Thursday, December 31, 2009
"In this decade, not so much film was produced by surrealism. Far more was being done with developing the surrealist interest in cinema-going, with many surrealists specialising in film criticism, applying more or less surrealist principles. In fact, film criticism based on the bretonian formula that "criticism must be a form of love" is a very distinct genre. To begin with, it brings the viewers subjectivity into the stew by way of desire, through emphasising the romantic, fetishistic and atmospheric. Through this it also sheds light on cinema-going as a poetic ritual and as an analogue to dreaming. It assumes a certain love of lowbrow popular genres, especially horror but also all kinds of boyish adventure and including science fiction, eroticism and sometimes pornography, absurd slapstick comedy, etc. It keeps looking out for the, in fact rather common, elements of mad love and everyday revolt. Then in the process, it also assumes a sharply polemical edge against its contemporary pretentious auteur cinema and formal avantgardism (and the criticism hailing such cinema and technical mastery of the craft) - while also in advance disarming the future tendencies of preferring high-budget hollywood commercial cinema for the sake of its technical skilfullness, as well as the "turkey" nerdism favoring obscure lowbrow genres for being obscure and technically poor rather than for their actual content."
This made me eager to state my own thoughts about a surrealist attitude in the area in a letter to a friend:
Film has to show something interesting. It simply has to have a counterpart in, intervene with, act reciprocally with, a visual-imaginative desire. Film is there for visualising fantasies. From a certain viewpoint, a lot of Hollywood film thereby is founded on conditions which can be fully shared from a surrealist viewpoint. In order to be worth showing on film it has to be somehow "unheard of". It has to show something unusual, preferrably even never seen before, it has to be attractive, terrifying, beautiful in an unusual way.
Therefore there is nothing to object against the overflow in cinema of grand effects, strange landscapes and constructions, odd monsters, wish fulfillments, ingenious mutilations, attractive women and men. I cannot understand how some people can deny that horror film (at least from german expressionism to contemporary ghost drama and uppdated monsters) and super hero film (at least from Fantômas and Douglas Fairbanks to contemporary Marvel heroes etc) would be surrealist genres due their own internal dynamics, since they are there for showing unseen fantasies. (One argument against myself there is using fantasy and science fiction as counter-examples – they are exactly as promising from a theoretical viewpoint, but in practice more often than not just bore me...) The problem is of course that these elements are often used in a purely conventional way, as signs for a conventional content, rather than for something unusual that they could become left to their own power.
This is particularly acute regarding the attractive women and men, the stars, which from a surrealist viewpoint do have a strong fetishist interest, and in certain films are allowed to live out the concrete ambiances that their looks may give rise to, but in a larger number of films are mere clichés, either as naive sandwich signs or as smart self-referring signs. Surrealist interest in film has traditionally not had reason to avoid wallowing in the fetishisation of actors with different types of interesting emanation, stars that really have been able to become mythological creatures, but whether this is a still useful route today is certainly worth a critical discussion (we've had some inconclusive rounds of discussion about this in the Stockholm group).
Another aspect where reserves are necessary is action. Yes, strange courses of events and exaggerations are interesting, but usually speed is used merely as a tool to catch attention, and in that function usually does not therewith correlate with a corresponding dynamism (in the sense of importunate richness in possibilities). And dynamism are often entirely lacking also in the musical meaning, as meaning-generating variations in tempo and volume.
On the other hand there is no need for us to dwell too much on the issue of ideology. Everybody knows that the film industry is a immense industry and a key aspect of american ideology export, this is self-evident but also so general that it can be disregarded. It is simply rather uninteresting that it is possible to decode a reactionary message from more or less every single movie on the repertoire. Messages on that particular level are everywhere around us, and have no immediate importance for that which is the main points of the appropriation of such products. For what is interesting is whether it realises and challenges real desire constellations, or if you will "popular needs", in a dynamic way, whether it generates unusual ambiances and emancipatory fantasies, in the process. (Possibly with an exception for the most idiotic genres of all, like military- , college- and family movies that very eagerly serve to concretely legitimise, sentimentalise and humanise unbearable human conditions, and could be dismissed in their entirety. Or else there might actually be concretely dynamic moments even in them to find for those who were able to withstand it.)
I also don't believe in fantastic realism. Or, hell, why not, just pour it on. Whatever is it anyway? Is it simply Kusturica? Fellini? Hasse & Tage? Anything with colorful characters and much noise? Isn't this just to pick up Buñuel at his most predictable and remove any conventional or unconventional controversial ingredients? Isn't this the particular moment when the desire for the unusual is tamed, is hitched to the cart of reconciliation, when it all becomes "goodtime"? (This is another part where I disagree with myself; in most cases nothing makes me so furious as "goodtime" does, but sometimes I'm enthusiastically pulled along too.)
But the everyday fantastic, or perhaps situational poetic, that is much of the point with film on the whole. Finding visual expressions of the unusual moments in life. The abysses. The fields of possibilities. The trembling atmospheres. Quite a lot of this is found in romantic films and conventional "drama", but just as much or more in east european film and in many famous west european directors works from the 60s and 70s, displacing genuine old romanticism in modern and at first sight trivial environments, with a wide awake eye, the compulsory creativity of errant desire always hinting at the immanence of the marvellous. (One of the points here is to get to my fascination with early Wenders, which I was surprised to find controversial in my circles.)
Unusual characters, unusual environments, unusual courses of events, unusual atmospheres. Strange constellations of objects. Suspension, emphasising the formlessness and tangiability of desire.
I would also like to emphasise that the surrealist perspective does not have any preferences regarding such genre designations as documentary, feature film and art film; is obviously interested in them all and often finds it very difficult to distinguish between them at all. If from a schematic representation of the general consensus view documentaries are supposed to aim at being pedagogical, feature film to be entertaining and art film to be aesthetical; surrealism entirely lacks respect for these ambitions and will expect from all of them to be just as much poetical rather than aesthetical, wondrous rather than entertaining, and investigative rather than pedagogical.
The surrealist film critic perhaps simply acts as a hedonist; is bored by brilliance, is impressed by unusual atmospheres and unusual fantasies, is unhamperedly fetishist in the appropriation of the situations, objects and human beings that are exposed, as if they were mere elements in one's one dream. Which they, methodologically speaking, in fact are.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Another new post deals with perspectives on statues and history.
Note also that certain items of theoretical significance are being posted in english on Kormorantrådet/ the Cormorant Council rather than here as long as they concern imaginative geography and spatiality in dreams.
Simultaneously with the contemporary approach to the animal from an ecological perspective, a perspective that proclaims the animal’s excellence as a living being (this necessarily implies the protection of animals from one of the worst human diseases: slavery), another attitude imposes itself as it seeks to exalt and perpetuate the animal, once again, as a real space of emanation and intervention of the marvellous.
The animal is a great unknown, and this transforms it into a geography of the unexplored. In the relationship with the elements and its analogues, through its rituals and games, in all its ways of behaviour, the animal contains an act of inspiration as well as being inspiring.
We condemn the paralysing and despicable inclination due to which the animal is presented with human attributes. The recognition of the animal goes inexcusable through a recognition of the beauty that the animal projects: the song of the whale, the love declaration of the penguin, the headlong flight of a kingfisher, the 180-degrees head turn of the eagle owl, the ‘innocent’ ardor of a nocturnal moth and the luminous trail left behind by the firefly during its courting dance. The animal generates a magnificient succession of alternative currents, ‘true emblems of all its splendour.’ (1) On the one hand, these currents constitute an example of generosity towards itself, an authentic demonstration of ‘passional attitude’, but on the other hand, they challenge every human logical system of relation, including that which complacently passes for human sensitivity. In any case, the animal denotes the notion of the particular and the concrete, which in the universe of the perceptible by the senses – and in its relations with every operation of recognition – configures a paradigm of the revealing.
