Derrida(da)ism: Introduction 1/4/99

Leaving aside for the moment that the title, but not necessarily the subject, of this series of notes seems to refer to an actual living human being, Jacques Derrida specifically, let me be the first person to assure the audience, if only from the backside of a darkened stage, as it were, that absolutely no (dis)respect is meant to be inferred from the parenthetical signifier that unaccountably found its way into the heading under which these notes have been gathered. Ideas, not people, are the true subject of these observations and, while it might be problematic to separate ideas from the people who have them in every absolute sense of the binary opposition between being and nothingness that permeates contemporary theoretical practice, there is no firm ground for advocating a strict adherence to a belief in the proposition that the former is, while the latter is not, the true subject of these notes.

Of course, the exact opposite of this statement could also be perfectly true.

Dada is a spirit that fills a spiritual void. Fills it badly, perhaps, by not fitting precisely into every mere absence that shapes the inside of a thing called void, a thing as unmapped as a void surely is and who can say what shape a place of void actually has since if you were in it to map out its space the place would no longer be classified as a void having you in it to take up, occupy whatever space "you" can hope to fill. One would have to map a void from the outside and that would only be possible if you could see through its skin and determine where something ended and nothing began. Since no one has ever seen no-thing in and of itself, since no-thing cannot be seen, it seems impossible to determine where one leaves off and the other begins. Mapping a void, in order to determine what it would take to fill its emptiness, therefore, seems to be an impossibility. Stuffing random objects into the void until it was, or seemed to be, filled might work as an alternative to mapping its space beforehand but that leaves one open to the possibility of coming up with leftover parts and pieces of the material you intended to use to fill its unknowable space. Derrida would call this leftoverness a surplus or a supplement.

So, anyway, Dadaism is a spirit seeking a void to fill. As Hugo Ball puts it in his "Manifesto" (1916):

"How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop."

The reason I broached the subject/issue of filling the void in the first place is because a pawnshop seems a likely place to find random objects of an almost infinite kind that could be used by an engineer to shore up the mouth of the void, keep it open long enough to stuff objects into it. A void's mouth, mouth of the abyss, etc., seems like a thing that would not always be open in and of itself and so would require some apparatus to keep it open while objects of various kinds were stuffed into it. Where better to find such objects d'art than a pawnshop which by definition always already holds the leftover pieces of the lives of people who have fallen on hard times. Falling on hard times, over the edge of the abyss, as it were, seems a likely place to begin the quest for a new soul or spirit that is capable of filling the void that beckons from the inside of the line, whether it be a circle (ideal but non-existent form of perfection), or an ellipse (the only kind of shape that has a true home in the depths of gravity's well), that marks the end of something and the beginning of nothing.

Hugo Ball cuts to the chase when he turns his attention to the word:

"A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers' hands, hands worn smooth by coins. I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words. . . . The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance."

Derrida couldn't have said it better, differently perhaps, and he does, but surely not better. Does the word exist outside "your domain"? Or more precisely, who precisely occupies the space referred to here by the word "domain"? It must be the stockbrokers but the statement is not unequivocal since the filth Ball wants to get rid of was placed there "as if by," not certainly or definitively by, the "hands worn smooth by coins" (which is a nice image). In short, then, Dada (Ball) wants to (re)invent the language and nullify (purify) all previous usage: "I don't want words that other people have invented." This is a terribly anti-social attitude, of course, since all language, except for the un(in)vented kind, is constituted by social interaction. The point of Dadaism, of course, was to be as anti-social as possible. We seem to be drawing ourselves closer to the point, if not painting ourselves into a corner. DadaBall wants to fill the void, out of his own mouth as it were, and therefore, directly into the mouth of the void, abyss, whatever, with his own re(in)vented language.

Venting language that has just been created, as if it were being spit out of the mouth of a volcano, which could function as the other side of the void being filled from the something being stuffed into it, from the pawnshop as it were, from the other side of its own nothingness, so to speak, or more precisely stated, "whose side are you on?", is an activity born from these several causes, according to DadaBall:

"The transvaluation of values came to pass. Christianity was struck down. The principles of logic, of centrality, unity and reason were unmasked as postulates of a power-craving theology. The meaning of the world disappeared. The purpose of the worldóits reference to a supreme being who keeps the world togetheródisappeared."

Sounds all too familiar. Well, not really, since Dada said this in 1917 ("Kandinsky"), and therefore well before Derrida got around to the same kind of protest and complaint. The origin of this perception is apparently twofold. The First World War was not yet finished in its wholesale destruction of European civilization. The philosophical underpinnings that made people believe Europe had some intrinsic value, a view many were unable to maintain after the war ended and people were able to see what they had done to themselves for little or no reason, were called into question by that vast destruction and by the fact that no one could explain why any of it had happened. Also true is the fact that Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity had been circulating for nearly twelve years and many people were beginning to feel the intellectual pressure unleased by the fact that certain truth had suddenly become relativized. One can understand DadaBall's sense of doom and betrayal in this context.

