Thursday, October 16, 2008

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)


Anonymous said...


I appreciate your efforts to examine the relations between the surrealist and situationist currents today. While some of Vaneigem's writings borrow a lot from surrealist writers and theorists, don't forget that he was rather closed off in his stern judgements with regard to contemporary surrealism. The book 'Cavalier History of Surrealism which was only translated into English within the last decade, for example, is dripping with a very biased and partial analysis which Vaneigem uses to then support his general condemnation of surrealism as an integrated part of the Spectacle. Poor scholarship and situ self-importance tend to ruin most of the book. As Don LaCoss wrote, Vaneigem is looking at surrealism through the eyes of the Spectacle, and yet claims he has pretensions to help steer young readers away from surrealism and ostensibly closer to the Situationists. Likewise in Revolution of Everyday Life, where chapters such as "Creativity, Spontaneity, and Poetry" have a very pro-surrealist feeling, Vaneigem again plagiarizes surrealist ideas while denouncing them. Debord is known to have given more credit to the surrealists of his time who were printing Situationist writings, such as Marcel Marien, while generally maintaining a very chilly and orthodox hostility towards most of the others. And what was that project that involved the Fourier statue that the surrs and situs tried to work on together that allegedly ended in further splits?

Anonymous said...

hey shibek;
thanks for your additions, which all points to relevant things. So where did Don LaCoss write that? Debord's relationship to surrealism was an intensely ambiguous and very productive one. One of the other participants in the "merdarius" subject had some interesting observations on this which I'm hoping he'd express himself... Then I should also mention a very interesting article containing a surrealist critique of situationism by Nanos Valaoritis in Nikos's new greek surrealism anthology, named "The society of the written spectacle" (pp 242-247).


Shibek said...


I went to my bookshelf trying to remember which book to cite for the comments about the situs and the surrs, and grabbed Surrealist Subversions. Opened the book randomly to page 424 only to see "Conflicting Views of Surrealism and Revolution: Raoul Vaneigem vs. Robin D.G. Kelley" By Don LaCoss, which is the very article I wanted to find! The relevant passage reads as follows:

"In attacking dreaming as a passive activity, he (RV) supports the binary opposition between dream and action so crucial to the hegemony of the capitalist work ethic and promotes a worldview that alienates humans from their most primordial and universal activities (sleeping and dreaming). Vaneigem, content with the creeping colonization of our dreamlife by the advertising industry and Disney, is pimping for the Spectacle." A bit later on when discussing Vaneigem's dismissal of Breton and others for their interest in esoteric topics, LaCoss writes that "...Vaneigem grants fascists, priests, and ad executives a monopoly on magical thinking and an unchallenged opportunity to counterfeit Marvelous experiences." There are numerous other insightful comments as the essay is nearly nine pages long.

This essay was also printed in Race Traitor 13-14 'Surrealism in the USA' issue, summer 2001.

Cheers, S.

Anonymous said...

I didn't list this reference in the last message, so furthermore, Vaneigem's comments within Cavalier History of Surrealism regarding surrealism after 1945, prompted LaCoss to write:

" their conniving with academia and the culture industry to declare surrealism extinct and to cover up its contributions to radical critical thinking, the surviving Situationists are collaborating with the forces of spectacle themselves."

I also found this passage to be of interest:

"Rather than support the surrealists' campaign to liberate the dream as a means for halting the draining off of the Marvelous from everyday life, Vaneigem chides them for promoting 'the organization of social passivity' where 'the proletariat should move only to the extent required for the contemplation of its own inert contentment, that it should be rendered so passive as to be incapable of anything beyond infatuation with varied representation of its dreams.'"

And one last little bit:

"In wanting to deflect readers away from surrealism's revolutionary perspectives, Vaneigem portrays his textbook as a savvy interpretation by a practiced expert. But because the book is so rife with errors, distortions and omissions, what emerged instead is an unflattering portrait of Vaneigem himself as a miserable and censorious puritan in matters of radical cultural politics. Consequently the book frustrates readers who share a real interest in Situationism or surrealism--in sum, the only people who would consider reading Vaneigem's account in the first place."

Hopefully these citations will be helpful for any readers who don't have the books. I find myself in agreement with a lot of what LaCoss writes as I was given an advance copy of this book in the late 90's and had a chance to see his approach firsthand. My friend and I never did prepare a critique as we discussed...Sadly a few years ago in an AK Press Catalogue the book was said to contain 'everything you always wanted to know about surrealism' which was a further dissapointment.