Friday, February 26, 2010

feminism and fence posts

There has been a certain amount of discussion around the recent Manchester exhibition of surrealist artists "Angels of anarchy". Kenneth Cox of the Leeds Surrealist Group has written a good and interesting piece of criticism posted here. I must note that most of Kenneth's observations and several of the points he makes are ones that I'd have liked to make myself; the old mill of internal discussion went slowly as it often does and it seemed somehow reasonable that I'd fail to write a huge criticism of an exhibition I had not been able to go and see myself. But there are also some points I'd like to raise in the context, which are not criticisms of things expressed in or necessarily implied by Kenneth's text, but clarifications and modified emphasises I'd like to make to the surrounding, implicit and issuing discussion of these issues.

Kenneth takes this as a pretext to restate surrealism's case against those academics that live off it. This is not new and not very exciting but it is perfectly legitimate and potentially informative to pull it when getting access to a particular new forum, as it seems to be in this case (and sure, uninspired polemics, even on this site, often takes the shape of repeating long available metacritique that remains valid against all kinds of new attacks as long as they are unimaginative and predictable). But the superordination of that particular aspect seems to imply an assessment which I'd like to point out could turn out differently. I mean, what actual power does the academic or artlife frame has to actually disarm and neutralise the subversive content of surrealist painting? Can't the remarkable artworks just as well falsify the ideological framing in the presentation rather than the opposite? Here, Kenneth remains open to this possibility but still emphasises the negative view.

But connected with this, what power does the actual discourse of curators and academics have to neutralise the actual questions they're adressing by presenting ideological answers? Don't they continue to itch, spur and challenge people's own thoughts and potentially provoke individual radical conclusions, regardless of how ingeniously they are raised in the service of an irrelevant, domesticating or parasitizing rhetoric?

I also cannot let go this occasion to readdress the relationship between surrealism and feminism. In this, I am not specifically addressing standpoints made in the text: Kenneth does not put the two in any necessary opposition nor denounces the latter as such. But as this is an old discussion between ourselves and the Leeds group, as well as between others in the surrealist movement, I will repeat some arguments. I certainly agree with the actual specific critical points Kenneth makes, but I'd like to emphasise that this critique of particular strategies among feminists does not imply a dismissal of feminism but could be equally valid from within a feminist framework. There is also the possibility that misunderstandings arise due to semantic questions not just as products of different political experiences but of actual historical differences between the women's movements, and the labels its different branches utilise, in different countries. I am here employing a very broad sense of feminism (further explicated in the following).

If we immediately consider a real opposition to the struggles and aims of the women's movement as obviously absurd and antisurrealist ("there is no such thing as partiarchal subordination or injustice between the sexes anymore" or "there is nothing wrong with a little patriarchal subordination or injustice between the sexes"), there are still a few not uncommon ways of expressing strong reservations against feminism among some surrealists.

One is the ultrasituationism of considering "feminism" as necessarily an ideology and as such necessary diametrically opposed to the struggle of women and to any emancipatory struggle. Such paranoid apriori-assessments is not what we need in surrealism. If we consider what feminism is, it is a very broad international cluster of different groups struggling in different arenas, with different methods and with different political perspectives but largely united against structural injustices, against wage differences for men and women, against violence towards women, against confinement to family-raising and household chores, against everyday depreciation of women's desires, opinions and interests, against sexual coercion and manipulation, against patriarchal ideology, against prostitution and pornography industries, etc etc. Some of these questions are even more straightforward than others, and they will all be given different emphasis in different foci of struggle depending on the historical particulars, the class base of the activists, the local experiences, the general level of democracy, the social structure, and the intensity of other specific confontations and general class struggle. Indeed some people will toss up an ideology based on it, and indeed some people will make a career out of it. But does that make the actual questions, and the actual confrontations brought about by addressing them, less meaningful? Does that mean that the entire field is contaminated and must be abandoned and never spoken about again? I do not think so. For example, we didn't abandon surrealism in the face of an overwhelming international opinion knowing it to be an inconsequential direction in art, as it has repeatedly been transformed into by individuals making ideology and carreer out of it...

