Wednesday, December 24, 2008

the out there

There is something going on there. Which we want to take part in. Something independent, ragingly chaotic still supremely ordered, something which simply does not await legitimation. With a combination of elusiveness, shapeshifting and omnipresence, it is indeed even difficult to adress it: many of us tries to escape those difficulties by choosing examples and talking about getting out "in the streets" or "in the forest", others talk about "nature" or "wilderness", some matter-of-factly of "outdoors" and recently some about "exteriority".

Due to illness I've spent a series of days indoors, just after I got in the mail two publications which I contributed to and which happened to coincide in time; one surrealist anthology about "the crisis of exteriority" (I don't know what this crisis is and I'm not sure what the editors (Eric Bragg, Eugenio Castro and Bruno Jacobs) mean by exteriority in the first place, my contribution was an old text about worthless places, serving as a background for their more advanced theories) and one literary journal with a "nature" theme (the editor (Jonas Ellerström) even cited my initial whining about the vagueness and problematical character of the theme, and while agreeing with my concerns, he refrained from sharing them by suggesting it to be consciously a vague catchphrase roughly corresponding to the more concrete category of "outdoors").

(Quick note: What is nature? Nature obviously means at least three related but different things; 1) nature as the "ways of the universe", the allencompassing fundamental patterns, 2) nature as the given "raw world" as opposed to culture, both outside and inside ourselves, which works in accordance with a spontaneous order, and 3) nature as the natural environments and biological systems inhabiting it, imagined independent from the human sphere but attractive for us to visit. In different languages, "nature" and its equivalents may be more strongly associated with one or the other, but the ambiguity is usually there, and the sinister gliding between descriptive and normative meanings of the "natural". Ah, I remember, and I can't decide if proudly or ashamedly, how the Stockholm surrealist group tried to hold a taped "round-table-discussion" about "nature" ten years ago and I pretty much obstructed the discussion by demanding to know what the others were talking about.)

The problem is that it is really not a problem. Dualisms may be spontaneous figures of human reason, but the point with them is to get a quick overview of the field in order to proceed to understand the constellation of transgressions and mutuality. All those dualisms of inner-outer, self-others, subjective-objective, culture-nature, artificial-ecological, civilisation-wilderness, have some basic phenomenological reality and are acceptable as provisional tools. The history of western thinking has seen the development of arguments of the impossibility of holding on to them in some stricter sense; in biology, psychoanalysis, marxism, structuralism, dialectics, etc etc; and it seems like those holding on them as basic division at any price are openly reactionary efforts like fascism and some unsophisticated applications of formal logics, or regressive such as unsophisticated applications of philosophical phenomenology or structuralism. So let's just repeat: the domain of the self is not homogenous-unitarian, not sharply delineated from other beings or the external environment, and the human sphere cannot be separated from the rest of the world, indeed human culture (just like other species' cultures) is indeed in a fundamental sense but one mere aspect of our biology, one which has in turn reshaped the planet in our small- and largescale interactions. Both the others and nature are certainly not just out there but in here just as much, and nothing out there has remained untouched.

There are two small points I have to make as a biologist, that the concepts of wilderness and ecological balance are highly dubious empirically and rather corresponds to certain people's projectional fantasies.

That virgin aspect of nature is fantasised by all kinds of primitivists, be they of pacifist or aggressive leanings. Often this is based on mere ignorance, on having no idea to what extent human land use has shaped and differentiated the natural habitats of the world for centuries. It's probably only in recent times that human impact has become, facilitated by technical deveopment but even more necessitated by demands of the economical system, largescale homogenizing enough to be severely detrimental for biological diversity. Most open lands were indeed created by human husbandry (except in very dry or very cold climates) and most natural-looking forests are shaped by some level of human harvesting of wood, animal forage, game, and other resources. The few places that could be regarded as entirely "wild", the few most inaccessible forests, the glacial landscapes, large parts of the deserts, the thundra and the oceans, are part in global circulation and therefore in complex interactions with human outtake, reshaping and littering elsewhere (littering both in terms of spreading both major junk and small civilisation souvernirs, pollution and overnourishment in general). The "wilderness" hailed in the typically american brand of primitivism (which is very significant for some of the religious and utopian movements populating north america in earlier centuries, as well as for certain ecologists and even some of the surrealists in modern times) has indeed been demonstrated to fulfill the function of an ideological construct denying the extent to which the "virginal" north american landscape was indeed shaped by the land use of the native peoples. In fact, much of nature conservation in north america is still only about keeping people out, resting on the same fundamental misanthropy idealising fantasies of a "natural way" in the absence of humans, which is one of the reasons this particular american primitivism is often characterised as "ecofascism". (Let's just be clear here: misanthropy in itself is not necessarily fascist at all, though most of its political implementations are.)

And then for the harmony of "ecological balance", putting in quasiscientific terms this fantasy of the soundness of the state of things in the absence of man. Any stability in nature is in fact a dynamical equilibrium of competing forces; what we see is there because it is the contemporary constellation of each population's "evolutionary stable strategies" visavis each other and other parts of their environment. It will occasionally go off in dynamic developments, sometimes triggered by human involvment and sometimes other factors. Not too often though, if it was highly unstable it simply wouldn't be there for us to see; but as biological systems it cannot be static. Such a sense of dynamic aposteriori order is probably one of the few useful concepts of order anyway. What would it be else? Entropy of course, the only conceivable universal order, when everything moves out of reach for everything else so that nothing should ever happen anymore... But then, on a fundamental level, biological life is specifically a uniquely powerful system of combatting entropy, both on the smallest scale (sorting substances by means of metabolism) and on the largest scales (reshaping the global environments by means of actions of populations, and thereby creating history). And then there is the neurotic sense of order; the denial of everything but the few things in control.

And here, as it lies at heart of the concept of nature, we shouldn't consider ourselves too good to repeating the analogies between the mental and geographical aspects here; the sheltering obsession is similar in so-called rational thinking and in housing. Proclaim a little space reserved for the well-known and controllable; in one area "sound reason" or closed rationalism, in the other indoors or home. Sheltering a fraction of space is not just the political and moral fall of grace that Rousseau was talking about, it also creates a uniquely predictable environment. The space is filled with familiar objects only, with familiar people only or with no other people at all, temperature, light, humidity, any exchange between in and out is regulated, everything regarded as "nature" is kept out.

This creates the sphere of outdoors as something to project desires on simply because it obeys the normal workings of reality: it is where the wind blows, where other species live, where strangers go, and where unexpected encounters occur; the domain of freedom. And at some points we will need to distinguish between the often maddeningly banal, repetitive and petty concerns structuring the larger parts of our social structures and the inspiringly banal, repetitive and petty concerns which seem to dictate the lifes of other lifeforms and their interactions, and which indeed seems to speak directly to us when we visit so-called natural environments. In both types of environments, the point is to make oneself available to the flow of regularities and irregularities which has things to teach us, challenge us and bathe us in the concrete sensory perceptions of all that which is images of freedom and reality - Which is perhaps, perhaps, another appearance form of the same domain of flow that opens up from a point which phenomenologically seems to reside within us whenever we open up ourselves to poetry, through automatism, alchemical labor, falling in love, disorder in the senses, aggressive inspiration, seances and rituals, or whatever. Is it?

(to be continued)
(among other things by a serious attempt to grasp the concept of exteriority of the exteriority surrealists)

To the question of surrealism and women


No doubt the question about surrealism and women is not one but several questions. A widespread academic view, which was very popular in the 80s and still is to be seen in many places, is that surrealism is unambiguously misogynist, which shows both in the works of surrealist artists and writers, in their temperaments, and in how women have "been treated" in the surrealist movement.

Others are capable of partly separating these different questions and imagining alternatives; in terms of ideology and ideas, are the aims of surrealism misogynist, passively sexist, naïvely wellmeaning or radically antisexist? what about the imagery, the fantasies, the mythology and the creative tools? what about the organisation and daytoday practice? and in terms of practical frameworks for real women; is it primarily disciplinary and isolating, or primarily revealing, inspiring and contact-knitting?

That old academic standpoint, the misogyny thesis, might perhaps not be that hot at many universities anymore, but remains a consensus in many places where it is mostly repeated by teachers and newspaper critics and others whose job it is to have opinions without investigating the matter. Several current academics have moved on to more fruitful lines of enquiry.

The tendency among many sympathetic academics and critics, as well as many surrealists themselves, to regard this standpoint as absurd and not confront it, is unfortunately indistinguishable from the outside from not regarding the question as interesting or legitimate, which indeed would be a case of ongoing sexism. While other sympathetic commentators have formulated different views, in general terms or in case studies of single historical surrealists, and the surrealists have usually dismissed the critique as reactionary and careeristic, and slightly more rarely, openly discussed the questions themselves. Our most important sources here, at least in the english language, are Nancy Joyce Peters's benchmark essay "Women and surrealism" in Arsenal #4, 1989, and Penelope Rosemont's bulging anthology Surrealist women of 1998 (also including the former; and indeed a necessary read for anyone who wants to approach the problematics, and who wouldn't?).

