Tuesday, February 16, 2016

In the Name of David

Back when I collected personalities the way other kids collected trophies–dissociative identity disorder, for those in the know–there were two who went by the name of David. I've always liked the name David.

For the first few years of my life, I believed the official government documents that said the middle name of my uncle, my namesake, was David until someone told me the government had made a mistake. My uncle's middle name had been Davis. A typo. An unforgivable exchange of a D for an S, much like the governmental transaction that had rendered a nineteen-year-old boy a box of body parts.

There was also David in the Bible, who loved his friend Jonathan as he loved himself, who went on to become King of Israel. The boy I was when I first read about David recognized in that kind of love something missing from his own life, something necessary for survival. Something the other readers of the Bible in his church, community, state, nation, world would find as a reason to condemn the kind of boy who would love another boy as he loved himself.

Eventually, David had to go. Not long after I–or he–had mustered the courage to write, "I think I have split personality," on a scrap of paper and hand it to a psychologist when I was sixteen.

When I was deciding on my new name, the name of David kept coming up as a possibility. I had always liked that name. But like my uncle, some things are best left buried in the past. Never forgotten–as if that were ever a possibility–but nonetheless still held at bay. For protection, the kind of protection that might show itself as dissociative identity disorder.

And when one writes requiescat in pace, one inherently acknowledges the unspoken and unsayable ora pro nobis.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

On Dada (Part 2 of 2)

With dada, Ball here, as in his poetry, dispenses with conventional, communicative language. Both dada as well as dada show themselves as a “question of connections, and of loosening them [the connections] up a bit to start with.” By dismissing the use of dada/dada as communication, Ball hopes to be granted access to a new language or a new use of or for language. Indeed, he aims to invent a new language altogether, where the affirmation of the da gets repeated and negated in the same breath and in the same word. Even more so, the complete word dada serves as not only the most basic homonymic replacement and translation for dada qua anti-art, but it also performs dada as anti-communication in its necessary and repetitive repetition. Hence, we can speak of and write dada/dada as the necessarily doubly doubled (da repeated four times) dispersal of non-/self-identity. With the doubling of dada/dada here, we are reminded of the necessary dispersal and dispensation of language, of texts, and of words, particularly as those words rupture and disperse themselves along the page: da da da da ad infinitum.

Ball sees in his poetry “a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language.” He insists, “I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words.” We should pause here to reflect on this last statement. How can we read this sentence? Dada qua new anti-art movement is the heart of words? Or does the word dada itself form the essence of all words? Perhaps we can even return to the term’s original communicative register to say that the essence of language is the French hobbyhorse or the German farewell. I would argue, and it seems that Blanchot would, to some extent, agree, that it is precisely this line of questioning along the internal rift of dissonances and ambiguities within language that bespeaks the heart of words as the da-da of the rhythmic heartbeat of language. Ball asserts, “I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own.” Perhaps, after all, we are not so far off the mark with our rhythmic interpretation of the heart’s da-da.

Ball next explains how, by allowing the vowels to “fool around,” the word comes into being. In addition to the agency that language has, according to the text, to play or to get frisky, he also reveals that he lets “the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat meows.” Depicting a birth scene of language, he describes the shoulders and limbs appearing, though instead of coming from the birth canal (and because of the references to vowels), we can assume he is referring to the mouth and to spoken discourse. (The vowel, of course, denotes the orality of language. It is a spoken unit.) Finally, Ball briefly mentions the materiality of language: “Each thing has its word, but the word has become a thing by itself.” In this, we find yet another of surrealism’s concerns regarding the relationships (or non-relationships) among word, object, and thought. As we saw previously with the term dada, the word seems to fall back in or upon itself as it disperses itself. The word is a thing is a word, etc. We have a movement that both annuls and enacts language as a power of communication and the transference of meaning.

In directly addressing his audience, Ball speaks of the need for an audience and for a public: “The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance.” Such a use of the vocative implies that dada will indeed have (or already has) an audience. It complicates our reading of the manifesto in that it appears to be a simple, straightforward statement, much like the praise of Swiss hospitality. We can read this sentence naively outside the context of dada itself, or we can understand it ironically. That is, in addressing these “gentlemen,” Ball is merely imagining an audience that might not exist for dada. Or perhaps it is not the word after all that is of public concern. Perhaps there is no public at all who can hear about the word that is, to Ball, so important. In this way, Ball both expresses and finds himself incapable of expressing the word that may or may not have any importance to an audience who may or may not be listening or even existing.

Notwithstanding these hermeneutic pitfalls, words spread out to and through others in promulgation, even as their emergence can be constricted by selves who are effaced in their own ineffability or inability to express themselves. Here in the actual document of the manifesto, written to be performed, we have written language performed as speech that admits the impossibility of language as such—a declaration that language no longer can bear the burden of communication. If we consider that dada’s anti-art (and anti-war) stance stems from a repulsion for the atrocities of World War I, this facet of language, while claiming to be entirely non-communicative and irrational, becomes understandable in its striving for incomprehensibility.

Although dada insists on nonsense in art as well as in language, the nonsense itself carries with it the desire to be heard, read, seen, and therefore understood, at least within the logic of the irrational. Even the dada “nonsense” of “dada m’dada, dada m’dada dada mhm, dada dera dada, dada Hue, dada Tza” can have meaning for us, at least to some small extent. It is easy to consider, for example, that the last two phrases serve as repeated, though abbreviated and reordered, references to “Dada Tzara, dada Huelsenbeck” that begins the “sentence.” Even as we struggle to make sense out of our words, texts, and languages (as well as ourselves and our environments), our minds are always already gleaning sense even from something necessarily—at least ostensibly—devoid of communicative powers. This is both the great achievement and the utter ruination of dada as anti-art. We need only to visit a museum to appreciate to what extent dada’s supposed anti-art has been accepted (or co-opted) by art proper. Dada, however, may have another destiny.

