Friday, May 20, 2011

Founding blocks of contemporary surrealism, civilised or not

Jar of moles, photograph by Paul Cowdell

We have now published a new edition of the surrealist manifestoes (the Bretonian, that is) in Swedish. Long out of print, the translations have now been subjected to thorough revision and furnished with a thorough afterword. In connection with this, I have had reason to think about what constitutes more recent manifestoes of surrealism than the Bretonian, and in what sense they are manifestoes. It is no surprise that most declarative texts in recent decades apply only to particular issues or individual countries. No one has an obvious vantage point to speak for surrealism as such, and no one has quite the overview of the experience of the movement to make a comprehensive summary.

In this situation, it has felt a bit surprising that certain francophone surrealists boldly claim that there is one book which is the foundation stone, the most advanced base camp, of contemporary surrealism; and this is Bounoure's anthology La Civilisation surréaliste from 1976. (The Montréal surrealist group tried to instigate an ambitious international study project of the book before "disbanding", and Ody Saban has given it this particular status in recent polemics against the Turkish surrealists.)

What? La Civilisation surréaliste?

Common place (cf Hydrolith)

I would have thought a candidate would be the "Platform of Prague" (english translation here) from 1968, the French and Czech surrealists jointly and boldly trying to summarise the perspectives of surrealism as an ambitious continuation and updating scheme in the 60s complex transversion between two paradigms of surrealism (which I have called post-classic and post-Bretonian, or 2nd and 3rd generation, in the model of the "three eras of surrealism" (Cf also "Surrealism's Phoenix act in the sixties"). This text is the very first attempt to thoroughly integrate some lessons of changed conditions with upheld surrealist tradition, and there is no wonder that it might have been partly wrong in its hunches, and that the uprising of may 68 in itself disproved some of the points, while the repression against the Czech as well as the crisis and dissolution of the French group made several other points quite obsolete.

I would have thought a candidate would be the "Lighthouse of the Future" from 1974, in which the Chicago surrealists and their associates most strikingly summarised their ultraradical perspectives for a modern living surrealism, which bluntly denied contradictions and problems within surrealism and with a probably tactically motivated carefreeness claimed that this in fact largely modernised and once again radicalised and heroified surrealism was in fact nothing but traditional surrealism.

La Civilisation surréaliste stands in stark contrast to these two texts. First of all, it is ultracomplicated and in fact – for most – almost completely unreadable. It has not appeared in another language, and few of its articles have even been translated – because it is hardly possible. Bounoure's style, which dominates the book, is ultrarhetorical and opaque, he continues the souvereignity and complex structure of Breton's rhetorics while removing most of the lyricism, the almost infallible sensibility (Fingerspitzgefühl), and the playful interposing, of Breton. A sentence which makes immediate sense seems to be for Bounoure a suspect populist sentence and cannot be tolerated. (Certain other contributors are far more readable, but Bounoure dominates the book strongly, together with Effenberger, the opacity of which I am unable to tell if real or increased by the transition into French).

Second, the atmosphere of the book is one of rationalising a defeat and holding up an untransparent integrity under occultation in the hardest of times; it sums up most of the disappointments and ressentment-rationalisation strategies of the French surrealists for coping with the dissolution of the group.

Common place?

Third, it does all this mostly by raising the experiences of surrealist activity to a high level of abstraction, what we usually call philosophical. There is little actual analysis of contemporary society, little accounts for concrete methods and experiences (there are some but they are not a very big part of the book). Instead there is very much of building up complex lines of reasoning based on sketchy antagonistic opposition between conformist and poetic perspectives, all hanging in the air. It deals with language, general economy, communication and play on the most general level. It says nothing about surrealist organising and strategies, and the strategies it examplifies is something like continuing to safeguard the secret potion in the big witch kettle in the darkest hermit cave (the good old "ark" strategy).

And, come on, it is after all thirtyfive years old. I had rather thought that a foundation of contemporary surrealism would result not from the obscure rhetorics of philosophical reformulation in the face of defeat of French comrades in the 70s, but from a comparison of the experiences of the currently active groups. All are important here, but there might be reason to put a particular emphasis on those groups who have rather consistently tried to venture on heterodox investigations while at the same time claiming the whole surrealist tradition (such as Madrid, Stockholm, SLAG (London) and SET (Turkey), and others); and they who seems to have implemented surrealism as a distinct presence in the midst of a broader radical environment (perhaps especially Greece, Turkey and Chicago, but what do I know about this really...), and they who had made particular theoretical efforts, etc... We'll need to insist on covering the breadth of experience as well as the particular characteristics of the contemporary activities in comparison with the classical ones (and here I humbly refer back to our "Voices of the Hell-choir" from a few years ago, which has been superceded by subsequent thought in particular questions but remains an attempt to summarise a point of departure here).

