Tristan Tzara and the Jewish roots of Dada, Part 4

The destructive legacy of Dada

Dada’s destructive intellectual and cultural influence has proved to be seminal and long-lasting in at least three ways. First, as Dempsey points out, Dada’s notion that “The presentation of art as idea, its assertion that art could be made from anything and its questioning of societal and artistic mores, irrevocably changed the course of art.”[i] As Dickerman notes, looking at the output of Dada from its various centers of production emphasizes the degree to which it coheres

around a set of strategies — abstraction, collage, montage, the readymade, the incorporation of chance and forms of automatization — so foundational for the rest of the century that today we have to struggle to recognize their historical novelty. [Together these media] signal an assertive debunking of the ideas of technical skill, virtuoso technique, and the expression of individual subjectivity. … Dada’s cohesion around these procedures points to one of its primary revolutions — the reconceptualization of artistic practice as a form of tactics.”[ii] [These tactics consisting variously of] intervention into governability, that is, subversions of cultural forms of social authority — breaking down language, working against various modern economies, willfully transgressing boundaries, mixing idioms, celebrating the grotesque body as that which resists discipline and control.[iii]

Dada’s iconoclastic force had enormous influence on later twentieth century Conceptual art. Godfrey notes that “Dada can be seen as the first wave of Conceptual art” which exercised an enormous influence on subsequent art movements. [iv] In the late 1950s and 1960s, in opposition to the then dominant Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns resurrected the Dadaist tradition, describing the works they produced as “Neo-Dada” — a movement that, together with the “pre-emptive kitsch” of Pop Art, effectively relaunched the Conceptual art of the original Dadaists, and which has plagued Western art ever since.

The Neo-Dadaists left a deeply influential cultural-Marxist legacy insofar as their

visual vocabulary, techniques, and above all, their determination to be heard, were adopted by later artists in their protest against the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, and government policies. The emphasis they laid on participation and performance was reflected in the activism that marked the politics and performance art of the late 1960s; their concept of belonging to a world community anticipated sit-ins, anti-war protests, environmental protests, student protests and civil rights protests that followed later.[v]

“Monogram” (1955-59) by Robert Rauschenberg

Another pernicious influence of Dada was in its rejection of the identity between art and beauty. Crepaldi notes that “many artists before Dada had called into question the aesthetic canons of their contemporaries and had proposed other canons, destined to meet varying degrees of success. The Dadaists did not limit themselves to this: they… called into discussion the notion according to which the goal of art is the expression of a value called ‘beauty’.”[vi] The Dadaists legitimized the idea that the artist has a right (indeed almost a duty) to produce ugly works, and thus instituted the cult of ugliness that has so eroded the cultural self-confidence of the West.

Dada and Deconstruction

A final destructive legacy of Dada, and one which merits greater attention that it has hitherto received, lies in how its anti-rationalism profoundly influenced post-structuralism and deconstruction. Robert Wicks observes how strongly Dada resonates “with the definitively poststructuralist conception of deconstruction advanced by Jacques Derrida in the 1960s.”[vii] Pegrum likewise notes the “strong link between Dada and postmodern artistic theory, the most obvious point of contact being with the work of Derrida.”[viii] The literary critic Frank Kermode also traces deconstruction back to Dada influences, while Richard Sheppard regards the poststructuralists “as more introverted, less politicized, and less carnivalesque descendants of their Dada daddies.”[ix]

For the Dadaists, European culture consisted of “an alienation-generating amalgam of rationalistic thinking, science, and technology that adhered to the preservation of order, systematicity, and methodicality.” Furthermore, they “opposed the standing arrangement of the social (dis)order during their time, and they believed firmly that European cultural values were not worth preserving.”[x] Tzara once stated that “logic is always false”, and a core concept in his thought was that “as long as we do things the way we think we once did them, we will be unable to achieve any kind of livable society.”[xi] The Dadaists famously “spat in the eye of the world,” replacing logic and common sense with absurdity and defiance.[xii] Even the word ‘Dada’ itself, suggesting basic drives and childlike behavior, was self-consciously absurd, even self-mocking, and a subversive anthem of resistance to more fully instrumentalized speech and disciplined rationality; it ridiculed Western confidence in the “autonomy of the rational ego and the efficacy of reason.” Dadaists denounced the post-Renaissance anthropocentric conception of reality which “assumed that the world was organized according to humanly intelligible laws,” and “condemned ‘bourgeois cultures’ deadening determination to stabilize and categorize all phenomena.”[xiii]

