Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Flowershop schematics

A recent little flair in organisational discussions sparked by events of no public concern has provided a pretext to formulate some new general thoughts and to return to some old favourites (the particularities of post-classic surrealist organising, the sense of surrealist antihumanism, the joy of curiousness, the importance of error, the role of strategy) some of which have particular applications in recent, ongoing or upcoming discussions.

Surrealist quasihumanism

Even if curiosity appears like a force of nature, the standard "stand-by" mode of the poetic organ, it can be considered on an intellectual level too, and not just ending up with Freud suggesting it to be the twisting into a socially acceptable goal of the given drive for investigating the physical differences between the sexes and the enigma of where children come from. We were discussing curiosity towards other surrealists.

For me, in fact, every single other surrealist has things to teach me. To begin with they often have anecdotes and personal characterisations of surrealists that I haven't met, and more importantly they often have experiences of their own failures and successes in terms of organising and experiments, but the major point is that in the end every single one of them has a unique way of having acknowledged, approached and appropriated surrealism and therefore a unique constellation of angles and particularities constituting that individual reflection of surrealism, and therefore also something to teach me about surrealism itself as such.

The point is not whether I will enjoy their company or not, whether our social skills or lack thereof will match, more that everyone will make an example worth consideration, a worthy suggestion.

CM Lundberg: Groundless action

To this "surrealist quasi-humanism" it might be necessary to also add a disclaimer. In many cases, people's personal vanity, or eagerness to stick to banal misunderstandings, represents a serious obstacle on the practical level that will make this unique angle virtually inaccessible or at least hardly worth the effort. Among these unique angles, many are exotic distorsions based on personal instrumental needs, that are interesting primarily as negative examples...

Surrealist antihumanism

One important point of anti-humanism is to get rid of the perpetual obsession for self-justification and self-defense that keeps people from discovering anything new, taking risks, pooling our resources, and truly communicating.

Ok, I certainly think my own perspectives can be argued for, and my own impression of people has a validity; but my own sensibility and my own judgment are but tools, in fact my self, my existence as an individual, is but a tool, for the large-scale machination of the chaotic interference and reciprocality of passions governed by none which is the poetry of the world, and more specifically, I have put my own sparkling and ridiculous person in the service of that great conspiracy of cultivation of that poetry known as surrealism. Surrealism is my weapon of choice to some extent, but I find the other way around much more crucial, how I am a strange flower in surrealism's arsenal.

I too prefer people I like to people I dislike, and promising atmospheres to suffocating ones, but I remain suspicious that any such assessments of mine may be made on the basis of comfort, which is objectively misleading from the viewpoints of both poetic, epistemic and social dynamism, or that I may be simply mistaken. I could dismiss an association for lack of dynamism (for repetitivity or predictability or banality or comfortable habit) or for lack of seriousness (superficial noise and craving for entertainment) but if I would do it for instrumental reasons, or spontaneously, or strictly based on emotions, or strictly based on an argument, I would take great interest in doubting and questioning that judgment. Because intuitions, emotions and rational reasons are, in my view, merely functions whereby that approximate entity known as my person tries to find its path, and there is nothing in them that I consider worth eagerly defending or identifying with the focal point of my sensibility, which is necessarily an ambiguous and errant point. Just like in science, it is strictly speaking easier, as well as more meaningful and more constructive, to demonstrate something to be wrong than to be right. To be proven wrong is simply one of the most obvious situations of epistemological privilege where the configuration of the world is unstable, prejudices topple, the field of possibilities opens wide.

(If I argue at length for some of the positions I take, it is more in the purpose of conveying all facts, laying the cards on the table, demonstrating what conditions and logics that determine that position, in order to make it transparent, and to invite objections on a level as advanced as possible, rather than to convince someone or to justify my position. I am not making a fetish of arguing, since most "critical discussions" remain in sterile bickering over semantics, and many ideas have an inspiratory power regardless of being flawed or false...)

CM Lundberg: Manifestation with fishes

(Let's repeat that semantic point about intuition once again. I have here used the word in the cynical sense of "the total configuration of unconscious and preconscious prejudices", or what we call spontaneous judgment, good for most practical purposes. I have often ended up in quarrels over this, as some people, and sometimes myself too, instead use the word "intuition" for designating the very "focal point of sensibility" conducting the choir of epistemic means at hand. It remains important to note in this connection, that since rational reasoning has a limited range, dead angles, and is easily manipulated, and other particular methods have only specific applications, it is only such a higher-order intuition that is able to identify truth in some substantial sense (beyond both the instrumental and the scientific senses of conditional truth) and more importantly to distinguish between the interesting and the uninteresting, but that is an intuition which must have passed through thorough self-scrutiny, self-questioning, and the experience of systematic disorder of the senses... )

CM Lundberg: Houses of the rising sun

Surrealist anarchism

Surrealism looks for the point of no rule. But just like any formal anarchism it must ask itself "who rules if no one rules?" and dismiss a large number of alternatives. First of all, if there are no effective mechanisms to keep power in check, of course the one who had most power before, or most money, will rule; liberalism. If there are mechanisms restricting ascension to power, habit will rule alongside silent manipulations. Excessive behavior might multiply, but excessive behavior manifesting the same banal desires and ressentiments in mere pathetic gestures again reinforcing the rule of the normal order. Only where habit, banality and prejudice are actively counteracted, the path of no rule will truly be a path towards freedom. And it is therein that a fundamental anarchism of surrealism lies. We wish to live a life that is not just not in the control of some particular other force, but a life which does not conform to somebody's control at all, and therefore would disenvelop according to its own dynamics.

Anarchism itself remains the only political theory based on unrestricted democracy. Thus it has a strong focus on procedure, which is the first step of a methodological attempt. But usually, as it were, stopping short, in the fluctuation between decision-making so ultrademocratically slow as to be practically impotent on the one hand, and bonehead spontanism to counter this on the other hand. There is very little strategy in anarchism.

CM Lundberg: The voyage of Randolph Carter

While surrealism, sometimes consciously, and sometimes merely implicitly due to its interest in methodology, is quite strategical in its long-term quest for a truly anarchic life. On the everyday level, surrealism strives for nothing but to "tune in" to the dynamics of the unknown, long-term striving to open portals and "slight disturbances" that change "business as usual" into a state where effectively no one has the power to impose any of their prejudiced aims, avoiding most of the noisy and predictable gestures of spontanism and looking for the truly strange angles, where everything is a windling path fuelled by the interplay of desire and chance through enchanted landscapes full of monsters.

Surrealist horizontal organising

An anarchistic organisation of surrealism in a decentralised and diffusely circumscribed network of heterogenous contact points differently linked through selective affinities, is the inevitable result of the death of the founder and (somewhat later) the subsequent (temporary) abandonment of organised activity in its historical centre of Paris. It is neither a regrettable organisational incapability, nor a consciously adopted implementation of anarchist ideology, but merely a historical effect. With particular possibilities inherent. Which seem particularly adequate in the present historical situation where available knowledge of democracy and vigilance towards everyday injustice is far greater than before, strategies of resistance and of cultivating various aspects of freedom have multiplied, while miserabilist organisation of life is reinforced by rampant conformism and ever-increasingly aggressive exploitation.

Any dreams of reorganising a surrealist international according to a leninist vanguardist model with national sections, a central line, or just the unambiguous line drawn to separate the true core from the rest, are just as practically unattainable as pointless today.