In these sources, the deeply-felt and well-argued defense of surrealism as a radically antisexist endeavour in its aims and methods is combined with a certain propagandistic eagerness for legitimation including a reluctancy to adress many complicated questions and admit any weaknesses or faults, at least regarding modern activities. The achievements, the consistency and vehemence, and the poetical and theoretical qualities of the works of women surrealists are very consistently praised in Rosemont's anthology. In this book, all women are intelligent, original, strong and sensitive (while it is attacked as totally irrelevant when Whitney Chadwick and other academics mentioned their beauty). All writings of women have remarkable poetic power. Every woman who ever wrote an article, regardless of the subject, is an important theorist. Every woman whom we don’t know anything else about than her name under a single isolated text is an important comet in the movement and a major mystery. Every woman who is repeatedly present in the source material is one of the movements' leading organisers and militants. This lack of objective assessment is obviously a conscious propagandistic choice, and certainly a minor weakness compared with the great merit of holding them forth and making them visible and available in the first place, but nevertheless something that might prove counterproductive in that it might make us refrain from posing certain critical questions.

Now some of the questions are in fact available for investigation with the crudest empirical methods. Rosemont has counted the women contributing to journals and exhibitions for each decade, but for some reason she does not seem to have counted the male contributors in the same way to be able to make a comparison. She has not studied any other comparable (whatever that should be) movement to establish that their share of women is actually smaller. And she has not taken the step to ask women who are not longer active in the movement why not.

While the academic standpoint is not just a rather poor standpoint, but very often this specific feminist-surrealismology is a rather poor strand of research, in most cases (with some notable exceptions) resting almost entirely on secondary sources and very little on original empirical research, the only effort involved being that of "critical reinterpretation" which all too often just means a comparison with another preconceived ideology and, even worse, imagining how historical women "must have felt" according to some standard popular psychology and an obvious lack of imagination and lack of understanding of the phenomenology of life in a radicalised context.


So let's once again cast a glance down the decades of the history of surrealism. From the outset, it is no doubt that there was sexism in the surrealist environment and examples of it can easily be found. Even Rosemont admits this, but, as she argues too, one important question here is whether there was more or less sexism within this environment than within society in general (probably far less) or within other broadly vanguardist movements (probably less than in most, but perhaps more than in a few). In spite of this manifest sexism, there was obviously something attracting women in this environment since they in fact gathered there.

So what did 20s women look for in a vanguardist social circle such as surrealism? Some suggestions:
a) collaborations and mutual inspiration in their creative work
b) careeristic networking, from recognition/coaching to concrete publication and exhibiting opportunities
c) a general sense of adventure and play and intensified life as opposed to available lifestyle alternatives and capitalist society in general
d) friendship, entertainment and fun in an innovative and radical environment
e) particularly intelligent, creative and radical male partners.

The feminist-academic critics here usually believe that women came looking for a) and b) only, which were supposedly denied them, and so settled for e) as an alternative. On the contrary, I would guess that all these five alternatives have been important, for many integrated into a sense of general curiosity-affinity, for others clearly focusing on one or the other point, sometimes even explicitly (quite obviously, a) and c) are the motives which make more sense from a surrealist perspective and would be expected to be the dominant forces driving the most engaged women in surrealism). It cannot be denied that many women of the so-called "liberated" varieties; dropouts and weirdos, frustrated heiresses, widows and rich-man's-daughters, communist activists, artists of all kinds; in fact were attracted to surrealism.

During the 20s, their role in surrealist life was largely a significant but not significantly acknowledged one. Within the surrealist environment, everybody writes and draws more or less, at least as part of games and experiments. And texts, drawings and collaborations by women do appear in journals and exhibitions, but not regularly and their contributors are obviously not considered equally important as writers and artists as many of their male friends. Even more significant, the regular signing of tracts and collective declarations, one of the rituals keeping the surrealist community together, is not done by women at all during this decade; obviously they are simply not officially recognised as members of the group.

But as the journals show, and as Rosemont and many others argue, their contributions are significant and in no way confined to being muses and lovers, which the feminist-academics claim are the only roles assigned to women in surrealism. In the pictures of the 20s surrealist group, Simone Breton (Kahn) has a central position. She was one of the main activists of the group and, with a talent for typing, also a sort of secretary. (This voluntarily adopted role seems like an early resignation to a traditionally feminine role, but I am not sure how much of a standard role the female secretary actually was at the time, and it definitely ascertained her place at the very center of the group.) Her cousin, Denise Levy (Kahn), did not live in Paris and so wasn't a part of everyday life in the group, but a very important correspondent as she spoke fluent german and so was the mediator of a lot of german litterature. Of other women in and around the group at the time, Nancy Cunard was an organiser type, Lise Deharme an independent type, Fanny Beznos and (from the south) Valentine Penrose had an ongoing poetic production internally fuelled, while in many others their participation in games and contribution of texts and artworks seems perhaps a little more passive and more a product of their being around for adventurous, social and romantic reasons (but often no less serious and sometimes even important contributions still); Renée Gauthier, Suzanne Muzard, Gala, Nadja, Jeanette Ducrocq and many others. With these, the feminist-academics are entirely right that they were not recognised and encouraged as artists by their fellow male surrealists, but the reason is simpler than misogyny: they were not recognised as artists because they were none in any other sense than their participation in the shared creativity.

And the situation changed. In the 30s with an intensified politicisation and with in some senses a modernisation of society in general, women became officially members of the group as shown by their signing tracts and declarations, and their contributions to exhibitions and journals was more in proportion with their presence. If we confine the discussion to french surrealism to start with, a few later more or less well-known female writers and quite a number of artists made their first or major public appearances within the surrealist community (such as Gisèle Prassinos, Valentine Hugo, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, Remedios, Kay Sage, Claude Cahun, Lee Miller, Dora Maar, etc, of those who became famous; in surrealism but less in the outside world, many others are regarded as equally important such as Alice Rahon, Jacqueline Lamba, Mary Low, Isabelle Waldberg etc). Only as theorists are the female participants in the movement almost nowhere to be seen: the only significant female theorist in surrealism in france during the 30s is Claude Cahun (the mere writing articles on political and litterary subjects does not necessarily make for example Nancy Cunard and Mary Low surrealist theorists). Cahun is in many ways an exceptional character, and one which is usually not spoken very much about by the standard feminist-academics since she does not conform to any pattern, being one of the leading political activists and theorists of the group, and a homosexual and therefore not having affairs with male participants, she is simply one of these very complicated and unique truly surrealist characters who are difficult to use as a mere examplification of a polemic point.

The feminist-academics cultivate a version where the male surrealists always tried to suppress the creativity of their female comrades. Judging from catalogues and journals this does not make much sense. But then, there are circumstances which do not readily show in such sources. Obviously, in some ways circumstances were not all that easy for female artists-writers-activists-adventurers seeking collaborations on equal terms. Particularly not since their presence in the community very often also included, as an essential part among others, amorous-sexual ties, which sometimes gave the women themselves, and even more the men, opportunity to end up in dilemmas dictated by double moral standards, remaining bourgeois prejudices, jealousy and egoism. There are some nowadays rather well-known cases where the famous husband/lover expected the wife/lover not to spend that much time with the group or with their creative work since she should care for the household/children etc (Jacqueline Lamba (Breton) being the most famous one). There are probably far more cases where the same result was acquired by a more spontaneous division of labor which wasn't conceived as problematic by either part.

And then there are a couple of well-known cases where an ambitious female participant dragged her male lover out of collectivity into both a more close family life and a more intensely pursued individual career (primarily the two mythic russian femmes fatales Elsa Triolet and Gala encouraging their husbands Aragon and Dalí that surrealism was to small for them). Obviously, the collectivity which is fundamental in surrealism is something which provides some obstacles to both the traditional confined family life and to spectacular marketing of individuals in careerist terms. Probably this is one of the fundamental things that the feminist-academics fail to understand about surrealism. For them, the way female artists may be expected to remain parts of the collective just like everybody else, appears merely as a will to deny them their rightful artistic careers and/or their rightful urge to set up conventional families. In this respect, it is clearly the academics and not the surrealists who are forefighters of conventional sexist bourgeois morality.

During the 30s, the surrealist movement became truly international, and in the various different countries where surrealist activity implanted itself there is of course a large range of variation in terms of females' conditions. We can easily list many important names (Toyen, Iréne Hamoir, Frida Kahlo, Grace Pailthorpe, Ithell Colquhoun, Franciska Clausen, Rita Kernn-Larsen, Elsa Thoresen, Sonia Ferlov, Eileen Agar, Edith Rimmington, Maruja Mallo, Ida Kar is a selection) but what about their situation? In famously liberal England and Denmark, half of the groups' activists and artists were women (but still none of the principal organisers and only one of the theorists, the psychoanalyst Grace Pailthorpe), and the fashionable idea of surrealism as being misogynist has perhaps never been applied to those local histories. On the other hand, in all of surrealism's extraeuropean distribution, in the Canaries, in Egypt, in Japan, and - to begin with - in the whole of Latin America, there was only a very small number of female participants, not given much exposure at all (the significant exception being the complex case of Frida Kahlo), and apparently without much significance to the activities (though mostly we don't have information enough to assess the real situation).