The Dadaists even criticized the “rationality and excessive formalism” of Cubism, particularly during its analytic period.[xiv] In May 1922, at a mock funeral for Dada, Tzara proclaimed: “Dada is a virgin microbe which penetrates with the insistence of air into all those spaces that reason has failed to fill with words and conventions.”[xv] Dickerman notes how, “Resistance to fixed meaning” remained a key feature of Dada,”[xvi] and Godfrey observes that: “At the heart of Dada was an implicit critique of language as supposedly transparent.”[xvii] In this regard Dada acted as a bridge between the modern and the postmodern in anticipating Derrida’s deconstruction and Foucault’s analysis of power, which, like Dada, attacked the notion of objective truth which had been the cornerstone of Western thinking and knowledge production since the Enlightenment — what postmodernists derisively term “The Enlightenment Project”.

In order to deconstruct Western culture, Derrida had to identify a fundamental fault with it — which he decided was its “logocentrism”. By this he meant that Western culture privileged speech over the written word (a highly dubious if not downright erroneous assertion), and that it is founded on the belief that the world really is as our concepts describe it (i.e. on philosophical realism). Like Barthes and Foucault, Derrida used nominalism (the view that concepts are nothing more than human artifacts that have no relation to the real world) to deconstruct and subvert Western realism. In doing so he directly mimicked the Dadaists for whom:

It followed from their rejection of the belief in progress, in tameable nature and rational man, that the Dadas should cast doubt on the power of language, literature and art to represent reality. The information which the senses communicated to men was misleading, even the ideas of the individual “personality” and the external world were elusive and incoherent. How then could language, by definition an instrument of public communication, do other than deform and betray life’s authentic character as a discontinuous sequence of immediate experiences? The Dadas answered that words were mere fictions and that there was no correspondence between the structures of language and those of reality. Thus the belief in order which the power of a common, inherited language inculcated was illusory.[xviii]

Ferdinand de Saussure

In order to attack Western realism Derrida borrowed from the Swiss linguist Saussure (who had strongly influenced the Dadaists) the notion of “différence” – which Saussure used to denote the arbitrary nature of language signs. It does not matter what signs we use to mean “night” and “day”; what matters is that we use signs to signal a certain difference, and this structural property was, for Saussure, the true carrier of meaning. The French différer also means to defer, in the sense of ‘put off’: and on this coincidental etymological basis Derrida decided that that Saussure had definitively proven that meaning is always deferred by the text.

The consequence is that the process of meaning is something that never gets started: or rather, if and when meaning starts is an arbitrary human decision. Texts do not have a single authoritative meaning: rather, there is a “free play of meaning” and anything goes. Consequently, we are liberated from meaning. Moreover, the text is “emancipated from authorship.” Once written, the author disappears and a text becomes a public artifact. It is for us to decide what the text means, and we are free to decide as we please, and since “all interpretation is misinterpretation” no particular reading is privileged.[xix] Sheppard notes that “Derrida, dynamizing Saussure’s model of the sign, sees humanity caught in an endless flow of textuality where signifieds and signifiers perpetually fracture and recombine anew. Consequently, he concludes that there is nothing outside the text.”[xx]

Abandoning the notion of objective truth and fixed meaning forced Derrida (an Algerian self-described crypto-Jew intensely preoccupied with own Jewish identity and the evils of European anti-Semitism) in his labyrinthine, very “Talmudic” writings, to refrain from making direct statements or assertions. Instead he “quickly withdraws from any proposition that is set before us, and spirals off into questions — questions themselves that are so factitious and self-referential as to deny any foothold to the skeptical outsider.”[xxi] Under Derrida’s deconstruction “a new text thus gradually begins to emerge, but this text too is at subtle variance with itself, and the deconstruction continues in what could be an infinite regress of dialectical readings.”[xxii]

