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.