One point of controversy is to what extent female surrealists have been properly acknowledged. The thesis pursued by the feminist-academics was that while there is a conspiracy of silence against female artists in general, this was even worse within surrealism because of its misogyny. Nevertheless, the artists they pick as examples are all rather well-known, both within surrealism and within art history. The responding surrealists (such as Rosemont) claim that female surrealists are all well-known within surrealism and it is only in the outside world the conspiracy of silence reigns, and the tendency of the feminist-academics to stick to the already famous can be regarded as a part of that conspiracy. This question is available for empirical enquiry. And I have to say (perhaps a bit boring, yes) that the real situation seems a little bit more complex than to be sufficiently explained by one or two monumental conspiracies.

No doubt women artists in general have had to work much harder to be recognised than their male counterparts. This has probably been far less the case in surrealism, both because of its esteem of somehow "feminine" viewpoints and even more because of its insistence on collective activity, collective exhibitions and collective publications which always makes men and women, famous and non-famous appear side by side. For many female surrealist artists, fame has arrived late, more in spite of their local recognition within surrealism than due to their internal reputation.

For some, recognition has been larger in official art history than in surrealism, typically in those cases were the artists' association with the surrealist movement was brief and ambiguous, like Frida Kahlo and Leonor Fini. For many, recognition outside surrealism has not yet been widespread in spite of their being agreed on within surrealism as central figures, such as with Toyen. While for even more, enquiry into their works and lives comes only slowly in both camps. Claude Cahun was for a long time just a name of a participant among others until her extremely powerful works and personal example became famous in recent decades, among surrealists and among some queer-minded academics but not among the standard feminist-academics. Penelope Rosemont seems to imply that the vast collection of female surrealists in her own book are unknown only to the official art and litterature history while surrealists themselves would know them all. This is not the case. Within the movement, I would guess there was only a handful of active feminists, biography freaks, or both, who could say they knew the majority of the names in the anthology. With these rhetorics, it seems Rosemont is in fact diminishing her own great achievement of discovering, finding biographical data, finding and translating valuable and often great texts of this impressive number of non-famous, rumor-famous, sub-famous and sometimes really famous women surrealists.

And of course a very important point is the width in time and space; academic students of surrealism usually are entirely uncapable of seeing surrealism as a living international thing with groups and individuals active in several different countries all the way back from the classical days to the present; sometimes they explicitly circumscribe their study to one or two particular decades in France or possibly some other country, but more often they do it out of mere ignorance that there is a lot more or of one or the other type of blunt denial. This is actually changing now in many places, where academic surrealism studies are starting to cover even recent times and peripheral countries. (For good and bad.) While for Rosemont, the internationalism and the actuality are part of the starting point. I would say this is a book of monumental importance, not only for being a fantastic anthology which could be opened at random for a strong poetic reminder, and reread over and over, but also for being a dictionary of biographical and historical information, and finally for implicitly posing a large number of questions on how to deal with gender issues within the current movement, questions that she on the explicit level denies need to be posed...


The fact that the position of women changed for the better in the 30s does not mean however that women since then have been on equal terms with men within surrealism and sexism was left behind in its entirety long ago (as it seems Rosemont is arguing in her book, but I know she is not actually thinking). Of course the sexism of society does not simply end at surrealism's door, and of course the traditional surrealist mythologies concerning desire, love, sexual identities, sexual practices etc are ambiguous. Nevertheless, the idea that surrealism is primarily misogynistic is a strangely misconceived one. Usually it rests on a simplified interpretation that the only place for real women in surrealism is as muses and lovers, as inspiring incarnations of the two mythical characters of the femme fatale and the femme-enfant.

First of all, the active participation of women as co-players, co-adventurers, co-activists, writers and artists everywhere quite simply falsifies that they would be tolerated as mere muses and lovers. Secondly, while surrealism indeed has been cultivating a mythology involving woman and the feminine, there are several things to keep in mind about such a mythology. A myth, in a creative connection, is a vehicle of thought confirming a system of associations and correspondences in order to reveal and create anew epistemological and sensory possibilities and opening up avenues for new enquiry. Myth is thus a tool and has primarily a conditional function depending on its productivity. This is indeed different from the sense of myth which we have in ideological myths of society, where myth is a good-enough non-rational justification of certain social conditions, and thus functioning by halting enquiry and independent thought insteading of forwarding them. The whole function of myth in the creative connection is then to facilitate the invention of new modes of thought and new possibilities of behavior and new senses of life, and not to explain or expect anyone to conform to the already known patterns.

Partly as a result of this and partly as a very simple logical fact, as a very important disclaimer, which seems rather obvious but which the academic-feminists don't trust the surrealists to be aware of, there is a difference between woman in myth and women in reality. Within surrealism, men and women alike, are supposed to be inventing new ways of life together, not conforming to standards or myths.

And then, the surrealist mythology concerning woman and the feminine cannot be satisfactorily reduced to the two tropes of the femme fatale and the femme-enfant. Indeed the classical source which is most explicit on this topic, Breton's Arcane 17, dwells on the mythological character of Melusine and on the role of woman as universal mediator-peacemaker-glue-secretskeeper-magician-naturekeeper-loveinspirer. This is in parts close to the essentialist feminism of most of his contemporary feminist movement (particularly the stresses on the bonds to nature and love and the demand that women's greater influence in society is by all means necessary among other things to end warfare). This idea complex may seem very politically outdated today, but for one thing it can not be satisfactorily accounted for as the choice between femme fatale and femme-enfant.

A lot of the imagery in surrealist art and literature by women and men alike focuses on women as independent erotic agents harboring magic secrets as well as strange bonds with animals and plants, sometimes tender and sometimes cruel - perhaps this is what art historians stuff into the category of femme fatales, but it is obviously something strong and independent, an attractive trope for poetic investigations for many women and many men alike. Then a lot of the imagery in surrealist art and literature by women and men alike focuses on women as beautiful dreamers, slightly elevated from petty worldly concerns while having developed the epistemological organ of intuition into something hypersensitive making them balance on the edge of madness, scatter their whims around them as oracle words, experiencing and arousing adventure wherever they go - perhaps this is what is considered the femme-enfant but it is obviously something very dynamic as well, an attractive trope for poetic investigations for many women and many men alike.

Obviously this mythology in terms of the feminine makes it necessary not to confine such a feminity to individuals of feminine gender. In mythological terms, the image of the poet or the artist is itself a feminine type of character; oversensitive, creative, harboring secrets, empathising, feeling other humans and animals and plants and landscapes etc etc. So obviously, the female mythic images are not someting which solely women may take part in, it is obviously equally possible, and to the same extent desirable, for men. In that sense, all images of magi, of diabolical lovers, of dark strangers, also when males, could be sorted as femmes fatales; and all of the borderline sensitives, instruments of chance, automatists, edge bohemes, lucid savages, psychonauts and psychedelics, could be sorted as femme-enfants. Most of the attractive tropes of mythology for surrealism are obviously on the traditionally female side of the spectrum. But, the determination of such images in terms of feminine or masculine is not the interesting part about them, and from a poetic viewpoint is at best a traditional background to better discern the transgressive qualities of poetic thought as such while leaving such a polarity as a mere temporary aspect distinction immediately giving rise to mediation and sublation and new oppositions and new constellations. If there is in one sense something which might be called "eternally feminine" in surrealism, this is something that one should be careful to draw simplified sexual-politic conclusions from since a) there is nothing eternally masculine, and b) there is nothing interesting with the eternally feminine except as an eternal starting point, the whole point with it being not what it is, but all that which it not yet is and may be on its way of becoming, and c) it is in no way distributed in an exclusive way in terms of sexes. Again, mythologies are not correctives but projections, points of experimental identifications, startingpoints of adventure, so there is clearly nothing which makes the obvious differences problematic between myths and psychological and social truths; the possible autonomy, independence, power, needs, demands, dynamism, refusal, unreasonableness, fallibility, undecidedness, unfinishedness etc of real female human beings are not constrained by cultivating poetic myths but by concrete power relations between people. If certain female participants often feel inclined (pushed or not) to make themselves all too well at home in one or other role, then this is a problem of communication, comfort and inspiration impairing the general dynamism of behavior within that group, and not primarily a problem with the myths they are conforming to.

