The Posthuman Dada Guide

by Andrei Codrescu

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The Posthuman Dada Guide

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The Posthuman Dada Guide, by Andrei Codrescu, is far more than its title suggests. While it does survey the birth, development, and continuing influence of Dadaismthe early twentieth century antiart and antiwar movement that laid the groundwork for Surrealismit also explores Dadaism’s relationship to other sociocultural, philosophical, and political movements of the early twentieth century, as well as the movement’s roots in western European artistic developments, eastern European history, and the Jewish experience. Moreover, Codrescu weaves into the book his own unique experiences in postwar Rumania and America, as well as his encounters with countercultural figures and contemporary poets. The result is a fascinating blend of cultural history, philosophical exploration, and personal narrativewith Dada at its core.

Codrescu’s organizational method places The Posthuman Dada Guide within the category of the ABC book, an eastern European nonfiction literary form composed of brief, alphabetically arranged essays. The structure is reminiscent of a game of chess, in that there is a rigid organizational principle within which there may be many interesting and unexpected juxtapositions of pieces. The form also allows the author to follow a nonlinear path that nevertheless possesses a structural sequence.

Chess also represents an explicit organizational thread in The Posthuman Dada Guide, resulting from the intellectual environment in which the movement began. Codrescu describes the culturally rich environment of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1915, when poet Hugo Ball and his wife Emmy Hennings transformed the Meierei Restaurant into the Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of Dada. Fleeing the insanity of World War I, many of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, poets, and artists found their way to Zurich, where they joined with native Swiss talent to form an amazingly creative and intellectual sphere that included James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and early Dadaists such as Tristan Tzara and Richard Huelsenbeck.

In this fertile environment, major artists and thinkers often crossed paths, and Codrescu imagines that in 1916, Lenin and Tzara, the founder of Dadaism, met in the Café de la Terrasse, an important Dadaist haunt just up the street from Lenin’s apartment, and played a game of chess. For Codrescu, this chess match symbolizes the conflict between communism and Dadaism, and he poses the question: Which side won? Soviet-style communism ended in 1991, making it appear that Dadaism triumphed, but according to Codrescu, the contemporary world still lacks creative, emotional, and spiritual joy. As Codrescu writes, “Could it be that late-capitalism posthumans have arrived in a leninist future without communism?” Throughout The Posthuman Dada Guide, Codrescu returns to this chess game as the book’s touchstone.

Codrescu finds the roots of Dadaism in ancient poet-philosophers such as Orpheus, Sappho, Lao-tzu, and the Zen beggars who challenged the established order and announced the freedom found beyond conventional understanding. This spirit continued in the Middle Ages with its wandering troubadours, commedia dell’arte theatrical troupes, and the visual and sexual excesses of annual festivals. In the early twentieth century, this bohemian thread combined with the last poetic utterances of the symbolist movement, the dawn of modernism, the psychology of Freud and Jung, the new physics of Einstein, and the radical artistic visions of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Then, the violent absurdities of World War I called into question the European framework of governmental authority, capitalism, nationalism, family, and the Christian worldview.

This general portrait of the early twentieth century suffices to explain the origins of Dadaism in most classic explorations of the movement. Codrescu, however, as a Romanian Jewan identity he shares with Tzarabrings to The Posthuman Dada Guide a deeper understanding of Dada’s ethnic and regional...

(This entire section contains 1872 words.)

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sources. To Codrescu, it is no accident that a Romanian Jew founded Dadaism. Tzara and his childhood friend Marcel Janco brought to Zurich, according to the author, “the knowledge of Balkan cultures deeply invested in vivid folk traditions rife with supernatural creatures, ritual masking, pre-Christian fairy tales, drinking songs, bawdy skits, and mystery plays.” Codrescu explains that many of these folk traditions emerged from Jewish cultural institutions such as Yiddish theater, which blossomed despiteor perhaps because ofthe stresses of being a persecuted, underground cultureas was Dada in its early years.

With this background, Codrescu assembles all the pieces that were in place on February 5, 1915, when Cabaret Voltaire opened for the first time. Hugo Ball hung paintings and drawings by Picasso, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee, as well as a poster for the cabaret by Ukrainian artist Marcel Slodki. With these as a backdrop, Tzara, Janco, Ball, Hennings, and others began a night of singing and reciting poetrysome of it obscene and some nonsensicalwhile a Russian balalaika band and Ball on the piano pounded out music. The evening’s climax arrived when four masked figures appeared onstage under a green spotlight, uttered a deluge of nonverbal sounds, and started a frenzied dance. At the height of the dance, one of the dancers ripped open his coat to reveal a cuckoo clock underneath. Soon after, a tuxedoed Tzara walked onstage, sent the dancers away, recited meaningless French verse, and finally opened a roll of toilet paper. Dadathe forerunner of Surrealism, absurdism, and performance artwas born.

From Zurich, Dadaism found its way to the salons and cafés of Europe and America. First, publications spread the word, including an anthology called Cabaret Voltaire and a magazine titled Dada that Tzara sent to Guillaume Apollinaire, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Filippo Marinetti, André Breton, and other major figures of the avant-garde. Soon, Dadaist happenings were taking place in Berlin and Paris. Duchamp unfurled the Dadaist banner in New York, where Mina Loy and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhovenwho filled the roles of muse and creative artiststook it up with the zeal of true believers. The ultimate sign of Dadaism’s triumph came when Peggy Guggenheim, one of the great matriarchs of the arts in America, included it in her cultural universe.

