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Ideology with an /i/: Reading Dada with Kurt Schwitters

In 1951, Tristan Tzara looked back upon Dada and its works and attempted to summarize the breadth of their aggression: “Dada took the offensive and attacked the social system in its entirety.”[1] For Tzara, however, this had a specific goal: to “direct . . . [their] attacks against the very fundaments of society, language as the agent of communication between individuals, logic as the cement” (Tzara, “Introduction,” 404).[2] In many ways, Dadaist poetry uniquely embraced and embodied these attacks. To linguistically attack language requires something of an internal sabotage, a subversive performance. This subversion of language, however, does not confine itself as an attack on what language is, but rather comes to include an attack on what language does and how it functions as communication between individuals. Dadaist poetry’s attack on language, then, functions as an attack on those who utilize it. While it, by implication, often took aim at the crescive consumerist capitalism and militant nationalism, along with capitalists and nationalists, the attack would most immediately fall upon the role of language in their creation with those ideologies, and indeed within ideology itself. This article aims to theorize the ways in which Dadaist poetry, as investigations and confrontations with language and ideology, came to function less as a direct confrontation with the ideology of nationalism, militarism, capitalism, or some other, and more as an incisive subversion of the creation of stable ideological subjects, who then functioned as agents of the reproduction and reinforcement of ideology and still more ideological subjects. That is, how does Dadaist poetry function as a subversion of what Louis Althusser called interpellation?

There are, of course, no shortage of examples of ideologically imbued Dadaist poetry from which to begin our investigation. Indeed, various ideologies appear in many of the first Dadaist works. Hugo Ball’s introductory note to Cabaret Voltaire, the first Dadaist journal, places the works of the fledgling Dada in relation to the ideologies of militarism and nationalism: “The activity and interests of those involved in the cabaret clearly show that it is aimed at the few independent thinkers whose ideals extend beyond the war and their native lands.”[3] Tzara’s “L’amiral cherche une maison à louer” (“The Admiral Searches for a House to Rent”), a simultaneous poem given prominent placement as the first work printed after Ball’s introduction, continues with the imagery of militarist and nationalist ideology. In the three languages of the Great War’s combatants, Tzara, Marcel Janco, and Richard Huelsenbeck belligerently speak, shout, scream, and chant only to coalesce and answer simultaneously the implied question of the title in the final line: “The admiral found nothing.”[4] The admiral returns to his warship, the war continues. Rather than investigating a chronological or conspicuously ideological work in order to theorize Dada’s poetic subversion, however, it may prove helpful to focus nearer the end and closer to the periphery of Dadaist poetry, with a somewhat quieter work engaged less with these or those ideologies than with the constitutive elements of ideology itself. That is, the work of an artist whose involvement with Dadaists afforded insight and whose tangentiality to them encouraged a more critical analysis may show that even in its simplicity, it remains similarly subversive of the smooth operation of ideology: the work of Kurt Schwitters.

Ideology and Impassivity

Positioned in quiet Hannover, rather than the Dada metropole of Berlin, Schwitters had a strained relationship with many Berlin Dadaists, most notably Richard Huelsenbeck, who saw Schwitters’s infamous 1919 poem, “An Anna Blume,” as sentimental, romantic, bourgeois, and therefore most damningly, as doing far too little, if anything at all, to “oppose[] every kind of ideology” as Dada does (fig. 1).[5] At this time, however, Schwitters was exploring precisely the revolutionary potential of doing too little, of this supposedly simple, quiet impassivity. Soon after “An Anna Blume,” Schwitters began a collaboration with Hans Arp entitled Franz Müllers Drahtfrühling (Franz Müller’s Wire-Springtime). Though it was never completed, Schwitters published the first chapter in 1922, “Ursachen und Beginn der großen glorreichen Revolution in Revon” (Causes and Beginnings of the Great, Glorious Revolution in Revon), which recounts a man simply standing and refusing to answer inquiries or explain himself to the mob growing around him, the various reactions of that mob, their growing agitation leading to “the picture of a violent explosion” as he silently walks away, and eventually “the outbreak of the great, glorious revolution.”[6] Not only does this work investigate the intersection of impassivity and political revolution, the very element Berlin Dadaists felt Schwitters’s work lacked, but it also investigates simple impassivity amidst ideological interpellation.

Kurt Schwitters, cover of first printing of Die Anna Blume
Fig. 1. Kurt Schwitters, cover of first printing of Die Anna Blume (Hannover: Paul Steegemann Verlag, 1919), with Sütterlin handwriting. Courtesy of the International Dada Archive, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.

The silent protagonist of “Revolution” is represented as wholly impassive, referred to repetitiously throughout the first chapter of the work as “The man stands” and “There stands a man” (Schwitters, Werk, 2:29–37). Aside from the grammatically required gender, the protagonist is an ideological blank slate, particularly to those in the crowd slowly growing around him, none of whom he answers as they continually confront and question him. What may initially appear as a naive impassivity begins to assert itself as a radical refusal to be socially positioned or pigeonholed by interactions with elements of that society. That is, the man who stands and does not answer refuses to participate in his own interpellation, his own formation as a subject of and within an ideological society.[7] The nameless man’s ideological vacuity is put into harsh relief by his greatest interrogator and the chapter’s de facto antagonist. Initially introduced as “Sir Doctor Leopold Feuerhake,” the inquisitive bystander is given more and more names, more subjectivities: “Sir Doctor Friedrich August Leopold Kasimir Amadeus Gneomar Lutetius Obadja Jona Micha Nahum Habakuk Zephanja Hagai Sacharja Maleachi Feuerhake” (Schwitters, Werk, 2:30, 31). Similarly, Feuerhake’s wife introduces him as an “a-art critic, editor, m-m-manager, publisher [of the Revon newspaper], m-minister, indeed minister of the State of Revon” (2:34). At the intersection of journalism and the state, Feuerhake therefore wields two important apparatuses of interpellation. Anticipating Althusser’s infamous example of interpellation as a police officer yelling “Hey, you there!” over a crowded street and thereby turning an individual into a subject of and within judicial ideology, Revon’s police officer, whom Feuerhake involves in the interrogation of the man who stands, states: “I must . . . establish your identity,” only later to admit that to do so is “one of the main tasks of the local police” (2:36, 38).[8] Simpler still than the protagonist’s standing impassivity confronted by Feuerhake’s titles, names, and positions, however, is a poem by Schwitters, ostensibly of a single letter as and within ideological interpellation, for “The word is not the primordial material of poetry, but rather the letter” (Werk, 5:190). Schwitters examines this “primordial material” and its implicit and unique ideological peculiarities and complications, in the letter i in his 1922 concrete poem, “Das i-Gedicht” (The i-Poem; fig. 2).