Real meetings between people are still at the core of this (groups, for true synergistic, overindividual and antihumanistic effects, for mutual moral criticism and poetic encouragement, for manifesting a collective thinking, playing, creating, etc). Nevertheless, international collaboration goes on at a daily basis through digital communication, and numerous projects and even groups are organised according to other delimitations than geographical ones. (Still, I find it difficult to see reasons not to take opportunities to meet any surrealists physically available.)

Within this, we will keep elaborating our principles and investigating their consequences. Some of us will keep emphasising the importance of our history and continuity as well as of the chosen designation of that tradition (surrealism in the letter). In bilateral terms here will be approachments, brawls, romances, ongoing tensions as well as dead zones. We will keep cultivating our friendship and collaboration with those who are interested in posing a similar kind of questions, investigating a similar type of experiments, provoking ourselves with similar atmospheres, regardless of which country they're in and regardless of how great their knowledge of the surrealist tradition and how devoted to the surrealist letter they are.


In praise of infighting

From the inception of the movement to the present day, Surrealists have been devoting time, energy, ingenuity and material resources to hating each other’ guts. We have a glorious history of splits, infighting, self-destruction, cannibalism and general fuck-uppery. When we fall out with each other it is rarely a case of politely agreeing to disagree. We spit, we scratch, we scream, punch and kick, tear at each others’ veins, banish each other to outer darkness, drag each other through the shit, and every fight is always to the death.

The attitude of many Surrealists today seem to be that this kind of infighting is a bad thing, at best unnecessary, at worst potentially fatal to the movement as a whole. The same plaintive cries go up at every fight, not just from the appalled bystanders but also, as often as not, from the protagonists of the infighting themselves. Why do Surrealists fight so viciously, and so often? Shouldn’t we be fighting our enemies instead of each other? Why can’t we be more united? Aren’t we all struggling for the same goal?

I’m not interested at this point in the rights and wrongs of particular splits and fights, including those that I’ve played a role in myself. I’m also not very interested in arguments to the effect that open disagreement and/or free expressions of anger within the movement are ‘healthy’, because the imperative to psychological or emotional health seems is something of which Surrealists should be highly suspicious at best. Instead I want to take a step back and to reflect on some possible alternative ways to think about Surrealist infighting.

To start with the idea that we shouldn’t fight because we’re all ultimately struggling for the same goal: what, then, is the goal of the Surrealist movement? The pat reply to this question is usually: to change life and transform the world. That famous Bretonian watchword uniting Rimbaud and Marx sums up exactly how and why Surrealists do not, in fact, share a common goal. The Surrealist movement, as we all so fond of repeating, is neither an art movement (because we regard the social revolution as a burning Surrealist necessity) nor a political movement (the annihilation of one’s being into a diamond which is no more the soul of ice than of fire is hardly a comprehensible political demand). Our insistence on the simultaneity of Marx and Rimbaud, life and the world, social revolution and the imagination triumphant, is what makes Surrealism – regardless of the specific political commitments of individual Surrealists – in its essence a utopian movement. Our goal is utopia: our goal is nowhere: we have no goal.

So we are not all pursuing a common objective which we will attain that little bit sooner if we unite and work together. Unity is a red herring. Surrealism is a collective adventure, but collectivity is not the same thing as unity, any more than adventure is the same as pursuit of a goal. And insofar as splits and infighting are searing shared experiences of rage, passion, pain, mutual hatred and destruction – not to mention hilarity and exhilaration – don’t they count as particularly intense expressions of, precisely, collectivity, shared experiences not just within but also between the warring groups? Even perhaps – let’s push the argument – peculiar forms of collective adventure in their own right? Surely there’s no one in the movement who thinks that collectivity should be safe, agreeable, or merely positive in any generally accepted sense. Negativity is a vital dimension of any truly collective dynamic, and I’m suggesting that it is more exciting and productive to embrace and investigate its periodic eruptions than to regret or condemn them. The forest of the unknown is full of horrors as well as enchantments.

Embracing and investigating collective negativity requires inventiveness, courage and terrifying honesty. This is not the least of the reasons why we are usually so reluctant to do it. Nobody wants to spend their time at group meetings or on collaborative projects gnashing their teeth and drinking their comrades’ blood. But while the group members sit around the table, having their discussions and playing their games, the maw of the group’s collective unconscious is ever open. The more ‘successful’ the group on its own terms – the more it exceeds the sum of its parts, the more exciting, the more intuitive and creative it becomes – the wider the jaws, the sharper the teeth…

So let’s embrace and investigate the monsters that this collective unconscious vomits forth. Here comes one now, a real whopper: his name is Oedipus, and if we ignore him he most definitely will not go away. For those individuals who have grown up under the sign of the nuclear family – which is probably a fairly large proportion of those currently active in the Surrealist movement, given its geographical and cultural distribution – the dynamic of the Oedipal family romance is one of the most readily available patterns of group interaction, and one against which we all need to be constantly and explicitly vigilant. The danger lies precisely in the fact that the family romance, in Surrealist contexts as much as in mainstream ones, often dissembles its more blatantly oppressive aspects behind the compensations it offers in return: companionship, comfort, a sense of shared identity, an occasional refuge from a fucking horrible world. The danger is that the collective unconscious (whether of a formally constituted Surrealist group, or of a looser or more temporary collective, or even at the level of the movement as a whole) may all too easily lapse into an Oedipal mode and silently form itself into the private haven of a ‘family home’, complete with nursery and servants’ quarters. There’s the parent-child dynamic: respect your elders, do your homework, nurture my potential, change my nappy. There’s the sibling dynamic: you’re my brother, you’re my sister, you’re my rival, they love you more than they love me…

The family romance plot is almost certainly present in the collective unconscious of almost every current group and collective, because for most of the participants it is not just the first pattern of group interaction they ever knew, but the one which formed their ‘personalities’ at a basic level (and this is also one of the reasons why Surrealism must be anti-humanist and opposed to ‘personality’). The intensity of rage, pain and joy unleashed by really serious infighting probably comes in large part from this unconscious family dynamic. What can be more thrilling than to kill one’s father? What more appalling than to be attacked by one’s child, or more paralysing than to watch one’s parents and siblings tear the family apart?

The monster of Oedipus demands constant and explicit vigilance, then, and the deliberate invention and cultivation of alternative forms of collective life. All kinds of alternative models are already to hand and many more remain to be invented, from superhero teams to libertine conspiracies to wolf packs. The difficulty is always to make those models work as really operational egregores rather than merely as rhetorical self-exhortations, and that will only be possible if we first accept and embrace the power of collective negativity, including Oedipus, as a creative force in its own right.

The trick is not to fight the monster, but to embrace and transform it into something else. Tam Linn is transformed into a newt, an adder, a bear, a lion, a red-hot iron and a burning coal, but it’s precisely because Fair Jenny refuses to let go of him that he finally becomes her beautiful naked lover.


Surrealism's phoenix act in the sixties

(This is one of the transition expositions promised in "three eras of surrealism")

In the 60s the tension grew, when the traditional basis for surrealism had shrinked back into being a rather self-contained (untimely indeed) small circle of radical intellectuals passing on the tradition, a sort of secret doctrine (in fact exactly like waning anarchism at the same time!), while at the same time there was a completely new paradigm of radicalism emerging, partly more integrative and experimental and easily congruent with surrealism already to start with. The surrealist groupings that were surfacing at this time (Chicago group, TransformaCtion in the UK, BRSH in the Netherlands, the new Bruxelles group, etc) appear to have been so much more unproblematically based in the new paradigm, with everyday politics, counterculture identity, direct democracy, psychedelia, reinvented anarchism, youth culture and youth revolt, situationism and other modernist-ultraradical currents, etc (and were perhaps partly lacking the background), while the Paris group seems to have been emphasising the heritage, the ark function, adapting to the new ideas only slowly and as something external.

