Monday, September 3, 2007

What is Surrealism?

(The following short text is a note from a larger manuscript in the area of scientific/ poetic/ revolutionary epistemology by M Forshage, where the abundant references to surrealism seemed to necessitate at least a technical note regarding the definition of surrealism. This is certainly neither the most enthusiastic nor the most practically necessary of texts, but since it relates to a lot of things touched by the hell-choir text and a theoretical discussion on present positions of surrealism in general, it has been added here.)

The apparently easiest way of defining surrealism is to resort to a purely historical definition; surrealism is the movement founded by André Breton and his comrades in Paris during the years following world war 1, which was publicly announced 1924 and then has spread over the world and been developed in many different forms. Such a definition is obviously unsatisfactory since it in itself does not exclude anything at all of the uninteresting rubbish that in many circumstances have been associated with the term, it is just the most sweeping of ostensive gestures.

Many active surrealists would like to try to draw a dividing line by putting themselves into equation, and say for example that surrealism is anything that falls within the collective and individual activities of the active organised partakers in the surrealist movement in each historical collection. As a definition this does even worse though. Not only is a lot of the things that organised surrealists do quite obviously not surrealist (many of them are a lot more general and inclusive activities, and/or rather pertaining to their specific social or cultural forms and habits, and/or to neighboring fields of interest like politics or art) but the definition also does not the job expected from it until the surrealist movement is defined in some qualitative way, and some difference between “real” surrealists and purely nominal surrealists have been accounted for - such a distinction is often very easy to make on a spontaneous basis (sometimes admittedly far too easy and thus misleading) but very difficult to do in an explicit and objective way. Furthermore, if surrealism really is anything at all, a definition which relies on both an extreme formalism which resembles circularity (surrealism is what surrealists do) and on authority as epistemological source (surrealism is what the surrealists say it is) is intellectually deficient.

Many (not the least me and my friends) have tried to abstract forth the most fundamental content of surrealism with flowery language and hyperradical phrases (“the total liberation of man” and all that) but that remains just suggestive characteristics of a content, and still nothing which makes it possible to objectively identify what is actually included and what is not. Such phrases quite simply can not distinguish surrealism from a lot of other things, other forms of revolutionary politics, everydaylife activism, psychological experimentation, imaginative creativity, mysticism, etc – all these things which between them may possibly have a shared core which surrealism reveals (or, if not, rather a virtual core which surrealism constructs), but which taken one by one is definitively not identical with surrealism in any meaningful sense.

(In the connection from where this text is taken, it was relevant to refer, for additional examples, to a sentence from the Stockholm group’s declaration “The objective situation of life june 2002”: “The activities of the surrealists really only pertains to investigating the means of exalting life beyond personal happiness, carreer, money, wage labor, family and common sense” or to the whole tract “The scream in the sack” (elsewhere on the icecrawler pages).)

Well, to start with, we have to bake into the definition a circumscription of its range, admitting a specificity to surrealism, meaning that we can never reduce it to any easier or more complex theory or selection of themes, and that while possibly trying to make such a formulation still never expect it to be exhaustive, and see that surrealism can only be the realisation of any such content in a particular historical form which keeps attracting, is expressed by, and is further developed by, real human beings in concrete social historical connections throghout the world. So here I would like to sketchily characterise the contents by a structural analysis of its themes and activities inspired by Imre Lakatos model for analysis of “research programmes” (with a “hard core” which can’t be questioned, a “protective belt” of more flexible corollaria, and an imbedding in “positive and negative heuristics” which tells how to go about in practice).

For surrealism, the innermost core is obviously POETRY, the concern for which is largely untouchable. Around it are the fundamental attitudes towards poetry, still not negotiable; simply CREATIVITY and NONCONFORMISM. It is NOT the case that creativity is the inner, individual and/or esoteric side while nonconformism is the outer, social and/or exoteric side. On the contrary, they are both equally important as basic pillars in intrapsychic, intersubjective and social aspects.

Level 3, surrounding creativity and nonconformism, are their most important forms: EXPERIMENTALITY (curiosity in methods and in results; no superordinated aesthetic criteria or trusted formulae), NON-CARREERISM (non-utilism in the social sphere) and PERMANENCE (this is not a phase or a game to walk in and out of). Those are what is needed to distinguish between surrealism and all it’s laughing-mirror images, which usually lacks one or more ot these, thus transforming the poetic content to a mere means for one or other form of temporary transgressions, nostalgic roleplaying, philatelism or clowning, moments in an eclectic and utilistic personality development, tools in one or other desired or ongoing cultural carreer or academic carreer. Let us say that anything that fits this far is actually an instance of “objective surrealism” of one kind or another.

Then we can say that the next layer, level 4, are the historically determining forms for this activity; all that which characterises the activity of those who have regarded themselves as surrealists: COLLECTIVE, TRADITIONAL (of course in the sense of actively investigating and shaping a tradition and using it creatively, not in the sense of nostalgy, lack of experiment, reliance on doctrine, habitual behavior), POLITICALLY REVOLUTIONARY, LITERATE, ODD-EDUCATED. These five are in practice indispensable for any organised surrealist activity, but not for each individual surrealist subjectively, and they are not at all necessary for fulfilling an objective surrealism.

The outermost layer, level 5, the purely protective heuristics, sometimes decisive for belonging, the establishing of a typical or normal, recognisable form, is the whole surrealist tradition and everything it suggests, teaches and warns for; including the good and bad experiences made, as well as any shared vocabulary, set of techniques, particular habits and social attitudes. This is the background against which we link up with each other, communicate, and an important part of how we suggest and evaluate initiatives and how we evaluate and criticise them. You can be a surrealist without all of this, especially if you are in a collective surrealist activity where you leave much of this to other members as some specialised field of activity and knowledge (stressing a hierarchy in the group which may be fairly neutral as a mere spatial distribution in center and periphery - hopefully multidimensional-complex rather than unidimensional - , but potentially dangerous). Any objections to surrealism formulated exteriorly to this can be dismissed (and sadly will be dismissed by many surrealists) as simply not relevant because it is not surrealist. At the same time any part of this can be considered outdated, irrelevant or in need of revision by any active surrealists, as long as you do this from the perspective of the more central contents of the concept and don’t start dispensing with these, which would constitute objective revisionism and usually personal renegadism and obvious non-surrealism.

In spite of this attempt, distinguishing between surrealism and non-surrealism remains in some cases difficult without reference to the surrealist experience. However, as far as that can not be explicated in analytical terms, a definition is not the right place to determine its status.


M. Shibek said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and interesting contribution to surrealist efforts today. I may add a link to it from Unexpected Sound.

mattias said...

I received some appreciating comments to this little text (more than I expected) and also one or two notes asking if the restriction to form rather than contents is intentional or not. Well, inasmuch as that is the case (which could be disputed) it is a necessary product of its method. I had no intentions in it to distinguish between good and bad, only between surrealism and nonsurrealism. And it’s a lot easier (and more interesting) to distinguish objectively between surrealism and non-surrealism concerning interests and perspectives than concerning opinions and standpoints. I really think that surrealism objectively can embrace a fair width of opinions and standpoints, and that several opinions and standpoints which may feel deeply unreasonable for individual surrealists, or even perhaps for all surrealists at a given time, remain unreasonable primarily for other reasons than being non-surrealist. No apriori-system should ever be deducable from surrealism, and surrealism should not in any respect reduce itself to a ballot among its participants.