Mattias Forshage

A note on illustration

A note on illustration

(a postface in the recently released Swedish edition of Amos Tutuola's "My life in the bush of ghosts")

About the illustrations

During the period when I was reading the translation [by Niklas Nenzén] my inner voice said on one occasion:

– That is my favourite novel.

And it was soon obvious from the hypnagogic flow – often just a few details to improvise from, or additions here and there to my already rendered images – that my subconscious was boiling with a very special kind of enthusiasm this time. In a dream, for example, I met Bela Lugosi in his Dracula regalia, and he announced, eagerly but in a very friendly way, his own proposal for an augmentation, including himself, of the illustration of the smelling-ghost that initiates the suite of images. From the outset, two things were clear to me: 1. I wanted to avoid styles that were too obviously reminiscent of African art; 2. I didn´t want to merely, like an empty mirror, give a dutifully exact representation of Tutuola´s specific character. Instead I was looking for the enhanced option, for example, to make the ghost world multifaceted and link it to other ghost worlds, death realms and so on, just as the way one reads a book about Africa, for instance, is not only that one experiences "Africa" but that one also includes one's own environments in a fusion with things one has seen and things one has never seen before. And as usual with the subconscious, there is, for those who enjoy such things, I dare say, plenty of witty points and a funny, peculiar kind of humorous finesse.

John Andersson

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Remarkable richness of reality

Horror cinema and surrealism

Partial in favour of horror? To this crime I plead guilty. Friends of mine have noted that I will seek out and enjoy odd remarkable scenes and atmospheres even in such movies that are quite obviously poorly done, poorly held together, largely banal, or quite despicable. There is an important overall lesson hidden here, in that surrealist appropriation of cinema is shamelessly hedonistic in the sense that it focuses on anything that manifests and stimulates the poetic spirit, regardless of the quality of the craft, the smartness and brilliance, the cultural value, sociological interpretations, deconstructivist interpretations, deliberate populism, cult value or irony. On the other hand, the banalities I happily endure for the sake of these scattered moments and aspects are dependent on my selective affinity for this particular genre – confronted with the same level of banality in action or science fiction, or especially comedy or porn, it won't take me many minutes to give up the waiting for moments of poetic productivity, which are probably there in those genres too.

Nevertheless, I will argue that horror is one of the major forms of popular surrealism. It very often represents that necessary fundamental break with realist conventions, both in literature, film and other media, and in life experience. Indeed, in life experience such realist conventions are even more stifling than in fiction, by reducing everything to a banal version decided by the least common denominator, represented by the least ambitious or hopeful reconstruction of a normality, denying all deep ambiguity, the complex sum of possibilities and determinations, the entire sphere of the unknown... This entire sphere of unusual events, overdetermined and multilayered reality, significant chance, adventure and radical doubt, calling all conventional consensus views and all lazy dull habit into question, is typically labelled as "supernatural", and, wherever the contrast becomes acute with the conventional reductive interpretation of things and thus the strategy of habitual work-consumption-rest treadmill, as "horrifying". So all of this fiction, the popular representations of this entire sphere of events, the popular imagination about its implications, are typically grouped together under the heading of "horror".

It must be admitted that genre conventions abound in horror cinema too, and a glaring lack of imagination is often all too obvious, but there is also a remarkable breadth of subverting, ignoring and going beyond these conventions, both in low budget fan flicks and big hollywood productions. If fantasy and science fiction seem to have to a larger extent frozen in genre conventions than horror, those two genres have somewhat less surrealist potential in that they typically play in more static "other" worlds, which are very often mere allegories or mere displacements of highly conventional quasirealist-sentimentalist drama into exotic settings and exotic makeup. In contrast, horror typically focuses on the transitions-breakthroughs-ambiguities with the "normal" world of our everyday experience, therefore potentially pedagogic-subversive as to the real exploration of such breaks/portals in real life.

This is something which horror has in common with surrealism, which typically also focuses on such convergence points characterised by ambiguity and poetic productivity. It is this inclusive-integrative-dynamic sense of reality which is a fundament of surrealism, making up the simple etymological sense of its "over-reality" as well as remaining one of the several parts of its continuous identity as historically integrating its experiences and strategies.

But what about fear? Some films make me scared, some don't the least. I think that is an aspect which is usually irrelevant for the fundamental points of horror cinema.

I will not give an overview or history of horror cinema here, nor a list of recommendations, nor a delineation-comparison with horror in other genres such as literature and comics. I will discuss some central aspects of horror cinema from the surrealist viewpoint. In an objective manner – yet inevitably my constellation of emphases will be personal.

