Dada Qua Slogan

Dada Qua Slogan
On the Dadas’ use of the word ‘Dada’
First Draft

Dada Qua Slogan

Dada has inserted its syringe into hot bread, to speak allegorically of language. Little by little (large by large) it destroys it. Everything collapses with logic.1

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’ had an excess of associations, which gave it a certain excessive force. Thirdly, it is a refusal: the refusal to have a ‘proper’ art name: rather than being descriptive or elevating, the word ‘Dada’ exhibits a kind of blank stupidity. It’s concision, repetition and simplicity act as a kind of block on meaning. And finally ‘Dada’ was used excessively. It was used with typographic excess; to intermingle with other words; to interrupt texts; with excessive repetition within texts; and so on. Whatever else it was, ‘Dada’ was not a name. ‘Dada’ was a kind of password or rallying cry: a kind of slogan.

When art history considers the word ‘Dada,’ it is usually to consider the inconclusive evidence of the origins, meaning and attribution of the word. The Dadas were well aware of what would happen to Dada. Hans Arp wrote the following declaration in 1920, with the date 6 August 1921 attached to it.2 It is a declaration written contra art history.

I declare that Tristan Tzara coined the word Dada on February 8th 1916 at 6 o‘clock in the evening: I was present with my twelve children when, for the first time, Tzara uttered this word that raised such understandable enthusiasm among us. This was in the Café Terrasse in Zurich and I was wearing a bun in my left nostril. I am certain that this word has no importance, and that only imbeciles and Spanish teachers bother about dates. What interests us is the spirit of Dada and we were all Dada before Dada’s existence. The first Holy Virgins that I painted date back to 1886 when I was a few months old and enjoyed pissing graphic impressions. The morality of idiots and their belief in geniuses pisses me off.
6 August 1921

However, the art historian can always find contradictory evidence in the Dada archive and it is easy enough to dismiss disagreeable evidence as irony or high jinx.3 But it is in the insistence of considering the origins of the word ‘Dada’ that things are already bad here, even if these considerations are undertaken with the full knowledge that they will be inconclusive. Things are bad not because of the outcome of such enquires but because of the presumptions upon which they rest. It is taken for granted not only that Dada is a name but that it is the name of an art movement: it is taken for granted that ‘Dada’ is a particular kind of word. In other words, art history is liable to conjure up an object for its enquiries, regardless of what the Dadas said and wrote, because it knows in advance what it is looking for.

This, we might say, is how ideology works: not by providing the wrong answers but by asking the wrong questions. 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.4 Each time he gives a speech, he claims that the Defence Department has been infiltrated by a precise number of Communists: however, each time he does this, the precise number he gives is different. The Senator, it turns out, is a puppet controlled by his wife. In one scene he complains to her about 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?’”5

This demonstrates ideology at its purest: not only is ideology not directly persuasive, it doesn’t give a hoot what you think. 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 or the world of the possible. Ideology breeds cynicism: it wants to rob you of the belief that an alternative is possible. It is thus that by proposing the wrong questions ideology offers a choice but one which is not what it seems: in accepting either option you have accepted the grounds upon which the choice is offered. And beyond this, it is to precipitate the cynical acceptance that things cannot be otherwise and the subsequent resigned withdrawal into individual interiority, which is the real drive of ideology.

Thus, the resistance to ideology involves the refusal or withdrawal from the direct engagement with its questions: refusal before the question rather than resignation in its wake. So this is not the same as the withdrawal into cynicism and its attendant passivity. The refusal of ideology is precisely the refusal to accept the limits of practicality; it is to continue to believe in the impossible: that things can, collectively, change.6

To think of ‘Dada’ as the name of an art movement is to succumb to an ideological temptation. ‘Dada’ was not a name. ‘Dada’ has become a name; art history has treated Dada as an ‘art movement’ and thus ‘Dada’ has become the designation of the ostensible art movement promoted by art history. The circularity here is quite plain: the more art history approaches Dada as if it were an art movement the more evidence it finds that Dada was an art movement. In practise, Dada’s status as an art movement is more-or-less taken for granted within the discourses of art history, so that no-one, it seems, ever feels the necessity of justifying the assumption: the question art history asks is whether Dada was any good, qua art. In pursuit of this question, there are plenty of objects produced by Dada, in one way or another, that can be taken for conventional artworks and plenty of words that can be taken as statements of artistic intent. But, to do so, is to neglect what stands out most about Dada: the negation, confrontation and violence inherent in Dada words and actions. Against those art historical accounts of Dada which reduce its negativity to nihilism and emotivism, on the one hand, and against those which simply ignore it, on the other, I wish to take the negativity of Dada seriously. ‘Dada’ was not the name of an art movement partly because Dada was not an art movement in any conventional sense and partly because the Dadas did not wield the word ‘Dada’ as a name.

