Manifestos and the Academic Study of Religion
Podcast with Carole Cusack, Alana Louise Bowden, Ray Radford, and Sophie Roe (10 May 2021).
Interviewed by Anna Lutkajtis
Transcribed by Andie Alexander
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/manifestos-and-the-academic-study-of-religion/
Manifestos, Capitalism, Consumerism, Ritual, Performance, Dissent, Violence
Anna Lutkajtis (AL) 00:03
Welcome, everyone. We are here this evening with members of the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. And we’re about to have a conversation about manifestos. We have Professor Carole Cusack, who will be talking about [Guy] Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, particularly Debord’s Marxist understanding of consumer capitalism and the media in the context of the consumerization of religion. Ray Radford will discuss the manifesto of Anders Breivik, a European nationalist eco-warrior, right-wing, agitator, and terrorist who is most famous for the 2011 Oslo attacks. Sophie Roe will be discussing the Unabomber manifesto. And its connection to both environmental movements and extreme nationalism. Finally, Alana Bowden will be talking about [Antonin] Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty,” a modality of immersive total theatre beyond language and representation, which draws heavily from various religious and spiritual discourses and practices. And I’m Anna Lutkajtis, I will be podcast emcee for the evening. So, I think it would be really interesting to start with a discussion of how we approach a manifesto. What is a manifesto in religious terms? Carole?
Carole Cusack (CC) 01:15
I think, Anna, one of the useful things that we could do tonight is think about a manifesto as being somewhat akin to a creed in religion. Now, I understand that, of course, a huge number of religions never formulated a creed in any way, shape, or form. But the idea, which obviously, links to the dominant tradition of Christianity, is that it’s a statement of beliefs about the nature of reality and the universe. And these beliefs are seen to be vital, fundamental things that we have to pay attention to. And the word “creed,” in English, of course, comes from the Latin term “credo.” The Christian creed begins “Credo in unum dominum.” “I believe in one God.” And it already positions the speaker, and the audience, in the frame of monotheism and of the necessity to commit existentially to that God. So, I think everybody tonight will probably discover some aspect of that kind of commitment, and statement of totalising aims, in every manifesto we can theory.
Alana Louise Bowden (AB) 03:05
Well, I was actually thinking, can a manifesto—and a secular manifesto—be understood on religious terms. And then conversely, can canonical religious texts be understood as a manifesto? Because, as Carole’s pointed out, there’s a differentiation between a secular manifesto and a sacred creed. But is the boundary that simple? For me, because I’m in theatre and performance studies, and studies and religion, I kind of see a slippage between the two textual genres, I guess. I’m thinking in terms of specifically about Luther in 1517 and the 95 Theses. And thinking then, too, is a manifesto, or a credo, is that inherently performative? Does it have to do something in the world, or can it exist in thought, as well? Because leading into our manifestos that we’ll be discussing, some of them have been, I think, enacted to different degrees of lesser or greater success in their aspirations being realized.
Yeah, Alana, maybe you could take us through Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty.”
Yeah, if we’re ready to jump into our specific manifestos. So yeah, as we’ve said, I’ll be looking at Antonin Artaud’s collective manifestos for what he termed the “theatre of cruelty.” So, there’s no one set manifesto—was actually he wrote two manifestos, and a series of different letters and essays during the 1930s. And they were collectively published in 1938, as Le Théâtre et Son Double, in French, or The Theatre and Its Double. And so, Artaud was a French writer, poet, dramatist, visual artist, essayist, actor and theatre director. And so here he is best known for his, his manifestos around the theatre of cruelty. And so basically, Artaud was calling for a modality of immersive total theatre beyond language and representation. So, he was closely associated with the surrealist movement. And he railed against what he thought was the failure of the Western, representational aesthetic literary drama of the 19th and early 20th century. So, he called for a theatre, which was beyond language, that was experiential, that was immersive, in which the audience was physically, emotionally, and psychically affected as a means of creating an experience of pure presence. So, he rejects verbal representational processes of signification as a means of communication, and so he calls for theatre, which affects and, as he famously puts it, infects. So, he describes theatre as being a plague. And one of my favourite quotes from The Theatre and Its Double, he states that “if there’s still one hellish truly accosted thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signalling through the flames.” I find that really exciting in that, for me, when we look at a religious ritual, or what we would call a performance in terms of the secular performance, I think that we’re getting slippage, especially now, in terms of immersive experiential theatre, different forms of performance art. My research specifically looks at the intersection between art magic and performance. So yeah, I’m really interested in where he troubles the boundary, because he talks about wanting to exercise—exercise society and individuals. He wants to affect the psychic architecture of his audience. And so, he really wants to break it down the relationship that we’re an audience member, in a dark room looking at bodies on a stage, on a proscenium arch stage—he wants to break that down, and destroy it, and put the experience and the meaning inside the body of the spectator itself.
