The Academic Manifesto: Urgency and Reflective Thought
This essay investigates recent pieces of political criticism and the ways in which they attempt to engage with a more “public” audience to incite real-world action. The academy has long been regarded as distanced from the needs of public society, but I contend that pieces of criticism since 2000 have taken on an increasingly political nature which attempts to address much wider audiences outside of scholarly circles. This style of criticism best resembles the manifesto form, and in the wake of 2016’s populist-driven political campaigns, this ability to engage with the public is more important than ever. Accordingly, this essay traces the development of political criticism and its attempt to straddle the gap between the academic essay and the populist manifesto form to simultaneously inspire and inform the public, ultimately concluding that while the “academic manifesto” goes some way towards improving engagement with the public, this interaction is still very limited to elite circles. My analysis of the “academic manifesto” is interdisciplinary, focusing on modern literary theory and its interactions with both politics and history, all of which contribute to the comparative nature of this paper.
THE “ACADEMIC MANIFESTO” IS the term I give to the new form of academic writing that brings together the manifesto’s “urgent call to action” (Sinkey 21) and the “reflective” methodology taken from academia (Davis 25). In this way, my usage of the term differs from examples provided by Willem Halffman and Hans Radder’s “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University” (2015) and Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira’s “For a Heterodox Mainstream Economics: An Academic Manifesto” (2012), as these authors’ attention is on writing a manifesto for the merits of the academy. Instead, I want to emphasize the coupling of two modes of discourse to enable the academy to enact real-world change.
The academy constitutes “a place of general education in the arts and sciences” (OED Online) and, as such, is used as a metonym for the university and body of scholarship produced there. Its recent desire to turn outward is largely a result of what Helen Small describes as the issue of “what the state thinks it is paying for in the case of the humanities” (Small 2), which prompted the need to pursue advanced knowledge and mediate it to the public to justify government spending on it. In this essay, I will examine the effectiveness of the academic manifesto in balancing the need to gain public attention to motivate action while maintaining the academy’s traditionally well-informed and reflective mode of analysis.
Through investigation of the style and argumentative reasoning in Mark Greif’s “Against Exercise” (2004), Walter Benn Michaels’ “The Blank Page” (2004), Amy Allen’s The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016), and Bruce Robbins’ speech “On Not Representing Atrocity” (2016), I will probe the ways in which these texts negotiate their commitments to both the public and the academy. With reference to Michael Warner’s essay “Publics and Counter-publics” (2002), I will also evaluate the effectiveness of the academic manifesto’s address to those outside the academy and challenge the assumption that a small, university-educated audience constitutes a suitably public readership. In light of recent anti-establishment movements, this address to the public has become more important than ever. Thus, while the academic manifesto goes some way towards creating a new form of constructive engagement with the world, I will argue that it does not yet succeed as a form of criticism that is both publicly oriented and scholarly in its mode of analysis.
I. Manifestos: The Dramatic Emphasis on Now
Janet Lyon situates the manifesto genre within a “revolutionary discourse” that grew with the “development of the modern spheres of public contestation and debate” (Lyon 1). With a genealogy that spans seventeenth century pamphlet wars, Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, avant-garde revolutions in art, and feminist and gay liberation movements, the manifesto has always kept abreast of current affairs. Defined variously as a “tradition of dissent” (Sinkey 5), “disillusionment struggling back to hope” (Hanna), or “a desire for openness” (Puchner 2), the manifesto exhibits a contrarian approach to contemporary affairs. As demonstrated in Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto (1848) in their exclamation that “WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!” (Marx and Engels 271) and more recently in the Lesbian Avengers’ “Dyke Manifesto” (1994), which demands its adherents “PLAN TO TARGET HOMOPHOBES OF EVERY STRIPE AND INFILTRATE THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT” (Queer Zine Archive), to write a manifesto is to encourage one’s readers to work together for change. This is signified by the repeated use of active verbs such as “unite,” “plan,” “target,” and “infiltrate,” all of which convey the energy of the movement and directly address audiences to get involved.