The ways in which the Dadas did use the word ‘Dada’ were multiple and complex. However, this multiplicity and complexity should not be seen as a set of positive deployments: each use does not add to the word, which is to say that the uses of the word ‘Dada’ do not fall under a logic of addition. Rather, this multiplicity is a sign of negation: a set of subtractions from the way a name would be used.

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: “A curse on Dada. (We’ll give you the formula) a curse on Dada for standing in our way, for not letting us make direct contact with the miracle.”7The word erupted out of manifestos: “Lilberty: DADA DADA DADA; —the roar of contorted pains, the interweaving of contraries and of all contradictions, freaks and irrelevancies: LIFE.” 8 The word was repeated repeatedly: “The review will appear in Zurich and its name will be: DADA (‘Dada’) dada dada dada.”9 The word mutated into other words: “Worringer, Profetor Dadaisticus” 10 And the word, famously, participated in typographic disruption. This list is neither exhaustive nor a meaningful classification; it simply shows some of the ways in which ‘Dada’ was not a name.

One of the ways in which we could think of the word ‘Dada’ was as a word to stir things up: a “battle cry.”11This aptly captures the sense in which it was deployed in a situation of division and conflict. Another passage in the same manifesto says:

Dada is not a pretext for the ambitions of a handful of literati (as our enemies would have you believe). Dada is a state of mind which can reveal itself in each and every conversation, so that one is compelled to say: this man is a DADAIST, but that man is not.12

A battle cry exacerbates division. For those in battle, it is either an inspiration or a provocation. To adopt the word ‘Dada’ was to accept the negation inherent in it, including the collective ways in which it was used, and to step outside of the normal parameters of the discourse of art. In putting forward the idea that ‘Dada’ was a slogan, rather than a battle cry, I wish to pursue an understanding of the revolutionary moment of Dada: a battle cry implies a division between two discrete entities whilst revolution entails a division running through one entity. 

To analyse the idea of a slogan, I will use the work of the linguistic philosopher Jean-Jacque Lecercle.13Lecercle, pace Deleuze and Guattari, takes slogans to be paradigmatic of all language use: slogans are present in all language, however hidden that inhabitation might be. 

Of course, the production of slogans is a statistically negligible part of our linguistic activity. But since for Deleuze and Guattari slogans have functional value, they argue that they are present in all utterances. In other words, they assert that all speech is indirect speech. What I believe to be my own words is only a reported utterance – another reason why utterances are non-subjective.14

Lecercle is enrolling Deleuze and Guattari to argue against conventional linguistics, which takes communication and semantic stability to be the essence of language and which starts out from the individual. Lecercle uses the idea of the slogan to explore that which is neglected by conventional linguistics: how all language is collective and agonistic. Moreover, language is action: speech and writing have material effects in the world

Lecercle uses Lenin’s brief text on slogan to analyse the ways in which the slogan is an intervention in a situation which precedes it. Since slogans are a type of action they should be judged not according to their truth but to whether they are just. The just slogan achieves three things: it identifies a particular moment in a conjuncture of forces (in some sense it creates the moment by naming it); it names the task associated with the moment in the conjuncture (that is, it identifies the decisive element); and finally it exerts force in that it condenses and embodies the concrete analysis of the concrete situation.15 “[T]he implicit Leninist principle at work here is “without the correct slogan, no revolutionary success.””16

‘Dada’ is not a slogan in any straightforward way: it does not have a clear meaning nor articulate a point of view in any clear way. ‘Dada,’ qua slogan, fails the Leninist test. However, art is not politics; ‘Dada’ was not an intervention in political discourse (and hence praxis) but in artistic discourse (and hence praxis). If we look at Lecercle’s analysis of how slogans work and look at how they work within his broader analysis of language, we find that ‘Dada’ fits rather well. In order to think about ‘Dada’ as a slogan we need to think about Dada in terms of the attempted negation of a stultifying artistic conjuncture rather than the positive intervention of Lenin in a dynamic political conjuncture. As Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, there are times when withdrawal from the situation is the most radical gesture.17 ‘Dada’ works as a slogan through the negative.

Firstly, in this light, ‘Dada’ does identify the moment in the artistic conjuncture, not by making a demand but by asserting a break through an act of refusal. ‘Dada’ refused to be descriptive and refused to function as a proper name. ‘Dada’ was a word coined and asserted by the Dadas themselves against the proprieties of culture. It is precisely as an act of refusal that we should read Tzara’s often quoted proclamation “DADA DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING.”18 The word ‘Dada’ identified the moment for action by the negation involved in using it.

Secondly, ‘Dada’ does not ‘name the task;’ it does not name anything. However, from within the artistic conjuncture within which the Dadas found themselves, ‘naming’ is precisely one of the conservative forces operating within art. This has two aspects. Firstly, only a select group of critics had the power to impose classification on art. This is to say that naming was part of a discourse marked by social division: only a few were in the privileged position to talk and write about art. And secondly, the act of naming can operate as a kind of containment of its object, precisely by treating its object as something static to be described rather than as something dynamic which has effects. Classification isolates and divides. ‘Dada’s’ refusal to name is not a sign of weakness nor confusion; it is not reactive, expressive nor nihilistic. Rather it is the principled refusal to provide material for a discourse which relies upon classification and which uses description to embalm the products of artistic action. So Dada does not name the task but rather takes to task naming; and this is the task Dada must carry out – without naming it, precisely because in Dada’s circumstances to explain one’s actions is to alter them.