The real strangeness of things around us

The basic convergence of surrealism and horror has its growth medium in the weird goings-on in everyday life, in the paranoid-type vigilance triggered by them and enhancing them, the willful or resistant abandoning to the attention towards the unusual, weird and potentially strongly meaningful in the world. This is about all the unusual possibilities conventionally overlooked, all the uncanny atmospheres conventionally denied or rushed through. If some horror movies still tend to lean towards on one hand stark rationalisations (it was all just a scheme carefully orchestrated to scare someone) or to bland psychologisations (it was all just imagination), it is far more common to retreat to a kind of loose piecemeal extra-scientific ideology: ghosts, spirits, powers, the supernatural – but what is that? Just a class of interpretations, ranging from lame rationalisations to imaginative mythologisations, of manifestations of the unusual and unknown in everyday life.

It is one of the main points of surrealism to not deny the unusual phenomena and their dynamism, but still reject all these more or less religious poor explanations, avoid succumbing to premature rationalisations. In the movies, let them go on with their fairytale concepts, they're not fooling us, we know that the dynamism of weird happenings, chance and significant casual events is an aspect of life itself, and such a dynamism can be remarkably effectively simulated and savoured in the particular fiction of the horror movie. It contributes to teaching us to see. It orchestrates and emphasises those poetic atmospheres where everything is hanging in suspense and anything seems possible, the moments of the surreal. On the most simple level this is obvious in films of hauntings; all these haunted houses, the poltergeists, the insistent messages and the chaotic disturbances. It's partly very banal, still often very effective, sometimes orchestrating a liberation of the anti-utilitarian, fetishistic or just poetic surrealist sense of the object, sometimes luminous juxtapositions, constellations of things, true poetic images, classic surrealist assemblage. A literally convulsive beauty is sometimes achieved in the very "over-the-top" absurdness of many stories; where strange events and convergences, personal tragedies and emotions are so densely accumulated together with the unfettered expressionism of blood and gore (for this particular line, Re-animator (1985) remains a centerpiece). In a way this is the old formula of Walpolian Gothic, plausible human reactions to implausible courses of events, the mechanics of the mind encountering the world of inclusiveness where anything is possible, the so-called paranormal or maybe the surreal. Yes, on an aesthetical level, this is clearly a kind of expressionism, but since surrealism is not an aesthetic it doesn't mind employing other aesthetics for its purposes...

Another particular point is very strong in 70s horror movies, when theatrical conventions are long abandoned but conventions of realist cinema are still not adapted; the filmmakers have the means to tell a story realistically yet they refuse for the sake of the uncanny atmospheres. They just need to take the time to zoom in on the weird details, to allow extended moments of suspense between lines of dialogue, between action and reaction, between moments, to just skip some of rationalisations or uninteresting details. Neither the directing nor the acting achievements strive primarily to give us some illusion of reality (which is just conventional anyway), but primarily to create atmospheres. This is why the much denigrated Boogey-man (1980) is such a gem, and one of the several reasons why Dario Argento is the greatest horror director today is that he has retained much of this non-realistic storytelling since the 70s.

The notion of atmosphere is partly vague – we typically connect it with situations, we may connect it with persons and objects, we definitely connect it with place. As connected to place can also be a point of convergence between horror and surrealism. The sense of "soul" of place, a sort of intense significance which can be experienced at a particular geographically located nexus, is of course what is in horror quickly interpreted as hauntings.

But it is not just haunted houses, be they the classic mansions, ruins or hospitals, or modern office buildings, factories, garages, tunnels and basements; one can find explorations of such creepy or uncanny atmospheres also in forest glades, beaches, corn fields, old trees, mountains, lakes and bogs, boats, metro systems, open squares, etc – any such place which may be associated with such an atmosphere in real life. (But that old mansion does remain a privileged place; I can't say 60s classics like The Haunting (1963) and The Innocents (1961) have lost any of their direct appeal – and modern examples like, say, Darkness (2002), The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), House of Voices (2004), Saint-John's Wort (2001), The Orphanage (2007), remain so exciting regardless of the various particular deficiencies in the scripts.) What the specific historic factors are that make these places abandoned or obsolete yet charged with meaning and unresolved conflicts varies, and will contribute much to the interpretation and less to the experience.

There are many horror films which are "site-specific" in that they probably really are the product of someone having visited a creepy place, noting "geeze, this place is scary, someone ought to make a horror movie here", and actually having gone ahead and done it. Such films (two random examples picked from the pile: Death Tunnel (2005) of an American haunted sanatorium and Catacombs (2007) of the Parisian catacombs) can actually be seen as a neighboring subgenre of the surrealist documentary-style poetic exploration of atoposes and abandoned sites. They just wanted to convey the real atmosphere of the place, and chose to do it through the piece of fiction it inspired in them.