Nevertheless, there is an obvious danger in myth thought to analogise all kinds of possible dual polarities with the two sexes and expect sexes to be eternally opposite and complementary. One aspect of this, that of the possible erotisation of the world and all kinds of categories, can often (not always) be very obviously dynamic and poetically fruitful, while other connected aspects are far less dynamical; particularly in those cases where its lazy application breeds an expectancy of the sexual behavior (and social behavior) of the two sexes to conform to those preconceived standards, to remain true to their categorisation, to not transgress. This is obviously something alien to the liberatory, transgressional and metamorphic spirit of surrealism; but it is always a cliché which remains seductive and easily fallen into by individual lazy, non-fervent, or aging practictioners, especially when combined with returning repressed taste for pornography and banal fetishism and with the often connected taste for occultist traditionalism and cultural pessimism. I would say this is a problem in surrealism, but not a problem with surrealism, as such prejudices are simply conservative and thus in effect antisurrealist.


Perhaps something also needs to be said about the recurring presence of the female body in surrealist imagery. On one hand, this is something shared with the mainstream of art throughout history and especially every kind of art thematising love and eroticism (except perhaps strictly male-homosexual local applications). But it should also be admitted that it is something particularly significant in parts of surrealism.

While in pornography and advertising, female bodies are everpresent as commodities offered or as commodities advertising other commodities, in art the point of their exposure is to start addressing our basic concepts of beauty in their simplest form and push them to some sense of transcending experience. Of course, and especially nowadays, these categories are not well-defined and mutually exclusive, art may work perfectly well as advertising and pornography, while sometimes pornography can be disturbingly aesthetical. The different functions do remain distinct however, and when situationist- or postmodernist-minded intellectuals will say they are entirely merged, this is just a symptom of the lack of empiricism in said intellectuals.

Particularly in surrealism, bodies and particularly female bodies do have an important place simply because they do indeed seem to have that important place in imagination (so far based on manifestations predominantly by males in a patriarchal society but seemingly widely spread across groups there regardless of the real reasons for that quasi-universal apparent order of things), heavily invested with simple desire and utterly complex desire, with resistances, idealisations, fetishisations and tons of associations, reaching back to infantile concepts and forward to utopian wishfulfillments and sideways to our own most moving anecdotal experiences and to the ambiguity of the whole of pornographic imagery. It all seems dynamic for the imagination and that it the sole bottomline criterion.

But it should also be clear that surrealists are not interested in the nowadays common way of legitimising controversial representations (the strategy of so-called political art since pop) by pronouncing them to be "problematisations" of widespread concepts, neither "social documentary" nor "ironic" - regardless of whether this alleged problematisation intention is a post-factum-rationalisation or an honest admittal of lack of any real inspiration-dynamism in the original production, it does not help clichés from being clichés.

In opposition to this, surrealists tend to mean everything they say in a naïve way, because they are seriously investigating it themselves, everything presented in surrealist creation is research notes into the ambiances, dynamisms, fortunes and misfortunes of real experienced poetic phenomenology. In that sense, its fetishism concerning the female body is naïve, symptomatic, careless, libertarian and obsessed, but nowhere cynical, smug, calculated.

It is also noteworthy how similar this fetishisms of the female body in works of male surrealists is to that in works of most of those female surrealists who adress explicitly erotic themes; in the works of say Joyce Mansour, Nelly Kaplan, Rikki Ducornet, Marianne Van Hirtum, Mimi Parent, Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning, Jayne Cortez, Olga Orozco, Meret Oppenheim and Toyen, to still talk only about the famous. Here the perspective fluctuations also more often, naturally, encompasses the first-person perspective, and fetishism of the male body.

(The male body is obviously less a theme, and significantly less so for most male surrealists, in whom any fetishism directed that way will be interpreted as an indication of homosexuality. Of course there are many examples to be found of transgressive fantasies in these areas too. And of course a number of famous surrealists have been homosexual. While on the other hand parts of the movement have retained one or other type of homophobia (homophobia regarding males that is) based on a moral critique of "effeminisation" (such as Breton's much-cited 20s attitudes from the "investigations of sexuality"), on moral conclusions extrapolated from a bipolarising mythology, or on a certain misdirected sense of feminism (according to which male homosexuality denies women their rightful role as universal mediators of love). This indeed constitutes another challenge for the movement only rarely adressed.)

Let us in fact look at a few of those artists whose works are sometimes cited as prime evidence of surrealism's misogyny: Man Ray, Paul Delvaux, Max Walter Svanberg and Hans Bellmer.

Some idiots just can't grasp the notion of metamorphosis; so distorsion is then simply equal to violence; any representation of the female body diverging from realism corresponds to physical assault - such a refusal to think need perhaps not be seriously argued against. Much of Ray's work and perhaps most of Bellmer's are simply investigations of the metamorphic potential of the matter, and special way of being matter, of the heavily desire-infested female body; thus of erotic and imaginational phenomenology and not about social expectancies on behavior of women. The references to sexual violence in Bellmer are secondary to that fantasizing; obviously so in gory drawings or bondage photographs where uninhibited morphological curiosity simply doesn't recognise realistic restrictions, but in another way in some of the doll photographs, which integrate external associations to the forbiddenness of the particular type of fetishism and makes them part of the fantasy itself. "Irresponsible" and sometimes perhaps disgusting, sure, but still on the conditions of imagination and without implications for the real position of real women on the whole.

Delvaux is all about the capacity of the female nude to create or emphasise an ambiance of the unusual, his landscapes are neither erotic scenes projecting desire nor modern pornographic scenes where female nakedness has become a matter of course and something to pay for or get comforted or comfortably aroused by. (An isolated and significant artifact is the shortstory by Alain Joubert about the firsthand experience of being such a surrealising female nude as in a Delvaux painting.) It has indeed been claimed that the widespread exposition of female nudes in pornography and advertising has made Delvaux's art redundant, but those genres are usually neither striving nor capable of creating something unusual, dreamlike, dissettling rather than the opposite: recognisable, disarmed and exploitable.

Then Svanberg has a clearly more "primitivist" take on the subject as he adresses the female body as a sun in a religion, the eternally embellishable monstrous centerpoint to worship in a new sacred cosmology. The poetic attraction in such a recharged universe is obvious, but in Svanberg's world there is also more of an obvious risk of letting this vision stand as a substitute and an obstacle for seeing real women with their needs, dynamism, fallibility and unfinishedness.

But let us also note that the fetishisms of surrealism are fetishisms which may adress all kinds of sexual fantasies and perversions, all in accordance with their sense of truth and dynamism to the imagination, and neither of their moral aspects, practical recommendability nor simple effectivity. Some of it is indeed highly unrealistic in terms of possibilities of practical enacting, some of it is indeed cruelly or carelessly sadistic or masochistic, some of it is twisted enough not to be erotic at all for the casual audience, much of it is highstrung romantical; if some of this works sexually arousing under certain circumstances, that may be an interesting part of the reception or not, but its primary purpose remains a totally different focus: to be an investigation of the imagination on behalf of poetry. Some more or less pornographical works by surrealists indeed work on the level of scatological jokes or attempts at scandal and has not much bearing on the specific surrealist sense of the erotic (though I shouldn't deny that blasphemy and scandal probably was much more interesting several decades ago when it was not a very common marketing strategy). The significantly surrealist pornographical works are usually rather some of those which serves as beautiful documents of uninhibited fantasies, or those which reveal erotic possibilities in everyday life by hypersensitively suggesting fetishist focuses (adressing the immanence of the marvellous).

But let's not deny that a lot of (lesser) surrealist artists and writers have put forward a sad amount of boring psychological documents about banal fantasies of sexual aggression, a bouquet of banal sexual puns and dirty jokes of doubtful value, some outbreaks of not very exciting coprolaly, as well as many faltering compositions where introductions of naked women or just nude torsos are expected to do more or less the whole job of creating a sensation of the unknown and tickling where the unknown is very obviously lacking...


In the early 20s, women were less than 10% of the surrealists. This soon rose slightly over 10%, but it was only in the second half of the 30s it rose above 15%. And then it actually kept fluctuating around 15% (12-18%) all the way up to the 80s, when the 20% limit was broken. After 1981, the fluctuation has gone between 20 and 25%. Obviously, the proportions are very different in different countries.

In the early days, it was almost only in Europe there were any women at all in surrealism. This changed in the 40s, when women were becoming active in south and north america (but still to this day not in Japan!). In the present situation, there is on the whole a higher proportion of women in those countries with an active movement present (surrealist groups rather than associated individuals), but even among those with a wide span of variation. To just mention a few examples, calculations summarising individuals present in surrealist collaborations and publications after 2000 shows that women in France, England and the Czech Republic are somewhere near the overall means of 25.0% (like Sweden and Greece); while Argentina, Canada and USA are above a third, and on the other hand Chile, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and the Netherlands are around 15%. Of course my data are very incomplete, to some extent supposedly in a manner reflecting the very phenomenon under study, so that it would not be a major problem, but unfortunately this incompleteness is unevenly distributed and may cause artificial differences.

The recruitment of women has varied more in relative numbers than in absolute numbers, meaning that the flow of women into surrealism has been a lot more constant than the flow of men. Men are obviously more trend-sensitive. In certain old times, when surrealism has been a major center of attraction, such as in the mid-30s and in the late 40s, the proportion of women among the newcomers has dropped to 8-9% of the newcomers, but in hard times it was often around 20%. In recent times the rate seems to have gone up, after 1981 fluctuating wildly between 20 and 35%. That these figures are usually larger than the total figures for the same period, means that women stay a shorter time than men in the movement.

