Once more on Dada


“Can we deny that there was a project conceived, a society formed in order to support materialism, to destroy religion, and to inspire independence and nurture the corruption of morals?”

100 years ago the word “Dada” was coined to name the riot of destructive possibility unfurling at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. The “discovery” of the term is disputed by interested parties (now dead). 

One of the participants in the Parisian Dada group, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, wrote that Dada’s “general tendency” was “destructive, but with a view to a superior reality”. In his History of Dada (1931) he also noted that Dada’s anti-art quickly ran up against the impasse of mere scandal: “the crowd is willing to accept anything in an art which is translated into works. But it does not tolerate attacks on reasons for living.” Ribemont-Dessaignes detected that the initial,  largely “spontaneous” Dada demonstration in Paris, in March 1920 had already begun to give way by May to something that smacked of art, which involved too much deliberation and “effort”. By his reckoning the Dadaists were faced with the dilemma of either crystallizing a “Dadaist art, a Dadaist form of expression”, or the “tragic fate” of self-destruction. Ribemont-Dessaignes saw the latter as the “natural” choice of Dada, pushing its own destructive tendency in the correct direction: “the better to negate, it would have to negate Dada; the better to destroy, it would have to destroy itself”. 

Despite Dada coming to an organised end in the early 1920s many ex-Dadaists, and indeed the Dada “tendency” Ribemont-Dessaignes identified, played an important role in the avant-garde art and anti-art which followed it – particularly among the Surrealist and para-Surrealist groups of the 1920s and 30s.

Interestingly Ribemont-Dessaignes identified another possible path for the Dada group. However he quickly dismissed this as inimitable to Dada’s nihilist heart: “To risk similar experiments [in what R-D called the “revolution of the mind”] Dada would have had to risk turning to propaganda and consequently becoming codified”. Ribemont-Dessaignes saw this as precisely the path of perilous repetition, “cheapening its merchandise” and leading straight to the dilemma of art or self-destruction. No doubt he was largely right, but later many of those who became Situationists believed that there was another way out. 

At this point in my account I am going to hand over to Mustapha Khayati. In the following excerpt from his article Les mots captif (Captive Words) from Internationale Situationniste no. 10 (March 1966), Khayati argued that the horns of Ribemont-Dessaignes’ dilemma is largely dissipated so long as we consider “the theoretical critique of the world of Power” (equivalent to R-D’s “revolution of the mind”) as being “inseparable from a practice which destroys it”. Indeed Ribemont-Dessaignes’ dilemma contiues to threaten us today so long as we do not accept that the “practice which destroys” the capitalist world is the only way out of art or its mere nihilistic rejection. Khayati ably demonstrates this by briefly criticising and rejecting the various artistic forms of recuperated Dada  which existed in the 1960s.

Khayati’s account was published in March 1966, 50 years after Dada. And here we are, another 50 years on. Happy anti-anniversary!

Originally from

Les mots captifs (Préface à un dictionnaire situationniste)

(Kenn Knabb’s complete translation available here)


The insubordination of words during the experimental phase from Rimbaud to the Surrealists, revealed that the theoretical critique of the world of power is inseparable from a practice which destroys it.[1] The recuperation of modern art by power, and its transformation into oppressive categories of the reigning commodity-spectacle, is a sad confirmation of this. “What does not kill power, is killed by it.”[2]

The Dadaists were the first to signify that their defiance of words was inseparable from their desire to “change life”.[3] After the Marquis de Sade, they affirmed the right to say everything, to emancipate words and “replace the alchemy of words with a real chemistry” (André Breton).[4] The innocence of words is from now on consciously denounced, and language is confirmed as the “worst of conventions” — to be destroyed, demystified and liberated.[5]  The contemporaries of Dada did not fail to underline its desire to destroy everything, and the danger it represented to dominant opinions (André Gide was worried that it was a “demolition job”).[6] With Dada it became an absurdity to believe that a word is forever shackled to an idea. Dada realised all the possibilities of what to say, and closed forever the door on art as a specialised practice. It definitively posed the question of the realisation of art. Surrealism was valuable only as the continuation of this demand — in its literary works it was reactionary. Because, the realisation of art (which is to say poetry, in the Situationist sense of the term) signifies that one cannot realise oneself in a “work”, but on the contrary one realises oneself — full stop. De Sade’s inauguration of “saying everything” implied already the abolition of the separated domain of literature (in which only what is literary can be spoken of). This abolition — consciously affirmed by the Dadaists after Rimbaud and Lautréamont — is not alone surpassing [dépassement]. There is no supersession without realisation, and we cannot surpass art without realising it. Practically there has not even been its abolition, since after Marcel Duchamp, Dada and James Joyce, a new “spectacular” literature continues to proliferate. This is because “saying everything” cannot really exist without the freedom to do everything. Dada had a chance of realisation with the Spartakusbund and the revolutionary practice of the German proletariat in 1919.[7] The failure of the German Revolution rendered Dada’s failure inevitable.[8] In the artistic schools which followed, Dada (including the majority of its original protagonists) became the literary expression of the emptiness of poetic practice, and the art of expressing the emptiness of freedom in everyday life. The ultimate expression of “saying everything” deprived of the capacity to act upon it is a blank page…

