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
Carl-Michael Edenborg: I'm going by bicycle to and from work, some parts of the forest when biking through, there comes a scent or a the sensation of the marvellous where it is like coming to one's senses somewhere and feeling some kind of presence in the world.
Mattias Forshage: Indeed, sensory presence.
Carl-Michael Thereby also a kind of magic experience in a way then. The marvellous was there and for me that is every day, but I am trying, when I am talking about the marvellous, then it is, the Marvellous with a capital M, that is, these convulsive events.
After having established the distinction between the big and the small marvellous, several participants express their doubt as to how interesting it is to speak about the small marvellous:
Riyota Kasamatsu: For me these small marvellous events, they feel, the marvellous is somehow more subversive than that. Not just small things happening. That is small everyday experiences, you may think it would be nice if there were more of them, but these big, big things, you don't get that often, and the desire to get them is very subversive.
Niklas Nenzén: One runs the risk of inventoring one's life for other things that perhaps would be better described as comfort, or wellbeing.
Jonas Enander: So is that the marvellous?
Niklas: No I mean one may be concocting all the things in life that makes one feel at home on this planet, in spite of everything.
Further comments to the same problematic:
Bruno Jacobs: Yes it is unconscious stuff, it is quite possible, but it is maybe just a, in that case it is a wish that, the pleasure principle almost partly. Partly the pleasure principle indeed, the lack of conflict and it creates, there emerges a zone, where things simply are. Calm rather than stormy.
Niklas: That's good.
Bruno: And not only that, but in the first place that like, a harmony perhaps some kind of what, a small zone.
Johannes Bergmark: Not stormy?
Jonas: Is stormy then a word for describing...
Bruno: It could be a stormy environment, a stormy period, but specifically the marvellous comes into existence when it emerges a stillness like in the middle of all that.
Niklas: So should we take the next question?
Jonas: Are you a classicist?
Mattias: Of course I prefer, from the viewpoint of life quality, those periods with more frequent experiences of the marvellous before those periods with less frequent experiences of the marvellous.
Niklas: Goodday axehandle.
We can't say it's not the case that every object is a phantom. Phantomness could be one of the things which interests us, or not. When the phantom object was recently suggested as a theme by the Leeds surrealist group, the Surrealist group in Stockholm responded, as it often does, with the idea to invent a game around it. If nothing else so for the very need of avoiding all these irrelevant or relevant, banal or innovative, arbitrary personal associations, and let surrealist method have the casting vote. Candidates were lining up, so much could be dismissed (candidates here referring to ideas not persons). We didn't spend much time looking up exactly which objects Breton had in mind if he mentioned phantom objects in "Crise de l'Objet" or if Dalí gave them a particular place in his theory of paranoiac-criticism, we felt the concept merited a more active contribution than that. There are other surrealist games about phantom objects. Perhaps "L'Un dans l'autre" is about phantom objects. We wouldn't want to be reinventing L'Un dans l'autre. Or perhaps its more about analogy in general. Isn't the phantom object something different and far more specific than just any object residing in another object in accordance with the principle of analogy? Phantom objects can perhaps be expected to be haunting, simultaneously touchable and untouchable, residing in everyday objects, such as the unmentionable horror making the prospect of putting your down hand down the rotten treestump so dreadful in Hugh Sykes Davies' 1936 "Poem", one of the most luminous contributions from english surrealism historically. But we wouldn't want to be reinventing his lovecraftian paranoia. Previously we have in Stockholm been working with "the mnemonic function of objects" and the "objectification of morals". We don't know if those are about phantom objects. There is a particular aspect of being which lets objects disregard their utilistic function and become available as imaginative objects, to join the preparations for real playing. Phantomness becomes metonymic as the elusiveness of that concept represents the elusive particular type of being we associate with phantoms, but talking linguistics is not the point. Instead, we have a habit of ending up discussing methodology. It appears like very much of the activity of the surrealist group in Stockholm is a perpetual delaying of formulating conclusions, by means of an unrestricted increasal of theoretical problems involved as well as dream and chance material into the apparently simplest of questions. We can't say it's not a poetic quest, even though some will be repelled by the shamelessly analytical framework occasionally employed. For six months we have been pondering how to devise a game involving phantom objects.