I keep reading the old issues of l'Archibras and the Bulletin de Liaison surréaliste, and Joubert's revealing book Le Mouvement des Surréalistes, ou le fin mot de l'Histoire as being to a rather large extent about the problematic inception of new radicalism into french surrealism. It has been said many times that the dissolution of the french group in 1969 was an effect of the demoralisation following Breton's death and the failure to engage immediately, collectively, effectively and organically in the '68 movement which instead appeared like a sudden external confirmation of much of surrealism out of the blue. Some people have emphasised, and it is clearly demonstrated in Joubert's book, that this is to a large extent due to mistakes, irrelevant ambitions, blind spots and erroneous priorities of the leadership of the french group at the time (Schuster et cie). However, what is also dramatically striking in Joubert's book is the lack of democratic structure in the french group in the 60s, the immense damage a faulty leader could do simply because everybody followed him or else they were isolated. In that sense, it was not only the case that the things going on in society leading up to '68 was ignored because a leader didn't know where to look, but also the very fact that everybody was following a leader was itself a symptom of the ignorance of the currents of the time.

Now of course this polarisation is not clearcut, with each real surrealist activity comprising certain elements of both paradigms. And especially Prague appears to have had an ambiguous role, resurfacing apparently part of a new broad movement, yet with most of their critical edge and impact due to a strong traditional approach. Indeed the czech had been carrying the torch through decades of darkness and clandestinity, taking great care not to allow any compromise of the doctrine, yet still when they reemerged czech surrealism had a distinct flavor of new radicalism, new everyday politics and psychedelia, while clearly demarcating itself against (though of course not necessarily denouncing) much of such more "popular" forms of resistance. In the Bulletin de Liaison surréaliste – the organ of the French "antiliquidationists" but also very much devoted to expressing the international movement and especially being an organ of the czech almost as much as of the french (this was in stark contrast to other french post-war surrealist journals, that were purely french journals with individual contributors from abroad and occasional letters or notes reporting about there being surrealist activities in other countries) – the new approaches are in focus, but still rather much in a classical framework, and much of the content is still about keeping the old flame alive in the face of official liquidationism. This tendency is far more dominating in the subsequent anthology La Civilisation surréaliste, clearly represent a hermetic approach, caring for the secrets, establishing a hidden place for the eternal flame, keeping the voice down, focusing on an irreductive epistemology and endless problematisations, refusing all simplifications – all in a very clear methodological opposition to the ultraradicalism, pedagogic and propagandist simplifications, quick alliancemakings and proud orthodoxy of especially american surrealism at the time (but, it must be noted, not at all in polemics or antagonism towards that current; instead they were the two fraternal poles of the field of postclassic surrealist activity against the liquidationists).

(Another issue where this image/categorisation seems compelling to me is in various recent bickering between the Madrid and Stockholm groups – with both being partly troublesome mavericks of the surrealist movement one might expect Madrid and Stockholm to have a lot in common. Yet I think there might be some explanatory power in regarding Madrid as founded in a very classical surrealism and moving along the path of ultraradicalism and iconoclasm, while Stockholm is founded in the "modern" paradigm and recently moving into focusing on a defense of surrealism; setting out from opposite directions, Madrid and Stockholm meet at the open sea at night, without really sharing a critical language, exchanging some fireworks in a thick mist...)

So what was born in this specific transition was modern-day surrealism, post-classic surrealism, 3rd generation surrealism, or post-bretonian surrealism. Something completely different than, yet exactly the contemporary manifestation of, classic surrealism. Far more democratic, even more internationalist, even further removed from within-artistic concerns and art world, more underground, even more activist, just as nonconformist and uncompromising and antiutilist and non-pragmatic and hermetic and traditionalist, far more interested and versed in popular culture and new popular forms of resistance, even more insisting on collectivity and game-playing... here we are.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The ecology of trash: the memoirs question and my american dung trowel

The ecology of trash

There is a famous definition of dirt from anthropology (Mary Douglas) as "whatever is in the wrong place". This emphasises the relativity of trash, and provides little for the understanding of what trash actually is. As a biologist, I consider it absolutely necessary to make a first distinction between rubbish and pollution. Rubbish are the things which do not interact much with the system, are not quickly degradable, and the human reactions against them are therefore primarily aesthetical. Pollution are the things which do interact easily with the system, are quickly degradable, and the human reactions against them are often based on concerns for the ecosystem.

Thus, rubbish are the things anybody may keep recognising as traces of human presence for a long time – artifacts of plastic, solid metals, concrete, glass, stone, treated wood etc. They have little fast interactions with the local system, and there is no good "ecological" argument against rubbish (there certainly is against the mass production of non-degradable and non-reutilisable packages in general, but not specifically against everyday-level littering). Therefore the problem is mostly that littering could be a sign of lack of orderliness or "poor morals" in the human population. In the city, it is still active in contributing to circulation because it keeps a class of lowpayed workers occupied, and it exposes brand logos without expensive advertisement costs. Outside the city, such as in the forest and on beaches, it is less active but may cause controversy when it keeps reminding romantically-minded nature-lovers that the landscapes are not pristine, and in a similar way may to anybody sabotage the atmospheres experienced by adding compulsory irrelevant associations. Thus, rubbish is an aesthetical category, it is about the economy and dynamics of sensory impressions and associations. And here we are definitely in the sphere of the relativistic anthrolopological argument: many people would say that paved roads, cars and buildings are rubbish only when they are abandoned; some will say they are rubbish also when in use.

Pollution disappears from sight more quickly because it contributes to the local system (paper, food scraps, excrement, urine, ionized metals, carcasses, untreated wood, toxic waste, "chemicals"), and we can make a proximate distinction between poison (immediately toxic to organisms) and fertilizers (short-term advantageous for organisms). Fertilisers can be far more dangerous than poisons though. To start with; adding nutrients will usually twist the species composition so that few common competitive species will thrive while many rare species will perish. Then, the increased mass of organic material will consume a lot of oxygen when degrading, and in a habitat with a limited oxygen supply it will run short, and dead areas are created (*).

The distinctions are not at all clearcut. Degradation is dependent on climate, to begin with. In a warm humid climate, many solid metals corrode quickly and a lot of things become pollution which would have been rubbish elsewhere. And on the other hand, in a dry or a very cold climate, degradation is slowed down so that even scraps of food and carcasses may be permanented as rubbish. And among the types of pollution all relationships are complex. Many poisons can be said to act by nurturing uncontrolledly (hormones for example). And take calcium, which can be immediately toxic, acts as a fertiliser and may increase diversity and sustainability. (Then there are other classes of pollution with their own problematics which we can not go into the delicate problematics of here: such as genetically modified organisms and radioactive waste.)

My american dung trowel

Perhaps most people don't regularly dig in dung, but I am a dung beetle enthusiast and researcher (herbivore dung is more interesting to me than human shit, mind you). My normal tool is a gardening trowel. But last year I was given a remarkable artifact as a present by good friends, an american dung trowel. We sure don't have particular dung trowels in europe. And the package of this one expounded a generalised life strategy (a so-called philosophy): one should make as little impact as possible. So this was an ecotourist gadget: if you had to shit while camping, you should make sure to bury your crap so that no one could see you had been there!

