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.

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