 Die neue Anna Blume
Fig. 2. Kurt Schwitters, “Das i-Gedicht,” in Die Blume Anna: Die neue Anna Blume (Berlin: Verlag Der Sturm, 1922).

First published in Schwitters’s 1922 collections of poems, Die Blume Anna: Die neue Anna Blume, “Das i-Gedicht” is one of his shorter, and ostensibly simpler, works. The structure of the work is that of the traditional tripartite emblem—a title (lemma), a picture or design (icon), and a following, often explanatory text (epigram)—a form originally designed for easy consumption and comprehension, though it so often falls into enigma.[9] Here the presumptive title/lemma above is “Das i-Gedicht,” a title which serves as both a preparatory descriptor of the content of the work—it is a poem and it deals with the letter i—as well as of the aesthetic ideals and philosophy that Schwitters followed in its production and would enumerate in the following years.[10] In the second issue of his literary journal Merz (April 1923), playfully “numbered” i, Schwitters elaborated on the central iconic design of this poem: “The sign i means » I «. It is a small » I « from the German alphabet” (Werk, 5:138, font and emphasis in original). Here, Schwitters contrasts the sign-i, rather than the letter-i, with the former ornate Kurrent script of German handwriting, the script-font he utilizes in the citation, and which Sütterlin was meant to replace. The i-design takes the place of the emblematic visual icon in the poem as both the only piece of (mechanically printed and approximated) handwriting of a German (Fraktur) script, surrounded by the printed Latin (Antiqua) typeface utilized for both the title and epigram. Finally, the epigram, set in brackets beneath: “[»Rauf, runter, rauf, Pünktchen drauf«]” ([read: »up, down, up, Little dot on it«]).

The emblematic structure of the work implicates the Sütterlin-i as a visual icon rather than an excised or decontextualized letter, and the epigram explicitly refers to it in those terms. The epigram does not reference it as the letter-i, Sütterlin or otherwise, but rather material given a particular form and design through bodily performance; for Schwitters, a reinforcement of the primordial materiality of the letter. This materiality becomes the focus of the epigram’s command: read. Here, we see the third letter-i of the work in the switch from the German infinitive, lesen (to read) to its imperative form, lies (read). That is, the very letter-i creates and clarifies the command and therefore the (explicit) formation of us as the reader. Of course, we have already been interpellated as, and as with any successful interpellation misrecognized ourselves to be, readers from the very beginning, for if the title/lemma is to be believed, this is a poem meant to be read rather than merely beheld. Only now is the subject of the general reader reformulated into a specific reader: the reader of this material design.

Throughout the work, we read the dual nature of the iconic Sütterlin-i as simultaneously letter and material design, as “i” (in the title and epigrammatic command lies, read) and as “up, down, up, Little dot on it” (in the icon itself and the epigram). Through this split and decentered reading process, we reader-subjects are similarly decentered. This seeming symbol-material duality is not unique to the letter-i, though it is in the letter-i represented in its most foundational way. Schwitters wrote: “i is the first letter, i is the easiest letter” (Werk, 5:139). Of course, the letter-i is neither of those things, but rather the ninth letter in the alphabet and no more simple or complex—as a letter—than any other. However, the material design of a point and a line is exceedingly simple, practically unchanged between German and Latin typefaces of their handwritten script counterparts. Sybille Krämer and Rainer Totzke note its initial, simple, and above all its elemental and foundational role: “The core of graphism is the dash or the line, which—together with the dot—forms the elemental repertoire of notation.”[11] If Mallarmé had found that “literature is made up of no more and no less than twenty-six letters,” Schwitters furthers the investigation; not the symbolic but the symbol, not literature but the letter.[12] However, the epigram to “Das i-Gedicht” commands not that we read the letter, but rather that we read the design as material, the material that creates letters. This command can only succeed by our reading the letter-i in the epigram as the letter —lies, read. This complex of reading, materiality, and literacy; the German alphabet, handwritten scripts, and typefaces; and their intricate relations to ideology and subject formation, is mirrored in the work’s peculiar historical origins: the heated Fraktur-Antiqua debate at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The roots of the Fraktur-Antiqua debate extend deeply into the history of German printing, most notably to Martin Luther’s deliberate choice of Fraktur for his 1534 printing of the New and Old Testaments (fig. 3).[13] Luther set German language and type, in his printed Bible and the Protestant educational programs that would surround it, against the Latin Antiqua: “the Latin letters hinder us beyond measure from expressing ourselves in good German.”[14] This implicit intersection of national identity and education, spiritual or otherwise, converged again in the decade leading up to “Das i-Gedicht.” On the eve of World War I, Fraktur was considered not only to be “the landmark of German awareness,” but also a “bulwark against the de-Germanization, a means of protection for the conservation of the German way.”[15] For advocates of Fraktur, the typeface was inextricably bound to Germanness, from the romanticized past, in the present, and into the future. The so-called Fibelfrage, the question of whether a German child’s school primers and workbooks would be printed in Fraktur or Antiqua, became a central theme of the debate. To print such books in Antiqua, the Fraktur proponents argued, would show “a contempt for the Germanness of the child’s soul.”[16] Schwitters not only couched his “i-Gedicht” in this battleground, but rather, with the juxtaposition of Antiqua and Sütterlin as well as the poem’s formation of us as reader-subjects of Sütterlin in Antiqua, actively evokes it.