The second line of reasoning that would make it meaningful to dismiss feminism is the generalising argument; since we are in favor of the emancipation of all humanity it does not make sense to support the emancipation of a partial set of humanity. This is indeed principled ultraradicalism to the point where it becomes entirely abstract and apolitical. First of all, excuse me a simple analogy; because we are in favor of the emancipation of all humanity, we couldn't give a damn about the struggles of immigrants, of blacks, of children against their families, of the sentenced, mad and troubled against the institutions confining them, of the insistently imaginative against forces censoring and disciplining them, and we would have no interest whatsoever in the action of the working class? That does not seem to go well along with surrealism as hitherto manifested. Any political reasoning will want to identify questions and fronts of struggles which have a potential of organising people and help them to take action against the current order in any way which seems temporarily or generally effective to radicalise people and deepen conflicts and eventually claim actual progresses and victories. Even if we refrain from the sectarian left's beloved game of betting on for example various states and national liberation struggles as potential strongholds against imperialism, it seems obviously meaningful to somehow support (rather than speak against) the most obvious broad currents of resistance, reevaluation and challenge of the current order in our immediate environment, based on an spontaneous solidarity as well as an assessment of their general direction and particular potential rather than necessarily on a complete agreement with their temporary forms of organisation and positions.

It just doesn't seem to make much sense to us for a surrealist not to be a feminist. As we pointed out in a recent addressal of the question of surrealism politics issuing from Leeds, we do consider feminism one of the most immediately relevant fields of current political application of surrealism.

And, a flawed, poorly informed and ideologically pointed presentation of female surrealist artists' works, and a flawed, poorly informed and ideologically pointed addressal of questions of the conditions and conflicts surrounding women's voices, creativity and participation in emancipatory movements, have a great potential of sparking fruitful real experiences and real thoughts and is therefore not just better than silence but actually very welcome from a strategical perspective too.

M Forshage

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Another window of virtual cartography

The links in the right column of this blog is not and has never been a list of close contacts or recommendeds but only a more or less narrow directory of various real or virtual contributors to the icecrawler blog and occasionally the merdarius persona. merdarius linklist is instead here.

At that site, links will be found to the known surrealist groups of the world with web-presence, plus a ridiculously long completist-veined list of individual surrealists' pages (including doubtful or exotic undertakings of some previously active surrealists and anecdotically involved weirdoes).

merdarius's interest in considering what constitutes surrealist strategies in the fields of comics and music is reflected in inclusive but not systematical lists of suggestions worth considering when approaching the two subjects.

The various epistemological, poetical and political ambitions are each partly shared with a strange menagery of groups and projects, whose webpages are mostly lumped as "vicinities" for the time being - more structure will be added - and only the obvious particular interest GEOGRAPHY have yet received a more ambitious cover.

"The flora and fauna of surrealism are inadmissable"

When someone else has carried out ones ideas in advance, they reveal just how mad they are. I have referred here (the surrealist bestiary) to a concordance of animals mentioned in surrealism that I once began. Pursuing that idea in an unsystematic fashion, I stumbled upon a french PhD thesis doing the same (Claude Maillard-Chary: Le Bestiaire surréaliste, Paris 1994). Of course it was not exactly my idea, delimitations were different (the thesis dealt with occurences in text, in french language, in surrealist poets up to the second world war, only), and the academic context made that author focus more on quantitative details and less on critical and empathic evaluation of the function of different animals within surrealism, but still, many of the observations and most obvious conclusions were neatly parallelled.

Of course this duplication makes me more satisfied that I will never finish this project, and that I never pursued it in a very completist or quantitative way. In fact, being a zoologist very soon determined how I was pursuing it, and I focused on two questions which were less accesible to the non-zoologist and non-surrealist:

1) considering the width of the animal kingdom to suggest large amounts of animals with a great surrealist potential according to both inner criteria and the totemic-imaginal-fetishist-poetic patterns established by surrealist use of animals so far,

2) detailing the relationships between what is conceived as "kinds" of animals in surrealism (and in poetic imagination in general) on the one hand, and zoological concepts on the other hand; which is a case study in terms of comparison between classification philosophies and methodologies of scientific classification and folk classification.

These two aspects will be pursued in one way or another, and at least in the latter aspect, it remains possible that I will find a way of presenting my results.


Surrealist and situationist superheroes

Superhero groups are rather similar to surrealist groups. Both are egregoric-dynamic collectivities that embody something completely different than the sum of the individuals, both live in worlds where everything is possible and personal problems are intertwined with matters of life and death and the future of the universe, both are organised based on the unusual powers of individuals. I have once written a comprehensive essay comparing surrealist groups and Marvel superhero groups, and will not go further into it here. But I recently had reason to ponder upon the work in this area by Grant Morrison, who famously designed both a surrealist superhero group and a situationist superhero group within the confines of ordinary commercial superhero comics.

