Stammering is Dada

I was asked to contribute to a forthcoming publication called ‘Dangerous Words’. The purpose of the book is to uncover the ways in which language works as a form of repression but retains the capacity for critical liberation. I chose to write about the word ‘stammer’. Below is a first draft of my contribution.


‘Words are torture in my mouth. Words are weapons when we shout ‘Ya basta!’ (Ecoversity un-conference, August 2016)[1]

What words will make revolution speak? How can we articulate the poetry of the future? (Marx 2016). Not by over-elaboration where ‘the phrase surpasses the substance’, but speaking so ‘the substance surpasses the phrase’ (Marx, 2016 4).  In other words, ‘Language has nothing to say about the future. The future cannot be said…. Its content is exorbitant to its phrasing’ (Taylor 2012). This is saying more than actions speak louder than words, or that meaning is lost in translation; rather, there is a disarticulation between the revolutionary world we are creating and how that world is spoken, as language and lyrics and poetry and prose. We can describe this disarticulation as social stammering.

Social stammering is enraptured by the word ‘Dada’: a staccato speech sound on the verge of exploding into a meaningful gush of rounded breath. Dada struggles to free itself from the language of anti-art and the slang of kitsch metropolitanism. Dada was made to disarm the rat-tat-rattle of the automatic weapons of the First Machine War (1914-1918) and the killing capitalist labour process out of which they were produced. Dada remade readymade art, against patented forms of capitalist death, as montage and performance, including sound poems made up of verses without words.

Adorno picked up on the relationship between Dada and stammering’s revolutionary vibe, sounding it out it as the basis for substantive thought:  ‘the whole of philosophy is actually nothing else than an infinitely extended and elevated stammer [Stammeln]; it is actually always, just like stammering, Dada, the attempt to say what one actually cannot say’ (Adorno quoted in Foster 2008 55).  Not as an exemplary method of speech therapy but as the phrasing for a negative dialectics.

Holloway knows what we are talking about. He reports that revolution starts with a howl of protest: ‘In the beginning is the scream. We Scream’ (2005 1), but understands the need for learning ‘a new language for a new struggle’ (2010 10). This new way of speaking is formed when we ‘stutter and mumble incoherently’ as a way of participating in the abolition of a cracked capitalism (2010 12).

We might think of capitalist language as ‘order-words’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1996), where ‘Language is not made to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience’(75). This order of order-words can be challenged by ‘creative stammering’ (Deleuze and Guattari (98), a writerly technique where authors carve out ‘a non-preexistent foreign language within…[their] own language …[making]…the language itself scream, stutter, stammer or murmur’ (Deleuze 1997 109-110). And so, in this way, ‘makes stuttering the poetic or linguistic power par excellence’ (111). Writing becomes something ‘that explodes like a scream’ (112); what might be taken as ‘inarticulate words, blocks of a single breath’ (112), is actually where a ‘deviant syntax…reaches the destination of its own tensions in these breaths or pure intensities that mark a limit of language’ (112).  So writing is poised ‘at the very edge of the seeable and the sayable, situated between sense and non-sense‘ (O’Sullivan and Zepke 2008 9), as a new common-sense.

Ranciere speaks of ‘the speaking being who is without qualification and political capacity’ (22) and, therefore, without a voice ‘doomed to ‘the night of silence or the animal noise of voices expressing pleasure or pain’ (22). This is not a demand to be heard, but what comes before recognition as ‘speaking beings’. Ranciere has many words to define this condition: ‘subjectification’: ‘a series of actions of a body and capacity for enunciation not previously identifiable within a given field of experience, whose identification is thus part of the reconfiguration of the field of experience’ (35); ‘disidentification’ (36): ‘ a multiplicity of fractured speech events’ from people without a voice (37), and the ‘part of the no-part (Ranciere 2001) a surplus population that goes unaccounted for and is unrecognised. Ranciere says it is in this space of not-speaking that politics occurs (26); or, speaking in my tongue, this is the site of social stammering.

Marx wants to bring us down to earth. He asks the question: how would it be if inanimate objects could speak in a world dominated by capitalist commodity production? He does not let his commodities speak but, like a ventriloquist, speaks for them, as if they are responding to his prompt:

Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange values’ (Marx 1990 176-177).