In this sense everything indicates that the operations of extinction and appropriation performed on the animal, cause, simultaneously with the animal’s eradication, a kind of taming of our emotions, or in more brutal terms, a kind of castration of the human emotional capacity and disposition towards the ‘inspiring’. The criminal activity directed against the Amazonian rain forest and countless other actions perpetrated on a national, regional or local level, monstrously and hypocritically by all States of the world, without exception, leads to the gradual disintegration of an infinitely sensitive space of reality, where the intervention of the marvellous could be found in an unadulterated state. Therefore such operations implacable tends to deprive us of that which, inseparable from every activity of our spirits, corresponds to a horizontal and vertical dynamic of knowledge. Because the animal is wisdom! Its forms of existence include an authentic expression of an intuitive, emotional and passional life, which, as we enter into contact with the poetic thought, opens the true path of sailing towards that island which some beings agreed to call, after resting on its shores, the island of wisdom.
This attitude is not, in any way, that which appears in the Article 2, Section B of the Declaration of the Universal Animal Rights: ‘Man is obliged to put his knowledge into the service of the animal (sic).’ Such an appreciation – the ‘good will’ of which does not suffice – characterises the pathetic nature of general approach of man towards the animal being, exposing openly and unashamedly his determination rooted in a system of rationalist thought that places the faculties of the animal onto a lower existential plane. Far from resuscitating a new sensitiveness that would reactualize and reorientate our relationship towards the animal onto a plane of reciprocity, it continues to express the same obscure presumptions by which man strives to establish, now through declarations, the human capacities as superior to that of the animal. And nothing seems to indicate that in order to aspire to this reciprocity it is necessary to be in the field, or that its recognition would pass for such reciprocity. The contemporary difficulty is obvious of a recovery, under the present form of contact, of a relationship that existed as a result of an everyday contact with the animal in tribal, ‘primitive’ or entirely rural societies, and brought a form of knowledge of the animal being. It will have to reconcile the scientific information (which presupposes – principally objective – the absence of such a contact) with an attitude of longing and passion towards the animal, an attitude that responds to an incipient and fundamental recognition, transcending and overriding, at the same time, the limits installed by a restrictive and socially dissociating form of life (inseparably on the mental and the physical level). Moreover, the absence of practical conditions for the concrete recognition of the animal ‘is not incompatible with theoretical recognition, nor would it be incompatible with feelings.’ (2) What is proposed is a necessary change of disposition as a first step towards the breaking of the equivocal: a recognition of the animal? yes, by our recognition of the wisdom of the animal. Only by giving the latter a paramount significance we can place our knowledge at its service and thus establish the coordinates of a reciprocal relationship. As Mariano Auladén affirms, ‘this would require the placement of the operations of relationship between humans and the animal on the same level as the relationships which humans attempt to establish among themselves. Only a human effort departing from such a premise, independently from the result which we can obtain with our present strength, would enable us to leave the trite path of routine and mental lethargy towards the animal.’ (3)
In all its categories, the animal awakens an intricate web of correspondences in their highest degree of transparency. The poet will make them his own; surrendered to a state of metamorphosis the poet will establish with the animal, ‘in contrast with the scientist and his methods of enquiry based on plain descriptions of the animal’s physiology and his habits’ (4) a relationship animated by a dialectic between the unknown-marvellous-revealing that leads him to a new magic recreation. The poet will employ means of analogy and poetic imagination as a vehicle for translating his knowledge of the animal, from a perspective which would exalt, once again, the animal’s totemic and symbolic role. The animal has not lost its fabulous essence seen by travellers in past times, an essence confirmed by the tradition of the imaginary. Similarly, the image of the animal as an instructor and inductor of his wisdom has not disappeared. This role surfaces in indigenous cultures (‘…we have been here for thousands of years and long time ago the animals instructed us.’) (5) It is the modern and the contemporary man who has rid his spirit of the awareness of these phenomena that were traditionally consubstancial to him. The reestablishment of relationships based on the principle of the marvellous entails an attitude by which the faculties of the animal are to be recognized.
As an eagle over the forest, as a sheldrake on a female shelduck, the animal accelerates a reunion with the lost mythogenic consciousness of life. This will become the foundation stone in a construction of a bridge, the determination of which implies that the desire of Joseph Jablonski that one day man should know, again, how to identify the animal world as his totem, will begin to be fulfilled. In any case, such a provision does not cease to incite a form of reconduction towards that being (it remains to us to place and contemplate that day in our time). In this way, the end of the false fascination expressed in the condescending vision of the animal, a vision that predominates at the present time, would begin; the end of a vision that turns against him ‘the double stigma with which the modern man tries to defend his enslaved reason: the useful-the harmful.’ (6)
Neither a perverted action (appropriation, murder) nor an obscene one (the animal as entertainment for the masses, i.e. circuses, zoos, art exhibitions…) can lead, in spite of man, to a decimation of the animal. At the same time, no such actions can prevent us from seeing in the spiral of its forms of life a space of enchantment from which to reenchant what we vaguely take as the Human Condition.
As Mariano Auladén asserts, ‘…the animal is not property, it is a REVELATION. It is not a cultural object, but a CREATOR OF ACTS.’ Such manifestations will open for us the source of a true recovery of sensibility regarding the animal world. In their critical consideration, these manifestations proclaim the absence of awareness that the modern and contemporary man holds of the animal world. The repercussions of such an absence are omnipresent: man projects his base condition on the animal and extends it over the animate and inanimate continent of new references. To this attitude we, surrealists, would like to respond with a formula to convert the historical time that restricts it to a mythogenic time that would transcend it.
The creation of a Surrealist Bestiary corresponds to these ideas. As long as the surrealist thought will demand a mythogenic perspective of life, it will communicate an attitude of exaltation and recognition of the animal’s behaviour (way of life) and its own morphology from the view point of a dialectic of imagination that would transmutate it onto a totemic level.
The animal, a being whose existence is inseparable linked with a total sense of the marvellous, and whose majestic presence fabulously completes and presides the universe of the imaginary, contributes here to the realization of the immanent attraction that exists between the desire for a myth and its satisfaction. It offers to our sensitivity and knowledge an invitation in a way of challenge:
Let the flight of thousands hummingbirds create through the agitation
of their wings an equal number of air currents which will surround man
and erase him, return to him his absolute presence that would irreversible
identify him - this was for Marianne Van Hirtum already a practical condition -
with the perennial image of the Enchanter.
The Surrealist Group in Madrid
1. The Anteater’s Umbrella. A Contribution to the critique of the Ideology of Zoos, The Surrealist Group in Chicago, 1971.
2. Claude Levi-Strauss, La Pensée Sauvage
3. Mariano Auladén, “Quiyi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi”, Luz Negra, Comunicación surrealista nº 2, Gijón, 1981, p 5.
4. Mariano Auladén, ibid.
5. Claude Levi-Strauss, ibid.
6. Mariano Auladén, ibid.
I always figured that the old scholastic notion of "standing on the shoulders of giants" was a way to describe accumulated learning and express an indebtedness towards tradition. On closer inspection, though, there is no lack of written sources that belie this metaphorist interpretation. Isidore of Sevilla - to name only one - informs us that "just as, in individual nations, there are instances of monstrous people, so in the whole of humankind there are certain monstrous races, like the Giants, the Cynocephali, the Cyclopes, and others." In his Etymologies, in which he attempts to collect all the knowledge of his age, we find peoples in the most varied sizes with organs redistributed in the most striking fashions. Faces on the stomach, a one legged people habitating distant parts of the world, asians without noses - the variations of medieval man shames the monotony of the contemporary human body. And to still think in metaphors? What a cretinizing way of turning flesh into mere words.
East Berlin worked as an important corrective to such lifeless abstractions. During our trip, M and me went to visit the Marx-Engels Platz and were confronted by the gargantuan stature of earlier generations of men. Standing on M's shoulders, I still would not be able to reach the head of Engels. One of the virtues of socialist realist art is how it expresses material truths through scientific-aesthetic techniques. Instead of "translating" Marx and Engels into men of a present-day size, it lets us experience the wonder of human variation. The finger nail of a 19th century man is the size of my palm! His feet like my thighs and his torso the thickness of a recycling igloo. Instead of trying to comfort us by making dwarves of giants, the sculptor forces us to take stock of both a historical distance and the slumbering possibilities within our present, cookie cut limbs.
