Unacknowledged Roots and Blatant Imitation


David LocherDept. of Social Sciences Missouri Southern State College

[email protected]


This paper is an attempt to stimulate thought and discourse toward postmodern social theory. The writings of Baudrillard and Lyotard are deconstructed with a focus on their conceptualization of the postmodern. The author argues that there really is no such epoch as the postmodern era. Direct quotes from Baudrillard, Lyotard, and several Dadaists are used to support these claims. This paper is not an attack on the logic or internal consistency of postmodernism, but rather addresses the validity of claims about the unique and original nature of postmodern thought itself. This lack of originality points to a greater question about the validity of the concept of a postmodern era.


The founding fathers of postmodernism in social science, Baudrillard and Lyotard (Connor 1989; Gane 1991; Kellner 1990), are not moving us toward a new realm of thought about life and reality, but are simply reacting fearfully to the changes that have occurred in Western society in the last fifty years. Their postmodernism is fundamentally the same as, or an extension of, Dadaism, a movement that took place in the early twentieth century. I argue that we are not, in fact, living in a postmodern era. We are still firmly entrenched in the modern era.

This claim is based upon straightforward premises:

  • All of the fundamental points made by Baudrillard and Lyotard about the “postmodern” era were stolen directly from members of the Dada movement, which occurred at the height of the modern era, roughly 1919-1925.
  • This intellectually invalidates Baudrillard and Lyotard’s claim to be rootless, revolutionary thinkers.
  • This historically invalidates the idea that there is a postmodern era that is fundamentally different than the modern era which preceded it. If intellectuals in the post- WWI period noted all of the same cultural traits in that time that Baudrillard and Lyotard claim to be defining characteristics of the postmodern period, then there is no primary disconnect between the two eras. The so-called postmodern era is not significantly different in nature than the modern era.
  • They will not acknowledge the Dada movement as their intellectual foundation because this would involve admitting that their ideas were outdated rather than revolutionary.
  • They cannot acknowledge the Dada movement as their intellectual foundation because this would require admitting that if the ideas are not new, then neither is the cultural condition reflected by those ideas. If the 1920s were fundamentally the same in character as the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, then nothing would characterize one era as “modern” and the other as “postmodern.”


Postmodernism is frequently touted within the social sciences as being a brand new school of thought, a radical new way of looking at things (Kellner 1990). Baudrillard (1984) and Lyotard (1984) both claim that their postmodern theory is cut from entirely new cloth; that all previous theories are obsolete. In order to refute this claim, I must first summarize the perspectives of the two French theorists who have most come to be identified with postmodernism, Baudrillard and Lyotard (Connor 1989; Kellner 1990).

Baudrillard and Lyotard are a foundation for postmodernism in much the same way that Marx represents a foundation for modern neo-Marxists. Critically analysing these foundations can only lead to stronger work amongst the newest generation of thinkers who ultimately ground their work (directly or indirectly) in the words of these individuals. Both individuals are still actively writing, and Baudrillard in particular, is the basis for a great deal of philosophical debate within the social sciences (see, for example, Carroll 1997; Flieger 1996; Kellner 1994; Osterud 1997; Patomaki 1997; Smith 1997).

Baudrillard defines postmodernity as the “catastrophe” of modernity. By this he means that there has been “a radical, qualitative change in the entire system”, of which many of us have somehow remained unaware (1984: 18). He goes on to state that in a media-saturated society, no event attains historical significance beyond the present moment, because change is so rapid and intense and because society is so saturated with information that it has reached “inertia” (Baudrillard 1988). Society has reached a kind of critical mass, and has consequently become cynical and oversaturated (Kellner 1990). Images impose their own logic, which is immanent, ephemeral, and immoral (Baudrillard 1987). The more information we have, the less meaningful each piece is. The faster things change, the less we can keep up with these changes, and the less we care about them (Baudrillard 1988; Lyotard 1984).

