Mina Loy

by Christina Walter

“Feminist Manifesto” is a polemic against women’s subordinate position in modern Western culture, penned in 1914 by Anglo-American writer and painter Mina Loy, who was then living in an expatriate community in Florence, Italy. This polemic, unpublished in Loy’s lifetime, is one of her earliest prose works and offers a rather violent program for securing women’s individuality and thereby transforming their social and artistic status.

Auto-Facial-Construction is an advertising pamphlet that Loy produced in 1919 to capitalize on her exercises for (supposedly) achieving the ideal mimetic relation between one’s face and one’s personality. By this time separated from her first husband, English photographer Stephen Haweis, Loy pursued many such schemes and inventions to support herself financially. Auto-Facial-Construction and “Feminist Manifesto” together—in their ruminations on individuality and personality—reflect Loy’s early ambivalence toward a modernist aesthetic of impersonality, as well as her gradual and increasing investment in the notion of human subjectivity and embodiment that it proposed.

Impersonality and Loy’s Early Prose

Mina Loy

Today, Loy is perhaps most widely known for her “Feminist Manifesto,” despite the fact that she never published or even finished the polemic and that, until printed in influential anthologies like The Gender of Modernism (1990), it existed only in a letter to writer and patron Mabel Dodge Luhan.[1] Part of the manifesto’s current caché is that numerous scholars have taken it as the key to Loy’s life-long aesthetic and an early statement of her rejection of modernism’s impersonal aesthetic. Susan Gilmore, for instance, defines impersonality as a masculinist striving for “invisibility” through the “transcendence” of the “emotion[al]” and the “personal,” and uses “Feminist Manifesto” to categorize Loy’s project as a contrary aesthetic that “foregrounds the female poet’s visibility” and an “authority borne not of cultural transcendence but of cultural disenfranchisement.”[2] Similarly, Cristanne Miller, also citing the manifesto and aligning impersonality with the negation of the personal, contends that Loy “eschew[s] even apparent lyric impersonality” by “maintain[ing] strong illocutionary and suggestively autobiographical elements” in her poetry.[3]

I have elsewhere argued against these definitions of modernist impersonality that Loy scholars presume, showing that the aesthetic did not perform objectivity but instead explored a never fully knowable psycho-physiological subjectivity that exceeds but conditions the personality and one’s knowledge of reality. I have shown as well that modernists invested in impersonality—rather than simply denying embodied identities—sought to establish what such a subjectivity meant for gender, sexuality, and race.[4] I take this counter definition as a premise here, as I also take my claims elsewhere that Loy soon turned from her early skepticism of impersonality to formulate her own impersonal aesthetic.[5] However, my current focus is on tracing the motivation for that skepticism, as well as Loy’s ambivalence toward it. If her early prose indeed expressed her life-long aesthetic, what it signals is that Loy always intuited certain limits to a self-centered creativity, pertaining not only to gender politics but more broadly to embodied identity.

Character, Embodiment, and Becoming Modern in “Feminist Manifesto”

“Feminist Manifesto,” that now most popular text, is actually shot through with a dilemma: as a feminist and woman writer, Loy wants to claim women’s equality within modernism; yet, she also seems to feel that modernist impersonality, a key aesthetic of the period, is a luxury that women writers cannot afford. Centering this dilemma is Loy’s explicit condemnation of women’s cultural construction as a “relative impersonality”—as meaningful only relative to men, and impersonal when compared to men’s individuality.[6] In this formulation, impersonality marks women’s subjection to a cultural model of universality that privileges men, or the individual as male, and Susan Gilmore has extrapolated this diagnosis of chauvinism into Loy’s supposed repudiation of aesthetic impersonality as a masculinist refusal of embodiment and subjectivity. However, Loy’s rejection of impersonality in a social context does not map so neatly onto a definition of impersonality in an aesthetic context. It does, however, help explain why Loy would worry about the latter. If an impersonal art emphasizes the instability and unknowability of the expressive subject, whether male or female, then it could run counter to women’s nascent efforts to assert a norm of female autonomy over and against the passivity generally ascribed to them. To represent an impersonal subjectivity—and so belie the possibility of autonomy—might be to sacrifice a still anticipated female independence and thereby undo the ongoing feminist process of “becoming modern.”[7] Thus, while Loy had no reason to view aesthetic impersonality as automatically suspect, she would indeed have been wary of its potential effects. In “Feminist Manifesto,” she handles this wariness by arranging a set of dialogues and collisions between competing ideologies, allowing her to insist on women’s selfhood as opposed to their relative impersonality while nonetheless documenting her unease with contemporary discourses of the self.

