decade on, the book has been reissued in a 10th anniversary edition, with a new introduction and background information.

Tellingly, Manifesta also begins with Dinner Party, which the writers take as inspiration for a dinner of their own, during which 13 young feminists discuss their issues, which the authors then politicize. Though the quotes about men being ‘emotionally retarded’ can be wince-inducing, Manifesta picks up steam as the authors drop the chatty first-person accounts and attempt to delineate specific goals – that in order for the feminist movement to evolve and thrive, its history must be taught and passed on; that the second and third waves need to work in tandem; and that the then-recent ‘Girlie’ movement (that reclaimed stereotypically feminine activities) and the ‘Girls’ movement (which began to focus the welfare and victimization of girls) were instructive but in no way a replacement for real feminist activism that furthers goals of equality.

Both authors are alumni of Ms. magazine, and their most cogent critiques are aimed at the media’s distortion and minimization of the feminist movement, as well as feminist tomes themselves. While they deftly diagnose the pitfalls of Ms. – which lacked a real voice because it attempted to speak for everyone – Manifesta can fall into the same trap. Its intended audience seems to fluctuate between the very young and the more informed. I think I would have found the book mind-blowing when I was 16; however, I imagine my 21-year-old self quickly putting it down in favour of works by Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler or Angela Davis. But if Manifesta’s topicality was a weakness, it is also, now, ten years later, a strength. The book is an account of a thrilling moment in recent feminist history, the ’90s era, when little girls had Sassy, not Seventeen; were inspired by Kathleen Hanna, Rebecca Walker and Susan Faludi; and feminism was as au courant as you could get.

Support Structures, ed. Céline Condorelli (Sternberg Press, New York, 2009).

Ed. Céline Condorelli (Sternberg Press, New York, 2009)

Watch almost any new building under construction and you’ll see a process of occlusion: a concrete lift core will emerge first, followed by a concrete or steel frame, then fluffy pads of insulation. Finally, the surface, the glass, wood, tile or titanium skin, is applied to hide what actually keeps the thing up. This is all very 19th-century. Writing about Victorian architecture (in a later era that fetishized displayed supports), Siegfried Giedion claimed that the obscured or (occasionally) daringly uncovered iron frames were ‘the unconscious of architecture’.

With the sheathing of these supports comes the hiding of labour and technology, providing a false, seamless image of both. These hidden support structures are among those listed and catalogued in the enormous anthology, or rather ‘manual’, Support Structures. The book is often literal and figural about these supports. There are images of the wooden structures that hold up buildings in the shadow of Mount Etna, archive texts by Friedrich Kiesler and El Lissitzky that imagine an architecture of nothing but frames, and Gordon Matta-Clark’s structure-baring carvings into the skin of buildings. Elsewhere, the definition is more elliptical, referring to generalized ideas about care, framing, arts funding and ‘community’ art. The ungainliness of the expanded definition can be gleaned from the fact that editor Céline Condorelli includes no less than six explanatory prefaces.

Much of Support Structures exemplifies a currently rather common art discourse which is hard to criticize – it’s so ingenuous in its soft-left politics and so careful in its avoidance of grand claims or potentially divisive opinions that it actively discourages critical engagement. The structure behind the prose here is the influence of Structuralism and its successors: and ‘in a Foucauldian sense’ is a common prefix – but the harshness of a writer like Foucault is missing. A similar language is used whether writing about multicultural art projects in Portsmouth or the framing systems used by various Old Master painters. It’s eventually frustrating, a relentless pleasantness which verges on piety and vapidity, partly because of its vague, gauzy intangibility.

Accordingly, the most interesting contributions show the authors snapping out of this style, into something more, well, structured. A dialogue between Eyal Weizman and Rony Brauman on the military implications of ‘Humanitarian Support’ is practically alarming after being lulled by chic photos and elliptical prose; similarly, Jaime Stapleton’s ‘Support for Culture’ is a sharp, rueful discussion of art, copyright and neo-liberalism. Both pieces have abundant and intriguing footnotes, as per the anthology’s focus on underpinnings and frames.

Support Structures’ combination of theory, interviews and (occasionally rather canonical) archive material, balanced with some more concrete attempts to put its ideas into practice, has much potential, but never quite fuses into something coherent. Perhaps what it’s missing is the willingness to pare down extraneous features. One of the documents excerpted here is The Economist’s ‘Style Book’, a series of draconian rules for writers, to encourage clarity of expression. Most likely it’s here as another example of hidden ‘supports’ – but a few of its more ruthless recommendations would not have gone amiss.

David Shields. Courtesy: Mary Levin.

David Shields (Hamish Hamilton, London, 2010)

The novel has long had its explicators and its aesthetics, whereas what we call non-fiction - in oddly negative terms - has often been assessed as if it contained no element of artistry beyond a certain craftmanship. This self-styled 'manifesto' can be read in a number of different ways, but on one important level it is a defence of the art of non-fiction writing and an attack on the contemporary novel, a form in which David Shields - the author of several novels himself - appears to have lost faith. In the artificial world of the 21st century, so the argument goes, we now long for the 'real' in a variety of art forms. In literature, novelistic invention and imagination risk superfluity: one can simply no longer believe in themm. The entire mechanics of narrative and storytelling are likewise seen as somehow suspect.

There is something strangely traditional in re-announcing the death of the novel, and one of the strenghts of his book - a ragbag assemblage of aphorisms, contentions, quotations and short passages of prose, all revolving around the ideas of genre - is its long historical overview and sense of literary tradition, as well as the way it keeps shifting its stance in tracing old and new links between fiction and non-fiction. Keen to promote the 'lyric essay', it reads more like a writer's notebook, or endless scrawls towards some great, unrealized work. One clear model is Walter Benjamin's unfinished Arcades Project (1927-40); other classic ruins of literary Modernism also cast their shadow.

Line by line, the writing is incredibly sharp. One soon realises this is due to the extent to which the whole thing is made up of quotation. The montage of borrowed voices Shields deploys is fascinatingly pieced together: a Burroughsian cut-up which is seamlessly readable and shimmers with connections. You're never quite sure whose words you're reading, as Shields' friends, an other writers who have shared his scepticism about the novel, have their voices semi-invisibly aired. The footnotes - prefaced by a disclaimer asking us not to read them - don't help, proving deliberately comic, misleading and obfuscatory. There's an element of gimmickry, of the quiz show (for the reader) or karaoke (for the writer) in all of this, which Shields plays on but can't quite shake off, even as he enlists it in his critique of authenticity. Yet these fragments are also a form of autobiography - a transcription of Shields' reading self.

It's left ambiguous whether the gnawing hunger for 'reality' Shields diagnoses is to be celebrated or lamented. (The very term 'reality' dissolves as the book proceeds.) One curious side-effect of the manifesto is to make one long after all, to read - or write - a novel. Form and content are also too perfectly matched. Since the entire subject of the text is literary form, the word spin around a vacuum, turning the book into a prolonged advertisement for itself. As criticism, this is a timely, flawless, invigorating read; as literature, it somehow falls short and creates more desire, just as desperate thirst for 'reality' turns everything into a ready-made.

Quinn Latimer is a writer. Her most recent book is Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (Sternberg Press, 2017).

Owen Hatherley is the author of several books, most recently The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016), The Chaplin Machine (Pluto, 2016) and Landscapes of Communism (Penguin, 2015).

Jerome Boyd-Maunsell is a writer and critic based in London.