Confronted by these statues of the labor movement's great thinkers - as well as by the nameless workers of a similar height that surround the Platz - one understands the urgency which must have inspired works such as "The Housing Question" and the investigation of the living conditions of English workers in that island's great industrial cities. I cannot begin to fathom how those early-industrial giants managed to fit into apartments smaller than those we live in today. After a 12+ hour working day, they had to crawl their way through narrow corridors only to be forced into fetal position, packed like herrings in what passed for a home. The ever new editions of Swift's Gulliver's Travels (a perspective that is often lost sight of today) - what a clever intervention into the great 19th century struggles over social space. The books - no larger than today - must have been the perfect size for a worker to build his own coat library.
But however remarkable the size difference is, what really got our attention was the variations in the actual composition of the human body that the statues hinted at. Specifically: the genitalia of giants.
Concerning the crotches of giants
Socialist Germany apparently tried to make a clean break with bourgeois sexual morals, at least when it came to the variations of genitalia over time. I was aware of how the introduction of a "two-sex" system replaced an aristotelian performative-misogynist theory of sex with a biological-misogynist one in the early-modern period. But just as the political ideology of the day tends to reduce (political) history into a teleological story about the progressive realization of representative democracy, I have taken for granted that today's sexual organization has been present - at least biologically - throughout human history with only slight variations. Changes, even revolutions, in sexual practices, family structures and theories of reproduction and pleasure - sure! But the biological "substrate", the actual genitala, has always seemed to be an invariant which the purely social variations connects and disconnects to in different ways.
The findings of historical materialism tell us otherwise. Because the German artists where not held back by prejudice or political agendas, they could represent the genitalia of our predecessors without resorting to mystifications. The representations, limited to Marx and Engels, are however very limited. I only wish that they had been accompanied by Luxemburg or some other woman - if that is not an altogether too inexact expression - so as to give some kind of hint as to the extent of the variety of genitalia (and other organs) in those early days of the labor movement. With this limited selection in mind, this is what I managed to observe and deduce about the genitalia of giants:
Marx' genitalia corresponds closely to what is referred to as a "penis" today, at least as far as I can tell. The artists, though working with scientifically developed techniques, were not primarily interested in early capitalist anatomy but in creating a homage to two very important theoreticians of the labor movement. Thus, they are both clothed. I do however get the feeling that the sculptor is making a point of the mentioned correspondence by giving the author of Capital a slight erection that shows through his cast iron pants. Apart from his extraordinary size and immense muscles, he is eerily similar to you or me. (A small note: Marx is depicted as sitting, which hints at the possibility that the "boils" that he presumably got as a result from long hours at the British Museum might be a code of sorts.)
At first glance, Engels seems to completely lack sexual organs. But as you move closer, you see fine silver threads extending from his absent crotch towards other parts of the statue as well as to its immediate surroundings. The "web" hosts a number of small black and brown organs that only connect to the main body by those thin milk-like threads. The organs have eight jointed appendices. As far as I can tell, their function is to allow the organs to move along the libidinal strings when the slightest vibration signals the presence of a potential "sexual goal" (to borrow a term from Freud). One of the organs seem to limit its movement to a triangle formed by Engel's ear, collar and shoulder. The threads in the triangle are particularly plentiful, and the density allows one to spot certain patterns in the seemingly anarchic way in which the lines of communication are drawn. Recording and shivering at the slightest tremble in the strings (they are made from some kind of extremely elastic bodily fluid), the organ moves back and forth in the triangle but always to return to a site at the statue's ear lobe. From this base of operation it whispers into the seemingly attentive hollow just above it.
It would be easy to see a certain tragic dimension in this neverending murmur into the ear of a mere representation of man, and the connected rythm of frantic activity and motionless wait of these caressing-communicating organs awake a suspicion: they may not be part of the statue at all. What if this residue of sexual organizations wiped out by the enforced primacy of reproduction ("normality" in the technical sense defined by Dr Freud) somehow managed to survive, attempting to form symbiotic bonds with new bodies? Trees, signposts, window panes, dreaming animals and humans? It must have encountered several difficulties: the unresponsive window pane which refused to stir even when told about the most delicious connections made, the animal suddenly awake - unaware of the perverse possibilities offered - might shrug, move a bit too violently and undo an entire night's labor of love.
But to find tragedy would likely be no more than a relapse into anthropocentrism. It would be presumptous to assign consciousness to such organs, at least any remotely similar to our own. Rather than a project leaving a trail of heart breaking disappointments, it might be better defined as a constant attempts to attach and calibrate itself to more than a century's worth of potential hosts. Then, finally hitting on the very forms and proportions of the host it has attempted to replace, it finds a certain functional "contentment" in the replica of a man. In a reversal of the way that the dreamer's hand searches for and finds its crotch, the organs searches for and find their resting place.
Freud may have kept clear of biology when formulating the object of his science for obvious both practical and theoretical reasons. The "limit"-concept of "drive" is a practical demarcation necessitated both by differences in method and the actual structural conditions of the psychic apparatus (which appears to be dissimilar to those of biological science). This construct of strings and miniscule organs seems to allow for sexual activity in the forms of caressing, strangling, exploring, corresponding. Such functions are not unknown to psychoanalysis: on the contrary, they are perverse elements present in all kinds of sexual organizations and the building blocks of the pregenital configurations. What is striking though, is that the variation of sexual organizations that today are confined to the psyche are here given an immediate, physical form. Engels' libidinal web is highly original in both its relative autonomy towards any given body (both in its ability to make and maintain connections and structures whose connections with a body can be disconnected and reconnected according to chance and optimizations of functionality - and in its ability to if necessary change host) and in the functional, more or less immediate correspondence between biological and sexual organization. While the tongue or the dick or the cunt today varies its significance according to the demands of the psyche (within the material boundaries given by its physical shapes and capabilities), the libidinal web might be proof of a period in human history when this variation rather than shifting significances and practices was actively remolding and reforming organs according to the demands of desire.
This obviously has a great significance for the historical validity of both anatomical studies and the present configuration of the psychic apparatus. A more modest area of research might be to analyze in what ways these arcane strings and organs of Engels' are connected with his great communicative efforts in the service of the labor movement. Is there a connection between his immense web of correspondents and confidants and his immense web of delicate, ever growing milky lines? Or between this elastic secrete and his preoccupation with proteins in his Naturdialektik and Anti-Dühring?
PS. It might be noteworthy that the sculptor's arrangement with a sitting Marx and a standing Engels is reminiscent (or possibly the other way around) of Max Ernst's Capricorn (also present in Berlin at the time); compare ME & M&E.
PS 2. We might owe much more than is readily apparant to our gigantic forefathers. Take wages for example: Marx himself tells us that the wages of the working class tend towards a level where it can simply pay for that which is necessary to reproduce its labor power. But he also tells us that that which is considered "necessary" is to some extent decided by the culture and traditions (and demands of capital) in any given society. This "inertia" coupled with the likely very rapid shrinking of man during the few generations leading up to the 20th century might very well have produced a favorable situation for a number of generations. The level of wages was decided with the physical needs of immense bodies in mind. So, as the bodies shrank, an ever greater part of the wage could be used for other purposes. Imagine the riches available to a working class the size of rats!
Appendix 1: City planning as class struggle in the sphere of anatomical science.
Living on Rosa Luxemburg Strasse, we visited her Platz in the belief that we would find a place of a similarly thought provoking nature. What we found was at first glance very disappointing - the most boring kind of conformism. The genitalia is as present in the activities of the city planners of Berlin as in the preoccupation of artists: it might have permeated the whole intellectual life of those days and produced unforseen effects in the most diverse fields of work. But the contradictory ways in which we find it at Rosa Luxemburg Platz might force us to reevaluate the perhaps all too one-sided, positive way in which we appraised the tendency's presence in regards to Marx-Engels Platz. For where the artists seem to have made a clean break with narrowminded prejudice, the city planners seems to be trapped in it. This should be obvious from a schematic overview of the place: a triangle, and under it two orifices. And as an unwelcome bonus: in the triangle (representing pubic hair) an advertisement for a "Hooters" restaurant near the Zoo. Thus, the present rulers of Berlin try to humiliate the dead, as if to say: "Go ahead workers, suck on the teets of the dead sow of insurrection." Depressing, really, until M points out that their order might very well be built on quicksand - or paving-stones.