A propos of phantom objects, but not quite a game suggestion yet:
Benjamin borrowed a dear old marxist conflict between form and content, the one between means of production and conditions of production: technical advances do as far as they're able borrow available (social) forms, but will sooner or later end up in conflict with the latter and bring about a formal "revolution". The marxism of the second international placed, as we know, the conflict on the level of the mode of production, while Benjamin interested himself for how the conflict expressed itself on the level of technical innovation.
Benjamin: "When trying to learn them properly, errors and mistakes occurred. From another viewpoint these attempts are the most true proofs that technical production in its initial phase was a prisoner of the realm of dreaming. (During certain stages, not only architecture but also technology bears witness of a collective dream.)"
Marx: "To what extent the old form of the means of production initially dominates the new form, is shown/.../ perhaps most strikingly: the locomotive that was experimentally constructed, before the present locomotives appeared, a locomotive which had two feet that it alternately raised just like a horse"
Thus the horse haunts the locomotive, the canvas the camera, the wood the steel, etc.
The classical example of a phenomenon contrary to that horse locomotive is what Apollinaire back in his days defined as surrealism "when man set out to reproduce walking, she invented the wheel, which isn't similar to walking at all" (approximate quote). A game could aim at reinventing the wheel, and finding those old idle ghosts haunting us because we are surrealists? Or do we want to find a specific absence in the single objects? What functional-auratic-sentimental inherent object has been completely chased off out of the object at which I am pointing? Which is the unforeseeable wheel which will totally replace the obsolete ridiculousness I am here hugging?
So, the game would consist of establishing a contact with the exterior, slightly more on the exterior's condition than usually, in order to bring about a transformation instead of the habitual, and thus chasing off the ghosts/ the phantom object part?
Erik, Erik Homburger Erikson said in a freudian context (three Erik in the same sentence!): The faucet is not a phallos symbol, but the phallos is rather a faucet symbol, since the the faucet would never have been invented if it wasn't for primary experiences of needing to pee while asleep etc, experiences which have very little to do with the aims ascribed to the object. This makes the plausible problem solvings of everyday life into mere post-factum-rationalisations, or distortions of their latent content, which may not at all, or only to a very small extent, have something to do with the formal.
The horse memory of the locomotive ought perhaps to go further back than the horse, to some primary process primordial scenes?
Perhaps that is the explanation of the film manuscript I dreamt in November, "The memories of a locomotive"!
I´m with a group of people watching a movie made by Merl which is narrated live in english by Emma, who impresses us with her broad theatrical texan accent, similar to how Dolly Parton or the actors in "Gone with the wind" speaks, or maybe even Elvis. She has an overly educational intonation, in the style of old children´s programmes.
The film is shown in a room where a lot of glasses are standing here and there on the floor. Each glass has a toothbrush standing in it. We get a little uncomfortable as we realize that Emma and Merl have stolen our toothbrushes, mixed them all up and placed them in this room and in the movie. Film starts.
FIRST SCENE: A room with a lot of glasses standing here and there on the floor. Each glass has a toothbrush standing in it. Camera focuses in on a train-set for kids among the glasses.
EMMA´S VOICE: Do you know what memories are? Do you know that sometimes they have never occurred, but that they´re still memories? Let´s look at what this locomotive remembers.
As the camera focuses in very close on the locomotive, the picture turns black.
SECOND SCENE: Camera sweeps slowly (from left to right) over a darkened room in a doll house. We see a dining table and some empty chairs.
THIRD SCENE: Winter in a village in northern sweden. A bit from the above (as from the second floor of a nearby house) we see where the main road is crossing the railway. The gates are down. A train passes by with A LOT of noise. Crashing sounds.
FOURTH SCENE: Same view, later on. Gates are still down. Some policemen walk about as if investigating the scene of an accident (implying an overrun car out of picture to the right). Something´s wrong with this. The policemen are walking a bit above the ground, they are passing the gates as if they´re not there and they generally don´t seem to relate accurately to their actual surroundings. It becomes clear to us wathing the film that the policemen are superimposed on the first scene artificially, them being a transparent layer from another film entirely.
