It is interesting to note that in 2016, the centenary of Dada the Merriam-Webster dictionary deemed "surreal" the word of the year.1 While Dada may be foremost on the mind of scholars of the avant-garde on this centennial of the initial Dada events in Zurich, the word itself has yet to become vernacular in the English language. The distinction is notable, I think. Despite its notoriety, this "ism" may have preserved something of its kernel of specificity—not only etymologically, but also in terms of aesthetic character. What is it about Dada that lends it this somewhat monadic or persistent—perhaps even resistant—quality in the face of historical permutation?
"Surreal" is an entirely different case: in English the word has drifted so far from its inception as "surréalisme" in World War I-era France that its application in the 2016 "Word of the Year" article by Merriam-Webster might appear to a scholar of the movement (namely, me) as entirely botched.2 This disagreement about definitions comes as a disappointment, if not a surprise. As Sandra Zalman has recently shown, the history of the American reception of that avant-garde was by and large a chronicle of misapprehension until the 1970s and 80s.3 The popular elision of "surreal" with present-day connotations of terrorism, war, and wildly fraught national elections in the Merriam-Webster essay leaves the word with only the zombie dregs of politicized action: the anxious but utterly passive observation of some of the most alarming or disturbing events in contemporary life. Ironically, then, through the inevitable stray of semantics over time, the dictionary definition of "surreal" becomes precisely the opposite of the Surrealists' passionate agitation after the Great War against all forms of "miserablism."
If the word "Dada," is not always colloquially on the tip of our tongue as we confront today's media morass—and this may in fact be a good thing for the posterity of Dada's experiments—its historical example has nevertheless secured a reputation of continued cogency or timeliness for the new millennium, above and beyond the salvo of exhibitions and publications launched during its centenary. This has been most palpable in the delightful wave of "birthday" scholarship that appeared in 2016, some examples of which I read in translation from French or German. As more of a present to myself than to Dada, I must admit, I eagerly perused five such centenary books in the hopes of finding fresh parallels rather than just a shared celebration of subject matter. What became readily clear was that scholars of Dada have a vested interest in asserting the contemporaneity of Dada—not just its relevance, but its often uncanny, mirror-like reflection of our own present. As a student of anachronism, I am amenable to such transtemporal harmonizing, and yet the urgency of the scholarly and artistic call for the ahistoricity/contemporaneity of Dada is striking in comparison to more sedately framed discourses of relevance about other avant-gardes.
For Dada scholars like Maria Stavrinaki, the persistent contemporaneity of Dada may be less a consequence of its trenchant critique of musealization and academicization, and more representative of qualities of simultaneity and "eternal becoming" inherent in Dada itself (31). Stavrinaki's Dada Presentism: An Essay on Art and History is distinctive for its status in the field...