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Toward a Virtual Topography of the Manifesto

This paper was presented at the 2012 Telos Conference, “Space: Virtuality, Territoriality, Relationality,” held on January 14–15, in New York City.

The following is an exploration of the relationship shared between space, relationality, and virtuality as it comes to bear on a particular genre of revolutionary expression: the manifesto. My argument here is in opposition to thinkers like Naomi Klein who have asserted the virtual power of the internet and social media to be the end of the manifesto genre; something like, we have twitter, we have Facebook, therefore manifestos are obsolete.[1] Rather, my argument is in favor of a metamorphosis where the genre is concerned and where revolutionary expression is evolving. To put it another way, I am interested in thinking a politics of the manifesto genre that exceeds its own instrumentality. So the manifesto is being treated here as a provocation toward thinking the shape and character of a radical politics. By way of a brief and somewhat simplified characterization of the genre, I want to think in opposition to, or beyond, two primary problems where the genre is concerned. First, I want to think the function of the manifesto against an ought or revolutionary telos that would name its future and provide the political program to manifest it. Second, I want to problematize the Schmittian character of the genre, the bi-partisan, “friend” vs. “enemy” relation that is so often asserted where the manifesto names a revolutionary telos.

Here I would like to turn to perhaps some obscure passages, but nonetheless interesting and helpful with an eye toward this project, from Horkheimer and Adorno’s recently published dialogue Towards a New Manifesto, and Hardt and Negri’s Empire. Horkheimer and Adorno’s project with this dialogue is to write a new Communist manifesto for the twentieth century. Acknowledging that the political landscape has changed significantly over the hundred years or so since the publication of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, they imagine the work and politics of a new manifesto to be something quite different than the project of the Communist Manifesto. Rather than assert a globalized political platform, define the terms of a necessary antagonism for revolutionary fruition, or work to interpellate disparate populations into a single and unitary political subjectivity, they ultimately abdicate from asserting any claim to revolutionary certainty. It is near the conclusion of their dialogue that they mark what is perhaps their most significant divergence from Marx and Engels, writing: “What we reject is not practice but telling people what to do. Because we are still permitted to live, we are under an obligation to do something.”[2] So I think this problem of a programless manifesto is provocative—what is a manifesto if not a political program? It’s like being an activist without a cause, or something like this. But I think that what might be interpreted as uncertainty or ambivalence toward revolutionary praxis, but nonetheless feeling the need to do something with Horkheimer and Adorno’s concluding claims, might be better framed as a concern that presages what Michel Foucault would pose as a question in his preface to Anti-Oedipus: “How does one keep from being a fascist, even (especially) when one believes oneself to be a revolutionary militant”?[3] This is to say, I think the formation and expression of a programless manifesto, or a radical politics that refuses an ought or a telos, is not to argue for a formless and directionless politics. What is at stake above is the desire to organize a revolutionary force without internalizing and redeploying the same trajectories of oppression.

So this question of fomenting a new, radical politics absent of an ought or political program approached by Horkheimer and Adorno has a two-pronged effect, so to speak. On the one hand, their project comes to bear on the organization of a radical politics and a radical movement. What Horkheimer and Adorno suggest is here I think very close to what Jacques Derrida would call proto-Marxism or crypto-Marxism in his Specters of Marx.[4] On the other hand, Horkheimer and Adorno’s project, where it is certainly a result of an era of nationalized fascisms and genocide, also signals a profound shift in the operation of sovereign power on a transnational scale. One key insight with reference to the dialogue is the question of America—whether it is a truly democratic enterprise and therefore a political model to affirm or if the seat of fascism has merely relocated itself across the Atlantic. We can take another cue from twentieth- and twenty-first-century Continental thought. Post–World War II, fascism hasn’t been eliminated and it hasn’t disappeared; rather it takes on new forms with various names, something like micro-fascisms, societies of control and technologies of securitization, or the interplay of molar and molecular milieus. But as a means to address these two concerns of programless organization and the function of sovereign power, I would like to turn to a passage from Empire where Hardt and Negri, writing of the manifesto genre some 50 years or so after Horkheimer and Adorno’s dialogue, claim:

Today a manifesto, a political discourse, should aspire to fulfill a Spinozist prophetic function, the function of an immanent desire that organizes the multitude. There is not finally here any determinism or utopia: this is rather a radical counterpower, ontologically grounded not on any “vide pour le future” but on the actual activity of the multitude, its creation, production, and power—a materialist teleology.[5]

What, then, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has changed? What allows for, but also, what creates the need for revolutionary expression and the manifesto, a privileged mode of its articulation, to transform? For Hardt and Negri, the answer is quite simple. A slow transformation in the operation of sovereign power across and beyond the territory of the nation state—what they call capitalist sovereignty and what they call Empire—works to produce the conditions for alternative forms of resistance. To put it another way, there is a novelty in the condition from which sovereign power no longer functions as a centrifugal force within a given territory, but a centripetal one over and beyond the territory: it becomes an apparatus of administration rather than a mere lord of the law. Therefore, the claim seems to be that it is a spatial reconfiguration of power from the sovereign nation-state to the transnational administration of life that works hand in hand to produce the conditions for a reconfiguration of an entire genre of resistance.