While none of my chosen academic manifestoes explicitly refer to themselves as working within the manifesto genre, the language and rhetoric they deploy is reminiscent of this revolutionary tradition. Greif, Michaels, Allen, and Robbins each demand change in contemporary society by adopting the assertive lexis and rhetorical strategies developed from older examples of the manifesto genre. This approach contrasts with Robyn Marasco’s distinctly “theoretical” essay that is “motivated by a question concerning the forms and tonalities” of critique and which consciously positions itself against “the call to civic life, participation or political action” (Marasco 1,7). Accordingly, my selection of academic manifestos focuses on what Lyon refers to as the “dramatic emphasis on now” (Lyon 30) that is political in content, contrarian in approach, and uses exhortation to inspire audiences to bring about change.
n+1 magazine is one example of this new genre of the academic manifesto that seeks to be germane to today’s society in a way that its editorial board perceives most academic criticism is not. As the magazine declares in its endnotes, “it is time to say what you mean” (Gessen), and it is by focusing on finding “the new, or tak[ing] what we know from the past and say[ing] it with the care that only the living can claim” (“Editorial Statement”) that the magazine styles itself as a form of piquant political and literary critique. Greif’s essay, “Against Exercise,” featured in the first edition of n+1 magazine and is an attempt to analyze what he perceives as the ideology of exercise in modern American culture and how it has been publicly framed and defined. His concluding note—”this is not the future we wanted” (Greif 15)—situates the article against modern life. In this way, Greif’s call for change is a contrarian and public-facing political statement that adheres to my definition of the manifesto genre. By examining the cultural obsession with exercise as a preventative measure against death, Greif creates an extended metaphor in which “the gym resembles a voluntary hospital” (Greif 7) to demonstrate the absurdity of contemporary exercise culture’s obsession with immortality. Conceiving a narrative which places the reader at the center of discussion, Greif makes his argument more persuasive, and encourages readers to think differently:
A lab technician in a white coat takes a sample of blood. A nurse tightens a cuff on your arm, links you to an EKG, takes the basic measurements of your height and weight—never to your satisfaction, [the doctor] hardly needs to remind you that these numbers correlate with your chances of survival. (Greif 6-7)
Here Greif paints an image of a typical doctor’s surgery, where the use of the indefinite article “a” allows the reader’s own experience to take precedence. With careful attention to small details such as the “white” color of the doctor’s coat and the use of the more familiar acronym “EKG” for the electrocardiogram, the scene is realistically situated within contemporary standard procedure so that it resonates with culturally received images that readers will recognize. Additionally, Greif’s use of the present tense forms of active verbs “takes” and “tightens” as placed within short, sharp clauses lends his discussion a sense of immediacy that makes the issue more pressing. Because of the repeated use of the second person, the situation is directly addressed to its readers, and this address is further sustained by Greif’s jokey insight into one’s usual reaction to measurements of height and weight—that they are “never to your satisfaction.” A sudden change in tone is heralded by a much longer clause detailing the sinister revelation that one’s statistics “correlate with your chances of survival.” While his decision to use the emotionally-loaded term “survival” is hyperbolic, it serves to make readers aware of the reduction of their lives to lines on screens and hospital beeps. Designed to shock and provoke resistance, Greif’s article deploys hyperbole at the end of the paragraph in the mode of the manifesto tradition to prompt a response in his readers and encourage them to think differently about how they exercise.