Marx is trying to articulate the way in which the intrinsic nature of things is overwhelmed by the domineering logic of capitalist exchange value, so much so that exchange value itself appears to be part of our ‘natural intercourse’. There is nothing natural about the social world; rather, the social world is abstracted from the process of capitalist production to appear in the form of real abstractions, which, in the world of capitalist intercourse, are dominated by money and language. Capitalist language is recognised only to the extent that it validates a society based on the logic of exchange. In capitalist civilisation money really does talk; it is the only language that everybody is forced to understand.

But we may be guilty of over-elaboration. How can we express this condition in a more visceral, animalist voice, as a precondition of our speaking being? Hugo Ball (1997), author of the Dada Manifesto, put it like this, as a sound poem intoned at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916:


jolifanto bambla o falli bambla

großiga m’pfa habla horem
egiga goramen
higo bloiko russula huju
hollaka hollala
anlogo bung
blago bung blago bung
bosso fataka
ü üü ü
schampa wulla wussa olobo
hej tatta gorem
eschige zunbada
wulubu ssubudu uluwu ssubudu
kusa gauma

Stammering is Dada.

Antonin Artaud, dramatist, poet and actor, looks for a response beyond ‘mere stammerings’ (Artaud 1992 218), in The Theatre and Its Double (1931 – 1936) to include not only human voices but the whole mise en scene: ‘everything that occupies the stage’ (231). As Pantomime (233) and Pandemonium. The affect is to overcome the ‘impotences of Speech’ (230), by including ‘everything that defies expression in speech’ 231 and ‘everything that is not contained in dialogue’ (231)   in the form of ‘a new physical language based on signs rather than words’ (215). Artaud’s theatre of sound must have ‘the evocative power of a rhythm… [and]… the musical quality of physical movement’ (216) as ‘a poetry of the senses’ (231) as much as ‘a poetry of language’ (231). For Artaud, there is no poetry of the future, only ‘a revolt against poetry’ (Artaud 1944).  The performance must recover the sense of danger that comes with the idea that ‘the present state of society is unjust and should be destroyed’ (235).

Stripped bare the starting point is not speaking or even screaming, but breathing. Artaud says ‘for every feeling, every movement of the mind, every leap of emotion, there is a breath that is attached to it’ (260). These ‘rhythms of breath’ (260) merge with the plastic and physical theatrical event to create a ‘fluid materiality’ (261). This concept of fluid materiality is a double for Marx’s real abstractions, which Artaud calls ‘metaphysics in action’ (237) or the ‘real metaphysical’ (243).  If the substance of Marx’s real abstraction is capitalist value: as the supreme form of social power, Artaud’s abstractions are filled up by a ‘universal magnetism’ (271) which he calls the soul (261): ‘unleashing an unpredictable flow of searing energy’ (Sontag xxiv 1988). Artaud’s abstractions are  something that must be confronted in order ‘to transgress the ordinary limits of art and speech, in order to realize actively…, in real terms, a total creation in which man[sic] can only resume his place between dream and events’ (245).

That is enough. For now.  We are almost out of breath, struggling for ecstatic transcendence (Holloway 2010 99). The moment of danger, recovered, beyond the danger of words.

Let us take a deep breath. Breathing. Slowly. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out.


Artaud, Antonin (1992) ‘The Theatre and Its Double’. Susan Sontag (ed) (1992) Antonin Artaud; Selected Writings. Introduction. University of California Press. Pp..

Ball, Hugo (1997) Blago Bung Blago Bung Bosso Fataka – First Texts of German Dada, Atlas Press.

Deleuze, Giles and Guattari, Felix (1996) One Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Athlone Press.

Deleuze, Gilles (1997) ‘He Stuttered’. Giles Deleuze: Essays Critical and Clinical. London and New York. Verso. Pp 107-114

Foster, Roger (2008) Adorno – The Recovery of Experience. SUNY

Holloway, John (2005) Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. London and New York:Pluto Press

Holloway, John (2010) Crack Capitalism. London and New York: Verso.

Marx, Karl (2016) The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform.

Marx, Karl. (1990) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1. London and New York: Penguin Classics.

O’Sullivan, Simon and Zepke, Stephen (2008) Deleuze and Guattari and the Production of the New. London and New York: Continuum.

Ranciere, Jacques (2004) Disagreements: Politics and Philosophy. University of Minnesota Press.

Ranciere, Jacques (2001) Ten Theses on Politics.

Sontag, Susan (ed.) (1992) Antonin Artaud; Selected Writings. Introduction. University of California Press. Pp xvii- lviii.