For in contrast to the surrounding streets, the triangle is made of cobble stones of a size suitable for throwing. Having thus exorcised the feelings of defeat, we realize that just as the triangle differs from what you might find on a police woman so too does the orifices. Not only eggs, urine and shit, but a whole system of tunnels spanning a city of millions. One might be tempted to make use of one of the pet problems of Trotskyism: how do we define the "socialist countries": As "degenerate workers' states"? As "state capitalism"? And what forms do class struggle assume in such social formations? A triangle and two subway entrances may give us an idea of how one aspect of this struggle took shape in the fields of urbanism and anatomical science. Within the confines of the given order, the primacy of reproduction and sexual conformism is mutated; someone (perhaps a sleeper agent from Sex Pol? Hard to imagine that Reich's comrades would all just disappear or abandon their common project) makes pubic hair take part in the preparations for a renewed insurrection, and develops the two-way street logic of orifices into a ever-growing series of possible destinations. And, ironically enough, enlists the unaware city planners of today in forever expanding and modifying these series.
Appendix 2: Die Toten Mahnen Uns: Michael Jackson, the Paris Commune and the Beach Volley Ball of Reaction.
(to be added)
Saturday, October 10, 2009
This might also be a good opportunity to point out to those that haven't noticed that the Icecrawler has increased its circle of sibling blogs. The terrestrial cephalopod cites the blob news too, and the Biografier åt okrossbara hälleflundror is named after the unbreakable halibuts. These two have a similar focus on poetic investigations, the one in english and the other in swedish. A third sibling, Kormorantrådet or The cormorant council, seems to be eventually switching to english for most of its dream geography enquiries.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
6 real islands
Sunday, September 20, 2009
The latest blogpost "Experiment & Failure" was a quick improvisation which I had to revise thoroughly a few days after its first posting, but only a week later other contributors to the merdarius persona and the icecrawler blog delivered an important chunk of criticism. As this was done largely orally and all in swedish anyway, I am now left to paraphrase the criticisms here.
And then I grab the opportunity to seemingly change the subject and acknowledge the recent passing of an old french surrealist comrade, Sarane Alexandrian, who was the grand old man of surrealist occultism, and therefore partly, but only partly, an opposing pole regarding ways of conceiving surrealism.
Sarane Alexandrian im memoriam
Alexandrian, born in Iraq in 1927, was one of the large gang of "dandy surrealists" who were one of several circles bringing new energy into the reconstituted french surrealist group in 1946 after the war. This circle believed strongly in the epistemological priority of poetry, the need for rigorous metaphysical experimentation, and the lack of need for involvement in politics; in parts coinciding with the classical "dissident" surrealist viewpoint of the Le grand Jeu group. Nevertheless, in 1946, this group was in the midst of "official" surrealism; it was specifically the clique forming the first editorial group of the french group's journal Neon in 1948, and they were very active in the organisation of the famous international surrealist exhibition in Paris 1947.
In 1948, most of them were collectively kicked out. At that time, Breton insisted that the group excluded Matta, for still partly obscure reasons; the rationale was that he would have contributed to Gorky's recent suicide by having an affair with Gorky's wife. Large numbers of surrealists opposed or doubted this, friends of Matta, or firmly believing that Matta still represented a spearhead in furthering surrealist research in art, or just questioning the validity of the grounds for the exclusion. The "dandy surrealists" gang were seeing each other a lot in the home of their mentor, Victor Brauner, and were not showing up daily at the regular meetings. For this, they too were suddenly excluded from the group "for factional activity". As the surrealist group was very large at the time, while there were still a lot of different experiences drawn from the war represented and long-term strategies were not at all agreed upon, there were many contradictions around, of which several are not very transparent to us 60 years later.
Alexandrian had also been a member of Cause, the international secretariat founded in the french group to facilitate discussion between surrealist groups in other parts of the world and to inventory and coordinate the various assessments of the historical situation - unfortunately the group was shortlived and another one of its animators, Henri Pastoureau, wrote later in life with withheld bitterness that "it was obvious that the movement preferred to embark in a less systematic direction".
Many of the outcast surrealists of the purge 1948 and the following, even more obscure one, in 1951, remained in various ways true to the surrealist spirit while working in other forums or mostly in personal isolation combined with a mediocre litterary, artistic or scholarly carreer. Alexandrian became a decent historian of modern art, writing a series of sympathetic but not exciting books about surrealist art and similar (some of which were even translated into english) - note for example Le Surréalisme et le rêve - but also a novels and books about utopianism, occultism, etc.
(It is indeed one of the remaining big tasks of surrealist history to shed light on the actual processes involved in these particular purges - a tentative attempt in Richardson's and Fijalkowski's Surrealism against the current must be noted - where the internal surrealist tradition has made it a myth (about irreducible and unexplainable historical necessity) which has not performed too well in competition with the hostile myth of academic historiography that they would be simply the expressions of Breton's arbitrary (unexplained and ultimately unexplainable even within their system) "dictatorial whims".)
Then rather suddenly in recent years, Alexandrian returned to a more active role, as the founder and director of the journal Supérieur inconnu (from 1995) and the centerpoint of the collective around it. This was the respectable midpoint of a minor resurgence of surrealist occultism, maintaining the exploration of poetry in categories clearly not subsuming the perspectives of hermeticism, alchemy, mysterious correspondences, hidden traditions and magic under those of modern science or philosophy. In a certain sense, this is a basic position of surrealism, but there was also something very provocative about it. Also in the very slickness and intelligence with which it was done. Alexandrian himself wrote primary about art. Associated with the journal were other, more picturesque characters like the twoheaded Fabrice Pascaud, who is the surrealist astrologer as well as a trusted orthodox surrealist polemicist (maintaining the rich website Arcane 17) and the weird surrealist gnostic publicist Paul Sanda.
This reborn surrealist occultism (which is more obviously firmly rooted in traditional surrealism for its french exponents than for, i e the english-language contemporary surrealist satanists like ORB editions in Wales and the Tenebraeology) is an important reminder of the width of the sources and practices of the surrealist perspective. Especially since the emphasis and priorities applied on this webpage are often taking a very much other direction, it can be interesting to consider the extent to which the experimentation and concerns for poetic phenomenology retain a shared core throughout different routes in the surrealist project.
And as I don't have too detailed information of the direction of the Supérieur inconnu collective, I am utilising this as a way to reach back to the discussion in the Stockholm surrealist group, where there are different persons defending (at times or consistently) skepticist-rationalist views, rigid-scientofilic views, subjective-sensible views, rigid-marxist views, cynic-ultraradical views, pragmatical-philosophical views, and metaphysical-largesyntheses views - leading to some harsh discussions but still without problems to agree about fundamentals including the need for dismissal of faith, for explicit epistemology, tireless experimentation, devotion to the unknown, methodological concerns, poetic sensibility, in a insistently collective, ludic, critical, subversive, creative context; which is surrealism (insisting on the continuous relevance of the concerns and maintained activities of historical surrealism, rather than any arbitrary modernisation of it into some individual-eclectic art label or faith).
(Disclaimer: Several other surrealists have died this year. The only departure which we perceived as a personal blow was that of our old friend, pioneer surrealist organiser in the US, Franklin Rosemont. But there was also Jean-Marc Debenedetti, Anne Èthuin, Pierre Peuchmaurd, Boguslaw Swacz, Blanca Varela... The fact that we mention Alexandrian's passing is due to subject matters and should not be taken as a sign that we perceive others as less important; we do not have a news blog, and even if we had one we would be reluctant to indulge in the necrophilia of accumulating obituaries.)
Criticisms of "Experiment and failure"
So, the "Experimentation and failure" text brought in a few serious criticisms of specific points.
NN found it dangerously scientistic on a couple of points. The one most interesting to discuss would be the seemingly reifying character of its actually very tentative attempt to define poetic criteria, and the sense of selfcontradiction necessarily discernible in invoking "irreducibility" as a technical criterion and as a resource. The poetic experience, in its constitutive irreducibility, will always try to escape its determinations somehow, and appear as wondrously attaining a new level of coherence, knowledge and pleasure or not, which we might try to describe in different ways with psychological, epistemological, aesthetical or spiritual vocabularies each with their respective ballast of implied value systems of petty personal rewards and usefulness. Perhaps the objectively meaning-generating quality as well as the imaginational promise and practical uselessness of the experience makes the term reenchantment the most accurate.