Ray Radford (RR) 07:35
So, would you say the manifesto is aimed at the spectators or the people on the stage?
I think that the tricky thing with Artaud that—one thing that I probably should have pointed out earlier—is that he was he was plagued by mental illness. And I think especially being born in the late 1800s—he was born in 1896, so he was very much living through a time with the pathologisation of the body and different forms of mental illness. He was incarcerated, institutionalized. He was very much diagnosed with schizophrenia; he underwent shock treatment. And so, in saying that, these letters and essays and manifestos are directed at no one subject. He takes aim at the whole of society itself. He sees, in terms of religion, he sees that society in a really, I would say, gnostic—and it’s been acknowledged by many scholars—a real gnostic, dualist perspective in the binaries of good and evil, heaven and hell, God and the devil—and he sees that this world that we’re living in now, that it’s just an illusion. And that really harkens back to the idea of the Demiurge and Yaldabaoth, in that it is a false world, a false reality, that’s being constructed, and we’re trapped within it. And so, he thought that through theatre, through this immersive theatre of cruelty, that this experience could liberate us from the shackles of what he thought were the dark forces, and the black magic of a malevolent culture. I think it’s really important to probably at this point, really highlight sort of his, the irony, I guess, where he thought about the failure of language itself. In that, in the definition of cruelty, he really took issue that so many people responded to his work in thinking he was suggesting that it was meaning blood and violence, although he does suggest in one part of the Theatre and Its Double that, if necessary, blood will be shed. But he means “cruelty,” in the French sense, that it’s irresistible, that you cannot take yourself away from it. And I’m quoting here specifically from The Theatre and Its Double now, “I use the word ‘cruelty’ in the sense of hungering after life. Cosmic strictness relentless necessity in the Gnostic sense of a living vortex of engulfing darkness, in the sense of the inescapability. And the necessary pain without which life could not continue. Good has to be desired. It is the result of an act of willpower, while evil is continuous.” So, for Artaud, the cruelty is necessary to life but it’s irresistible. And it’s through this cruel experience that we will be finally liberated from the illusion that we find ourselves in.
I know Artaud mostly because of the influence that he had upon Peter Brook.
Who I’ve done quite a lot of work on because he’s a member of the Fourth Way tradition—a follower of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Now, I think you’ve just told us some amazing stuff that we could unpack a bit further, which is about the relationship between theatre and ritual, perhaps in religious context?
I think working between theatre and religion, as you point out, Carole—ritual is such an important term, and I think, countless studies and books and there’s been so much contest around what we mean by ritual. And I think in a religious studies sense, I think we’re a lot more comfortable in unpacking the concept of ritual, whereas performance studies we struggle sometimes with that division between secular and sacred. I think that performance studies is—if I tell someone I work in religious studies, when I’m in a performance studies context, they look at me a little bit askance, wondering if I’m talking about supernatural forces and God and the devil, which we can do. But I think within a religious studies context, ritual—when we talk about ritual, we mean something that is affective. And I quite like the work that Jonathan Z. Smith does with ritual. I think it’s in his book, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. And he talks about ritual and the sacred as being a selective process, and that it’s through our ritualized action, it’s the meaning and the affect that comes from the doing. And I think that that’s something that Artaud really tapped into. And if we think about when he is working—or writing, working—he was in and out of institutions, but also working as a theatre director and as an actor himself. He was pointing to stuff that is, I would say, is happening now, but he was 100 years ahead of his time. He was literally—the thing Jane Goodall says—he was the idealized martyr (that could be misquoting) of failed artistic genius.
I know, Alana, I know Artaud was into mysticism and had a number of mystical experiences and visions.