First page of Martin Luther’s Weimar Bible from 1534, with Fraktur type.
Fig. 3. First page of Martin Luther’s Weimar Bible from 1534, with Fraktur type. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A year after its publication, Schwitters made the origin of “Das i-Gedicht” explicit—the children’s classroom. “The child learns it [the letter-i] in school as the first letter. The class sings »up, down, up, Little dot on it« [»Rauf, runter, rauf, Pünktchen drauf«]. [. . .] i is the simplest letter” (Werk, 5:139). Here, Schwitters describes the moment in which a child is made into a writer, directed by their teacher and workbook to trace out “up, down, up, Little dot on it” with their hand and create a Sütterlin-i, an initial bodily performance, a formation of the body into a writing instrument. They are also made into a reader, able to differentiate the mark of the letter-i from others by its material, visual configuration. Schwitters marks this ur-scene of reading as a moment fraught with subject formation within the classroom, the epicenter of “the educational ideological apparatus . . . that has been installed in the dominant position in mature capitalism” (Althusser, Sur la réproduction, 289, 249).[17] Schwitters describes the classroom’s quasi-militaristic scene, the children formed into chorus to sing the verse in harmonious unison, led by the schoolmaster. This is the originary touchstone, the moment when reading begins, when the subject formation inherent in alphabetization and the written word, explicit in the letter-i of the epigram’s command to read, lies, becomes possible. That is, this ideological subject formation begins with reading the letter-i as material, whose ease, simplicity, and naïveté are mirrored in the malleability of the interpellated school children. “Faithfully, schools cling to their old duty of fabricating individuals (in the literal sense of the word) by drilling them in a beautiful, continuous and individual handwriting” (Kittler, Grammophon, 31:17). Of course, these “individuals” are the same “unique” as every other child in the class, and indeed many children throughout Germany. Education, ideology, and a national script, language, and typeface is evident in the historical creation and adoption of the iconic Sütterlin-i itself.

In 1911 Ludwig Sütterlin, a graphic designer, was commissioned by the Prussian minister of culture and education to create a new handwritten script to replace the instruction of Kurrent in schools. Sütterlin radically simplified the ornate Kurrent. All ornamental swashes and tails were removed, inclination made vertical, its 2-1-2 relation between ascender, x-height, and descender was simplified to 1-1-1 (fig. 4).[18] It was immediately popular throughout Prussia and became the standard script taught throughout the Weimar Republic, finally replacing all other scripts in the classroom in 1935. Along with the replacement of pointed nibs for broad, which children’s small hands found easier to handle, Sütterlin’s simplifications were directed specifically at alleviating the difficulties of primary students as they learned to write. While these simplifications did little to address the many arguments of primary teachers, among the most vocal factions of Antiqua proponents, the introduction of Sütterlin gave the proponents of Fraktur a new point of reference. Sütterlin would function as a bridge for the students to learn to read Fraktur type, which it more closely resembled than the ostentatious Kurrent. The integration of handwriting and type-reading, which Schwitters reproduces in “Das i-Gedicht,” lies at the heart of the Fraktur-Antiqua debate. That is, the intersection of writing, reading, and the overlapping complex of ideological apparatuses—religious, national, educational, etc.—inherent to the Fraktur-Antiqua debate and occupied by “Das i-Gedicht” continually alludes to the transparency of language.

Comparison of Sütterlin and Kurrent
Fig. 4. Comparison of Sütterlin and Kurrent.

Althusser notes: “the elementary ideological effect” is the obviousness of signification, “that a word ‘names a thing’ or ‘has a meaning’ (including, therefore, the self-evident facts of the ‘transparency’ of language), the ‘self-evident fact’ that you and I are subjects” (Sur la réproduction, 224:189; translation slightly modified). The visual phenomenon of transparency in collaboration with language results in a reading, presumed transparent. As Schwitters noted, to write and read a word, to be literate, is in fact determined by its letters, the “primordial material.” Summarizing Eric Havelock, Richard Lanham writes that “a culture, to be truly literate, must possess an alphabet simple . . . and unobtrusive enough . . . that a reader forgets about its physical aspects and reads right through it to the meaning beneath. The written surface must be transparent.”[19] Schwitters investigates this simplicity and unobtrusiveness, this transparency in the i’s elementary dot and line, from which all subsequent letters are made. Moreover, the ideological apparatus of the classroom from which this i was excised investigates not only the material, but the process that one “learns” this transparency, that “people were programmed to operate upon media in ways that enabled them to elide the materialities of communication.”[20] “Das i-Gedicht” continually alludes to this materiality of communication at the heart of the Fraktur-Antiqua debate, its historical-ideological contexts, and the presumed transparency that undergird them.