(These calculations are based on a population of 2633 sexed persons appearing in surrealist journals, exhibitions, games, declarations, organising and campaigns from the 20s to the present.)


So, in the history of surrealism from the second world war on, there is a continued slow improvement of women's conditions - from "not bad" to "even less bad, but in some ways still not very good". In a movement with such a great interest in eroticism, both the possibilities and some of the problems of the so-called "sexual revolution" were addressed within surrealism already in the 50s, and even more so in the 60s when they were parallelled with some direct sexual-political questions arising from the resurrected-radicalised feminist movement of the day. Such questions have been regularly awoken since, in some surrealist groups more than others, but usually in one way or another emphasising the need to keep the discussion alive and to try to invent ways of making participation possible on equal terms and in a truly empancipatory vein.

Currently, the situation is different in different groups; female participation in current groups varies between less than a sixth and more than half. Many groups have a leading female character at its center. Some groups are explicitly feminist, some groups are eager to avoid that designation. Some groups regularly or occasionally face critical questions of sexism in their own organisation and activities, some hope to avoid them and to remain a relative freezone from gender-role impositions.

Many of the forefront theorists and organisers in surrealism today are females: Penelope Rosemont herself, Merl, Marie-Dominique Massoni, Lurdes Martinez, probably others. There is an abundancy of important surrealist creators who are women, important both in terms of the works in themselves and of their explicit placement within a collective radical endeavour; I certainly do not have the necessary overview here but will list only some of my own favorites, be they personal friends of mine or not, (and leaving out those already mentioned elsewhere in the text): of poets Emma Lundenmark, Eva Kristina Olsson, Beatriz Hausner, Mariela Arzadun, Josie Malinowski, of sculptors Virginia Tentindo, of painters Kathleen Fox, Sara Avila, Katerina Pinosova, Katerina Kubikova, Marie Wilson, Anasor ed Searom, and then in dance, in film, etc, while the most important still remains the field of surrealist everyday life, where it would be difficult to single out any specific guiding stars-

But on the whole, it is undoubtedly plainly wrong to see in surrealism an active reduction by men of women to their roles as mere lovers, muses, objects. There is instead a continuous thematisation/adressal of women as comrades/coplayers/coexperimentators/costrugglers, as artists/magicians/wise/truthsayers, as lovers/desire-objects/co-eroticists, as inspirators/mediators/muses, by men and women alike. If it is, in spite of this, not too difficult to gather a number of anecdotes where single female surrealists have been reduced to mere lovers or muses by single male surrealists or by their own lack of selfconfidence, there is nothing that seems to justify explaining this as an expression of something central and specific to surrealism, rather than of remnants of common sexist bourgeois morality.

While some of the basic practical social problems remain even in their original form. As the responsibility for household and childcare are still everywhere women's to a larger extent than men's, so whenever heterosexual pairs are organised as surrealists together (either because they join surrealism together or because they meet in surrealist activities), the males will typically have better opportunities than the females to participate as much as they like. And whenever such pairs are broken up, the male typically remains in the group while the female feels a pressure (or a need) to leave. This is quite obvious, and on the whole there is a significant difference between the average duration of the surrealist involvment between females and males. This quite obviously has to do with the fact that women are traditionally encouraged to prioritise commitments to relationships while men are encouraged to prioritise commitments to tasks and interests. This is a problem that still demands solutions, not necessarily in order to try to increase the sex rate in surrealism to even figures at any price, but rather to create possibilities for all those attracted by surrealism to be able to participate with their desires, innovations and sensibilities on equal terms, and particularly not to let passive acceptance of ideological division of labor and ideological hierarchies in society obstruct the participation in the great adventure for some.

So, in spite of the propagandistic view that everything is fine, but even more in contrast with the 80s academic view that surrealism is essentially misogynic, there are a number of specific problems to face, which there are in some ways particularly good circumstances for...

And let's not be overprotective and rebuff all this critique before listening to it, there might be specific points in it which are very interesting for us and useful to get pointed out. But in order to make use of it, we will of course have to remove it from its academic context and put it into an active framework.

(Several people have contributed to this text, but as some opinions in the first person are kept in the final editing we could choose to attribute it, too, to its drafter/editor:)

Mattias Forshage

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Long time no posting, reflecting mostly the editor's absurd workload in other areas. I mean, texts do write themselves continuously, but to revise and finish them, and even more to nag people into contributing to and reviewing them, is a hard and tedious work which usually comes to rest at a half-done stage. So of course there is a lot of material available from the past months, but what perhaps feels like the most important parts are still waiting for the final hands. There will be a text trying to update atopos theory and a text about the surrealism and women issue, and who knows whenever the endless discussions within the Stockholm group about mythology, about so-called poetic materialism, and about epistemology, rationalism and religion, will result in presentable texts...

Mattias Forshage

note on urbanity and travelling

from a central european travelogue contributed to this year's SLAG surrealist game festival

/.../Travelling receives a difficult status in surrealism, since surrealism has developed a certain sense of nivellation, not in the sense of global modernisation or of early civilisation effort, that everything is expected to adapt to an enlightened standard, but quite the opposite since surrealists apply a sense of generalised exotism and expect strange and alien things to emerge even in their own home quarters. So what is then remarkable about travelling? As long as you remain in cities, the most remarkable thing is perhaps how great the similarities are. Well, different cities have different things to offer, but more or less the same methodologies can be applied in all of them, and similar spectrums of encounters and ambiances are available in all of them (with significant local specialities). Major european cities, which is the ground which surrealism sprung from, can be mistaken for one another, and are each loveable in this anonymity-specificity. Just like friends./.../

(and we will soon post a text "towards the solidification and relativisation of atopos theory")


two books

As the subject of surrealismology has been up here, let me recommend two new english-language books about surrealism:

Gavin Parkinson's "Surrealism, art and modern science" (Yale University press, 2008) A remarkably well-informed, broad and critically-minded academic book of surrealism, based on a doctoral thesis in art history but necessarily broad in scope in investigating what the developments within physics of the early 20th century (relativity and quantum physics) meant for surrealists, in outlook, theory and art alike, and in what shape it had a function to fill in surrealism. Especially refreshing is the author's irritation over all these ever-repeated vague analogies between modern physics and modern art in general terms of perspectives, sensibility or very newness, demanding that all such comparisons must be actually investigated on the epistemological level.

Nikos Stabakis's "Surrealism in greece - an anthology" (University of Texas press, 2008) For the first time in english a very substantial portion of creations of greek surrealists. But the point - in this particular context - is the introductions, where Nikos Stabakis of the Athens surrealist group lucidly formulates questions and observations on the particular conditions for surrealism in a peripheral country, in a partly very specific and partly highly generisable way which could teach us one or two lessons in how to look for objective surrealism and how to sharpen local interventions in a variety of contexts.

eating it up: limbs, offspring, void and all

To try to sum up the issue of the relationship between surrealism and situationism (at this point still without having read Joël Gayraud's "Le peu de l'ombre" or the recent "Surréalistes et situationnistes, vies parallèles, histoire et documents" by Jérôme Duwa):

Yes, situationism is best considered as one of the dissident surrealist endeavours, organisationally distinct from the surrealist movement in order to gain the independence needed to make certain new emphasises, new experiments, new experiences; experiences which it is subsequently up to us to reintegrate in a general surrealist framework. In the 50s and 60s there seems to still have been a primarily polemical relation between the situationists and french surrealists (note in Joubert's highly recommendable book "Le Mouvement des Surréalistes, ou le fin mot de l'Histoire" 1997 the anecdote of Jean Schuster's chasing off Elisabeth Lenk because she was seeing the situationists too), while belgian and american, probably also british and dutch surrealism was always more positively inclined. And then in the 70s also the french seems to have started reevaluating situationism (el Janaby, LeBrun etc).

So when Tony Pusey and I (and others) were shouting for the need to reintegrate situationism into surrealism in 1988, it was pretty much enforcing already opened doors, and even more so when the Stockholm group kept repeating this over and over again such as in the international letter of 2003 and even in the recent "Voices of the hell-choir".

On the other hand, a perhaps new polarisation has been settling, between certain hyperradical and more or less iconoclastic groups and certain more or less traditionalists guardians of the purity of poetry, and the question is again on the agenda. I have been among those shouting in favour of situationist ideas, but recently I have increasingly been having a problem with many of the young groups (and also not even young ones) who occasionally use situationist rhetorics, reference to situationist ideas, etc as a motivation or legitimation for not caring much about imagination, for announcing new anathemas about pictures, for painting the world in black and white and prefer ultraradical rhetorics over actual analysis, or generally for subsuming poetry under politics, again...

