Thursday, January 24, 2008

surrealism and science

"thought is one and indivisable" (Péret)

Occasionally some people have referred to some kind of contradiction between scientophilia and scientophobia within surrealism. To say that, for example, Breton, Césaire, Colquhoun, Baskine, Seligmann, Artaud, Miró, Péret, Legrand, Jouffroy, Brauner, Chazal, Tarnaud, Jouffroy, Dax, Carrington, Mabille, the majority of the french, czech and latin american surrealists, were against science and Paalen, Mabille, Matta, Rybak, Brunius, Jennings, Davies, Pailthorpe, Hérold, Caillois, Leiris, Nougé, Senecaut, Masson, Ernst, Onslow-Ford, Seligmann, Jorn, Breton, perhaps the majority of english, belgian and scandinavian surrealists plus the whole groups of Dyn and La Main à Plume, were for science is extremely superficial. The function of the thematisation of science in the works of individuals may be predominantly polemical or predominantly curious, but this is only about where individuals like to put the stress. (And any such sorting, such as this one here, will be extremely dubious as it necessarily extrapolates from mere hints in their works, from anecdotal evidence and from the most stupid denial of ambivalence and conflicting data.) The surrealist viewpoint in itself in its historic continuity is fairly unproblematic as long as the questions asked are made more specific.

1. Surrealism is passionately in favor of reality, truth, and the the natural world, and has a distinct taste for empirical data, documentation, objectivity.

2. This taste for documentation and objectivity is often expressed in a pseudoscientific style and pseudoscientific attitudes.

3. Surrealism has no longing to reach inside academic or other institutional structures.

4. Surrealism has no particular love for instrumental rationality or simple logic, but uses them in its quest for knowledge and for everyday purposes just like everybody else.

5. But it also challenges them and remain interested of whatever seems to counter them, get missed by them, be hidden behind them, get unleashed by abandoning them.

6. Surrealism is very often elaborate in its praxis of designing experimental methods, but usually in a more or less improvised way. Methodological concerns do come in, but are only occasionally an important focus.

7. Just like real science itself (but unlike the education system, mass media, and all the other pillars of ideology production) surrealism is very sceptic towards large generalisations based on scientific results and arbitrary applications of detached scientific results on other aspects life, and towards identifying one’s own world view with truth.

8. Surrealism is suspicious, critic and vengeful against all systematic ideology production, where the one carried out under the banner of science is but one, but a fatal one.

9. Surrealism is curious about all unusual thinking. Not for its own sake but for the possibilities of new poetic and epistemological revelations, and secondarily for the disturbance of habit in general as a method of triggering unknown dynamics.

10. Even though its own methodology is usually not that systematically developed, surrealism tends to agree with its “house-philosopher-of-science” Gaston Bachelard that new knowledge is produced foremostly by abandoning prejudice and making epistemological leaps. In one sphere, this is one of poetry’s functionings. In another, this is where the specialised natural sciences investigating our world work.

11. In that sense, surrealism has many reasons to appreciate and make usage of the marvellous worlds of for example particle dynamics, spacetime theory and the whole of quantum physics, scientific cosmology and astronomy in general, meteorology, systems ecology and microbiology, evolutionary theory and genetics, plate tectonics and geomorphology, quaternary geology and palaeoecology, cladistics and probability theory, cybernetics and general linguistics (just because these are the examples mentioned in “Hellchoir”). Such disciplines are creating coherent mythologies animating natural forces in a sense which is counterintuitive but makes poetic sense to our sensory and imaginational experience.

12. Some frameworks making sense of the world are called myths. Their poetic substance do not reside in some purely aesthetic perception beside truth, nor in any profound traditional truth which is fundamentally opposed to autonomous critical examination. They are in themselves not superior to the scientific framework, nor are they inferior. In mythology as well as in science, some domains are revelatory, liberating and poetic, while some are mainly dull or oppressive. Many surrealists are personally more interested in either myth or science, and may from that viewpoint also investigate scientific aspects of myth or the mythical aspect of science. The classic surrealist method is to snatch poetical elements from both, integrating them in a framework ordered by purely imaginational imperatives. But some surrealists keep warning about the ideological and social implications of many such thefts, potentially reproducing various available exotistic ideology or even create a new system of hostile liberal integration into an aesthetic framework; which are valid points even though the specific cases of surrealist appropriation may possibly well elude them. Some surrealists here insist on the need of deep knowledge of the framework in selected other worldviews, or of the principles of science – often surrealism may benefit from epistemological or methodological or comparative points made that way, just as much as from the poetical elements.