Walter Benn Michaels likewise uses this shock technique in his introduction, entitled “The Blank Page,” which prefaces his book The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. Beginning with a consideration of whether one should include the eighty-six blank manuscript pages in Thomas Shepard’s Autobiography or the obscure use of dashes in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Michaels sets his argument against reader-response theory and its implications for identity politics. He challenges our reverence for the reader over the author’s intent-ion, using rhetorical hyperbole to influence his own readers and make a somewhat distanced, academic subject more relevant to them and their views of contemporary events: “If you hold, say, Judith Butler’s views on resignification, you will also be required to hold, say, George W. Bush’s views on terrorism – and, scarier still, if you hold Bush’s views on terrorism, you must hold Butler’s view of resignification” (Michaels 13-14). Utilizing the syntactical form of deductive reasoning (“if…then”), Michaels’ argumentative mode becomes syllogistic, forcing the reader to accept his conclusions regardless of how surprising they seem. Much like Greif in “Against Exercise,” Michaels directly addresses the reader and their beliefs, using colloquial discourse markers such as “say” to organize his argument and to juxtapose with more academic terms such as “resignification” to make the text more accessible. Yet Michaels is much more assertive than Greif, and goes as far as implicating the reader, stating that they “will be required” to hold a certain view, or that their position “must” be something in accordance with his logic. By acknowledging that his interpretative leaps are “scary,” Michaels seeks to align himself with his audience while simultaneously situating them via what Anne Sinkey calls “the strategic use of dichotomies and personal pronouns” which “instruct the manifesto reader on how to read, receive, and experience the event of the manifesto” (Sinkey 21). In this way, Michaels forces readers to identify with his position against reader-response theory by demonstrating the moral implications of a reader’s stance, which may include endorsing George Bush’s views on terrorism.
Amy Allen similarly directs her readers to accept her binary argument in The End of Progress by focusing on criticizing the alternative. However, instead of using Michaels’ forceful second person mode of address, she opts for the more traditional and inclusive first person plural, “we.” Mary Ann Caws notes in her work on the language of manifestos that by “posing some ‘we,’ explicit or implicit against some other ‘they’’’ (Caws xx), writers align their readers with their own side of the argument, which is especially necessary when the argument is a dichotomous one. This gives extra rhetorical force to Allen’s case for the decolonization of critical theory as it is constructed against an absent other:
If we further assume that struggles around decolonization and postcolonial politics are among the most significant struggles and wishes of our age, then the demand for a decolonization of critical theory follows quite straightforwardly from the very definition of critical theory. If it wishes to be truly critical, then contemporary critical theory should frame its research program […] with an eye toward decolonial and anti-imperialist struggles and concerns. (2016: 4)
Like Michaels, Allen uses the hypothetical ‘if … then’ structure to give the impression of logical reasoning. By configuring the importance of the issue of decolonization in the conditional tense, she distances it from its current (non-)presence in critical theory to suggest that in a perfect world it would be a central tenet, because (according to Allen) decolonization is reflective of the “struggles” of “our age.” Because “struggle” is associated with the oppression of colonized groups and the violent efforts to free oneself from restraint, the use of such a loaded term further suggests that the incorporation of decolonization in theory is the only viable path forward. The fact that Allen then claims it is an understudied field conflicts with this perfect conception, and leaves current theory wanting. Moreover, her contention that critical theory should consider anti-imperialist struggles “if it wishes to be truly critical” is constructed to give the impression that Allen’s argument has the moral and intellectual high ground over other pieces of theory that have not considered decolonial modes of discourse and thus have not ,examined literature in an adequately critical manner.
This criticism of the inadequacy of previous forms of theory is similarly the focus of Bruce Robbins’ speech, “On Not Representing Atrocity.” Speaking at this year’s inaugural conference of the V21 (Victorian Studies for the Twenty First Century) Collective, a group whose “interest in the Victorian period is motivated by certain features of our own moment” (“Manifesto of the V21 Collective”), Robbins argues the case for “present-ism” when examining Victorian literature to make it relevant to modern day values and concerns, such as atrocity. Although Robbins is not personally a member of the V21 Collective, his position as the keynote speaker at their first symposium suggests that his speech is indicative of the views of the newly founded group. He argues that:
A modest anti-presentism […] would certainly make it easier for those 19th century specialists who are professionally uncomfortable with atrocity to return to what they were already doing, undisturbed by any nagging sense of responsibility to imperatives they see as coming from outside the field. (Robinson 7-8)
Robbins’ criticism of this “modest anti-presentism” is particularly damning of New Historicists and those who refuse to adapt their theory to reflect modern concerns. In presenting them as “un-comfortable with atrocity,” Robbins juxtaposes a relatively distanced and mild academic reluctance with the full emotive force of the extreme act of real-world atrocity to underscore the trivial nature of their discomfort. By framing them as “undisturbed” by the “nagging sense of responsibility” to engage with present issues, Robbins implies that they feel the duty to engage but nevertheless shy away from doing so. This contributes to Robbins’ image of traditionally-minded critics as moral failures whose laziness threatens the progress of their academic field, which Robbins then galvanizes as an imperative to inspire future scholars to act and make a difference.
