An impeccable looking man in a tuxedo jacket and striped pants enters carrying a headless dressmaker’s dummy. He feigns marriage, puts a bunch of artificial flowers at the dummy’s feet, sits down, turns his back to the audience and begins to speak. As he speaks the tension in the room weighs heavier and heavier. Soon people in the audience are agitated. One calls out ‘rat bastard, you’ve got a nerve!’ Catcalls and laughter issue forth. In a momentary lull you can hear the man on stage cut through the air, calm and measured: ‘Napoleon was a big strong Oaf, after all’. The people of the audience stand from their seats full of blind rage, spitting! Screaming! Throwing orange peels! Tearing apart the centuries old balustrade in the hall! And amid the noise a journalist who knew the complicit narrator’s narrator well, turns to him and declares ten times over without stopping for breath, ‘you’re a reasonable man usually’.
Just one of the performances at the Saal Kaufleuten in April 1919 which ended with ‘cries, whistling, deafening laughter’. Tzara concludes that the pinnacle of Dada ‘succeeded in establishing the circuit of absolute unconsciousness in the auditorium which has forgotten the frontiers of education, of prejudices, experienced the commotion of the NEW’. After Walter Serner’s anarchist credo ‘everything is bluff, dear friends—art is dead. Vive Dada!’ the evening continued without the least bit of protest from the audience since, according to Hans Richter, reflecting back in their once again seated position, the inhumanity of what took place overpowered their sense of indignation and resolved itself in a state of sobered reservation. And also he did not know ‘what Napoleon had to do with it’, the audience was ‘Swiss’. Whether the story as described is just one other perpetrated Dada-bluff can only be guessed at, but it is Richter’s employment of the word inhuman in relation to the people’s misdirected anger that is important. If Serner, the moralist and the cynic, the self-proclaimed Archimedes who loved humanity and who wanted to lift the world off its axis and watch it hang, truly represented the kind of negation that Bukharin calls throughout the ages, contains an affirmation, Citizen Procurator, it is because the annihilation of the laugh called into question a symbolic order which had failed the human being in the throes of a world at war.
Dada will not die of dada, its future has a laugh (Huelsenbeck)
The laugh became a defining trope of the modernist age; as Octavio Paz has said, ‘Humour is the great invention of the modern spirit’, and coinciding with the invention of Rabelais and Cervantes, it is ‘fundamental to modern European culture’. Its roots lie in classicism in the interplay of the tragic and the comedic. The nexus of tragedy and comedy fulfilled its purpose within the narrative structure dialectically: either mood stood on its own but did not beget the story in time without the steady interference and sometimes bleeding into of the laugh outburst and the burst of pain, rotating as if stroboscopically above an eternal dance, or as Nietzsche would name it in its quasi-Buddhist posturing, eternal recurrence.
The idea of time’s circularity defines the humanist tradition. As an art history student you can’t avoid Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, a work that is largely seen as the birth of modern art history. And, if we take note of the birth of modern art history as a break from a preceding delimited time figured discursively within the liberal arts axis of knowledge-driven industry, it is the point at which art and history intersect (the istoria) as semantically ambiguous within the classic biographical model that makes the Renaissance as an age particularly interesting for contemporary conceptions of historiography. This is because essentially what Vasari did was systematise a picture of the Renaissance in the mode of rhetoric or ekphrasis—he used classic literary schemas to forward an ultimate stylistic truth for art making through the life of an artist whose presence was a conduit of a past Golden Age in Augustinian Classical Greece.
The notion of a Golden Age was part of a broader understanding of time’s circularity within the Ages of Man: that an age characteristic of some essential chaos or order would follow one from the other and repeat in a continuum of time, and that this reflected the human animal. In The Terrace of Pride of Dante’s Commedia, the pilgrims encounter the steps which mirror back the presence of the hero. The first step is marble like a mirror, the second dark and burnt, the third is like porphyry, as flaming red as blood that spurts from a vein. The steps represent the three moments of the act of penance and Dante’s ascension describes a hierarchy of presence in relation to God. Echoing Dante’s Divine Comedy the artists of Vasari’s Lives would follow a tripartite scheme mirroring biological growth from birth through to adolescence and adulthood—the pinnacle of which is embodied by the veritable Ecce Homo Michelangelo, rendered larger than life by Vasari, who acts as an intervening consciousness projecting the hero-protagonist in the image of artist as ‘worldmaker’.
