Andrei Codrescu. The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. 235 pp. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-691-13778-0.
Reviewed by Grant Mandarino (Department of Comparative Literature, University of Washington)
Published on H-German (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Meaning of a Meaningless Game
Of all the avant-garde movements that emerged during the twentieth century, Dada remains the most enigmatic and impervious to historical codification. Generations of scholars have grappled with Dada's virulent antipathy to inherited cultural values and conventional notions of art-making with little success in being able to say definitively what it all meant. It does not help that the movement's original leader, Romanian poet Tristan Tzara (born Samuel Rosenstock), proclaimed from the very beginning that "dada signifie rien" (cited on p. 44). Indeed, the products of Dada's first flowering in World War I-era Zurich--nonsensical poetry, near abstract paintings, masks, ecstatic performances, contradictory manifestos--thwart interpretive models that aim for systematic explanation. Consequently, Dada is all too often characterized as either a nihilistic reaction to World War I or a set of formal, artistic strategies employed to mock tradition and extend the definition of a work of art. Although insightful, these approaches sometimes trade historical specificity for generalized motifs that can be applied indiscriminately to later periods. The view that holds Dada to be a "state of mind" or sensibility rather than a socially grounded movement best represents this move. It elevates Dada into a kind of ahistorical force or ambulant Zeitgeist. Andrei Codrescu's latest book is the apotheosis of this approach.
Known for his whimsical prose and probing wit, Codrescu brings to the subject of Dada a voice that nearly replicates the movement's own brand of sardonic hilarity. He shares the Dadaists' love for puns, rowdy behavior, and irrational thought. Indeed, Codrescu suggests that we are in need of a Dada renaissance. As he claims near the beginning: "It is the thesis of this book that posthumans lining the road to the future ... need the solace offered by the primal raw energy of Dada and its inhuman sources" (p. 2). "Posthuman" is defined as "a human who has put nature ... between parentheses" (p. 8). This "raw energy of Dada" (p. 2), Codrescu argues, provides a welcome antidote to the increasing "virtuality" of today's world, which more and more reprograms nature and humanity according to an insidious logic. Codrescu refers to the book as a "guide," with sections divided according to subject heading (alphabetized, no less) rather than stand-alone chapters. Thus, in place of a conventional narrative Codrescu presents a series of thematic expositions, woven from choice anecdotes and amusing personal reflections, that function more like a mode d'emploi than a standard historical account. Codrescu draws heavily from the latest academic studies of Dada, particularly Thomas Sandqvist's research on the Romanian members of the group and the spate of recent books exploring the female figures of Dada, women such as the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Mina Loy, and Emmy Hennings (Hannah Höch, equally represented in this new literature, is largely absent from Codrescu's book).
Codrescu tells the familiar story of Dada's outbreak in 1915 at the Cabaret Voltaire with verve, though one must piece it together from bits scattered across sections, sometimes located several pages from one another. Thus, while in the section "1915, Opening Night, Februrary 5" the reader is introduced to the original group of Dadaists, their lives are taken up in later sections headed under their individual names (for example, "Hugo, Ball" or "Tristan, Tzara"--which demonstrate that Codrescu's alphabetical structure is itself prone to Dadaistic irregularities). This strategy might have proven exceedingly labored in the hands of a lesser writer, but Codrescu is adept at keeping the pacing between sections intact and the overall flow unhindered. The inclusion of sections such as "internet" and "e-body" reflect Codrescu's claim that Dada continues to be relevant, and they are filled with the author's own musings on the state of contemporary society, our past, and the vicissitudes of the globalized body politic.
Nothing is altogether novel about Codrescu's attempt to update Dada for the twenty-first century. Numerous scholars have emphasized the prescient vision of Dada, considering it an intermediary step between modernism and postmodernism or even a postmodern enterprise avant la lettre. What sets Codrescu's book apart from this literature is the polemical tone he employs to make his case. This attitude is most evident in the way the author returns again and again to the image of a chess match that may or may not have taken place in a Zurich café between Vladimir Lenin and Tzara during Dada's rise. The match runs like a leitmotif throughout the book and serves as an extended metaphor for what the author sees as the two competing impulses of the twentieth century. As he writes: "These two daddies battled each other over the chessboard of history, proposing two different paths for human development. Dada played for chaos, libido, the creative, and the absurd. Communism deployed its energy for reason, order, an understandable social taxonomy, predictable structures, and the creation of 'new man'" (p. 12). In Codrescu's view Dada equals the antithesis of "communism" (at one point he refers to the latter as Dada's "competitor," [p. 45]) and history can be read as their struggle against one another for dominance.
Obvious problems emerge from this conception, the least of which is its tendency to reduce complex historical realities to competing "energies." Codrescu's careful handling of the Dadaists casts them in a rich and humanizing light. His exploration of Tzara's tangled biography is a case in point. Yet his depiction of social revolutionaries such as Lenin is clichéd and one-dimensional. The sentence "Tzara, the revolutionary poet, is playing chess, with Lenin, a mass-murdering ideologue" is representative of Codrescu's rendering of his two protagonists and all too obviously pins the role of evildoer on the latter (p. 16). Codrescu's bifurcated view of the twentieth century also remains blind to the overlaps between Dada and communism. Tzara, as Codrescu notes, became a communist for a short while during the 1930s. Codrescu sees this step as a brief flirtation on Tzara's part, attributable to his hatred of fascism more than any real conviction. Some Dadaists, however, were committed communists and did not see the two as mutually exclusive positions. This was particularly true in Berlin, where Dada spread after the conclusion of World War I during a time of social and political crisis. Several of the Berlin Dadaists, including George Grosz, Wieland Herzfelde, and his brother John Heartfield, joined the KPD at its founding and strove to align Dada with social revolutionary politics over the course of two years. They failed, and ultimately turned their backs on Dada, but the episode nevertheless proves that the relationship between the movement and twentieth-century political ideologies is much more convoluted than Codrescu would have us believe. On the other hand, Codrescu may be exaggerating for rhetorical affect, not unlike Nietzsche in Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872), equally concerned with counterposed impulses that shape cultural production and society. In fact, Codrescu's book could be read as a playful riff on the model set down in that famous treatise.
One point of contention: Codrescu is wrong to claim that "[t]here were few differences between Futurism and Dada in 1916 when both Marinetti and Tzara aspired to the same revolution" (p. 73). Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was quick to espouse a unique brand of chauvinism from the very beginning of his Futurist activity. In the 1909 Futurist manifesto he proclaims: "We will glorify war--the world's only hygiene--militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman." It was precisely these sorts of interests that would eventually bring Marinetti into the orbit of Benito Mussolini's fascisti. Tzara, on the other hand, did not hold to any nationalist or patriotic agenda during this period. Whatever artistic goals they may have agreed on (such as the renunciation of "bourgeois art"), the two leaders held very different notions of what constituted revolution and who was to gain from its implementation.
A couple of stylistic problems occur in the text. "Europeans" and "European" appear throughout the text both uncapitalized and capitalized ,without any apparent rhyme or reason for why this is so. The same inconsistency is not repeated for "Americans" and "American," both of which are capitalized throughout. Is this simply a typographical error, or does it serve another, intentional purpose? Second, Codrescu replaces the awkward neutral pronoun combo 'his/her' with "herm," short for hermaphrodite. While his solution to a common problem is clever in theory, it nevertheless proves extremely distracting in practice.
. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, "Manifesto of Futurism," in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 147-148.
. Richard Sheppard, Modernism--Dada--Postmodernism (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2000), xiii.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Grant Mandarino. Review of Codrescu, Andrei, The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess.
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