|Withdrawal and Negation: 1916 in Two Parts
Catalogue essay for exhibition ‘1916’
Chelsea College of Art
|Withdrawal and Negation: 1916 in Two Parts
1st February 1916
In the original film version of the Manchurian Candidate, Senator John Yerkes Iselin is a U.S. senator prone to denouncing Communists in the Defence Department.1 Each time he gives a speech, he claims that the Defence Department has been infiltrated by a precise number of Communist. However, each time the number he gives is different. The Senator, it turns out, is a puppet controlled by his wife. In one scene he complains to her how difficult it is to remember a different number each time: "I mean, the way you keep changing the figures on me all the time. It makes me look like some kind of a nut, like an idiot." She replies by holding up a newspaper: “ Who are they writing about all over this country and what are they saying? Are they saying: 'Are there any Communists in the Defence Department?' No, of course not, they're saying: 'How many Communists are there in the Defence Department?'”2
This demonstrates ideology at its purest: not only is ideology not directly persuasive, it doesn’t care what you think. Rather, ideology is cynical. Here, Senator Iselin, as the voice of ideology, looks “like an idiot.” But despite this, or rather because of this, ideology inculcates a commitment to its underlying assumptions; rather it wants you to take certain things for granted. In other words, ideology offers you a choice but this choice is not what it seems: in accepting either option you have accepted the grounds upon which the choice is offered. When the racist claims that ‘immigrants are stealing our jobs,’ for example, the true purpose of the racist ideology behind it is to instil a perceived division between ‘us’ and ‘immigrants.’ It is thus a mistake to argue back by saying, for example, ‘immigrants benefit the whole economy,’ because such arguments will tend to confirm the perceived otherness of immigrants. The way to combat ideology is to refuse the terms of its choice: to deny its assumptions. In this case, we should recognise that in the eyes of capitalism we are all immigrants. In other words, the true division is not between nations or cultures but within all societies: not between ‘indigenous workers’ and ‘foreign workers’ but between capitalists and workers per se. So the repost to the racist should be “Workers of the World Unite.”
There are times when the right thing to do is to do nothing: when what is important is to withdraw from the apparent field of possibilities: to withdraw from ideology. In Badiou’s terms, this is to subtract oneself from a situation. This radical refusal of a choice or the withdrawal from a situation is not easy: it is not to find a place of isolation from an existing framework nor a place of autonomy within an existing framework. Rather, it is to abandon the principles, assumptions and rationale which support the existing framework. As such, it is to deprive oneself of what is familiar: it is to become homeless. This is not easy. For example, international socialism entails the withdrawal from questions of nationality in favour of trans-national proletarian solidarity; but in the face of the trauma of the first World War, this withdrawal was too difficult to maintain for most socialists in Europe, who abandoned internationalism for a return to patriotism.
It is also possible to see the avant-garde artists and writers gathered in Switzerland at the beginning of 1916 not as seeking a place of isolation (until things returned to normal) but rather withdrawing from the situation in the radical sense I’m intending here. Tristan Tzara, for example, abandoned not only his native country, Romania, but also: his name; his native tongue, in favour of French; and his previous artistic commitments. The most fundamental abandonment was the abandonment of the assumptions and co-ordinates that had hitherto structured his thinking about culture, art and writing. These abandonments were permanent. Modernism was in crisis and the response of some of the artists and writers in Switzerland was the radical evacuation of the territory of modernism, without any nostalgia for pre-modern certainties.3
There are times when doing nothing is the radical thing to do. But it should be emphasised that such a withdrawal, qua refusal, is an act of waiting and preparing. Such a withdrawal is difficult to achieve and maintain. In relation to doing nothing, “Just do it!” is the ideological slogan par excellence, whose silent adjunct is “and don’t think about it.” To leap into action is to accept the basic co-ordinates of the status quo as the grounds for action. For the artist, it is always a temptation to break a deadlock in practice through action: by making more art. But if action can be acquiescence, inaction can be giving up or the defensive attitude of ‘I don’t want to know anything about it.’ Thus radical withdrawal is not simply inaction but withdrawal in order to create a distance. It is the opening up of a new dimension as a prelude to action and not the ironic distance of those who flaunt their ostensible lack of belief nor the liberal distance of laissez faire, both of which fundamentally accept things as they are.
These distinctions in action and inaction are complex. In Lacanian thought, there is a distinction be ‘the Act’ and ‘the passage to the act.’ The former does not denote the everyday realm of practical or positive actions but rather the rare moments when an act that seemed impossible, undertaken without practical considerations or guarantees, shifts the very co-ordinates of what is possible. Slavoj Zizek has used the example of Nixon doing what had seemed impossible for any U.S. president to do, when he visited communist China: in so doing, he inextricably reconfigured the whole field of international relations.4 ‘The passage to the act,’ on the other hand, denotes the hasty passage into action as the attempt to solve the unbearable tension of doing nothing. It applies to a situation in which the individual finds herself in a position where passivity is experienced as simply too traumatic to stand. It is a false solution in that rather than working out the underlying mechanisms and assumptions that sustain the difficulty of passivity, it is to plump for action as a means of relieving and suppressing its traumatic aspect. In this case, action is a distraction, which blocks the possibility of critical withdrawal.
1st February 1916 was the day that Cabaret Voltaire was founded.5 Dada did not yet exist. And despite Cabaret Voltaire subsequently being co-opted into the story of Dada, it marks a different, prior moment. Cabaret Voltaire was a radical withdrawal in the sense I’ve outlined. It was the formal coming together of disparate avant-garde artists, who were withdrawing, not so much from the War, as from the crisis of modernism. Such a withdrawal is a point of departure: the departure from a field of possibilities and the underlying assumptions that structure that field. In this case to depart is not to have a destination: it is simply to leave something behind.