Grant Morrison is a typical comicbook writer of the type that became popular in the late 80s and early 90s; an academic bum with a fetishist thing for popular culture, thus preferring to scatter the fruits of his reading as if it was his own ideas in new commercial forums before writing essays and theses. That part of the comic-reading audience that is made up of similar intellectual bums will be enthusiastic about catching all the allusions and references, that part which is uneducated teenagers will think its unitelligable but very original and perhaps great. Morrison is skilled and knows how to develop a captivating storyline.

Grant Morrison wrote DC's Doom Patrol 1989-92. This group is already of the arguably more surrealist variety of weird super hero groups (consisting of monsters, madmen, robots, mythological beings, animals etc; held together by ad-hoc forces while their asociality, depressivity, misanthropy or unruliness makes the centrifugal forces far overtrump the centripetal forces; not consciously striving to save the world but ending up by chance fighting with an extremely weird rogue gallery - just like Marvels 70s Defenders, and, to be sure, the original Doom Patrol which started already 1963). But then Morrison adds to his already blazing ambition to be as weird as possible his whole baggage of 20th century art history, popular occultism and conspiracy theory, Illuminati, jungian psychology, postsituationist psychogeography, etc etc. A wealth of references to the more well-known aspects of surrealist art and poetry, to dreams and automatism, to alchemy and hidden traditions, etc. And strangely enough, it works. It works by creating an interesting dynamic with a life of its own between the weird characters, and between them and the weird plots they make up och end up within; just like superhero comics do when they work; experimental mythology. The rather shallow play with general textuality, psychopathology, fiction structure, metadiscourse, deleuzian machines, hidden truths and altered states, are put to work in a nice way in the confrontations between these pathetic cosmic schemes and the weird normality. Even the laborously construed simulations of surrealism, in automatic speech and dalinian landscapes, are actually quite effective.

Somewhat later, he drew more heavily on the conspiracy themes and created a postsituationist superhero team put into a pandemonium of references, with DC/Vertigo's Invisibles 1994-2000. Here the dynamics of the story were more hampered by the wealth of references, and it turned out largely uninteresting except as a symptom and possible test case of the situationist notions of recuperation; when a major company were willing to sell a new title mainly on its hyperradical image, this was obviously a negation of these very ideas, but perhaps they could also turn the boards again with providing a platform for genuinely radical misunderstandings of these radical signs turned commercial signs? I can't say if The Invisibles ever worked that way, and I find it in general disappointing, and of course it turned out that the systematic oppression that this insurrectional group was fighting was a machination of an extremely powerful evil conspiracy and not the product of a certain economic system called capitalism...

Doom Patrol works better since even simulated surrealism sometimes has a tendency to orchestrate surrealist mechanisms. Parodies of surrealism are sometimes excellent surrealism. For many, if intending to produce a line of supposedly automatic writing, it might be easier to just write something quickly and in the absence of rational control and aesthetic and moral concerns than to elaborately make something up... And even in the latter case, as methods employing overdetermination show, images resulting from the most elaborate systems of disorientation and self-challenge have a tendency to end up similar to products of the automatic overdetermination of dreaming and poetic creation...

Tools, animals or islands

So, here I am sitting, struggling to follow my thoughts hoping them to carry me away somewhere, while stile hoping to get something useful out of it all in the end. Thinking must be an adventure. And as all games it has its techniques, its tools and its criteria. Recently I stood before the oneway alley of considering "the concept of the concept" and it actually seemed to open somewhere. Laboring to complete this text, I realised this was an illusion, but some of the minor points still made me want to display this somewhere rather than throw it in the dustbin immediately.

Why, yes, I am totally bored with semantic discussions and definitions, and it seems inexplicable that I have often during the past few years ended up in them, particularly in the process of trying to apply some rigor to talking about surralism (as seen on Icecrawler) but also in more or less fruitless and sometimes painful quarrels with friends over the mere concepts of for example anarchism, utopianism, aesthetics, metaphysics, religion, male/female, metaphor/metonymy etc.

But to begin with, I accept an instrumentalist view of concepts as a bottomline; I consider them basically tools. It is POSSIBLE that they represent a potential underlying pattern of the world contributing to making it meaningful in employing them while talking about it, but that is not necessary in any strong sense, and it is certainly not the case that concepts are there to reveal a logical order of the universe and provide a universal classification of what there is. It is also POSSIBLE that they are some sort of immaterial beings, units of thinking and communication (perhaps like memes?), but that is not necessary in any strong sense and it is thinking and communication in themselves that are vehicles of passion, curiosity, refusal, desire and poetry and therefore weapons of surrealism.