He did. Bless him, bless him. He believed, yeah, that he was in possession of a walking stick that had belonged to St. Patrick, Jesus Christ, and Lucifer. So, it was… (laughs)
It was well used then.
(Laughs) It was a well-used walking stick.
But yeah, he did have these experiences. And I think that this is would speak to your work, Anna, in terms of mystical experience and hallucinogens and treatment in so much as the boundaries between what we would call a mystical experience and an episode of mental illness, they’re really tenuous. And depending on what context we find ourselves in, the definition and the treatment would change. I think, in the later years of his life, Artaud died in—it was, I think, what was it—it was the fourth of March 1948, so he wasn’t very old. He was only in his early 50s. he’d spent the last five years in an institution in Paris, I think it was. But before that, he was living in Ireland, and he was having these apocalyptic visions of the landscape, where he truly believed that the end times were approaching. He believed at some points that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. There’s a really famous episode where he was walking through the streets of Paris with a friend complaining of the pain in his hands and his wrists from the time when he was crucified on the mound. So, he was a troubled individual, most definitely. But in his writings—in just the last five years, he produced 20,000 pages of notebooks that I think now or… There was an exhibition a few years ago, of what he terms—they’re magic spells, they’re incantations—he uses drawing of sigils and manifestation as well. So, there’s so much religious and spiritual discourse bound up in his work because he very much wanted to exercise, what he saw, as the evil forces that were hidden within us. Very much like the ancient gnostic traditions.
Did he try to induce these mystical experiences, or did they just happen spontaneously for him?
I think it was sort of column A, column B. I think he definitely had genetic instances and structures. I mean, in terms of psychology—that’s not my area of research, he probably be much better versed, but he also was involved with drug taking. And in that regard, there was drug taking, but also, he was a willing participant when he was institutionalized in various instances of electroshock treatment. I think, in the last five years, there were countless instances where he underwent treatment. In the end, he was desirous to be, as he very famously put it, a body without organs. And I think when there’s just so much in his writing, I think it’s really hard to peg it all down into one short podcast. But some of the language that he uses in his writing and his manifestos, it’s visceral, it is violent. And he talks about smashing through language in order to touch life. I think there’s one really beautiful—or beautiful, it’s in its horror, I would say—that he wants to agitate the soul. And he says that, this is again, I quote from The Theatre and Its Double, “The secret is to irritate those pressure points as if the muscles were flayed. The rest is achieved by screens.” I think it’s very famous that scholars would say that he famously never realized his theatre of cruelty that he’s this poster child of the Avant-garde, the tortured genius of mental illness. But I think that in what we’re seeing, now, you look at—or even in the 1960s counterculture—you would get the performance happenings, you eventually got Fluxus, which isn’t quite the same as what he’s pointing to. But theatre really begins to be opened up in the 1960s with the Avant-garde counterculture. And they explore the physical and psychic extremes of their practice. And they really thought, from what Artaud was calling for, the liberation of performance from text, and what they saw as the bourgeois institution of literary drama. So, you get The Performance Group, very famously, with their work Dionysus in 69. You get Beat poetry with [Allen] Ginsburg and, as Carole pointed out, you get Peter Brook, also Jerzy Grotowski. I would even say that John Cage’s performance—it was at 4’33” that way. I think that somewhere points to where Artaud was taking us. And I think, because I’m thinking about manifestos, I was thinking about Valerie Solanas. It’s been argued that her assassination attempt of Andy Warhol was a radical piece of performance art, and that it is one of the first iterations of realization of Artaud’s cruelty—theatre of cruelty—in that the boundary between performer and spectator was obliterated, that she stage managed everything, that she had a trench coat and a paper bag she left at Warhol’s Factory contained a pistol, her address book, and a sanitary napkin. She obliterates the boundary between performance and reality and spectator.
I frivolously said I’d talk about the SCUM Manifesto as I made this program, but of course, I withdrew from it. But one of the things that you have just pointed to, Alana, in fact, to the context of The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord’s piece which was published in French in 1967 and became kind of globally relevant with the Paris Riots of 1968. And the whole point of The Society of the Spectacle is a kind of upgrade of Marxist ideas about society, where essentially, the “real” ceases to have any meaning. And the only thing that has meaning is the spectacle, which is a kind of a con produced so that people can consume it by viewing and being alienated, rather than, you know, enlightened. So, in some senses, The Society of the Spectacle is like an anti-Artaud. It suggests that what’s happened by the 1960s, is that there’s the production of spectacle constantly, which actually distracts people from the recognition of anything pointing to the real. It has implications for politics and for religion.