Accordingly, these writers echo the manifesto genre as a means of politically-inflected criticism that rejects the status quo in literary theory thus far and attempts to bring it up to date. Drawing on the manifesto’s “dramatic emphasis on now,” Greif, Michaels, Allen, and Robbins make reference to today’s toxic exercise culture, George Bush’s views of terrorism, current post-colonial debates, and modern conceptions of atrocity to locate their work in present-day issues and show the academy to be actively engaging with societal problems. The manifesto form of academic criticism stands out for being politically apposite in a tradition of the “struggle against dominant forces” (Lyon 4) and thus (theoretically) open to a wide range of audiences who can help to make a difference. Thus, it would be wrong to assume that the manifesto form is simply antithetical to traditional forms of criticism. Both Anne Sinkey’s examination of the manifesto’s “creative and meaning-making activity” (Sinkey 17) and Martin Puchner’s equation of the manifesto’s task to “bring[ing] the unconscious out into the open” (Puchner 2) in a manner reminiscent of Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1981) situate the manifesto in academic terms. Thus, I will now examine the rationale behind the merging of manifesto and academic discourse, and the effect this hybrid genre has on the academic values of reflection and nuance.
II. Manifesto Rhetoric versus Academic Methodologies: Competing Discourses
The academy’s method of study, situated within the modern university, is connected to a discourse of “thinking, reflecting, re-evaluating, [and] revising” (Murray and Moore 37) that distinguishes academic writing from the “hortatory political rhetoric” and “righteous rage” associated with the manifesto form (Lyon 2). In this sense, academic writing is regarded as careful, nuanced, and grounded in evidence, as opposed to the manifesto’s use of declarative and emotionally-fueled statements that frequently lack concrete examples. Thus, from this apparent discrepancy, a question arises concerning the rationale and practicalities of yoking these seemingly incommensurate forms of discourse together.
As explained in the first section of this essay, the manifesto form is notable for its public impact, which is something academic criticism (characterized by its inward focus) has lacked in the past. A mixing of the two genres therefore seeks to orient academic criticism towards the public sphere to make it more accessible. Michael Buraway’s essay on re-defining the public university explains the ideal of the hybrid form of the academic manifesto best when he describes how “knowledge itself depends on having the professional and policy worlds to interrogate, but also gains much of its energy from the public debates to which it also contributes” (Buraway 33). In other words, the two discourses feed off each other: an academic methodological critique is essential to investigating new knowledge, but is further improved by wider access, which makes this knowledge matter to the public and inspires more people to want to seek it out. Accordingly, in this section, I want to analyze how the structure of Greif’s, Michaels’, Allen’s and Robbins’ arguments is indebted to traditional academic forms, and how this works in relation to their use of politicized rhetoric derived from the manifesto genre. Taking Buraway’s conception of the interrelation of the two forms as an ideal, I will examine the extent to which academic structures and manifesto rhetoric work together convincingly, as well as identifying key moments of tension.
