Interview with German literature and culture studies scholar Kurt Beals
Listening to Dadaist Raoul Hausmann recite his 1918 poster poem “fmsbw,” you may recognize the staccato repetitions of sound, codes and ciphers that first prompted Kurt Beals, assistant professor of German and a Faculty Fellow in the Center for the Humanities, to connect Dada poetry to the telegraph. In his study of 20th-century experimental poetry, “The Birth of Poetry from the Spirit of the Machine: New Media in German Poetry, 1916–1968,” Beals uncovers new links between these artistic productions and the new forms of communication of the day.
Can you give us a brief overview of the project?
My book argues that the poetics of 20th-century German avant-gardes were profoundly shaped by modern theories and technologies of communication, such as the telegraph, information theory, and the digital computer. Each of these technological and theoretical breakthroughs occasioned a fundamental re-examination of the relationship between language and human subjectivity, and experimental poetry was one key venue in which that re-examination took place. Focusing on Dada, Concrete poetry, and early computer-generated poetry, I demonstrate that each of these developments can be properly understood only in its media-historical context, as a poetic processing of new media phenomena.
Do you recall what got you thinking about poetry and 20th-century new media — for example, about Dada poetry and the telegraph?
For a long time I’ve had an interest in experimental literature, art, and music. I remember being drawn to Dada as early as high school, but initially I thought of that as unrelated to my scholarly work on German literature. Then in graduate school I got more deeply engaged in media history and media theory, and in the cultural effects of media that aren’t always immediately apparent. When we talk about “media and culture” in popular terms, the conversation tends to be about mass media like TV, radio, the internet, new social media, etc. It’s easy to talk about “the media” as an ideological force in contemporary culture, but there are also less obvious ways that our everyday means of communication influence our lives and our patterns of thought.
The further I got into media theory, the more I started seeing correspondences between the kind of experimental poetry that the Dadaists were writing and the codes and ciphers that were in common use in telegraphy. Dada poetry tends to be seen as “nonsense,” as a protest against the so-called rationality that led to the First World War, but one argument I’m making in my book is that this kind of “nonsense” wasn’t an exception at all at that time; it was actually an essential ingredient in the everyday communication technology of the telegraph.
— Scholar of German poetry Kurt Beals
What draws you to the poetry of this historical period? What is remarkable about those years and the poetry it produced?
The period is dictated in part by the works that interest me, which have a kind of coherence across 50-plus years. But of course that period also encompasses some major transitions and upheavals in German and European society.
The year 1916 is the beginning of the Dada movement, two years after the outbreak of the First World War. The movement was started by a group of international expats living in Zurich, but then spread to cities like Berlin and Paris over the course of the next few years as the war came to an end. The Dada movement was already breaking apart by the early 1920s, and of course any sort of avant-garde dissent was harshly repressed in Germany under the Third Reich.
But after the Second World War there was a resurgence of a new kind of experimentalism. It was different in spirit from Dada, but it took some key inspiration from Dada and other avant-gardes from the interwar period. So, my account picks up with those postwar movements. Of course the poetry of both periods was profoundly influenced by the two world wars themselves, but another major force in those periods — which is inseparable from the wars — was the rapid development of new media technologies, which is what I focus on.
What does the research and writing process look like for a project like this?
It’s been a long process. Fortunately I’ve had the chance to go to Europe several times and work in archives at places like the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which have significant collections of works by some of the Dada poets.
For the media history aspect, I’ve made use of a lot of digital and print archives to read historical publications and trade journals from the telegraph industry, to get a better idea of how people were thinking and writing about these technologies at the time. It’s easy for us to look through an anachronistic lens and see the telegraph as a precursor to the telephone, the internet, and so on, but I’ve tried in this project to understand how people were thinking about these media back when they were brand-new, cutting-edge technologies.
Has there been a particular finding or experience during your research that has surprised you?
One thing that’s surprised me is the similarity between some reflections about the telegraph in the late 19th century and the sorts of things people say about texting or Twitter today. There are editorials in German magazines from that time arguing that the telegraph is going to fundamentally change linguistic practice, because the sorts of abbreviations that people come up with to save money will end up entering into everyday speech, until at some point people forget where they even came from. Sounds familiar, right? LOL.