The nationalist bravado that foreshadowed the First World War often framed the Fraktur-Antiqua debate in those terms, only to be heightened as the war began. Specifically for Fraktur proponents, the German script had become as important as the German language to the German people: “Nation and people are regarded not only as a linguistic community, but also as a script community [Schriftgemeinschaft]” (Wehde, Typographische Kultur, 252–253).[21] Fraktur was the well-fitted “dress of the German language” (251).[22] That is, Fraktur as a typeface better suits the German language, is less opaque, interrupts and interferes less than other typefaces with the meaning of the language that it transmits, to the point that its proponents and Schwitters himself refer to it as the German alphabet. As Adolf Reinecke argued in 1910: “The German script [Fraktur] is a true reading script; it is more readable [lesbarer], that is clearer and more distinct [deutlicher] in its word-images than the Latin script [Antiqua],” which is to say that through Fraktur, German words have a “greater clarity and lucidity [Übersichtlichkeit].”[23] Rather than a typeface uniquely created to transparently transmit a language, however, arguments for Fraktur as the well-suited German alphabet reversed the causality: “The language forces the script to adapt itself to it.”[24] This is a process that has taken some time: “Our script is an historically naturally grown thing.”[25] As Wehde summarizes: “The relationship between the German language and broken typefaces is naturalized and thus withdrawn from social availability” (Typographische Kultur, 251). That is, the relationship between German and Fraktur was transformed from a social or personal opinion about linguistic history into a natural and self-evident fact. In short, it is ideology: “the confusion of linguistic with natural reality,” a confusion that “transforms history into nature.”[26]

“Das i-Gedicht” then comes to function as a radical critique of that ideological stance. We see in Schwitters’s poem something of a subversion of German language writing and reading since Goethe and the early Romantics: “Writing was effortless and sound was removed from reading in order to confuse writing with nature” (Kittler, Grammaphon, Film, Typewriter, 18, my translation). Schwitters pointedly recreates, through the jolted intersection of Antiqua and Sütterlin within the work, the sociohistorical dimension of typography and reading, and therefore attempts to denaturalize the constitutive letter of the alphabet through the deployment of history, of a script recently designed at the behest of a Prussian minister and taught in elementary schools. The naturalized Fraktur defended in the Reichstag debates is returned to the corporeal, personal, social, and historical. Within this turbulently ideological environment, Schwitters interpellates us as a reader who recognizes the materiality of reading. We are made the reader of the Sütterlin-i, not as a representation of the letter, but as the reader of its material, graphic representation, now made anything but transparent or superfluous. As Lanham notes, “[w]e must not notice the size and shape of the letters” (Lanham, Electronic Word, 33). Schwitters forces us to do exactly that turning interpellation against the elementary effect of ideology and making of us reader-subjects who question the transparency of language. This dynamic of perceptive reading and ideology critique continues throughout Schwitters’s i-genre.

In addition to the theme of the material design of the Sütterlin-i, the “i” and its connective hyphen in the title “Das i-Gedicht” function rhematically in that Schwitters chose “this letter as label of a special genre of works of art”: i (5:139). That is, just as “Gedicht” indicates the form of the work as a poem, so too does “i” announce the work as an exemplary embodiment of i. In his “i (A Manifesto),” Schwitters explains that, while Merz creates artistic works through a collage or constellation of ready-made materials, the combination of which thereby shortens the distance “from the intuition to the visualization of the artistic idea,” with fewer instances of unnecessary representation, where the artist refuses to transform the elements of the collage in order to represent something which they themselves are not already, i nullifies this distance altogether: “i sets this distance = zero. Idea, material, and work of art are one and the same” (5:120). Through the refusal of a recontextualization of the ready-made material into a Merzian constellation, Schwitters see the artistic process of i as something of a collage of one: “it is the detection [Auffinden] of an artistic complex in the non-artistic world and the creation of an artwork from this complex through demarcation, nothing else” (5:148). If Merz is the creation of art with scissors and glue, i requires only scissors.

Though Schwitters suggested that “MERZ is comprehensive. i is a special form of MERZ. i is the decadence of Merz,” to which the small amount of critical attention concerned with i has largely conformed, these genres and their role in subject formation can be qualitatively differentiated (5:141).[27] Patrizia McBride has persuasively argued that Schwitters’s Merzian “montage . . . functioned as a discursive medium for reconceptualizing subjectivity and agency after the trauma of the Great War,” highlighting its “proto-constructivist and productivist imagination” in a new type of human, of postwar subjectivity.[28] Here the reformation of the subject, traumatically fractured in the violence of the war, is the remade, reformed, reconstituted body assembled from elements of everyday life. McBride argues that Schwitters’s montage “turns . . . [the materiality of the body] into a starting point for a wide-ranging inquiry into possible options for reshaping subjectivity” after the horrors of the war (McBride, “Montage,” 262). In contrast to Schwitters’s Merzian montage, i appears far less concerned “with refashioning subjectivity” than with understanding its building blocks, the primordial material from which subjectivity is fashioned (265). If the Merz-artist is the mad surgeon of subjectivity, the i-artist is its analytical anatomist.[29] The i-artist examines the primordial material, the “first” letter, similar in form to the number 1, and indeed the first letter of the German ich and only of the English I, a language with which Schwitters was conversant. That is, the letter i is tied to one’s own identity within language; the Sütterlin-i similar as well to the human figure, little head on top, extremities outstretched but unmoving, like an impassive revolutionary. The primordial material of the i-artist is not merely the typographical material of the work, but rather its intersection with human bodies and the subsequent formation of them as ideological subjects; the very process depicted in the classroom scene from which “Das i-Gedicht” was taken. Works of i, however, are not the remnants of some deceased and dissected subjectivity from which a future subjectivity might be refashioned or reformed, but rather, in their radical excision and their denied material juxtapositions, these works ideologically complicate themselves and their own role in subject formation.

