Through immersion-my immersion in her, her immersion in World War I-era New York (as imagined by me)-I have tried to begin to break
If the Baroness is like “death in reverse,” as Barnes so evocatively puts it, then retelling her story brings us back to a new beginning. As Benjamin realized, doing history can become a political act if it involves a critical reappropriation of the fragmentary elements of the past with an eye to refashioning our conception of the future; if it involves peeling away-?aying as it were-the ideological layers of the present, leaving behind the skeleton of the past (its contours in?ected, of course, by the ?ayed ?esh of the now).4 As his colleague Theodor Adorno argued, Benjamin bemoaned the kind of history that involved the extraction of “inmost soul” from the “alienated, rei?ed, dead world” of frozen aesthetic forms in order to make sense of the past.5 This dead-world kind of history precisely parallels Simmel’s sublimatory art practice, which, as I have argued here, is opposed to the kind of desublimatory, irrational, lived neurasthenic Dada of the Baroness. The dead-world kind of history, then, is the opposite of what I, loosely following Benjamin’s model, hope to have traced in this equally neurasthenic art history, leaving lots of shreds of ?esh visible on the bones of the past. This is an immersive mode of history that replaces a passive observing of the past with “a proactive interrogating through use and reuse.”6 Through a kind of historical ragpicking, Benjamin dragged the idea of history “out of in?nite distance into in?nite proximity.”7 I hope that I have in some measure begun, through this rather strange and deliberately uneven text (riddled through with bursts of irrationality), a similar gesture of hauling history out into the harsh light of postmodernity, as it were, to bring it closer. Rather than make sense of New York Dada or provide a pocketbook theory of avant-gardism by pointing to a singular aspect of its practice, I have wanted, if anything, to refuse the understandable but limiting tendency to narrate the doings of the myriad artists and writers associated with this label into a ?nal, cohesive narrative- a narrative that, not surprisingly, would thus tend to exclude from its purview all the troublesome, irrational, marginal ?gures. I have wanted to return to this fractious, impossible cultural moment a sense of the irrational-of the grotesque, smelly, profoundly embodied (and so mortal) ?esh that ?lled, contested, and refashioned the otherwise rationalized conceptual/material spaces of urban industrial modernity. In order to do this, I turned to-identifying with as well as projecting onto-the Baroness as a ?gure who was deeply irrational in her immersive engagements with the spaces of the modernist avant-gardes and, in particular, of New York Dada.
At least a little
down the formalized and, indeed, rationalized logic of art history itself. (This has involved, as will be clear by this point, struggling, and not always successfully, against my own internalization of the Ideological State Apparatus that is the discipline of Art History.)8 To this end, I have overtly staged here my struggle to articulate the Baroness and her New York Dada cohorts as paralleling my struggle to articulate myself in the face of my own neurasthenic bodily responses to the noise, heat, stench, speed, spatial con?gurations, and chiasmic-turned-electronic interpersonal relations of posturban postmodernity-a posturbanism, as I pointed out in the introduction, that has been theorized as quintessentially exempli?ed by the city of Los Angeles where I lived and worked as I ?nished this book.9 We postmoderns, too, are fragmented and shattered, but in different ways, immersed as we are in the simulacral postmodern byways of Internet engagements and instant replay news stories of planes crashing into skyscrapers, carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq, and other disasters typical to the global capitalist posturban world of the early twenty-?rst century. We are truly all neurasthenics now.10 We know too much, yet we know nothing at all. In this context, a neurasthenic art history seems much more appropriate than the kind that pretends to secure closure as it delivers “true” pictures of the past. I’d like to end with just a few more, far from fully formed, thoughts on the intersections among femininity, queerness, irrationality, and the world that artists inhabit and create. Barnes described in powerful terms the visceral effects of the Baroness’s embodied presence: “she is strange with beauty, . . . she is high with fear, . . . she is a ‘citizen of terror,’ a contemporary without a country.”11 Beautiful and terrifying at once, the Baroness, with her sexual promenades and verbal onslaughts, demanded that the artist/genius/?aneur/prostitute knot-which (as Benjamin pointed out) provided a foundation for modernity in its cultural flingster forms-begin to be untied. The death mask of the Baroness, then, is presented here to evoke a life mask for us now. It is the fragment, the “skull,” that signals the presentness and importance of the lived Dada of World War I-era New York for our situation today. The Baroness herself, in a poignant letter sent to Barnes probably just before she moved to Paris in 1926, wrote: “It is not easy to look suicide in the face, though I do not fear death [. . .] Why is life such hell? Hell is heart vibrating in hostile space.” But it was the Baroness’s ultimate ability to rebound in the face of the crushing forces (the “hostile space”) of urban industrial modernity that kept her creatively surviving (until, of course, her death); she also notes, hopefully, “I will change in Parise out of Hell intrepid.