Once the apparently neutral procedures of classification and description are seen as reactionary and repressive, the use of contradiction which infuses Dada can be seen as part of the serious business of resistance rather than as a playful love of paradox for the sake of it. Thus Tristan Tzara can assert:

Anti-Dadaism is a disease: selfkleptomania, man’s normal
condition, is Dada.
But the real Dadas are against Dada.

This refusal to provide material for a discourse of description and subsequent interpretation is the logic which underlies the readymade. Indeed, we might think of the word ‘Dada’ as a kind of readymade. Contrary to those art historical accounts that would interpret the readymade as an attempt to introduce a new way of making art, we should see the readymade as an attempt to deprive the critic of anything to say: to reduce him or her to silence. Today things are very different. Appropriation and nomination, in all their various forms, have become the very bedrock of contemporary art. But for Dada, using found things was a way of not making art and of not giving an interpreter anything to talk about. In other words, for the Dadas the readymade was founded in negation: no skill, no work, no originality, no individuality, no virtuosity, no composition, no content, no representation, no interest and so on.

In this light we can see why some of Duchamp’s Readymades are favoured by art historians over others. “Fountain” is Duchamp’s worst Readymade and art history’s favourite. This is for the same reason: namely that it gives the interpreter plenty to write about. Far from provoking complete indifference, the criteria Duchamp set for himself in making the Readymades, the urinal has an obvious naughtiness about it and showing it in public is provocative. Moreover, the shenanigans Duchamp enacted around its selection and de-selection give the interpreter an interesting background story to bring into the interpretation. The “Bottlerack” is much better because there is nothing to be said about it.

The key text is ‘To Make a Dadaist Poem’ by Tristan Tzara.20 It is often quoted as though it were a genuine set of instructions, which it is not. It goes as follows:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar heard.

This text is obviously not a set of instructions (the fact that the example Tzara gives is obviously contrived emphasises this); rather, the text is an intervention in the way art is talked about. The target of the text can be seen in the way that key ideas in the talk of art-making (choice, conscientiousness, originality, sensibility, etc.) are deployed in a situation that deprives art’s vocabulary of its usual force. And to deprive one’s opponent of force is to exert one’s own force.

So, to reiterate: for the artistic conjuncture in which Dada found itself, this is the decisive element: the attack on the possibilities of art discourse.

Thirdly, ‘Dada’ does not condense nor embody the concrete analysis of the concrete situation. Dada does, however, exert force. Rather than containing any kind of analysis, the word ‘Dada’ was wielded as a weapon; the purpose was to do violence to the habits and assumptions of art discourse. ‘Dada’ interrupts and refuses. The word is condensed, like a rock, to be hurled into texts and monologue. And the word embodies the Dada refusal of meaning, elaboration and rationalisation. ‘Dada’ is a short and aggressive interjection that refuses to make sense within the existing co-ordinates of cultural dialogue.

Here we might use another piece of Lecercle’s analysis of language: the idea of the remainder.21 The remainder is all that is expelled from language by conventional linguistics, as being deviant, exceptional, marginal, trivial or simply wrong. In other words, the remainder contains all that is repressed, excluded and marginalised. Lecercle compares it to the Freudian unconscious. It is that which escapes the rules and regularity of grammar; it is all in language that is non-systematic and contingent: puns, anagrams, wild associations, nonsense, novel coinages and all else that is an aberration to the good grammarian. Whereas the ordered world of linguistics dismisses all that is non-grammatical and unsemantic as exceptional, Lecercle takes the remainder to be fundamental to language. Language is opportunistic, promiscuous and monstrous.

The remainder, as the other side of language to langue, is all the tendencies to disorder in language, to which Lecercle applies the characteristic of ‘defeasibility.’ Cheekily, he proposes four ‘rules’ of the remainder.22The first is exploitation, or flouting: in language all rules can be defeated. The second is paradox: natural languages accommodate and exploit confusion and uncertainty in all kinds of ways. The third is rhizome-work: the remainder works more like the Freudian dream-work, than syntax, in its ability to put to use any connections it finds. The fourth is corruption: language is always changing but old words put to new use also carry the past sedimented within them. These rules are cheeky because they are rules against rules: they articulate the way that any proposed rule of language can be defeated by the remainder. ‘Dada’ is part of the remainder in that it puts to use the disorderly characteristics of the remainder in whatever ways come to hand. The word ‘Dada’ was used to exploit and corrupt whatever connections and confusions it could find.

