Monday, November 13, 2006

VOICES OF THE HELL CHOIR - aspects of contemporary surrealist activity, its modes of rhetoric and its ludicism

The history of the postbretonian surrealist movement (1) disenvelops through historical contingencies and particular conditions which are partly common for surrealism on the whole and partly particular for the different cultural/ regional contexts.
It seems like the least common denominator of most contemporary activities is an on-going playing/ experimentation and critical/poetological/methodological/political discussion. In addition to this, greater or smaller effort is made in a spectrum of other activities, which are still rather fundamental but still more or less optional in each different context. They are * critical positioning visavis contemporary art, literature, science, politics etc * organisational questions/ democracy/ securing information availability/ internal updating, * international contacts/ discussions/ collaborations/ initiatives, * investigating, evoking, evaluating and/or defending surrealist (and pre- and parasurrealist) traditions, * keeping contacts/ collaborating with progressive political and artistic forces on the home ground, * endless walking/ dérive/ urban exploration/ mingling with the underground, * keeping each other updated in the fields of everyone’s individual creativity, * publications, * public performances, poetry readings, exhibitions, concerts, soirées, etc, * political initiatives, all kinds of sabotage, agitation, leaflet distributing, disturbing or obstructing normal order, detourning the urban environment, etc. The list could be made longer or shorter. Most groups will spend time with a lot of these but not all.
But international communication does not regularly account for all of this, and a lot of it is usually very difficult to discern in groups elsewhere. It’s very much channeled through a certain rhetoric, which may seem to dominate the external picture of the group. This rhetoric apparently usually conforms to one of three preponderances; a propagandistic mode, a subjectivistic mode, or an analytical mode. Each of them can be important part of an integrated surrealist project, and each can become more or less sterile when overemphasized or exclusive. It seems like the ludic sphere, and the determination to give the ludic activities their rightful central place, can offer cures for such imbalances or at least the arena for such a cure.
I will discuss these rhetorical modes, and it is important to remember that I am trying to discuss them as objective modes, and not the communicational strategies of specific groups. Each group will be able to draw upon the different modes and employ them for different purposes, typically in different textual genres, but it’s quite evident that for each group one rhetoric mode appears to dominate their output, or at least that part of the output which is internationally available, giving each group a sort of ”strategical image” in relation to the other groups. In spite of this objectivity ambition, some critical remarks on specific examples have been grouped under the relevant headings.
Admittedly, these rhetorical modes are all useful in different circumstances, and they also provide a lot of the obvious objective differences between groups. Thus they should not be evaluated in terms of some being legitimate and some not, regardless of whether in order to disregard certain groups as pseudo-surrealists or revisionists, or to complacently regret the lack of spontaneous affinity with some. Our solidarity should be solid enough to span over these differences and be able to recognise them among the conditions for communication, but also a continuous topic for any kind of critical discussion between us. Thus, the intention is to pinpoint some of the obvious pitfalls of each mode and some issues that need to be discussed; that is, to provide some input to a multilateral critical discussion on concrete topics within the movement; not to slander or point out anyone specifically, perhaps this time not even to consciously provoke… Unfortunately, in the Stockholm group we have given priority to other things than international communication for many years now (to an extent that at least I deeply regret), but it turned out that only very few were inclined to respond to our international letter of january 2004 at all. Recently, at least two new contacts were surprised that we were still active, having heard the opposite from the french group. So, we haven’t had much substantial correspondence with the french for some years, but as far as we know we have been sending each other the usual amount of polite, impersonal, forwarded information and similar, that could be considered the pessimistic baseline of international communication. (The fact that the rumour of our death has been spread by other sources and in other fora too is a partly amusing and partly frustrating but perhaps not too interesting issue.) Several times the idea has been proposed by different groups to collect that kind of general information (with a dose of sifting) into regular reports from each group, and some groups have occasionally tried it as well, but the lack of response (and sometimes the considerable effort of editing it or agreeing on it?) has made this mere occasional outbursts. Then a lot of discussion will go on between individuals who have developed parti-cular bilateral discussions, and a lot of discussion will go on between those who have the time to hang out on internet forums and bomb mailinglists on a regular basis – a lot of time will certainly be needed, not only to formulate your own ideas and keep defending them against all kinds of misunderstandings, but even more to sift the gems of serious discussion from the piles of mere frustration, ignorance, personal contradictions, personal opinions and other personal expositions. Sometimes ludic invitations and more anecdotal or subjective questionnaires have it easier to produce substantial response, but for a long time we have been feeling that even though such inititiatives are generally important to promote, they do also feel a little ”loosely hanging” and possibly even having a false ring IF we are not able to discuss critical issues, our fundamental commitments and strategical choices, similarities and differences in these, simultaneously.