Taylor, Chris (2012) Stuttering Towards the Future: words


Political Violence: Capitalist Value, British Values and Academic Freedom

I was recently invited to give a keynote presentation about Student as Producer to a conference at a college in England. A condition of the invitation was that I sign a document agreeing with the proposition that the principles of democracy, liberty and religious tolerance are based on fundamental British values. The document forms part of the British government’s Prevent policy, which seeks to prevent people carrying out acts of terrorism. It is a  requirement of public institutions that they follow a set of protocols to deny the promotion of ‘extremist’ ideas on which terrorist activity might be based. I did not sign the document but set out my views about the relationship between British values and the principles of liberal democracy in an email that I sent to the organisers of the conference.  The organisers accepted my views on the matter so that I was cleared to accept the invitation and present my keynote. It is part of the Prevent protocols that colleges balance their legal duty to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom with the requirement to challenge what the Prevent policy defines as  extremist views and ideologies. I have set out below an extended account of what I consider to be some of the main areas of contention with the Prevent policy.


The British Government’s policy to prevent people being ‘drawn into terrorism’ (Prevent Policy 2015) is deeply flawed, not least because of its claim to equate the principles of liberal political society with British values, but also for its refusal to acknowledge that political violence is an organising principle for all nation-states, including the British state, as well as the global system of international relations.

As a Professor of Sociology, who teaches and writes about political theory in an English University, I do not accept that the ideals set out on the document to be signed by visiting speakers: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect and tolerance of religious faiths, are based on British values. The values are, in fact, the key characteristics of a particular political ideology known as liberal democracy or liberalism. This refusal to accept the provenance of these ideals as British values is not based on my personal opinion but is a reasoned and informed position grounded in understanding and insights gained from my study of social science, critical political economy and international history. The core aspects of liberal democracy: a free market and free labour regulated by a strong state are the essential aspects of capitalist society in general.

Capitalism did first appear in Britain in the 15th century but was not the result of  British values, rather it emerged out of the discovery of the way in which surplus value could be produced through the exploitation of labour rather than the exploitation of land (feudalism), and later how machines and technology could be used to intensify the exploitation of labour. The emergence of capitalism in Britain led to the development of a political and economic system along with associated cultures and behaviours that we now understand to be the basis of modern British society. The current legal system of order is based on the maintenance of capitalist freedoms of the market: the capacity to buy and sell commodities, and the freedom of labour as the basis of individual liberty, both of which are imposed by the state and enforced by the police.

This form of society was replicated elsewhere as other countries adopted these capitalist methods so that a liberal democratic political system is now the basis of many developed capitalist countries. As we now know capitalism has positive aspects along with some very negative consequences, including unemployment, poverty, environmental destruction and global warming. These negative consequences lead to popular forms of resistance which have been contained by extending the franchise through parliamentary democracy, legalising trade unions, along with other employment and human rights, as well as the provision of welfare and charity. A key feature of  liberal democracy is that any alternative form of political system that seeks to ameliorate the negative consequences of capitalism, e.g, through the redistribution of resources, promoting a less hierarchical society or the support for  internationalism: not the nationalism explicit in the concept of British values, is presented as chaos and confusion. Resistance to capitalism can be criminalised if it is counter to the rule of law and order on which capitalism is based.

It is important to be able to vote and to protest and to strike so that the politicians can be held to account, the system as a whole reviewed, with the possibility always open for reform as well as transformation.

A central aspect of capitalism and what distinguishes it from the pre-capitalist feudal period is that the religious principle of the divine right of kings was replaced by the rule of money and private property. As religion is no longer predominant it is possible to be indifferent to and tolerate religions as religion has ceased to become the dominant form of social authority. Discrimination is prevalent in British society, often based on behaviours carried over from pre-capitalist societies based on patriarchy, slavery, colonialism and hierarchical customs as well as other oppressive traditions. These practices are not central to the functioning of the rule of money and private property and so can be contained and eradicated through policy and political administration.

Liberal democracy can be contrasted to social democracy, which places more emphasis on collective organisation rather than individual liberty. Social democracy is also imposed by a strong centralised state as a way of ameliorating class based politics, for example, through comprehensive education and collective bargaining over employment rights and wages. Under our current parliamentary political system liberal democracy is the basis of right wing politics and social democracy is the basis of left wing politics.

