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  • Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes
  • Matthew Rebhorn
Martin Puchner . Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes. Translation/Transnation Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. Pp. 320, illustrated. $60.00 (Hb); $22.95 (Pb).

Although neither "theatre" nor "performance" occur in the title of Martin Puchner's expansive and refreshingly clear Poetry of the Revolution, this work, nevertheless, provides valuable insights into the study of theatre and performance, as well as their relation to modernism, by resuscitating one of the brashest and yet most under-theorized modern genres: the manifesto. Using Marx's Manifesto as a springboard into a compelling historicization of both theatre and modernism, Poetry provocatively cuts in two directions at once. It opens up the field of theatre studies by insisting on the animating tension between theatricality and performativity in the manifestos of the avant-garde, even as it complicates the study of literary modernism by rereading its origins and its avant-garde manifestos as inherently theatrical texts. By underscoring the formal rather than doctrinal aspects of what Puchner calls "manifesto art" (6), Poetry dynamically recasts the shape and reach of the manifesto, and of avant-garde modernism, by placing theatre and performance at their very core.

The entire argument of Poetry hinges on Puchner's adroit and convincing demonstration of the theatrical and performative under-currents shaping Marx's Communist Manifesto. Puchner argues that the core of the Manifesto's power lies both in its assumption of a communal power that does not exist and in its rousing call to enact that power: "Proletarians of all countries, unite!" In Puchner's terms, these manoeuvres spring from the Manifesto's "theatricality," the way it both envisions and sets the stage for the future, and from its "performativity," the way it brings the reader to the point of enacting that communal power. Although Puchner sketches a pre-history of the Manifesto pointing back to the English Revolution and Protestant Reformation, he convincingly demonstrates that it was, in fact, Marx's combination of theatricality and performativity that provided the spark for all subsequent iterations of manifesto art. Poetry thus complicates Mary Ann Caws's suggestion in her Manifesto: A Century of Isms (2000) that manifesto art only begins in the twentieth century, and by tracing the development of manifesto art from The Communist Manifesto to The Drama Review, the book also substantially expands on Marjorie Perloff's The Futurist Moment (1986). Furthermore, by tracing the publication history of the Manifesto throughout Europe, North and South America, and Asia, Puchner enlarges both its historical context and its geographic scope—ultimately making a case for manifesto art being a new kind of "world literature." [End Page 465]

As with his analysis of Marx, Puchner is at his best when he offers reassessments of crucial theoretical mainstays. In a subtle re-evaluation of Austin's How to Do Things with Words, for instance, Puchner suggests that while revolutionary manifestos fail to have the "perlocutionary effects" that Austin emphasizes, they are, nevertheless, theatrical in assuming the power of speech acts, thus making the history of modernism in many ways a history of the manifestation of the theatrical power that Austin dismisses. Returning to this argument in Part Four, Puchner also offers a trenchant analysis of Artaud's manifesto of the "theatre of cruelty"; its notorious failure to be borne out in performance paradoxically reveals how infused the theatre is with manifestos that (like Marx's) failed to "perform" their revolutions.

While filled with dazzling theoretical insights, the bulk of Poetry is devoted to an extensive genealogy of the avant-gardes and their varied reactions to the theatrical qualities of the manifesto. In Part Two, Puchner dwells on the ultra-nationalism of those avant-gardes, revealing how Marinetti's futurist "manifesto art" made porous the "membrane" separating art from politics (79). In a reading of Lewis's vorticist play, Enemy of the Stars, Puchner systematically unpacks how vorticism, while a reaction against Marinetti's fascistic manifesto, nevertheless was animated by the same tensions between theatricality and performativity. Love it or loathe it, Puchner argues, the manifesto's foundational energy, shuttling between the theatrical imagining of...

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