In his longest critical discussion of i, titled simply “/i/” from the second issue of Merz, Schwitters considers the example of Pierre Reverdy’s poem “Regard,” which begins “seated on the horizon, the others begin to sing,” to which Schwitters responds: “Das chanson des autres ist mir i” (The song of the others is for me i) (5:137). As Schwitters emphasized, the i-artist “recognizes [erkennt] that some individual detail in the world of appearances around them need only . . . be bordered for a work of art to emerge” (5:139). Here we can begin to see the unique mode of reading in which the i-artist necessarily engages. Initially, there exists some fragment of the human world, whether from a school room, a hospital, a tram ticket, a store catalogue, or a group of jovial “others” singing a song, that is, a fragment of history, of a human or group of human others. While this material fragment need not be significant or meaningful in itself, the i-artist recognizes or perceives it—a kind of reading without interpretation, a recognition of the material as material, indexical merely to itself, the distance between what it is and what it represents reduced to zero, a reading of the material as nothing other than the potential material of a future work of i-art. This is, however, a dual movement, a full reading of both the material and the location of its excision, its necessary boundary. Jacques Derrida notes that this boundary creates “the spacing that constitutes the written sign,” that is, “the very structure of the written text.”[30] In his later reading of Paul de Man, he would recognize the un-innocent nature of this constitution, likening his earlier spacing to de Man’s “grammar of the text when it is isolated from its rhetoric, the merely formal element without which no text can be generated,” the “mechanical, no matter how deeply . . . concealed by aesthetic, formalistic delusions. The machine not only generates, but also suppresses, and not always in an innocent or balanced way.”[31] Schwitters seems to have prefigured, to some extent, these concepts of constitutive spacing and machine-like grammar:  “That’s why you mustn’t look too hard at the material; because that isn’t what it’s all about” (Werk, 5:245).[32] That is, the i-artist reads not only the material what to excise but also the where to cut; the work of i-art then consists of both material and non-material, paradoxically self-contained but unbounded. This simultaneous reading and work of i is particularly explicit in “Das i-Gedicht.”

Schwitters represents this boundary, the where of the cut, transforms it into something recognizable, positioned, marked, a readability not of material or sense or meaning, but rather of excision. This is all the more conspicuous in “Das i-Gedicht,” an excised fragment of handwriting, which “wrote and wrote, in an energetic and ideally uninterrupted flow” (Kittler, Grammophon, Film, Typewriter, 18:9). Like two cilia searching for connection, the iconic Sütterlin-i’s two “rauf”s (ups), the two angled bars that would serve as connectors of the central letter i, were there other Sütterlin letters with which to connect. While these “rauf”s point back to the educational ideological apparatus from which the icon was excised, as Schwitters made clear in various paratexts, the icon’s status as a montage of one, a fragment, /i/, there are few direct juxtapositions with other elements of the work. Rather, the “rauf”s point to the otherwise unintelligible background of white paper; they conspicuously pierce the page and mark the place of cut. That is, the white to the left and right of the vertical “runter” (down) is itself marked, made visible, by the angled “rauf” (up) on each side. It is highlighted again, as the potential though un-actualized place of a cut in the separation inherent to the design of the letter, the space between the little dot on top and the vertical “runter” (down) over which it floats. While only inherent in the Sütterlin-i icon, the poem’s epigram makes it explicit. The two brackets signal a form of separation from the icon, while the double guillemets that surround the children’s song further mark the place of excision in the small white between the two angles, give it form and make it recognizable.[33] Moreover, Schwitters commands us to read the material as well as these marks that both site and cite that material, to read not only the “up, down, up…” but also the “» «.”

This excision is the location of the aesthetic and formalistic borders and constraints of the material, or more precisely, it is the fragmentation of both the material and its aesthetic and formalistic totalization, not merely made visible, but pointedly highlighted. In this way, the excision of the simple letter i from a children’s schoolbook conspires to identify the work’s inability to feign the totality of a signifier through which a reader transparently accesses a signified. The naive material becomes opaque with the introduction of the now conspicuous aesthetic and formalistic framework, which is to say the ideological grammar that would otherwise remain invisible in service of an ostensibly transparent, and therefore non-ideological, totality. It begins to belie its own ideological nature.[34] That is, the radical fragmentation in the work, and specifically its ostentatious depiction in the brackets, guillemets, angled “rauf”s, and disparate typefaces, exposes the thoroughly ideological nature of this presumed impassive, innocuous, simple, even banal i, the very graphical basis for all material writing and alphabetization. This marked fragmentation, then, of even the most mundane material, not only highlights but also implicitly critiques the ideological grammar that underpins that material. Here we can begin to see the revolutionary character of “Das i-Gedicht” as a work of both interpellation and i.

“Das i-Gedicht” both performs and manifests its genre, i—a performative manifesto. It is performative not only in that it performs, i.e. executes or satisfies the aspects of i set out by Schwitters in works such as “i (A Manifesto),” “/i/,” or his “Banalitäten,” but also in that it creates itself as its own manifesto. The epigrammatic command to read, lies, can be seen as instructive and directive, a helpful answer to “How do I read this icon?” and a command to read in itself, which combines to become a type of self-fulfillment, the command fulfilled in its very recognition as command. This dual command to read invariably makes readers of us, though not only of the material, the “up, down, up . . .,” but thanks the prominent inclusion of the marked fragmentation, the guillemets that the work commands us to read, it also makes us readers of the location of the excision. With this complete reading of both facets of the work, then, we not merely repeat or reiterate, but rather recite and recreate the very act of artistic citation that creates a work of i-art, we become the work’s most recent (co)author. That is, through its inescapable command for us to read, it makes us into, i.e. we are irrevocably interpellated and recruited as, i-artists, now part of the club, whether we like it or not, “Das i-Gedicht” a compelling manifesto that never fails to conscript not only new adherents of i, but also, or rather, new i-artists. As we’ve seen, however, a definitional aspect of the i-artist, which we now are, is the critical reading of ideology. “Das i-Gedicht” critically turns interpellation against itself, stages interpellation as a tool against ideological interpellation, interpellates us into critics of interpellation.