Greif’s essay is notable not only for its deployment of manifesto rhetoric, but also for the way it encourages readers to seriously rethink their assumptions about exercise in a manner more representative of an academic mode of discourse. Greif promotes a stepping back from our casual acceptance of societal norms by making exercise appear strange to readers. By aligning it “with pain, with tears, with orgasm” (Greif 4), he enables his readers to look in detail at the figure of the exerciser from an outsider’s perspective. Thus, exercise is displaced from its usual association with health and instead associated with a deeply ingrained preoccupation with death, resulting in the extreme conclusion that “the person who does not exercise, in our current conception, is a slow suicide” (Greif 8). Capitalizing upon the emotional power of an ordinarily taboo subject (in a manner reminiscent of the manifesto), Greif reinforces his belief that society’s investment in exercise is damaging. His reasoning, deliberately exaggerated and contrarian, also seeks to open up intricate questions as we seek to understand what it is about the use of the word “suicide” that makes Greif’s statement so shocking and uncomfortable to read. The change in our ordinary understanding of exercise prompts us to reflect on the connotations of “suicide” and its links to self-harm, depression, and desperation. From this viewpoint, exercise suddenly takes on a whole new dimension, previously unconsidered, that links it with mental health and damaging perceptions of body image.
It is thus imperative to consider alternatives and contrary views that motivates Greif’s essay and inflects the manifesto style with a distinctively academic methodology. When describing how “we hide our reasons for undertaking […] labour and thoughtlessly substitute a new necessity” (Greif 4), Greif’s emphasis on “thoughtlessly” highlights the need to think deeply about our everyday activities in order to understand why we enact them and the effects they have. It also underscores the basic structure of Greif’s essay: beginning with something familiar (exercise) and complicating it by breaking it down into its components of health, body image, and sexual attractiveness before analyzing them in detail. In this way, Greif’s essay is rigorously academic in structure, and although it has an ideological aim, the declarative language of the manifesto form is used to invigorate his reflective criticism, rather than focusing on bringing about any real-world action. To this degree, the synthesis of forms limits the manifesto’s urgent call to the public for change by placing its primary focus on academic reflection of public concerns.
This limitation belies a tension inherent in the form of the academic manifesto that Michaels ironizes in his essay. While his discussion directly concerns the position of the reader as subject and the relative importance of their interpretation versus the author’s intention, “The Blank Page” also addresses the academy’s relation to the world. Prefixing his point about the implications of one’s stance on Judith Butler’s beliefs about resignification, Benn Michaels is careful to state that he is putting the point “in an implausible (but nonetheless, I will try to show, accurate) form” (Michaels 13). Along with his emphasis that “this is a theoretical argument, not a historical one” (Michaels 11), Michaels illustrates his self-awareness about the flaws of the theoretically-focused academic manifesto form. His use of parenthetical qualifications (to reassure readers that “of course, I do not claim that very many people actually hold all the positions that I do claim would follow from holding just one” (Michaels 14)) likewise juxtaposes with his extravagant claims of logic analyzed in the first section, and demonstrates a distinct gap between how one theorizes the world and how it actually behaves that is inherently problematic for academic methodology attempting to turn outward towards the public.
This is the intrinsic flaw in Amy Allen’s work, as her forceful political argument is weakened with so many contingencies that she arrives at a dead end. She is careful to nuance her claims about critical theory’s teleological philosophy of progress, stating that “to be clear, none of the current defenders of the idea of progress in the Frankfurt School critical theory tradition makes such strong claims” (Allen 8). However, her harsh criticism of the way in which “the forward-looking conception of progress is justified by the backward-looking story about ‘our’ modern European enlightenment” (Allen 14) appears to deny any instance of progress at all. Bruce Robbins criticizes Allen for her “absurdist” reasoning, which implies that “we must ceaselessly deny that anything we have just done was an accomplishment,” resulting in Allen painting herself into a corner (Robbins), especially after she has denied that the Frankfurt School made such overt claims about the “forward-looking” conception of progress. Likewise, her treatment of “black, female, queer, colonized and subaltern subjects as if they are all the same” (Robbins) fails to engage with the real world towards which she purports to target her analysis and lacks the rigorous evidence required by academic methodology. Allen does not ask any “black, female, queer, colonized and subaltern subjects” what they think, but theorizes it for them, putting her in tension with both the manifesto and academic modes of discourse as she attempts to speak for another with no quotes to back up her claims.