The propagandistic mode of surrealism is one of the strongest elements in postbretonian surrealism. It contains hyperradicalism, aggressivity and rash theoretical simplifications. Actually it seems to have borrowed very much of its rhetorics from Vaneigem, whose situationist agitation in itself is little more than a populistic-light-surrealism. In reintegrating that part of the situationist arsenal into surrealism along with the other, more interesting parts, we have definitely bought back our own pig in worse shape. This tendency might have been there in at least some tracts of earlier surrealism too (from 27/1 1925 onwards), but far less before the 60’s, far less before Breton’s death and before the general leftist upheaval of the late 60’s widely disseminated the situationists’, Marcuse’s and others’ simplified or simplifiable theories.
If for a moment we don’t refrain from invoking cultural stereotypes this strategy could be considered an americanisation of surrealism, integrating into surrealism elements of the loudmouthed, shallow, un-selfcritical voluntarism typical for the american stereotype. But even though several american surrealist groups have been active in employing this rhetorical mode for a long time, it must be noted that: * they are certainly not alone in the world in doing that, * they have also carried the banner of a (necessary but admirable) antiamericanism, and * that from an analytical perspective it would seem highly unsatisfactory to refer to such stereotypes and not look for specific historical explanations.
One such is obviously available, to the extent that the death of Breton did put the surrealist movement in a sort of legitimity crisis. With Breton as the living embodiment of the heritage, there was never a doubt (at least not internally) who was the carriers of the torch, but without him, there were definitely a lot of different ideas around regarding how to carry on, and who was the more legitimate, the truer to the spirit, etc. In some cases it was a matter of conflict between different alternatives as to how to proceed, in other cases it was more about how to establish a sense of exclusive authencity without there being anyone around with the authority to entrust you with that. Not unexpectedly this rhetoric is common in new/young groups who are eager to establish their right of speaking in the name of surrealism and claiming its whole heritage in spite of their own lack of experience and ”credentials”. Aggressivity and ”raptured selfconfidence” (as a swedish tract actually pro-claimed) is certainly a rational strategy in that context, even where it is also one potentially destructively dominating over other modes in the surrealist activity, and one leading to a number of fatal oversimplifications in the general outlook.
Common flaws intimately intertwined with this rhetoric is of course the general tendency to see things in black and white, including putting a totally unproblematised faith in individual creativity and urge for freedom, in for example eroticism, desire and/or love, and more generally in a given spectrum of valueladen concepts, and a corresponding unproblematised belief in the intelligent design of the conspiracy of all kinds of domination, sometimes even a general depreciation of objective reality as such, and also including the grotesque overevaluation of the revelatory nature of one’s own creative and critical work, as well as the identifying of one’s own activity/ rhetoric as a sufficient lithmus paper – so that anyone attracted to one’s ranting is better than others, while everybody repelled by it thereby proves themselves to be objective enemies of surrealism without any significant contributions or opinions to make. The mechanisms of recuperation are often imagined as a conscious conspiration of silence and active marginalisation against living surrealism and its revolutionary aspirations. It tends to fuel a practical focus of speaking a lot more about surrealism than speaking surrealism, and so merely defending rather than inventing surrealism.
So, in this mode there exists an obsession with legitimity as the ”true voice of surrealism” versus everybody else who represent falsaria, and an aggressive selfdefence versus all of these. In fact, most inaugural declarations of new surrealist groups starts with (and sometimes spend most of the text with) complaining over the general contemporary misunderstanding of what surrealism is, instead of presenting what their specific visions/ contributions/ sensibilities might be. This is a bit selfcontradictory; of all the things the surrealist project might consist of, the task of correcting misapprehensions of surrealism cannot be considered a CENTRAL issue if the grand revolutionary and creative ambitions are not chimerical.
