A Pleasing Secret History: Andrei Codrescu’s Posthuman Dada Guide


Dada: An absurdist art movement declaring itself against rationality, tradition, and—above all—Dada. Catholic mystic Hugo Ball and poet/impresario Tristan Tzara launched it in Zurich as World War I blazed all around.

Posthuman: A sci-fi term that came of age in the mid-1980s through texts like Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. It’s what we homo sapiens supposedly become when technological enhancements allow us to transcend our biology.

The Posthuman Dada Guide: A hard-edged, rapier-like volume, perfect for sliding into a back pocket of skinny hipster pants or stabbing into the complacent underbelly of bourgeois (or bourgeois-bohemian) society. Authored by NPR commentator and essayist Andrei Codrescu, it offers a headier-than-usual tour of the early-1900s avant-garde, sprinkled with sex appeal for the would-be MySpace-age revolutionary. Jacket blurbs from the likes of Josephine Baker and Aleister Crowley affirm the Guide‘s period credentials. Meanwhile, the whole thing is a kind of hypertext, composed of cross-referenced “database” entries—so you can’t doubt its cyberpunk legitimacy.

The Guide‘s Web-savvy structure isn’t just a gimmick: It aids in the seamless formation of Codrescu’s manic associative trains, which reach to the Middle Ages and back, tracing elements from surrealism to gothic vampire cults, Communist revolutions to Christian carnivals, artists’ love for Peggy Guggenheim to differences between American and European witch hunts. This book might’ve vied with Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces for the subtitle A Secret History of the Twentieth Century.

As art theory, the Guide could even be preferable to a college seminar on modernism: I’d take its page-long analysis of why poor people make modernist artwork and rich people buy it over Clement Greenberg’s classic essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” any day. Codrescu takes potshots at academics’ sacred cows, such as the pessimistic notion that “Dadaism” is obsolete, a corpse to be dissected. He insists it’s been alive and well, and he wants to keep it that way.

He also places Dada on a broader historical stage than it usually receives, mingling it with world politics. Hence the book’s main framing device: a hypothetical chess game played by Tristan Tzara, the soul of Dada, and Lenin, who apparently gets to represent the Posthuman. It’s a tantalizing conceit. In 1916, Lenin plotted revolution just down the road in Zurich from where Tzara (a future fair-weather Stalinist) was helping invent Dada performance at the Cabaret Voltaire. The two men never met, but think if they had! Here, their imagined rivalry dramatizes the struggle Codrescu views as central to the last 100-odd years of Western civilization—between “mindless, repetitious” mechanization on the one hand and “drunken,” “anarchic” spontaneity on the other.

Of course, Tzara and Lenin were both fighting against the tyranny of traditional elites. Yes, Lenin liked mechanization and believed in rationality. The Dadaists’ contempt for both of these things, on the other hand, was largely directed at the bourgeois-capitalist war machine; they were hardly anti-socialist. Meanwhile, the Italian Futurist avant-garde—Dada’s major contemporary, which barely gets a paragraph from Codrescu—idolized the war machines while still hating rationality, the bourgeoisie, and the Leftists. In other words, Codrescu’s categories don’t always divide up as neatly as he suggests. In fact, sleight of hand may be involved in some of his key arguments. Nevertheless, he’s such an entertaining conjurer that you often just want to let him get away with it.