A solution of sorts to this terrible state of affairs was found in the solace of the following objectifications:

"The strongest affinity shown in works of art today is with the dread masks of primitive peoples, and with the plague and terror masks of the Peruvians, Australian aborigines, and Negroes."

Oddly enough, or not, depending on your point of view, the English in Australia were busy destroying aboriginal society and culture at about the time the Dadas were busy in their own right finding an affinity with their "plague and terror masks." The culture being destroyed by the Europeans in one place, which was simultaneously being venerated in another, had existed for nearly 40,000 years and possessed oral histories that could be recited by their story-tellers in sequence from then to now but, being primitive, people without writing, people of color, people without history, they were considered, in spite of their 40,000 years of being in Australia, unworthy of remaining there as a people because they were not white and did not abide by the traditions of their much younger masters and therefore had to go. They were taking up space, apparently, that the Europeans needed to help fill the void they had encountered when they left England behind, as a kind of criminal export, a commodity of criminality, that the folks back home could not abide or tolerate at all. Unfortunately for the Aborigines, there was no place where they could be sent and the English could think of no other solution to that problem but genocide, which they systematically instituted as an official policy. Kill kangaroos, kill Aborigines; no one could see a difference.

So, why would Dada turn to the masks of primitive people to find affinity for their art? An obvious answer would be that the "plague and terror" afflicting native people was inspired by their contact with Europeans, an all too obvious source of plague (smallpox, etc.), and a very probable one of terror too because what can be more frightening to an indigenous population than a pack of wild, barbarians with white skin who do not even hesitate to murder innocent women and children, etc., and for virtually no discernable reason whatsoever. But more or less of that argument elsewhere. The point is that any European, Dada or not, when looking at one of those masks sees only him/herself because of who or what inspired its creation in the first place.

But even beyond that all too certain and inescapable fact, what Dada did was to look around at itself in the last year of the war to end all wars, with massive and unending devastation in every and all directions, devastation caused by and in the name of God knows what, and for virtually no discernable reason whatsoever, to measure with a careful and jaundiced eye everything they could see, and, seeing it clearly, they were then driven, as Europeans have been for five centuries, to find and elevate an example (some would say scapegoat) of a race of people, preferably one of color, who, in their abject primitiveness, were even less worthy than they were of remaining alive and viable on the entire face of the earth. True to form and long practice, of course, Dada was successful in finding, as Europeans always already are and have been, of (dis)covering and appropriating, this time in the name of an affinity to their own art, that which gives them infinite solace--a people of color who were by definition and mutual consent more primitive than even they were.

That Europeans were busily engaged in murdering these people in Peru, Australia, and American, even as Dada was finding an affinity between their art and the natives' masks, only fulfills and validates the central point of the comparison in the first place. It proved that Europeans were not all that bad after all, since enough of them had survived the devastation to continue killing people who were less worthy of life than they were. The fact that the natives were still dying, if only at their cousins' hands across the great oceans of the world, so to speak, continued to prove that Europeans, still living and bottled up in the devastations of their own war, were worthy of continuing to bear the whiteman's burden of bringing true civilization to people who deserved it less than they did themselves.

DadaBall goes on to assert that his compatriots, his fellow artists,

"face the world as ascetics of their own spirituality. They live deeply buried lives. They are forerunners, prophets of a new era. Only they can understand the tonalities of their language. They stand in opposition to society, as did heretics in the Middle Ages. Their works are simultaneously philosophical, political, and prophetic. They are forerunners of an entire epoch, a new total culture."

In Europe, of course, the "new total culture," probably without the direct complicity of Dada itself, though who can be totally certain about the accuracy of that statement, turned out to be Naziism and a program of genocide against Jews, and other undesirable people of color, that resulted in the deaths of at least six million more primitive souls. Most Europeans pretend to be surpised by this development. Ask a native American, an Australia Aborigine, anyone of color living in Peru, if they were surprised that Europeans attempted to annihilate other Europeans in a holocaust. They would laugh in your face.

Finally, DadaBall asserts that to understand Dada, to become Dada, you must be prepared to break with a thousand-year-old tradition. Making this proposition clear, he says:

"You will not understand them if you believe in God and not in chaos. The artists of this age turn against themselves and against art . . . They seek what is essential and what is spiritual, what has not yet been profaned . . ."

My only question is: "What in Europe in 1917 had not always already been profaned?" Unfortunately, the answer turned out to be more horrible and more monstrous than anyone living at the time could have imagined. Ask a Jew, a Gypsy, a blind person, or anyone else Hitler and his band of good Christians and true found objectionable because they did not live up to the stringent rule that differentiated his "us" from "our" them. Ask the other. If he/she does not laugh in your face, chances are you will find an answer you cannot live with. Then again, and after second thoughts, what's to stop you?

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