Tradition ‘Against’ Revolt: Dadaism ‘Against’ Modernism

By Tim Johnson

America is at war in two countries, and involved in a long and difficult fight with violent extremists who despise us, our values and modernity itself.

John McCain, March 4, 2008

Written at the end of the First World War, the Dada Manifesto (March 1918) is an articulation of modernity and its discontents according to Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists. The manifesto is also the embodiment of contradictions – it is human. Furthermore, the Dada Manifesto is a type of active nihilism insofar as it combines a lack of meaning (“Dada does not mean anything”) with a desire to know (“the only basis of understanding is: art”). Tzara states, “I’m writing this manifesto to show that you can perform contrary actions at the same time, in one single, fresh breath; I am against action; as for continual contradiction, and affirmation too, I am neither for nor against them, and I won’t explain myself because I hate common sense” (Tzara, 1).

Tzara continues: “Thus Dada was born, out of a need for independence, out of mistrust for the community” (Tzara, 1). With Dadaism the old call to arms “Working men of all countries unite!” (Marx and Engels, 121) is useless, and replaced with individualism as indifference: “I am writing a manifesto and there’s nothing I want…” (Tzara, 1). Yet, with the Dada Manifesto we get more than incredulity for community, we also get incredulity for incredulity, a kind of active nihilism in the form of a call for individuality.

Tzara goes on to articulate this active nihilism, rooted in an ethic of individuality, with Emersonian undertones. He writes: “Morals have given rise to charity and pity, two dumplings that have grown like elephants, planets which people call good. There is nothing good about them” (Tzara, 4). Emerson casts a similar shadow over charity in his call to arms for individualism in the essay “Self-Reliance” (1841). In Emerson’s “wicked dollar” anecdote, he charges: “Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations” (Emerson, 263).

Moreover, Dadaism’s active nihilism is expressed as not only a zenith (according to Jurgen Habermas, Dadaism is the “climax” of modernity) but also a nadir in the tradition of discontents with modernity. For example, Hegel argues in “The Philosophy of History” (1837) that “[t]he highest point in the development of a people is this—to have gained a conception of its life and condition—to have reduced its laws, its ideas of justice and morality to a science…” Hegel, 76). And the Dadaist spin on this line of reasoning is, “If I shout: Ideal, Ideal, Ideal –Knowledge, Knowledge, Knowledge – Boomboom, Boomboom, Boomboom – I have recorded fairly accurately Progress, Laws, Morals…” (Tzara, 3). We have this active nihilism articulating the high and low points of modernity – the “Boomboom, Boomboom, Boomboom” then becomes the Dadaist mantra, the low point. In other words, “I am against systems; the most acceptable system is that of have none on no principle” (Tzara, 3). The Dada Manifesto takes notions of progress, law, and morals and “throws up [these] ideas so that they can be shot down” (Tzara, 1).

Yet, in this process, the Dadaists also enter into dialogue with modernism. Willingly or unwillingly, Dadaism is firmly situated within the project of modernity as an intellectual paradigm that defines its own limits and shapes its own contours. This necessitates the defensive claim: “Dada does not mean anything” (Tzara, 1).

In “What is Dada?” Donna M. Kristiansen writes: “The word [Dada] became the symbolic representative of a movement whose ultimate goal was its own destruction, a movement which represented not a new school, but a repudiation of all schools, a movement which was not a movement at all but a protest, a state of mind, a gesture of the soul” (Kristiansen, 457).  Kristiansen labels Dadaism a movement, then removes this label, and settles on the slippery terrain of labeling Dadaism as “protest, a state of mind, a gesture of the soul.” Kristiansen’s difficulty is located in not recognizing that Dadaism, as an anti-movement, is nevertheless a movement. Therefore, no matter how vehemently or persuasively Dadaists attempt to sever ties from models and tradition, Dadaism is, always, already an articulation of the model and tradition of modernity. (This claim will be expanded upon below). To pose the question “What is Dada?” is useless because Dada is everything (the flipside of the Dadaist claim of Dada ‘being’ nothing).

In the same essay, Kristiansen posits: “Words [in Dadaist publications]…were interspersed with foreign phrases, senseless groups of syllables, and incomprehensible hieroglyphics. The Dadaists developed the plasticity of the word to a point where it became a ‘magical complex of images’” (Kristiansen, 458-9).  It is no coincidence that the picture that the Dadaists paint, as aesthetic modernity (Habermas’ designation), is one in which “the plasticity of the word” becomes central to a disavowal of normative thinking and “formal ideas” (Tzara, 2). Therefore, the “incomprehensible hieroglyphics” represent an attempt to move beyond normative representations in an assertion of active nihilism.

This is one way to read the “incomprehensible hieroglyphics” in the Dada Manifesto.  Further, this is a fruitful reading because it understands Dada interests as meta-conceptual–representing representations as constructed (“plasticity”). In other words, the Dadaists are interested in the concept of concepts. Examples of this are the Dadaists’ attempts to highlight contingencies and individualities that fly in the face of concepts – that function to unify (in acceptance of, or opposition to): “I always speak of myself because I don’t want to convince, and I have no right to drag others in my wake, I’m not compelling anyone to follow me, because everyone makes his art in his own way…” (Tzara, 1).

At the same time, Tzara remarks that “Dada is the mark of abstraction” and abstraction is the mark of the conceptual (Tzara, 2). For instance, if we pursue the idea of the modern as the opposite of the ancient, we find that this opposition is mutually constitutive and it creates a recurring dialogue between the ancient and the modern. Habermas writes, “the term ‘modern’ appeared and reappeared exactly during those periods in Europe when the consciousness of a new epoch formed itself through a renewed relationship to the ancients – whenever, moreover, antiquity was considered a model to be recovered through some kind of imitation” (Habermas, 3-4). In this sense we can turn to the ancient philosopher Plato and his introduction of the concept of concepts as a moment of dialogue between the modern and the ancient—a dialogue that occurs within Dadaism. Plato’s Forms (concept of concepts) and the Dadaist contribution of meta-conceptual critique (critique of the formation and dissemination of concepts) encompass the following: “that which is modern preserves a secret tie to the classical [the ancient world]” (Habermas, 4).  Thus, Tzara writes that “[i]t is only contrast that links us to the past” (Tzara, 2).

Habermas goes on to argue: “Modernity revolts against the normalizing functions of tradition; modernity lives on the experience of rebelling against all that is normative” (Habermas, 5). Therefore, we could say, “[Dada] revolts against the normalizing functions of tradition; [Dada] lives on the experience of rebelling against all that is normative.” Yet could we not also say Dada revolts against modernity? The answer is yes(!), and insofar as this is the case, Dadaism embodies modernism.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance,” in Essays: First Series. 1841. (257-282).

Habermas, Jurgen. Trans. Seyla Ben-Habib. “Modernity versus Postmodernity,” in New
German Critique, No. 22, Special Issue on Modernism. (Winter, 1981). (3-14).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The History of Philosophy. Trans. J. Sibree. New York:
Willey Book Co., 1944. (1-110).

Kristiansen, Donna M. “What is Dada?” in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 20, No. 3.
(Oct., 1968). (457-462).

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Samuel Moore.
Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1888.

Tzara, Tristan. “Dada Manifesto: 23rd March 1918.”


Tim is a first year MA student in Liberal Studies. His interests are in researching and writing about the social dynamics of race, gender, and class. Since arriving at the New School for Social Research, Tim has been in search of the library in order to do social research. Tim would like to give special thanks to Paloma Naderi for her helpful input and suggestions.