FIFTH SCENE: The policemen are not policemen anymore, just a group of people walking about. The camera follows them as they cross the railway and follow the main road out of town into the snow-filled countryside. The group is aware of being superimposed and out of synch with the visible landscape. Their reaction to this is healthy and experimental; they try out new ways to walk, new paces, new angles of walking and so on. The creator of the film ingeniously helps them out with this, by moving their filmic layer about, adjusting it to - or distancing it from - the underlying layer. As she´s eschewing their layer, the group is actually moving like parallellograms! I comment to my fellow spectators about Merl´s skills in doing this: She´s driving them like a car!
EMMA´S VOICE: They´re searching for the house of luuuv!
SIXTH SCENE: Arrival at a big old house. Emma stands in front of it, gesticulating as she speaks.
EMMA: Do you know who lives there? A woman with long black hair and ten dark children... Do you know what they´re all doing there all day long and all night long? Theyre miiiiining for luuuv! (she pronounces it "meaning") Yes they are! And do you know what they´re eating, this woman and all her children? They´re eating white chocolate and nougat and nothing else, yes indeed! Because that´s what GOLD is all about! It - will - melt - your - TEETH - down! Mmmmm... Do you know what that meeeeans? It means that there ain´t enough straws in the whole wide world to fill an old BUCKET!
SEVENTH SCENE: During her last sentence the picture of an old tin bucket with some dry grass straws standing in it is gradually superimposed over the previous scene.
(The word BUCKET is voiced explosively and in an intentionally vulgar way, which makes me wake up.)
Stockholm surrealist group: polemics over dreams
Some of its members revisiting some questions of largely academic interest whether the surrealist atopos is closely related to Foucault's heterotopia, whether the latter is closely related to the ship of fools, whether Foucault's ship of fools is Breton's ship of fools, an interesting debate took place in the Stockholm surrealist group based on the interpretation of a dream each by a couple of members.
MF started out harshly with a dream about himself. "Now I am going to bore you with a rather dull and painful dream. The sadism of the act follows logically from its subject. Because: in a Stora Saltet issue I reread the other day, Niklas and I had each written a text about our own person. Bizarre, I thought. Immediately thereafter I ended up in an uncomfortable position in a written discussion with a significant person, where a long line of thought I developed was interpreted as if being about myself. I still haven't come up with a way to correct the misunderstanding, I overreact, I repeat to myself antipersonalistic ponderings, from reasonable ones like 'I don't exist, except as a relay station for associations' to highly doubtful such as 'The single common denominator of all the important events in my life is that there is one factor which could always be subtracted from the picture without chainging its meaning: myself'. And at night when I'm asleep that famous 'old man inside me' punishes me by bringing up the subject of my birthday, which is the annually recurring event when one is allowed, even in the most selfsacrificing duty ethics, or even supposed, to focus on one's own person.
/.../ I leave out the dream itself here, but when awakening I heard a ridiculous little glockenspiel tune being repeated over and over again (I often wake up to these repetitive audial hypnagogies); after a while I recognise it as John Cale´s 'Ship of fools'. Poor me. How I resent the sweetly witty, and how I prefer the harshly unreasonable, like yesterday, when I couldn't remember a single dream image but during my entire breakfast I had PJ Harvey's growling going on in my head 'I wanna bathe in milk!'"
NN quickly replied "Isn't the Ship of fools and the Milk bath the same method, that is idealistic selfpersuasion?", which may have made sense as strategies in the dream visavis the birthday setting and other complications, and cited Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj saying "The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image."
The next day or so, NN replied with a dream of his own. Only part of it is cited here: "A coherent sequence about some kind of marine creatures, obviously belonging to the same mythological family as the siren and the sea monk. They were intelligent, had their own language, and their appearance was almost spherical, with a narrow hindbody and tail like on an anglerfish or a flounder, and were sparsely pubescent on the head. They were called SOMS, which made me associate to SEAMONSTERS while the capital letters gave the impression of being an acronym. Somebody has a suggestion what SOMS might mean?"
MF went on about personal associations and film reminiscences, and made a serious attempt to understand the word, supposing it to be "of greek origin, as in chromosome, allosome, autosome, which all are derived from Soma = body. But it could also be from indoeuropean soma, a mythical drink giving much pleasure and knowledge, or from greek somnus (sleep), somnium (dream) or somphos (spongy, porous). But if an acronym I would guess an english-language one (english uses acronyms more); something so-to-speak sticking out its chin, like Sexualrepressed Obsession Matrixes? Sons of Mothers? Or, in order to avoid bad feelings, something descriptive and uncontroversial like Somnimarine Obese Monsters?" Then he went into stingy polemics against the apparent denial of the sensory concrete aspects of the milk bath in focusing on a symbolic aspect.