I was just gonna say, I mean, I am a massive Guy Debord fanboy, as most people might know. But no, I was just gonna say while listening to Alana talk about Artaud, that there seemed to be an awful lot of parallels between the two. They kind of wanted to break barriers down that were keeping people from seeing the reality. And I think it’s sort of—I don’t know, if it’s just a French thing, considering they’re both French. And as we all know, the French philosophers are the fun ones. But yeah, no, that’s just what I sort of thinking while Alana was talking.
I think it’s sort of that… It’s two different parts, but both from the same agitation where they go, Artaud wants you to go further into that—right into the experience, right into the centre. Whereas Guy Debord, I think, in a very similar way to Bert Albrecht, really, where it is to take you right outside of it so you can see it for what it is.
Yeah, I think there’s two different approaches. But I think… I would also say that Artaud’s work is definitely bound up in the convergence of art and politics, and magic and religion, and the secular and the sacred. Whereas, in terms of Debord’s work—I mean, my favourite example of Debord was a punk band I love, The Manic Street Preachers, they wanted to, I think borrow from his manifesto, and create for their first LP—they wanted it in a sandpaper jacket, so that it would rub up against all the other records stacked against it, but I don’t think they were allowed to. That was their little almost-Debord protest to the manufacturer and capital and art. But yeah, so I think with Debord—where would be… Carole, what would your thoughts be in terms of religious parallels?
I’m not sure that there are religious parallels, like, certainly, Debord’s not that interested, for example, in things like ritual, which would be significant in the context of the theatre. What always interested him is the way in which most people, and he thought by 1967—fuck knows what he’d have thought looking at all of us now. He thought, by 1967, that the experience of being had been completely displaced by the experience of having. The only things that people were interested in were material possessions. But what they didn’t understand was that being reduced to that was like an ultimate, capitalist situation where there wasn’t really anything that a person could do to create meaning, apart from consume. And it makes me think, you know, it is actually a French thing. There’s a whole lot of people in the 1960s who were worrying about that sort of thing. And there are novelists and artists who are asking questions about why is it that everybody wants all this stuff? And what do they think the stuff is about? Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle is actually structured properly as a manifesto. It’s the manifesto of the situation is the International, the Neo-Marxist group which he was the chief spokesman of. And if you look at some of the theses, some of pithier than others and point more strongly to things that he sees as huge problems. So, he says, in “Thesis 44,” the spectacle is a permanent opium war raged to make it impossible to distinguish goods from commodities or true satisfaction from a survival that increases according to its own logic. Consumable survival must increase in fact, because it continues to enshrine deprivation. The reason there is nothing beyond augmented survival and no end to its growth is that survival itself belongs to the realm of dispossession. It may gild poverty, but it can’t transcend it. Now, when you look at that, you think, well, that doesn’t really have to do with religion.
Or does it?