Nevertheless, the surrealist viewpoint as implimented here will insist on the need to apply discipline, criteria and evaluation, in contrast to whimsy-eclectic-subjective arbitrariness of typical artistic individualism or of private spirituality, and in this respect agreeing with - but emphatically separate from - the chauvinistic-traditionalist applications of such criteria in actual spiritual disciplines as well as in the classicist-conservative-escapist system of aesthetics. In the light of surrealism, it is necessary to indulge collectively and ludically in carefree but laborous experimentation proving that poetry is immanent, readily attainable, unpredictable, not deserving a modest-pacifying type of respect, but actually a weapon of emancipation, revenge, illumination and subversion on all levels, AND that the outcome is not attained automatically nor free to consumistically enjoy nor voluntarily label according to moods, whims or skill of rhetorics, but actually can - and especially regarding the more elaborate collective projects preferrably should - be evaluated from the viewpoint of poetic efficiency, methodology, epistemology, strategy; further dynamics.
Then, the text was criticised by JE for resting on the old image of the lone researcher designating experiments and acquiring personally the knowledge as their end result. This is a very relevant critique. Regardless of whether experiments are designed by single scientists or large groups of scientists (which is different in different branches of science), it can certainly be well argued that the outcome of the scientific process, which is supposed to be knowledge, is not necessarily something residing in the scientists' heads (the entire team or the group leader or the coordinator of groups) and then communicated to colleagues and public. Knowledge might indeed be more accurately be decribed as an objective phenomenon which takes shape among the scientific community as it incorporates and acts upon results of one investigation. The image of knowledge as residing in someone's head may be nothing more than a worn but compelling metaphor which we stick to from the mere force of habit of philosophical education.
In fact, I see no need to stick to a particular ontology of knowledge, and indeed a view of knowledge as an external body which we might find temporarily and partially residing in a tree or a stone, in a particular constellation of people or in any haphazard collective engaging in a particular activity rather than in a particular head, but primarily somewhere inbetween; something which we might contribute to and play with, and which we may be possessed by rather than possess; seems to be a more dynamic and less individualist-humanist view which is probably more useful to surrealism?
Some, and several others before when facing similar texts, have noted that it is potentially misleading to employ the word science in a restricted and somewhat ideal sense of scientific method, which is the core of science in its consitution as science and therefore the core of the meaning of the word. This is a sense of logical realism. It does not imply that, nor have the ambition to make it appear as, all the activities of scientists would be scientific, the ideological institution called science would be privilegedly scientific, etc - in fact quite the opposite, since it is only the recognition of a semantic core of the word science that makes it possible 1) to analytically distinguish between scientific and unscientific attitudes, deeds and claims among or around scientists, 2) to see what is scientific outside the sphere of the institutions of western science, and 3) to recognise that the sum of the social interactions making up the institution of science in the widest sense contains tension, tactical alliances and potentially violent contradictions between the scientific and its opposites, and 4) to see the tendency for this attitude to be unable to be practically manifested in a pure form detached from other ambitions and contradictions, instead being one of several intermingled expressions of, as well as engines fuelling and guiding, human ambitions and behaviors in playing out various social conflicts, utopian longings and pointless games.
Monday, September 7, 2009
In order not to make readers too uncomfortable, we start in a conventional genre of conceptual analysis, related to philosophy of science and to poetry, regarding the sense of experiment; subtly sliding over to a few pieces of paraphernalia in the ongoing debate over exteriority. A few previous posts here (primarily the out there) have brought up the concept, under which many surrealists mainly in Spain but also elsewhere currently focus their geographical researches - Mattias Forshage wrote a criticism of the book in a private email to the editors and several co-contributors, the Madrid group replied with an "open letter to Mattias Forshage", and the Stockholm group seems to be still planning its response. Before getting too deep into this subject, we plunge into a perhaps incoherent discussion about phantom objects, locomotives and flatfish, which launches some themes worthy consideration as well as display some methodological characteristics of the Stockholm group, and leads to a finishing phenomenological essay about milkbathing.
The most common use of experiment is the pragmatical sense of trial and error, which might be a somewhat metaphorical generalisation of the scientific term, and which I will refer to as the TECHNOLOGICAL sense. In the field of technology, there is a task you want to perform and you keep testing procedures until you reach the goal. The small element of improvisation needed just because there isn't a fixed recipe, is there very weak sense of experiment which is at work here.
Either it works to produce the desired effect, and then everything is fine, you may write it down for future use but need not think about why it worked, or it fails, and then you just drop it, you may write it down to avoid repeating it in the future, but need not think about why it failed. You could of course repeat it, for the purpose of refining the procedure. Technology is all about testing whims and varying parameters to produce a certain preconceived effect. Its aims and methods has nothing to do with those of science.
Experiments in cooking, and experiments in politics and social engineering, are usually like this: either they produce the desired effect or not. All too often, experiments in social behavior and in art, music, literature are the same thing, a particular whim may succeed in establishing a person's confidence, or securing a pick-up, or expressing the artists' personal style or a topic set of problematics in a fresh, more efficient way. This is all experimenting in the weak sense, trying out some innovative or just unconventional means of reaching a particular, usually conventional, goal.
Within the framework of science, experiment is something completely different. In a SCIENTIFIC experiment, theories are tested, not ways of attaining goals.
A setup is designed where the outcome of the process will be able to say something crucial about the assumptions that gave rise to it. Very often you test which parameters are crucial for causal effects. The experimental setup is about controlling and varying factors so as to analytically isolate them and so actually identify the significant ones. It is all about producing knowledge. A negative outcome is just as interesting as a positive outcome, since the negative outcome demonstrates what was not a crucial factor.
In everyday settings, the scientific sense of experiment will sometimes go hand in hand with the technological sense. "Let's see if they accept my ideas if I just express them as loud and cursing as I can" and "Let's see if I manage to impress them if I wear this strange jewellery" are technology-style experiments if the primary purpose is to attain the goal, but scientific-style experiments if the important thing is to draw conclusions about the effects of one's own behavior on others (or on some particular set of others).
Scientific experiments should be designed so as to give one outcome if the theory behind it is true and another outcome if the theory behind it is false. The scientific sense of experiment wants to see what happens, under controlled circumstances. It could not give a damn about success and happiness in life, technological development, etc.
Poetry may be described as an experimental science of sorts, but its sense of experiment is yet another one. POETIC experiment is to create something unusual and unconditionally see what it will spark off. In some circumstances, this would best described vulgarisingly, as "stirring a little in the pot", in others more pretentiously as "durable systematic disorder" and "opening the gates to the unknown". Because it is all about the unknown, it is all about leaving behind the domain of habit and predictable effects, about releasing a dynamic which we don't know where it will lead, a path which is dynamic by the very reason that we leave behind the recipes and well-known routes of procedures we master. It is about attaining effects, but not the specific desired effect of technological concerns but the very opposite, the unpredicted effects. Thus the knowledge it seeks to establish is not about deciding between alternatives, about corroborating or falsifying preconceived theories, but of finding new openings, revealing new associations and connections. Therefore, all litterature and art which just struggles to produce certain effects we can dismiss as non-poetic. On the other hand, since scientific experiment and technological experiment are merely ways of testing things, from an epistemological and a pragmatical viewpoint respectively, it is often admitted that both are dependent on imagination to produce something to work on in the first place. Unleashing imagination is the way of the poetic, regardless of whether in cooking, writing, painting, dancing, musicking, everyday social behavior or what.. In the social sphere, such experimental interventions are often referred to as creating situations, and the situationists named their entire movement after them. (but of course acting on social dynamics do require some careful planning, some crude empiricism, and some skills in pragmatism, let us by all means say that revolutionary politics is a big game which require a coordination of all three senses of experiment...)
Failure, in this sense of experiment, is not the occasional "bad trip" but rather the not-too-rare failure to produce some psychic dynamics except conventional reactions. But it lies within the nature of the thing that concerns over effects can not be allowed to attain a primary place in the experiments, it is needed to silence that type of concerns and face the abyss, it is only then that one really abandons the technological sphere of petty task-fulfilling and enters the sphere of adventure. Failure is unavoidable, it may even be grandiose and beautiful.