Modern poetry (Experimental, Computational, Concrete, Surrealist or neo-Dada) is the contrary of real poetry, it is the artistic project recuperated by power.[9] It abolishes poetry without realising it. It feeds off of its continual destruction. “What’s the good in saving language,” Max Bense miserably admits, “when there is no longer anything to say?” — the confession of a specialist![10] Repetition or silence is the only alternative for the specialist of computation. Modern thought and art, protected by power and guaranteeing it in turn, moves within what Hegel called “the language of flattery”.[11] They contribute to the eulogy of power and its products, perfecting reification and banalisation. By affirming that “reality consists of language” or language “can only be considered in-itself and for-itself”, the specialists of language end up posing “language-objects” and “word-things”, and so delight in praising their own reification.[12] The thing has become the dominant model, and the commodity — yet again — has found its poets. The theories of the State, of the economy, of law, of philosophy, and of art — all now can be characterised as precautionary measures and apology.

[translation from Les mots captif updated, 8 December 2016]



[1] The Situationist International used the term ‘power’ (‘pouvoir’) in two ways. First they used it in the common fashion of the verb ‘pouvoir’, ‘to be able to’ or ‘to be capable of’. Thus they characterized both the capacity of the agents of capital (primarily owners and managers) to impose the conditions of commodity production and consumption, as well as the ability to refuse such, i.e. the capacity for revolutionary contestation. Such a conception of ‘power’ or ‘powers’ is also clearly related to Marx’s conception of human ‘powers’ and their alienation under conditions of commodity production. Secondly, and most distinctly, the SI used it as a noun — ‘le pouvoir’. It is in the latter sense that they used the term often to characterize the human agency associated with the defence and implementation of capitalist social relations; thus they would speak of the ‘hierarchical power’ of capitalist society. In this sense ‘power’ (‘le pouvoir’) is used as a synonym for the reified practitioners and process of capitalist rule, and the diffuse nature of its operations, i.e. proletarians take part in its propagation. Mustapha Khayati wrote of bureaucratic power that the ‘noun governs; each time it appears the other words automatically fall in around it in the correct order.’ This is contrasted with the capacity to resist or transform (‘pouvoir’) such power, which is often called ‘poetry’ in the ‘Situationist sense’ of the term. For more on the SI and ‘power’ see Debord’s and Vaneigem’s All the King’s Horses and Basic Banalities (II).

[2] The quote is from Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (PM Press, 2012, p. 165). In 1966 Vaneigem’s manuscript was finished but not yet published. Nonetheless it was read by members of the SI. His phrase is almost certainly a détournement from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. In French Khayati quotes Vaneigem thus: “ce qui ne tue pas le pouvoir, le pouvoir le tue” (literally “what does not kill the power, the power kills it”), which is reminiscent of the phrase “Ce qui ne me tue pas me fortifie” (“What does not kill me, fortifies me”) to be found in the French translation of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols (Le crépuscule des idoles translated by Patrick Wotling). Walter Kaufmann translates into English this well-known Nietzcshean phrase “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger” (Portable Nietzsche, p. 467). Thus Vaneigem pulls off an inversion the equal of any of Ducasse’s or Debord’s.

[3] From, Jean Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell, ‘First Delirium: The crazy virgin, the infernal bridegroom’: “I realised — without being afraid for him — that he could be a serious danger to society. Perhaps he has secrets to change life.”

