Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto

Originally appeared in Maximum Rocknroll #367 (December 2013)

In October AK Press released a new edition of Valerie Solanas’s infamous SCUM Manifesto. Written in 1967, the manifesto has become controversial for its call to eliminate the male sex. SCUM, it is said, stands for the Society for Cutting Up Men. So much has been written about this fascinating text over the years that it’s almost impossible to pin down an accurate appraisal of the manifesto. The original publisher, Maurice Girodias, a sort of Malcolm McLaren type, saw the statement as a parody: think Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” or the Dead Kennedy’s “Kill the Poor.” Lester Bangs saw the punk rock in Solanas, and dreamt about what a great front woman she would have been. Others have attested to the seriousness of Solanas’s convictions. Her 1968 shooting of Andy Warhol is often cited as evidence to the sincerity of her mission.

But what makes each new version of the SCUM Manifesto special isn’t the actual manifesto. That can be found for free all over the Internet. What makes each new version of the manifesto special is the texts it’s packaged with. The last version of the manifesto was put out by Verso in 2004. In that version the manifesto served as a footnote to philosopher Avital Ronell’s long-winded essay about Solanas. Ronell’s essay added very little to the discussion, although she tried very hard by quoting Derrida and other French philosophers. Ronell kept her distance from Solanas. She always looked from the outside, and was never really able to make sense of her fascination with Solanas.

On the other hand, the foreword by acclaimed queer author Michelle Tea that comes with the new AK Press version does exactly what Ronell’s essay was afraid to do. Tea’s foreword is an anecdotal map of similarities between her own life and Solanas’s. Starting with their abusive fathers and stepfathers, extending through their lives as prostitutes, their dreams of violence, and into their lives as writers. Tea’s foreword briefly removes the sociopath tag from Solanas, and brings her closer to home. She makes Solanas someone the reader can identify with. Not someone who was insane, but someone who was pushed over the edge by a sexist society that dominates everything. Tea makes Solanas tragic in her struggle, and ahead of her time in her revolt.

But Tea’s foreword doesn’t just humanize Solanas; it also reminds us that there is a brilliant, double-edge to the SCUM Manifesto. The manifesto is both “real and totally not,“ as Tea writes. There is a political reality hidden behind the absurdity. When I first read the SCUM Manifesto years ago I was enraged and angered by it. I saw it as counterrevolutionary and ridiculous. I felt unfairly attacked simply for being a man. Tea’s foreword reminds me that the anger I felt at Solanas’s words is akin to the anger women, queers, and would-be Valeries feel everyday when they are absurdly attacked by all the bullshit society throws at them.

This new edition from AK Press is essentially a repackaging of the version they put out in 1996, and retains the biographical outline by Freddie Baer. But the addition of Tea’s foreword rounds the manifesto out, placing it in a context that can be helpful for both radicals and punks. Unlike Ronell’s introduction to the Verso version, which painted Solanas as a psychotic to be ogled at and theorized about, Tea’s foreword recognizes Solanas more for her struggles than for her eccentricities.