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A grrl and her gun

Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol, but she also had the future in her sights.

June 03, 2008|A.S. Hamrah | A.S. Hamrah lives in Brooklyn and has written for Newsday, the Boston Phoenix and the National of Abu Dhabi.

The year 1968 is being remembered, memorialized and celebrated for many reasons in 2008. Valerie Solanas, failed assassin and crackpot writer, is not one of them.

That's because Solanas represents the opposite of anything society wants to celebrate any year. On June 3, 1968, two days before the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, Solanas entered the Manhattan office of Andy Warhol and shot him.

Solanas, a panhandler who had been sexually abused as a child and had appeared in one of Warhol's films, was the author of "SCUM Manifesto," a tract calling for the elimination of the male sex. But it wasn't only as the founder and lone member of SCUM -- the Society for Cutting Up Men -- that Solanas attacked Warhol. After he misplaced the manuscript of a play she'd written, she concluded Warhol "had too much control" over her life.

Warhol survived, but physically and in other ways, he never fully recovered. He died in 1987, not even 60 years old. For a long time he'd been telling people he already felt dead. Solanas, who served three years in prison, outlived him by 14 months, dying in a San Francisco SRO hotel.

If the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. represent the death of hope in 1968, the strange confluence of Warhol and Solanas pointed the way to a new era when hope was beside the point.

It was in 1968 that Warhol first noted that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. But in 1967, Solanas had prefigured that with a warning of her own. In the future, she wrote in her characteristic mode of threat-laced irony, "it will be electronically possible for [a man] to tune in to any specific female he wants to and follow in detail her every movement. The females will kindly, obligingly consent to this." These twin predictions sum up the world we find ourselves in now, the world of reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, the entire free-range panopticon. Solanas made her prediction in a footnote to "SCUM Manifesto," but the whole essay is like that.

For a 50-page, sexually confused diatribe against men, the manifesto is filled with an odd glee, a kind of joy in the freedom to put down words with precision and wit. "SCUM," Solanas wrote, "wants to grab some swinging living for itself." The manifesto isn't just anti-men. It's anti-everything: anti-hippie, anti-work (and pro-"unwork"), anti-art, anti-military, anti-boredom, anti-you-name-it. Its nihilism is a form of utopia for Solanas, a pre-punk aesthete who fearlessly tossed out ideas that people are just now beginning to raise. She predicted reproduction without men, the elimination of aging, the end of reproduction itself and the dawning of an age of quasi-immortals. For Solanas -- who saw the extinction of men as inevitable, an evolutionary process -- these were all signs of hope that future generations, like men and all the other things she couldn't stand ("landlords, owners of greasy spoons and restaurants that play Muzak"), would become unnecessary and disappear.

As a mixture of social philosophy and fine shtick, her work has the rare virtue of seeming at the same time totally insane and totally right. That's a virtue we used to look for in philosophers, from Diogenes and Socrates up to Nietzsche.

Pressing a dubious scientific eureka -- "the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene" -- Solanas built a remarkably coherent attack on maleness as a lethal, crippling defect of the body and the spirit. Rather than dispute traditional anti-feminist stereotypes about hysteria or neurosis or neediness, Solanas simply applied them to the other gender.

And because automation and "technically feasible" artificial reproduction are making maleness itself obsolete, the real battle for the future is not between men and women but between "SCUM -- dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females" and "nice, passive, accepting, 'cultivated,' polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy's Girls."

Grrl-powered passages like these are one reason "SCUM Manifesto" sounds fresher today than many of the era's speeches, statements and other orotund pronouncements -- not to mention "Hello, I Love You."

The manifesto's effect is impossible to detach from the author's story of rape, rage and attempted murder. But for a deranged criminal who committed an indefensible act, Solanas has remarkable staying power. Although Lou Reed wrote in a song about the shooting, "I believe I would've pulled the switch on her myself," she was the subject of the excellent 1996 movie, "I Shot Andy Warhol," and "SCUM Manifesto" came back into print in a handsome edition in 2004. In this year of mania for 1968, Valerie Solanas nags the conscience. "SCUM gets around," she wrote.

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