Ok, a low-impact strategy is often strongly preferrable to the alternatives, on ecological as well as moral, political and aesthetical grounds. But it is also a generalisation of paranoid anal sadism. And it is sometimes used as an argument against radical change, or against all reform and historical dynamics. Furthermore, significantly in this particular case, it is a part of the common american environmentalist idea complex, one aspect of which is the idealisation of "nature" without human presence, historically connected with the specific denial of the indigenous population of North America and of the extent to which they had shaped the landscape. It can be taken as a bit cynical to see low impact supported at home while the United States forcefully apply their branding iron everywhere else in the world.

Specifically, there is not much point in burying your shit. At first glance, burying is a purely aesthetical gesture since it still feeds the environment with the nutrients. But this choice has ecological consequences, since the organisms degrading it subterraneanly will not be the same as the ones degrading it overground – overground there are for example many insects specialised on such resources, several of which are rare and threatened. Well, I don't suppose any local populations of threatened species will survive specifically on campers' crap, but there is not much point in denying the local assembly this resource either. Not even the argument of reducing fertilisation is a strong one, since the carbohydrates dominating dung are in fact far less powerful fertilising agents than for example urine, which has nitrogen in higher concentrations and indeed can be locally devastating. If you care about ecological low-impact living: go piss in water closets connected to sewage purification plants and not outdoors, but there's no big reason not to shit anywhere. (**) But no one seriously opposes public urinating, except the police and some overzealous feminists who take the metaphor of "territorial pissing" (which in the real form makes little sense in humans) litterally.

Leaving memoirs

So, at the individual level, the problem of rubbish is as I said a purely aesthetical problem. Different people are differently inclined here. Some are happy to just drop whatever waste they produce wherever they are, some are even more eager and work hard to leave a trace on the environments they visit, while some are careful to make as little impact as possible. Surrealists often cite Lautréamont saying "I shall leave no memoirs", but many surrealists do write memoirs and other anecdotal works anyway, and many are very eager to expose their names in journals, books, exhibitions, webpages, etc.

It is all anal in the sense that it relates to potty training, to the control of withholding and releasing. But when releasing becomes compulsory, it is usually related to a specific lack of concern about consequences, or in fact a mere strategy in manifesting power through not caring, or of a struggle for attention maybe conditioned by uninterested parents. Withholding compulsorily is the classic anal-sadistic disturbance euphemised as pedantery etc, and may be related to interested parents instead, when in late childhood and early adolescence this strategy becomes meaningful as the obsession not to leave much traces based on which the detective parents can deduce whatever one has been up to. The latter strategy comes to use in paranoia visavis the authorities, but may elsewhere make good impressions on friends of order and cleanliness. The subversion that is so secret that it leaves no traces also has very little occasion to actually subvert something.

Surrealists have little reason to partake in this era's grand competition over exposure of personal names as brand names. "I would like to see that those of us who are on their way of making a name for themselves, would erase it" as Nougé famously said. Here at Icecrawler these concerns have been discussed several times, with "Re: surrealist groups and publicity" perhaps as a centerpiece. We tend to believe more in messages in a bottle, in the capacity of the desire of the interested to find the relevant. Of course the noise, the advertised nonsense, the generalised rubbish, often makes this difficult. It might be useful to use personal names as scattered signs for the interested to follow, and for attachment points in building the bigger structure of collective experience. Because it is all about conveying experience. I think it makes sense to regard the accounts of our experiences as a very special kind of rubbish, a rather discrete one that does not yell for attention and disturb the general perception of the landscape, but should be in plain view for anyone who knows how to look for it.

Mattias Forshage

(*) For example, we have this problem with dead sea beds in the Baltic.

(**) I don't know if I need to make this reservation: openly or buried, it is not a good idea to dump large quantities of human excrement in the environment, because it may feed e-coli-bacteria to the groundwater and potentially cause health problems.

three eras of surrealism

The history of surrealism remains a source of inspiration and a battleground. While the quality of much of academic surrealismology has certainly been rising the past decades, it is still very often the old traded misunderstandings and simple errors that reach wide circulation in exhibitions, newspaper criticism and popular books, and other areas of historiography; and in many cases even those who are attracted by surrealism and take part in it swallow much of their general knowledge of the movement's history through such popular sources – in the cases where they do not have a special interest in history, thus impatiently striving to put it into practice rather than caring for historical detail. It must be admitted at this point that the official internal traded version of the history of the movement may hold some flaws and some dangerous simplifications: a few decades ago, back in the days of reigning poor surrealismology, it was safe to say that generally surrealists were far better "experts" in surrealism than the experts in surrealism were (whatever it would actually mean to be an expert in surrealism, we're not going into this here), but this is sometimes not the case anymore. Not only are several of the academics now quite careful and well-read, it is also the case that very many surrealists see little meaning in taking up the competition over knowledge of historical detail with them who are getting payed for dealing with it but who will always miss an important dimension due to the lack of own experience and therefore integrated sense of a whole surrealist perspective. But then, it becomes quite crucial which sources the active surrealists utilise as their standard references for historical information.

So, in order to make the various small points of surrealist historiography and its consequences for surrealist strategy and organisation that is one of the more prominent themes on this blog, I find it necessary to lay down some basic terms here.

It seems to be of crucial importance for understanding the conditions of surrealist activity at different points in time to see that this is something which had clearly changed its objective character in history. (Many surrealists themselves will deny that for polemical reasons, instead emphasising the exemplary continuity, as if historical change would seriously threaten their legitimity.) Now for any particular historiographical project, one will have to assess periodisations depending on the factors relevant for these particular questions. Obviously the surrealist movement has gone through all kinds of changes depending on the failures and successes of organisational initiatives, on events in the world such as wars, crises, repression, radical upsurges, etc. What I'm suggesting here is just that the sense of being a movement has fundamentally changed twice.

Surrealism remains one and continuous, and in order to stay one and stay in history it has twice rejuvenated itself in fire. Thus three times (the inception and the two reinceptions), surrealism has been in a fluid state in the midst of a dramatic favorable wind, and come out with a different face, for some less recognisable, or actively denied. According to this there has been three different eras, three different basic historical modes. It is not very important for me to pinpoint any exact dates for change (especially since the overlaps are huge, and the objective characteristics of several periods are manifested simultaneously) nor to suggest fancy terms for the periods, what I am emphasising is the importance of recognising that such major shifts in historical focus have occurred. I don't think it will be that controversial, even though I do loan myself to some simplifications in matters that will surely prove more complex under careful thinking and careful historic study.

a) Classic surrealism from the inception of the group under the new term and in the new direction of experimentation in 1922, throughout historical changes of the 30s and the hardships of war (internationalisation was an early consequence of the inner dynamics, 1929 was not a major direction shift, the war outbreak was circumstances made more difficult). This might also be called 1st generation surrealism. Surrealism slowly gave itself its shape through its temporary historical decisions, and had no heritage to be concerned about (except that freely chosen), and kept developing and going forward through new discoveries, abandoned areas of experimentation, strategical decisions, etc.