So again, yes, situationism is a part of surrealist experience and of surrealist theory development attempts, just like Bataille, Artaud, parts of psychedelia and occultism and even pataphysics etc etc, but just like all of these outside endeavours also in themselves quite different from surrealism in spirit. And there I feel there is reason to give the traditionalists right if they claim that there are surrealist polemics and perhaps even entire surrealist strategies which are fuelled by the seductiveness of the absolutist cerebral negativity of Debord, which will be suffocating for, or just opposed to, real vigilance towards poetry. But on the other hand, to understand and be informed by the situationist theories and the experiences from the situationist movement, I think is of fairly crucial importance for contemporary surrealism.

But then I also would like to adress the question from a more espistemological perspective... So let's speak about Debord, who obviously is an important thinker. (Unlike Vaneigem, who is more obviously surrealist, and basically just a superficial propagandist of simplified themes from surrealism, not entirely unlike certain parts surrealism itself...)

And I think much of the problem lies in Debord's particular anti-empiricism. It is indeed a strong current in France, rooted in traditional french rationalism, but getting a new legitimation when forged with german idealism, such as in the case of Debord's excited hegelianism. Since only the rational is real and only the real is rational, and since the part reflects the whole as much as the whole reflects its parts, then an inspired idea becomes truth, not a hypothesis to be investigated, but truth itself; and a revealing interpretation about one phenomenon must be true as a universal rule about the current situation too! There is no question of checking against reality, since the dynamics of the explanation creates its truth regardless of whatever empirical evidence might say. In this sense, for example Althusser in spite of his contempt for Hegel is just as much a notorious french hegelian as ever Debord is. And both are inspiring and dynamical in their denudation of current society based on their theoretical omniscience, and the question to what extent and under what circumstances their conclusions are applicable is a non-question within the framework of their theories! (OK, this anti-methodological stance is far more developed in Debord than in Althusser who sticks to some methodological rhetorics after all.)

And even if this anti-empiricist trend is clearly discernible in surrealism too, I would say that most surrealists are more interested in the empirical and experimental; most, such as Breton, more on the level of inner experience and particularly revealing anecdotes rather than any controlled observations, repetitions or statistics of course, but still a clearly empirical focus.
Within the Debordian antiempiricism, very much of its dynamics and even truly seductive power lies in its absolute negativism. It is like a novel by Thomas Bernhard. This world is so entirely capitalist, and not just general capitalist but spectacularly capitalist and capitalistically spectacular, so that every single element in it becomes a murderous confirmation of the totality and allencompassingness of the spectacle and fascism of this system, etc etc. In this absolute wholeness of the spectacle, any opposite to it is only conceivable philosophically, as a pure negation, which is then identified with pure revolt and with a sense of pure poetry which is taken from surrealism from severed from context, so that the extended-generalised sense of poetry becomes the core meaning without any reference to the central-literal sense of poetry, which indeed is instead put in absolute opposition to it and considered entirely subsumed under the spectacle. In this way, while still referring to many of the same particular instances of poetry as surrealism does, poetry in the situationist sense is entirely abstract, since it is based in a rational construction of an absolute opposition and not in experience, experiment, empirical foundations, imagination. It seems like it is all based on the very seductiveness of speculative thinking rather than on real experiences in the flesh (which includes the fleshy imagination and the imaginative flesh...) This is very much in congruence with strands of nihilist, negative mysticist, Nietzschean and anarchist ultraradicalism but as I perceive it quite distinct from the romantical anticapitalist, utopian mysticist, current which is the core thread in surrealism. Again, I don't think they are mutually exclusive, but I think it is important that it is the surrealist main frame which must define and evaluate the uses of nihilism and not vice versa.

(MF thought he wrote this text, but others insisted it was merdarius)

night sky rediscovery

(Alone in a multilingual situation. Night train to Bucharest. I haven't gone to bed, I turned out the light and sit there marvelling at the stars. Summer nights in scandinavia, and urban nights everywhere, are pale and you can't see very many stars. So this is my first full sky of stars in half a year.)


den Finsternis hindurch -
Barking forth in the landscape
Great white eyes and beauteous nothingness
That twitching of the neck when darkness means something
that draping of one's bed in calcareous folds
where long lines of hidden Mantids stand waiting
taking off in flight when the moon tells them so
low and multicolored mannequin flight
The dust of which turns to mushrooms and to
severed parts of stagbeetles in this abandoned forest
Hidden gardens of aphatic rest of silver spit
draped as a landscape over the landscapes
dispersed as a sheet over the sheets
With hints of grandiose architecture hidden
and murderous toads and strangely shaped treestumps
and a flattened landscape when darkness - finally - means something

(How funny that language is nothing but certain distant constellations in this darkness
that different languages don't mind being on a collision course when these rails eventually might meet
how reassuring that darkness always lays down its own rules
and the distribution of colors is made up on the spot
and this nice coffin might have been a siberian mammoth bones tent
I will enjoy staring out at this darkness from there- )


Who are the theorists?

and what is surrealist theory?

Surrealist theory is basically a systematical investigation on the discoursive level of various phenomena focusing on what is revealed through a radical poetical perspective. Sometimes it takes the shape of an explicit historical-theoretical investigation of the role played by a certain phenomenon in surrealism's artistic creations, history, organising and collective mythology, but it must be noted that any simple gathering and comparison of such historical information is a mere academic and reifying task as long as it not clearly a prerequisite for an actual investigation of what the radical poetical perspective might reveal.

In surrealism, textual or artistic genres are not paid any respectful attention as such, and many of its products are indeed hybrids and juxtapositions in that respect, but a consequence of that respectlessness is also that the breaking of genre rules does not mean anything in itself. Surrealists simply pursue their poetic investigations in whatever forms it seems to require, and any larger exposition of surrealist works preferrably put things in different such genres side by side, not the least for the very pedagogic purpose of showing that surrealism keeps refusing any reduction to one means of expression: among such gravediggers, the ones who would like to regard it as mere art are in the majority, but occasionally someone likes to regard it as mere poems or mere politics or mere theory. (Nevertheless it was a sad and misdirected complaint campaign that, twenty years ago, demanded the opening of a surrealist bulletin of theoretical discussion for poems and drawings, and thus removed its raison d'etre and sent in an early grave - local specialisations are sometimes needed in order to get somewhere...)

Co-inventors of surrealist theory are, to start with, all of us who keep doing poetical research on the discoursive level aiming for some sense of clarity, from an explicitly surrealist perspective. Systematic thinking. Some have been doing it a lifetime, some do it for a short period. Some haven't written much at all, some have written much in other genres that tends to overshadow their actually theoretical contributions. Some take particular specialised contexts as pretexts for developing surrealist lines of thought: for example in art criticism, social anthropology, history of surrealism, etc. Others rather keep explicating the supposedly surrealist viewpoint, some keep telling anecdotes ascribing a particular epistemological weight to them, and some keep yelling at each other about the relative applicability within surrealism of various elements of situationist, feminist, marxist, structuralist, poststructuralist, occult or psychoanalytical thought, all of which may or may not be considered actual theoretical activity. On the borderline of the theorist trade we have also a lot of people who were foremostly artists and usually write down their theoretical speculations in explicit relation to their aims and methods in their own artistic work.

Then we have a whole bunch of commentators on surrealism who provided such fertile interpretations that their work - though formally secondary - actually takes the ideas further in one way or another. Often these works were published by people who were actually organised in the movement but still were writing books that were predominantly secondary in form.

Then there are the best critics of surrealism; whose criticisms were often very relevant, offered from theoretical viewpoint that could be considered at least partly objectively within surrealism, and which contributed to theoretical development within the movement at least somewhere.

Finally all of those who were more peripherally associated with the movement (in ways ranging from an intimate dialogue to an abstract influence) but whose investigations in particular areas has been recognised as at least partly perfectly surrealist. The names of some of these will be highly controversial with several of my friends... and the work of some does admittedly consist to a large part of academic or massmedial simplifications of received ideas, but might perhaps nevertheless be somehow interestingly effective in their particular formulations?

All of these partake in some way in the adventure into thinking which is one of the fronts of surrealism, and a necessary consequence of its empirical experimentations in creativity, sensibility, art and life. Again, the genre as such cannot be conceived as separate from other areas of surrealist methods and of surrealist life in general, but the difference is now huge between such specialisations which serve to crop down life, create edges for personality markets, or impose actually merely heuristic categorisations on the world in a rigid and hostile way on the one hand, and those which admit their temporary and conditional status, acknowledge other possibiities and connections with other perspectives, and which are motivated by methodological and/or passionate choices... In the second case, a theoretical perspective is a wonderful tool in conceptualising the marvels of the world.

(This text was at one point substantially longer, when I was giving lists of examples of each type of theorists, but then I realised it should be better to drop those parts, both since they threatened to distract my own concentration on the meaningful, and because I expected that if people would react to this text it would be primarily in order to complain why I had omitted, or included, this or that author or put him/her in the wrong category, which seemed beside the point.)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Soluble locus

What is this place called place

Some places are more places than others. But sometimes more is less. Places have tons of determinations. Global coordinate systems, positions assumed in our networks of associations and perceptions, its social productivity, biological productivity, monetary productivity; what it is used for, has been shaped by being used for, what it could possibly be used for if we want; what situated it in relation to surrounding topography, what created its soil layer, what plants and fungi colonised it when, what animals use it when and how, what are the optical and metereological conditions, who died there and who wrote a poem there and who tried to seduce whom there, and so on. This and other aspects difficultly measured will give them particular presences or absences, particular suggestivenesses and expectancies. I am not using the terms atmosphere or ambiance here, just because I sometimes suspect them to be just euphemisms for soul, which I might have said too, but which will often stand in the way of a real investigation of the factors actually involved.