And it may not either. But if you start thinking about the fact Debord killed himself in 1994, shot himself. And by, maybe, the end of that decade, towards the year 2000, there were a number of religious studies theorists beginning to write about how the dominance of material commodification in religion was a kind of massive problem. And there are those people who came from like a strictly dismissive perspective, like Jeremy Carrette and [Richard] King, who wrote a book called Selling Spirituality, which is extremely dismissive and critical. And then you get somebody like David Lyon, who in 2000, only six years after Debord kills himself, writes an extraordinary book—very short, very light, very easy to read—called Jesus in Disneyland. That it starts about, how is it that even, you know, quite traditional religious people around about the turn of third millennium are, basically, engaging with consumerist models, at every point, to calculate themselves, to encounter the divine, to have peak experiences. What most matters, is consumption. And of course, since then, other theorists and writers, including people that I admire very much I’m thinking, perhaps of François Gauthier and Tuomas Martikainen, who edited a book called Religion in Consumer Society: Brands, Consumers, and Markets, that I remember reviewing a few years ago, it was published in 2013. They were interested to point out how even religious institutions in the 21st century actually had
absorbed all of this stuff, which in some sense, should have been a critique of their operation. But rather than viewing it as a critique, they incorporated it and started operating themselves within the modes of consumption. So poor old Debord, I think he would have been completely horrified by the idea that we are not upset or perhaps not upset enough by his critique of consumerism. And of course, The Society of the Spectacle is, to some extent, it’s a Neo-Marxist Manifesto. So, it looks back to Marx’s Communist Manifesto. And it looks at ideas that Marx and Engels developed about religion, you know, that in some sense, it’s narcotic that stops people from engaging in revolutionary consciousness. But Debord looked towards the intense mediatisation of our existence in really interesting ways. Like in 1967 in Paris, the internet was not a thing. And for the majority of people who weren’t actually IT geeks, it wasn’t a thing till 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee introduces the World Wide Web Interface, which made it available to a lot of people who are non-specialists. But Debord, in The Society of the Spectacle, launches some pretty powerful attacks on the hollowness for example of celebrity. So, there’s a lot of discussion about fame, and about mediatisation, which, at that point meant television and film. We see like a more intense version. And I think one of the reasons why I find this such an interesting text is because it’s one of those texts where it’s like the mythical or folkloric idea about meeting a doppelgänger and dying. And it’s us. We’ve seen the future, and, “oh, heck, it’s here. And it’s horrible.” And we kind of like it. And I think every time we think about Pentecostal mega-churches, sex scandals, mediatised Christian music, Christian television apocalyptic series put up on channels that only all the fundamentalists in America watch. We have seen what Debord saw well over 50 years ago. And I find it interesting, I don’t like using the word prophet because, basically, because I’m old. I had to do religious studies when you could only do old religion. And I know that prophets in the Old Testament, for example, are not actually supposed to be people who see the future. They’re kind of social critic. Now, Debord’s a social critic, but he also is somebody who could see the future. And it was pretty horrible. Which I think is probably, obviously, an invitation for either Sophie or Ray, because then manifestos go beyond, I think, what we’ve discussed so far.
Sophie Roe (SR) 33:06
Yeah, so, the Unabomber, aka Ted Kaczynski, or other way around. He’s really fascinating to study in terms of his manifesto because, I think, his manifesto is something that kind of gets overlooked with his story. He’s more commonly, more well known for his prolific serial killing, and I think it took about 20 years before he was finally captured and sentenced. And it definitely kind of covers a lot of that, that has already been raised by Alana, in terms of actually enacting an ideology of a manifesto. And also going off of Carole’s discussion of Debord is that what was inspiring him was a rejection of society and everything that he saw was wrong with society. So, the big motivation for the Unabomber manifesto is that it was this recognition that society and its technology was becoming too advanced for the people, like for humans, and that humans were starting to change their behaviour in order to conform with technology, rather than using technology as a tool to enhance them. And I guess, going off of what Alana was saying, something that I find really interesting with the discussions of the manifesto is that kind of, how is it being enacted? How are these ideas being carried out? And the Unabomber manifesto is really interesting to study from that respect because it was something that was being actively carried out by Ted Kaczynski, and that would inevitably lead to his arrest, was the publication of his manifesto.
Do you think it’s inspired anybody after his arrest, though?
Yeah, there’s definitely been quite a few people that have been inspired by it. There’s several groups that are emerging, even today, that are kind of playing off of this idea of like rewilding and rejecting modern society. And of course, it also leads into your own manifesto that you’re discussing, Ray, of Anders Breivik.
But before we jump back over to Ray, I’m so fascinated by this idea of rewilding, because it’s something that I have seen, I guess, in social media and in wellness media. But I had no idea that it had links to the Unabomber manifesto.
I was just thinking that.
Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yeah, this is why I found it really fascinating reading up on it, again, because he kind of was one of the first to really raise this issue that humans need to return to this more, “primitive lifestyle” in order to shake off the negative aspects of modern society. But I think that also plays into this narrative of what are we going back to, which is definitely being raised in probably the stuff that you’re reading, as well.
So, what does he think we are going back to?