Lyotard (1984) focuses on knowledge more specifically than Baudrillard. Lyotard defines the postmodern as the process of developing a new epistemology that responds to new conditions of knowledge (Kellner 1990). Specifically, this embodies an “incredulity toward metanarratives” within any science, including/particularly sociology. He believes that we should reject totalism for relativism, that representation, correspondence, and reference depend upon a conceptual framework/schema, and that we should all hold a distrust of philosophy (Lyotard 1984; D’Amico 1992). In postmodern culture, legitimation becomes plural, local, and immanent (Lyotard 1984; Fraser and Nicholson 1990).

In essence, Baudrillard and Lyotard are saying that we have worked through the modern era (symbolized most strongly by industrialization), and that we have now broken with this age and are completely past it. We are living in the postmodern era, where information is everything. Within the social sciences, this new era calls for the end of totalizing philosophies or theories and eliminates the primacy of the author. Text simply is, and no individual or group of individuals holds the Truth about any text.

As Nicholson (1992) sums it up, postmodernism is composed primarily of three goals: 1) the rejection of all-encompassing, teleological theories of human history and social change associated with Enlightenment ideas about reason and progress; 2) linking claims about social life, human nature, and criteria of truth and validity with strategies of power; and 3) to replace the emphasis on subject and consciousness with an emphasis on language as intersubjective. As Mestrovic puts it, “Postmodernism is typically depicted as a radical departure from historicism, traditionalism, and any semblance of permanence in any sphere…” (1991: xi).

These claims (which are most directly derived from Baudrillard and Lyotard) are simply a repetition of Dada. There is a deep conservatism behind this repetition that drives both theorists.

Postmodernism as Neo-Dada

At the heart of postmodernism lies the assumption that most of the things that we take for granted are, in fact, simply illusions. Reality is not reflected within text, only text is reflected within text. There is no Truth beyond the experience of the text, and meaning is created every time the text is experienced. An author does not place meaning in the text, and his/her interpretation of the text is no more valid than any other (Baudrillard 1981; 1988; Connor 1989; Lyotard 1984). In other words, meaning is arbitrary, relative, and subjective. Language is, in its own way, reality. What we refer to as reality is not knowable, and we live in the illusion that we are in touch with it. The age in which concepts have a relation to reality is over (Baudrillard and Debrix 1995). Knowledge is only validated when it is referred to by second-level discourse (Lyotard 1984).

With a slight variation in terminology, all of the above statements are exactly the same as the basic premises of Dadaism, a movement that took place in Europe over seventy years ago. Dada was an art movement that occurred primarily in Europe, beginning in Zurich. Although the endpoints are a bit fuzzy, it began around 1915 and lasted until about 1925, when many Dadaists joined the surrealist movement (Bollinger and Verkauf 1975; Dachy 1990; Richter 1965). Although primarily associated with visual art, Dada included writers, critics, and philosophers (Richter 1965; Rubin 1967).

In essence, the Dadaists believed that meaning is arbitrary, relative, and subjective (Rubin 1967). They “realized” that language signified nothing and, as a result, could be manipulated in any way desired (Richter 1965). Dada was a major force in Europe (particularly France), where a great deal of intentionally annoying and provocative visual art, literature, poetry, performance art, and music were produced in its name. The Dadaists had a profound effect on European culture as a whole, and many of them continued to remain in the public eye into the 1960s and even 1970s (Sanouillet 1996). Most of the French Dadaists in particular were writers and literature critics (Richter 1965), and the major focus of Dada in general concerned literary and philosophical problems (Sanouillet 1996).

Like postmodernism, Dada arose as a movement of reaction specifically against the whole rationalist tradition of Western thought (Rubin 1967). As Tzara put it, “Dada places doubt above everything” (Sanouillet 1996: 226). They sought to transcend the bourgeois concepts of society and history (Starr 1984). The Paris Dada movement in particular (from roughly 1919 to the early 1920s) dealt very specifically with language. It was primarily an anti-art philosophy of art, an anti-philosophy philosophy (Richter 1965). Postmodernism, of course, is an anti-theory theory and anti-philosophy philosophy.

Dada died a rapid death due to internal divisions and disagreements amongst its followers, and because once the initial statement was made, there was nothing left to say (Richter 1965). The followers of Dada were actively critical and opposed to anything that smacked of reason or convention. Almost immediately, this caused their demise. One cannot establish a philosophy that is opposed to philosophy and to being established. There was nothing left to do but quit. One can see the same potential problems in the future for extreme postmodernism, which has followed most of the same philosophical steps as the Dadaists.