There came in some other suggestions as to what SOMS might mean, based on "Sound of Music" or "Swedish Oral Medicine Society", personal associations, google searches, or jokes; or all three.
Next morning, the phrase waking up MF was "HALIBUTS DON'T BREAK", connecting to the possible flounders of NN:s dream. An interpretation of the phrase was offered, which is of minor importance here.
NN duly thanked for the suggestions and associations. He went on to defend the symbolic interpretation by a general defense of psychoanalytical methodology. Then for a short time arguments got nasty, before a need was felt to displace the discussion into some more constructive efforts, where NN first offered a poem, claiming among other things that "sensuality six weeks a year/ is transformed into an ugly family just like others/ on the beach" where it "hands out icecream with slaps in the face and insights with intentions/ concretions with artifacts of nothingness/ abstractions with boiled potatoes and currant jelly". JE, sitting on the top of a canarian volcano studying the sun and reading Novalis' "Disciples in Sais" outlined a needed "archive of representations" by way of a mathematical series of operations between latent and manifest; an archive that would track the transformations between latent contents and manifest dreams and make them available for games. MF stubbornly felt he needed to specify why milkbathing is interesting considered as sensory experience and wrote en essay about it (to which JB reminded of a few significant aspects missed).
Bathing means three things: embracement, splash-dance and submerging.
Embracement is to be enclosed in a more dense, distinct, rather homogenous medium, the whole skin as an organ of touch, and all the various sensory organs concentrated in the face, and everything comes near and becomes more languid, intensely sluggish, and the sounds and the electric jolts and the temperature differences and the smells all move faster, and one becomes omniscient and oversensitive. An acute sense of nivellation, totalisation, as every limb, every inch of skin, I might be excused the siphonophoran analogy of saying every citizen of the body, is just as much wettened and just as much part of the waterworld. Everything is naked, feeling and tasting reaches everywhere simultaneously. And then there is the archimedean aspect; being enclosed in a denser medium has the consequence of relative weightlessness, related to flying in dreams and other distinct phenomenological states less conditioned or just less restrained by common gravity. Floating but not floating. Weighing but not weighing.
Splashdance concerns the medium as an extremely mobile and topographically complex interface, and a decrease in the effects of gravity, a wrestling, dancing and hugging which does no longer recognise up and down, which has more and simultaneously less of concealed and revealed, a perpetually changing surface of peaks, valleys, drops, slopes, coatings, connecting things temporarily and flashwise, is a frenzy and a cacophony.
Submerging focuses on the medium as a horizontal interface, a razorsharp limit, the difference in the world; and must be regarded as the central moment in the milk bath (leading for sure to embracement. In a submerging process there are three central structural elements; a) the suspension above the surface, everything is hanging, what tension, the gravity of that which rests in its restrained falling, endless waiting with aching muscles, b) the horizontal, razorsharp interface itself, and the transgression in the passage through it, c) the embracement and homogenisation of the life world beneath.
But living in this homogenous, this embraced being, what is that? Well it is living in the dream, there are all these strong images of falling when falling asleep, and of passing down beneath, or up above, a distinct surface, when moving from a hypnagogic state to a waking. Inside the medium, and thus inside the dream, everything is possible but also slower, softer, safer, more comfortable, more implacable, more necessary, without any arbitrariness. On a certain plane this is of course an intra-uterine existence (and the dream just like the bath is a womb).
And then we are already in that problematic chain of symbols in Róheim ("Gates of the dream") where all dreaming is transgression which is penetration which is longing to the womb which is regression; everything pointing forward points backward, and everything integrates conventional coitus and the crawling back into mother's tummy. The foremost problem is that it carries too far too quickly, synonymising most of what there is, risking missing the unique characteristics of anything. (I had already avoided to say "inbracement" rather than embracement, after CJL Almqvist's term for carnal as well as cosmic intercourse in his swedenborgian-erotic classic "Murnis".)