(Some people may laugh when I talk against universal classification since I am professionally and passionately a biological systematist and I am enthusiastic over analytical procedures. Ok, let's get this straight. The reason biological organisms can be meaningfully and universally classified is that they are all historical products springing from the same unique lineage, which makes it possible to approach their diversity with particular and very distinct techniques and criteria, and it clearly delimits the sphere within which such an approach is meaningful. While conceptual analyses are just exercises of thought, experiments to see if something is substantially clarified or not, and can be fun.)

I repeat, I stick to an instrumentalist view and am happy to revive Breton's image from the 1942 Prolegomena of the surrealist toolbench. There is no need to feel obliged to reconcile on an analytical level those different conceptual framework which are operative in different particular spheres, separated by arbitrary historical divisions as much as the distinct diversity of the phenomena themselves - when choice of method and choice of theoretical vocabulary are connected to the sense of coherence of our task as brought about in the explicit historical tradition we're placing ourselves in as well as in the concrete totality of the project from the viewpoint of the spirit, this is still the opposite of eclecticism. (Eclecticism I consider as hotchpotch assemblages of viewpoints unconnected by historical or deep subjective necessity, patched together arbitrarily to fit the superficial whims and compromises of an individual personality, or a coreless organisation, or any project striving desperately to be contemporarily relevant rather than have an inner coherence.)

Of course some alternatives are better than others. And it is not a mere pragmatical question of doing the job; it must be possible to pin down criteria. And from the viewpoint of surrealism, it is not necessarily the logical criteria which are the important ones, such as complete consistency, explicability, non-contradiction, exhaustiveness...

First criterion: operativity - we need a concept only for something that we want to talk about, something interesting enough, and in this sense our population of concepts are determined by our collective and individual desires. The concepts are there as means for our bewonderment, thought, imagination, communication and action visavis the desirable, and therefore subordinate to our purposes in a wide sense. Concepts which do not interact dynamically with our real curiosity towards the unknown, or our moral and political needs, are poor concepts.

Second criterion: explanatory power, predictiveness. In order to apply a concept meaningfully to real phenomena those phenomena must actually have something in common, something which it interesting for us to note, and something which makes it possible for us to assume (predict) with some (statistical) precision other properties of the same phenomena. Strictly ostensive concepts, referring only to the particular aspect we define them to refer to, make up formal languages (mathematics, logics, computer languages) and will usually not have something to say about the world. Some people will defend such a view from a philosophically realist standpoint, but such metaphysical commitments are not necessary; a better rationale for it is purely methodological: if properties are unevenly distributed in the world and not showing a complete finemeshed chaos, then it will be interesting to group phenomena in this way. It is because of this that when concepts are fitted into an effective theory they will be able to reveal hidden or latent properties; they will be symptomatic - not due to an apriori valid theory but due to the testable predictions based on empirical observations about the covariation of properties integrated into such a theory. The best concepts are actually themselves theories, broadly applicable and usually (but not always!) revelatory, such as many of the psychoanalytical concepts, or one of the all-time favourites, the marxian concept of "ideology", suggesting that anyone rigorously defending a rigid system of personal opinions will have invested a lot of their hopes and disappointments in the system to the extent that it will replace and oppose the actual struggle for emancipation...

Third criterion: precision. To be useful (and indeed to be accurately predictive) a concept must have a defined range, it must have criteria or diagnostic characteristics which allows us to choose when not to apply it. This is to avoid arbitrariness as well as to keep at bay any possible urges to universal classification that will squeeze all available phenomena into a limited set of categories, that will be either rigid and thus inadequate to cope with all the heterogenous phenomena, or extremely flexible and thus loose their meaning. Sure, schematic designations can sometimes be revealing and sometimes open up imaginative possibilities, but then as temporary tools to provoke contrast, exception and flight.

Fourth criterion: historical sense. Even though the preceding three criteria could be fulfilled by temporary or individual constructions that bear little resemblance to what others might use the same concept for, such a conceptual arbitrariness will be confusionist and serve only to circumscribe an eventually dogmatic circle of "enlightened" or else to make communication and historical continuity difficult on the whole. In order to be a part of a broader project of increasing knowledge, concepts must be used in a sense which is in continuity with its historical use, considering the various distinctions and developments made over it during the time leading up the present. Of course concepts can be refined and developed, and of course various deviations can be pointed out by acknowledging contradictions with the sense of the concepts themselves, but it must not be denied that the usage made in history is a part of the operative sense of the concept (the "experience" of the concept is founded in the experiences of its defenders) and therefore of the concept itself, and cannot be disregarded without approaching one or other sense of idealist ahistoricism.