13. Thus, surrealism loathes and opposes all ideology and especially narrowminded instrumental reductive confinedly rationalist ideology, but loves the systematic and poetic study of the natural world.


22/1 2007

When my ship comes sailing in in the moonlight,
it will be filled with an elk carcass and a lot
of mouseshit, and barefoot I will kick the beehive.

- raging charon

What about the surrealismologists

- to the question of surrealism and ideology

Something could be said about the general topic of surrealismology, especially since this scholarly appropriation of surrealism nowadays finally seems an equally active force in academia and mass media as the good old bagatellisation, denunciation or denial, which perhaps may better be described as forms of misappropriation.

But almost since the beginnings of surrealism, critics, gallerists and academics have been writing essays and books and staging exhibitions to represent surrealism. The surrealist movement has usually distrusted and often loudly denounced such representation, but of course also recognised that there is a big difference between sympathetic and unsympathetic initiatives, and between serious and unserious inititatives (the two distinctions not always being the same). But on the whole, contemporary active surrealists have often made a kneejerk reaction out of denouncing such outside representationers as parasites, gravediggers, counterfeiters, and often actually to the level of themselves not being able to explain what surrealism is other than in negative terms; surrealism is not whatever you have been taught it is, surrealism is not an artistic or literary movement, surrealism is not within the realm of the historians of art and literature, surrealism has nothing to do with… bla bla bla. This mere negative positioning does not contribute anything to a greater understanding of surrealism, even though it may possibly contribute to the inner dynamics of the group expressing it, establishing a solid infantile feeling of being universally misunderstood and isolated and thus, at least for some time, a source of inspiration for not accepting ideologically entangling compromise.

Still, any attempt to sum up surrealism in an accessible form, any attempt to ensure it a share of exposure within contemporary culture, tends to reify surrealism and make it a part of this society’s ideology. Anything which is part of this society’s selfunderstanding is ideological; and it is very obvious that radical cultural movements are very easy swallowed up into an embellishing function, only proving the breadth and diversity of the blossoming cultural sphere under capitalism. Active surrealists more or less necessarily contribute to this when they publish to look for allies and show their works. Of course there are differences in degrees and strategies here, with rather different implications of different media and different levels of active mystification and of the active response demanded from the receiver, but there are no general solutions or obvious circumscriptions. Many surrealists want to disseminate their knowledge, their experience and their continuous thinking about surrealism in some form; thus writing books, book prefaces, pamphlets, newspaper articles, giving conferences, blogging, arranging exhibitions, readings, festivals. Objectively, this is all part of the general movement of transforming surrealism into ideology, but in practice this is of course countered by whatever active involvment, independent thinking, radical initiative it might inspire, and this in the long run rather than the short, so it is very diffult to assess.

These ideologists do then not form a distinct group but a spectrum blending into the very centre of surrealist activity. Some of the academics writing about surrealism have actively befriended surrealists and received an inofficial but very real stamp of “accepted” – of course they are sympathetic, but it varies a lot whether they actually had anything to contribute to the understanding of surrealism – compare for example the solid empirical work of Marguerite Bonnet with the rather superficial flow of books from JH Matthews. Some commentators have been active in the movement and often remain involved, while still preferring and putting most of their efforts into writing about surrealism; again contributing more or less to the understanding of surrealism. Compare for example Michael Richardson’s and Krzysztof Fijalkowski’s fruitful efforts to think critically about the issues involved, with on one hand the ceaseless flow of informed and sympathetic overviews of for example José Pierre, Ragnar von Holten, Michael Rémy and (though a bit more trustworthy than the others) Edouard Jaguer, all very informative and very shallow, and on the other hand some minor spirits who are trying to impress their academic colleagues (probably in vain?) with “real life” experience of surrealist activity while still writing only the most shallow derivatory work in their field with a smaller or larger portion of simple exotistic journalism. There seem to have been an increase lately in allowing surrealists into academic contexts (conferences, journals) with essayistic presentations of one or other subject related to surrealism (sometimes a vague sketch of the conditions and particular spirit of surrealism within a certain country), of course of very varying quality but usually lacking any real scrutiny in any method, serious thinking and even academic formalities, thus having been brought along primarily for the sake of breadth, exotism and entertainment, thus just representing surrealism in connections where it can have very little hopes of performing any fruitful subversion.