Back to our childishly stubborn concretion. The surface is a membrane to pass through. And since we don't have all that much feelings connected with this on certain levels such as that where molecules pass over membranes, we soon arrive at a more meaningladen level; that of mucus membranes. Human membranes are all water surfaces, delimitations visavis another world, warmer, more real and unreal, where that selfsufficient connectivity is abandoned, one's as it is called bourgeois body, in order to seek another equally abandoned human on that little island on the other side of the river of oblivion. But it is also obviously ambiguous: to penetrate, with a male sex which is a metaphor for the whole body or vice versa, penetrating a water surface equals being penetrated by a water surface, a body arching up against oneself stretching out into oneself, and vice versa, it is a totalising and multisexed embrace, permeates and is permeated, it is in fact something like a basal trope of the pansexual because it starts off exactly where the simplest sexual strategies becomes interchangeable and/or irrelevant.
And so what happens when we have arrived? Intrauterine existence. Yes who knows? There was a chapter about it in Breton/Eluard "The immaculate conception". And another chapter in the same book, about a walk on the bottom of the sea, where we stroll and politely greet famous serial murderers. There seems to be something unavoidably pastoral idyllic about it, a sunken little idyll, an atlantis, where everything is just a little condensed and jellyfish swim by and long hairs calmly wave and everybody move a little slower, octopuses with hats, mermaids, pennants from the towers, uncle Lenin standing waving in the aquarium. No I haven't got a clear image of intrauterine existence. It is an analogy with the dream, only without that firmness and compelling arbitrariness.
Speaking of firmness, if we now know that the water body is an intrauterine pansexual dream world which is out to get you, isn't it bizarre that the bathtub itself is made of china or enamelled tin; it is indeed a strangely hard uterus. Hence the blankets, the fat, the honey, with which it is robed or greased like a shock absorber. And such shock absorbers are potentially encompassing mediums themselves.
Blankets are a soft wrapping, tender grave shroud, the pupal chamber of a mummy, a bridal gown wanting to encompass in an insurveyable way which is directly comforting in the way it wrappingly embraces. Now we need to introduce the concept of thigmotaxy, which is the way earwigs, cows and often people cannot settle down to rest until such a large part as possible of the body is pressed against something, one puts oneself away in crevices, tunnels, somebodys arms, simple booths or coffins. A couple of days after the morning when I woke up at PJ Harvey's shouting I actually dreamt, depressedly, that I had a new apartment and preferred to lay wrapped in blankets in the bathtub, the dry and hard bathtub, in the firm conviction that it could possibly be warmer there, but I knew it wasn't, it was only the logical possibility itself that it could be that was enough, was something at all to grasp at in my existence devoid of happiness.
Fat is more homogenous than blankets, but it sticks everywhere, holds together, and repells water, it is itself a mucus membrane, but specifically a mucus membrane which suffocates. The sticky yellowness of fat is the evil water, which drug hallucinations and other fantasies of suffocation focuses on. Mountain ranges of fat tissue, where scolopenders rush around with their fifty poisonous legs, and all one's relatives stand lined up in a row for a photograph.
Honey, must be the good cousin of fat, just as sticky, adherent, alive, mucusmembranish, but so sweet and good, so beautiful and fragrant, it doesn't suffocate but gilds and embellishes, so wittily and playful, so luxurious and bizarre. And nevertheless so burningly sweet and stalkingly sticky.
We will have to introduce the third relative, mustard, still just as yellow and sticky, fresh and breathable like honey but without its flattering and mild character, yes well actually almost corrosively acrid, keeps the mildly flowing honey at bay with stabs and the maliciously flowing fat with counterfire, mustard is a miracle potion and nobody's friend. Maybe I'm on the track of something here, maybe fat, honey and mustard are actually the three tissue types of gold?
Because there has to take place at least some miracle, it's expected as the culmination of a stay in the uterus. Here the controversial rebirth comes in. (Controversial, as it was polemics over the meaning of rebirth in the interpretation of a dream that triggered writing this essay.) What is rebirth? I don't know. I thought it was nothing more than being awoken in the morning, the last swimming strokes up to the insistently light and noisy world where one keeps one's identity and lifestyle, where one stands naked since paradoxically outheld in an embracing clarity, embracing light. But why would it be rebirth if it does not lead to anything new? One tends to think it is new every single time.