b) Late-classic surrealism from the reorganisation of surrealism in the late 40s. This might also be called post-war surrealism or 2nd generation surrealism. Organised surrealism cared much about keeping the tradition alive to hand it over to the future. It made less inventions, and no overall changes as its concerns about itself emphasised continuity, inclusivity and integrity to the point of reintegrating abandoned or conflicting viewpoints and strategies and thereby creating a sense of timeless surrealism. While the more impatient, vanguardist or ultraradical currents typically budded off into new para-surrealist movements. Indeed most of the surrealist advances on the theoretical, artistical and political levels were made outside the surrealist movement in the most narrow sense, yet it was there that they were reintegrated. After the few years in the late 40s that was a great favorable wind, the quantitative summit of the surrealist movement, and a dramatic situation of fruitful uncertainty, the 50s and early 60s were an all-time low, when more or less all groups outside the Paris group stepped over into various varieties of para-surrealism or simply ceased activity.

c) Post-classic surrealism from the refounding of surrealism in a new paradigm of popular radicalism in the 60s. This might also be called post-breton surrealism or 3rd generation surrealism. Throughout the decade (and partly still!) a rather unresolved tension surfaced between new groups that were based in the new radicalism and old groups which had difficulties relating to the new radicalism even though they indeed had heralded and inspired it. In the french group, these difficulties were added to the difficulties naturally following Breton's death, expressed in the partial and ineffective participation in the '68 movement, and finally triumphed in the dissolution of the french group. In the new situation, the surrealist movement found itself being far more underground, without the mass media's or art world's attention, a more democratic network structure, and in all kinds of ways finding a new relevance based in the new paradigm for all of surrealism's traditional themes and methods.

(The only terminological issue that may be important is a minor one. "Postsurrealism" is a common and fitting term for an eclectic abandoning of surrealism, especially in the art world – let it remain that and don't ever accept any attempts to confusionally and derogatorily apply the term to active post-classic surrealism.)

Now I would say that for most historical questions, this division into three periods suggests something of the different framework for dealing with various questions and ideas throughout surrealist history. But from a historical viewpoint, what I consider very crucial to surrealism is to look closer at these periods of transition, to see what the options were and what were the factors that decided the routes to follow. This is of course of great strategical importance to the surrealist movement, and while I am not surprised that the academic historians have usually failed to see the crucial relevance of these transitionary periods (or merely seen them as chaotic accumulation of anecdotes of contradictions), I think it is important for us as surrealists to grapple with them.

Separate forthcoming posts will be devoted to each of these transition periods.

M Forshage

Everything not everything

This is a response to one of the themes raised by NN:s "The canopy of z – objectivity and surrealism" below, but less than a passionate defense of a particular standpoints. I just want to explicate to what extent this attitude that "everything remains to be done" as well as its opposite remain compatible with surrealism. Surrealism strives to be that nexus where such contradictions are resolved, but in practice individuals still often feel a larger or smaller affinity for either way of reasoning, and it is often necessary in concrete action to make a choice, which for each particular situation is then primarily a strategical choice.

"Everything remains to be done"

First, the libertarian argument. As enthusiasts of freedom we like to open up, and to stand before and savor, fields of possibilities of maximal range. The feeling that "everything remains to be done" AND that "anything is possible" are fundamental to the phenomenology of freedom. We are always at the starting point. It is simply the locus of the feast.
Second, the anti-authoritarian argument. Poetry must be always reinvented at heart, and previous authorities and simple empirical conclusions are in a sense always irrelevant to the creative impulse. No one is to tell us which mistakes to make and which not. Back-to-basics. Intuition. Blank slate. Joy of rediscovery.
Third, the ludic argument. We must allow our priorities to be dictated by the dynamics of the game itself, to refuse utilistic concerns and control exerted by external agents such as preconceived rational planning.
Fourth, the revolutionary argument. All the things we crave are possible in a generalised way only in a society which is drastically more fair and free than the current. This will change the conditions for everything radically so that we really can't know for certain what will be possible and what not. Therefore our results and plans so far can be nothing but pleasurable and/or subversive exercises, that we don't know for sure if they'll have any relevance at all when things get around.
Fifth, the scientific argument. Whatever results we have shouldn't be extrapolated to generalisations, they do not necessarily tell the truth in any stronger sense than the scientific: it is what resulted from a particular investigation with particular methods. Methods, parameters and circumstances can be varied interminably and it is not easy to say which might cause significant differences, breakthroughs or transformations. The number of remaining experiments is endless.
Sixth, the modest argument. We may have good reasons for a certain disappointment in to what extent the surrealist movement so far has been capable of designing its experiments and formulating its conclusions in a systematic way. The immodest research program is technically really only in its early beginnings and the actual milestone results are few.

"Everything does not remain to be done" (a special case of which is the "we are almost there" suggested by NN)

First, the general historical argument. History is change, and most fundamentally it is change of the configuration of the field of possibilities. What's happened and what we've done so far has led us to a point where certain things have been made possible and certain others not.
Second, the collective historical agent argument. We are part of a movement, and this movement throughout its various incarnations in different activities in different countries in different times, has made a lot of experiences that are ours, and which we should utilise. We have a magnificent treasury of experiences. We can avoid repeating mistakes, we can evaluate historical experiences in order to suggest new strategies, we can continue threads prematurely dropped at precisely the point they were dropped.
Third, the pragmatic argument. Obviously, some paths are better than others. We may have an intuition telling us so, or we might have criteria, and the criteria may be based on assession of dynamism or effect or congeniality with selective affinities. Regardless of which, there are only some paths that are meaningful to embark on, and in some mysterious sense, we are right.
Fourth, the ideology criticism argument. We have learned the classical techniques of seeing through many types of lies, illusions and ideological constructs. From the fundamental Marx and Freud, as well as Darwin and Nietzsche, over feminism, to recent applications in situationism, postcolonialism, poststructuralism, there is no shortage of ways to realise how many undertakings would merely serve others' purposes, or serve various regressive, conservative, banal, or counterproductive purposes that are part of oneself. We can see just how many things tried must be abandoned because they – in general or specifically under current circumstances – are filling an objective function opposite to our aims. If we take hardcore recuperation theory and apply it onedimensionally we will get a purely negative and sligtly too powerful criterion, and we might possibly come to the conclusion that there is very little that we are left to continue doing at all, and the only option is the ravaging refusal (because if we see through that too, then we would become mere cynics, which is clearly stillborn). If not, we might use the power of demasking to assess which strategies are viable in spite of criticisms, which options will reach out to countertendencies and make alliances of particular possible significance, which dead ends should be abandoned and which could be refurnished to become new side streams.
Fifth, the constructivist argument; the results we have so far has made unusual experiences and necessitated their conceptualisation and thereby opened up particular new areas of investigation. We have a lot of results that are mainly implemented as the width of questions, investigations and games we are capable of addressing.
Sixth, the immodest argument; those results are, from 1919 on, a radically succesful road of accessing psychic dynamics, poetry, new possibilities, imaginative truth, open rationalism, open realism and integrative power, which is capable of providing not just relevant suggestions but a certain vision of heterogenic wholeness in all meaningful areas of life. We are almost there.


