Monday, November 13, 2006

hell choir pt 3

The crisis of legitimacy for postbretonian surrealism remains and does not remain an issue.
In a sense the easiest way to motivate continued surrealist activity is that it is a timeless endeavour. It corresponds with or innermost desires and critiques, and we feel affinities with the surrealist tradition, and so we go on forever whatever happens. In a sense, this is hopefully a part of the driving force for several of us, but note that it is perfectly compatible with for example a Schuster’s view of the surrealist movement being objectively dead while the surrealist spirit survives eternally, or on the other hand with any wellmeaning cultural snob seeing surrealism as a perpetual reminder of the imaginative sources in art and literature.
So, on the other hand, surrealism still claims to be a progressive movement, some kind of a contemporary force, a historical agent, the present face of a specific real historical movement.
Surrealism has definitely developed before. Early 20’s surrealism differs from late 20’s surrealism differs from middle 30’s surrealism etc in themes, in methodology and in strategy. At least from the second world war on, we see that a lot of the development of surrealism takes place partly outside surrealism or in undercurrents of surrealism (but probably before that as well, with for instance Bataille’s circle and Le Grand Jeu), while an ”official surrealism” was actually constructed not only by art and literature historians but actually by the french group themselves, most obviously in choosing to organise the great all-integrating partly-retrospective timeless 1947 exhibition instead of (as another suggestion at the time was) organising a conference for surrealists to develop the movement’s direction based on a confrontation and comparison of the very different experiences made during the war. In a sense, surrealism as a unified historical agent died exactly there, where for the first time the forum for coordinating/accumulating surrealist experience chose to develop not the sum and its implications but actually something else than the combined individual energies/ experiences, actually thus creating this ghost (or if you will spectacle) of ”official surrealism”. The major tracts of the late 40’s focused on RE-instating timeless themes of anti-colonialist freedom, anti-stalinist freedom, anti-religious freedom, and very consciously did not adress themes or experiences made during the war years (the journals of the same period do contain more than usual of occult-mediumistic themes and display some new artistic themes, but in the spirit of additions rather than developments).
This is NOT to say that the surrealist movement nor the french surrealist group died or reverted at that point. I’m only saying that from 1947 on the surrealist movement was definitely DIVIDED and without a historical focal point. The french group and Breton himself kept up an admirable organisational, creative and critical output and represent the single most important activity center throughout that period, but that is as one group among others, with its specific limitations, rather than a coordination center, focal point or something like that. In a sense, surrealism became ”timeless” in 1947 because it became infinitely inclusive, came to consist of the total sum of themes, works and activities that had ever been a part of it, in an indiscriminately accumulative way, instead of moving forward through new discoveries superceding and changing the meaning of the older ones, that is, without historical breaks, without coupure, without aufhebung. So the legitimity crisis of postbretonian surrealism is actually a problem for the whole postwar period, it was just that the inspiring living presence of Breton made a lot of people unaware of the fact for a few decades until he died. (4)

