The dadaists. Absurdism. Nonsense.
It is common to think of these things as meaningless, effete gestures at the rational order. Random nonsense is often decried as a masturbatory means of expression, satisfying the communicator but boring the communicatee. Many people have a similar distaste for "modern" art. "Anyone can draw a single dot on a canvas, how is that art?" In part, they are reacting with frustration at their inability to grasp the expression with their rational mind. In this essay I hope to illustrate the intent of much "meaningless" expression.
Specifically I'll be talking about Nonsense's role in subversion
. The Jabberwocky, while a delightful piece of nonsense, was primarily written to entertain. When Marcel Duchamp flipped a urinal upside down and signed it with somebody else's name, it was intended as a middle finger to his audience. In the latter example, Duchamp's use of nonsense was rhetorical - by not building his sculpture with rational building blocks, he annexed rational discussion about it. He changed the context so drastically that his audience had to come up with new concepts to evaluate it, and itself.
We Discordians owe much to the Situationist International, a group of french intellectuals whose movement came to a dramatic climax in Paris, May 1968. The French were also riding the train of cultural revolution which swept America in the late 60s. The Situationist's elusive posterchild, Guy Debord, wrote "The Society of the Spectacle" in 1967, a manifesto which described the unique conditions of modern living. Debord argued that the shifts which occurred after the industrial revolution had transformed the laborer
into the consumer
. No longer forced to work in dank factories, we are now prime conspirators in our personal imprisonment and commoditization. We have become interchangeable, like the parts of a machine whose ultimate function is to build itself. The Society of the Spectacle is a means of social control, transforming any authentic experience into a commodity.
The Situationists were keenly aware of the effete nature of revolution. There is a tension which exists between the establishment and the anti-establishment, and that tension serves both sides. The counter-establishment's role is to find the authentic experience
which does not exist in the commercial world. Meanwhile the Establishment's role is to capitalize on what's currently "cool". In this way, all revolutions will be subverted and integrated into products.
In short: the punks who hung out at CBGBs were paving the way for mainstream "sell-out" punk to flourish. Punk was popularized by the image of those rebels in dirty night clubs who were having "The Authentic Experience". People crave
the authentic experience, it's something absent in commercial culture; no one can sell you real coolness, you have to find it through play, spontaneity, and ingenuity. Coolness is generated
by whatever is not a part of consumer-culture. The Authentic Experience attracts kids like flies. The t-shirt vendors soon follow.
So isn't this kind of frustrating? Whenever the counterculture invents a new tool for cultural subversion, marketers pick it up like money on the street. It's happening at an alarming rate, too. As soon as situationist mass-pranks started to get media attention, (such as Improv-Everywhere's freeze prank) taco bell started engineering its own freeze-pranks as publicity stunts. A new genre of cooperative game, the ARG, was barely out of the womb before it was used to promote Halo 2's release
. Or look at how quickly grunge came in style - the Spectacle was able to seamlessly transform ripped jeans and flannel - a look designed to look like you don't care about fashion - into a fashion statement. By creating the revolution we are arming the establishment.
The Situationists were keenly aware of this. They knew that they could not base their revolution on the rhetoric of resistance. This is where Kalle Lasn and the Adbusters will ultimately fail. Most of their anticommercial rhetoric is easily reduced to the message "Smoking is bad for you." It's reply to commercial culture is an ineffective "no." It does not provide a new starting point for us to base our lives around, it is merely a righteous poo-poohing of the establishment. As such it poses no real threat to the establishment; it is a satellite locked in orbit.
The Situationists wanted to create a revolution which could not be easily represented (and thereby contained) by the society of the spectacle. They encouraged people to return to a life of spontaneity, play, and authentic unmediated being
. A world where people do not rely on currency to provide them with comfort, a world where people do not become miserable victims of the Machine.
Kerry Thornley in his Zenarchist Manifesto, writes about the "hippies" before that word became popularized:
Although we sometimes called ourselves hip or hipsters or hippies or flower children, at that time those were just names among many that seemed occasionally fitting. As a social entity we were not yet stereotyped. Between a hard-bopping hipster and a gent le flower child there was a distinction, and neither label stretched to include us all.
Usually we called ourselves heads. Pot heads, acid heads, or both. Bohemians, Beatniks, mutants, freaks and groovy people were names used with due caution. For in those days what we called ourselves was not to obscure what we were, and what we were was op en to experience.
Becoming hung up on avoiding names, of course, can be as misleading as being named, classified and forgotten. We were not making an effort in either direction. We intended, however, to avoid abstractions that short-circuit thought. An unborn face entailed a naked mind.
Zen is called Zen, but when the monk asks the master, "What is Zen?" he does not receive a definition but a whack on the head, or a mundane remark, or a seemingly unrelated story. Although such responses might baffle the student, they did not en courage him to glibly pigeon-hole the Doctrine.
"That which presently characterizes our public life is boredom. The French are bored .... Youth is bored ... General De Gaulle is bored."
In May 1968, the Situationists were catalysts for a revolution which would consume Paris. Similar to the WTO riots of Seattle, the streets were filled with rioters, protesting the pervasiveness and inhumanity of inauthentic consumer culture. They were armed, in part, with Situationist slogans. These pithy semantic kernels were not intended as a rational argument against the system. Like our "One Line Meme Bombs", they were an attempt to transform the minds of those who followed them without relying on conventional rhetoric. It is in this fertile soil that the absurd is most powerful.My shadow is my graffiti
We refuse to be highrised, diplomaed, licensed, inventoried, registered, indoctrinated,
suburbanized, sermonized, beaten, telemanipulated, gassed, booked.
We must remain “unadapted.”
The Greil Marcus describes the situationist slogan style: "A blindside paradox of dead rhetoric and ordinary language floated just this side of non sequitur, the declarative statement turning into a question as you heard it: What does this mean?" As Christine Harold writes in Ourspace
Debord once detourned a familiar image of Stalin by "placing a barebreasted woman on his forehead with the caption 'The Universe Turns on the Tips of Breasts.'" Such alteration is an effort to undermine the authoritative political portrait -- in this case, Stalin's. Further, the alteration reorganizes the image in a way that not only interrupts the original meaning but creates a new meaning, or opens up potentials for new meanings. The nonsensical phrasing is not incidental - the situationists did not necessarily want to offer a clear prescription for how to read their message. Rather, they sought to force viewers to grapple with the detourned artifacts and, hopefully, to derive from those artifacts meanings or responses of their own.(emphasis mine)
Debord thought that a detournment
, a subversive modification of an existing meme, is "less effective the more it approaches a rational reply." To engage in a conversation with the mainstream is only inviting your own subversion. Debord himself tried to avoid becoming the charismatic figurehead for the Situationists. He wrote under pen names, avoided public attention, and lived in obscurity. He did not want his face on Che Guevara style T-shirts. He did not want to be a reactionary - doing so only reinforces one's subordinate role. A critique of culture must come as a distraction, not centered on the original.
The Discordians might characterize this as a push for "creative disorder" over "destructive disorder". Nonsense is not an attempt to overthrow the establishment through resistance, it is an pointer to of some of the last authentic experiences which cannot be subverted.