‘Dada’ exerts force precisely inasmuch as it is a remainder in the place where a name should be. It goes without saying that all remainders can be recuperated and reintegrated into linguistics, if the need be, and ‘Dada’ has been pressed into service as a name, as I have written. In such circumstances, the multiplicity of the associations of the word ‘Dada’ are reinterpreted as part of its charm. But for the Dadas themselves, at their moment in the artistic conjuncture, the work of the remainder was a way of resisting the foreclosures of art discourse.

Lecercle’s marxist theory of language puts in place the co-ordinates for an analysis of language which cuts against the dominant habits of linguistics. For Lecercle, the slogan, as an embodiment of the fundamental use of language, makes visible the properties of language as such. The slogan is collectively produced, partisan, an intervention, effective temporarily, reflexive, condensed, seductive, violent and uncontainable. Lecercle does not construct this list as such but each point is taken from his work. This list can be applied directly to the word ‘Dada,’ which is what I shall now do.

The word ‘Dada’ was collectively produced

Lecercle uses the idea of a rapport de forces to account for the production of the slogan: that is, a slogan is formed in relation to an existing situation which is both a social and linguistic conjuncture. Even if and when the particular words of a slogan are suggested by an individual, the individual is not the author of the slogan; the slogan arises from the collective situation and a collective conversation: from the pressure asserted by the collective.

You do not issue a slogan of your own accord, as an expression of what you mean to say. A slogan is produced collectively, it is the object of negotiation and collective formulation within a group, generally an institutionalized one (a trade union or a party). In fact, for Deleuze and Guattari, the origin of meaning is no longer in a individual subject, but in a ‘collective arrangement of utterance.’23

The word ‘Dada’ was produced by the group in relation to the artistic conjuncture in which it found itself; it emerged from a collective situation and a collective conversation. A collection of artists and writers, who found themselves in radical opposition to the dominant culture, found themselves in a situation which was clearly one of a ‘collective arrangement of utterance.’ A word – ‘Dada’ – emerged as a collective utterance from a collective agent. If this is where the word seems closest to a name, it should be emphasised that ‘Dada’ did not aim to name a set of persons, artworks or principles, let alone a style or aesthetic. Rather, ’Dada’ cemented a certain collective solidarity through its use.

‘Dada’ was divisive

The slogan is partisan in that it calls for adherence from its advocates and solicits opposition from its detractors. The slogan belongs to a particular group or faction (in opposition to other groups): it always comes from a particular point of view. As such, the slogan presupposes a situation of conflict and competing interpretations or conceptualisations of events. In other words, the slogan operates in a situation of division rather than one of the neutral exchange of information or communication. The slogan marks a closure: its purpose is not communication nor enquiry but to elicit the taking of sides. Here it should be noted that ‘openness’ can be falsifying and that truth is partisan. In a conjuncture that is always already one of division, it is that which is excluded or has no place which is the truth of the situation.

The very idiocy of the word ‘Dada’ confronted and confounded the proprieties of art and culture and mocked the nomenclature of modernism. In the place where a name should have been, the childish and idiotic word ‘Dada’ erupted and refused to stay in its place. Dada did not aspire to the grandeur of being a modernist “ism” (even those “isms” inadvertently named by sarcastic, hostile critics managed to adopt the grandeur within the insult). To accept ‘Dada’ was to accept the ways the word was used to burrow through the foundations of modernism: to disrupt the habits and rituals of art. In other words, ‘Dada’ was not simply an unusual word or a word used madly and badly. Rather, we could say that ‘Dada’ was a philistine word.

Dave Beech and John Roberts theorise ‘the philistine’ as all which is expelled from art but whose expulsion is foundational for art:

The philistine is not what is fundamentally other to art and aesthetics in advance. Rather it is what inhabits and infects art’s and aesthetics’ violation. And one of the main symptoms of violation in aesthetics and art is the exclusion (or repression) of violation itself. This is the civic utility of the philistine; in this sense the philistine is the waste disposal unit of art ands aesthetics. Its violations do not issue from the philistine itself; the philistine’s violations belong to the primary violations of art and aesthetics. In fact, the philistine is an aggregate of violations, all of which are excluded or repressed by art’s civil subjectivities and their institutions.24

In other words, culture and the cultured define themselves in opposition to that which is excluded from the realm of culture and then claim their side of the division as universal whilst disparaging the philistine as the absence of culture per se. Thus the discourses of culture represent a social division as a natural one. For Beech and Roberts, on the contrary, the universal lies with the philistine, not because of any positive properties or virtues the philistine might have, but precisely as that part of culture which has no place within culture. Dada did not theorise itself in terms of the philistine; however, it is precisely inasmuch as Dada recognised art‘s unity as false and resting on violation that it can be claimed to be philistine in the counter-intuitive sense put forward by Beech and Roberts. It is thus that we can think of the word ‘Dada’ itself as a philistine intrusion into cultural discourse.