Scientific and poetic experimentation alike rest on a fundamental break, an epistemological break, often referred to under the french name coupure. In science, that break is part of the conditions: you must leave aside your preconceived ideas, particular expectations, prejudices & habits, spontaneous jumping-to-conclusions pattern recognition, technological and practical concerns, and accept wherever the method leads, whatever the experiment says, regardless of personal opinions and psychic investments.
For poetry, the break is the sine qua non and the defining moment. An unprejudiced investigation into the workings of the imagination, language and sensory experience when facing the unknown.
Now, even though it is all about psychic dynamics and fearless devotion to the unknown conditionlessly, the poetic still has criteria too. We are specifically looking for psychic dynamics which are emancipatory, pleasurable, informative, unusual and strong, but these aspects are all interdependent, and dependent on the impact of the break itself, on the seriousness, resoluteness and fearlessness of the plunge - but also on innovativity and consistency of method, admittedly to some extent also on previous experience, mastery of techniques and good old sensibility (- we could say one does not create poetry, but one evokes it, is claimed by it, channels it, becomes its voice, more or less efficiently; so skills are mostly about the willingness to put one's available means at the service of the poetic).
What characterises poetry is that it deals with the unknown in a qualitative sense (beyond the purely formal characteristic of not being known); it is all about its sense of irreducibility. That irreducibility is the main characteristic of truly poetic psychic dynamics: that which is in a sense endlessly productive in that it can't breduced to any well-known ort well-knowable constellations of personal motives, social interactions, habitual associations of ideas, psychic defenses, etc.
Criteria are important, for evaluation is a crucial part of experiment. It is inherent in an experiment in a technical sense (did it work or not), and obviously the central moment in an experiment in the scientific sense, but I argue that it is crucial also in the poetic sense of experiment. Yes, let everything loose without concerns, but see afterwards how far it got, what it revealed, what heuristic lessons can be integrated into the methods arsenal, what types of dynamism and types of imagery was let loose; how to proceed further into the domains opened. In fact, very much of alleged poetic experimenting stops short in the domain of evaluation, and very often this is where "experimentalness" (or even the very label of poetry!) occasionally fulfills the function of a mere excuse for sloppy methodology, lack of planning, lack of afterthought.
Surrealism is a particular discipline to cultivate and study the specifically poetic experimentation, and also an area where evaluation of poetic experimentation plays an important part; often in an analytical manner, even more often in terms of furthering playing, experimenting, creating according to suggested routes of dynamism, of developing a very openended and changing, yet accumulative and collective, poetic phenomenology and mythology.
In a branch of the recent discussion about the book The crisis of exteriority in the surrealist movement, it turned out that several american surrealists were specifically upset by the fact that I had used the word "failure" about the book. I had said "an applaudable, enjoyable and partly very beautiful failure", but failure I said.
Nikos Stabakis and Johannes Bergmark both, defending the formulation without necessarily subscribing to the view, suggested that failure means something ambiguous or even constructive in an epistemologic or scientific context. Indeed it does. Obviously it was such connotations that made me frivolously employ the word without a thought that it might hurt someone. But nevertheless, in the actual place it was a lot more simple; I meant failure in a plain technical way. I concluded that the book did not launch a new theory or a new useful and clarifying epistemological framework in the field of surrealist investigations into the environment, which I felt it had claimed to do, both in the discussion leading up to the publication, and in the very title and introduction of the book. On the other hand, it was productive in provoking all this discussion, as it had been in provoking some very readable contributions in the book. This is part of the dynamics of failure.
But please snap out of this kneejerk reaction to accusations of failure. Of course it is a central pillar in the "american way of life" that each man must make his own happiness and humanity is spontaneousy divided into winners and losers by their own ambitiousness as an expression of the natural order of things. In this view, success is everything and failure is a catastrophe. But a surrealist view would not coincide with that ideology. First, it would possibly side with a democratic or humanist view, finding this distinction to be rigged, flawed and irrelevant for all important purposes. Then it would take one step further and conclude that in this specific hierarchies which define success and failure in the human sphere, a poet would necessarily have to start by accepting failure, in order to avoid the preconceived struggles over conventional prizes and actually open the door to the vast sphere of all other possibilities. Especially so in an american context. For some, this is the simple analogy between the poet, the mystic and the shaman. For others, it is a very specific political statement: no, we dismiss the future you have designed for us, we won't be taking part in your hunting for positions and your retreats into petty domestic happinesses; investigating the sense of being a human starts with being a loser and investigating the sense of life starts with failure.
(revised version as of 11/9)
(from forthcoming international surrealist journal Hydrolith)
Surrealists as urbanists
Nothing could fool us to think that the city is a familiar place. Urbanity is a system of the dynamism of cramping things together, and its most interesting parts will remain that which grows in its interspaces, buds off from its inner limbs, remains its difficultly charted characteristics. There are, of course, all-too-familiar patterns and all-too-obvious conscious motives, of those who want to control the others and those who just want to be left alone. But the unknown always remains a distinct possibility in urbanity's collaging of people, physical and mental environments and thus of social relations in general. And where the unknown emerges, there is always the potentiality of poetry.
Early surrealist investigations into urban flow led to the development of concepts such as objective chance. But most of the arsenal of methods, games and perspectives was never systematised into a particular theory. It was to a large extent up to the surrealists' prodigal children the situationists to cast it in pseudo-academic terms with the theory of the dérive and the theory of psychogeography. These were later recuperated into surrealism, and the surrealists' own investigations of urban environments were refuelled. In this new wave of exploration, additional new perspectives and concepts emerged.
One concept which gained some distribution in the previous decade was that of worthless places (atopoi or atoposes, literally meaning non-places - atopoi being the greek plural which the Leeds surrealist group insisted on, atoposes the ridicule-anglification first utilised by the Stockholm group who introduced the term). It was used in print first in the "Geografi" issue of Stora Saltet (1995). A brief summary of the subject by MF from the "Upphittat" (found objects) Stora Saltet was subsequently published in english in Manticore (as "The poetry of worthlessness"), in spanish in Salamandra and in czech in Analogon. Recently another piece, putting the concept to concrete work, was printed as "Explorations of absence" by the Leeds surrealists in Phosphor #1 (2008). (In the meantime we had found some Plato quote including the term, and not too distantly Roland Barthes had called love an atopos; only recently however it was pointed out to us that in greek it is the common word for something absurd in the mathematical-logical sense. There has also been some internal debate whether the concept was closely related to Foucault's idea of heterotopia, but its affiliations on a purely theoretical level is not of particular importance for a concept we now address as an analytical tool.)
Other surrealist groups pursued their geographical investigations in other directions. The Paris group maintained focus on objective chance and analogical geography in the "Géographie passionelle" issue of S.U.RR., the Madrid group together with individuals elsewhere developed the concept of "exteriority" for epiphanic experiences of sensory presence at certain border locations. Some of these groups were never particularly interested in, or impressed with, the concept of worthless places. This is of course conditioned by differences in direction and local traditions, but a certain role could also be assigned to differences in conspicuousness and function of the locally available such sites.
In this text, we would like to sketch some of these differences in conditions while restating the basic background of organising urban space, and restating, perhaps even forwarding, some principles and perspectives for surrealist investigations into urban geography.
