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11 July 2019

What is a Manifesto ... ?

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Gay-liberation-websmall

Gay Liberation Front, Manifesto. London: Gay Liberation Front. 1971

The origins of writing and the reason why we write are central themes around which the Making Your Mark exhibition revolves. Encompassing the act of writing and the mediums used from carvings, scrolls, papyri, typing, print and digital. The exhibition is divided into different chapters, featuring a section on ‘People and Writing’ that considers the methods and purposes of various types of documents which are utilised as tools of power. Publications that reflect this include charters, petitions, pamphlets and treaties. Another such ubiquitous document that is congruous with this section is the manifesto.

A manifesto is a unique way of communicating which addresses an audience and asks them to unite to take action and change something. In this sense, the manifesto is an historical artifact and political tool within the history of radical democracy. The earliest examples can be traced back to Europe of the 16th Century; most famous manifestos include the Declaration of Independence and the Communist Party Manifesto. The concept of a manifesto is a little bit like a pamphlet, which were often homemade and distributed by hand in public places; likewise the manifesto is a public announcement often printed in newspapers or journals.

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Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, (Manifesto of the Communist Party). London : gedruckt in der Office der 'Bildungs-Gesellschaft für Arbeiter' von J. E. Burghard, [1848] 

There is no definite style or format. What all manifestos share is a call to its reader to unite and join together to make a change. Manifestos are frequently written during unsettled periods, often by small groups of people who want to challenge the status qua. Throughout history the authors vary from political parties, art movements and individuals. Developed as a text, the manifesto fuses art and politics to create a type of modernist literature. Studies of this particular writing form has lead researchers to consider it a genre within its own right.

A manifesto proves that writing is a tool of power and can be used to intervene and demonstrate against dominant systems. The phrasing used is often pleading, attacking, protesting and opposing in tone and declaring the intention of the writer. Any subject, cause or social group can write their own manifesto, but it is always written from an opposing position implying an ‘us’ and ‘them’. The style is often short and repetitive that attempts to get its message across and encourage readers to agree.

The texts broadcast ideals demanding the reader seize the moment to change the future. In this way, the writing is an activist text, inciting readers to take practical action to make decisions for themselves. This articulation must however be recognised by the audience or subject it addresses in order to function.

Where and when and who wrote manifestos are dependent on power struggles and an urge for change. The manifesto can appear under threat in this age of social media where a blue thumb can signify individual consent. Yet the desire to transform injustices and ignorance exists now more than ever. In these unsettled times, there are a lot people who still want to change things. If you were to write your own manifesto, what might it include and why?

This post has been written by Rachel Brett, Reference Specialist for Humanities at the British Library. Rachel frequently delivers discovery sessions on art, fashion and related subjects, and contributes to the Library's Doctoral Open Days