“Important for i is . . . that it is a something through me, even if the others have made it, that I have stamped it as artwork, through my recognition” (Werk, 5:137). “Das i-Gedicht” includes within itself, that is it visibly marks that very recognition through which it is created, indeed a reading and recognition that each reader is then commanded to repeat and recite. It simultaneously exemplifies and recruits as we simultaneously read and write. This interpellation of us, then, is not meant to end with us, but rather propagate further, to recruit others to both reread and therefore recite this “artwork . . . i.e. rhythm, which can also be perceived as artwork by others who think artistically” (5:139). “Das i-Gedicht,” as performance and manifesto of i-art itself, functions as a self-critical interpellation which recruits individuals as subjects critical of their own formation as subjects through this interpellation, a recruitment that becomes a germ of self-reproductive critical thought within ideology. The work of i-art is meant to be read, written, read again, and so on, the two activities now one and the same, and freshly stamped “i-art” or simply “i” anew. This final stamp by the reader/author is the completion of the process of i, and until the next recitation, momentarily finishes the work: “Das ist mir i” (To me that is i).

From 1922 to 1924, Schwitters punctuated many of his critical texts on i with some variation of “[Das] ist (mir) i” ((To me,) [that] is i).[35] While many of Schwitters’ works are thematically titled, e.g. “Das i-Gedicht,” “Unsittliches i-Gedicht” (Indecent i-Poem), “Pornographisches i-Gedicht” (Pornographic i-Poem), or his 22 “i-Zeichnungen” (i-Drawings), the process of creating a work of i-art, in which the artist does nothing but recognizes and excises some rhythm, this stamp cannot be some symbol or seal attached or appended by the artist.[36] Rather, this stamp is inherent to the process itself, the “is (to me) i” written with the final snip of the scissors, the mark of the excision, or rather, the excision staged, made visible as less a brand or seal than it is a unique mold or cast, the conclusive punctuation at the end of every work of i-art. This, however, is only the momentary finality of a particular iteration of reading/writing, a temporary closure which allows for further repetitions and recitations demanded by the i-art and i.[37] As this final move signals and specifies the momentary completion of the work of i-art, it also serves to reorient the excised material and its previous grammar as something other than what it had been, no longer merely a child’s school book, a department store’s price list, or a misprinted label for table salt.[38] They are now, through this act of rhythmic recitation, recontextualized into the realm of the ideologically critical i-art or the i-artistic. In other words, the final stamp closes and thereby momentarily reaffixes the signification of the raw material and immaterial materiality, the text and grammar, of the citation that came before as i-art. That is, Schwitters’ written-excision of i functions like a point de capiton.[39]

With the closure of a rhythmic citation of and from some previously raw, readable material, a new signification emerges based on the visible cut, the newly repositioned point de capiton, the moment of the work’s retroactive recontextualization as i-art, like a “sentence [that] only exists as completed and its sense only comes to it retroactively” (Lacan, Seminar III, 262, translation slightly modified). Only when this new i-meaning is retroactively created in the final moment of excision by this i-point de capiton can the audience recognize the work as a work of i-art, can they consider themselves to have received its message. This, however, is precisely the moment of interpellation: “The point de capiton is . . . the point which interpellates individual into subject . . . in a word, it is the point of the subjectivation of the signifier’s chain.”[40] This is precisely what i, with its new, unique master-signifier, “i,” accomplishes. Whether the explicit paratext of “to/for me, that is i” or the conspicuously visible excision-as-stamp of i in the closure of the citation, this i-point de capiton gives a new diachronic meaning to a Sütterlin-i, some song of the others on the horizon, etc., as embodiments of i. What makes this i-interpellation unique, however, is its refusal to obscure itself as interpellation, its refusal to hide the ideological grammar that undergirds the material. In the act of rhythmic citation in “Das i-Gedicht,” our horizon of expectation is radically and conspicuously shifted to i in the angled up-bar’s disappearance into the white page, the conclusive guillemet, the final bracket, all of which anchor, stabilize, package the work’s own signification as a complete ideologically interpellative unit. That is, the i-interpellation of us as readers/writers of ideological interpellation requires us to recognize, to read that ideological grammar, read the where of the excision, to read the point de capiton, to read the moment of interpellation. The visible final cut of this excision that marks the work of i-art becomes a moment, then, of ideologically critical potential, a subversive disruption of the previously smooth functioning interpellation of the material’s original context.

“Das i-Gedicht,” the i-poem, is particularly indicative of this potential, focused on the conspicuously ideological and interpellative battles that reverberated around the Fraktur-Antiqua debate in the first two decades of the twentieth century, both within the work as a radical juxtaposition of Fraktur and Antiqua, as well as the excision of the work itself, materially a single letter and epigram from the educational ideological apparatus, now visible in a fluctuating series of uncertain contexts. That is, both implicit process and explicit theme disregard the presage that interpellation never calls itself such. Indeed, in both its excision and the material, “Das i-Gedicht” both positively and subversively performs, and therefore makes visible, the processes necessary for interpellation to function. As readers of this work, we are not interpellated as the most recent reciters of ideology, as subject-cogs in the unperturbed reproduction of ideology, but rather as the most recent analysts and critics of ideology and the processes of its self-reproduction, as readers/writers/reciters with only our new-found ideologically critical scissors.

i = dada

While positioned at something of a geographical and temporal periphery to it, Schwitters nonetheless explored Dada and Dadaist praxis through i: “Dadaists create Dada, the world is Dada, namely i = dada” (Werk, 5:150). This equation is communicative, for Dadaist would often unwittingly suggest dada = i, that is, as potentially any or every given material, everything, though simultaneously the non-thing of the ideological grammar that underpins the material, nothing. As Schwitters’ good friend Raoul Hausmann enigmatically and rhetorically summarized it: “What is Dada? An art? A philosophy? A politics? A fire insurance? Or: State religion? is Dada real energy? or is it ☞ nothing at all, i.e. everything?” (fig. 5).[41] Given this equation, or at the very least deep affinity between i and Dada, and therefore the exemplary, if not definitive “Das i-Gedicht” as something of a “Das dada-Gedicht” (The dada-Poem), we can more fully investigate not only the politics, but the uniquely subversive critique of ideological subject formation of Dadaist poetry.