He never really makes it clear, which is something really frustrating about his manifesto. And I think it’s a common theme across manifestos is that there isn’t really a clear direction of where he wants to go. He has this kind of ambiguous term of just like “primitive” and “premodern” and “anti-civilization,” yet he’s writing within a civilization, he’s using a typewriter to write these things, he’s creating bombs with modern technology. So, it’s very confusing. And I think that’s something that often gets overlooked with those that he’s inspiring is that they kind of have this very ambiguous idea of what they’re trying to reject and what they want to just get away from, but there’s nothing that they’re actually going towards. And I guess he tries to justify this by claiming that society… it is only through the collapse of society that a new, more positive society can be built up. So, he’s more interested in actually destroying and getting rid of everything than actually giving any practical tips on where we can go in the future.
Well, I think probably Sophie, that makes me want to ask about the relationship between, say, ecology and spirituality or perhaps religion. I mean, is it one of his—is it his “ultimate concern,” to use the old Paul Tillich?
I guess, considering that question, it’s something that’s never really clearly defined in his manifesto. He never really goes into very specific religious or even really political concepts. What I find more interesting in terms of that is what it’s inspiring, and how it’s being interpreted by the audience, because I think that’s where a lot of the ecology and spirituality comes into it as people are taking it up and interpreting it and trying to act on it. It’s something that’s definitely been picked up on by many of the anarcho-primitivists and the very extreme environmentalists who were using it as a sort of justification for having extreme acts of protest it against society. And it’s something that’s increasing, even up to today, we see the things like extinction rebellion that just completely—not at a loss, but they’re looking for new ways to reject what they’re saying are the ills of rapid social change and the negative impact of technology. So yeah, definitely more in terms of what it’s inspiring, which I think is something that is interesting to consider of manifestos in general, because while we can consider who’s writing it and what’s inspiring them, I think the big impact is what it’s, in turn, inspiring and who’s interpreting it and actually acting on it.
Absolutely. I was just thinking sort of from left field but there’s that old story about the Velvet Underground that the first record sold very few units, but the people who did buy their first album went on to form I think, you know, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth—like all these incredible bands until you go where is manifestos more broadly apart from you know, rock music, but how are we assessing a manifesto by the people that it goes on to inspire? And I mean, obviously, we are talking about some very serious horrific crimes out of these manifestos, in terms of Ray and Sophie’s. But yeah, how do we think we would judge a manifesto? Does it need to be realized by its author or those that it inspires? Because I think that’s something… and then we can slip into religion as well. Do we value a religion and its validity by its followers and their actions?
I think if you look at something like Guy Debord, like The Society the Spectacle. Ever since he died, it’s basically going off on a tangent, where the concept of the dérive is just become completely separate to what he’d wanted.
It’s an app now!
It’s an app, yeah. Like it’s no longer a…
You can download the app.
Yeah, it’s no longer an art thing. It’s now a, you know, go off and go for a wander and a street ramble, if you will.
And Instagram it! #GuyDebord.
And Instagram it! Yeah, which would just really annoy the crap out of him, I think.
He would hate it.
But that brings me back to a question that was posed earlier, which is, you know, what’s the direction of these manifestos? Where are we going with them? So, it’s like, if someone like Ted Kaczynski or Anders Breivik had a direct way they wanted to go, like they were writing for somewhat of a future. But Artaud and Debord were just sort of like wanting to reclaim their present, which I guess, you know, maybe that’s just a generational thing.
I think that’s a great issue, Ray. It’s really good. And Alana going back to your thing about buying the Velvet Underground album, because there’s another myth, and it comes out of—is it the first Sex Pistols gig? They’re only 26…
… 28 people or something? And they all went on to form a band?
And they all went on to form bands, you know? So, it’s like the perfection is in the recognition that this is the path that we must tread. And I often think about that in terms of new religious movements, because someone like L. Ron Hubbard, for example, there’s an enormous number of people who understood, trained, took on the scientology check in various ways, and then went off and did other things with it, which actually drove him bonkers. He really didn’t like it. But that didn’t stop them. So, in some senses, he’s like an astonishingly fertile and powerful influence whether or not we like the idea. So, when you think about people like the Unabomber, and Anders Behring Breivik, you’re thinking about people whose impact was violent, and terrifying, and criminal, and yet, perhaps inspirational? Ray, do you want to step in and tell us about Breivik?
Well, I mean, I’m a little bit loath to call someone who killed an awful lot of children brave and inspirational. I mean, maybe to a certain subset of people including, and not limited to, Brenton Tarrant, who is most famous for a year ago—was it a year ago, two years ago?