Those depths of the minds

What is called "psychological horror" is often effectively cultivated in cinema, and also often makes sense from a surrealist perspective. Again, we may not always consider it to be scary, and we may not consider it to be a deviation from a desirable normality, but instead we may see it as more or less admirable, inspiring and informative manifestations of the real ambiguity of things and the actual accessibility of the unknown. The very paranoid-type vigilance connected with the noticing of the unusual details or the atmosphere of place, typically sooner or later leads to some kind of questioning of the self, or rather of that self-righteous phantom which is the supposed monolithic detached integrative distinct individual person. To what extent does the creative mind participate in forming the reality we perceive as external? To what extent do others partipicate in the processes we regard as our own thinking? To what extent do parts represented within us have not just distinct interests from each other, but also different modes of perception and lines of reasoning, to what extent do they have secrets from each other?

Faced with unusual enough events, most people, in a horror film like in everyday life, will ask "Am I going mad?". But doesn't madness then just become a type of hastened rationalisation, just like it was to invoke "spirits", "ghosts" or "forces"? Is just losing control, losing illusion of control, which is the scary thing, or does it have to trigger a particular acute contradiction? And the often fairly obvious psychoanalytical interpretations we can cook up – just because we can point out patterns and mechanisms that will account for the type of phenomena manifested, they nevertheless remains toothless in accounting for the very dynamism of their phenomenology. (Freud just started breaching this didn't he?) But from a surrealist viewpoint it is arguably this phenomenology and its poetic productivity which is the starting point. The worlds they invite us to, how these are included in the field of possibilities. For philosophers, such basic questions are cerebral exercises; for children, madmen and poets they are undetermined and flesh-real: Are my parents actually evil monsters? Is it all a conspiracy? Is someone hiding under my bed? Are they all dead? Am I dead? Do we embody mythological forces and play out some grand drama we don't understand? Was it I who killed my friend? Is it I who am the monster?

The beyond

Parts of this, questioning the delimitation of the self and the mind, have already started looking out at more vast perspectives. And this is perhaps another aspect of horror, the "beyond" – that which far exceeds our understanding and our schemes, Lovecraftian horror, the overwhelming. Perhaps this is an element where it is not possible to do as I have done so far, to calmly claim that surrealism and horror are interested in all the same things, only surrealism wouldn't necessarily care if they are scary or not and may in fact possibly regard the fear as merely a simple reaction against losing control when faced with the unusual – be it pleasureable or not, be it childish for proving the existence of such thresholds or admirable for being a symptom of the seriousness of the contradiction. For if the overwhelming is calmly savoured or sprightly investigated, it seems like it maybe wasn't really overwhelming, but either just an aspect of poetic hedonism in general, or something we have categorised in advance. And indeed, this perhaps remains one of the fundamental differences between religion and poetry, whether one is happy with fitting those glimpses of the strongest psychic dynamism into a traditional and socially utilisable rationalisation, or letting them remain unexplained and dynamic. Sometimes just a bit too dynamic. Difficult to handle. The centrifugal force, the vertigo – the shards of everything broken in the process...

This can be things that are just far too big, too close or too rich, as in a fit of fever or a drug trip. It can also be those situations where it is simply not possible to understand the motives of everybody else, simply not possible to communicate with them. This is when the paranoia has become not just a method but a full framework which paradoxically creates a thick transparent film between oneself and the rest of the world; it has such a wealth of meaning that it isn't possible to grasp, it isn't possible to interact with in some way which makes sense to oneself. This may be cosmic schemes, alien elder races, or it may be, as in those settings which are maybe the most scary of all; those that are very close to the common alienated interactions of our everyday life, in the streets, in the shops, at work and at school, and especially at home. All the modern zombie films, no hope, no communication, and all the most horrifying family drama, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as the unsurmountable portal star. Such critique of the family is an example of the sometimes very sharp or profound social criticism in horror. That aspect might be interesting and enjoyable, but again, just like the manifold forms of black humour, and, I dare argue, fear itself, is probably not among the central points making up the attraction of the genre itself.

The body the monster

Finally, to return to another perhaps solidly surrealist point which is indifferent to fear and focuses on poetic phenomenology, there is the monster. The unusual creature, the physical exception, the individual whose being expresses its deviation and strangeness, the body turned image and image turned flesh; the central horror hero.

The transformations into these strange creatures, both physically and mentally, both the ontogenetic metamorphosis and the possession or the empathy, in whichever form, the transformation remains a fundamental trope of poetic phenomenology. (Bachelard's discussion of the animalness in Lautréamont is a classical discussion of this that makes much sense to horror cinema). The metamorphosis in itself; the unfolding of viscera and skin into strange new shapes, these fragments and suggestions of insects, of genitals, of larvae, of trees, of ferocious beasts, of dinosaurs, all the morphological gore.