Though “Das i-Gedicht,” for all its exemplarity of i and therefore relation to Dada, has rarely, if ever, been cited as a particularly political Dadaist work, its ostensible impassive simplicity provides a candid, if complex, view of ideological interpellation, particularly for its immediate audience in 1922, many if not all of whom had been introduced to this Sütterlin-i in school, with this same explanatory epigram. Similar to more traditional Dadaist works, however, this unusual presentation of some purportedly obvious and transparent material, now excised from its original sources, from its socio-historical contexts and matrices, highlights those very ideological apparatuses and processes in which that material was originally found and to which it therefore contributed. That is, the critique comes less from the exceedingly familiar material than from its newly divulged ideological tethers, and therefore the radical destabilization of previous interpellations. From the simplest, most naive, even quietest examples of Dadaist poetry, this appears to be the kernel of Dadaist poetry’s subversion not only of this or that ideological apparatus, but more fundamentally the subversive performance of interpellation that discloses its own ideological contexts and apparatuses, in order to radically destabilize the ideological subject.

Raoul Hausmann, “Was ist dada?,” in Der Dada no. 2, Berlin, December 1919
Fig. 5. Raoul Hausmann, “Was ist dada?,” in Der Dada no. 2, Berlin, December 1919.


[1] Tristan Tzara, “An Introduction to Dada,” in The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, ed. Robert Motherwell (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 402–406, 403.

[2] Of course, Tzara was not the only Dadaist to characterize Dada and its works in this way. Max Ernst, for example, used the same metaphor in speaking of Dadaists: “we needed to somehow vent our indignation. This happened naturally with attacks on the foundations of civilization, which had caused this [First World] war,—attacks on language, syntax, logic, literature, etc” (Max Ernst, Max Ernst in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten, ed. Lothar Fischer [Reinbeck: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1969], 35). All translations mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Hugo Ball, Zinnoberzack, Zeter und Mordio: Alle DADA-Texte, ed. Eckhard Faul (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2011), 11.

[4] Tristan Tzara, Œuvres complètes, ed. Henri Béhar (Paris: Flammarion, 1975), 1:493. This and all other multivolume works cited with the volume number followed by the page number.

[5] Richard Huelsenbeck, Dada Almanach (Berlin: Erich Reiss Verlag, 1920), 6. Huelsenbeck clarified Schwitters’s position in relation to Berlin Dada: “Dada rejects works like the famous ‘Anna Blume’ of Kurt Schwitters on principle and emphatically” (Huelsenback, Dada Almanach, 9).

[6] Kurt Schwitters, Das literarische Werk, ed. Friedhelm Lach (Köln: M. DuMont Schauberg, 1973), 2:37–38. Emphasis in original here and throughout.

[7] Judith Butler, in her discussion of Althusser’s interpellation, noted that injurious speech does not necessarily require the subject to actively participate for the interpellation to be successful, or felicitous. See Judith Butler, Excitable Speech (New York: Routledge, 1997), 31. If the silent man who stands is indeed interpellated by the group of people around him, specifically by Mrs. Feuerhake, it is as Lauseaas (lazy devil), Filu (rogue), Rübenschwein (turnip swine), and other injurious epithets. See Schwitters, Das literarische Werk, 2:32–34.

[8] Louis Althusser, Sur la réproduction (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995), 226; translated by G. M. Goshgarian in Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (London: Verso, 2014), 190. This and all other original and translated texts will be cited with the original language pagination followed by the English.

[9] For a brief introduction to the structure of the traditional emblem, see John Manning, The Emblem (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), 13–36. For a history of its didactic uses, see Peter M. Daly, “Emblems: An Introduction,” in The Companion to Emblem Studies, ed. Peter M. Daly (New York: AMS Press), 1–24. For a deeper discussion of the enigmatic nature of the emblem, see Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991), 1:358ff.; translated by John Osborne as The Origin of German Tragic Drama (London: Verso Books, 2003), 183ff.

[10] For example, see Schwitters, Das literarische Werk, 5:120, 137, and 176f.

[11] Sybille Krämer and Rainer Totzke, “Einleitung: Was bedeutet ‘Schriftbildlichkeit’?” in Schriftbildlichkeit: Wahrnehmbarkeit, Materialität und Operativität von Notationen, ed. Sybille Krämer, Rainer Totzke, and Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2012), 13–35, 18.

[12] Friedrich Kittler, Grammophon, Film, Typewriter (Berlin: Brinkman & Bose, 1986), 27; translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz as Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 14.

[13] See John L. Flood, “Nationalistic Currents in Early German Typography,” The Library 15, no. 2 (1993): 125–141.

[14] Horst Heiderhoff, Antiqua oder Fraktur. Zur Problemgeschichte eines Streits (Frankfurt am Main: Polygraph Verlag, 1971), quoted in Flood, “Nationalistic Currents,” 132.

[15] Gustav Ruprecht, Das Kleid der deuteschen Sprache: Unsere Buchschrift in Gegenwart und Zukunft (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 45 and Mitteilungen des Deutschen Schriftbundes 2, ed. Adolf Reineke, (1915): 82, respectively, both quoted in Susanne Wehde, Typographische Kultur: Eine zeichentheoretische und kulturgeschichtliche Studie zur Typographie und ihrer Entwicklung (Tübingen: Max Niemayer Verlag, 2000), 254.

[16] Albert Kapr, Fraktur: Form und Geschichte der gebrochenen Schriften (Mainz: H. Schmidt, 1993), 69, quoted in Wehde, Typographische Kultur, 253.

[17] For a more specific discussion of teaching of writing in a school setting, see Michel Foucault, L’ordre du discours (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), 46f., translated by Rupert Swyer as “The Discourse on Language” in Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), 215–238, 227.

[18] See Harald Süß, Deutsche Schreibschrift: Lesen und Schreiben Lernen – Lehrbuch (Augsburg: Augustus Verlag, 1995), 5, 51.