It was a year.
The Christchurch shootings, which, yeah, like the anniversary… It was an anniversary over the weekend, I think. Yeah, this is a guy who was so concerned about—he was slightly an eco-terrorist. He believed that the earth needed to be saved. But the easiest way to save the Earth is to stop Muslim birth rates, because it’s always about the birth rates, as the first line of Tarrant’s manifesto also wrote, it said, to save the world, he killed a bunch of people. And I think there’s certain issues with that. But I mean, then his manifesto itself was, like, why he did it, how he did it, and then basically ripped off a whole bunch of other people, including Ted Kaczynski, to sort of—he changed a few of the words to suit his own situation, his own ideas. But yeah, it’s a Ted Kaczynski, the Arabia myth, which, you know, Europe is going to turn into Arabia at some point soon. Yeah, it’s not a very nice thing to read. And that’s why I said I’d do it. (laughs)
How would you link Breivik to religion?
Well, that’s the thing, because if you read the manifesto, he keeps carrying on about the Knights Templar…
… as he keeps saying he is a member of this order of the Knights Templar, which there is a Masonic order, which is the Knights Templar, which he wasn’t a member of. But you know, he has this whole crusade aspect thing. And then he’s like, the whole anti-Islam aspect makes him sound very Christian. But if you ask him now, apparently, he’s coming out on record as saying he’s an Odinist, which in itself is, you know, these days is just essentially another code word for white supremacist anyway. So, the religious aspect, I guess, it’s just, at some point, he felt like a Christian need to sort of cleanse Europe, which is still an idea that carries on today, through an awful lot of people.
I think as well, more broadly, for religious studies… I was just thinking, though, again, to bring up Jonathan Z. Smith, the think, in his writings about the immediate aftermath of Jonestown and what he saw as the failing of the discipline, is in religious studies, to really tackle what had happened in its in its discourse, and to talk about how we can approach these atrocities that are done in you know, in the name of religion, or whether they borrow from religious discourse or practice or ideology. Do you think it’s our responsibility as academics, as scholars of religion, to engage with these manifestos or as you know, Jacinda Ardern, she doesn’t want to name, she doesn’t want to talk about the perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre and doesn’t want to give him that satisfaction to be named. Where do you think we sit, Ray, as a as a discipline? Should we be looking at these manifestos and going, we need to tackle this, so it doesn’t happen again? What do you think?
That’s where I’m at with it. I think you won’t be able to stop them. But if you know, like enough manifestos being written, you’ll at least be able to see where these people are coming from. Like, I’ve got an entire folder of manifestos on my computer, which is a very strange thing to say, I feel. But you read enough of them and it’s, hopefully, as in the role of an academic or a scholar is, you know, sort of like taking one for the team and reading these things so that other people don’t, but also, you know, being able to pick out the religious elements that journalists might not because journalists have access to them as well. They usually freely put them up on the internet and link to them. I know Tarrant did—straight up to 8chan or 4chan. And yeah, you know, so if we can get to them and actually analyse them through some form of religious studies modality, I think it would actually help out a lot more. At least the current ones. Like the older ones are a bit nicer, I guess, as we found out this evening.
Well, maybe not Ray. You could argue that there were older and totally horrible, white supremacist manifestos. And I’m thinking about things like say, we could bring something like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Oh, yeah. Well, that’s true. But also, we could go straight to movies and Birth of a Nation.
I’m not sure that they are necessarily nastier. The difference is that they’re mediated in a different way, as you say, they’re freely available all over the internet.
And they’re usually shared a lot more now. That ease of access of being able to share them amongst like-minded people.
That’s something that I’ve always found quite interesting. And even listening to Alana and Carole discuss their manifestos is the shift in how they’re being kind of published and shared around. Because I know for a fact that Ted Kaczynski was very explicit in stating that he didn’t want to actually publish his manifesto in a conventional way, because it wouldn’t get that message across. I wouldn’t get that readership. It was only through his acts of terrorism, and then getting it published in major newspapers, that he actually got that readership. And I guess the same could be said, in your case Ray. It is the act that’s associated with the manifesto that has a big impact as well.
True. Yeah, I mean, I doubt we’d be sitting here talking about it if for every kid failed to get to the islands, and actually managed to do anything. But yeah, I think you’re right.
