Sunday, September 20, 2009

experiment and failure revisited

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.


1 comment:

Kristoffer Flammarion said...

If one would like to talk about the spatial distribution of knowledge, it seems that we have to face the question of knowledge as something external, something that can be extracted from nature in a naive sence (that of uncovering the essence of an object through a series of operations), or something that is produced, that is, something that is dependend on the actual technologies and notions employed, which has its own mode of production and that does not simply "reflect" the objective in the subjective. And as such, there could also be different operational modes of knowledge itself. Knowledge is not something that is "attained" and then put to use in various circumstances, but something that has different mechanisms depending on the type of field that is investigated (which Merdarius highlights through comparison between the methodology of science and poetry). I would like to propose three fields of knowledge:

Profetic knowledge. This would be the traditional scientific knowledge in the sense of being able to predict the outcome of a particular experiment, that is, predict the future in a limited sense. The ability to make a prediction is dependend on the ability to understand the specific dynamics of the phenomena studied, and this dynamics in turn requires a certain set of notions and concept to establish a framework of understanding in the first place. Profetic knowledge thus entails an understanding of specific dynamics and the ability to predict certain effects from those dynamics.

Poetic knowledge. This is the traditional knowledge of correspondences, of the sensibilities of things, of their analogies and associations, etc. While profetic knowledge is aristotelian in the sense that a thing can not be A and not-A (that is, profetic knowledge can not say that both this effect and its opposite will be the outcome), poetic knowledge is associative and multiplies itself (I know this, and this and this, and they can contradict each other but be true at the same time). I, Flammarion, would especially like to know more about the mechanism for this type of knowledge.

Projective knowledge. This is the knowledge of invariant phenomena or universal processes of the mind that are independent of specific individual biographies and psychological make-up. It is not available for experiment in the same sense as scientific knowledge (which always operates onto something external, while projective knowledge operates onto something internal), but requires more introspective techniques and practices (but has the same high methodological standards, of course). The classical example of this kind of knowledge would be that put together by Patanjali on introspective practices and their effects.