Annie Pfeifer


The Lexical as Critical: Carl Einstein’s ‘Documents’

“Dictionaries offer Latin explications of unseemly things, so as to reserve small shameful pleasures for their elites,” wrote Marcel Griaule in his programmatic entry in the “Critical Dictionary.” Along with his colleagues, Georges Bataille and Carl Einstein, Griaule criticized dictionaries for being both debased and elitist. Aimed precisely to overthrow this dynamic, the “Critical Dictionary,” was a separate section included at the end of each issue of the surrealist journal Documents, published between 1929 and 1930. Originally conceived by Einstein, the “Critical Dictionary” attempted to redefine banalities or clichés by providing short expositions on subjects ranging from “Nightingale” to “Factory Chimney.” I pose the question: why were the entries of an avant-garde journal with radical aspirations organized under the rubric of the most traditional, hierarchical, and mundane medium? Focusing on Einstein’s early dictionary drafts and entries, my paper makes a case for Einstein’s overlooked but critical contributions to the founding and development of Documents and its Dictionary.

It was precisely the rigid and prosaic structure of the dictionary, I argue, which allowed Einstein to embark on his revolutionary project of dismantling literary and cultural clichés. In a proto-deconstructive way, Einstein and his colleagues sought to explode the relationship between the signifier and signified with their newly minted definitions. As it freed its word from the most conventional, formulaic meaning, the “Critical Dictionary” struck at the heart of the idea of what a lexical definition purported to be. Negotiating between the dictionary’s often quotidian content and its erudite readers, the authors of the “Critical Dictionary” exalted the banal and trivialized the exalted. In this way, Documents allows us to reexamine Surrealism as the attempt to transform the mundane into the extraordinary through radical recontextualization. Einstein’s Dictionary drafts and entries not only shed new light on his undervalued contributions to Documents but also allow us to reexamine his role as an avant-garde writer uneasily poised between literature and visual art.


A specialist in modern German literature, Dr. Annie Pfeifer is currently affiliated with the Robert Walser Center in Bern, Switzerland and the Rutgers University German Department where she taught in 2015-2016 as a Lecturer. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University in May 2015. Her research interests include literary and political theory, aesthetics, visual and material culture, new materialism, and museum studies. She is currently completing her book manuscript on modernist practices of collecting. She has forthcoming articles in the New German Critique and the collected volumes Que(e)rying Consent and Iran and the West. Together with the Robert Walser Center, she is co-organizing an international conference on Walser in May 2017.  She has also served as Visiting Assistant Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Bern in Switzerland in 2014-2015.