Recognition of worthless places
The emergence of worthless places in urban environments depends on several conditions. Their recognition typically focuses on either of three approaches.
a) that of poetic phenomenology - keeping up the vigilance towards spots conveying a distinct feeling of being out of control and having a distinct diffuse potential (if such a seeming contradiction is excused), of having a hidden history, a hidden usage or a hidden future in the realm of collectivisation and realisation of desires. This is straightforward to apply, but not in a strictly intersubjective way.
b) that focusing on usage (in terms of sociology, ethnology or behavioral ecology) - tracing spots which are generally used in a non-regulated way for activities not at all intended by owners, city planners, entrepreneurs, architects - which people individually or collectively snatch and exploit for various needs. This is obviously the most difficult criterion to apply, since we have no particular interest in acknowledging thousands of semi-secluded spots where males sometimes urinate... we want perhaps to be able to distinguish between using the same spot for a wellbehaved rendezvous or consumption of drinks and entertainments offered on one hand, and on the other hand a non-regulated nothing-buying hangout... and we would possibly like to be able to somehow define non-usage, abandoning to spontaneous decay, as a special category of unintended usage...
c) that of economic history, which allows for the most rigorous definitions - recognising spots of non-productivity in economic terms in the middle of a generally high-productive city-planned area. Being a formal and not a qualitative distinction, this criterion has the advantage of pointing out unexpected and inconspicuous places. On the other hand, it will also cover phenomena which don't interest us in themselves. Still, the determination will then sometimes require vast knowledge in local history and economy, and in practice, even with this criterion, the most obvious instances are diagnostically spotted via one or several of the following:
1. poetic suggestions in accordance with the first approach above,
2. artifacts giving a clear indication of popular usage: such as displaced chairs and sofas, toys, abandoned clothes, notes and drawings, porn magazines, condoms, bottles and beercans, abundance of cigarette butts or garbage in general, etc,
3. an abundant flora of fast-growing, easy-dispersing, more or less globalised, ruderal plants, indicating that no one manages or tidies the spot.
It should be remembered that within surrealism, such a concept with a rigorous definition, is a mere tool for poetic investigation and not something interesting in itself. The gap towards academic cultural geography is still wide. The point here is not refining the concepts, comparing it with other concepts, and debating its merits and failures, the real question is to what extent it actually sharpens our vigilance for the active contradictions and poetic possibilities in the urban environment.
There is a certain correlation between the explanatory power of a concept and how discriminately it is applied. Therefore we here stress certain objective characteristics of atopoi, insisting that the concept will not be obviously applicable to the same extent on a global scale, and that local factors will make it more or less interesting.
Value production in urban settings
- In the lapses of accumulation
The decisive regularities conditioning the distribution of sites of value in the capitalist city give us a methodological starting point from which we can approach the question of the spatial distribution of worthlessness. Here the object is not one of exploration, for which such a method would prove all too general and lacking in inspiration. Rather, it lets us avoid a couple of not-so-productive interpretations of atopoi and their relationship to the capitalist city, culture or whatever might strike the fancy of anyone prone to thinking in abstracts and unmediated totalities. We are prepared to posit the existence of a certain break between the patterns of distribution (or production by chance) sketched herein and the unlikely but constantly reoccurring product. This break is not to be understood along the lines of those pairs of opposites that pretend to say something very profound while hiding difference, particularity or reserving room for them squarely on one side of the opposition. The critique of civilization that proceeds from the a priori positioning of "culture" and "nature" teaches us nothing and substitutes experience with moralist still-lifes. Not in opposites but in living contradiction do we hope to find those sparks of wonder that illuminate the fragility of the present order of things.
The capitalist city is by and large determined by the processes of accumulation and the contradictions inherent in these processes. These imply a tendency towards general urbanisation while effecting local processes of de- and re-urbanisation and a (more or less) dynamic redistribution of people and sites of value according to the needs and limits of accumulation. The ability of capital to impose an urban dynamic governed by its voracious appetite for surplus value is checked by the continual struggle waged in a variety of forms between those who are its agents and those who suffer its consequences. The immense number of contradictions arising from the conditions of the modern city are breeding grounds of the marvellous.
The capitalist city is a structure made out of a number of heterogenous elements. Its development is not a one way street, neither does it develop in a smooth frictionless manner. The tendencies and countertendencies that give rise and direction to the deployment of urban spaces can only result in an uneven development. Just as the global economy simultaneously accumulate massive material wealth and an even more glaring (spiritual, material) poverty, so does the city.
The atopos might be defined negatively as a place that doesn't lend itself to a) production of commodities, b) circulation of commodities, c) reproduction of labour power or d) the reproduction of those apparatuses necessary to secure the conditions of accumulation on the level of society (police, state initiatives, etc). A purely negative definition this far - as a place devoid of value, a lapse in the circuits of accumulation. Such a definition stops short of the aims of surrealist investigation and leaves the place itself a blank, since the same concepts that lets us grasp the patterns of distribution have nothing or very little to say about it. We can go one step further: the definition will rather give us hints as to where and under what conditions one can expect the emergence of atopoi.
The creative destruction through which city development unfolds have an almost inevitable tendency to produce temporal lapses just at those places where economic growth is most apparent, such as in the process of gentrification.
Typically in a modern city there will be a dynamism of worthless places which can be decribed in foucauldian-autonomous terms: on the one hand gentrification and various urban development schemes; the infinite struggles to increase profit, utilising any old and new means of disciplining, exclusion and appropriation; on the other hand popular usage, countering and competing with gentrification by way of various non-regulated non-commercial useless usages. This should preferrably be studied empirically, but it can be assumed that there are always struggles occurring. Places will fall out of order and be reintegrated at a certain pace, which will be different in different cities and different parts of the cities at different times. Acknowledging worthless places a little too publicly will usually lead to their reintegration (if not for direct exploitation then for the ideological exploitation resulting from open recognition of their eventual picturesque qualities). Few largescale triumphs for the popular side are possible within the given socioeconomic order (and will probably often count as steps in a social revolution), but the struggle is perpetual and will produce a variety, at any given moment, of worthless places for leisure and play, indicating the impossibility of total control, inspiring surrealist usage of urbanity and the dreaming of yet unknown senses of urban life.
We recommend some of our enthusiastic friends of the ultraradical variety some caution: city planning cannot be monolithic and is usually not pursuing a hidden agenda. City planning is the chaotic outcome, suboptimal from all viewpoints, of compromises between various concerns and interests; fulfilling a function that is - among other things - disciplinary on the whole largely because this is the involuntary sum of the competetive commercial, political and popular interests. A lot will be about facilitating work and work transports, and offering occasions for entertainment and isolation, based on the joint interests of the capitalists of reproducing labor power and of the people of having at least some fun and getting left in peace to at least some extent. There are always conflicts of usage but also conflicts of planning, and thus small and large spots which fail to conform to intentions or where intentions fail to resolve themselves - the city is a dynamic arena and this has always been obvious to its surrealist users. There are not so few good intentions in some of the political planning, which is then always implemented in a coopted and coopting way but which may simultaneously allow for independent popular possibilities. In fact, various philanthropic and social-liberal ambitions are at least as historically important in city planning as the all-too-often cited examples of purely repressive concerns. Hausmann's avenues and the metaphor of Bentham's Panopticon should at least be accompanied by the various utopian-socialist, early-ecologist, radical-egalitarian, mystic-esoteric etc traces. Sometimes these could challenge the limitations of philanthropic liberalism when taken literally.
Parameters of worthless places
Several types of conditions govern first the emergence and maintenance and second the recognition of worthless places in different parts of the world. Both are very dependent on 1) the general degree of urbanity, 2) the general level of order and orderliness, 3) current local land prices and other market particulars and exploitation conditions.
The general degree of urbanity conditions the availability of worthless places. The denser and more heterogenous the population, and the larger the overall accessability via sidewalks and public transport, the more opportunities for an atopos to emerge, and new social practices.
For example, many North American cities have such a lack of urban density that the concept often will appear to lack application there. Whenever a city is planned under no shortage of land, and driving a car is the normal way of moving in the city rather than walking or using public transport; there will be an abundance of interspaces between all things and no obvious contrast between useful and useless land. When such a concentration is lacking, the flow of messages and chance encounters central to surrealism's appreciation of urbanity, is often decreased to non-urban levels. That certain places are put to popular perverse/detourning usage when decaying under such circumstances too is obvious nevertheless, and proven for example by some of the places found and photographically documented by Eric Bragg in the northern California countryside, but they may perhaps not be best described with the term atopoi or best understood in the framework of urbanity.
Order and orderliness is a crucial factor, but primarily on the level of conditions for discovery of such places. In a city where city planning is partly chaotic, where land market is relatively anarchic, where a major segment of the population lives in poverty or outside conformist lifestyles, where cleaning, public order, construction and renovation tasks are slower or less ambitious, where general mentality is less orderly: worthless places will probably be more abundant but far less conspicuous. And as much of their surrealist function lies in their contrast action they will also often be less interesting.