“Feminist Manifesto” seeks to establish a specifically female selfhood first by joining Futurism’s anti-social, singularizing tendencies with the collectivist goals of feminism.[8] Loy plays what she considers to be the positive aspects of each discourse against the politically destructive aspects of the other. Drawing on Futurist ideology, she exhorts women to “be Brave & deny at the outset” feminism’s “pathetic clap-trap war cry Woman is the equal of man” (153). Yet she also chafes at Futurism’s advocacy of a separate spheres ideology, bemoaning in fine feminist rhetoric that “[a]s conditions are at present constituted—you [women] have the choice between Parasitism, & Prostitution—or Negation” (154). Parasitism is here Loy’s metaphor for marriage and negation is the utter absence of a relation to men, which compounds women’s social impersonality. As Loy splices together such contradictory elements of Futurism and feminism, her arguments in favor of female agency also seize on these ideologies’ unacknowledged agreements—at times disturbingly so. For instance, her effort to remove the stigma from discussions of sex and reproduction (“there is nothing impure in sex”) and her unsavory contention that “[e]very woman of superior intelligence should realize her race-responsibility” of “producing children in adequate proportion to the unfit” resemble at once the platform of the feminist birth control movement and Futurism’s hygienic-eugenic ideals (156, 155). The generalized neutralization of bodies inherent in this ideological hybridization is neither incidental nor sufficient to Loy. She goes on to advance a more individuated disciplining of the body and so introduces another, divergent ideology into her mix.

Loy’s fear that any challenge to subjective autonomy may block women’s ability to become modern leads her to attack the body along with impersonality, rather than to oppose the two, as Gilmore has argued. With influential thinkers like Otto Weininger and Georg Simmel relegating women to an egoless, bodily impressionism—in a sense excluding them from full subjectivity and so from artistic and social institutions—Loy finds herself inclined to view the (female) body as fatal to women’s social power.[9] Thus, she closes “Feminist Manifesto” by recommending the “unconditional surgical destruction of virginity” as a means of inspiring “psychic development” (155). She rhetorically violates the body, hoping to control anatomy and thereby challenge the cultural and biological imperatives that constitute female gender identity.

Loy intensifies the conscious (female) self’s ability to instrumentalize the body by using a largely outdated Victorian ideal of character to frame this “de-virginization” project.[10] She argues that the current “value of woman” depends on her trading her “physical purity” to a man in exchange for his taking the “life-long responsibility of her,” a “manoeuvering” that centers on the cosmetic; and mannerly project of making oneself becoming (155, 154, 155). By contrast, the discourse of character had posited a (male) individual whose method of self-development hinged on a dialectic of working on the body to overcome it, and whose economic labor/independence was the proving ground of that dialectic and his value to the community. Condemning a collectivist feminism as “Inadequate” to address women’s social and economic subservience, Loy characterizes her alternative method, the destruction of “virtue,” as a gesture of bodily control meant to force women out of the “letharg[y]” of marriage and onto a path of self-discipline that would lead to the “intrinsic merits of character” and a “concrete value” (153, 154). This appeal to character and its insistence on bodily control—Loy’s paradoxical effort at becoming modern rather than being becoming—contrasts sharply with the more unstable and socially mediated notion of personality that by the early twentieth century had largely eclipsed it.[11] This new notion, centered on complexes and conditioning over and against the individual will, was consonant with an impersonal subjectivity. By folding personality, and in turn impersonality, back into a disembodied autonomy, Loy makes an older model of manhood meaningful for modern womanhood, an effect that culminates in the manifesto’s final instrumentalization of the female body: reproduction. Loy argues that the “devastating psychological upheaval” of “de-virginization” will create a self-conscious woman who “express[es] herself through all her functions,” including maternity (153, 154). The children of such a woman will stem from “a definite period of psychic development” and manifest the “individual lines” of her “personal evolution” (155). Maternity thus becomes merely a “faculty” of personal expression and a self-assertive gesture of bodily control (154).