[4] André Breton, in the English translation of the Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930), says “Alchemy of the word: this expression which we go around repeating more or less at random today demands to be taken literally.” Cf. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor Paperbacks, p. 173.

[5] In French “la pire des conventions” (“the worst of conventions”), from a French translation of Sophocles, Antigone (ln. 295). In Antigone, Creon speaks of money — silver — being the worst of current customs. “Silver is the worst currency that ever grew among mankind.” What is most interesting is the way Khayati speaks of language as if it is money — or becomes money under the reign of the commodity-spectacle. The Situationist wager is that language is reduced to being an “abstract equivalent” under the rule of the commodity-spectacle. Dada was recuperated to the extent that it remained only a revolution in language or a revolution in the commodifiable signs of culture. Of course in 1966 Khayati was in advance of Jean Baudrillard and his reformist project of recuperating Situationist critique into a “political economy of the sign”.

[6] André Gide wrote a largely positive article on Dada in La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1919.

[7] The Spartakusbund (Spartacus League) was set up by Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and others during the First World War. It emerged from the opposition currents within the German Social Democratic Party against the party’s support for the German war effort from 1914. The Spartakusbund upheld the revolutionary demands of Marx and Engels, in particular the centrality of proletarian “self-emancipation” as the agency which could end wars and the capitalist system, against the Marxist patriots.

[8] Between 1918 and 1921 proletarian revolution stalked Germany. In November 1918 the First World War came to an end thanks, in part, to the refusal of large sections of proletarian soldiers and sailors to continue fighting. This strike against the war spread, leading to the establishment of workers councils throughout Germany.

[9] In France in the 1960s “Computational poetry” and “Concrete poetry” were known respectively under the titles “Poésie permutationnelle” and “Spatialisme”.  “Spatialisme” was coined by Pierre Garnier in 1962 and further elaborated in his Manifeste pour une poésie nouvelle, visuelle et phonique (1963). Garnier’s “innovation” was to put a fashionable, space-age spin on a type of poetry already thoroughly mined out by Futurists, Dadaists and Letterists before him. From his manifesto: “Once we lived safely beneath our stratum of air. Now we are waves spouting in the cosmos. How can we expect our words to remain wrapped up in the atmosphere of the sentence?  Let them be reunited, like ourselves, to cosmic space — word constellations on the white page” (from here). Computational poetry, on the other hand, was chiefly the province of the Oulipo (short for ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’ – Worksop for Potential Literature) founded in France in 1960. The foundational work of Oulipo was Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes (One hundred million million poems) published in 1961. Queneau’s ‘One hundred million million poems’ were ostensibly made up of ten sonnets. However, on the basis of making each line of each sonnet interchangeable with every other line, one hundred million million poems could potentially be computed. It has been said that it would take two hundred million years to read every potential permutation, even if reading 24 hours a day. Of course why would you? A labourious task fit only for an angel or a mechanical beast.

[10] Amongst other things Max Bense was a theorist of Concrete Poetry, and an advocate and practitioner of the structural analysis of language by way of semiotic theories and computer analysis. Asger Jorn derisively considered him a mere ‘filing cabinet’ of values, and a ‘gadget of the Household Arts of the mind’. See Jorn, ‘La création ouverte et ses ennemis’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 5. The German Spur group of artists, some months before they joined the SI, amusingly scandalised Bense and the German arts community when they staged a fake Bense lecture delivered by tape recorder in Munich in January 1959. See Lauren A. Graber, ‘Gruppe Spur and Gruppe Geflecht: Art and dissent in West Germany, 1957 – 1968’.

[11] Hegel contrasted the “noble consciousness” positively disposed to power and wealth with the “base consciousness” of those who rebelled against rulers and wealth. In his schema a “noble consciousness” reconciled itself with Monarchical power via the “language of flattery”. See Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit.

[12] Khayati’s reference to the “specialists of language” here is relatively wide. He takes in the various “structuralist” theorists of language popular in France in the 1960s, from “Concrete” poets like Eugen Gomringer, who argued that a poem could be “a reality in itself”, all the way through to the strange Stalinist-Maoist-proto-poststructuralist amalgam over at the Tel Quel journal who believed in “nothing outside the text”, amongst other things…

First published in Internationale Situationniste no. 10,  March 1966, pp. 50-55. Translated from the French by Anthony Hayes, April 2016. 

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2 Responses to Once more on Dada

  1. Pingback: Once more on Dada | sergiofalcone

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