‘Dada’ was an Intervention

The slogan is an intervention in the current state of affairs. It is not a reflection or representation of events: not a report nor a description. The point is that the slogan is an active agent in shaping the course of events; it is part and parcel of the rapport de forces of those events rather than an epiphenomena. In the Leninist political conjuncture, the right slogan is a linguistic intervention in the conjuncture, which will have real and decisive effects. The crucial point here is that we think of language in terms of linguistic acts which have material consequences. For Deleuze and Guattari the paradigmatic example is the trick pulled off by the Weimer government in Germany on 20 November1923, whereby the simple linguistic act of renaming the Mark was able to halt Germany’s runaway hyper-inflation.25

The use of the word ‘Dada,’ as an active element in the antics of Dada, helped to smash the existing social relations of art. As such, its agency was that of negation: but negation is inherent to any process of transformation. Here we should bear in mind Duchamp saying “I am sick of the expression “bête comme un peintre”—stupid as a painter,” in accounting for his actions.26 WIthin the social divisions of art, artists were expected to be mute and to leave criticism and interpretation to others. The Dadas used the word ‘Dada’ to claim the place of enunciation, whilst negating the expectations of what could be said from that place.‘Dada’ was a rhetorical way of contesting the speech around art and, as such, an intervention in the public construction of art.

‘Dada’ was temporal

The slogan is aimed at a specific historical conjuncture. The right slogan yesterday can be the wrong slogan today. This is the explicit point of Lenin’s text on slogans: changing circumstances can quickly render an existing slogan obsolete or wrong: “All power to the Soviets” is the right slogan on 4th July 1917 but the wrong slogan the next day, when circumstances have decisively changed.27 The linguistic act, as with other acts, finds its place within the process of historical events, in relation to which it is justified or not. The point is, that in relation to action, we should not ask whether a particular act is true but rather whether it is just. To ask whether a slogan is true evokes the wrong model of language – one based on representation rather than action. Lecercle suggests that the just slogan is one which fits well within the partisan situation in which it is used. The just slogan has just effects.

Dada was aimed at a specific artistic and historical conjuncture. Dada actions aimed to have immediate effects rather than to be recognised by posterity. This can be seen in at least two ways. Firstly, the things Dada produced were typically fleeting: performances and props made for particular circumstances. For example, André Breton erased a Francis Picabia drawing, on a stage, whilst Picabia was drawing it.28Secondly, Dada statements continually undermined any stable and lasting understanding of Dada as having a set of principles or an aesthetic or any other positive program. As I have said above, the idea that “the real Dadas are against Dada” is not wilfully paradoxical but rather an attempt not to exclude oneself from one’s negations. Dada was the negation of art: a negation necessarily aimed at the then current discourses, structures and mechanisms of art. From a Dada point of view, these discourses, structures and mechanisms of art were themselves negative.

Thus, the spontaneity of which the Dadas made much, did not simply aim at creative abandon but action in the present and action on present circumstances. 

Dada is a Virgin Germ

Dada is against an expensive life
limited company for the exploitation of ideas
Dada has 391 different attitudes and colours, depending on the sex of the president
It transforms itself – affirms – says at the same time the opposite – without importance – cries – fishes with a rod
Dada is the chameleon of rapid and interested change
Dada is against the future, Dada s dead, Dead is idiotic
Long live Dada, Dada is not a literary school scream.

‘Dada,’ qua slogan, was part of this action in the present and action on the dominant cultural discourse in which Dada found itself. It is against the tendencies within that discourse to support supposedly eternal values and the judgement of posterity. It is in this context that the Dadas repeatedly asserted that Dada means nothing. Tzara’s assertion to this effect comes at the end of the following passage:

Dada – there you have a word that leads ideas to the hunt: every bourgeois is a little dramatist, he invents all sorts of speeches instead of putting the characters suitable to the quality of his intelligence, chrysalises, on chairs, seeks causes or aims (according to the psychoanalytic method he practises) to cement his plot, a story that speaks and defines itself. Every spectator is a plotter if he tries to explain a word: (to know)! Safe in the cottony refuge of serpentine complications he manipulates his instincts. Hence the mishaps of conjugal life. 

To explain: the amusement of red-bellies in the mills of empty skulls. 


It is a commonplace of art history to think that Dada failed; a commonplace predicate on the search for art. As Stephen C. Foster has put it:

On the one hand, some maintain that Dada rejected art; on the other hand, some believe that it was precisely Dada’s commitment to art that limited its impact on larger culture and subverted its stated intentions; and yet others hold, that when all was said and done, the Dadas were, at their best, simply good artists. While all these assertions are, in some sense, undeniably true, they explain rather little. All of them, no matter how positive sounding, are offered as negative assessments of Dada, based on what we think it should have been. The clear implication is that you either have art or you do not.31

Dada had no interest in making art for posterity and it is only by looking at the immediacy of its actions that it can be seen to be successful. The familiarity and recuperations of passing time make it hard to see, perhaps, the extent to which Dada destroyed what had existed before as art.

But the question we should ask, pace Lecercle, is not simply ‘Did ‘Dada’ succeed?’ but rather ‘Was ‘Dada’ just?’ 