Although “Feminist Manifesto” ends with this apparent commitment to the self and self-expression, Loy’s framing correspondence with Mabel Dodge Luhan suggests she was aware of the essay’s overweening attachment to individualist modes of social protest and artistic creation, and of the limits of such an attachment. Luhan’s interests in Futurism, feminism, and personality made her a natural first reader for “Feminist Manifesto.” Her enthusiasm for Loy’s earlier essay “Aphorisms on Futurism” had led her to pursue its publication, and she had sent Loy a copy of Frederic W. H. Myers’s Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903) as a book of interest.[12] In addition, Luhan’s New York salon was then host to numerous feminist and birth control reformers.[13] And yet, Loy’s letter to Luhan accompanying her draft of “Feminist Manifesto” jokes that this “absolute resubstantiation of the feminist question” is “easily to be proved fallacious—There is no truth—anywhere.” In other words, so hesitant is Loy about her manifesto that, even assuming a sympathetic reader, she distances herself from it.

In a second letter, written a few months later, Loy not only describes the manifesto as a “fragment of Feminist tirade,” she declares, in reference to its violent proposition: “I find the destruction of virginity—so daring don’t you think—had been suggested by some other woman years ago.”[14] Such a declaration registers Loy’s awareness of the manifesto’s sensationalism and acknowledges its ideas as borrowed. Both facts diverge from the autonomous, self-disciplined model of identity and production advocated in the manifesto, suggesting instead a far less stable, more relational notion of personality and creativity.

Personality and Embodied Identity in Auto-Facial-Construction

This is not to say, however, that these letters to Luhan mark Loy’s strict departure from the disembodied, self-determined identity on which she centers her gender politics in “Feminist Manifesto.” Such a departure would be a long time in the making. Thus, another early prose work, Auto-Facial-Construction—a pamphlet advertising Loy’s exercises for (re)training one’s face to express one’s personality—reflects her continued concern to subdue the body in the service of an essential, interiorized personality and offers her politicized reconfiguration of the feminine desire to be becoming. However, what’s new about this slightly later piece is a more explicit acknowledgement of a modern, performative understanding of personality, even as Loy also tries to inoculate against its implications, as well as a broader grappling with embodied identity beyond femininity or even gender.

The spark for Auto-Facial-Construction seems to have been Loy’s discovery of Bess Mensendieck’s functional movement exercises, which presume at once that the body works according to unchangeable mechanical laws and that people can use their will to attain permanent muscular alignment and health.[15] In other words, the system highlights automatic bodily processes that underwrite impersonal subjectivity, even as it proposes a means of personally controlling these processes and thus of refashioning an inferior body. Auto-Facial-Construction adapts Mensendieck’s ideas to the face. However, it seeks to recuperate the self not only from the natural aging process, but also from the modern condition—namely, the scientific, philosophical, and artistic recognition of the embodied and impersonal nature of subjectivity. Loy’s pamphlet argues that, historically, a dialectical relation existed between face and personality such that the former naturally and mimetically figured the latter. The “new interests and activities of modern life,” however, have disrupted this relation, and Loy rallies her potential clients against this disruption with the cry: we have an “inherent right not only to ‘be ourselves’ but to ‘look like ourselves.’”[16] Loy’s appeal to a liberal rights discourse is not surprising given the autonomous, disembodied self she wants to secure, and this appeal suggests that the “interests and activities” to which she refers center on a very different understanding of subjectivity—one distinctly embodied and not self-determined.[17]

Even as Loy’s rallying cry positions her against this modern subjectivity, her history and technique de-essentialize personality by acknowledging change, so that she also scrambles to mitigate this fact. Reversing Marxist logic, which supposes that modern commodity culture alienates products from the (laboring) bodies that created them, Loy wants to redress modern life’s alienation of personality from the face exactly through the commodity—that is, through the method she’s selling. However, the commodified facial image of personality is quite distinct from the natural mimesis Loy hopes to recuperate. Indeed, its constructedness implies that personality is likewise constructed, relational, and unstable. Seeming to understand these implications, Loy offers a sleight-of-hand substitution. She emphasizes that through her production process, one manifests paradoxically not a product, but a “constant and natural resource” of beauty, a raw good as it were (166).

Auto-Facial-Construction continues Loy’s effort to stabilize personality (and less directly elide impersonality) by equating two opposed notions of the former: Hollywood’s “picture personality” and Frederic W. H. Myers’s metaphysical personality.[18] From her initial premise that “the face is our most potent symbol of personality,” Loy aligns her method with Hollywood’s production of the “film-face,” at one point directly claiming that her exercises represent a “renascence” for actors and actresses (165, 166).[19] However, the implications of the film star’s facial image were also contrary to Loy’s ends, for as this image became a “picture personality” through its singularizing appearance in movies, magazines, and publicity posters, it promoted the sense that personality is a performative accrual rather than a natural essence. Loy works to sidestep this instability by interchangeably deploying Myers’s contrary notion of personality as the essential human soul, thereby taming the filmic formulation.

