This Essay copyright of Seumas Macdonald, 1998. May be reproduced freely if this Copyright notice is included. The theoretical writings of Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism all propose a radically experimental approach to language

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This Essay copyright of Seumas Macdonald, 1998. May be reproduced freely if this Copyright notice is included.
The theoretical writings of Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism all propose a radically experimental approach to language. Why? Describe these experiments and explain their purpose.
Where there is effect, there is (in the normal run of things) cause. Where there is a radically experimental approach to language, there is a radically experimental theory [of language]. The method of this essay is plain: to examine the underpinning philosophy and traditions of Futurism, Dada and Surrealism, to expose how this makes itself present in the methods of its writers, and thence to arrive at the language itself.

Do not be surprised if the essay itself becomes a radical experiment in essaying….

It will come as no great surprise to anybody to hear that surrealism has its roots in symbolism. However, the differences are profound. Consider first the metaphysics of the two: for the symbolist the world is dichotomised in a totally idealist way, between noumena and phenomena, and the poet stands in the world of phenomena trying to draw up the correspondences between the two. The surrealist rejects this, takes this airy-fairy ‘noumena,’ and says, ‘this is nothing but the mind itself’. The out-there becomes the in-here, the spiritual becomes the psychological, the subconscious.

This in itself is not such a profound shift, for it has merely displaced and renamed one ‘unknown’ with another, although whether the content of these variables is identical, over-lapping, related, or totally distinct is a different question. However, this metaphysical shift engenders a shift in the techniques of composition: ritual is overthrown by abandon.

The symbolist is first and foremost the great high priest in the cathedral of symbols, by careful and exhaustive study he masters the keys to the correspondences, learns the patterns, the examplars of reality. The surrealist, determined to enter into himself, becomes the madman, and the most fitting word for this is ‘abandon,’ the surrealist abandons themselves to the currents of their own mind, riding down the rapids of their interior world and trying to force this inner world into the outer world – surrealist art.

Anna Balakian argues that symbolism was just as much bound by the rational fetters of its day as its arch-nemesis naturalism was. Surrealism destroys logic and gives freedom to the imagination, “[t]his imagination which knows no bounds”1 and will not much longer allow itself to be kept “under the reign of logic”2.

What then are the methods of composition employed by the surrealists? First among these is the dream, indeed, Breton goes so far to say that surreality is the synthesis of dreaming and waking.3 However, the dream is always mediated by waking, so it can only provide a starting point, and yet it by the very fact of dreams, the surrealist also gains access to hypnogogic thoughts, another fine starting point for the descent into the self.

Beyond all these is writing which is “akin to spoken thought4 in its composition, and in its most extreme form this is automatism, where the writers profess to become nought but “recording instruments”5 of themselves. Before considering the linguistic results of these surrealist methods, it would be best to continue this odyssey with Dada.

Da Dada Disasda
The question that everyone, including the dadaist, asks is, “what is dada?” This is because Dada is essentially a counter-movement, it founds itself upon mockery, mocking the world around it – which has truly gone mad in a war, and mocking itself, even mocking itself mocking itself.

To demonstrate this, consider Tristan Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto 1918”. “DADA – this is a word that throws up ideas so that they can be shot down,”6 at the outset it is plain that definite ideas are to be destroyed, it’s fine to throw things around, but don’t let anything settle: nothing definite, nothing solid. This finds further expression as Tzara relates the birth of Dada, “People who join us keep their freedom. We don’t accept any theories,”7 naturally if Dada professes to allow people to keep their freedom, Tzara is implying that other movements don’t, although the brief dada-surrealist alliance and surrealism’s emphasis on freedom might prove to mitigate such a comment. Furthermore, this freedom is bound up in the rejection of theories, not because they aren’t good theories, but because they are theories at all – meta-narratives have no place in Dada.

If you have nothing, if “there is no ultimate Truth,”8 then what does an art movement have left? Art, because “if life is a bad joke… the only basis of understanding is: art.”9 Dada rejects everything and is forced to exult art, not for art’s sake, not anything intrinsic or extrinsic about art, but because art is all that is left. Dada can’t mock art, because although it mocks itself, it can’t mock the means of mockery.

The result of this, which will be examined in its linguistic incarnation below, is an an art of destruction – “Every man must shout: there is a great destructive, negative work to be done. To sweep, to clean.”10 Only by destroying the tyranny of language can the tyranny of meta-narratives be destroyed.

Russian sunrises and Italian sportscars
If Surrealism overturns symbolism by replacing the ritual with abandon, then Futurism revolutionises it by replacing the symbol with the icon. To explain: for the symbolist each poem stands as a window straddling the two worlds of noumena and phenomena, but this symbol is constructed, artificial, arbitrary. The futurist on the other hand, proposes that the link between signifier and signified is not in fact arbitrary, that there is an intrinsic relation – thus the symbol is replaced by the icon.