‘Dada’ was Reflexive

The slogan is reflexive in two senses. Firstly, the slogan is formed in relation to the discourse or discourses within which it is an intervention. Secondly, the slogan is formed in relation to the general situation. This is to say, the slogan is reflexive in relation to both its particularity and general contexts. Slogans are work within and upon a situation that is already given.

The one circumstance most invoked (almost ritually) in relation to Dada, is the first World War. Nevertheless, however formative the War was, the danger is that Dada is reduced to a reaction in the field of art to the social catastrophe of war. The war did, perhaps, make the failings of bourgeois society unmissable and actively displace artists and writers across Europe and beyond. But if the War was an extreme manifestation of bourgeois society, it was the underlying social and cultural conditions to which Dada responded. For Dada, art and culture were shot through with the divisions of a divided society. ‘Dada,’ qua slogan, was aimed not so much at society in general as at the dominant discourses and practices of art and literature. Dada mercilessly attacked other avant-garde movements precisely for their failure to attack art in general and to see art as the problem.

‘Dada’ was Condensed

To say that slogans are condensed is to say that the slogan is never a simple statement (of fact, or otherwise) but relies upon a context that does not need to be spelt out. The slogan is embedded in a broader linguistic conjuncture and condenses an understanding of this conjuncture within it. Thus, the slogan is always understood as part of a larger discourse and social situation and, as such, is always both informed by the greater context and pointing beyond the literal content of the slogan. 

‘Dada,’ we might say, condenses negation. It is not descriptive, it does not name, it means nothing, it is not grandiose, it does not have cultural associations. The negations inherent in the word do not stand separately from the artistic conjuncture in which it was used. Once art history has turned ‘Dada’ into a name, it is, perhaps, hard to understand the impenetrability of the word and its violence vis-à-vis contemporaneous art discourse. According to the Berlin Manifesto:

The word Dada symbolises the most primitive relation to surrounding reality, a relation with which Dadaism in turn establishes a new reality.32

This ‘primitive relation’ should be read with ‘a new reality’ as articulating a new beginning: in other words, ‘Dada’ stands for the revolutionary erasure of the old reality, which it blocks out with its noise, and the unknowable New. Only an aggressively empty word can both negate the existing associations of the Old and leave the New open.

‘Dada’ was Counter-Interpellation

Slogans are seductive. This means not only that slogans try to persuade an existing audience of the justness of a cause but also, more radically, that the slogan is part of the attempt to create an audience: to call a particular type of subjectivity or group into existence. Indeed, since for Lecercle, pace Deleuze and Guattari, all speech is indirect speech, all utterances are involved in ‘subjectivation.’ Lecercle is unapologetic in his revival of Althusserian theory.

Althusser’s theory of interpellation and state apparatuses, which I have tried to revive, has gone out of fashion because it was never quite able to think the autonomous non-autonomy of language. This, I think, the concept of the remainder enables us to begin to conceive.33

Lecercle sets out to interpret Althusser’s chain of interpellation in linguistic terms. This chain goes: institution — ritual — practice —speech act — subject. We should note two points. Firstly, contra the methodological individualism of mainstream linguistics, we start not from the individual but institutions and language that precede the individual. The individual is produced at the end of the chain. And secondly, ideology and language are indissolubly involved at every stage. The individual is formed out of language which is always already ideology. But, for Lecercle, interpellation is not the end of the story: the consequence of us being subjects formed in language is that we are in a continual process of interpellation and counter-interpellation.

For the speaker is undeniably constrained by the language she speaks, which is prior and external to her, and to which she must adapt. But this has never prevented anyone from expressing themselves freely, and sometimes creatively. The speaker is therefore interpellated to her place by language, but, in so far as she makes the language her language, she counter-interpellates it: she plays with it, pushes it to its limits, accepts its constraints in order to subvert them, just as the participant in a conversation in Grice’s co-operative model acknowledges the universality of the maxims in that she exploits them for expressive purposes. Hence the interpellated one counter-interpellates the ideology that interpellates her.34

Zizek has taken Brecht to task for the lines from his poem, The Solution, where he mocks the former GDR government for behaving as though it wished to dissolve the people and elect another. For Zizek, however, this is the communist task: to bring forth a new type of subject. Brecht is simply

[…] wrong in the theoretico-political sense: we should bravely admit that it is in fact a duty—even the duty—of a revolutionary party to “dissolve the people and elect another,” that is, to bring about the transubstantiation of the “old” opportunistic people (the inert “crowd”) into a revolutionary body aware of its historical task, to transform the body of the empirical people into a body of Truth. Far from being an easy task, to “dissolve the people and elect another” is the most difficult of all.35

Without this radical reinvention of subjectivity, all that remains of the communist project is managing the economy.