However, while Dada rapidly reached this apex, it quickly lost followers and spawned rival movements. The first to defect were Ball and Hennings, the founders of Cabaret Voltaire, who returned to the Catholic faith of their childhood and began to write in a Christian, mystical vein. Then, in Paris, Breton characterized Tzara as undisciplined and rejected Dada’s resolute meaninglessness. He established Surrealism, a purposeful revolt against reality founded in studies of the unconscious, and this countermovement eclipsed Dadaism for several decades. Next, Huelsenbeck, who had been one of the most inventive and vigorous of Tzara’s followers, completed his training as a medical doctor and became a Freudian psychoanalyst, eschewing Dada and setting up clinical practice in New York. Meanwhile, Marinetti rejected Tzara’s ideas and turned instead to his own concept of Futurism, an artistic sensibility that focused on the world’s violence and cruelty.

While Futurism lent its energies to fascism, state communism sprang from the revolutionary efforts of Lenin, Tzara’s imagined chess opponent in The Posthuman Dada Guide. Codrescu views communism as Dadaism’s greatest rival, for he asserts that communism is the ultimate ideology and Dadaism is the ultimate anti-ideology. Codrescu describes a Dada event in Zurich at which Huelsenbeck declared, in a mockery of Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848; The Communist Manifesto, 1850), “Workers of the World, Go Dada.” After arguing that the world’s workers would have been better off listening to Huelsenbeck, Codrescu notes that, during Huelsenbeck’s satire, Lenin may well have been in the audience and perhaps formulated his policy of deporting avant-garde intellectuals that very night.

Despite its detractors, Dadaism has a surprising timelessness. According to Codrescu, it has survived the long decades, and each generation reinvents it, giving rise to Surrealism, existentialism, absurdism, concrete poetry, Beat poetry, abstract art, pop art, and performance art. While these movements become trapped in their historical moments through their ideologies, however, Dadaismwhich for Codrescu is free from programmatic thinkinglives on in full vitality, entering the cultural DNA of European and American culture.

For Codrescu, the great revival of Dada occurred in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, first with the Beats and then with the hippies. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and Other Poems (1956, 1996), with its poetic celebration of madness; William Burroughs’s random cutting up of texts to create new forms; the denial of quotidian reality caused by LSD and other psychedelic drugs; Andy Warhol’s mass production of everyday images; and the Living Theater’s demands that its audiences take off their clothes and burn their moneyall of these are manifestations of Dada. In the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s, performance art and poetry and music happenings embraced Dada’s call to break down the boundaries between creative forms and smash the tyranny of meaning.

Dadaism marched into the twenty-first century, according to Codrescu, through computers and the Internet. However, while cyberspace keeps Dadaism current, it is also the movement’s greatest challenge since communism and the metaphorical chess match between Tzara and Lenin. Codrescu finds that many of the Internet’s characteristics have a Dadaist flavor. For instance, the nonsense text that accompanies much unsolicited commercial e-mail reads like Dada verse, and the ability of users to choose anonymous online avatars reminds Codrescu of the way in which many Dadaists possessed multiple pseudonymssuch as Samuel Rosenstock, who became S. Samyro and then transformed magically into Tristan Tzara.

However, the Internet, in Codrescu’s view, is a technological stand-in for the once planet-spanning, shamanic netthe spiritual, telepathic communion of the Neolithic period’s spirit-travelers. Contemporary users are therefore fooled, unconsciously accepting the Internet as the magic psychic net humans experienced six thousand years ago. The Internet, however, is merely electronically facilitated communication, pixels, and impulses, while the shamanic net, according to Codrescu, was a real, soul-to-soul interconnection. Thus, the challenge to Dada in the twenty-first century is to keep people unambiguously human and individualistic, to prevent them from sliding into a false universal identity shaped by technology. This is where Codrescu brings up the term “posthuman,” for he believes that humans may be on the verge of transcending their human identity and becoming something different, perhaps a hybrid of human and machine. If this transcendence is to be productive and not destructive, he argues, they must maintain their core humanityand Codrescu believes that Dadaism is the surest pathway to maintaining one’s humanness in the face of soul-devouring technology.

While The Posthuman Dada Guide moves through the dizzying heights of Dadaist history and perspective, Codrescu infuses many of its sections with experiences that enliven the text and make it more accessible. For example, he describes meeting Allen Ginsberg for the first time in New York City in 1968 as the iconic Beat poet headed out to purchase matzoh balls for his ailing lover. He recounts Amiri Baraka’s frightening 1968 poetry performance at St. Mark’s Church, filled with darkness and the sounds of gunfire, and a party at Mogooaia Castle after the 1989 Romanian Revolution, when an elegant young woman desecrated a fallen statue of Lenin. By combining such vivid personal accounts with brilliant literary theory, The Posthuman Dada Guide becomes more than a review of the Dadaism’s history. It represents a spiritual and intellectual journey in itself, a guide, as Codrescu states at the book’s beginning “for instructing posthumans in living a Dada life.”

Bibliography

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The Guardian, April 11, 2009, p. 19.

The National Post, April 11, 2009, p. WP18.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 5 (February 2, 2009): 44.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 23, 2009, pp. 9-10.

The Toronto Star, May 10, 2009, p. IN7

The Village Voice 54, no. 14 (April 1, 2009): 30.