Another letter to Luhan, this time about Auto-Facial-Construction, makes Loy’s engagement of Myers clear. In it she critiques his parapsychological efforts, described in the aforementioned compendium Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, as “lack[ing] the element of taking risks that art and life have,” implying that her pamphlet approaches the same goal—namely, proving that personality transcends the body—from a better angle. This better angle notwithstanding, Auto-Facial-Construction repeats Myers’s sense of personality’s greater longevity compared to the body and its resulting status as an interiorized essence. More importantly, it also mirrors a key oversight in his method. While Myers presumes a stable dualistic subject in whom willful self-expression takes precedence over a distinct body, his focus on telepathic media (from automatic writing to vocal possession) depicts personality as fully dependent on a body to express it. Likewise, while Loy claims that her exercises “produce an identity between the conscious will and different muscular centers in the cranium”—implying an autonomous, self-assertive personality—she also states that only the facial image offers the “power to communicate [our] true personalities” (165).[20]

Loy ends her pamphlet with what is perhaps a coded acknowledgment of this oversight and so her failure to belie a modern, performative notion of personality. By signing her brochure “Mina Loy, Sociétaire du Salon d’Automne,” Loy trades on her status as one of the earliest female members of the famous Parisian society of painters. She thus implicitly performs herself as an advertisement and admits that her method, like painting, creates constructed objects (i.e., “picture personalities”) rather than merely expressing them. Loy reinforces this admission in a letter to Luhan, where she bemoans that she’s been “too ill to make [her] facial discovery convincing,” thereby acknowledging her facial image’s commodification, as well as the fact that she does not actually possess the unity of conscious will and body that her pamphlet proposes.

Really, though, the ultimate sign of Loy’s changing attitude toward a modern, performative understanding of personality—and indeed the impersonal nature of subjectivity—is her changed focus regarding embodied identity. While “Feminist Manifesto” seeks to refashion only the female body, Auto-Facial-Construction’s method applies equally to men and women and doesn’t exhibit the same violence in neutralizing materiality. That is, Loy’s focus is no longer simply waging war against women’s social inequality; it’s grappling directly with the nature of human personality—and not just with regard to gender, but also race or ethnicity. In another letter to Luhan about Auto-Facial-Construction, Loy describes personality through the example of a group of Japanese rice pickers she’d once seen on a boat, explaining that these workers exhibited the mutually constitutive relation between “souls and bodies and clothes and customs” that we don’t manage to “show over here.”[21] Such a remark presumes an impersonal subjectivity—that is, the sense that a social and biological matrix structures personality—and Loy goes on to imply (not particularly accurately) that her method inaugurates the needed “show” of this subjectivity in the West. Underscoring her investment, she explicitly argues (against some of her claims in Auto-Facial-Construction) that these workers would “lose all significance,” all coherence of personhood, if the relation among interior and exterior, self and culture, and body and commodity were “disturbed.”


Taken together, then, “Feminist Manifesto” and Auto-Facial-Construction make clear that Loy’s ambivalence toward personality and impersonality crept ever more steadily into the texts she composed across her early career. Where “Feminist Manifesto” turns a disembodied conception of character emphatically against impersonality in a way that only Loy’s letters undercut, Auto-Facial-Construction instead grapples directly with a modern understanding of personality, its embodied construction, and its possible compromises. With this shift, Loy began to engage personality not as a threat to her primary political goals, but instead as a subject that would consume her art in its own right. Her acceptance of modern personality was, in retrospect, the first step in her development of a truly impersonal aesthetic, which she would first offer in an unpublished memoir of early youth, The Child and the Parent, composed just a few years later. There, Loy not only argues that the “apparent person, . . . though seemingly what each must be in his entirety, is actually where each ‘leaves off,’” she also characterizes an art that is the “antithesis . . . of self-expression,” through which she conveys a sense of the impersonal forces embedded in those around her. This trajectory in Loy’s work underlines the fact that (modernist) impersonality is not opposed to personality any more than it is to embodiment, and that impersonality is instead quite literally the condition of personality, so that an acknowledgement of the one quite literally leads to the other.