Allen’s attempt to bring together a manifesto-style political aim with an academic analysis thus reveals a discrepancy between the two forms. While Allen’s goal is politically apposite, her attempt to mix it with manifesto-writing often results in contradiction, which renders her political aim inviable in the outside world. Though she claims that “rejecting a backward-looking notion of progress as fact does not mean we have to give up on the forward-looking notion of progress as a moral-political imperative” (Allen 33), her previous criticisms of “forward looking progress” complicate this vision, making it difficult to understand how it should be enacted. Considering the manifesto form’s central tenet is to bring about change and move forward, this seems to place Allen’s text more firmly in the “academic” category. Yet, her lack of appropriate evidence seriously undermines her scholarly argument, and is more reflective of a bombastic manifesto form that only seeks to galvanize anger to attract support in its political mission. Thus, this essay is indicative of a work that crumbles under the pressure of the two forms vying for attention.
In contrast, Robbins’s speech seeks to bring the two together in a more convincing form that is both politically relevant and academically rigorous. Like Greif’s contention, Robbins’ argument resembles the manifesto form with its call to “join […] a story with a future” (Robbins 21) while simultaneously using a nuanced and reflective mode of academic analysis. His punchy, pseudo-journalistic voice, as embodied by multiply hyphenated constructions such as “look-at-us-admitting-the-terrible-things-we-did-to-others criterion” (Robbins 2), similarly re-orients his academic analysis towards a wider public by making his points more engaging to read and amusing to hear. In light of Jane Gallop’s comparisons between “polemic and criticism,” Robbins demonstrates how theory is both a critical and pleasurable form of “entertainment for educating people” (Gallop 9, 11). His juxtaposition of this light tone with more serious statements such as “I can’t speak for other cultures, and I have some trouble pretending to speak for the West” (Robbins 15) means that his speech is fun to listen to while simultaneously teaching its listeners about issues of speaking for others in a way that is much more effective and considered than Allen’s dry use of “-isms” and her assumption that she is able to speak for “black, queer, female, colonized, and subaltern subjects” (Allen 137).
Robbins is aware, however, of the limitations surrounding his desire to orient academic criticism towards the public with this manifesto-like form, and he prefixes his call for change with a specific address to “our fellow specialists” (Robbins 21). Drawing on Weber’s concept of progress, Robbins suggests that “scholars-to-be must resign themselves to seeing their work rendered obsolescent by those researchers who come afterwards” (Robbins 17), situating the academic manifesto in a grand narrative that conceives of academics as harbingers of change, rather than the public. Robbins describes the scholarly community as a “collectivity,” and explains how academic criticism can instantiate the progress it proposes “at the level of research” (Robbins 18). Nevertheless, like Michaels’ argument, which situates any progress solely within an academy talking to itself, Robbins’ claim suggests that “those of us who think of ourselves as progressives [should] seek real-world equivalents for the scholarly experience of collectivity, thereby permitting us to recognize in the world we write about more of the progress we sometimes recognize in our own writing” (Robbins 19). Here Robbins demonstrates how academic criticism and the manifesto form work harmoniously to enact change within the academy, a claim made nearly twenty years ago in Cary Nelson’s praise of the “cultural expansion” of critical theory (Nelson 28). However, in line with Nelson’s assertion that academic criticism needs to reorient itself as “a theoretically self-critical and reflective discipline” (Nelson 28), Robbins acknowledges the need for the academy to still expand further outwards into the public sphere and assess its effectiveness at engaging with “non-academic” audiences.