Monsters are fantasies in physical shape, and they are mythology in its irreducible parts. Strange beings. In this the two categories of monster and superhero often overlap, at least with the classical "film monsters" and the Marvel comic book monsters of the 70s, or with many of the present-day antiheroes, paranormal investigators etc. I've been so impressed by the constellation of moving physical manifestations of weird fates in 13 Ghosts (2001) specifically as a superhero group, and film monsters like Freddie Krueger and Pinhead the Cenobite are commonly recognised as either superheroes or some kind of rockstars. Clearly, with classic literary monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, just like with modern comics mascots like Hulk and Hellboy, it is very existential, about monster-being; the phenomenology of the outsider. This has a sentimentalist aspect, where one is always at the risk of giving up the dynamics by suddenly becoming accepted into the fuzzy community of the normals, and then a fairly uninteresting destructive dynamics in the resentment in realising that one wasn't fully accepted after all. More importantly, monsterdom has a shamanistic-Rimbaudian aspect, this systematic disorder in the senses, the strange series of hardships and pains and pleasures, in order too see more clearly. The poet role. One we perhaps have to approach to the extent we want to make ourselves available to all these unusual phenomena, this wide range of possibilities, this abundance of meaning, which characterises horror, and even more poetry.

Again, the surrealist potential in horror appears to have little to do with to what extent it invokes horror. The most important part is that it is a relative free zone from many realistic rationalisations and constrictions, and therefore in fact will be able to show us more of that which is actually real, and be poetically productive in much the same way as reality itself is – if we only allow it.

Mattias Forshage

(published in Patricide #3 2011)

the surrealist object part I

Two realms of objects

Gestalt psychology once emphasised the fundamental difference in the phenomenology of natural objects and artifacts. So as not to assume any particular metaphysical implications of these, we might rather say that there is a fundamental difference between discrete single objects as typically examplified by artifacts on one hand, and non-discrete objects as typically examplified by natural objects. So, artifacts are usually discrete, easily distinguished from each other, usually geometrically regular (or more or less complex assemblies of individual geometrical units), usually brightly coloured, easily sorted, stacked, and counted; they can be understood teleologically, in terms of intended function. Natural objects are usually the opposite: usually merging together, difficult to separate from each other and to understand the individual units among, indeed quite ambiguous in such ontological terms, and furthermore typically geometrically irregular and with heterogenous and often diffusely blending colours, unintelligable in terms of intended function without advanced theories (either a "secondary teleology" through a functionally focused adaptationist evolutionary biology, or theism).

Of course this is by no means a sharp border, there are several untypical objects from both sides. Every archaeologist will complain that it can be very difficult to separate artifacts among natural-looking objects. And there is nothing stable about them. Things are pulled out of the diffuse logical flow (in this sense "natural") and transformed into artifacts by slight manipulations and sometimes by this act of choice and removal out of original context itself. An obvious example is how shells, beautiful stones, interesting roots, dead insects, skeleton parts, etc, are picked up, collected and transformed into aesthetical and occasionally scientific objects, and how fruits and other plant parts as well as dead animals are picked up as food items. On the other hand, discarded and abandoned artifacts enter the sphere of unseparable natural objects; littering and ruins. In a sense, art is a big endeavour to create artifacts with the opacity of natural objects, which will be able to produce meaning far beyond the simple statement of their intended function, in a way that simulates or indeed becomes nature.

The distinction approximately corresponds with that between indoors and outdoors environments. An indoors environment is one intentionally structured, usually geometrically arranged, dominated by artifacts and their rational arrangement for a purpose. Outdoors is structured by other factors than reason and intelligence, and is dominated by natural objects - though in many cases, such as cities, baroque gardens, and agricultural fields, there will indeed be a superimposed artificial and gemetrically regular structure, but however one which will be immediately subverted by the action of weather, plants and animals; there will be leaves, twigs, dust and seeds moving around, snow and pools of water, emerging plants and mushrooms, as well as a more or less rapid weathering and irrational rearranging of the artifacts through the actions of weather, irresponsible or responsible humans, as well as by other animals and plants of course.

It seems like the ambiguity and transition in this respect has often been interesting to surrealists. The transformation of natural environments into manifested projection spaces for the imagination have often aroused a great interest; brut architecture, utopian city planning, theme parks, park planning, japanese gardens, futuristic visions, have all had their share of attention (often including suspiciousness) from surrealists. So has, and far less ambiguously so, that which moves in the other direction in the relationship, becoming secondary nature: ruins and abandoned environments, worthless places, vast ruderal areas, junkyards.

