“I speak only of myself since I do not wish to convince, I have no right to drag others into my river, I oblige no one to follow me and everybody practices his art in his own way.”
– Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto 1918”
Tristan Tzara, one of the founders and most influential members of the Dadaist movement, described in his 1918 “Dada Manifesto” the (un)organizing principles of Dadaism:
“Dada; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners: Dada; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create: Dada; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets: Dada; every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions, and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight: Dada; abolition of memory… Dada; absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity… Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE.”
Born from collective and personal traumas of World War I, Dadaism pointed to the Enlightenment privileging of reason, consciousness, and rationality as the root causes behind the world’s dismal state of affairs. Thus, the remedy was to be found by turning these hierarchies upside-down, instead emphasizing what Donna M. Kristiansen identifies as “spontaneity, negation, and… absurdity” (458).
With this background in mind, let’s take a look at a couple of Dadaist sources, making an attempt to close read them (and yes, you can “close read” a silent film). The first is a text that Professor Griffin has linked to on Gauchospace (http://modernism.research.yale.edu/wiki/index.php/To_Make_a_Dadaist_Poem), by the aforementioned Tzara, titled “To Make a Dadaist Poem” (1920) (bolds mine):
To Make a Dadaist Poem
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
I have bolded the words that struck me as important. First, I thought it was interesting to note the text’s genre–a “how to” article. As such, the text claims to empower the reader with the ability to create a “Dadaist” poem–that by following these steps, you can create your very own Dadaist poem, perhaps even becoming through this act a “Dadaist” yourself. Further, this logical, step-by-step format sits in an interesting tension with the ideals of Dada: that art should exist in opposition to logic or meaning. This text, instead, claims that you can “build-your-own” meaning by following these given instructions, and that it will be “as easy as 1-2-3.” These quoted cliches are familiar to us because they recall commercial advertisements hawking cheap, ready-for-assembly products, but for a movement that “stresse[d] impulse and spontaneity” (Kristiansen 458), it seems suspiciously prescriptive–both too specific and generic at the same time.
Perhaps the “spontaneity” of this text lies in the ability of the reader (now writer, or at least, assembler/transcriber, as well) to create a poem from anything, into anything, in a process governed by chance (in what order a given word is drawn from the bag). But there are actually some very specific constraints at work: first, that the original/source text is a newspaper article (not a novel? a magazine? a handwritten note?); second, that the reader cut out each word of that article (not phrases? letters? what do we do with punctuation?); third, that the reader transcribe each word in order as they draw them from the bag; and finally, that the reader use every word (hence, “Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.”).
The imperative verbs beginning almost every line: “Take,” “Choose,” “Cut,” Shake,” and “Copy,” place the reader in the position in the role of mediator between the speaker (instructor) and the text that results from following the speaker’s instructions. Furthermore, while the results of following these instructions would be “infinite” (every possible reader using any possible source text, in many different possible ordering outcomes), they certainly can’t be thought of as “infinitely original,” as one of the prerequisites is that the poem is constructed of the reassembled pieces of another work in its entirety. Is this how we are to understand the enigmatic statement, “The poem will resemble you”? That we are all randomly strung together pieces of code (for indeed, words are codes, or pieces of code), that abide by a few simple rules to form a new/old, cohesive/disjointed “text.” If the poem “resemble[s]” us, do we “resemble” the poem?
In light of these issues that Dada seeks to address, watch the following video, a short film by Hans Richter, another leading Dadaist thinker.
When thinking about your comments, it might be helpful to keep some of the following themes integral to Dadaism in mind: the unconscious/conscious, language, subjecthood, subject/object relations, ethics, power, violence, will, energy, trauma, the mundane, alienation/estrangement, gender, fashionability, technology, art/aesthetics. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it might help you get started if you feel a little lost!
Additionally, I found a few videos on Dadaism on Youtube–check them out if you are interested in/skeptical about the subject. Professor Griffin mentioned that we would be addressing it in lecture on Tuesday, so it might be helpful to situate you in the zeitgeist of the period.
Kristiansen, Donna M. “What Is Dada?.” Educational Theatre Journal 20.3 (1968): 457-462. Print.