[19] Richard A. Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 33. See Eric Havelock’s The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences, especially chapters 4 and 6.

[20] Winthrop-Young & Wutz, introduction to Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, xxii.

[21] Though Wehde does not mention it specifically, Schriftgemeinschaft could similarly be seen in the religious context, a community based upon not only script but scripture. Many proponents of Fraktur saw the national character of Germany as implicitly tied to its religious heritage, particularly in view of Luther’s typographic choices for his translations of the Bible.

[22] Wehde refers here to Gustav Ruprecht’s Das Kleid der deutschen Sprache.

[23] Adolf Reinecke, Die deutsche Buchstabenschrift: ihre Entstehung und Entwicklung, ihre Zweckmäßigkeit und völkische Bedeutung (Leipzig-Borsdorf: A. Hasert u.C., 1910), 38, 41.

[24] Friedrich Sammer, Der Kampf um die deutsche Schrift (Gau Sachsen Nazionalsozialistischen Lehrbundes, 1932), quoted in Wehde, Typographische Kultur, 251.

[25] Den Gegnern der deutschen Schrift eine deutsche Antwort, (Werdandi-Bund, 1911), 9, quoted in Wehde, Typographische Kultur, 256.

[26] Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 11; Roland Barthes, Mythologies, (Paris: Éditions de Seuil, 1970), 202, translated by Annette Lavers as Mythologies (New York: Noonday Press, 1991), 128. For a brief discussion of regarding the parallels between Barthes’s myth and Althusser’s interpellation, see Slavoj Žižek, “Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology” in Mapping Ideology (London: Verso, 2012), 11.

[27] To my knowledge, there are no articles dedicated to an investigation of either “Das i-Gedicht” or its relation to i. Rather, i is conceived as a “special form” and therefore material support for larger examinations of either Schwitters’s Merz or Lettrism at the turn of the century. See, for example, Hanno Ehrlicher, “Das Alphabet in Bewegung: Buchstabenexperimente der ‘historischen’ Avantgarden,” Poetica 43, no. 1/2 (2011): 127–151, 138–140; Richard Grasshoff, Der befreite Buchstabe: Über Lettrismus. PhD diss., 150–159.

[28] Patrizia McBride, “Montage and Violence in Weimar Culture: Kurt Schwitters’ Reassembled Individuals,” in Contemplating Violence: Critical Studies in Modern German Culture, ed. Stefani Engelstein and Carl Niekerk (Amsterdam: Brill, 2011), 245–265, 246, 250.

[29] As McBride similarly points out, Brigid Doherty’s article “Figures of the Pseudorevolution” (October 84 (1998): 64–89) explores the metaphor of surgery in avant-garde, postwar montage.

[30] Jacques Derrida, “Signature événement contexte,” in Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Éditions de minuit, 1972), 365–393, 377, translated by Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman as “Signature, Event, Context,” in Limited Inc. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 9.

[31] Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 294.

[32] Kurt Schwitters, pppppp: poems performance pieces proses plays poetics, ed. and trans. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2002), 229. In many ways, then, this method of reading prefigures the concepts of constitutive spacing and machine-like grammar associated with Derrida and de Man, respectively.

[33] The initial printing of “Das i-Gedicht” utilized parentheses and quotation marks, though subsequent printings switched to brackets and double guillemets. See Kurt Schwitters, Die Blume Anna. Die neue Anna Blume: Eine Gedichtsammlung aus den Jahren 1918–1922 (Berlin: Verlag der Sturm, 1922), 30.

[34] Althusser writes: “one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology. Ideology never says ‘I am ideological’” (Sur la réproduction, 227:191; emphasis in original).

[35] In reference to Reverdy’s “Regard,” for example, Schwitters uses a similar formulation: “Es ist für mich i” (For me, it is i). See Schwitters, Das literarische Werk, 5:137.

[36] These are published in Schwitters, Das literarische Werk, 5:139, 5:140, and Kurt Schwitters, Catalogue Raisonné, ed. Karin Orchard and Isabel Schulz, (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2000), 1:357–365 and 1:515–16, respectively.

[37] Like Derrida’s mark and symbiotic spacing, or de Man’s material and materiality without matter, the work of i-art is meant to be read, written, read again, and so on, the two activities melded and infinitely repeatable. See Derrida, Marges de la philosophie, 277; Limited Inc., 9; and de Man, Allegories of Reading, 296ff.

[38] These were the original materials of Schwitters’s “Das i-Gedicht,” “Unsittliches i-Gedicht” (Indecent i-Poem), and the i-drawing “Tafelsalz” (Table Salt). See Schwitters, Das literarische Werk, 1:206, 5:139, and Schwitters, Catalogue Raisonné, 1:515, respectively.

[39] Point de capiton is variously translated into English as “anchoring point,” “quilting point,” or “upholstery button.” See Jacques Lacan, “Le point de capiton,” in Le Séminaire, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973), 3:293–306, translated by Russell Grigg as “The Quilting Point” in Seminar III: The Psychoses (New York: Norton, 1997), 258–269.

[40] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 101. See also Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London: Verso, 2008), 190ff., and Jacques Lacan, “Le maître et l’hystérique,” in Séminaire, 17:31–42, translated by Russell Grigg as “The Master and the Hysteric” in Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (New York: Norton, 2007), 29–38.

[41] Originally published in Der Dada 2 (December 1919), 7. Reproduced in Raoul Hausmann, Am Anfang war Dada, ed. Karl Riha (Wetzlar: Anabas Verlag, 1991), 8. This work was repurposed, with different typefaces, one word italicized, and an added manicule for the unpublished Dadaco anthology, the cover of which is reproduced and translated by Kathryn Woodham and Timothy Adès in The Dada Reader: A Critical Anthology, ed. Dawn Ades (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 98–9.