So Vasari as the first art historicist used Pythagoras’s route source of eternal nature in the number four, where the four seasons of nature correspond with the four ages of man (except Vasari cuts off the fourth to mirror Christ’s death). Hegel’s stages of history would be an inheritor of this chronologically geared historical determinism that is driven by a god-like origination. In the ‘Christian-Hegelian Comedy’, Slavoj Žižek puts forth that the success of Christianity is fundamentally its humour (which is completely lost on some people). Žižek says ‘for Hegel, the passage from tragedy to comedy is about overcoming the limits of representation’.1 When the character as signifier of the universal doubles in on itself as exactly that which it signifies, it strains or antagonises the gap between its singular self and the universal abstract that appears directly through it. The negativity of the individual will is inherently comedic because it assimilates this overlapping of singularity and universality in a tautological estrangement. The high/low relation of God to Christ is merely formal; it is God who is wearing a mask of himself as Christ—the supreme split is finding the appearance of the mask behind the mask. And thus in tautology what we get is pure difference, not the difference between two opposing elements, but ‘the pure difference that separates an element from itself’.2
At the very base of Žižek’s theory of Objective Irony is the idea that the comedic is a manipulation of expectation—a truth posing as a deception which becomes a predicate of the truth. Because Žižek stipulates the comic as a mask, he arrives at what Raoul Hausmann, the Dadasoph, declared more than a decade before him: ‘The Bluff is not an ethical principle but rather self detoxification. Since Dada and bluff are the same, bluff is truth, because Dada is the exact truth’.3 Notions of the humorous have been considered within what has been dubbed Incongruity Theory, which is said to have originated with Kant when he stated in his Critique of Judgement: ‘Laughter is an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing’.4 Taken with Schopenhauerian pessimism, in which the concept is merely a simulacrum aggregate contained in the percept, laughter becomes that which arises from the ‘unexpected subsumption of an object under a concept that is in all other respects heterogeneous to it’;5 it involves a perceived incongruity between the concept and the real object that is thought through it. In his theory of intentional humour Schopenhauer is dada before Dada existed, he explains Duchamp’s toilet well.
…Philosophical questions do not amuse me, for I am a partisan of the wireless (Tzara)
Expectation becomes paramount insofar as it is the illusion through which we express the order of our constructed world—its manipulation is a form of knowledge upon which we can puncture the shared illusion toward an undefinable realm of disinterested calculation contained in the laugh. That is what constitutes the object and the release. Since Dada operated under the assumption that reality was anthropomorphic, created in the image of human rule, its question was directed toward being as the word and what could constitute its movement. And here the popular image of Hugo Ball in his Cubist costume enters the stage.
Ball’s costume in itself creates a humorous enigma for its seeming tautness. Stunted in a brilliant frame of cardboard, the overstated dimensions delimiting the contours of what exists beneath, he stands looking forth like a debilitated priest robot—or as he called himself, a magical bishop. The presence of the mechanical in the Dadaist ontology is underscored by a pivotal work by Henri Bergson called Le Rire. In An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Bergson begins by resisting the notion that the comic spirit can be defined, wishing ‘to regard it, above all, as a living thing’.6 Central to Bergson’s vitalism is what he refers to as the pliable spirit, that which imbues material with an essential gracefulness. Rigidity in human movement through space is the encrustation of the mechanical on the living; it is the corruption of grace in the automatism of a conventionalised existence. Thus, for Bergson, creativity was a kind of remittance of elasticity in matter and spirit, equilibrated to form an idealised mode of movement. Whereas the synthesis of art with life had the potential to manoeuvre the occlusions of modern society, the laugh itself was caused whenever the living gave off the impression of being a thing. We give off the impression of object-hood whenever our habituations of the world are revealed in a rupture with the continuum of social space. The thingness of being then is the inevitable disruption of the cohesiveness of the social body—when someone trips over they differentiate themselves from the body and laughter ensues.
Hugo Ball had declared the human had been mistaken for a machine. World War I was a monumental mistake—humans are not machines…and so there he stood on the stage of his Cabaret Voltaire in his great lumbering Cubist costume reciting his sound poem Karawane, rolling over each phoneme as it lifted him in evanescence beyond east and west. Fainting at the end of his performance, he was carried off stage by fellow Dadaists as if he were his own coffin; I want the word where it ends and begins, for all to insert their individuality into a word bound to death: DADA.
Perhaps this is where we shall still discover the realm of our invention, that realm in which we, too, can still be original, say, as parodists of world history and God’s buffoons—perhaps, even if nothing else today has any future, our laughter may yet have a future. (Nietzsche quoted by Huelsenbeck)
No one dared laugh during the Stalinist regime, not even a flicker of a smile could be apprehended. That is why the Czech novelist Milan Kundera would come to privilege the laugh as temporal suspension—sublime release and mass delusion, Laughter and Forgetting. On the other hand Mikhail Bakhtin would confer a positive Hegelian momentum in the grotesque, to the subversive elements of the carnivalesque which interpenetrated life’s fleeting freedoms into a grand scheme of humorous possibility—nothing sacred was left untouched and everything was rendered descending and reversing and moving forward. Although, as Umberto Eco would argue, this was a freedom sanctioned by the state, the uniformity of the laugh’s reign was an illusion given over as a stopgap distraction levelling out the field for a resumed law and order.