No, I was just gonna say I think, Soph, you raise a really interesting point, because if you cut it down the middle for this evening, you look at Carole and I, our manifestos, we’ve got people who are trying to call others to action, whereas with yourself and for Ray, we’ve got people who have written documents, to sort of, I don’t know, frame or—not justifies not the right word—but yeah, to sort of land and ground their subsequent atrocities in a document just to sort of outline like the inside of their thinking and their process. And I think in that regard, maybe we’ve got two different, we’re dealing with two different beasts, maybe, even though they’re both, well, they’re all sort of under the umbrella of manifesto, the concept, and they might use the same language.
Don’t let Breivik fool you. He was writing to basically try and to inspire more people to follow him and take up the call to arms.
That is true. Yeah.
Something that Ted Kaczynski really tried to get across with his—and it’s never really explicitly stated, but you can really get that that sense—is that he really wanted to reinforce how much he disliked society. And he wanted to get people to understand that and kind of agree with him. Because at the end of the day, he really wanted people to kind of come together and just increase the social stress so that the system would eventually break down. So yeah, it’s definitely more of a call to arms. I don’t think it’s necessarily inspiring people to do the same things that he did, but he’s definitely trying to get some kind of revolution happening.
Yeah, I mean, it’s the same with Tarrant. He’s trying to enthral more people who might want to defend the homeland. And well, I mean it worked 10 years later in Christchurch, which is still strange. It’s an Australian in New Zealand defending Europe. So, which makes some sense, I issue, to someone.
Well, that raises the question about whether a manifesto has a universal call or whether it doesn’t, Ray. Kaczynski is American. Debord and Artaud are French. Brenton Tarrant is an Australian in New Zealand. Anders Breivik is a Norwegian. It always shocked me amongst my Swedish academic friends, after the Breivik attacks, all the Swedes said it should have been us. It’s Sweden, that has the problem with right-wing arms stop. And Norway, poor Norway, how did this even turn out to be the thing? And I guess perhaps Australia had a little bit of the same sort of feeling about Tarrant when we heard about the Christchurch mosque attacks?
I think so especially when you start looking at our own little groupings, particularly down in Melbourne. We’d like to hang out in the Grampians over the holidays.
I think it also points to a bigger question in terms of manifestos—or a broader question I should say—when we go back to that idea of the line between what is like social and political, artistic or religious dissent, and the slip into criminal actions and violence. And it kind of feels like any… Do we think manifestos are inherently violent, or, I don’t know, problematic texts? Because now I’m, you know, I’m, well, they call for destruction, right? They call for anarchy, they call for revolution. Yeah, and it’s almost like each manifesto, although, you know, there are some, depending on which one we’re talking about, there are some really horrible things done in the name of the manifesto. Is it ever possible for a manifesto to be fully realized? Or is it inherently a doomed text? Like it’s an impossible text? Because I know that with Artaud, the irony being of his work, in that he rails against the failing of language, and how language will never be sufficient, and it’s worthless, and yet he finds himself writing and having to rely on language to try and communicate his ideas. And I guess to a point people find, that’s the reason that they find it so obscure, what are you talking about? He’s like, well, that’s my point. Do we think manifestos are just inherently doomed to fail?
Oooh, I mean, it’s interesting. If we can find a manifesto that has actually taken life after the fact, I guess. I’m trying to think of one now.
I think we have to accept that human phenomena, society, dynasties, religions, civilizations all fail. That is the story. And there’s a sense in which, if you want to go for a sort of individual and the cosmos, microcosm/macrocosm relationship, just as every individual dies. Every society ends.
I mean, it’s bleak, but true.
Well, as all things must come to an end, I think this podcast now must come to an end because we’ve reached our time. Sorry to leave on that note. It’s a bit of a philosophical thought for everyone. But I wanted to thank Carole, Ray, Sophie, and Alana for joining us tonight. It was a fascinating conversation. And hopefully, we can get together again for another one of these roundtables in the future.
Cusack, Carole, Alana Louise Bowden, Ray Radford, Sophie Roe, and Anna Lutkajtis. 2021. “Manifestos and the Academic Study of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 10 May 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 10 May 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/manifestos-and-the-academic-study-of-religion/
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