Market particulars are also crucial for the abundance and the conspicuousness of worthless places. Growing populations of course promote higher land prices, but exploitation rate is also dependent on general income, living standards and the availability of resources for exploitation, and on particular characteristics of entrepeneurs and landlords (oligarchies, mafia, superstitions, political and transnational economical involvment etc). Where the economy and thus the physical shape of the city is more "dynamic"; the worthless places will be less stable, quicker to emerge (drop out of control) but also to disappear (become reintegrated).
This is even more important when it comes to cities in the southern hemisphere or where very large parts of the population is poor: the pressure on available space is great but the capacity to pay for it is low, putting market mechanisms out of use and accentuating social contradictions, and creating a situation where whole neighborhoods and sometimes even whole parts of countries can assume the characteristics of worthlessness. Or the contrast will be organised along other scales or parameters than that of surface area.
There is also the remarkable particulars of for example the great stalinist cities of East Europe, where a certain megalomanic totalitarian regime has been replaced by regimes with distinctly other primary mechanisms of disciplining and social control. These huge squares and avenues, which made ideologic sense and were practically used for propagandistic parades (and for good old hausmannian riot control), have now become senseless. And in the instances there is no capital available for new exploitation of them, they remain basically remain; vast, often ghostly, worthless.
The mapping of such differences will increase our understanding of the fundamental and local differences in possiblities connected with organising of space, (and might facilitate communication between surrealist activities in different places).
The surrealist perspective
Surrealist interventions both theoretical and practical in the area of urban investigations are parallelled by those of others. There are tendencies among academics (in cultural geography, sociology, anthropology, economic history, human ecology, etc etc), subacademics (postmodernists, the art world), activists (struggles for "new commons" and against commercial/policiary control, auto-reduction, squattings etc), subactivists (postsituationists, post-live-role-players) and common boyish adventurers ("urban exploring", parkour), which may be more or less identical in single approaches. The surrealist project might be characterised primarily by the concern for the poetic experience and its phenomenology AND the insistence that this poetry is not primarily subjective, "pure" or religious in nature but dynamic and immanent. On the other hand, surrealists insist on the significance of considering circumstances giving rise to poetic phenomena, to acknowledging several concerns (including the psychological, mythological, scientific, utopian, political, historical) and their mutual conditioning. In this case, if anyone need formulae easy to memorise, we could say we insist on the Empirical, Epistemological and Emancipatory concerns of surrealism.
It is necessary empirical in its focus on poetic experience, but also in letting this experience emerge more distinctly by giving the possibly relevant circumstances in a documentary or (as Breton liked to evoke from Freud) clinical way. This documentation and curiosity for paraphernalia will allow for many new connections and spontaneous criticisms as well as for letting anecdotes take part in larger patterns, unlike those accounts which immediately - spontaneously or laboriously - transforms concrete experience into intoxicated fairytales.
Surrealist perspective is fundamentally directed towards producing new knowledge, not seeking to merely confirm preconceived views. It adresses the unknown in a manner which trusts its productivity, and does not treat it religiously as if it was something fragile. Systematically, ludically and/or intuitively it raises new questions, devises new methods and introduces experimental alterations. It could not be satisfied by our own emotional responses themselves, savouring ambiances like the kick-seeking youth or the sensible dandy flaneur, or by quasitheoretical efforts making up names for phenomena without defining them by any other criteria than this emotional response, or the arbitrary applicability of abstract opposites (such as in the art sphere, the new age sphere, popular psychology, poor structuralism etc). It could also not be satisfied by the repetitive formulation of fundamental questions, as typical for postmodernism, conceptual art in general, and most of contemporary so-called political art, which claimes to critise things by merely thematising them, and repeating the very same questions over and over again. They stop short of ever devising a methodology for actually investigating the thing. This particular antimethodological stance of always formulating questions in an "eternal", unanswerable way is one of the many obvious strategies of pure obscurantism within those dominant sectors of art which are unable to adress the unknown in a more substantial, creative, actually exploratory way.
In fact, the atopos theory as naïvely conceived could be formulated in scientific terms as resting on the assumption that there is a negative correlation between the economic productivity and the poetic productivity of a place. And as this is empirically testable it is not just an assumption but a hypothesis, even if its rigorous testing is not among surrealism's first concerns. It does relate back to something fundamental within the concept of the poetic. However, we are not so sure that this hypothesis is very useful. Instead of that correlation we are inclined to suggest a tentative positive one: Poetic productivity will, on a statistical level, be postiively correlated with local steep gradients in economic productivity. Along these slopes come tumbling, and accumulating, not only various discarded objects (mostly all kinds of garbage but also antiquities and utilitarian objects detached from context) as well as perspecuted persons, plants and animals, and repressed behaviors, stories and contradictions. The friction in such movements will create sparks illuminating the atmosphere of possibilities concentrated at such sites.
Finally, the surrealist perspective is based within the demarcation line introduced in Marx's famous eleventh Feuerbach thesis, interpreting the world with the overall objective of transforming it. This is both in immediate terms, planting seeds of radicalising social exhange with such a place as a nexus, and communicating-challenging individual poetic experience with ludic means, and in the long term, as one area of investigation and intervention among many pointing towards future realisation of generalised poetry in radically changed and self-governed social circumstances.
1. Rediscover poetry. Poetry is a set of phenomena responding to vigilance, seriousness, clarity, playfulness, discipline, methodic disorder, etc; Poetry may require an effort, poetry will benefit from preparations, method and evaluation. Poetry is not a rest category for musings which don't obviously fall under another category, it is not a passively received grace, it is not an excuse for personal lack of method, or laziness.
2. Acquire some analytical tools for describing the physical environment and the longterm historical processes shaping it. This is easy. Just go to your library or university bookshop and pick up a copy of a standard textbook of physical geography (sometimes called "earth science" or "natural geography"), and read it. You will find explanations, and models for finding explanations, for a large amount of your discoveries, and tips about loads of other exciting stuff to go look for. If you have rediscovered poetry, you will know that explaining is not necessarily in conflict with experiencing, that background information and clarity might spur rather than suffocate poetry.
3. Acquire some analytical tools for understanding shortterm historical processes and social interactions shaping the physical environment. This is a bit more difficult. Try to grasp the historical-materialist method of Marx, look out for what is going on in cultural geography, urban sociology, economic history, human ecology, and city planning. This field is indeed hard to survey, but much of it is bullshit anyway, and so you only need to pick up some basic models and concepts. You will find explanations, and models for finding explanations, for a large amount of your discoveries. If you have rediscovered poetry, you will know that explaining is not necessarily in conflict with experiencing, that background information and clarity might spur rather than suffocate poetry.
4. Acquire some basic skills in floristics and faunistics. Pick up a flower book, an insect book, download some bird songs from the Internet, or pick up basics from some old friends who were educated according to some now obsolete standards or grew up in the countryside. Several large cities have guidebooks for the local species assemblies and hotspots (corresponding to Lindberg's "Stockholmsfloran", Staav's "Stadens fåglar" and Sjöberg's "Naturens nollåttor" about Stockholm). Combined with some concepts learned from ecology and from physical geography, this will allow you to enhance your senses, discover and describe daily global- and local-scale high drama, daily encounters with unusual beings, cross-specific communication, daily hidden aspects of environments that seemed all-too-well-known or minutely-controlled.
5. Look around yourself and realise that "the marvellous is popular" (as Péret said), that some large parts of the population are busy with rediscovering the physical environment too. If we disconsider the distinctly bad company connected with its commercialisation in the experience industry (adventure tourism etc, which still provides many opportunities for certain exteriority experiences, which may for the individual transgress their qualities of commodities) or its conservative ideologisation in the movements of regional romanticism with its focus on old agricultural methods and local environmental sightseeing; there is still a vast field of outdoors/ naturalist amateurs and hobby enthusiasts organising excursions and popular education making possible and deepening a largely conventional but nevertheless rich class of exteriority experiences. If you are an antisocial person or just despise conventional exchange with other people, you could join the Cloud appreciation society via Internet, and you could go to a library and take a look at traditional poetry as well as popular essayism - much of it is about this experience of exteriority. I'm not saying that a lot of this is objectively allied with surrealism nor necessarily interesting, only that the discovery of exteriority isn't very exclusive or very new and there is no need of inventing a new vocabulary for it, nor for circling around it in only vague and tentative terms.
/The Pilgrim Surrealist