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Détourned Dada: Paul Nougé’s Aphoristic Ad Performance

For Mary Ann Caws

If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been.
—Viktor Shklovsky

The foregoing epigraph comes from Shklovsky’s 1917 essay “Art as Device,”1From Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2015), 1–14. a seminal work of Russian formalism’s early if not most critical preoccupations: the priority of the artist’s creative strategies, the autonomy of poetic language, and the rupturing of literary interpretation from historical and sociopolitical considerations by way of ostraniene, or “enstrangement.” For Shklovsky, the “tool of art” must be wielded for the purpose of disruption, of deconditioning. Like Duchamp’s readymades, art exists to redeem consciousness from the banal habituation of the everyday, to wrest the objects of our perception from automatized recognition, to “return sensation to our limbs, […] to make a stone feel stony” again. In other words, for us to actually see a work of art, to discern the formal techniques or properties specific to itself and by which it is arranged, it is necessary for the work to have a certain degree of sovereignty.

Thus the eternal question: to what degree is art really free (or ever was) from the external realities in which it is situated, in this particular case, the upheavals of the sociopolitical environment of the early twentieth century? For Trotsky, vulgar Marxists, and the revolution, the margin is razor thin: “The form of art is to a certain and very large degree independent, but the artist who creates this form, and the spectator who is enjoying it, are not empty machines, one for creating form and the other for appreciating it. They are living people, with a crystallized psychology representing a certain unity, even if not entirely harmonious. This psychology is the result of social conditions.”2Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, trans. Rose Strunsky (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 144. We belong to a world of mechanistic and organic formalism yet we are machines showing sensuous attention to other engines; we are genres and the bodies of reluctant, unjust paychecks; we are “communicating vessels” of the waking and sleeping worlds, of Blanchot’s inspiration and lack of inspiration, of dream and action,3“Doubtless there subsists in this agreement a great disagreement. Art certainly aims to build, but according to itself and without welcoming anything of the clear light of day except what is proper to its particular task. Granted, art has as its goal something real: an object. But a beautiful object. Which is to say, an object of contemplation, not of use, which, moreover, will be sufficient to itself, will rest in itself, refer to nothing else, and be its own end (in the two senses of this term). True. And yet, points out the other side of this thinking, the goal of art is an object—a real, that is, an effective one. Not a momentary dream, a pure inner smile, but a realized action which is itself activating, which informs or deforms others, appeals to them, affects them, moves them—toward other actions which, most often, do not return to art but belong to the course of the world.” See Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 212. of scientific socialism, of ideals and ideas. This was precisely the dialectical conundrum encountered by surrealism (or at least this was its historical situation), which had stockpiled its revolutionary literary project with the ammunitions of the unconscious, automatism, objets trouvés, and chance encounters. Surrealism as formulated by Breton inherited from its Dada predecessors a resistance to traditional literary standards and the refusal to accept the middle-class capitalist rationality that had reinforced them. However, whereas Tzara’s “statement”—surely, anti-manifesto—of Dada4Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto 1918,” in Approximate Man & Other Writings, trans. Mary Ann Caws (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2005), 125–133. set as its target the objectification of art and a bourgeois logic that could condone war, its stance was primarily only a gesture: of violence, nihilism, anarchy, cataclysm, negation, impotence, passivity, and individualism (not governed by commodity fetishism). In the end, “DADA MEANS NOTHING.” Dada chose a side, and that side was annihilation. Art in the wake of the first world war only went so far as installing the tabula rasa, to hasten the demise of the principles of knowledge and morality and lead us to the funeral procession. A staunch political allegiance is equally merely implied in the Manifesto of Surrealism of 1924,5André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), 1–47. in which the poetics of interiority is meant to triumph over the systemization of reality, the poet is “indifferent to all the world’s ballets,” and “existence is elsewhere.” Instead of the merely social, the revolution for Breton came from l’esprit, from “intoxication” and imagination. Surrealism was first and foremost an expression of feral thought whose possibilities could be realized first in reverie, then reality. Unlike Dada’s program, the first Manifesto presupposed a positive ethic.