Scruton suggests that it would be wrong to dismiss Derrida’s “jargon-infested delirium as meaningless: nor is it right to welcome it as proof that nothing can be meant. For it does mean something — namely Nothing. It is an exercise in meaning Nothing, in presenting Nothing as something that can and should be meant, as the true meaning of every text, and that is its meaning.[xxiii] In his prolix paeans to Nothing Derrida seems to invoke Francis Picabia’s Manifeste cannibal dada, which was read at a Dada soirée in Paris in March 1920:

Dada alone does not smell: it is nothing, nothing, nothing.
It is like your hopes: nothing.
like your paradise: nothing.
like your idols: nothing.
like your politicians: nothing.
like your heroes: nothing.
like your artists: nothing.
like your religions: nothing.[xxiv]

One of the catalysts for the dissolution of Dada in Paris was Surrealist leader André Breton’s concern that Dada’s nihilism posed a threat to the “process of intellectual sanitation” that became necessary with the rise of Fascism.[xxv] Boime likewise asserts that the Dadaists in their “assault on the Enlightenment and bourgeois liberalism in Zurich and then in Berlin eventually played into the hands of the Fascists and right-wing nationalists. Although these latter groups condemned Dadaist spectacle and modernist thinking, Dada’s rejection of parliamentary politics and democratic institutions helped pave the way for Nazism’s direct assault on humanitarian ideals.”[xxvi] Derrida has been similarly criticized by some Jews because his writings “lead to ‘nihilism,’ which threatens, in their denial of the notion of objective truth, to ‘efface many of the essential differences between Nazism and non-Nazism.’”[xxvii] However, as Kevin MacDonald points out, Derrida’s writings have certainly not had any effect on the power of the Holocaust Industry, and indeed, some of Derrida’s biggest backers were intellectual Holocaust activists.

This strange state of affairs may be explained by the fact that for some Jews, like Derrida, acknowledging the possibility of objective truth is dangerous because of the possibility that truth could be used against the “other.” As John Caputo noted, “he idea behind deconstruction is to deconstruct the workings of strong nation-states with powerful immigration policies, to deconstruct the rhetoric of nationalism, the politics of place, the metaphysics of native land and native tongue.”

Jacques Derrida

Consequently, a world where truth had been deconstructed is very much a desirable world. Commenting on Derrida and his parallels with the Frankfurt School, Kevin MacDonald points out in Culture of Critique:

Such a world is safe for Judaism, the prototypical other, and provides no warrant for the universalizing tendencies of Western civilization – what one might term deconstruction as de-Hellenization or de-Westernization. Minority group consciousness is thus validated not in the sense that it is known to be based on some sort of psychological truth, but in the sense that it can’t be proved untrue.  On the other hand, the cultural and ethnic interests of majorities are ‘hermeneuticized’ and thus rendered impotent — impotent because they cannot serve as the basis for a mass ethnic movement that would conflict with the interests of other groups. (see here, p. 205)

When the Frankfurt School established itself in the United States, it made a conscious effort to give its Jewish ethnic politics a “scientific” veneer by gathering “empirical data” (such as that which formed the basis for The Authoritarian Personality) in order to challenge existing scientific theories seen as inimical to the interests of Jews (such as Darwinian anthropology). The result was a politically motivated ideology that may be described as a form of radical individualism in which all forms of non-Jewish collectivism are condemned as an indication of social or individual pathology. Similarly Derrida and the post-structuralists instead sought (like the Jews within Dada) to discredit ethnically disadvantageous scientific theories by undermining the notion of objective truth that underpinned all of Western science. Like the Dadaists, the post-structuralists decided that, if you dislike the prevailing power, then strive to ruin its concepts. Dada used nonsense and absurdity to achieve this goal, while Derrida developed and deployed his sham methodology of deconstruction.

Despite the difference of critical approach, a common Jewish ethno-political agenda runs through Tzara’s Dada, Derrida’s deconstruction, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Each attempted to foster the type of subjective individualism that could disconnect the masses from their traditional familial, religious and ethnic bonds — thereby reducing the salience of Jews as an outgroup, and weakening the anti-Semitic status quo within these societies.

