Total Expansion of the Letter: Cubism, Dada, Mallarmé

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Total Expansion of the Letter: Cubism, Dada, Mallarmé

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Title: Total Expansion of the Letter: Cubism, Dada, Mallarmé
Author: Stark, Trevor
Citation: Stark, Trevor. 2016. Total Expansion of the Letter: Cubism, Dada, Mallarmé. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: This dissertation, entitled “Total Expansion of the Letter: Cubism, Dada, Mallarmé,” studies the transformation of the status of language in European avant-garde art of the 1910s and 20s. This occurred both literally, in the Cubist use of newspaper as a radical new material for art and in the Dadaist fragmentation of words, and figuratively, in a broader sense shared by artists and writers of the indeterminacy between visual and linguistic modes of signification. This dissertation addresses the long-standing polarization between social-historical and semiological approaches in the art historical literature on this topic by tracing the genealogy of Cubist and Dadaist uses of language back to the work of the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé.

Widely read and debated in artistic circles after his death in 1898, Mallarmé’s critical and poetic writing emphasized the contingent link between the materiality of language and its semantic function in order to demonstrate the centrality of chance in the word and the world. Mallarmé’s skeptical analysis of communication, and his utopian vision of a new social role for poetry, lent his writings a fiercely contested importance for European avant-garde art, which I reconstruct and analyze in four case studies centering on the Cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the founder of Dada Tristan Tzara, and the uncategorizable Marcel Duchamp. At a time when optimistic claims for the democratization of communication are pervasive, this dissertation aims to recover Mallarmé’s skeptical emphasis on interpretive opacity. This, I argue, was the contingent basis for the “total expansion of the letter,” as Mallarmé put it, into twentieth-century art.
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