Taking this further, before the reign of French critical theory on academia, Baudelaire would come to define comic art as a kind of doubling of the self in identification with the object that is being dismantled by laughter. In other words, it is reflecting and sustaining within itself the ridiculousness of the structure it wants to establish a superiority over, thus exposing the duality of inferiority and superiority within the subject whose existence between knowledge and ignorance is constantly playing out the Fall of Man. Baudelaire is engaging with another strand of humour theory called the Superiority Theory which was put forth by Hobbes and reinforced by Freud who believed that humour and the laugh contain an aggressiveness that wants to exert power or degrade the other. In Baudelaire’s theory the superiority of the comic is made simultaneous with an essential inferiority that is reflected in it: an expression of the satanic in human nature, which is only ever specifically human.
While Baudelaire considers the satanic in humour, and theorists such as Bergson and Bakhtin believe it to be a kind of social corrective, Nietzsche would make it part of his elitist philosophy. When Zarathustra stands at a height proselytising to the people below him, they laugh. He is not the mouth for those ears. Like Bergson, Nietzsche would associate this kind of laughter with the ‘common herd’, and its ability to subvert and collapse time was deemed crude when it became a degraded form of art. The buffoon, as it is associated with the Dionysian impulse, must, like Dionysus, represent the paradox of a human who is a God. Laughter and the comic must confront time rather than escape it—it must negotiate competing tenses while necessitating the narrative into the future: ‘The crown of him who laughs…I myself have put on this crown, I myself have pronounced my laughter holy’.7 Here, again, the universal is directly the singularity of the Ecce Homo, a tautological trick sublimating pure difference into a moment of realisation pushing it toward the future, except that it is valorised in Nietzsche’s understanding in the independence of self-determination. In the down-going and going-across of the over-man, laughter must be the ultimate narrative truth of an individual will and desire binding it to the timelessness of self repetition.
What is Montmartre? Nothing. What should it be? Everything! (Salis launches a political campaign for the separation of Montmartre from the state)
Nineteenth century France gave shape and form to the Cabaret—a phenomenon that would define the early twentieth century avant-garde as it brought low culture to high art, vacillating between artistic autonomy and popular entertainment. The birth of the Chat Noir headed by Salis of the Hydropathes society took as its emblem a black, graceful cat ‘placing a disdainful paw on an obliterated goose’.8 As a space where an artistic bohemia could meet and exchange ideas, the stage dissolved the wall between performer and audience into an open antagonism—it drew from the tradition of the theatrical trickster Harlequin. It was also home of the chanson, the comical political song grounded in working class culture. Since the printing press was monopolised by the elite, the chanson created an alternative medium for the propagation of news. When this was transposed to Wilhelmine Germany, humour became the means to call into question the morality law, the Lex Heinze, and rambunctious theatrical personalities sat right beside political revolutionaries like the anarcho-communist Erich Muhsam, whose German chansons became the most beloved of the Weimar underground.
In the tradition of the Cabaret and the subversive literature of Voltaire, Dada was a collaboration between friends who represented a spectrum of opposition to the time as it put a mirror to the past in a chaotic present. Between spiritual anarchism, egoist anarchism, dedicated communism and complete misanthropy and nihilism, many scholars have considered Dada a mess of a movement, a pseudo-revolution that highlighted the flaws of individual characters who were unable to create a unified front in a desire for change. But Dada took humour as a frame to define its various selves, and while humour can be theorised, it does not point to anything in particular since it is pure potentiality—it is the unconsciousness of the historical trickster which Jung associates with the anima, the feminine principle.
Today the forms of humour in DADA as a presentation of effects deriving from the mask of the trickster is found in the anonymity of the internet, which became the Guy Fawkes mask indicating either the Catholic revolutionary who planned the Gunpowder Plot or the Hollywood blockbuster featuring Natalie Portman; either way, activists have a flair for melodrama. And as these masks unfold a narrative that defines this generation beyond the present, I just wonder if the nexus of art and protest can ever be anything other than a stage for acting out a parody of history. Postmodern appropriation played on the idea that quoting pre-existing forms reveals the simultaneity of time over and above the differences in repetitive particularities; it never protested Hans-Georg Gadamer’s circle and that’s annoying. Since history is supposed to be a lesson, and the comic performance a playing with an acquired context of knowledge, where can the New Man be in all this?
I am too young and naïve to answer that question. I started this essay with a piece of theatre, I may as well end with a piece of theatre—it begins by identifying the mundane neuroses of the patriarch (not included) and ends with the laugh of the capitalist sociopath (lulz).
We are everyone and we are no-one…
We laugh in the face of tragedy, we mock those who are in pain, we ruin the lives of people simply because we can.
A man takes out his aggression on a cat
Hundreds die in a plane crash
The nation mourns over a school shooting
We’re the embodiment of humanity with no remorse no caring no love or no sense of morality,
We only have a desire for more and more—and now, quite simply, (you) have got our attention.
Published on 27 April, 2013, YouTube (Anonymous hacks Fox News live on air.)
Amanda Kouriroukidis is a student of art and history who has recently completed an Honours thesis on Dada-humour at the Australian National University.