Hans Arp once said 1 “…we had a dim premonition that power-mad gangsters would one day use art itself as a way of deadening men’s minds” (Richter 1965: 25). He, like many Dadaists, believed that the establishment would use visual art as a way of creating a particular version of reality. This would be possible only if art remained static, if art was allowed to maintain its unimpeachable aura. They concluded that art should be participated in, rather than simply looked at. Baudrillard has expressed precisely the same claim about television: the fact that we observe television (rather than interact with it) literally “deadens” our minds; it is the opiate of the masses. (Baudrillard 1981, 1988: 169-177; Connor 1989).

Ball said that an organic work of art (or text) has a will of its own; the creator has no primacy over the meaning of the work, and the art exists only in the experiencing of it (Richter 1965). The idea that it is the viewer or reader who creates text, rather than the artist or author, is a central premise of postmodernism (Baudrillard 1981; Connor 1989; Fraser and Nicholson 1990; Lyotard 1984).

Brisset attributed to language a consciousness, and referred to language itself as a “game”. Meaning within words was completely dissociated from objects. That is, he believed that language no longer relates to a concrete reality, but only to a surface reality created by language itself (Richter 1965). Baudrillard (1981) talks of the word losing meaning in a society where everything is ideological. Similarly, Breton stated that “All we look at is false” (Richter 1965: 173). Lyotard discusses in length the idea that we are now totally separated from truth and reality, that the postmodern condition is characterized by continually changing language “games” (1984, 1995).

Richter himself states that “Fatalism and rejection of life … are reactions to a world which has become even more lunatic than it was. There seems no prospect of returning it to normality.” (1965: 203). This predates by over 50 years Baudrillard’s description of the “catastrophe” that has occurred in our culture, but Richter was writing about the post-WWI era. Richter (1965) makes reference to the “empty existence,” the “vacuum” that symbols held once repetition had drained them of meaning, the obvious blueprint for Baudrillard’s argument about the “implosion” of information and meaning (1988). In fact, Baudrillard actually describes “postmodernity” as “…the immense process of the destruction of meaning…” (1993: 38).

The Dadaists held a strong resistance to absolute artistic and moral laws (Richter 1965). They believed that there is no absolute Truth, no concrete Reality, only relative truth and experienced reality. Lyotard rejects “totalizing narratives” and Truth (Lyotard 1984; Kellner 1990). “Postmodernity” is a time characterized by irrationality, play, indeterminacy, and situated or arbitrary truth (Kellner 1990). According to the Dadaists, the 1920s were a period characterized by irrationality, indeterminacy, and situated or arbitrary truth, in which only play merited pursuit (Richter 1965).

There are many other striking fundamental similarities between Dada and postmodernism. Both stand in opposition to Culture (Connor 1989; Richter 1965; Youngblood 1989; Zurbrugg 1994). Both claim and assume an alliance with “the masses” or “the workers”, and both completely fail to receive this alliance in return (Richter 1965; Hall 1986). Both take as their basic starting point the rejection of and disregard for philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, established order, and the Absolute (Richter 1965; Rubin 1967; Connor 1989; Kellner 1990). Both are characterized by a resistance to rationalization (Halley 1982; Kellner 1990). Perhaps most significantly, the single tie that most binds Dada and postmodernism (and is referred to frequently by secondary sources on both movements) is the intensely self-reflexive activity that characterized the Dadaists (Richter 1965; Rubin 1967) and characterizes many postmodernists (Connor 1989; Kellner 1990).

Richter, a founding member of the Dada movement, did not live long enough to see the current rise of postmodernism, but he did live long enough to see Dada being repeated and reused over and over again in Western culture. In his analysis of “post- Dadaism” and “neo-Dadaism”, Richter quotes Trocchi in a perfect summary of the postmodern condition (as defined by Baudrillard and Lyotard):

“What culture they [those men who have acquired social standing via the “trap door” of the industrial revolution] have has been acquired from the daily newspapers, pulp or slick magazines, the popular cinema, lately television. The technician, qua technician, is essentially passive, and the structural attitude which is imposed on him during his working hours is carried away by him into his leisure hours; he is the victim of leisure, not its master” (in Richter 1965: 210-211).