The honey covering the inside of the tub as a protecting and softening fat layer is expected to interact with the milk. Milk and honey together, milk and honey are the two animal substances which don't seem animal, animal labor for the early schlaraffenland days of their offspring, the highest serum of offspring care in each of the two dominant animal lineages, in mammals among the deuterostomes and in bees among the protostomes. Joined, can they make anything else but simply more body? Isn't milk and honey together, after all, blood? Aren't they a metaphor for blood (like wine in christianity) already when you're supposed to bathe in it to stay young? Isn't that a vampiric act, resting on the same mythological, magical and infantile theory that the lifeforce rests in the blood, and bathing in it makes that lifeforce percolate through the membrane of the skin? And for that reason it is only logical that some would like to return the metaphorical praxis to its pure form, and prefer to bath in real blood instead of the symbolical milk of the blood. Blood gives life. Even medical science claims that today, in their campaigns for enlisting blood donors. Blood gives youth? Perhaps that rests on the calculation that the more life accumulated the younger once becomes. That's what vampires found their ideology and their mythological life on. If only one succeeds to collect incredibly much life perhaps it's even possible to transcend to being unborn? The sea lies still, without oneself to bathe in it.
Blood and milk are also similar on a concrete phenomenological level. These two traditionally lifegiving liquids are both vividly colored and sticky, very nutrious, rich and strangely thick tasting. Their analogous character is probably as distinctly exploited as possible, in a polarising form, in the wellknown division among the east african massai, into female food which is milkbased and male food which is bloodbased and never will the two meet.
So what is milk, perhaps we need to ask. Well milk is the primary offspring food in mammals. Milk is mothers milk. Our Ur-economy, as sketched by freudians-lacanians but not marxists. Then it is a different thing that milk secondarily, in certain cultures, has come to be associated with locally or commercially available cow's milk.
And we have several competing abstractions of the word, illuminating its concretion. Some would say that milk is anything milky, that is cloudy water (water with precipitated minerals), phenomenologically a water without clarity, without transparence, without merciless truth, a less watery water. Others would start talking about latex as milk sap, which is specific wound liquids in certain plants (blood again); you remember the taste of the bleeding white in dandelions, you know the rubber tree bleeding latex which is industrially used (the phenomenology of rubber probably has very little to do with milk though). Some would start talking about generalising milk on a consumistic level and pull in all kinds of milk substitutes (artificial dilutions of denaturalised protein from vegetabilic sources; soy milk, oat milk, almond milk) where it obviously parades as a commercial name for any white drink for meals whatsoever. Still others would get stuck in the dynamism of sexual metaphors and start nagging about, eventually confounding, milk and sperm, that isn't a very striking similarity, and probably not a very interesting path, but still probably contributes to increasing the expressivity of milk drops in certain locations in certain situations.
But, in elucidating the milk bath we must naturally give the primary conceptions the first place: milk is mothers milk, and everything else is one or another theory or metaphor for whatever ought to be sorted into the same category as mothers milk.
And nevertheless it remains cow milk, prepared as a commodity, homogenised, pasteurised, packed, sold and bought, which dominates the determination of the sensory concretion of milk for most people, or perhaps rather a projection of many of the original promises of mothers milk onto the commercially available perverse representation. But what characterises milk? Milk is fat and sweet, fresh and nourishing, selfcontained and contradictory, it is like a mixture of forest creek and whipped cream cake. And at the same time, through its rich content of enzymes, selfdestructive, bad smelling in itself, quickly putrid, gives extraneous mucus production and bad breath. (In the US there are still campaigns going on to make youth drink milk. The arguments that it contributes to skeletal construction, strength and health are not true; the argument that it makes young people less fat than drinking cocacola all day long may perhaps be true.)