Many intellectuals of conservative leanings tend to mythologise place hierarchically, primarily in terms of patria. Others, more liberal, tend to oligolectically associate places with more or less exotic anecdotes to fit a cosmopolitan image, involving either a globalisation nivellation, or good old tourist exotism, or both intermixed. But, it cannot be empasised enough, the biographical self is just one epistemological organ among others. An important one, providing much of the emotional reverbations, a good deal of the stories, a good deal of all the irrational associations and psychological overdeterminations. But real mythology, which might be described as acknowledging the ghosts we have intercourse with, presupposes availability more than anything, just like poetry, and thus all the biographical material is just a wagonload of suggestions, which might selectively be grabbed and put to use by the meaning in formation, or not. The notion of a patria is a strictly regressive one on the mythological and psychological levels, and of course one usually associated with reactionary political purposes. To see place as a setting for anecdotes is a slightly more dynamic position, but exotism and lack of exotism are equally powerful in potentially hiding specificity and particular possibilities from view. The more interesting a place is, the more it has qualities of terra incognita, something we may have rumors, dreams and prejudices about, but which primarily in itself encourages us to an active investigation of its possibilities. Consider the place a playground, yourself having gotten the task of inventing the game appropriate to it.

In the mid-90s the surrealist group in Stockholm focused much of its geographical investigations in the concept of worthless places (or atoposes), all the corners and borderzones falling between chairs, falling out of use, getting invaded by unintended usages. It could be emphasised that the criterion is largely an economic one and the setting more or less necessarily urban: only in cities is the population dense enough and the land prices high enough for any disused space to be so strongly singled out, to acquire the quality of a focus of resistance and dreaming. Other environments are organised in other ways.

Some other groups picked up the concept, particularly the Leeds group which had already from its beginnings a geographical focus parallelling ours (and preferring the probably more grammatically correct plural form atopoi). In later investigations other aspects have taken the lead, particularly in Madrid, developing concepts largely opaque to us (such as?), or in Eric Bragg's inexhaustible documentation of abandoned environments in northern California, or in Bruno Jacobs' concept of "poetic places", or in SLAG's "urban rockpooling" etc. The interface visavis popular "urban exploring" more or less based in live role playing games and situationist theory, is not yet specified. The many scattered surrealist experiments in natural, rural or suburban environments have been fruitful but perhaps not offered similar methodological conclusions.

In Stockholm we have also focused particularly on dream geography (recently at Kormorantrådet),
both the question of how space is constructed in the dream and how dreams affect our geographical orientation in general.

Together with a sense of nature geography which is perhaps more of my own personal interest, this was investigated in my novel Dreamgeography naturegeography . This sense of nature geography is about how our observations of animals, plants, stones, landforms and weathers are crucial in establishing our sense of space, our psychogeography. In this sense, it is obviously depending on the degree of selective attention and of background knowledge. But there is of course also a sense in twhich these aspects give places their position objectively.

Psychogeography was a slightly different concept when the lettrists developed it and later used it as situationists, focusing particularly on the ideological and counterideological manipulation of mental structures through city planning and experimental urban drifting, and we have, in parallel with an academic discipline which we don't know if it exists or not, deliberately generalised it into a phenomenology of space and strategies of orientation in general.

Birds, which like humans are obsessed with large-scale spatial orientation, rely mostly on visual gestalt but also seem to have a keen sense of magnetism facilitating navigation. The gestalt sense of humans is one the other hand exceedingly complex, usually resulting in quite conflicting signals which are finally resolved in a rational analysis. Here we are. We have no memory of how we might have ended up in this place where we feel we might be. Spatial recognition, if not a pastime among others, will start approaching that beautiful and profane description of mystical knowledge as the instantaneous recollection of the sum of associations to an object (where was it? Joseph Jablonski, "Surrealist implications of chance" 1976, I think). A good guess as to where one is includes all the motionless summer evenings there, all the puns and etymological speculations around its name, the taste of the soil, the ambiguous hopes of dawn, the noise of birds, the land use history, the public transport system leading there, the dream syntheses it will become part of. The notion of home does not make sense. The only adequate identification with place is an experimental and playful one, regardless of whether it lasts for just the duration of an instantaneous practical-joke-type kiss or a moment which lasts for centuries, turning us to stone, and whether we are ultimately capable of distinguishing between the two.

Mattias Forshage 3.iii

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

(Triops, an enigmatic creature in english called a tadpole shrimp, though not really a shrimp but belonging to an ancient group of weird crustaceans, not having changed their appearance for more than 200 million years)

Surrealism is a shrimp

(third part of a pentaptych (or hexaptych?) of not-very-exciting technical texts, the series of notes as prerequisits for autosurrealismography – see also The process of defining surrealism and What about surrealismologists?)

We don’t need a definition of surrealism. We need surrealist activity and surrealist sensibility. And within that, we will now and then stumble upon practical and theoretical problems which will make it interesting for us to think about the meaning, the logical and ontological status of surrealism, and the mechanisms by which it is detached from other concepts, by which it creates itself staying separate but making alliances and partial confluations with other currents, movements and perspectives, et cetera.

Some basic semantics: the surrealist tradition

Surrealism is a movement, a tradition, an activity, a sensibility and a point of identity. It is not a style, a doctrine, a religion, a theory and an institution. Of these different aspects, these different ways it is meaningful to talk about surrealism, the surrealist tradition seems to be the logically central as all the others gain their meaning from it. For different people, in different situations, other aspects might seem more central or even more fundamental, but it is also by way of the surrealist tradition that surrealism gets a content that makes it possible to make objective correlates. For example, the surrealist movement is surrealist, can recognise itself as surrealist, and can meaningfully claim to be surrealist, only inasmuch as it rests on the surrealist tradition, and also its innovations, novelties and deviations only make sense inasmuch as they take the surrealist tradition to new areas and new combinations.

Then, the surrealist tradition is the part worth taking a closer look at. It is mostly a continously disenveloping investigation and creative expression of a field of investigation and creativity; a rhetoric, a sprit, a vague methodology, a particular hope, connecting with each other a growing set of classic themes, classic aims descriptions and classic techniques. The tradition is the volontary historical continuity of these investigations, a freely chosen and mythical social community spinning over many decades and countries accumulating experience in this field. As soon as we place ourselves in this tradition, we become comrades with the earlier explorers, and their results become ours.

Thus, the core meaning of surrealism is dynamically and intrinsically tied to the developments and activities of the surrealist movement. We do find surrealism outside it, and long before it, but it is only in the light of the ongoing activities that these various elements get their surrealist meaning. The adhesion of such elements to the surrealist tradition is a part of surrealist activity. The tradition and the activity do not exist without each other. Schuster’s famous idea of the distinction between eternal surrealism and historical surrealism makes no sense and is just a piece of really bad metaphysics; this has been pointed out before but is worth repeating.

Some boring semantics: the surrealist adjective

There is a surrealist identity. Different criteria can be applied to who is a surrealist. The most common criteria is either or a combination of three: subjective surrealism (who regards himself/herself as a surrealist, preferrably based on adequate knowledge of the surrealist tradition), objective active surrealism (who pursues a surrealist activity, in everyday life investigations and subversions, in thinking, writing, painting, playing etc, preferrably in several of these), objective formal surrealism (who is involved in the surrealist movement by participating in a group or in network collaborations, in discussions, journals, exhibitions, anthologies, declarations from within the surrealist movement, preferrably actively and by own choice). These criteria all make sense by way of the surrealist tradition.

The subjective and the objective formal criteria are very straightforward to apply, even though the circumscriptions will have to be specified for the particular purposes wherever the question is asked. But the objective active criterion is more fundamentally problematic. What activity do we regard as surrealist if not a subjective surrealist identification or an association with the surrealist movement is there to highlight it?

On an intuitive level this is still fairly easy, and we might explicate it as those activities which are in line with the overall aims and some of the particular methodological characteristics and some of the thematic focuses that are part of the surrealist tradition. Again it is the surrealist tradition which decides. In this sense, it is also fully comprehensible and makes sense to speak about not only the surrealist painters and surrealist poets but also their surrealist paintings and surrealist poems. Single works merit the adjective by their being congenial with the surrealist tradition, often but not necessarily also inspired by and in turn inspiring that perspective. It does not have to be more difficult than that.