There is only one reason why this “post-Dada” (as defined by Richter) statement cannot be taken as reinforcement for Baudrillard and Lyotard’s points about the meaningless nature of information, leisure, and life in the postmodern age: it was published in 1958 as a criticism of the modern age (not postmodernity). According to these writers, the modern era was essentially divorced from meaning, lacked impact on the individual, and was detached from Reality. What, then, distinguishes the postmodern?

Baudrillard, Lyotard, and French University Education

The French Dada movement started in 1919 and ended in the mid-1920s (Richter 1965). Baudrillard and Lyotard were both university educated in France. Many of the central figures of Dada were still alive and active in French art and culture until their deaths, some as late as the 1970s. French intellectual tradition places a great deal of emphasis on interconnection between philosophy, art, and literature (Sanouillet 1996). Existentialism, phenomenology, structuralism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism (the most popular schools of thought in France since the 1930s, respectively) all make frequent references to literature and art, paying special attention to French writers, artists, etc.

Lyotard (to some extent) and particularly Baudrillard, mention and discuss art and art history in their writings. In several essays in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981), Baudrillard makes many references to the German Bauhaus art movement of the late 1920s, and Modern art, a European and American movement that started in the 1930s. He frequently mentions Warhol and other American pop artists of the 1960s and 1970s 2. Lyotard even authored a biography of Duchamp (Lyotard 1977), a surrealist who began as a Dadaist 3 .

Somehow, in spite of this apparent knowledge of early to mid-twentieth century art and literature in general and, in Lyotard’s case, at least one former Dadaist in particular, neither Baudrillard nor Lyotard pay any attention to Dada within their theoretical/ philosophical works. Since the movement had such a lasting impact on French culture, one would expect them to bring it up at least occasionally. Dada ended less than four years before Bauhaus began. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of French intellectual history should be well aware of it. Further, pop art was primarily an American movement. How is it that two writers, who definitely know about art history in the twentieth century, never even briefly allude to Dada within their theoretical works?

It is precisely because these postmodernists claim to be so revolutionary and rootless (Baudrillard 1988; Lyotard 1984; Kellner 1990) that the revisionist nature of their movement is worth noting. Baudrillard and Lyotard seem to be usurping the past, but claiming to have no ties to this past whatsoever. Zurbrugg also notices this curious phenomenon, noting that Baudrillard’s accounts of postmodern society “frequently appear slightly antiquated” and his “…rhetorical and conceptual tropes seem predicated upon a curiously modernist logic.” (1994: 232, emphasis in original). Throughout his article, Zurbrugg mentions Dada and the “Dadaistic” qualities of postmodernism, without ever seeming to realize that postmodernism doesn’t just have a few “Dadaistic” characteristics, but rather is overwhelmingly Dada in its basic assumptions and concepts. Similarly, Porter (1993) notes that Baudrillard’s characterization of late capitalism as “frenzied” and “morbid” is applicable to eighteenth-century capitalism as well.

Unacknowledged Roots and Blatant Imitation

There is an important question that remains unanswered: Why haven’t these French postmodernists simply acknowledged their obvious debt to Dada and gone from there? Why do they try so hard to assert that there are no roots to their thinking, that what they say about the world is original and the world that they discuss is new and unique? There are at least three possible motives for this behaviour.

The answer may lie within the postmodernists themselves: they want the glory, they want to be perceived as revolutionary rather than revisionist. For example, Baudrillard is fond of making statements like “I don’t want culture; I spit on it!” (Gane 1993: 105). His tendency to paint himself as a radical new force in the intellectual world is well documented (Kellner 1990, 1994; Zurbrugg 1994). Baudrillard is even referred to as the “High Priest of Postmodernism” (Gane 1991). Similarly, Lyotard’s bold insistence that his theory is without previous roots hints that he shares Baudrillard’s taste for a reputation as a revolutionary thinker (Lyotard 1984). Carroll (1997) argues that this tendency is the result of vanity on the part of intellectuals who would like to think that postmodernism is new and distinctive. It is not.