I think two points are of note following from the above claims in Empire concerning both the immanent desire that organizes the multitude and its “actual activity.” At least with reference to the manifesto, I think they are correct to focus on its revolutionary effect as a turn toward the virtual—as having the potential to radically redistribute the focus and location of revolutionary intent. Where the expression of a radical politics is not a question of telling anyone what to do, not a question of working toward one’s vision of an alternative future, but an immanent desire toward the spatio-temporal reconfiguration of the present, the potential in and of its actual activity is simultaneously aggregated and dispersed, so to speak—focused in the present and in one’s present company without asserting the need for the unity of a platform. Again, this is a contestable point in Hardt and Negri’s argument. Over and again, the Empire series seems to both prescribe political action and reduce an ostensibly ununifiable multiplicity to a party platform. Anarcho-communist collective Tiqqun is quick to criticize Hardt and Negri on these points, claiming there are

three watchwords typical of political Negrism—for all its strength lies in its ability to provide informal neo-militants with issues on which to focus their demands—(the watchwords) are the “citizens dividend,” the right to free movement (“Papers for everyone!”), and the right to creativity, especially if computer-assisted. In this sense, the Negrist perspective is in no way different from the imperial perspective but rather a mere instance of perfectionism within it.[6]

The argument between Hardt, Negri, and Tiqqun aside, the spatio-temporal shift at work in the attempt to resist Empire combined with the refusal to command the future of resistance redefines the place and function of resistance. No longer invested in writing the prophecy of revolution, the contemporary focus on the status of the manifesto in revolutionary struggle is I think formative of a virtual topography of resistance. This is to say, if the power of the manifesto no longer lies in the ability to command the future of resistance, if it does not consist of nor is it conceived as a manual, no longer a step-by-step guide to a Communist State, for example, but in the reconfiguration of the present without the certainty of a final form, the manifesto certainly loses any hegemonic force. It becomes a far more ephemeral genre, but does so only by the attribution of different characteristics. The manifesto becomes the site of this reconfiguration only insofar as its political orientation resonates with the direction of resistance.

My final comments here are consequently an attempt to address the problems of political orientation a step or two beyond the claim that the organization and expression of resistance is not about telling people what to do. First, if the shift in organization and operation of resistance can no longer be expressed with a manual-like function, I want to point to the map as an alternative mode of organization, a mode that can begin to account for the manifesto’s function as an ephemeral node of resistance. Here, I think Deleuze and Guattari’s characterization of the map in A Thousand Plateaus is particularly helpful and perhaps at the root of what I am calling a virtual topography of resistance:

The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation.[7]

While I don’t think what follows is exactly Hardt and Negri’s networked theory of resistance, it does begin to give shape to a tactics aligned with both Horkheimer and Adorno’s project and Hardt and Negri’s theorization of the manifesto genre. This is to say, the operation of the map here is affirmative of the desire to do something where the command is refused and describes an active reconfiguration of one’s spatio-temporal limits. My second and final point however rests on a problem rather than a full affirmation of this project. Where the manifesto might have been synonymous with a political program prior to its contemporary reconceptualizations, it also oriented the political in an equally forceful way to that of the program. It clearly defined partisan relations; it clearly defined the enemy and formed a body of friends. If we take The Communist Manifesto as an example, Marx and Engels identify, without hesitance, who the enemy is, what they do, and how they live. And in this way, one’s friends are also immediately identifiable. While Horkheimer and Adorno don’t pursue the question of a new manifesto far enough to consider a reinvention in partisan relations, Hardt and Negri seem to overcompensate for this absence by inventing the figure of the multitude. But if the landscape of power and resistance is now both transnational and constituted by the actual activities of those who resist Empire, resistance operates as a shifting terrain, susceptible to constant modification. And therefore the categories of partisanship become far more difficult to identify. For Derrida, this presented a problem for future politics: “the disappearance of the enemy would be the death knell of the political as such. It would mark the beginning of depoliticization (Entpolitisierung), the beginning of the end of the political.”[8] So, to conclude, it is with this reconceptualization of the manifesto that a problem of political orientation is asserted and the shape and direction of radical politics is confronted with the possibility of its depoliticization—with the possibility that the problems of resistance might currently overwhelm effective tactics of resistance.


1. See Naomi Klein, “The Vision Thing: Were the DC and Seattle protests unfocused, or are Critics Missing the Point?” from Benjamin Heim Shepard and Ronald Hayduk, eds., From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (New York: Verso, 2002), p. 267.

2. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Towards a New Manifesto, trans. Rodney Livingston (New York: Verso, 2011), p. 109.

3. Michel Foucault, introduction to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. xiii.

4. See Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, The Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 62.

5. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000), p. 66.

6. Tiqqun, This is Not a Program, trans. Joshua David Jordan (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011), p. 117.

7. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 112.

8. Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (New York: Verso, 1997), p. 84.

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