Yet how was surrealism to survive assimilation into pre-existing avant-garde movements that had similarly sought to conceive a subjective world all their own (e.g., symbolism), or, how could surrealism legitimize its doctrine of autonomy and interiority without falling into idleness and reflection? Anyone familiar with the “Theses on Feuerbach” will recall Marx’s famous line of argument: “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism […] is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively.”6The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 143. As Walter Benjamin points out, “There is always, in such movements, a moment when the original tension of the secret society must either explode in a matter-of-fact, profane struggle for power and domination, or decay as a public demonstration and be transformed.”7Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Selected Writings: Volume 2, Part 1, 1927–1930, trans. Rodney Livingston and others (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 208. There was one clear path for surrealism: “To win the energies of intoxication for the revolution”8Ibid., 215. by means of praxis; what Marx calls “practical-critical” activity. Surrealism and Marxist communism, the former’s struggle against language and the latter’s struggle against material, might work together toward mutual benefit, toward the liberation of Marcuse’s Eros and civilization.

From 1925 throughout the next ten years, the question became, instead, what is the degree of art’s utility in the mobilization of a proletarian revolution and formulation of a new social order? How stable could the relationship be? Surrealism’s inauguration into politics began with nineteen signatures supporting the Riffian military commander Abd el-Krim, which appeared in L’Humanité. This was followed by a brief alliance with the Marxist writers, philosophers, and editors of Clarté, a left-wing journal that challenged militarism, capitalism, and fascism, and which served as an unofficial appendage of the French Communist Party. It was during this short-lived affiliation, however, where the first stirrings of discordance between art’s idealism and communist bureaucracy would germinate. Brought together by disgust for bourgeois thought, the two groups planned the publication of a joint review, La Guerre Civile, to announce their shared insurgent stance. But due to a lack of cohesion, ideological disagreements, and Breton’s unwillingness to relinquish surrealism’s imaginative independence—i.e., Breton would not fully abandon the less politically motivated La Révolution Surréaliste for the new periodical—La Guerre Civile never appeared and the allegiance dissolved. Slightly impressed with their contribution to the cause (and after five appearances in front of its Control Commission), the PCF welcomed Breton, Aragon, Éluard, and Péret as “fellow travelers” in 1927, but were nonetheless largely admitted with reluctance and skepticism. Here a cooperation with communism—more so sympathies with Trotskyist utopianism—becomes contradiction with Stalinist authoritarianism: surrealism’s awakening of the unconscious or communism’s raised awareness of false consciousness; surrealist community or communist universality; surrealism’s marvelousness of the everyday or communism’s promise of a better tomorrow; surrealist independence or communist commitment; spirit or matter; poetry or propaganda? For the surrealists, contradiction is truth; for communists (from Marx to Mao, with varying vehemence), contradiction is a struggle. The poetic awakening of the spirit by the unconscious mind proved incompatible with the rigidity of the PCF, which had calcified into an institution of sorts) and which conceived the enterprise of literature as the realistic depiction of class and capitalistic struggle akin to the naturalist tradition of writing—from Eugène Sue’s Les Mysteres de Paris to Émile Zola—that the surrealists abhorred. The PCF was unable to comprehend how automatic writing or the unleashing of dreams could in the physical world serve the uprising of communist praxis. Conversely, the surrealists—those not expelled by Breton for choosing literary careers over the party—would not subordinate their aesthetics to solely journalistic or pamphleteering purposes, nor would they forfeit what they believed was the authenticity of the subject for objectively political ends. Indeed, as Bataille puts it, “the surrealists continued persistently to express their basic predilection for values above the ‘world of facts’ with such banal formulas as ‘revolt of the Spirit,’ etc.”9Georges Bataille, “The ‘Old Mole’ and the Prefix Sur in the Words Surhomme [Superman] and Surrealist,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 33. For the French Communist Party, surrealism was accused of being what the surrealists attempted to resist: just another modernist bourgeois art movement that baffled the masses more than it moved them to grasp their freedom. To have nothing more than affinities with the proletariat, to concentrate efforts solely on harvesting the spiritual and emotional climate of the revolution, was not enough.