Dada, we might say, wished to dissolve its audience and elect a new one. Without the radical reinvention of subjectivity in the realm of art, all that remains of the Dada project is innovative techniques. This is precisely where so much of the new scholarship on Dada leads: to the redescription of radical negation in the conventional terms of art. Nothing could be further from Dada’s concerns. ‘Dada’ was counter-interpellation: to accept the word, to take ‘Dada’ into one’s linguistic constitution, was not simply to add a new belief or a new commitment to one’s existing beliefs and commitments but to transform oneself entirely in relation to art and culture.

‘Dada’ was Violent

Slogans are violent. Not only is every utterance a site of struggle but it is a rejoinder in an always already existing situation of division and conflict. We use slogans to damage our enemies; to eke out a position from which to speak; and to put others in their place. It is worth remembering that language can be a violent intrusion on the body: that words can make us blush, feint, tremble, sweat and so on. Such instances should be taken as revealing something fundamental about language rather than as exceptions: the slogan (language) is violent in that it is an intrusion into both symbolic and material structures.

Not only is every word a place of contested usage and meaning, as Volosinov teaches us,36 but every utterance positions the speaker and hearer. For Lecercle, speaking is not only a struggle for meaning but a struggle to assign roles: for the speaker to find a role or place for herself and also to get her addressee to adopt another role or position. To reiterate: all language is a matter of interpellation and counter-interpellation:

My path so far has taken me from the straightforward physical violence of the shriek to the indirect, ‘immaterial’ social violence of insults, orders, insinuations, of performatives in general and utterances endowed with illocutionary force, that is, of all utterances. There is violence involved in the linguistic struggle for places, i.e. in the the linguistic process of subjectivation. One becomes a subject by acquiring a linguistic place and imposing it on others.37

‘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. ‘Dada,’ as a slogan, was violent inasmuch as it partook in the violent negation of art. ‘Dada’ was not a private locution but part of the attempt of Dada to impose its position on others. Those who became Dadas had withdrawn from an art which they saw as a field of false choices. For those artists and writers who had gathered in Zurich, the invention of Dada marked the end of a process of withdrawal and exile 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.

The invention of the word ‘Dada’ was Dada’s first violent act. 14th July 1916 was the date that the first Dada manifesto was read out.38 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. Rather, we might think of Dada as what Walter Benjamin called ‘divine violence.’39 This is the violent destruction of an established order: the necessary violence in the face of the inherent, but often hidden, violence that sustains a hierarchical structure and which Benjamin dubbed ‘mythic violence.’ This violence is “mythic” because it is in the service of the myth which sustains the current state of affairs by misrepresenting social relations as natural and eternal ones. The mythic is woven into the background texture of social life, so that it is also that which provides symbolic comfort and meaning. ‘Dada’ was violent in that it attempted to destroy all comfort and guarantees in relation to art and to leave both the Dadas and their opponents with nothing.

‘Dada’ was Uncontained

Slogans escape us. We do violence with words but language is also violent to our words; meaning, intention and sense escape us. This is the work of the remainder and the duplicitous nature of language. The language we use is inherently unstable and liable to corruption, misunderstanding and other excesses. If langue is the ‘unmotivated’ structure of differences (in Saussure’s terms) which constitutes language, for Lecercle all language is constantly remotivated by contingent, unconscious connections and chance encounters. There are always other associations.

‘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’ relied upon the work of the Remainder to be excessive and uncontained. As Breton said:

Without wishing to make anyone unhappy it is perfectly acceptable to say that the word DADA lends itself readily to puns. That’s even part of the reason we adopted it in the first place.40

What was important, from a Dada point of view, was that the blatant, excessive and promiscuous associations of the word cut against the cultural standard. Embracing the remainder was a way to subvert the established institutional hierarchies of art.

It should also be noted how the word was taken up and put to use by so many persons in so many places. The negative nature of ‘Dada’ qua slogan, allowed for this mobility. “The word Dada itself points to the internationalism of the movement, which is not tied to borders, religions or professions.”41


To think of ‘Dada’ as a slogan requires thinking of Dada differently. Dada needs to be rescued from the lavish attentions of art history, if the revolutionary negation at its heart is to be reanimated.