Art and literature history and criticism (both academic and popular) presents surrealism as if it was a movement and/or style in art and literature. Not surprising, because otherwise they would have no reason to talk about it all, since a surrealist project grasped in its entirety goes way beyond their jurisdiction. If they would grasp it they would be less likely to be content with being historians och critics within art and literature, but even if they were, it would still be the artistic or literary output of surrealism which would be most relevant for them to discuss within their professional field. So what? And then they often do not take a big interest in contemporary surrealist activities, and often deny it in any way they can. But what we do is in no way aimed at getting confirmation and good grades from them, in fact it’s only good if we can pursue the core of our activities in peace from the public eye, and only intervene in the public sphere when we choose to do so ourselves from particular strategic angles, without illusions of being fairly represented, isn’t it?
Then furthermore, a lot of people present their creative output on the internet, some in local low-brow art events, some in advertising, some in official art. In all these places, some people call their work surrealist without knowing too much of the history or theoretical part of surrealism. For most, the association will be very shallow or arbitrary. A lot of them won’t produce works that are of any interest whatsoever for us. Some of them will, more or less independently of how much they actually knew about surrealism.
All these people, employing the term surrealism in the sense that makes it meaningful for their own activity, will often be way off mark and part of objective recuperation – but objective recuperation will work regardless of how we judge single voices. Apart from errors of historical facts (which may not be our task to correct) it will always be only inner criteria that draw the line between relevant and irrelevant conceptions of (comments on, contributions to) surrealism. Anything officially represented in the consensus knowledge of present society is objectively a part of its ideology. In my opinion, the only thing that would make it matter what the marketeers of that ideology say about surrealism is whether it might scare off people that could make substantial contributions to it. And certainly, most people could probably make such contributions under very radicalised circumstances. But probably not at present. We have no interest in followers. In the present, surrealism is factually (and has no particular reason to regret it) a minoritary endeavour, carried on by those who are interested/energetic enough to have found it and found a way to practice it by inner necessity. To some people, the particular spark of imagination and reenchantment and diehard curiosity towards all kinds of marginal phenomena of objective reality, and/or the desire for revolt against the narrow concepts of rationality, sociality and life on the whole, will be something they recognise in surrealism from their own insatiable thirst; and these persons will probably find this to a larger extent in an academic book of surrealist paintings than in a tract yelling at misunderstandings (examplifying the notion of the two-way working of recuperation; a ricochet). They will probably not trust the contemporary surrealists of being the foremost fighters for freedom, imagination and love simply on our word for it; they will expect to find it manifested in remarkable works and remarkable investigations.
So why don’t we just step down from this struggle over who’s a surrealist and who’s not. For historical purposes we’ll only need a technical definition (like the one Penelope Rosemont elaborates in her Surrealist Women), and for practical contemporary purposes it will suffice for each group to choose with whom it wants to collaborate and with whom not! The only substantial way of establishing sur-realism as a presence in its totality in the relevant sectors/ substructures of present society is through the sincereness, energy and intelligence of ones own activities. The only substantial way of establishing oneselves within surrealism is by contributing innovation and poetry, sincere critical questions and suggestions. Polemics over legitimacy, over rights to designations, are rather uninteresting even where the causes may be entirely just.
For the sake of comprehensiveness, let’s recognise at this point all the merits of polemical aggressivity as well; inherently, it 1) serves to scare off a substantial lot of polite or recu-perative interest or pseudointerest (along with some of the serious interest, for sure), 2) serves to potentially radicalise exhanges of ideas and courses of events as mere provocation, and 3) serves to remind of the fundamental radicality of surrealism and the necessity of ”absolute divergence” (which of course, must be reinvented in each specific connection and never relied upon as mere safe abstentionism from risktaking), and furthermore 4) can be simply really fun. Not inherently but historically it has also in recent decades been the preferred forum for * assessment of the potential of real insurrections/ dynamical courses of events (very much in the tradition of the situationists), * critical use of (and thus not only traditional allegiance to) the theories of Marx and Freud.
So, of course it’s not wrong with a good rant now and then, but let’s try to focus a little more on true enemies and a little less on harmless and uninteresting academics, journalists and home artists, and let’s not confuse this ranting with the core issues of surrealist activity.

(1) ”postbretonian” in a temporal sense. But not only temporal, as we will see further on.

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