14th July 1916
According to Jean Jacque Lecercle, the fundamental unit of language is neither the word nor the sentence but the slogan.6 He considers a slogan to be a partisan intervention, at a particular moment, in a situation which already exists. Furthermore, a slogan is formed in relation both to a particular discourse (we might say other slogans and the slogans of others) and to a general situation, within which the particular discourse is located. Here, slogans are words as actions. Slogans attempt to position both speakers and addressees within a site of division and conflict. Thus, slogans are violent: they do not change minds through the neutral communication of information but rather negate the other’s position. In considering slogans thus, Lecercle confronts the commonplace assumption that language is fundamentally about communication in a united field; on the contrary, he considers language as always embedded in, and permeated by, social division.
Dada, as a name for an art movement, is quite unlike any other. This is partly because Dada was not an art movement and partly because the word ‘Dada’ was not a name. These claims should not sound contentious but if they do it is because Dada has been absorbed by an art history which treats it as an art movement and, subsequently, the word ‘Dada’ has become the name for this ostensible art movement promoted by art history. But ‘Dada’ did not designate a group of things, persons, nor properties; on the contrary, ‘Dada’ was a slogan.
Despite the normalising tendencies of art history, the word ‘Dada’ should still stand out historically. Firstly, it is important that the word ‘Dada’ was coined by the Dadas who used it; it ‘belonged’ to those who wielded it, although this does not make it unique amongst the contemporaneous avant-garde. Secondly, the word ‘Dada’ famously contains a multiplicity of possible meanings in various languages: a hobbyhorse; the affirmation yes yes; and so on. However, it is not the particularities of these associations which are important but the multiplicity itself: the word ‘Dada’ has an excess of associations which open up possibilities that cannot be pinned down. This gives the word a certain excessive force. Thirdly, it is a refusal: the refusal to have a ‘proper’ art name. The word ‘Dada’ did not, at the time, conjure up any allusions to art; if anything, it alludes to a kind of blank stupidity. It’s concision, repetition and simplicity act as a kind of block on meaning. ‘Dada’ was a unique word used in a unique and aggressive way. What is most important is how the word ‘Dada’ was used: not as a name but as a slogan.
The slogan calls for the taking of sides. The very idiocy of the word ‘Dada’ confronted and confounded the proprieties of art and culture and mocked the nomenclature of modernism. The word infused Dada soirées; erupted out of manifestos; repeated itself endlessly; promiscuously attached itself to all manner of other words; caused typographic disruption; and so on. It was a word to stir things up and to spread around, like a virus. It was in this sense that ‘Dada’ was a slogan; simply to accept the word was to accept the negation inherent in the ways in which the Dadas used it and to step outside of the normal parameters of the discourse of art. ‘Dada’ as a slogan was negative: what was important was what it was not: what it couldn’t mean and the ways it couldn’t be used.
“Dada” was a violent attack on art, in a sense that has nothing to do with nihilistic rage nor the expression of despair in relation to the violent catastrophe of war, as some accounts of Dada would have us believe. On the contrary, ‘Dada,’ as a slogan, was violent inasmuch as it stood for a process of the violent negation of art. Those who became Dadas had withdrawn from an art which they saw as a field of false choices. Dada did not seek to take sides within the divisions of art; rather, Dada marked the end of the withdrawal from art and the beginning of an assault upon art. In relation to the slogan ‘Dada,’ to be for Dada was to be against art. Dada called for the taking of sides, not within the field of existing possibilities but against it.
Here we should take Dada’s claim to be anti-art seriously. Contrary to popular interpretation, anti-art meant neither the nihilistic attack on art nor simply the opposing of autonomous art with the quotidian.7 Dada attempted an altogether different type of negation of art: a negation predicated on the prior position of withdrawal. Here we need to distinguish two types of negation, as theorised by Kant: ‘the negative judgement’ and ‘the indefinite judgement.’8 These are two ways of negating a ‘positive judgement.’ Zizek’s example of a positive judgement is “he is alive.” The negative judgement negates the predicate, so that we get “he is not alive.” Here, the subject retains the properties of being an individual without being alive: we carry on treating the dead as individuals despite their death, which can be seen in the respect we show to bodies and graves, for example. But with the indefinite judgement there is a shift in the place of negation, so that it is not a predicate that is denied but rather an absence that is affirmed. Literally, this would make “he is not-alive;” or to put it another way, “he is Undead.” The vampire, for example, retains the predicates of the individual (walking, talking, etc.) without being a proper individual: rather than an individual who is dead we have a non-individual who is alive. And it is my contention that anti-art is an indefinite judgement rather than a negative judgement: not the simple lack of art but the radical negation of art: becoming something else.
14th July 1916 was the date that the first Dada manifesto was read out.9 From this moment on it was a slogan, in the sense I’ve described above. The Dadas realised that the revolutionary transformation of art meant its transformation into something else and the negation of every assumption underlying art. Dada’s negation of art was neither nihilistic rage nor a rhetorical gloss on a set of positive practices.10 Rather, we might think of Dada as what Walter Benjamin called ‘divine violence.’11 This is the violent destruction of an established order: the necessary violence in the face of the inherent but hidden violence that sustains a hierarchical structure and which Benjamin dubbed ‘mythic violence.’ Thus, the invention of the word ‘Dada’ was a further point of departure: not only the departure from art but the departure from the withdrawal from art. Dada left behind the comfort and guarantees of art; it was the attempt to manage with nothing in its assault upon an art which was inherently false, divisive and corrupting. The invention of the word ‘Dada’ was Dada’s first violent act; the word ‘Dada’ its first weapon.