I am intrigued by the exciting situations that surrealism faced in the 40s and then in the 60s, when surrealism seemed to be somehow – involuntarily – in line with the times, but it wasn't obvious at all in which direction to set off, large numbers of people were attracted by the movement, people in it had been doing very different experiences, the field of possibilities was wide open, paths needed to be chosen. This relates to what Michaël Löwy emphasises in "Morning star" (*) as the "untimely" character of surrealism, because it feels like at every point one of the latent main issues for surrealism is to find the point of non-contradiction between staying at history's edge and dismissing the contemporary in its entirety. I think that the sublation/solution of this is present in surrealism, but it is one of the several things present in surrealism which we often fail to rationalise, and very often get ourselves stuck in rather lame explanations and contradictions that don't quite live up to the synthetic potential inherent in surrealism. In the 40s, in the 60s, and to a lesser but quite visible sense in the present, some people emphasise the role of being "keepers of the flame", on embodying the tradition, and others emphasise the need of radical abandonments and explorations, as if either made any sense without the other...

I will keep talking about those particular dynamic historical situations elsewhere, so let's go back to the sense of dialectical edge. Of course, ignoring the contemporary and focus on that which – in an untimely way – is of inner necessity, is one way of expressing a latent content of the times, one which represent a potentiality and a possible future. But there are many untimely things which are just nostalgic or clueless too, and many which have a great potential without ever finding their connections. Only some possibilities find the paths of associating with other countercurrents, and communicating with people who are looking for change, for negation, for dynamics; suggesting frameworks and imagery for a latent desire for freedom. It is in this sense that I mean surrealism appears to have been timely in its untimeliness in the 40s and 60s.

I am also speculating that surrealism could very well have been similarly timely in its untimeliness in a similar way in the 80s and around 2000, but the movement was too small to make much impact in and through the movements of the times. In the 80s, it was obviously quite problematical, since what I am referring to as the timely current where surrealism could hang on is that period's transgressive aestheticism, the taste for incomprehensibility, hedonism, black humor and sadomasochism, the resurrections of Sade, Bataille, Artaud, Blanchot as fashionable points of reference, etc, which took place now mostly under the aegis of poststructuralism, cynicism and individualism and can be associated with some senses of postmodernism and neoliberalism. To partake in and be able to twist back the objective direction of such a twisted current would indeed have required not only an immense integrity but also a considerable strength! And then around 2000, it was perhaps a minor repetition of the 60s on its way in the sense that a new footing, a new framework for radicalism was being forged, in an even more heterodox way but still remaining a sharp anticapitalist focus – surrealism did take part in this, but never became one of its more visible currents, and then the movement faded.

(*) Great book which fairly recently came in an english translation, with a strangely twisted subtitle. The original's "surréalisme et marxisme" had been openmindedly changed by the editors into "surrealism, marxism, anarchism, situationism, utopia" - not only removing the relational preposition emphasising the unified theme of the book, now suggesting it to be a loose collection of essays about this and that not necessarily considering things in relation to each other, but also violating the broad and unorthodox sense of marxism the author employs by separately adding these various other brands of radicalism which the author makes a point of not separating from marxism in his notion of it.

/M Forshage

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Platforms in the Canopy of Z – Surrealism and Objectivity (Internal resolution)

There may be a lesson to learn from how we were once, and rightly so, snubbed for our enumeration of objective themes in the old text "Scream in the sack" which I would enunciate like this: at the next attempt we must try to better communicate the dynamics of elusiveness (which JE recently described as "something that generates a content but keeps moving beyond this content.") By better I think I mean – rather contrary to the vocabulary that in speculative hegelian terms talk about objectivity in an absolute sense – with clarity about the fact that surrealism is manifested in the individual case and is not present in the particular idealisation (and I'm not talking about its objective characteristics, because that I call sociology) which is being formulated ever so carefully and exhaustively as a support for our intentions and self-consciousness.

In that case, it is reasonable to speak about the essence of surrealism, namely, as immanent in the materialised poetic phenomenon, in the collective experience giving flesh and life to those intuitions which haven't yet been conceptualised and the concrete results of activity that, rather than living up to the contents, tend to establish new platforms in the unknown, or, like in the "Silent hand"-experiment, for a moment evokes that this is the case.

In the Stockholm group, a pronounced tendency can be perceived to recognise and suggest the possibilities of each trodden approach, and to imply that their logical or other contexts form the starting point for a specifically surrealist field of research where always "almost everything remains to be done". This scientific or pseudoscientific attitude also entails a mythopoetical or actually even literary exaltation of the intentions in a sublime self-consciousness concerning the modest proportions of the ego before the magnitude of the unknown, which admittedly makes an adequate representation of epistemological honesty, insider humor, and (by extension) hopeful despair.

So, what we are less good at is to demonstrate that we yet and always are "almost there", which is to say that surrealism hardly shares the existentialist gesture of an unattainable ideal or pretends to be an atomistic constellation of aspects holding merely an abstract configuration of wholeness, but instead that the unpredictable poetic phenomenon not just timelessly "heals the rift in the world" but also consummates the image of surrealism with a living reality that is all the more vivid and even more real because it is shared. And , as someone said, it seems to be the French who assumes the task, in their counterproductively totalitarian-poetic prose, to bear witness to and try to perpetuate this particular state and, at worst, to prove it. In the witnessing freedom of thought no difference between the marvellous and the sublime point is being reflected, but whenever one slyly wants to communicate in a more concise and directed form, there could be a point in showing that we count on two different moments, one of which is an external configuration, and which we want to learn to be attentive towards, and the other one shows itself as a mental state. And furthermore, that there are relations and methods to connect these two moments in a wider continuum, and that the rite of surrealism is aimed at freedom of movement in both directions. The pretentious implications of the discoveries, and confounding the one who benefits from the unusual states of mind, is a possible summary of the dynamics which should not be reduced to "we are interested in a, b, c..."; surrealism means "x + y but also z".

If we stick to the fact that this irrepresentable mystery makes surrealism something far more than a collection of themes, and something more than the academics' focus on the relationship between the statements of the surrealists and the representative examplifications of these statements, then you too realise where I am going when I am saying that the romantic idealization of the scientific methods may potentially play us a trick concerning the attempts to communicate or determine surrealism, especially if it concerns communicating with the tattered sphere of humanities, that sometimes succeeds to trap us in a position where we refer to our group experience as an "independent observer before a subject". It is this objectivity in a non-hegelian sense that reifies surrealism as a subject matter – and thereby also the typical questions of the decadence phase about legitimacy, succession, authencity, purity etc which make up the part of the sociological viewpoint that we could do very well without – that makes me think it could be time to sharpen the conflict between the humanities and surrealism (natural science still seems a less dangerous hearth to warm ourselves by, though).


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Venus tick

(Some landforms on the planet Venus are famously tick-shaped)

Arch-arms of the Dead

Let's talk about death. We sometimes denounce things as death-oriented, while still ravelling in spectacular death paraphernalia. Death is not a moral category. Death is a phantasm, a tiny void generating a blossoming thicket of stories and emotions. Death is a great mythology. With rather weak links to the biological facts of death (a totally different matter), and even weaker to individual death which we know squat about but make a big issue based on rumors, inductive logic and psychological projections. We are immortal in the sense that our individual death can't have a reality for us except as a chosen myth. Let's not talk about death. But what about the dead? Do we keep track of which ones of our friends are dead? Can we ever know? Does it matter for whether their experience is available to us?

Well, surrealists are often a bit grumpy here. "I shall leave no memoirs" goes an often quoted Lautréamont bon-mot. Why not? Because memoirs, and the biographical urge on the whole and all of personal image management (Public Relations), is directed towards death – trying to summarise life in a stable pattern as if finished and unchanging, as if useful for a particular instrumental purpose? (By the way, memoirs in that sense is very similar to novels in general, isn't it? simply death-orientation...) Yet that biographical act is also a sacrifice for the benefit of the living, for the sake of the savoir vivre of others. To actually die when the story is completed is just a vain gesture to get the last word.