So it is obviously not the degree of sympathy which determines whether the commentators have anything to say or not. What then about critiques of surrealism from the outside? Again we have to involve the concept of ideology from the start. Any attempt to accuse a struggling radical nonconformist movement for exaggerations, naivity-puerility, overconfidence, rash generalisations etc, are mostly just the voice of the reproaching father or even more often the nervous wellbehaved sibling, and are usually formulated from a secure viewpoint of a comfortable everyday life with a job and a family and no struggle whatsoever; thus they evaluate authentic liberatory initiatives in comparison with the entire system of available ideology – such a criticism will rarely be relevant, independently of how factually true it may be in specific points! The academic feminist and poststructuralist critiques of surrealism are very often in this genre; regardless of whether their reproaches are true or not, they are simply not legitimate as long as they are offered from academic chairs and pertaining to no application into real critical-creative activity and actually no application at all, perhaps other than less surrealism or less activity in general. For the critique to be really relevant, it must be a critique aiming to a more radical, more coherent, praxis. This could be a critique suggesting new lines of research and action; a critique reminding of coherence or particular important factors that sometimes gets lost in the process, rectification of specific misunderstandings, or a critique pointing out where unconscious or consciously tactical halts and compromises in thought and action are made. It is obvious that such a critique could be made, and sometimes has been made, from the viewpoint of situationist thought, from the viewpoint of struggling feminism outside the academies, from the viewpoint of several other radical movements, but actually also from the viewpoint of the guardians of certain senses of truth, truth as coherence, truth traditions, truth as poetry: occasional outstanding thinkers in some philosophical, poetological, psychological and occult disciplines.

Now when glancing through this mountain of books, conference reports and journals that constitutes surrealismology, it strikes one as such a monumental waste of effort. The academic journals devoted to surrealism are many, Mélusine, Pleine Marge, InfoSurr, Cahiers DadaSurréalisme, Dada/Surrealism are only the ones you most often find references to. They have slightly different profiles (and some of them are cancelled), most of them are there so that the various academic students of surrealism (be it students in history of literature, history of art, history of film, anthropology, aesthetics, or “surrealism studies” in the places where that has surfaced as a separate discipline) can publish their entirely mediocre papers, usually poor explications or simple comparisons concerning surrealism and this, surrealism and that, usually not even on a general scale but confined to the context of one or two artists or authors, often only one or two works. Every now and then there are papers based on actual empirical work, presenting new or forgotten documents and historical facts about certain old surrealist, surrealist activities in certain cities or countries; of course these are sometimes good and sometimes bad, but there is obviously some meaning in writing and publishing them. Very rarely there are papers including real thought efforts in terms of actually interpreting, enquiring, reconstructing and criticising surrealism. Any efforts to interpret and criticise other things in the light of surrealism are entirely absent (naturally, since this would be the activity of the surrealists rather than the surrealismologist). So, even though much of this is sympathetic, and some of it may be really interesting, the effort to keep updated and active in the field is the profession of professional academic surrealismologists, and the rest of us have no big reason to regret we don’t have the time or patience to keep up with it, there is little illumination and inspiration of surrealist practice from that source.

They are not even very interesting from a strategic viewpoint, to keep detailed track of the ideological appropriation (socalled recuperation) of surrealism, since they are confined to the sphere of specialised academics, and cannot disperse outside that sphere without only putting people to sleep. It is merely the fact of the existence of this sphere, and its little brotherhood of professionals, that is interesting; in order to study the forms of ideological appropriation (and the corresponding countermovement) it would be much more important – and slightly less tedious – to study so-called popular culture, by which I then mean mostly advertising and commercial design (but also the cinema, music, comics and humor industries), and also its relationships with real social forms, habits, creativity and inventiveness, slang, superstitions and humor (the latter sphere perhaps popular culture in a more rigid sense).

But then of course, keeping track of the history, people, developments, strategies, tactics and works of surrealism is of course one of the tasks of the surrealists, and this is one area where we can counterparasitize and steal back valuables from the academics wherever our own records are insufficient. It is only the surrealists who can judge where to draw the relevant circumscriptions, what makes true surrealism and parasurrealism and interesting parallel investigations and what makes sterile derivatives of isolated surrealism elements and superficial stylistic similarities and ideological trends regarding shared interests. No, in fact not even the surrealists. But the viewpoint of the surrealists is in itself much more relevant since it is directed towards praxis and transformation.

M Forshage