And a special polemical case in this very matter is the category of surrealist objects. Surrealism takes objects out of their functional context and allow them to develop a natural-like semantical richness. The shared component in all surrealist objects is that they have been made poetic objects by having been taken out of their given context and allowed to develop a network of relationships, associations and determinations that are unrestricted by functional context. Then for the artifact-type objects this means more to take them out of utilistic context, and for natural objects to take them out of natural context. However, in both cases we must take care not to fall in the trap of establishing a new quasi-functional concept based on aesthetics in the narrow sense and/or anecdotal/selfbiographical sentimentality. Those objects which are put on a piedestal for being beautiful or for reminding someone of a beautiful event or period in life are only "liberated" in a weak sense, they are transposed into another utilistic context, less restricted for sure, and since that particular purpose is largely conditional and focused on a subjective level (also where the objects are marketed as commodities) they often have occasion to transgress it. Because it is only when they are allowed to be "worthless", to be isolated and reconfigurated without particular goals, that they can develop quite new unexpected relationships and insights. This state is far easier attained in an unordered accumulation of curiosities, or in a playful assemblage, or in a crowded exhibition, than when tastefully displayed with appropriate margins and spaces, but its not impossible among conventional aesthetical objects, nor in conventional art, or low-brow home decoration in general, nor by chance in the toolshed, the cellar, or even the marketplace.

Natural objects, merged as they are in the environment, are mostly in a sense asleep: associatively, imaginatively, symbolically, communicatively – and remember that these four aspects are all different, even though they partially overlap with each other. Bringing them out of context is a way of stirring them to wake them up, and it may be to an existence in slavery under some practical work task, or in tragical-pregnant isolation stretching out to establish relationships in all directions... Surrealist objects lie around longing for their freedom, planning for it, and occasionally allowing us to catch a glimpse of it, everywhere.

Some clarifications

I hope I don't have to say that it would be absurd to interpret these distinctions in terms of value; all different modes of being an object are perfectly legitimate ways of being an object. Of the two sleeping modes, the artifacts are characterised by their straightforward rational use value for us, and the natural objects by their non-rational use value for themselves (which may seem excitingly alien to us). The awakening mode, the objects released from utilistic connections from either camp, assumes a poetic use value, for themselves but in complicity with us.

If we are nowadays rather immune to the danger of getting dazzled by the artifacts after progress and rational solutions proved to be of limited application, there may still be an obvious risk of romanticising natural objects simply by being inexperienced with them and remaining uninformed about them: they may all seem so admirably inhuman, irrational and free for anyone who has no analytical tools for observing patterns in nature and thus keeps missing their modes of connection, modes of repetition, modes of labor, modes of economy, modes of utilism; such a person would believe every natural object encountered will be in itself free of determinations and thus a surrealist object. But of course, that person is likely to mostly stay in the city or at least not look very carefully around, in order to maintain that strange bias where only artifacts are typical objects and all natural objects are strange harbingers of a hidden world of wonders. It would be alien to me to suggest that natural objects are not interesting, exciting and beautiful objects in their capacity of natural objects, their own utilistic connection, (which is partly about their negating the artifact mode of utility and partly about aesthetical and psychological response to their general morphology, their organisation principles, their visual signals, etc) - but still that is what exactly what has to be superceded to make them surrealist objects rather than either scientific objects, aesthetic objects, objects of mere wonder and entertainment, or natural objects in their own right. I am talking about where they too are taken out of context. And this does not mean the vast sphere of antropomorphising, to regard the facial expressions of animals, the atrocities of insects, the mysterious behaviors of plants, as mere jokes for their unfettered variations of human analogues. I am talking about new and poetic contexts, where they may or may not evoke wonder or associations to their lifestyles and evolution, may or may not evoke transgressions of the notions of the human, but regardless of whether they do or not, remain open to establish new connections. Releasing them from their utilistic connection simply by stubborn ignorance of it is a very fragile form of liberation; it not only demands the same ignorance and non-familiarity of every observer, but tends to nivellate and therefore in the long term depreciate the whole world of natural objects.

Just like the poetic use of a shoe seems to presuppose observing the very transcendence from being a vehicle for containing feet and separating them from the possibly hostile ground into something else, and would not be the same thing for someone who had never considered using shoes; in the same way the strange shape of a mushroom will be a carrier of poetry rather than of superstitions when it is first understood and then abandoned that it is a mere temporary sexual organ of the fungus body interweaving the ground, and its sudden appearance comes from a very determined structure of chitine growing fast by absorbing very much water but then manifestating that structure only in an irregular form exactly conforming to the temporary configuration of the surrounding - now all of this is perhaps a bit mysterious indeed, but if we are excited about that, we are excited about the life of fungi, which biology has far more to teach us about than poetry has. There is a sense of wonder about a mushroom which simply does not depend on whether one associates to the particular forest habitat where it grew or not, whether one knows how it tastes or not, whether one has seen hundreds of mushrooms like it or not, whether one knows about the sexual mysteries of fungi or not, etc - and it is only when that particular sense of wonder is succesfully invoked that the mushroom becomes a surrealist object, a "liberated object", rather than an object of exoticism.

