"More than machinery, we need humanity."
The best way to understand current political occurrences in the US may be to imagine that one of the major political parties has secretly been hijacked by a band of mischievous Dadaists bent on using the halls of power as a stage for a particularly insane piece of performance art. Perhaps the real political leadership is not vested in media or a particular individual but rather lies with Tristan Tzara whose brain may be preserved in a jar somewhere from which it directs the goings on with hilarious intent and horrid consequences. Maybe it is wrong to think that the US government has become a terrible joke, maybe it is just a piece of truly bizarre performance art.
But, probably not.
Though Harry Reid may enjoy hurling the term “anarchist” at the Republicans as if it is an epithet, the fact is that the GOP is not full of anarchists. Or nihilists. After all, and on the most basic level, one cannot glob an ideology hostile to control and capitalism (anarchism) onto the Republican party. And yet one can somewhat understand the maddened attempt to make sense of the state of the contemporary Republican party, as its actions seem rather resistant to logic. Which brings us back to Dada.
It is, of course, totally absurd to suggest for a moment that any of the Republicans are Dadaists; however, it is precisely for this reason that it is useful to think of it as a legitimate explanation for their behavior, and precisely why Dadaism (more than any of those other boring old “isms”) may provide the necessary framework for understanding the insanity on display in our modern world. Most “isms” (including most radical “isms”) fail to adequately explain a world gone mad, but for Dadaism the world went mad ages ago – most people just haven’t realized it yet.
To attempt a simple definition of Dadaism is a task that should be left to art historians who immediately fail in the task of defining Dadaism by being art historians and trying to define it. Thus, it is wise to avoid blame in attempting to define and instead to heap the blame at the feet of somebody who is dead (and therefore unable to defend himself). Thus, as Tristan Tzara wrote in “Monsieur Antipyrine’s Manifesto:”
“Dada is life with neither bedroom slippers nor parallels; it is against and for unity and definitely against the future; we are wise enough to know that our brains are going to become flabby cushions, that our antidogmatism is as exclusive as a civil servant, and that we cry liberty but are not free; a severe necessity with neither discipline nor morals and that we spit on humanity.” (Tzara, 1)
From the above quoted words one can easily understand that Dadaism sought to be much more than simply an art movement, it was an entire philosophy, one that sliced up all of the other old philosophies and made collages out of them. Yet the key may not be the recognition that one can sing out for “liberty” while lacking precisely that, but rather that the only thing that Tzara seems certain of is that Dada is “definitely against the future.” Granted, being opposed to the future does not automatically mean an obsessive nostalgia for bygone tragedies, but it at least sets up an opposition that looks out upon the future and goes: no thank you.
It is important to counterpoise the Dadaist dismissal of the future against the certain veins of thought that are giving nihilism a sort of break from perpetual nuclear winter (a nuclear spring, if you will). For Dadaism is not the romanticizing of ruins and collapse (looking at the situation in Congress as paving the way for the glorious fall of civilization) nor is it a knee jerk teenage rebellion; after all, a future that looks like a post-industrial wasteland in which nature is steadily reclaiming the crumbling structures is still a future…and if you’ve been paying attention (are you even still reading this [if so: kudos!]) Dadaism scoffs at the future even as it walks unstoppably into that future cackling at the whole affair.
Though frequently termed “anti-art” it is more simple to think of Dadaism as simply “anti,” the view that looks at it all and sighs. Yet it is precisely Dada’s relation to art that makes it particularly difficult to ponder at this given juncture. Consider, Tzara’s words from his 1918 “Dada Manifesto:”
“But if life is a bad joke, with neither goal nor initial accouchement, and because we believe we must, like clean chrysanthemums, to make the best of a bad bargain, we have declared that the only basis of understanding is: art.” (Tzara, 10)
Tzara could write that in 1918, but in 2013 (writing in the future that Tzara so opposed) “Art” itself has become just another calcified bit of rubbish against which Dadaism must set its laughing gaze. For Dadaism bears no small amount of blame for the sorry state to which art has been brought – though the extent to which Dada is to blame for this is questionable. Yet the fact that Dada could be harnessed by the very groups that Dada despised is not so much a comment on Dada but a comment on exactly what happens when a complex negative philosophy can be reduced to an epithet…or worse…to a type of art.