Ironically, this very trait is also shared with the Dadaists, who often and loudly proclaimed that they were somehow so new that what they did had no roots. This is reflected in titles such as “At the Beginning was Dada” (Hausmann 1972/1980) and “Dada Conquers! Taking Stock and Remembrance” (Huelsenbeck 1920).

A second reason for the lack of acknowledgement of Dada may have come from Dada itself. Most of the primary figures in the Dada movement very emphatically stated that once it was over, it was done and should never be repeated (Richter 1965; Rubin 1967). They made it clear that they had no respect for anyone who would try to emulate them. This may discourage any neo-Dadaists from admitting that Dada is, in fact, the basis of their philosophy. Thinkers rarely acknowledge their biggest influence for fear of being perceived as merely a copy (Merton 1968), but having their biggest influence specifically state that no one should follow in their footsteps surely adds even more inhibition.

The third answer to the question “Why don’t they just acknowledge their roots?” is historical. The reader must remember that all of the Dada quotes above were uttered in the 1920s, the absolute height of the “modern” age. To be a postmodernist, and to make nearly identical statements about the “postmodern” age (which is supposed to be fundamentally different from the modern era) is inherently illogical. One cannot argue that the postmodern era is distinguished from the modern era by, for example, a disconnection between language and meaning or discourse and truth, if an entire group of intellectuals said exactly the same thing about the modern era. To acknowledge Dada would be to admit two entirely fatal points: 1) postmodern theory is, in fact, not new or original, and 2) the postmodern age is, in fact, no different from the modern age 4 . The very concept of the postmodern is hollow.

However, there is one difference between the original Dadaists and these particular postmodernists (or “neo-Dadaists”, as Richter would call them). The original Dadaists all believed that modern culture had become empty and insane, and by tuning into this insanity, they themselves might bring about positive change (Richter 1965; Rubin 1967). For many, Dada was characterized as an attempt to transcend “…the world of stale conventions in society to again face the irrational chaos of life and answer to the nothingness of existence” (Rumold 1996: 205). They saw the world as irrational and mad, but believed that this was acceptable, as long as we all realized and accepted this condition (Dachy 1990; Richtor 1965). This may seem arrogant, but at least it was optimistic. Baudrillard and Lyotard do not share such optimism. They believe that something irreplaceable has been lost, and culture has advanced into a state of implosion and/or emptiness from which it cannot escape (Baudrillard 1988; Connor 1989; Lyotard 1984; Kellner 1990; Youngblood 1989). I argue that this pessimism is ultimately rooted in conservatism.

Postmoderism as Conservative Reaction to Modern Life

Throughout the history of Western culture, there have been millennial movements at or near the end of every century. Human beings attribute great significance to arbitrary and meaningless things such as a calendar date. The assumption is that artificial signifiers based on arbitrary reference points actually have a meaning in reality. For this reason, humans always seem to believe that something as random and meaningless as the beginning of a new century or millennium is actually a sign of something of great force and importance, usually the end of the world as we know it. This is what Simmel (1950) refers to as superstition.

It is significant that postmodernism has developed in the last few decades of the last century of the second millennium of the Western, Christian calendar. Whenever such a calendar event has occurred in the past, there have always been factions of individuals (often intellectuals) who believed that it would herald the end of life on Earth. Great significance has been applied to the advent of the year 2000 5. This apparently pervasive belief that something really significant will happen at the end of the century/millennium is not unique to American culture, but is present in every Western culture.

Baudrillard’s apparent obsession with the year 2000 (1988b, 1997) and the constant references to the “fin de siècle” within much of postmodernist writing, only reinforce this point. Literally translatable as “end of century”, fin de siècle carries with it a more general meaning: the end of an era, an age, or the world (Mestrovic 1991).