This attempt to foster radical individualism (at least among Europeans) through critiquing the assumed logical basis of language was an explicitly stated goal of Dada, with the early leader of the movement Hugo Ball declaring that: “The destruction of the speech organs can be a means of self-discipline. When communications are broken, when all contact ceases, then estrangement and loneliness occur, and people sink back into themselves.”[xxx] Dickerman notes how the Dadaists’ use of abstraction in the visual arts and language “work against structures of authority communicated through language” and that the Dadaist “assault on ‘language as a social order’ would counter sociality itself, producing instead a productive form of solipsism.” The Jewish Dadaist Hans Richter spelt this out in his monograph “Universelle Sprache” (Universal Language) where he declared that the abstract language of the Dadaists would be “beyond all national language frontiers.” Hockensmith notes how Richter imagined in Dadaist abstraction a new kind of communication that would be “free from all kinds of nationalistic alliances.”[xxxi]

In his catalogue preface to his one-man exhibition in January 1919, the Jewish Dadaist painter Arthur Segal expressed a similar view, explaining that “the compositional principle of equivalence is an attempt to abolish hierarchies so that dominant and subordinate forces would no longer exist. Hockensmith points out that: “Abstraction thus provided Segal with a means of theorizing a world without authoritative force, one in which people and things would stand in free relation to one another.”[xxxii] Tristan Tzara affirmed that “Dada was born of moral exigency, from an implacable moral will. Dada proposed to liberate man from all servitude, whatever the origin, intellectual, moral, or religious.”[xxxiii] This was precisely what Derrida was attempting to do with his deconstruction, with Scruton observing that Derrida’s “deconstruction of meaning is in reality the deconstruction of the other, the final revenge against Them. All that remains thereafter is the subject who can choose what to think, what to feel and what to do, released from external constraints, and answerable to nothing and to no one.[xxxiv]

In his book The Jewish Derrida, Israeli academic Gideon Ofrat relates how in 1990 Derrida took part in a symposium in Turin, Italy, on the theme of “European Cultural Identity.”

Having imbibed into his very being the European culture in which he had been raised, the Algerian Jew now set about defining “Europeanism” by reference to the horrors of World War II and Nazism, and to a survey of the present day, with its “crimes of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, religious or national fanaticism. It was probably this archive that prompted Derrida to come up with his somewhat paradoxical definition of European cultural identity: “The characteristic of a culture is not be identical with itself;” in other words, one’s cultural identity lies in separation from oneself. Moreover, a knowledge of your own cultural identity is contingent upon knowledge of the culture of the Other…

[Derrida is] simultaneously proposing a fundamental alteration in thinking about Europe, in terms of non-European Otherness. Europe will know itself as Europe if it advances toward that which it is not. … Here your identity lies in your own self-denial, in your death (in identity). Moreover Derrida points out a basic contradiction between the pursuit of universality by European culture, and, by implication, the sense of exemplariness: an individual national arrogance, setting itself apart from the rest of the world. It is the contradiction between the message of values designated for the whole world, and one society’s claim to a monopoly of that gospel. Derrida puts forward a different concept: opening up Europe to Otherness, to the other, the aliens, as recognition of the Other culture and its adoption into society overall — possibly a proposal for the deconstruction of Europe, that is, a study of the Other root of the European essence, and its substitution by a pluralism of heterogeneity.[xxxv]

Plainly revealed here is the central motivating factor behind Derrida’s work: Jewish ethnic politics, or what is good for the Jews as a genetically distinct population. In the wording of Kevin MacDonald, Derrida’s deconstruction was a Jewish intellectual movement that was a post-Enlightenment (indeed postmodern) manifestation of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. Inevitably, as with the other Jewish intellectual movements discussed in Culture of Critique, the solution to all social problems lies in convincing Europeans to commit racial, national and cultural suicide by embracing the Other through acceptance of racial and cultural diversity. All Jewish intellectual roads lead to mass Third-world immigration and multiculturalism.

Also inevitably, as with the Frankfurt School, Derrida’s deconstructive scalpel is never turned on the Jews themselves, or Israel, who are always outside the culturally-critical frame of reference. Thus the “pluralism of heterogeneity” is never recommended as a way of opening Israel to Otherness and thereby helping Jews to better understand their identity “by advancing to what they are not.” Why? Because the whole point of this sham intellectual exercise is in cooking up specious morally universalistic rationales of enough persuasive force to convince White people to become complicit in their own racial and cultural self-destruction — thereby furthering the unstated goal of eliminating European anti-Semitism and making Europe and the West safe for Jews.