There is little meaning in respecting the boundaries between individuals here. It's not just that we can claim other's experiences as a slightly vaguer sector of our own experience, it is also that we can see many of our ambitions and interventions as those of our forerunners continued, using us as vehicles! Experience is overindividual. This is rather obvious in a collective-constructive enterprise such as science, but even more so in a movement encompassing a larger sector of life (namely the attitudes of living in general) such as surrealism.

It did seem like many surrealists passed away last year. Actually, if comparing the numbers of deceased surrealists (and ex-surrealists), the number was not significantly larger than usual (23 as compared to an average annual 21.3 the past decade in my headcount), but nevertheless it was quite obvious that we were abandoned by a number of people who were still active, who were good friends of those most active, and/or who were relatively famous.

The number of surrealists (and ex-surrealists) dying is far more steady than the number of people leaving surrealism (which is dependent on general historical trends and the intensity of surrealist activity), but the latter figure is very difficult to calculate since in most cases it is not possible to distinguish (except often in hindsight) between those who merely cease to be active but remain surrealists at heart and those who abandon surrealism, or between those who do this definitely and those who take a temporary leave of absence. And we also cannot compare the figure with the numbers of surrealists being born (since that will be known only in a far longer perspective), nor with the numbers of people joining surrealist activities (which will become apparent to surrealists or surrealismologists elsewhere – if ever – only after a relatively long time lapse, because to begin with they are rarely apparent in public material, and it is not certain whether they are serious investigators by their own force or merely ephemeral curiosity-seekers or social friends).

Yet the number of surrealists dying is in itself a very concrete figure with a limited number of uncertainty factors. It is possible to model the number as a combination of mean lifespan and numbers of arrivals, and especially if we take into account the overall trends of surrealism (number of arrivals at different times in the past). The mean age of surrealists arriving does not seem to have changed very much over time and could be simplified into a timeless average. If we want a more complicated and possibly much sharper model we could try to account for the difference in trends in different countries and the overall contribution to the population of surrealists from each of these countries.

Ok, the humanistically minded will already have seen the (to them possibly blasphemous and cruel) trend of the methodological surrealist and the natural scientist here: treating human deaths as a phenomenon possible to consider matter-of-factly, to quantify, and even to predict (on a statistical level).

Because, on the individual level, every death is an exception and a reconfiguration of the field of possibilities. Well, most people passing away are like all these other people that we meet, possibly take a liking to, and never meet again; except in the sense that we for some reason have the uncanny certainty that it will not be possible to ever communicate with them again. All the things imaginable that we would like to try to do with this person, all the questions we would like to ever ask, are not possible anymore: it is a serious violation to the openness and uncertainty of the possibility field, both objectively and subjectively, and on the latter level very often feels unfair and bottomless in its definitiveness.

But many of us are bored or suspicious about conventional grief and long sentimental obituaries. In surrealism, paying too much attention to those departing by death can be seen as part of the pattern of belittling contemporary surrealist activity and regarding the days of glory past as "the real thing". Some do not consider this a big problem when it concerns real friends and/or active comrades, and there are some surrealist periodicals that occasionally devote most of their space to more or less conventional obituaries and reminiscences. Except for among personal friends, this always creates a definite feeling of not having enough living activity to write about.

Others perhaps correspond to the activist view that death is primarily a bourgeois mythology, and shout "let the dead bury the dead". In some cases this is pure self-defensive denial and rationalisation of one or other brand of shallow hedonism. In other cases it indicates a purely instrumental struggle where individuals are largely cannonfodder. From the latter perspective of course, some will be martyrs or possible to exploit for the cause in some other way. But neither shallowness nor instrumentalism are congenial to surrealism.

Death is always an occasion for attention to and reassessment of the works, ideas, deeds and historical function of an individual. It is a very often a pity that it comes just a little too late, because very often the person it concerns would have been able to clarify some things, and would have been able to benefit and learn from the comments... That is, of course, to the extent that the discussion is based on serious and honest concerns rather than conventional painting in bright colors, shallow mythologisation, denial and propagandisation, or finding a good angle at any price.

But specifically in a living movement like surrealism, the dead are not just dead but still around in a particular active sense since they are part of the collective experience. This is part of the specific reason for surrealists to be explicit surrealists. Most of surrealist activity could be carried out just as well or almost just as well without being referred to as surrealism. Applying that designation is to join in with a community of experiences, and extends this field of action and experience widely in time and space. In space, it is obvious that being surrealists facilitates establishing bonds and collaborating with surrealist groups and individuals in other parts of the world.

In time, it is just as obvious that we all can learn from the experiences of the surrealist groups, contributors and dissidents from the 20s onwards, from the paths taken, the adventures in spirit and everyday life, the daily life of all the groups as well as the individual works, thoughts and deeds of an André Breton or an Antonin Artaud just as well as by a Leonora Carrington or a Claude Cahun, or a Franklin Rosemont or a Sarane Alexandrian; or a René Alleau or a Gaston Bachelard, or an Annie LeBrun or a Matta, or, or, or any of us – it is a marvellously rich field of experiences which lies available to us all (and as an addition, some of these people are still alive and can communicate directly!).

Ok, we occasionally have to stop ourselves not to sound foolish, spiritistic or unnecessarily unreasonable when we want to refer to "oh, but Max Ernst told me this" "that was in our talks with Trotsky" "I remember it so well" "no, but we already tried that, it was in... 1929". But in general, of all the various parameters in mediating experience (language and translations, channels and technologies of direct and indirect communication, published and unpublished works, clarification and mystification, individual or collective accounts, etc) , just as whether one has met someone personally or not very often is not one of the decisive ones, currently dead or alive is clearly a less decisive parameter too. Our individual beings are in many ways merely approximative pragmatic fictions anyway, and in the activities we partake our experiences and ambitions are broadly mixed between those of us who are still alive in the biographical sense and those who aren't.


M Forshage

So far this year, we note the passing of: Jean Benoît, Wolfgang Frankenstein, Elizabeth Onslow-Ford, Alejandro Piva, Horus Schenouda, Ursula Trevelyan... Comrades or past fellow travellers, all with experiences worth our attention, which we may or may not integrate with our own ramblings-

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A few possible tasks for a surrealist group in Wien (Vienna) if there will ever be one

* The Donauinsel (Danube island) appears to be an obvious center of the city. An enormously long and mostly very narrow land tongue between two Donau (Danube) arms, apparently largely covered with a mosaique of parkland and worthless places. Try to get lost at the Donauinsel (really a challenge at such a narrow piece of land). Divide it into a random number of segments; investigate one by one in a series (or by different players); fuse the results cadavre exquise-wise; and then shuffle them, place them in random order and see what story is being told; then rearrange them in accordance with their inner logic. It's easy, just like repaginating a book where the course of events has been distorted to conform to linear rationalisations rather than to inner logic. Or pick a spot and gaze out the river, notice every larger object flowing with it and interpret each object as a dream.

* The Rote Wien (Red Vienna) part of the city's history is largely unexplored from a surrealist viewpoint. A furiously active workers movement struggling to organise every single aspect of life in an integrative radical whole (there appears to have been workers societies and collective solutions for everything), and simultaneously of course to integrate and mute the more impatiently radical wings of the movement (apparently in a less hostile manner than in other burgeoning social democratic power nexuses?), and all of this in the presence of the world headquarters of the blossoming psychoanalytical movement. There is a vast range of failed experiments to reexamine (and sometimes retry) here.

