Posthumanity Plagues A Port-Dada Historian

'The Posthuman Dada Guide' by Andrei Codrescu (Princeton University)

Halfway through “The Posthuman Dada Guide: tzara and lenin play chess,” one may indulge the urge to turn to the Internet to help explain Andrei Codrescu’s looping chain of definitions, anecdotes, and exaggerated statements about the world. The entries that compose Codrescu’s “guide” are thick with allusions to forgotten female poets and obscure psychedelic rock bands. It’s hard to read them without wanting to know more, especially with little prior knowledge of Codrescu’s main focus: the 1920s cultural movement Dada.But further research only confounds points that Codrescu seemingly asserts with authority. The critical blurbs at the beginning of the book—“This book made me feel naked, and that’s one thing I know,” from “Josephine Baker, ‘Bronze Venus,’” for instance—are completely fabricated. Codrescu shows little regard for facts, suggesting a subversive component to a superficially academic exercise. An idea that he attributes to one Renaissance philosopher may belong to another. It’s not even clear whether the narrative skeleton of the book—a chess game between Tristan Tzara, Dada creator, and Vladimir Lenin, Communist leader in 1916’s Zurich—ever really occurred.“The Posthuman Dada Guide” is destabilizing and it’s meant to be. Codrescu both writes about Dada and writes in the Dada style, so, in the spirit of his nonsense-brandishing predecessors, he uses absurdity to shock his reader out of a dangerous mindset of logic and reason. But caught in the fetters of fact, Codrescu is unable to completely release himself into the meaningful randomness of Dada. Instead, his “Guide,” comes across more confused than absurd. Codrescu offers the reader “Dada” as mankind’s salvation but never actually hands it over in either a practiced or studied form. According to Codrescu, we need to be rattled from our current “posthumanity”—a state of being ruled too much by reason and not enough by human vigor. We are posthumans because we live through technology, because we create virtual avatars, because “the city, the house, the car, the iPhone, the laptop, the iPod, the pillbox, the nonflesh” have become alienated vehicles for ourselves. The fear of posthumanity may seem a little exaggerated (haven’t humans always interacted, in some way, with the tools of their creation?), but for Codrescu it carries more serious implications. Inherent to logic and reason is the possibility that rational thinking will lead the unquestioning to disaster. Posthumanity means a loss of humanity, and without humanity, there’s little regard for other human (or posthuman) beings.For Codrescu, the possibility is more immediate than one might realize. World War II shadows Codrescu’s eccentric anecdotes. One entry, titled “jews” discusses how anti-Semitism became grounds for scorning Dada artists, even when they weren’t Jewish. Mentions of the Holocaust run through Codrescu’s scattered writing. When he pits Lenin and Tzara against each other in a chess game—the symbols of humanity and posthumanity, respectively—Codrescu never proclaims the victor, but the suggestion is pretty ominous.Codrescu makes the claim that Dada’s overt absurdity may be an antidote to a life absurdly full of reason “The posthumans lining the road to the future (which looks as if it exists, after all, even though Dada is against it) need the solace offered by the primal raw energy of Dada and its inhuman sources.” His entries about moments (“1915, winter, Zurich”), concepts (“audience”), and people (“Tristan, Tzara”) burst with the raw energy he demands. Dada artists themselves provide most of the fun. Tzara once unraveled a roll of toilet paper marked “Merde” to end a performance and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven wore a birdcage as a hat to parties. Codrescu amplifies their liveliness with his tight, brisk sentences: “In Sparta, bored out of her mind, the baroness sneaked off to Cincinnati by train to model nude at an art school.” What Codrescu doesn’t explicitly mention, however, is that the tension between posthuman and human is itself a Dada construct. Dada grew out of a disgust at the slaughter of World War I; the impulse to negate all culture was an impulse to break down a society capable of such carnage. Dada art (Codrescu’s book is all words) often took images of technology and applied them to human forms—a reaction, to be sure, against the “posthuman” soldiers who returned from home, unrecognizable from the horrors of war. Codrescu hesitates to clarify such a fact because, despite his book’s claims at a “Guide,” it never actually commits to directing the reader one way or another. His book is designed to amuse, not to inform. Early on, Codrescu expresses a desire to generate Imagination Units (IUs), ideas which will thrive long after the content of the book has melted from the reader’s mind. The idea, while appropriate in the context of Dada, seems misapplied in his work which, however whimsical, relies on specifics more than style. Ultimately, Codrescu’s “Guide” stumbles on its own conceit: Dada prose written by an academic. It’s too scholarly to be absurd, too absurd to be edifying. Unwilling to fully embrace fiction or reality, “The Posthuman Dada Guide” chooses to undermine both. Maybe this is the most Dadaist way to deal with the future—to propose that neither knowledge nor art can save us from our own mistakes.—Staff writer Madeleine M. Schwartz can be reached at mschwart@fas.harvard.edu.

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