This is only half the story though, and the futurists do not bear that name without reason. Looking back, they see a world which has degraded language to the point of worthlessness. It is overlaid with the dust of empires, of falsity, of everything they loathe. This prompts them to stand like pioneers at dawn surveying the wondrous continent of the future, as Kruchenykh writes, “The artist has seen the world in a new way and, like Adam, proceeds to give things his own names”11.

This Edenic language myth is at the heart of futurism’s approach to language. Their aim is twofold – to annihilate the old and create the new. The first is accomplished by the means of the destruction of syntax, as Marinetti puts it. The ideas of the old world are dominant in the language structures of the old, thus it is imperative to destroy the old structures, the grammar, the syntax, even the words themselves: once the word becomes a unit, then it too must be destroyed, so that the letter is the unit of meaning, only then can things be reversed and poems built out of letters, not out of phrases or sentences. Only then can the creation of the new begin, and “in order to depict the new – the future – one needs totally new words and a new way of combining them.12
The Language of Surrealism
The use of language in surrealism is the profoundest disjunction between what Riffaterre terms ‘significance’ and ‘meaning’. The latter refers to the mimetic meaning in a poem, and as such consists of strings of descriptions, while the former refers to the poem as a semantic and formal unity. The operation of poetic discourse is indirection, according to Riffaterre, in that poetry deliberately misdirects its reader by putting forward every actualisation of its matrix – the concept which lies at the heart of a poem’s significance, in order to convey this matrix.

Now, the reason surrealism is the profoundest disjunction in these terms is that surrealism annihilates all comparability between the matrix and the text. Whereas in previous poetic movements the metaphor, the comparison, was the supreme technique, surrealism replaces it with juxtaposition. The result it this: whereas before the matrix held an unspoken correspondence to its actualisation in the text, now the matrix bears no correspondence to anything in the text. Rather, it is what is not in the text, not just explicitly but at all, that is the matrix. By taking a number of absurd concepts, placing them in juxtaposition, the surrealist writer gives birth to a significance for the poem which bears no relationship to any of the concepts, to any of the signs used, but something else, the unspoken ‘gap’ between the juxtaposed concepts.

Surrealism treats words as the vehicles of thought, not as vehicles of communication. By this is meant that in cutting out all self-control, abandonment, the surrealist aims to use words to depict thought itself, not to convey thoughts. Such a means presumably allows them to spill their subconscious on to the page, but of interest here is the profound way it reconfigures the relationship between words and reality. The referentiality of words is displaced from the exterior world to the interior. A ‘tree’ is no longer a tree, it is all the concepts of the mind that are associated with ‘tree’.
The Language of Dada
If surrealism is a profound disjunction, Dada is a profound denial. Dada denies to construct meaning in poetic discourse at all. Instead, it challenges the reader to do all the work. The Dada poetic goes something like this: all existing structures of language are corrupt, therefore corrupt all existing structures of language. This corruption tends to be limited to Euro-centric language, as witness the constant borrowings from other cultures, and the exultation of primitivist language pieces.

So, within Dada there are two main ways to construct a poem: corrupt the corrupt, or appropriate the pure. To deal first with the first: because the language of Europe has been crusted over with the meta-narratives of hundreds of years, leading to this marvelous world war, it is necessary to mock it. Only in mocking the language of murder can one escape that language.

Riffaterre refers to three ways in which poetic discourse misdirects the reader: displacement, distortion and creation13. Dada delights in the second, “ambiguity, contradiction, or nonsense,”14 it turns art into play, by confusing and distorting the language it uses, it generates great fault-lines in the semiotics of its poetry. The ultimate distortion is to retreat to sound alone – whether by distorting word sequence in a simultaneous poem or simply bellowing forth the sounds one can come up with. Either way, the effect is to deny the poet the right to construct meaning, and force all meaning to come from the reader. This is, by the way, the main reason Dadaists can continually deny their own art, because the whole point is that it is not their art.

The appropriation of the ‘pure’ is to take the art of other cultures, and to present them as something new before the Western audience. Indeed, for the Western audience they are something new, something alien; but they are merely sound-poems, whereas in the original context they were poems as normal an any other, songs of the people. In the hands of Dada they are transformed, they become hammers on the shell of a decadent civilisation ready to implode.