With the recent arrival of Ideas Have No Smell: Three Belgian Surrealist Booklets, edited, translated, and facsimilized by Michael Kasper and published in 2018 by Ugly Duckling Presse,10Paul Nougé, Transfigured Publicity; Paul Colinet, ABS-TRAC-TIVE-TREATISE-ON OBEUSE; Louis Scutenaire, For Balthazar. English readers are treated to a little-known piece of surrealist history that, for both monetary and innate resistance reasons (i.e., the absence of a manifesto and limited circulation), has been otherwise neglected. Thanks to UDP, and Kasper’s many years of work translating this marginalized collective of poet lawyers and biochemists, a possible reconciliation between literary art and revolutionary politics materializes (not the –ize as loanword). The Belgian surrealists—also known as the “Correspondance” group, the same name as its publication that emerged the same year as Breton’s first Manifesto—might be seen as the nexus between Dada, French surrealism, and the Situationist International, which was undoubtedly influenced by and equivalently ambivalent about “the last avant-garde.” Written, edited, self-published, and distributed to a small, select number of recipients via mail by Paul Nougé, Camille Goemans, and Marcel Lecomte, Correspondance—over the span of seven months and twenty-two elliptical, fragmented tracts, each a single sheet approximately 8 ¼ x 11 ¾ in dimension—utilized plagiarism, collage, pastiche, and other visual techniques to direct criticism at the commercialism of literature and contemporary literary trends (most notably those established by the Paris circle).11For more on the Correspondance periodical, see Jan Baetens and Michael Kasper, “Correspondance: Mail Art and Literary Appropriation in the 1920s,” French Forum, Vol. 38, No. 1/2 (Winter/Spring 2013): 109–126. The efforts of Nougé, Lecomte, and Goemans, as well as Marcel Mariën, André Souris, Paul Hooreman, Louis “Scut” Scutenaire, Paul Colinet, E. L. T. Mesens, and other affiliates (Magritte among them), however, were not solely restricted to publication (more accurately, anti-publication): they were also intended to foster (or destabilize) dialogue (real or imagined), to be witnessed, experienced.

Of the three UDP booklets, the performative and experiential nature of Nougé’s Transfigured Publicity stands out for its détournement of literary and propagandistic purposes, quasi-Formalist disruption, and the degrees in which it harmonizes the spectrum spanning that volatile scale of commitment and independence nearly capsizing the French surrealists. Indeed, the texts gathered in Publicity, as Kasper writes in the afterward, were performed in 1926 at a “concert-spectacle” in Brussels by, according to Mariën, “four speakers [Goemans, Hooreman, Souris, and Nougé] and nine percussion instruments (played by a single drummer).” While it is of course impossible to truly fathom what this performance may have actually been like (though we can endlessly guess and wonder, maybe about Schopenhauer), the reproduced texts themselves, familiar and foreign, deciding and unsettling, remarkably convey the darkness of our imaginative depths. Like “the raw language of thunderstorms” in Scutenaire’s For Balthazar—also facsimilized in the UDP triumvirate of Belgian surrealist pamphlets—Nougé’s Publicity finds expression in the aphorism, yet there is something grave, more at stake, and less optimistic in his “hijacking” of the form that is contrastingly as playful as Apollinaire’s calligrams or the cadavre exquis and, at the same time, post-Dada. The 1925 Correspondance prefacing Publicity tells us to be on guard against the “things that are presented here,” for “their manipulation is not without a certain danger.” Some examples:

Speaking of Schopenhauer, who glorified music because it was non-representational of Ideas, we can hazard one guess why “IDEAS / HAVE / NO / SMELL” was originally performed with musical accompaniment (the recital of words, especially poetry, can also be music; the aphorism, after all, was first an oral tradition). This is and is not marketing; this should and shouldn’t be aphoristic, that is, philo-poetic. Yes there’s brevity, a sensation of eloquence, assertiveness, and perhaps even wisdom. There’s something that lingers and demands one’s pondering. But at the same time, there’s the cunning of the company slogan, the seduction of words, the same kind of peculiar gravity (yet the stifling kind), and the danger of staring too long lest we consign to memory the deadly rhythm of the production line. This is personal branding in its most literal terms; this moves me, but not to my wallet. The aphorism, customarily colored by a moralizing quality, is likewise appropriated by the core tenet of capitalism: the best way to live is as faithful shoppers. We return to Tzara: “I am writing this manifesto to show that you can do contrary actions together, in one single fresh breath […] DADA is the signboard of abstraction; advertising and business are also poetic elements.”12Tzara, Approximate Man, 126, 129. Something of the world creeps in: the world of dichotomies. Détournement, “the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble,” is governed by two fundamental laws: “the loss of importance of each détourned autonomous element—which may go so far as to lose its original sense completely—and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect.”13“Detournement as Negation and Prelude,” Internationale Situationniste #3 (December 1959). See Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 55. As Scutenaire writes, “I don’t lie, I juxtapose.” This is Lautréamont’s sewing machine and umbrella, Tzara’s “Bulletin” and “Midnight Salts” poems. This is the “poetry of the billboards” of which the situationists longed.14Such as: “Shower-Bath of the Patriarchs,” “Meat Cutting Machines,” “Martyrs Provisions,” “Translucent Concrete,” “Center for Functional Recuperation,” or “Hotel of Strangers.” See Ivan Chtcheglov, in Situationist International Anthology, 1. The art of the surrealist aphorism is displacement, isolation, parody. Éluard and Péret’s 152 Proverbs Adapted to the Taste of the Day (1925), for example, is exemplary for its upending of aphoristic truth by modifying/taking old proverbs out of context (an almost twice removal, considering the form) and, sometimes, mixing them. In place of this truth is not the false but sense, which, according to Deleuze, “is not something to discover, to restore, and to re-employ; it is something to produce by a new machinery.”15Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 72. The art of the advertisement is attention and consumption, denoting the conveyor belt. In Nougé’s Publicity, the political and the artistic, at the height of their intensity, simultaneously negate and accentuate each other. Furthermore, Nougé’s defamiliarization of the aphorism also calls attention to the subversion of the cultural hero, of celebrity, of “brand” spokesperson (Breton). This, again, speaks to the strategic tactic of Correspondance’s obscure publishing history and remarks on the cultural status on the book.

Analogous to Shklovsky’s neologism ostraniene (“enstrangement”), whose o– prefix is “often used to implement an action (though this is only one of its many and even contradictory uses),”16See Sher’s “Translator’s Introduction” to Theory of Prose, xviii. the typographical error (in English) of “Correspondance” is not only disruptive to our predisposition to language, but also suggestive: in addition to “dance,” recalling again the drama of Nougé’s text, we can sense “correlation,” maybe even “respond” (but certainly not “spontaneity”).

This takes us to a peculiar point. While a comparative analysis is unquestionably helpful, the so-far limited scholarship on Belgian surrealism has often brought to the center of discussion the group’s criticism of their French peers, and the ways in which the surrealists of Paris and the surrealists of Brussels are disparate—art as unconscious versus conscious, irrational versus logical, dream versus plan, mystical versus conspiratorial, etc. These points of contention are true, and were the topic of several Correspondance tracts,17See, in particular, Nougé’s RED 16 (April 10, 1925), which condemns automatic writing and rationalizes his objets bouleversants. but perhaps what’s more interesting is not so much their deviations, but fluctuations: surrealism en général as the balancing act of art’s threshold and the world’s encroachment anywhere on the gamut. Nougé’s BLUE 1, or, “Response to a Questionnaire on Modernism” (November 22, 1924), will be an “appropriate” end to this essay. It is a participatory document of dialogic (social) form, the questions absent. Two excerpts sum up our initial inquiry:

1          One conquers the world, one dominates it, one uses it; thus, quiet and proud, a beautiful fish circles in this bowl.

2          One conquers the world, it dominates you, one is used; thus, quiet and proud…18Jan Baetens and Michael Kasper, “The Birth of Belgian Surrealism: Excerpts from Correspondance (1924–25),” PMLA, Vol. 128, No. 2 (March 2013): 452–467.

The last line of the tract, “No doubt we’ll be back—elsewhere,” brings us back to the last line of Breton’s 1924 Manifesto (as Kasper reminds us). The “elsewhere” is Debord’s “everyday life” and all it has wrought; it is the condition of the surrealist aphorism—where Paris and Brussels meet again—scrawled below a “post no bills” sign amidst the revolution.


Jared Daniel Fagen's prose and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Numéro Cinq, Entropy, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, 3:AM Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation, Hyperion, and elsewhere. He is the editor of Black Sun Lit and a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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