The Prevent strategy to stop people engaging in terrorist activities is based on a refusal to acknowledge that political violence is an organising principle for all nation-states, including the British state, and the global system of competition among nation-states and their regional alliances. The imposition of international law is based on the condition that when national wills collide force decides. This global system of international political violence is evidenced by the history of imperialism and on-going regional and global wars as nation-states seek access to resources to continue the production of surplus value and maintain a competitive advantage. The epitome of this globalised system of mortal violence is the atomic nuclear bomb with the power to destroy all planetary life. This endemic nature of political violence is not only between nation-states but within nation-states. All nation-states and their political systems were formed through acts of mortal violence, a killing mentality denied to other groups that wish to challenge the authority of the nation-state system. This liberal framework of political violence is used extensively to justify acts of murder, sometimes under the guise of humanitarianism. To regard terrorist attacks as a form of political violence does in no way condone these atrocious acts.

In higher education it is very important that there is no dogmatic assertion of any political ideology, and that students are taught to understand how ideologies are constructed so as to be able to make their own decisions about their own place in the world. Student as Producer, which I was invited to speak about, is based a critical view of capitalist education derived from understanding and insights gained from the social sciences, critical political economy and international history.

To be asked to sign a document affirming the status of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect and tolerance of religious faiths as British values, while, at the same time, avoiding the violent nature of liberal political society, is not only against what I understand to be the basis of these ideals and the history of violent nationalisms, but  is contrary to the principle of academic freedom on which my professional integrity is based.

I have suggested some readings below that further elaborate on the points that I have made.

Benjamin, Walter (1921) Critique of Violence. Reflections. Shocken Books: New York, pp. 277 – 300.

Freedman, Des ( 2017) The Terror News Cycle. LRB Blogs. 24th May:

Kay, Geoff and Mott, James (1982) Political Order and the Law of Labour. Macmillan: London.

Meiksins-Wood, Ellen (2017) The Origins of Capitalism. Verso: London.

Mieville, China (2006) Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. London and New York; Verso.

Nabulsi, Karma ( 2017) Don’t go to the Doctors. London Review of Books.  18th May. Volume 39 no.10, pp. 27-28.

Neary, Mike (2016) Educative Power: the Myth of Dronic Violence in a Period of Civil War. Culture Machine, 16. pp. 1-28.

Perelman, Michael (2000) The Invention of Capitalism. Duke University Press: North Carolina.

Seymour, Richard (2008) The Liberal Defence of Murder. London: Verso.

Thompson, Edward (2013) The Making of the English Working Class. Penguin Modern Classics: London and New York.

John Holloway: Reading Capital

John Holloway will be  presenting his latest work ‘Reading Capital: wealth in-against-and-beyond value’ at the University of Lincoln, England, on 16th of June, 1 – 4pm in Room MB1012.

John’s reading and writings on Marxist social theory are highly influential as a way of rethinking Marx in terms of ‘Change the World without Taking Power’ (2005)  and abolishing the social relations of capitalist production through acts of resistance, as ways to ‘Crack Capitalism’ (2010).

In this new work, ‘Reading Capital’, John points out that Capital does not start with the commodity, as Marx and probably all commentators since Marx have claimed. It actually starts with wealth: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’ …” Seeing wealth and not the commodity as the starting point has enormous consequences, both theoretically and politically.

To start with the commodity leads into the analysis of capitalism as a system of domination, into an attempt to understand how capitalism works, its laws of motion. Class struggle remains external to this analysis. Capital is understood as explaining the structural framework within which struggle takes place. The analysis, in this view, shows the necessity for revolution, but does not indicate how it might take place. Essentially capitalism is understood as a closed system that can be broken only by an external force (the Party, what Party?) in the future.

To start with wealth takes us in a very different direction. The relation between wealth and commodity is not one of identity. Wealth “appears as” commodities, but, in order for us to say that, there must be a remainder: it must also be true that wealth does not appear as commodities. In other words, wealth exists in-against-and-beyond the commodity form. The starting point, the relation between wealth and the commodity, is an antagonism, a non-containment, and overflowing. Class struggle, far from being external to Capital, is posed in the opening words of the book. What follows is not the analysis of a closed system but the development of an antagonism between wealth and commodity, use value and value and, crucially, concrete and abstract labour.

To say that Capital starts not with the commodity but with wealth is both revolutionary and self-evident. The challenge is to trace this antagonism through the three volumes of Capital. This is the theme of the talk.