M Forshage

the surrealist object part II

- the first steps in poetic semantics of objects

You have noted that so far I have been talking only about the act of constitution of the surrealist objects, the moment of sublation away from the utilistic sphere, the conditions for poetry to possibly emerge.

At this level, surrealist understanding of the object up to now has claimed to rest on mainly two foundations, first that of the object primarily being an object of desire (thus actualising the whole background of Freud's theories) and second that of the object being a unit of objectivity (thus actualising the whole background of Hegel's philosophy). The Freudian and Hegelian contexts are preconditions for the surrealist concept of the object, but it is very likely that the relaxed way they are assumed are missing aspects of the respective theories which it will be interesting to return to before the end.

Equally important but often less explicitly discussed in a theoretical context have been the recognition of the aspect of sensory-imaginational realism, clearly at heart of surrealism but developed theoretically rather in parallell by gestalt psychology, and by Bachelard's and Alleau's symbology (and in some way, but often rather twisted, and I don't them well enough anyway, in structuralism, philosophical phenomenology and semiology?)

So the next step is what goes in the poetic moment, when this "liberated" object actually starts establishing all new relationships it might, largely by means of our associations. I am just beginning my analysis in this field. And since I have recently been talking in a few places of the characteristics of poetic semantics, I hasten to say that this is exactly the same question, and it is probably the same as in the case of pictorial art too, only it will hopefully be easier to see some basic patterns if we retrict ourself to "assemblages" (= the meeting of objects) because we don't have a big problem in circumscribing the least signifying units there.

* There is one sphere of epistemic associations, or metonymical in the narrow sense; the ones that evoke aquired knowledge of previously established associations of the object, so-called background knowledge, which so to speak restores the object into the context it was taken out of. Obviously, this is an ambiguous category here.

* There is one sphere of biographical associations, the arousal of memory of (real or imagined) events where the object was brought up. This is a sphere which involves very individual elements, is partly dependent on simple empiricism and "life experience", and a sphere where most of the strictly speaking emotional response is evoked.

Those two spheres are in a sense central, because they will make up a big part of the experience, in spite of being quite different and separate from a response on the poetic level, but will, once the poetic-level response is there, often be hijacked by it and integrated into the poetic experience.

The poetic response itself is largely on the level of analogy. Or, say some, symbolism. There is a great deal of terminological conflict, ambiguity and opacity here, and care has to be taken in the end (if I may, just by pleading, not wake some of my friends' hobbyhorses red in tooth and claw here? cf i e "Laws of motion")

In here, let's first make a distinction between a static and a dynamic sector.

The static sector is that of established signs, those things that we may not call symbols but rather synthemes if we follow Alleau; the things that have a simple or unambiguous translation or refer to something deliberately hidden. This is the sphere of conventional signs, of conventional systems of symbols, of symbols in Freud's sense, and of those associations that some claim have a biological basis. (In fact, even though evolutionary biology and developmental psychology will have some interesting things to say about this, the old question of environment versus heritage is as uninteresting as usual, because as usual the biological perspective is unable to demonstrate something else than uncontroversial fundamentals as long as it sticks to its own strict methodology and avoids mere speculation, while the empiristic social science perspective is unable to demonstrate anything else than the variability of traits and never their origin or meaning. Both perspectives might deliver interesting suggestions, but when they claim to contradict or even disprove each other they are usually out of their league.) Concretely, this sphere will try (and sometime succeed) to impose certain limits on associations, and it may clearly increase the field of epistemic-metonymic associations (my first category above) by relating to usages in various traditional mythologies, secret languages, folklore, magic and religion (which, in their turn, will also invoke more or less reified moments of dynamic symbolism, to which we then turn):

The dynamic sector is the one we surrealists know well from Reverdy's definition of the poetic image and Lautréamont's standard example, and moves in the direction of symbols in Alleau's sense; connections that produce meaning rather than refer to a preconceived meaning. This is the sphere of poetry strictly speaking. But it must be noted that poetry is an integrative framework that will at will employ all the other modes of association in a dynamising movement. And that by becoming productive, triggering poetic response, cascades of images, atmospheres and suggestions that in turn will provoke concrete suggestions on different levels of both poetic creativity, extrovert action and transforming life experience and life strategies, this is also where they fulfill the famous Feuerbach thesis and start changing the world. And once I have reached this point in my argument, I need to halt and go back to work – maybe this is all in vain and already solved in either of those obscure disciplines that I'm not quite oriented in...)