So, there are actually certain cultures where it actually isn't a taboo to drink other animals' milk, where it has even been turned into culturally significant common social praxis, even for grownups, even commercially organised. Such a perverted society is Sweden where we live. The conspiracy theorists keep talking about the lactoconspiracy, about how the authorities forcefeed grownup men with cow milk in order to keep them dependent women-dominated easily-manipulated children. Forcefeed must here be taken in a non-literal sense, via internalised customs, for it's obviously not like among whales, where the mother simply tries to aim into the child's mouth whenever it is nearby, with a huge spray, almost like a high-pressure nozzle of uniquely fat milk. Well, milkdrinking in Sweden is as well known uniquely common. Thus, there is always a possibility to appear experienced, sophisticated, widely-travelled and cultivated by making faces at the provincially barbarian milkdrinkers with an supercilious shuddering. The population in Sweden does have one of the world's greatest frequencies of a genetic disease, the particular defect that makes childhood's ability to digest lactose NOT develop away in adolescence. All humans have those genes which switches off that temporary capacity to digest lactose, but some people, like the swedes, have a genetic reading error which keeps those genes from being expressed (the switching off is cancelled, double negation for the logician). Since locally most people have the disease, it's the opposite state which is defined as a disease: lactose intolerance. Do we here have a simple demonstration of the relativity of healthy/sick?
For it is not arbitrary to insist on association milkdrinking with its single universal form: suckling. No bottle-feds can deny the universal in this, not the least since their own neurotic insistence mythologises it even stronger via its biographical lack. And here we return to an adventurous regression of semi-Róheimian cut, and I, as a phenomenologist rather than a judging psychologist, would prefer to describe it as a non-static (flowing in all directions) and constantly ambiguous field being stretched out between pure regressional fantasies, conventional sexual forms, and pansexuality. On the other hand, I am not going to continue discussing it here. For it wasn't breasts that was the subject, it was bathing in milk.
3. Bathing as life environment and erotic future
But whoever bathes in a nourishing medium need not grope for teats, need not have an ombilic cord, is able to swim freely and metabolise through the skin; again the intrauterine in a certain (negative) utopian shape, how beautiful it would be to not need to bother, to universally not need to bother, a world where nothing is complication; dead boring, nirvana, intrauterine without all picturesque components. Usually I get upset by all these fantasies about not needing to bother to eat, because I spontaneously interpret them as rationalist-technologist-antisensory, but they are of course to an equal degree simply nirvana-directed, eating is after all an obviously very limited and insufficient way of assimilating reality (though one of the most sensorily concrete and beautiful we have).
Therefore it seems contradictory and hardly attractive to eat in the bath. In the bath, you live in a perfect world where no practical worries have a right to advance and reach you. But that's not the way it works after all. And all these small wishes start all over again. Drinking liquor in the bath is considered cosy by many. Smoking in the bath is pretty cool too. Cowboy fantasies. But what about sex in the bath? Is that an attractive thought? And now I am not speaking about the bad or good biographical experiences of individuals, I am talking about whether the thought is attractive. What does imagination say, is it possible to have sex in the bath? I cannot rid myself of demanding an answer to the question: with whom? Who would fit in the bath, who would appear sexually in that environment? There are a few classical bathers in iconography-mythology, often with one or another attractive attribute. I remember. There is Ofelia, there is Erszébeth Báthory, there is Marat, there is the biblical Susannah, there is the ghost Dana, there is Namor and Namorita, there are sirens in general, Jacqueline Lamba l'Ondine, the siren of Warszawa, but not all the true sirens, which are marine creatures, just like dugons and manatees, dolphins and large whales, Venus emerging from the sea, and many other bathers who demand vast space, large bodies of water, no confining tub walls. The ones that fit in a bathtub are a special category, gracefully relaxed in that vessel.
But all coplayers bring complications. It is difficult to imagine a shared exploration of intrauterine life. What do the naïads actually have to bring compared with the body of water itself, which is a crueler lover because more definitive and more totalising, because it is itself another world and a dream, regardless of whether it is seasoned with milk, honey or blood?
Back to the splashdance aspect, which is the collectivisable moment. A bathtub is small and hard for two people (even worse for more than two) and squeezing ones bodies into it is absurd and leads to the most elaborate difficulties of movement, it is incredibly funny how difficult everything is but it often seems more comfortable to sit by the side and investigate how the two bodies in the bath, the water body and the human body, separate and reunite, unite and glide apart, give each other meaning.
But sinking oneself into milk, so it is something ritual, sacral, it is the very sinking into the very milkness, it is a magnificent delusion, it is the proceeding with raw courage and elaborate slowness to shut the waking world out with its monumental, yes pettily monumental, worries, crouching in the soft embankment in the bark in the huge tree in the night when the owls are calling and the tigers roaring, it is quite simply a vantage point, a vantage point in the very beginning of eternity, and just like in a glacial landscape, everything is white.