Thus, the academic and manifesto forms are shown to be able to work together to address public concerns in Greif’s, Michaels’, and Robbins’ texts, but not necessarily to address the public. The rationale of bringing the two discourses together in the form of the academic manifesto centers around gearing one’s scholarly research towards change, but limitations surrounding niche distribution channels and longer academic publishing times mean that this change is often insular and lacks real impact on the wider world. Compared to how copies of The Communist Manifesto initially spread across Europe and how thousands of flyers of the ‘Dyke Manifesto’ were leafleted around New York City, the reach of politically oriented academic manifestoes since 2000 is disappointing. The average academic journal article is read in its entirety by ten people (Biswas and Kirchherr), and this is largely due to its presence in obscure periodicals about very unusual elements of study. Yet, far from endorsing Michaels’ claim that all academia is trivial and insular in its political critique, I want to show the ways in which academic manifestoes are attempting to engage with the wider public, even if that engagement is necessarily limited.
III. Addressing the Public, Addressing Individuals
Reading has always been an activity that links to contemporary events. As Anthony Grafton shows in his examination of Machiavelli’s letters on reading, “works of Greek and Roman statesmen and Generals” were often seen as “principle sources and models of practical wisdom” in the present (1999:181). In this sense, reading was publicly oriented, where conversation with “the ancient text” had “practical results” in the writer’s own time (1999:210), much like what academic manifestoes attempt to do today. However, as literacy rates began to increase at the end of the eighteenth century, “new readers” including women, workers, and children began to emerge, and “reading publics” diverged into various categories (Martyn Lyons, 1999:13-14). This ultimately resulted in the breaking apart of the “singular reading public” into an infinite number of smaller circles. With recent developments in technology, the medium of text has also had to confront a public that could gather their information from other sources, further diversifying reading groups in the “digitised twenty first century” (Crone and Towheed, 2011:9). It is for this reason that I want to nuance the academic manifesto’s ability to engage with the “public”. While its audiences are outside of the university institution, they are nevertheless well-educated and (in most cases) liberal-minded, in accordance with the content of the left-oriented political criticism produced.
The academic manifesto remains a piece of academic writing that is conditioned by the university institution, despite its manifesto-style call for political change. As Greif acknowledged in his lecture at the Rothermere American Institute, academia’s desire for a large and engaged readership, for whom critique can have a social impact, is “a fantasy” and “delusional” (2016). The types of people who will engage with academic manifestoes are necessarily those who are most likely to read high-brow literary magazines, attend conferences about “presentism” in Victorian Literature, or browse through new books on literary theory—they are a well-educated minority.
Yet, just because their audiences are smaller, we should not regard the mission of academic manifestoes to engage with the public as a complete failure. Instead, we should acknowledge Michael Warner’s definition of a public as something which “comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation” so that “it exists by virtue of being addressed” (2002:50). In this way, the subscribers of n+1 magazine become a type of “public”, regardless of how niche their interests may be, because the magazine specifically reaches outside of the academy to address them. They, too, are “the little bourgeois” (2012:296) that Greif styles himself as, and while they may be a minority in wider society, they are nevertheless a separate “public” with which the academy can actively engage. The same goes for Robbins’s speech at the conference for the V21 Collective, which was free and open to everyone. While it was most likely to attract those who already knew about the group (i.e. students, ex-students and those with an unusual interest in Victorian literature studies), it did provide an alternative path for public interaction against the traditional journal pay-wall.
Nevertheless, Greif and Robbins (and to an extent Benn Michaels and Allen) use language and reference points that will only be understood by a select ‘public’. Greif begins his essay by invoking Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” and then makes several offhand gestures to the likes of Descartes and La Mettrie, Socrates and Aristotle (2004: 3-4) throughout his essay, assuming that his (predominantly) university-educated audience will understand how they underline his point. Robbins likewise repeats phrases such as “as everyone knows”, “you know the moments I have in mind”, and “you will recognize the quotation” (2016a:14,15,21) to create a sense of camaraderie with his audience, emphasizing how they are all on the same plane of thought. But his discussions of Greek etymology, nineteenth century history, and Walter Benjamin are not common knowledge in the same way as discussions of Henry VIII’s six wives or the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York. Greif and Robbins’ audiences are part of a select well-educated group, an openly-closed community that anyone is welcome to join, but not everyone will enjoy or understand. In this way, the public reach of academic manifestoes is limited. While it is important to ascertain, in Warner’s vein, that “public” does not mean representative of the entire world, it is also significant to note that these academic manifestoes currently only address a small, well-educated group that is outside of the academy.
