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