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.