Lewis Mumford was not a Dadaist, and yet in some of his wrestling with Dadaism points at the direction towards which Dadaism should develop to overcome the violence done to Dadaism in Dadaism’s name. Writing in The Pentagon of Power (in 1970) Mumford recalled that when it initially appeared:
“Like a loud fart in a polite salon, Dadaism called the attention of its contemporaries to the sordid human condition…From 1930 on, the inner world of art and the outer world of technics and government alternated in oscillations of mounting violence and compulsive destruction.” (Mumford, 364)
Yet, whereas Mumford saw in Dada’s origins a brash blare of bugles calling attention to the enemy at the gates, he saw in its aftermath that its language of maddened opposition and laughing miserable destruction (as opposed to the Futurists romantic destruction) had become a tool used for further regimentation. If Dada had once taken the scissors to the ideologies of its opponents, it seemed that those opponents had now taken the scissors to Dada. Mumford dismayed that the embrace of Dada by mass culture (its steady incorporation into Adorno and Horkheimer’s “culture industry”) was:
“the systematic elimination of the good, the true, the beautiful, in both their past and their possible future forms.” (Mumford, 366)
“What perhaps accounts for this eager espousal of anti-art is precisely the fact that it performs a dual but contradictory role. Professedly it is a revolt against our over-mechanized, over-regimented megatechnic culture. But as it turns out, it also serves anti-art equally to justify the power system’s end products: it acclimates modern man to the habit that megatechnics is bringing into existence: an environment degraded by garbage dumps, auto cemeteries, slag heaps, nuclear piles, superhighways and megastructured conglomerates—all destined to be architecturally homogenized in a planetary ‘Metropolis.’” (Mumford, 367)
The problem with Mumford’s withering counter to Dada is that it illustrates that though mass culture can attempt to incorporate Dada, that this attempt will ultimately only be successful for those who dared not think that Dadaism meant anything more than a urinal displayed in a museum. To Mumford’s litany of virtuous elements “in both their past and their possible future forms” Dada might reply that it is precisely the rubbish of the past that has brought on the rubbish of today and that (unless something is changed) this will lead to the rubbish of tomorrow. And if Dadaism’s frenzied stance is being used to acclimate modern people and “justify the power system’s end products” it is not because of Dada but because modern society is finally revealing itself to be just as ludicrous as the Dadaists always said it was. Which neatly returns us to the state of contemporary politics: they are a display of hypocrisy and lunacy that can only be understood as the farcical de-evolution about which the Dadaists once warned.
Contrary to Mumford’s opinion (this is being written—after all—many years after Mumford wrote those words) what is needed now is not a rejection of Dadaism but a recognition that only a willingness to recognize the world as a “bad joke” twinned with a recognition that art has also become a “bad joke” can provide the platform by which people can counter the stupidity of modern society without succumbing to playground nihilism. It is precisely because they are not Dadaists but elected officials that the members of the US government make such brilliant Dadaists, for it is only through the actions that they intend as serious political statements that it becomes clear that they now “spit on humanity.”
What Dadaism thus offers to the disheartened, the apathetic, the inured, the numb, is not an easy solution, nor a call to sign a petition or attend a political rally, rather it is an exhortation that (back to Tzara):
“Every man must shout: there is great destructive negative work to be done.” (Tzara, 12)
A message that the politicians seem to have understood, even if they have no understanding of it. Furious oppositional work is required, but make no mistake that is still “work.” When facing the rubbish heap of the modern world it is useful to keep in mind Louis Aragon’s declaration on Dada (cited by Mumford ), a boldfaced assessment of the world if ever there was one:
“No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians, no more sculptors, no more religous, no more republicans, no more royalists, no more imperialists, no more anarchists, no more socialists, no more Bolsheviks, no more politicians, no more proletarians, no more democrats, no more bourgeois, no more aristocrats, no more armies, no more police, no more fatherlands; enough of all these imbecilities: no more of anything, nothing at all: NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING.”
That ‘s a harsh indictment against the world and the future, but every rejection of the future is simultaneously a rejection of a present that sets a people on the course towards all that nothing. So prepare for negative work or the imbecilic politicians will monopolize doing so, though their intentions are as filthy as the sewers, and though they have seemed to embrace a joking narcissistic line from Tzara:
“I consider myself very likeable.” (Tzara, 33)
We must recognize that in the grand scheme of things there is not much that is really likeable in our political realm or the cultural offal that we are force fed. So, the time is once again ripe for Dada, because the time is always ripe for Dada. So:
“Subscribe to Dada, the only loan that doesn’t pay.” (Tzara, 47)
But at least (unlike the other loans) it doesn’t pretend that it will.
Mumford, Lewis. The Pentagon of Power – The Myth of the Machine v. 2. Harcourt, 1970.
Tzara, Tristan. Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries. Calder, 1992.