The Modern Dictionary of Sociology defines millenarian movements as “social movements based on the sudden transformation of society” (Theodorson and Theodorson 1969: 258), classifying such movements as cults. Postmodernism clearly fits this description. Baudrillard’s discussion of the “catastrophe” of modern culture, his belief that the separation from meaning is growing and accelerating (Baudrillard 1988; Connor 1989), Lyotard’s idea that life is getting farther from reality and meaning (1984), their frequent references to the “breakdown” of culture, all point to such ideas.

Baudrillard and Lyotard are actually leaders of a revisionist, millenarian movement 6. The key propositions are all there: the belief that things are spinning out of control, that the present bears no direct relationship to the past, that the future holds only collapse (“implosion”), and so on. The mindless use of these terms still continues. For example, “The implosion of educational boundaries evident in the postmodern era…” (Sheppard 1997: 333) is a phrase that carries little or no meaning. Its use, however, shows the acceptance of the idea that our culture has indeed imploded and that we are, indeed, living in the postmodern era. Unfortunately, what these things actually mean is never adequately clarified (Osterud 1997).

The radical postmodernists ask us to believe that society is a speeding car heading for a cliff, and due to the nature of current life we can’t steer or stop, but can only comment (Baudrillard et al 1995). They claim themselves as the only intellectuals aware enough to predict the trajectory path as we are flung into oblivion. Baudrillard even talks about the turn of the century and technology as threatening to human survival (Baudrillard and Machado da Silva 1996). This epitomizes millenialism. As Kellner (1994) characterizes the postmodern mindset,

“…we careen toward the end of a millennium into a new world (dis)order, as yet uncharted and frightening and confusing.. Confusion and fear produce the need for gurus who will explain the current disorder and who offer theoretical guidance and orientation through the morass of the present. Baudrillard has assumed such guru status…” (p. 2).


Several authors including Kellner, Mestrovic, Zurbrugg, Youngblood, Habermas, etc., all seem to realize that there is some sort of regressive, revisionist air to radical French postmodernism, but none of them offer any clue as to why this is so. Why do they hold this set of beliefs? How can it be that the radical postmodernists who claim to be the only ones who can see behind the curtain that we all stand in front of are simply rehashing words and ideas from the past?

The only truly logical reason to believe that the present is irrevocably and fundamentally different from the recent past is if one believes that something fundamental and irreplaceable has been lost, or something fundamental and unforeseeable has been gained. Baudrillard and Lyotard explicitly believe that current life is absolutely different from recent “modern” life. They explicitly state that there is a great divide between life before the “implosion” or “catastrophe” and after (Baudrillard 1988; Lyotard 1984). They explicitly state that there is nowhere for postmodern culture to go. For them, society had more meaning and information was more significant before the chasm that is the beginning of the postmodern era.

Words like “implosion”, “catastrophe”, “breakdown”, and “meaningless” do not give us reason to believe that either Baudrillard or Lyotard think that postmodern life is as good as life during the dead, modern era. As Youngblood puts it, Baudrillard “…laments the loss of the original, the authentic, and with them the possibility of Reality and Truth.” (1989: 18). They both imply that the past was better than the present.

Conservatives are not content with the present; they wish to return to or restore some aspects of the past. Of course, none of the postmodernists explicitly state that they want to return to the past. However, their characterization of the postmodern period as inherently empty, meaningless, and imploded when compared to the past, clearly points to a belief that life was somehow better, more meaningful, and more authentic before the “catastrophe” or “implosion” occurred. In this way, Baudrillard and Lyotard remind one of conservative American politicians who talk about building a bridge to the past; a past that they believe is better than where the present is heading.

Though a postmodernist may claim to revel in the current state of disarray, only a conservative would consider the present to be a state of disarray compared to the past. They put on rose-coloured glasses and look back to see the past as a simpler, easier, better time when events held more historical significance (Baudrillard 1988) and reality was closer to life as we lived it (Baudrillard 1988; Lyotard 1984). A truly radical theory 7 would see the future as potentially better than the present; a conservative one sees it as inherently doomed. All of the Dadaists made the case that what we call the “good old days” of the modern era were, in fact, frenzied, irrational, meaningless, and saturated with too much information.