Yet this group is not powerless. As Amanda Anderson theorizes in her influential essay “Character and Ideology” (2011), a public is made up of individuals, and it is this address to specific individuals that helps instantiate change on a local level. She proposes that “political orientations and commitments can never be understood or grasped […] except through forms of human expression” (2011:209-210). Stating that “scholarly critique often employs moral language” because it captures “an understanding of theory as it is lived or experienced” (2011:211), Anderson argues that character-based traits often inflect scholarly language so that it relates to individuals. In line with my earlier arguments about the use of the manifesto form, Anderson perceives that critics use moral language to make their political points matter to their audiences, even if this is only the well-educated middle class. Instead of talking about distant state apparatus and laws (regardless of how important they are), Anderson emphasizes the need to address the emotions of individuals, who have the power to enact a political programm. Thus, it is the use of morally-inflected language that prompts Greif, Benn Michaels, Allen, and Robbins’ well-educated audiences to make small changes in their own sphere, over and above their academic methodologies. Greif’s conception of exercise in relation to death is what shocks his middle-class reader into thinking twice about the implications of their activity, while Benn Michaels’ explanation of how our cultural memories of slavery and the Holocaust rely on original testimonies, is his strongest emotional challenge to reader-response theory. Likewise, Allen tries to teach readers to reject their acceptance of historical progress because of its hidden reliance on the injustice and violence of colonialism, and Robbins asks his audience to consider using their “presentist” values when studying Victorian texts because of the moral implications of ignoring atrocity in the canon. These are calls to think differently that rely on manifesto rhetoric to invigorate academic methodology. But crucially, they are calls to a limited public, and thus have a limited impact.
Throughout this essay, I have elucidated the reasons why I have grouped pieces of political criticism by Greif, Benn Michaels, Allen and Robbins under the category of academic manifestoes. Responding to pressures to open up the academy to the public, I have shown how these writers utilize passionate language and push for political change in the mode of the manifesto form. Careful analysis of the academic methodology used to structure these essays has also revealed the ways in which these supposedly disparate forms interact with each other: While Allen’s essay struggled to reconcile the two, Greif and Robbins demonstrated the way in which the passion of the manifesto form reinvigorated their academic methodology to make their essays more engaging. It was apparent, however, that these writings were still aimed at a very well-educated middle-class elite, complicating their desire to speak to the wider “public”. While I accepted Warner’s claim that it is impossible to reach a single ‘universal’ reading public, and that to some extent, these academic manifestoes do succeed at interacting with groups outside of the university institution, I nevertheless concluded that this reach was not enough to bring about real change.
In a year of significant political upheavals, with the victory of the Leave campaign in the UK’s EU Referendum and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the academic analysis of these essays, seeing “each issue from several sides” rather than pressing “a single line relentlessly” (Jonathan Wolff, 2016) remains their greatest barrier for engaging with a wider public. Instead, it is the “appeal to emotion and belief” that defines the new phenomenon of “post-truth” (Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, 2016) and has a mass appeal to change. The slogans “Take Back Control” (Voteleavetakecontrol.org, 2016) and “Make America Great Again” (Donaldjtrump.com, 2016) solely capitalize upon the active manifesto rhetoric for action, rejecting the nuanced, almost scholarly campaigns of the establishment. This prompts questions concerning the future of political criticism, and whether it needs to turn further towards the manifesto form to ensure its impact, or remain unheard, underfunded, and forgotten.
During such an unstable period of political history, academic integrity and scholarly modes of analysis must be upheld more than ever in order to provide an objective perspective. While theory should adapt to engage with wider audiences outside the university-educated elite, it should not be compromised by the baseless rhetoric of the pure manifesto form. The academic manifesto has gone some way in addressing this balance, but does not yet adequately inform and motivate the mass public to listen. ■
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