The second front in Derrida’s pseudo-philosophical exercise in Jewish ethnic politics was, of course, concerned with deconstructing Western culture and the belief systems that had sustained European civilization in the past (e.g., Christianity, nationalism) and those which could be deployed to save it now and in the future, such as race realism and evolutionary theories of the ethnic basis of cultural conflict in the West. Unsurprisingly, the chauvinistic Jewish beliefs that have sustained Jewish societies and culture for millennia escaped Derrida’s deconstructive attack.

Regarding post-structuralism generally, Scruton notes that, from Foucault’s analysis of knowledge as ideology of power to the “deconstructive virus” released into the academic air by Derrida, “this culture of repudiation may present itself as ‘theory,’ in the manner of the critical theory of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Habermas, developing ponderous ‘methodologies’ with which to root out the secret meanings of cultural works, to expose their ideological pretentions, and to send them packing into the past.” But, he points out, “its aim is not knowledge in the post-Enlightenment sense, but the destruction of the vessel in which unwanted knowledge has been contained.”[xxxvi]

Post-structuralism and deconstruction rapidly infested Western academia during the seventies and eighties and soon became the establishment approaches in the social sciences; their emergence owes an intellectual debt to Dada which, in response to the WWI and (for the Jewish Dadaists like Tzara) the existence of anti-Semitism, gradually morphed into a disgust at the bourgeois rationalism that was a defining feature of post-Enlightenment European culture.

This disgust was directed at the society responsible for the terrifying waste of that war, and at the art and philosophy which appeared so enmeshed with bourgeois rationalism that they were incapable of giving birth to new forms through which any kind of protest could be made. In place of the paralysis to which this situation seemed to lead, Dada turned to the absurd, to the primitive, or the elemental.[xxxvii]

The Dadaists were keenly aware of the paradoxical nature of their revolt against logic and reason. Robert Wick notes that “self-contradictory phrases sprinkle themselves across the Dada manifestos — phrases which proclaim that everything is false, that Dada is nothing, that there is no ultimate truth, that everything is absurd, that everything is incoherent and that there is no logic. They are phrases that present themselves in the manifestos as being true, meaningful, coherent, and logical, while they deny all truth, meaning, coherence, and logic.”[xxxviii] Like the later poststructuralists, the Dadaists recognized that they were trapped inside a “double hermeneutic” in that they were compelled to use the artistic forms of bourgeois society to mount a critique of that self-same society. Ades thus observes that:

The Dadaists believed that the artist was the product, and, traditionally, the prop of bourgeois society, itself anachronistic and doomed. The war finally demonstrated its rottenness, but instead of being able to join in the construction of something new, the artist was still trapped in that society’s death throes. He was thus an anachronism whose work was totally irrelevant, and the Dadaists wanted to prove its irrelevance in public. Dada was an expression of frustration and anger. But the Dadaists were all painters and poets, and they subsisted in a state of complex irony, calling for the collapse of a society and its art on which they themselves were still in many ways dependent, and which to compound the irony, had shown itself masochistically eager to embrace Dada and pay a few sous for its work in order to turn them into Art too.[xxxix]

In an analogous way, Foucault and Derrida attempted to develop an “ontology of the present” that would enable them to “abstract” themselves from their cultural surroundings. The paradoxical and self-invalidating nature of this endeavor did not, however, limit the immense influence that post-structuralism and deconstruction exerted. Instead the logical flaw at the heart of the entire post-structuralist intellectual edifice is simply ignored — this being that same logical fallacy perpetrated by Nietzsche when he repeatedly expressed the view that there are no truths, only interpretations. Either Nietzsche’s position is true — in which case it is not true, since there are no truths, or it is false. Derrida’s and Foucault’s central arguments amount to the same point made less brusquely, and while the fact that they presented their arguments in opaque pseudo-profound language in an attempt to conceal the paradox, the paradox nevertheless remains.