* The fin-de-siecle aesthesticism of Wien raises several critical questions about imaginational phenomenology and surrealist perspectives on art. As romanticism-getting-stale and decadent-classicism were venturing continuously further into the absurd and the poetic, which historic aesthetic contradictions played any role whatsoever? If the grand figure of Hans Makart obviously was the Salvador Dalí of his time, does that refer merely to his grandiose-excentric-commercial-megalomanic aspects and painting skills, or also to the part of real groundbreaking investigations into the imagination? If Gustav Klimt turned to the more decorative style for which he is best known by the critical rebuffal of his groundbreaking Fakultätsbilder, was that a major retreat also in terms of the advancement of the investigation of the imagination, or did he luckily hit new solid poetic ground when trying to be uncontroversial? Etc.

* The absence of organised surrealism in Wien is remarkable. The few organising efforts in the 40s need to be scrutinised, and also to clearly demarcate when these transformed into a school of painting, "der Wiener Schule des phantastischen Realismus" (fantastic realism) which at best covers a few detached individual aspects of surrealism. On the other hand, quite other aspects of a possible surrealist spectrum were addressed in a spectacular and often ignorant way in Wiener Aktionismus (actionism). It is important to snatch back the concepts of communal living and sex radicalism, especially in their combination with artistic creation, from their failed local applications. Correspondingly, it is important to emphasise how visions of "fantastic realism" will imply a confrontative radicalism, on the intellectual, spiritual and social levels rather than on the aesthetic. Simply, to demonstrate how surrealism provides a framework that puts the constructive achievements of fantastic realism and actionism both into perspective.

* try regular meetings at the Café Hegelhof

* have a surrealist exhibition at the Sigmund Freud Museum

* make the Sigmund Freud Park more ambiguous

* try furious dérives through tram-surfing


a tale of a few cities

Just having returned from Wien (Vienna) I am somewhat enchanted by the surrealist possibilities of that city. With surrealism's perspectives on urbanism (note for exemple one or another sketch previously posted here), "the surrealist possibilities of a city" is not just the case of differentiated personal sensibility towards the spirit of the place. It is that to some extent, but it is also concretely manifested in the degree of condensation and contrast, spatial and social heterogenity, signs of expectation, overlayering, dynamism of spatial phenomenology, and overall ambiance. Of course, pursuing a collective surrealist activity is fundamentally about revealing the surrealist qualities of your immidiate environment; any surrealist grouping will enhance and make explicit the process of disenveloping the surrealist sense of the city they are in. So this is not quite what I am talking about here. I am talking about which places will offer a temporary visitor the most distinct signs and ambiances suggesting this particular sense of possibilities. In this sense, my personal favorite candidates for surrealist cities in Europe are Wien, Berlin, Budapest and Helsinki. Of course they are cities that appeal to me personally, but I do think that they all have a specific objective sense of suggesting hidden possibilities that is central to surrealist urbanism.

And I have to contrast this against the perpetually cited surrealist aspects of Paris, Paris which many people consider as the Capital of Surrealism mainly because surrealism originated there and it has for long times been an important organisational center. Of course, if you live in Paris, and Paris is where you take your daily and nightly strolls, your drinks with friends, your intoxicated trajectories, your everyday conflicts and wonders, you will necessarily see and disclose surrealist aspects out of that psychophysical environment.

But it is another thing for visitors. Many people come to Paris to experience a surrealist city. Indeed, most neighborhoods in Paris do carry a load of anecdotes in surrealist historiography and mythology. There are memories of Breton's walks with Nadja, of the surrealist group's interventions and experiments for many decades, there are all kinds of souvenirs of things integrated into surrealist mythology such as the rich traditions of alchemy, of late 19th century occultism, of early 20th century popular culture, of dada, lettrism, situationism, pataphysics, etc; there are souvenirs of the french revolution, of the Paris commune, of May 68, etc. Not only did these things actually occur right there, but they have also been commemorated, giving names to streets and squares, cafés and statues, etc. The shops, galleries and museums are full of actual references to our chosen heroes. Placenames will be easy to associate with titles of well-known works, and the poetic aura of these names will be lying near at hand since, for us outsiders, so much of the french we know is primarily associated with this poetry and these works rather than with any everyday use. Anywhere you go, if you find a square with a remarkable ambiance, you will very often learn that André Breton already mentioned it in a poem, and if you see a strange gargoyle, you will very often learn that Man Ray or Brassaï already photographed it. The place is so abundantly colonised with anecdotes, with reified pieces of history, and then on top of that seasoned with an overflow of empty references, that it is far more a museum of surrealism than a surrealist city. It gives rise to a feeling that there is nothing to discover, it's all written out for you. It might be possibly to indulge in this, in some cases of recently arrived enthusiastic young surrealists who are happy to see traces of real surrealism recognised as real in the official world and the physical environment, and who will anyway just use them not as pillars in a lithified tradition but as glowing suggestions and hints that make stepping-stones in their own appropriation of surrealism as a shared and personal mythology – for those people, traditional surrealist Paris might still make sense. And of course anyone who is attentive could eventually make some original observations revising or adding to the already almost map-filling color-coding of surrealism-codified corners of Paris. But most of those who hail surrealist Paris are external surrealismophiles (academic, arty, or fellow travellers) who will find this abundance of references to surrealism o so blissful, and whose appreciation of such references might stand in exact proportion to their own inability to discover the surrealist aspects of things for themselves. Preferring the pre-labelled surrealist city before having to exercise any imagination and enterprise any investigation of ones own. Often a certain surrealismophilia of that tinge will prove to be nothing but culture-loving nostalgic francophilia in general, nicely arranging the facets of classic modernism into the big history of western society's art, with a certain predilection for the picturesquely radical and romantic - which is all clearly the opposite of the thorough radical departure and nonconformism central in surrealism itself. But worse for us, it will also be the form in which many of our most eager sympathisers will be happy to consider and consume surrealism as something titillating and even deeply felt – but only not dependent on ones own creative, demanding and risky participation and reinvention.

If we go back to my personal quartet of suggested surrealist cities, Wien, Berlin, Budapest and Helsinki, it is striking that neither of them has ever had a proper surrealist group in spite of a rich presence of avantgarde and radical movements in general. It is also, perhaps, notable that they all lie east of a line dividing Europe in halves. (And indeed, if we would extrapolate from this crude geographical division, we could try to count in Bucuresti, Praha, Brno, Bratislava, Beograd and Athina in this eastern axis, most of which have had a strong (brief or enduring) surrealist presence historically, and one of which (Praha) is indeed often cited as emblematic for surrealist urbanism along with Paris. I don't know. The only place of these that I've visited – so far – is Bucuresti, and I certainly don't mind recognising a particular surrealist potential of that city. And what would become of the western axis? it would also include London and Bruxelles, which are another two of surrealism's historical capitals, which most people would agree are largely boring cities, as well as Madrid, Barcelona and Lisboa, about which there are probably very conflicting views available. But no, I do not want to make a big issue out of these axises, it was just a simple thought experiment.)

I would just like to advocate discovering surrealist aspects of cities rather than consuming surrealist aspects of cities. (And I dream of eventually becoming a satellite member of surrealist groups of these four cities so as to be able to explore these surrealist aspects of the cities more substantially than a casual visitor may.)

M Forshage