There may be a logical historical explanation for this small difference between the French postmodernists and the French Dadaists: Dada occurred in the aftermath of and in reaction to the horrors of WWI, “The War to End All Wars” (Dachy 1990; Richter 1965; Starr 1984). For them, the past (especially the recent past) was clearly not better than the future. The worst imaginable nightmare had just occurred. Postmodernism, on the other hand, had risen in a time when the world was relatively free of such trauma. WWI was only a ghost of a memory by the 1960s, and WWII was fought by the generation before Baudrillard and Lyotard. However, the year 2000 was already looming large in people’s minds. 8 Rather than seeing horror behind them and a hope for a fresh start ahead (like the Dadaists), they saw relative tranquillity behind them 9 and unpredictable upheaval in front of them.

The Dadaists were radicals who experienced their time as hopelessly out of control, and tried to make the best of it. They did their best to provoke people out of their complacency. The postmodernists are conservatives who believe that the time of the Dadaists was peaceful and meaningful, who fear the future, and who try desperately (and somewhat successfully) to establish themselves as leaders of the avant garde by repeating the sentiments of a movement that ended more than 70 years ago.

Dearth of Dada

If these connections and similarities between Dada and postmodernism are so apparent, why aren’t they discussed and explored more frequently? Although Dada was primarily a philosophical movement, many of the most well-known figures from the movement were visual artists (Richter 1965; Rubin 1967). The emphasis was on production of “moments” and “happenings”. Most of the surviving artefacts of the movement are pieces of visual art or small pamphlets. No scholarly books or articles were produced by members of the Dada movement at the time, and later published works all focus on the chronology of the various events and activities that took place. As a result of these factors, explicit discussion of Dada today is almost entirely the domain of visual art historians. It is this miscategorization of Dada as an art (rather than philosophy) movement that has kept most social scientists from being exposed to it. Recent theoretical and sociological interest in Dada (see, for example, Foster 1996) could lead to much more awareness of the connection between Dada and postmodernism.

Further confusion is probably created by the fact that there is a “postmodernism” within visual art. However, it bears little resemblance to the theoretical works that in sociology are called “postmodernism”. Postmodernist visual art also bears little resemblance to Dada visual art. It is important to remember that this paper examines the philosophical elements of a theoretical movement led by artists (Dada), not the art produced in the name of that movement. These components all bear an uncanny resemblance to the philosophical underpinnings of the theoretical movement (postmodernism) led by academic writers.


Postmodernism is essentially a neo-Dada movement, updated and focused more specifically on social philosophical issues. The basic premises of postmodernism are all taken from Dadaism, and the failure to acknowledge this debt deprives postmodernism of credibility. Since the key statements made by Baudrillard and Lyotard are all derived from a movement that occurred at the height of the modern era, then the very concept of a postmodern culture is rendered meaningless. If the statements were true in 1920, then it cannot be argued that our time is so new and unique that it comprises a revolutionary departure in human thought and history. The biggest difference between Dada and postmodernism (which would simply be another “post-Dada” or “neo-Dada” movement to the Dadaists) is the conservative, millenarian outlook of the postmodernists.

Dada and its immediate predecessors succeeded in destroying normative standards within the worlds of art, literature, and philosophy (Rose 1973): “Dada has been incorporated into our social fabric and common mores….” (Sanouillet 1996: 224). This success is what ultimately led to their demise. In a world where nothing is shocking, their attempts at provocation became meaningless. The primary goal of radical postmodernism is to shock and provoke (Connor 1989; Gane 1993). Baudrillard, in particular, seems to want to be perceived as dangerous (Kellner 1994). In our modern, post-Dada culture, virtually anything is accepted as valid by intellectuals. These cultural attitudes of permissiveness and acceptance were the ultimate goal of Dada (Dachy 1990; Richter 1965). They succeeded (Sanouillet 1996). Dadaists also made a career as a provocateur inconsequential (Rose 1973). Ironically, postmodernists have been rendered inconsequential by the success of the very same movement that they emulate.


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Citation Format

Locher, David. (1999). Unacknowledged Roots and Blatant Imitation: Postmodernism and the Dada Movement. Electronic Journal of Sociology: 4, 4. [iuicode:]