Foucault and Derrida thus owe their inflated intellectual reputations to their role in giving authority to the rejection of authority, and their absolute commitment to the impossibility of absolute commitments. Paradoxical, too, is the assumption of a trans-cultural perspective that they deny to be possible. As Scruton puts it: “Deconstruction deconstructs itself, and disappears up its own behind, leaving only a disembodied smile and a faint smell of sulphur.”[xl]

Those who point out the obvious flaw in Foucault’s post-structuralist analysis of power and Derrida’s deconstructionist analysis of language — namely, that a rational critique assumes precisely what they put in question — are simply accused of aligning themselves with the oppressive, hegemonic forces of the Eurocentric bourgeois patriarchy through assuming the frame of reference that this group, through its past dominance in the economy of power relations, has normalized. Indeed, they are told that the very belief in neutral enquiries is not a neutral belief, but rather the expression of the hegemonic worldview most in need of deconstruction. There is, therefore no position from which deconstruction can be judged. If there were such a vantage point, it would be founded on rational argument; but rationality itself has been deconstructed.

Deconstruction is therefore self-vindicating, and provides the culture of repudiation with its spiritual credentials, the proof that it is ‘not of this world’ and comes in judgement upon it. Of course that subversive intention in no way forbids deconstruction from becoming an orthodoxy, the pillar of the new establishment, and the badge of conformity that the literary apparatchik must now wear. But in this it is no different from other subversive doctrines: Marxism, for example, Leninism and Maoism. Just as pop is rapidly becoming the official culture of the post-modern state, so is the culture of repudiation becoming the official culture of the post-modern university.[xli]

In post-structuralism and deconstruction the spirit of Dada extended far beyond what had been hoped for by even by its most messianic propagandists like Tzara and Serner during its heyday. Dada acted as the lever on which whole new departments of modernism and postmodernism swung into view. For the British historian Paul Johnson “Dada was pretentious, contemptuous, destructive, very chic, publicity-seeking and ultimately pointless.”[xlii]

Johnson is wrong on the last score. Dada, through the influence of Tzara and other prominent Jewish Dadaists, was to a great extent, a manifestation of Jewish ethno-politics in Western art and culture with far-reaching and catastrophic political and social consequences. The splinters from the bombshell of Dada altered the face of Western art and intellectual life forever — revolutionizing both art forms and people’s expectations of art, and undermining trust in the notion of objective truth which has been a defining trait of Western civilization since the Ancient Greeks.


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Biro, M. (2009) The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota.

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Poole R. (2000) ‘Deconstruction,’ In: Alan Bullock & Peter Trombley (Eds.), The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, HarperCollins, London.

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[i] Dempsey p. 119

[ii] Dickerman p. 8

[iii] Ibid. p. 11

[iv] Godfrey p. 37

[v] Dempsey p. 204

[vi] Crepaldi p. 195

[vii] Wicks p. 11

[viii] Pegrum p. 269

[ix] Sheppard p. 365

[x] Wicks p. 9-10

[xi] Beitchman p. 29

[xii] Unger & Unger p. 354

[xiii] Short p. 12

[xiv] Parmesani p. 36

[xv] Richter p. 191

[xvi] Dickerman p. 33

[xvii] Godfrey, p. 44

[xviii] Short p. 17

[xix] Scruton 1994, p. 478-479

[xx] Sheppard p. 363

[xxi] Scruton 2005, p. 136

[xxii] Poole p. 203

[xxiii] Scruton 2005, p. 137

[xxiv] Ades p. 203-204

[xxv] Haslam p. 93

[xxvi] Boime p. 102

[xxvii] Ivry

[xxviii] Caputo, p. 231

[xxix] Biro p. 154

[xxx] Dickerman p. 29

[xxxi] Hockensmith p. 482

[xxxii] Ibid. p. 486

[xxxiii] Codrescu p. 176

[xxxiv] Scruton 1994, p. 479

[xxxv] Ofrat p. 30-31

[xxxvi] Scruton 2007, p. 70

[xxxvii] Ades p. 210

[xxxviii] Wick p. 10

[xxxix] Ades p. 204

[xl] Scruton 1994, p. 479

[xli] Scruton 2005, p. 138

[xlii] Johnson p. 669

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[xxxix] Ades p. 204

[xl] Scruton 1994, p. 479

[xli] Scruton 2005, p. 138

[xlii] Johnson p. 669

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