  1. ↑ Loy’s draft of “Feminist Manifesto” is appended to an undated [Nov. 1914] letter to Luhan now archived in the Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
  2. ↑ Susan Gilmore, “Imna, Ova, Mongrel Spy: Anagram and Imposture in the Work of Mina Loy,” in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, ed. Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1998), pp. 271-317, at pp. 271, 274, 276.
  3. ↑ Cristanne Miller, Cultures of Modernism: Gender and Literary Community in New York and Berlin (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), p. 52.
  4. ↑ See my “From Image to Screen: H.D. and the Visual Origins of Modernist Impersonality,” Textual Practice 22.2 (June 2008), 291-313, as well as my analysis of H.D.’s “Cinema and the Classics” (1927) on this wiki.
  5. ↑ See my “Getting Impersonal: Mina Loy’s Body Politics from ‘Feminist Manifesto’ to Insel,” forthcoming in Modern Fiction Studies.
  6. ↑ Loy, “Feminist Manifesto,” in The Lost Lunar Baedeker, ed. Roger L. Conover (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), pp. 153-56, at p. 154. All typographical means of emphasis here and subsequently are original.
  7. ↑ I allude here to Carolyn Burke’s Loy biography Becoming Modern: the Life of Mina Loy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), referred to hereafter as BM.
  8. ↑ Janet Lyon has valuably traced Loy’s appeal to the contrary (but at times intersecting) rhetorics of feminism and Futurism in “Mina Loy’s Pregnant Pauses: the Space of Possibility in the Florence Writings,” in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, ed. Shreiber and Tuma, pp. 379 – 401, and in Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).
  9. ↑ Weininger claims that woman has no ego, and that the artistic genius is he who has the most conscious, most continuous, most individual ego. Simmel likewise portrays the alienated nature of cultural institutions as inimical to an unmediated feminine identity. See Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903) in Georg Simmel: On Individuality and Social Forms, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), and Weininger, Sex and Character: An Investigation of Fundamental Principles (1903), trans. Ladislaus Löb and ed. Daniel Steuer and Laura Marcus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005).
  10. ↑ For a discussion of character, see Stefan Collini, “The Idea of ‘Character’ in Victorian Political Thought,” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 35 (1985), pp. 29-50, and James Eli Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995).
  11. ↑ On the burgeoning concept of personality at the turn of the twentieth century, see Warren I. Sussman, “‘Personality’ and the Making of Twentieth-Century Culture,” in New Directions in American Intellectual History, ed. John Higham and Paul K. Conkin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), pp. 212-26.
  12. ↑ Luhan sent “Aphorisms on Futurism” to Alfred Stieglitz, enthusiastically proposing its inclusion in Camera Work, in April 1914. She sent Loy the Meyers book sometime before 1919, but likely in 1914, not long after she left Florence, where she had met Loy. Loy only read the Meyers in late 1919, but the title itself bespeaks Luhan’s interest in personality (see Loy’s February 1920 letter to Luhan in the Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library).
  13. ↑ For details on Luhan’s salon, see her memoir of the period, Movers and Shakers (1936; Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985), esp. chaps. 1-2.
  14. ↑ Loy, letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan. n.d. [1915]. Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
  15. ↑ Loy began practicing the Mensendieck method around 1910 (see Burke, BM, 118). For more information on the method, see Bess M. Mensendieck, The Mensendieck System of Functional Exercises (Portland, ME: Southworth-Anthoensen, 1937).
  16. ↑ Mina Loy, Auto-Facial-Construction, in The Lost Lunar Baedeker, pp. 165-66, at p. 165. The pamphlet was originally published in Florence by Tipografia Giuntina.
  17. ↑ On liberalism’s presumption of a disembodied, self-determined subject, particularly in the context of a rights discourse, see Wendy Brown’s States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).
  18. ↑ I take the phrase “picture personality” and my subsequent facts regarding Hollywood’s post-1910 policy of publicizing stars using headshots from Richard deCordova’s Picture Personalities: the Emergence of the Star System in America (1990; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), esp. pp. 1-21.
  19. ↑ I take this phrase “film-face” from the title of one of Loy’s later poems describing a publicity image of actress Marie Dressler. The poem was likely written sometime shortly after Dressler’s death in 1934. Loy notes on the manuscript that she submitted the poem to Between Worlds in 1960, but it went unpublished until its inclusion in The Lost Lunar Baedeker.
  20. ↑ Loy, letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan, July 3 [1920]. Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
  21. ↑ Loy, letter to Luhan, February 1920.