The Language of the Future
Turn now your face to the sun in the east, the bright burning words of the futurists. Like Dada they destroy the old, like Adam they rename everything after their own fancy. To destroy, they proclaim the destruction of syntax – syntax belongs to prose, to the heavy, to those stuff old symbolists, throw it away. Look at Khlebnikov’s infamous “Incantation by laughter”, he throws out all the rules and derives a thousand variations on laughter [smekh]; take Maiakovskij, his “Brooklyn Bridge” for example, he casts out the sentence, the phrase, and blazes forth with the word alone. Do not dwell simply on the words, for everything is constructed foremost of letters – best of all the letters from the pen of the poet themselves!

Listen again to Kruchenykh, he will explain this creation of words (the third of Riffaterre’s techniques of poetic misdirection) : “The lily is beautiful, but the word ‘lily’ has been soiled and ‘raped.’ Therefore, I call the lily, ‘euy’ – the original purity is reestablished.”15 What is the birth of this new language, this Adamic renaming? Transreason, beyonsense, in a word, not a word: Zaum. Futurism does not annihilate language like those silly Dadactyls, it supersedes it, transfigures it into the new, the fast, the beautiful.

Khlebnikov, ah there is a scientist standing on the dawn of Time! He proceeds with meticulous care, searching out the roots of language, pondering how all the words have been spawned from their single-letter Abrahams. Then, by careful analysis, he deduces the innate meaning of each letter, thus reconstructing the primal language, rebuilding the Tower of Babel itself! It remains a shame he stopped with Russian, though his achievements there demand attention, for he has transformed all significance in his poetry – it is not enough to read it, one must sit down and study his science, decode the letters, arrive back at Khlebnikov’s mind itself, in order to know it.

What of those silly Italians and their motor vehicles? Racing along, Marinetti is left to the dust, his beauty of speed, his macho words – silly games of a pompous poetry princess. His words-in-freedom are nothing more than a half-assed attempt to write in zaum, but weighed down by the leaden tradition of the west, he cannot embrace the dawn.

This revolution of the Russians has changed the course of world history, never again can a poem be read as it was before: now attention is turned to the poem as a poem, the word as a word, the letter as a letter. The cubo-futurists did not search for anything, not for the Absolute, not for la néant, not for the subconscious, they delved into language and blew out the trumpets of the new age. Khlebnikov was searching, like these latter-day scientists for their theory of everything. They will not find it, it’s like looking for the Armageddon in a matchbox. Khlebnikov didn’t find it either, the King of Time was overthrown by starvation, a final stab from the realm of space.
This is not an essay, it is a gateway into itself, and if one deleted all the consonants, then one would find the key to one which is not the one. The ultimate poet is a deaf-mute.
If anything can be said about the radical approaches to language taken by the Surrealists, Dada and Futurists, then it is this: they have taken the semiotics of poetry to a new level by exploiting the means by which poetry ‘means’ to the fullest. The method of doing this is simple: create the most tension between the meaning (the mimetic level of the poem) and the significance (the matrix of a poetic text). Their means are varied, their aims more so, but this is their lowest common denominator. Surely by now you understand!


Balakian, Anna Surrealism: The road to the Absolute. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press


Breton, André Manifestoes of Surrealism (refer to course reader)

Huelsenbeck, Richard (ed.) The Dada almanac English edition presented by Malcolm Green ; additional

matter edited by Malcolm Green (German) & Alastair Brotchie (French) ; translations by Malcolm

Green ... [et al] London : Atlas Press, c1993.

Khlebnikov, Velimir Collected works of Velimir Khlebnikov translated by Paul Schmidt ; edited by Charlotte

Douglas. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1987, 1989

Lawton, Anna (ed.) Russian futurism through its manifestoes, 1912-1928 Ithaca : Cornell University Press,


Markov, Vladimir. Russian futurism : a history. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1968.

Mayakovsky, Vladimir The bedbug; [a play] and selected poetry. Translated by Max Hayward and George

Reavey; edited by Patricia Blake. New York, Meridian Books [1960]

Riffaterre, Michael. Semiotics of poetry London : Methuen, 1980.

1 Breton, André Manifestoes of Surrealism (refer reader) p4.

2 Ibid., p9.

3 Ibid., p14

4 Ibid., p23

5 Ibid., p28.

6 Tzara, Tristan in Huelsenbeck, Richard (ed.) The Dada almanac London : Atlas Press, c1993.p122.

7 Ibid., p124.

8 Ibid., p127.

9 Ibid., p129.

10 Ibid., p131.

11 Kruchenykh, “ Declaration of the Word as Such” in Lawton, Anna (ed.) Russian futurism through its manifestoes,

1912-1928 Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1988. p67.

12 Ibid., p73.

13 Riffaterre, Michael. Semiotics of poetry London : Methuen, 1980.p2.

14 Ibid.

15 Kruchenykh, loc cit. 67p.

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