And what then are the objective advances of surrealism after Breton’s death? First of all, I don’t know if it’s needed or not to point out that the term ”advance” is intended as ”irreversible development” (and not necessarily ”progress for the better”, whatever that would mean). Contemporary surrealism in a sense only consists of a very wide spectrum, but for those who have chosen to link up with each other in an organisational/activist framework (what we like to refer to as a movement) there may still be some themes and some experiences that are shared. Well, we’d probably need nothing less than an international con-ference to establish that. I do NOT consider, neither as advances nor shared experiences, as some seem inclined to do, the tactical or local retreat from revolutionary politics in france and some other places in the 40s, nor the rhetorical autodissolution twists of the liquidationist faction of 1969, and probably not (but I’m open to suggestions from someone who studied – or experienced – it closer) the scattered local outbursts of enthu-siasm and optimism about more or less superficial occult, drug, humanism, mass campaign politics, or sexual themes. Instead, my suggestions for shared advances are:
* A more effective and more explicit network structure,
due to two mutually reenforcing factors:
a) Changed communication infrastructure, to which the movement has only partially responded but that partial response is still sufficient to alter our organisational framework, with in several sectors a far more effective networking, new transversal alliances, etc
b) Recognition of the lack of an organisational center and the need to base collaborations on voluntarity and mutual interest, thus creating a non-hierarchic free-association-based structure (and if you will, democratic and anarchic).
* reintegration of ”parasurrealist” traditions;
most notably the situationist movement and the work of Bataille and his circle, but also Cobra, various groups of Phases and a number of individual artists and writers. However the experiences of several other such efforts remain for the movement to suck up; for example Mass-Observation.
* a hardcore insistence on the ludic
as the core of surrealist collectivity and surrealist experience
* a renewed focus on urbanism and walking,
partly inspired by the reintegration of situationist psychogeography. (there have been tendencies to forward surrealist focus on rural and natural environments as well, but these have been much more isolated, and usually mere minor parts of more generally focused interests in either geography, biology or so-called ”ecological awareness”).
* a successive (but still far from fulfilled) re-abandonment of official culture.
In a way this was the starting point of surrealism, but rather soon the antagonism softened, and it was for many decades (and sometimes still is) nothing out of the ordinary to have members ”double-organised” contributing more or less the same type of the work to the art market, literature market or academia on the one hand and to the surrealist movement on the other hand. Of course this involves partly tricky questions about the nature of work, and about the ability of poetry to function even in coopted settings, where different groups and different individuals will keep assessing the priorities differently. What I’m suggesting here is merely that after Breton’s death the pendulum has been on a backstroke, with more new surrealists keeping the distance to official culture than striving for recognition and market shares…
* a recognition/appreciation of the surrealist aspects of popular culture,
which of course was partly present for a long time, but first made an irreducible part of the surrealist sphere of interest by the comprehensive investigation and agitation by the Chicago group in the 60s and 70s.
* Music,
a sphere made impossible to keep dismissing with a lazy quote of de Chirico’s and Breton’s (partial) lack of interest, by the number, scope and frenzy of surrealist interventions and investigations in recent decades. These concern the surrealist aspects of popular music (part of the previous point), to a lesser but still significant extent the surrealist inspiration of many 20th century composers, but most of all, the musicking of surrealists themselves including emphasizing the analogies between automatism and musical improvisation, between musical and poetical communication, etc. (Apparently, the partly analogous field of dance remains a minor topic)
* Politics.
Most surrealist groups have made some bad experiences in this field and ended up in defending the good old baseline of emphasising the politically revolutionary aspect of surrealism together with the movement’s autonomy visavis all purely political revolutionary organisations, and the freedom to associate with such in a non-sectarian manner to a lesser or greater degree in accordance with one’s own assessments of present necessities. This is fine, especially in comparison with all these mostly isolated and more or less bitter individuals who think that surrealism abandoned revolutionary politics on the whole; but still not sufficient. A lot of us have also seen the old quarrel between the two classically available alternatives of anarchism and trotskyism as totally fruitless and these alternatives in themselves clearly insufficient or even entirely outdated, and that a non-sectarian revolutionary attitude today must include an openness towards new means of struggle and more recent original theories.
* Critique of the image.
Again partly as a result of the reintegration of situationist critique, but also as a part of the general retreat from official culture and a direct response to the present overflow of all kinds of imagery stemming from the commercial sphere but effectively colonising larger part of the mind and the social; several groups (but not all) have been emphasising the need for vigilance and suspiciousness in this area and the futility of merely contributing to this flow as if nothing happened.
Some of these may not be part of the development of surrealism on the whole but belong to only certain cultural contexts, while on the other hand there may be things which I have omitted, either simply not being able to discern them or believing them to be confined to only certain cultural contexts while they are actually better regarded as parts of the development of surrealism on the whole.
Some controversial issues require more international discussion; I did put the critique of the image on the list because it appeared to be a dynamic force that united several points of activity a few years ago, but the discussion appeared to halt prematurely, just like the discussion over religion and notions of sacredness at the same time, which was perhaps even less conclusive but partly recently made topic by Ducornet’s initiative of reissuing the 1948 antireligious tract and the subsequent call for new positionisngs from the Paris group. At the same time, there is a whole field of ”anticlerical (or even profane) mysticist” practices paralelling and even tangenting surrealist focus on the imagination which is largely unexplored by the movement. I’m sure there are individuals in the movement who are more oriented than others in this and have suggestions for what currents and writers of recent or contemporary occultism/magic, unorthodox psychoanalys/ psychology etc that are more worthy of studying than others.
The attitudes towards science remain to be thoroughly discussed. There are two types of questions there. First the fascinating perspective on reality and the immense number of startling discoveries and poetic details made available in, for example, particle dynamics, spacetime theory and the whole of quantum physics, scientific cosmology and astronomy in general, metereology, systems ecology and microbiology, evolutionary theory and genetics, plate tectonics and geomorphology, quaternary geology and palaeoecology, cladistics and probability theory, cybernetics and general linguistics, etc (as I’m personally able to gather many examples only from the biological and geological fields and not other ones, I’ll leave that for some other occasion). All fascinating, but also partly coming into conflict with con-victions held dear in the surrealist tradition.
Second the focus on methodology and epistemology. How many remember today that the surrealist watchword coupure is actually Bachelard’s description of the leap from prejudice to scientific thinking? Actually there is so much to gain in adopting the methodological stance; to design ones projects specifically to be able to give results regardless of ones prejudices, to always ask how things can be known and investigated rather than if they feel true or false, to abandon faith and custom to be able to identify anything novel, unexpected, counterintuitive etc. In a sense this has always been a part of the core of surrealism, but there is very often a distinct sloppyness in methodology, a tendency to stop halfways and jump to conclusions from there, very often in order to artistically or literarily exploit the investigation and then leave it behind. I’m not saying we should all become scientists (though it would be fun!), simply that there is a lot to gain from straightening up the methodology and pose epistemological questions.