(Some people are eager to make it more difficult. A particular strand of surrealists like to modestly repeat that “we probably don’t really live up to surrealism”. Michael Richardson recently in a personal communication gave this a more coherent explication, claiming that surrealism must not be conceived as something attainable, and specifically that no works can be surrealist films, surrealist paintings or surrealist poems, because surrealist work is “’the annihilation of being into a jewel that is neither of ice nor fire’, lies beyond life and death and therefore cannot exist in this realm of existence”. This perspective does have some appeal, but it is not consistent with the traditional usage within the surrealist movement (and indeed, would force the the movement to rename itself as the “movement for surrealism” instead?) and mostly it will just create unnecessary difficulties.)

Because of course we keep forcefully denouncing that there could be any stylistic or doctrinal criteria from which to judge whether things are surrealist or not. Let us not be obstinate, there are stylistic and doctrinal elements in the surrealist tradition, yes there are, but none that are homogenous, straightforwardly applicable, nor very interesting. A certain style which we associate with surrealism, or a certain opinion we regard as central to surrealism, may serve to initially awaken our interest when we see it elsewhere, but we would certainly not regard it as part of surrealism unless we also found a meaningful creative relationship with other and more general concerns within the surrealist tradition.

Some ludic semantics: the surrealist shrimp

As the meaning of surrealism rests in the surrealist tradition which is continually actualised and partly revised in the surrealist movement, it is quite obvious that one of the things we can do with it is to play with it. As we have learnt from this tradition itself, play is an easy, difficult, joyful and instructive way of opening new perspectives and leaving behind ones own petty prejudices. Similar to how experimental identifications of the self in play and in poetry is far more interesting than the self which is analytically or spontaneously-defensively constructed; identifications of surrealism which appear in surrealist games, in poetry, in playful improvisations which are part of alliances and collaborations, will produce numbers of suggestions which can gain further meaning when they are confronted with each other, or pondered upon, or transferred into new media, and thus incorporated into the elements of a mythology in becoming. “Surrealism is a secret society, which will initiate you into death” Oh yeah? Well how is this going to happen?

A couple of years ago, the Stockholm surrealist group were fond of a game we invented that we called “the objectification of morals”. It was a simple analogy game where we found concrete objects as correlates to abstract concepts. We chose an abstract concept, each player suggested one sensory characteristic associated with the concept, and from the constellation of adjectives we kept discussing until we found an object that embodied all these sensory characteristics. The first succesful round was doing this with the seven deadly sins, which we sent as a somehow contribution to the surrealist exhibition in Plzen 1999. Once, we tried with Surrealism. I don’t remember now what the actual sensory adjectives were, (like, hmm, wet, calcareous-hard, quick, submarine, itching? this is obviously just a pedagogic later rationalisation) but it was very easy to realise that what we had all converged in a shrimp.



There was a short period when I used to read timetables for occultations. In astronomy, occultation is whenever a celestial body gets in the way of a lightsource and thus blots it out.

Here on earth, in surrealism, occultation is something slightly different. It was introduced by Breton in the second manifesto 1929, and Breton certainly does not make it easy for the reader here. The concept of occultation itself is not very transparent. In the manifesto, it is obvious that occultation primarily regards a strategy versus publicity. How the sphere of publicity is circumscribed, and what that strategy actually consists in, is not specified. And especially not since Breton in this text also discusses alchemy and hermetic philosophy, causing careless readers to immediately believe occultation to be identical with a plunge into occultism. He does cite the alchemists in the paragraph leading up to the demand for occultation, but that is for their strategy of secrecy and not particularly for their art. But then in a footnote, he makes things more difficult by seemingly suggesting this simplified equation between occultation and occultism himself, but keeping moving back and forth. The occultation of surrealism is on the one hand the escape from frivolous contemporary influence, but on the other hand also the occultation of thought which perhaps is best served by for example astrology and “metaphysics”. What is this? His first example is parapsychology, which he connects with surrealist games as efforts of collectivising thought. Also hysteria, and above all love, are cited as favorable for such occultation. At that it point, it seems again like the occult references are just an additional way of adding connections and meaning to the surrealist core activities in their surrealist significance. But then he ends the footnote with a paragraph of astrological speculation, which does not establish any real connections with the surrealist activity and does not include any real thinking, and really seems inorganically pasted onto the text for some casual polemical/rhetorical reason.

Now, some surrealists recently have started using the word as a formula for a general situationist-anarchist strategy of “refusal of mediation”, against the spectacle. Obviously this is something derived from situationist theory even more than from surrealism, and may if not carefully employed just cause even more confusion.

Considering the fact that the call for occultation is within a text where Breton tells a lot of embarassing personal anecdotes about people for mere polemical purposes and relates a lot of stupid quarrels, misunderstandings and idiocies, it would be strange if the original surrealist sense of occultation had something to do keeping things internal or secret, of not doing ones dirty laundry in public.

What is occultation really, then? In general, I perceive it, in its context, as something straightforward: remain in the shade and remain inaccessable and opaque to the public eye, in a simple effort to retain control over your public image, not allowing any journalists insight into internal affairs, striving for freedom of action rather than fame and recognition, in fact distrusting and avoiding fame and recognition. Every activist and underground worker knows this. People who are catching the publicity contagion will always have to be reminded.

But then, it is not an ordinary, plain straightforward occultation that is being called for in the manifesto, but a “profound and veritable” occultation. This motivates all the question marks and makes this an issue we can continue to discuss if we want. But let’s just note that it is probably not something as simple and anachronistic as a general embrace of occultism, nor a generalised refusal of mediation.

By the way, this was a short period. Approximately 1934, the french surrealist group is eagerly public again. This is partly because of the huge impact of surrealist art, and partly because of the popular mobilisation in the streets. Participating in and founding all kinds of “alliances for vigilance” as well as riots and desperately looking for adequate ways of politically organising, participating in and founding alliances for the defense of modern art (which at this point more or less seems identical with surrealism), taking part in various kinds of exhibitions and art journals, the surrealists are obviously not into occultation but into investigating means of mass communication. In connection with the international surrealist exhibition in London 1936 surrealism for the first time definitely reaches a mass audience, and this is obviously an exciting prospect, perhaps even intoxicating, to them. The exhibition in Paris 1938 is much in the same vein. But at the same time the defeats in Spain and the advances of nazism give little food for optimism, and the failure of FIARI to become a large and influential organisation is soon mercifully taken off the agenda by the breakup of regular surrealist activity in the call of general mobilisation.

Then, in Marseille waiting to escape the country, in exile in north america and the caribbean, clandestinely in Paris and elsewhere throughout france, the whole socalled diaspora of the second world war, is this an occultation or not? Less public for sure, but forced onto the activities by external circumstances rather than a volontary choice. And what about czech surrealism between 1947 and 1967? Clandestine, tough, but occultated? What about the so-called “desert years” of the french group between 1977 and 1990? Hard and non-public, but occultated? We are getting into the sphere of mere rationalisations, just like the famous occultation of the pataphysical college for several decades, simply because of lack of inspiration and resources.

But also the strategy of avoiding publicity will sometimes seem like making a big fuss over how things go on spontaneously. In 1929, surrealism and its scandals was a hot topic for the gossip press, particularly since many associates of the surrealists and even some of the surrealists themselves made a living by writing for newspapers. Nowadays, this is not so much so. In the eye of current mass media, surrealism is outdated, and as a rule quarrels are interesting only inasmuch as the participants are celebrities, and you become a celebrity only by hard labor of marketing your person. Contemporary journalists will occasionally get the idea that they might do a “thing” about this funny hyperradical living corpse, but usually any afterthought, restrictions, slowness, on our part will make them loose interest. To get represented in mass media, you will first have to adapt yourself to the particular requirements of media logic in general and to the specific journalist who will mediate it.

With a deeper understanding of mass media and the function of the public sphere, developed by frankfurt critical theorists and by situationists among others, we do see that the mass media is not a separate evil but an integrated part in the general ideological machinery.

Occultation, staying out of the limelight, primarily still means not allowing the mass media any real insight, not accepting the conditions for mass media representation, not marketing surrealism or oneself through the available marketing channels and with the available marketing mechanisms. This seems again rather obviously fundamental to organised surrealism after the 60s.

But with critical theory, with the situationists’ concept of the society of the spectacle, and with the swedish surrealists’ concept of the personality market, the ground is obviously open for broadenings and further developments of the concept of occultation too. But before this is explicitly done, let’s stick to the basics of speaking freely only in selfcontrolled media, of always treating journalists and academics with proper suspiciousness, of considering public activities as tools among others, keeping alive a strategic and theoretic discussion about them all.

The astronomical sense of occultation is a subjective phenomenon, it is about blotting out lights from our view. We spontaneously apply this to surrealism as a question of darkening our actions to the eyes of the public. But the reverse is also important, the big inkblob that hides all the mass media news, advertisements, entertainment, all these frenzied meaningless appearances. This is what the swedish group once started an investigation of in terms of the “cold hand” and even more the “silent hand”; the big palm of silence blotting out the damned noise, making it possible to hear again. Of course this formula could be reduced to zen buddhism or to radical conservatism, but of course a surrealist perspective is not identical to those.