Tristan Tzara, Eye-Cover, Art-Cover, Corset Cover Authorization, New York Dada 1921, in The Dada Reader, Dawn Ades (Ed), Tate Publishing, London, 2006 p.159
Hans Arp, Dadaphone No. 7, Paris, March 1920; quoted in The Dada Reader: A critical Anthology, Dawn Ades (ed), Tate Publishing, London,2006.]
Leah Dickerman, for instance, can write that “Dada displayed a raucous scepticism about accepted values.” Dickerman first two lines of catalogue
The Manchurian Candidate, 1962, directed by John Frankenhenhaimer. Senator Iselin is played by James Gregory.
This argument should be familiar to readers of Zizek.
Hans Richter, Against Without For Dada, text read at the eighth Dada gathering, printed in Dada 4-5, in The Dada Reader, Dawn Ades (Ed), Tate Publishing, London, 2006, p.49
Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918, in Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, Calder, London, 1977/92, p.13
Hugo Ball in Caberat Voltaire, Zurich 1916; in The Dada Reader, Dawn Ades (Ed), Tate Publishing, London, 2006, p.20
Max Ernst, title of text from Die Schammade, 1920, in The Dada Reader, Dawn Ades (Ed), Tate Publishing, London, 2006, p.241
“The signers of this manifesto have, under the battle cry: Dada!!!! gathered together to put forward a new art.” Richard Hülsenbeck, Dada Manifesto Berlin April 1918, available here:
Lecercle: various sources.
Jean-Jacque Lecercle, The Violence of Language, Routledge, London, 1990, p.44.
Jean-Jacque Lecercle, ‘Lenin the Just, or Marxism Unrecycled,’ in Lenin Reloaded, Sebatian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Zizek (Eds.), Duke University Press, Duhram and London, 2007, p.273.
Jean-Jacque Lecercle, ‘Lenin the Just, or Marxism Unrecycled,’ in Lenin Reloaded, Sebatian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Zizek (Eds.), Duke University Press, Duhram and London, 2007, p.273.
See Slavoj Zizek, The Parallex View, the M.I.T. Press, London, 2006, especially the last chapter.
Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918, in Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, Calder, London, 1977/92, p.4
Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love (1920), in Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, Calder, London, 1977/92, p.38
Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love (1920), in Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, Calder, London, 1977/92, p.39
Jean-Jacque Lecercle, The Violence of Language, Routledge, London, 1990
Jean-Jacque Lecercle, The Violence of Language, Routledge, London, 1990, pp. 122-137.
Jean-Jacque Lecercle, The Violence of Language, Routledge, London, 1990, p.244.
Dave Beech and John Roberts, The Philistine Controversy, Verso, London, 2002. p. 287. For their consideration of Dada and the philistine, pp. 290-294
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, chapter on linguistics in a Thousand Plateaus, is titled November 20, 1923
Duchamp, Marcel. “The Great Trouble with Art in This Country” in
Sweeney, James Johnson, “Eleven Europeans in America: Marcel Duchamp,” Museum of Modern Art Bulletin no 13, 1946, p. 21.
See Lenin, On Slogans available here: This is the pertinent passage:
Something of the sort seems likely to recur in connection with the slogan calling for the transfer of all state power to the Soviets. That slogan was correct during a period of our revolution—say, from February 27 to July 4—that has now passed irrevocably. It has patently ceased to be correct now. Unless this is understood, it is impossible to understand anything of the urgent questions of the day. Every particular slogan must be deduced from the totality of specific features of a definite political situation. And the political situation in Russia now, after July 4, differs radically from the situation between February 27 and July 4.
This took place in Paris at the first “Friday of Littérature” at the Palais des Fetes, Paris, January 23, a soiree organised by the magazine Littérature.
Tristan Tzara, Dada is a Virgin Germ from Dadaphone No.7, March 1920, in The Dada Reader, Dawn Ades (Ed), Tate Publishing, London, 2006, p.66
Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918, in Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, Calder, London, 1977/92, p.4
Stephen C. Foster, ‘Dada: The Coordinates of Cultural Politics’, 
in Stephen C. Foster (ed.), Crisis and the Arts: the History of Dada: The Coordinates of Cultural Politics Vol 1, G.K. Hall & co., Boston, 1996, p.4.
DADA Manifesto Berlin April 1918. Attributed to Hülsenbeck; published with these names attached: Tristan Tzara. Franz Jung. Georg Grosz. Marcel Janco. Richard Huelsenbeck. Gerhard Preiß. Raoul Hausmann. Walter Mehring. 0. Lüthy. Fréderic Glauser. Hugo Ball. Pierre Albert Birot. Maria d’Arezzo. Gino Cantarelli. Prampolini. R. van Rees. Madame van Rees. Hans Arp. G. Thauber. Andrée Morosini. François Mombello-Pasquat. Available here:
Jean-Jacque Lecercle, The Violence of Language, Routledge, London, 1990, p.257.
Lecercle, A Marxist Philosophy of Language, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2005/2009 p.167
Slavoj Zizek, The Parallex View, the M.I.T. Press, London, 2006, p.149.
V.N. Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Harvard University Press, London, 1929/1986.
Jean-Jacque Lecercle, The Violence of Language, Routledge, London, 1990, p.257.
See The Dada Reader, Dawn Ades (Ed), Tate Publishing, London, 2006, p.16.
This was not the first time the word was used and it appeared in print two months earlier. However, I think that it is within the context of the manifesto and as speech that it acquires the full force of the slogan.
See Walter Benjamin, Critique of Violence, in Selected Writings Volume 1, The Belknap Press, Harvard University, London, 1996/99, pp. 236 – 252.
See also, Slavoj Zizek, Violence, Profile Books, 2008
André Breton, from Dada Skating in Littérature 13, May 1920, in The Dada Reader, Dawn Ades (Ed), Tate Publishing, London, 2006, p.186
DADA Manifesto Berlin April 1918.