The nature of the traditional allegiance to hegelian philosophy and freudian psychology (despite their continuing relevance!) and the superficial rejection of the whole poststructuralist sphere (despite its many deep flaws!) is something that seems partly shaky and demands a critical discussion in the movement, also being the perhaps most concrete aspect of an the apparent lagging behind in theoretical issues. Antihumanism is actually one of the most radical pillars of modern poetry on the whole, present in surrealist ludic/collective/”mediumistic” practices but very often discussed on only the most shallow of levels or even denied; it remains a critical issue for the surrealists to develop a relevant understanding of specifically in this period. Issues posed by for instance feminism and queer theory, of intergender power relations, microlevel democracy and social domination issues on the whole, have certainly advanced and reshaped the movement during the period, but in these issues the surrealist movement very often seem to be lagging a little bit behind other parts of society, in spite of having some extremely radical perspectives to offer; why it is so certainly demands a discussion. Partly this overlaps with the necessity to refocus on eroticism and its potential and pitfalls in present society where the configuration and role of sexuality is partly much different from in the days of classic surrealism. While we´re at it we could also need some fresh perspectives on the role of love.
In all these questions surrealism should have something to say, and possibly a lot of us would be capable of reaching some common understanding of the present necessities. In several of them there appeared to be a broader discussion on its way a few years ago. The difficulties at the time of organising the publication of the international surrealist bulletin seemed to postpone the discussions. (Of course it’s possible that the discussion kept on, only we were much out of circulation; in that case, we’d be happy to see the developments!) Anyway, during the years, digital communication has become increasingly available and reliable, so we should be able to carry on a serious discussion more swiftly now, shouldn’t we?

Mattias Forshage (5)

(4) We were very happy to find this course shift acknowledged and emphasised in Michael Richardson’s and Krzysztof Fijalkowski’s anthology Sur-realism against the Current.
(5) The text has been thoroughly discussed and largely approved (but not necessarily in its entirety) by the Stockholm surrealist group and also incorporating important comments from Merl Storr of the SLAG group

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