Friday, February 5, 2016

On Dada (Part 1 of 2)

What we seem to have here is a problem of genealogy. At times, Blanchot parses surrealism inflected as dada and at other times he seems to be writing solely about surrealism (or its methodology of automatism) apart from its dada heritage. He specifically writes that the “emancipation of words can occur only in a double sense” (88). One sense would be the freedom brought about by automatism, but we need to remember that in automatic writing it is not the word per se that actually becomes free. Freedom and word are one here, and the I who is imprinted by language imprints, in turn, itself upon language. There seems to be no distinction among freedom, word, and identity within this automatist aspect of language. The other sense would be the freedom that words achieve once they are no longer fastened and affixed to things, objects, or identities that would need to be expressed in language. If we refer to the first sense as surrealist proper, then we can label the second dada (in an adjectival sense). Furthermore, if we consider surrealism as the fusion or composition of both the Cartesian cogito and dada (and there is evidence here to suggest that this is the way in which Blanchot understands surrealism), then we can see how surrealism (as manifested in its chief methodology of automatism) shows itself (and language) as both free and not free, as both immediate and not immediate, and finally as both maintaining and dispersing Cartesian identity.

As language presents itself either through spoken or written means, it both expresses the world transparently and shows itself as that which is most opaque and meaningless. At least these are the two parameters within which language manifests, if at all. As language becomes subjectified, objectified, and reified, things that long to express and be expressed are vanquished beyond language’s parameters in a modality of nonexpression, which language, too, incorporates and integrates into its expressiveness. These things, which necessarily include human subjects, are decomposed and dispersed across the differential nexus of language as they become language itself, as they become languaged themselves.

According to Hugo Ball’s 1916 Dada Manifesto, the term dada itself displays this dual nature of language. We can use this one word as articulated in the manifesto to unpack and explain what Blanchot means by these necessarily conflicting and ambivalent powers of language. Ball explains that dada both has and does not have meaning. For his first premise, he lists the various possible translations of the term from European languages: “In French it means ‘hobby horse.’ In German it means ‘good-by,’ ‘Get off my back,’ ‘Be seeing you sometime.’ In Romanian: ‘Yes, indeed, you are right, that’s it. But of course, yes, definitely, right.’ It is just a word, after all, and it can be found in just about any dictionary in any (at least European) language. Right away, we notice that even within one language (German, for example), the meaning of this one term varies according to intonation and context. Yet dada, before the advent of the anti-art movement, remained little more than nonsense. Even more so, the word slips between various languages and language families (here, specifically Romance and Germanic), demonstrating its own incapacity for stability. This, of course, is the essence of language, but dada as well as dada show themselves through their capacity for instability and their linguistic slipperiness in a more extreme manner.

The word, which Ball suggests is “very easy to understand” and “quite terribly simple,” bespeaks the complications of the movement, in which poets can be found “writing with words but never writing the word itself.” The ambiguity of this sentence further vexes our ability to properly decipher the intentions of the manifesto. Do dada poets never write the word dada itself? Or do they simply not write the word with which they are already writing? Ball himself is very much a part of this group of dada poets “who are always writing around the actual point,” even within a document that ostensibly seeks to make manifest the policies and aims of dada. The manifesto’s most self-consciously direct statement, which signals its own directness, is itself a dada statement within the document’s larger context: “In plain language: the hospitality of the Swiss is something to be profoundly appreciated.” We could even say that this most banal, yet nevertheless straightforward, expository sentence is the most dada of the manifesto. In this way, Ball here subverts dada as well as communicative normalcy by making the manifesto’s most direct statement utterly devoid of meaning.

The Dada Manifesto aims to trace its own genealogy by directly listing its progenitors: dada Tristan Tzara, dada Richard Huelsenbeck, dada Ludwig Rubiner, dada Ernesto? Korrodi, dada Anastasius Lilienstein [literary character from Ball’s Tenderenda the Fantast?], dada Johann Fuchsgang Goethe (Goethe but with a new middle name: instead of Wolfgang, it is Fuchsgang, Fuchs being fox), dada Stendhal, dada Dalai Lama, Buddha, Bible, and Nietzsche. Before those listed (which include artists, poets, a musician, an architect?, a literary character?, religious leaders, a book, and a philologist), the word dada interposes itself adjectivally. That is, not only are these references accepted into the dada pantheon by virtue of being named in the manifesto, but they are doubly subsumed by dada by being labeled with and by that term. Here we see instances that support Ball’s second claim that dada has no meaning. Repeated throughout the 574-word manifesto, dada appears thirty-seven times. It is the most repeated word of the text, appearing more often than both the and and. In a very material and literal way, then, the Dada Manifesto manifests the word dada. In the instances just mentioned, it is employed as an adjective. Elsewhere, it names the new anti-art movement. But it is also incorporated into the text as mere nonsense syllable: “dada m’dada, dada m’dada dada mhm, dada dera dada, dada Hue, dada Tza.” Not only does this term—like all terms—slide between and among various registers of meaning and various language families, but it also slips into the meaningless.

Part 2 will be published tomorrow.