A suivre.

M Forshage

The image, collage and eroticism

The Madrid surrealist group sparked a well-needed discussion within the movement about the function of the image, a discussion which nevertheless coagulated in a polarised situation, where the simplest sensible statements may seem like major revelations against the background of some of the polemical simplifications reached.

So, one: let's not shy from critically looking at the ambiguous function of the image, but two: let's not jump to totalising rational conclusions which go against the poetic dynamism of our project. In fact, the conclusion that the image is after a certain point in time completely a vehicle of oppression is just an expression of a certain figure of dynamism in thought which combines a deep longing for total pessimism with a deep anti-empiricism and a complete faith in discursive reason, which are typical for a certain major 20th century french thinker named Debord and constitutes his perhaps most seductive and most destructive side as well as his personal twist to the most distortable aspects of Hegel's philosophy.

What maintains a poetic content is not decided by reason but by poetic phenomenology. It works or not, simply by the capacity/probability to establish a particular kind of dynamic relationship with an inflammable mind. Subversive content on the other side is a completely different thing. Even more, it too will consist of its potentiality and be tested only in hindsight, but it will be investigated by careful assessment of the relationship between the temporary objective conditions and the psychic dynamism of the content. Thus: will not be a matter of principled beforehand certainty.

Let's compare with an analogous case; eroticism. Let's acknowledge how the Frankfurt philosophers, some poststructuralists and various brands of radical feminists demonstrated in the 60s that the then so-called "sexual revolution" was a sham, a partly commercial and partly ideological development, and that contemporary eroticism, definitely in its public exposure but also in its domestic applications, was indeed used as a force and a vehicle of psychic oppression and of human hierarchies, injustices, bondage etc. Nevertheless, only a very small minority concluded that this means eroticism has inverted its historical meaning and must from now on be abandoned. There was still a whole lot of human aspirations and human sensibility which needed to be expressed in the field of eroticism. And which managed to do so in places where such actual necessities were distinctly stronger than the contemporary conditioning.

But let's take a step back here and talk about something else: Art production in surrealism. There is in fact a whole lot of bad art being produced in the name of surrealism, even by the most honest adherents. And why not? Typically, good and bad art is not the primary concern in our activities. We all produce images as products of the collective poetic investigations which lie at heart of the surrealist adventure. This is a means of investigation, of inviting chance and objective poetry, of exercising some of our means of imagination and sensibility. It is not necessarily good art. Well, it is in a sense, since we can expect it to betray an honesty, playfulness and investigative spirit that will look fresh in comparison with much of the nervously or cynically careeristic bullshit of the professionals and wannabes. But this argument is polemics not proof. It only says that a great part of creativity outside the narrow confines of official art is of course better art than a lot of what is produced inside this sphere with its prestige hunt, cultural trends, conformity-teaching art schools etc. This is obvious. But generally it means that the hierarchy which places official art above non-official art is invalidated, not that it is thereby automatically inverted, which is a completely different thing.

So from the earliest days of surrealism there was an obvious, and valid, point that the results of our games are often better than the oh-so-seriously manufactured oeuvres of who want recognition as artists. Nevertheless, that simple polemical point is not always the most relevant aspect, and doesn't mean that what we do is necessarily valid also in comparison with recognised art. Often one gets the impression that surrealists circulating some mediocre results of experimental investigations as artworks perhaps resort to some aprioristic reasoning of this kind. When not faced with any actual criteria, the grounds for evaluation very often again becomes frenzied voluntarism, identity politics, ghettoism: and in the end the grotesque over-evaluation of conscious intentions and opinions of the artist over real manifest poetic dynamism of the work. Who's done it and what aspirations it can be seen as having come out of, not what it actually contains itself and what it has the potential to produce.

And, I would say, this becomes acute especially in collage. Everybody can make collages, which is one of the things conditioning their very attraction from the surrealist point of view. But playfulness, openness to the dynamic paths of chance, or particular sensibility, is necessary to make collages that go beyond what we've already seen, to make the new combinations into real suggestions for the imagination rather than mere variations. We accept hundreds of collages as passable for quite superficial reasons. This could be because they remind us vividly enough of classical collage of Max Ernst or others, and may possibly create a fruitful ambiance in the tapping into that very world, or because they are effective simple puns. Another possibility is that they look interesting because they include single elements that are visually forceful and stimulating to imagination on their own, such as animals, body parts, certain landscapes. And here I'm not talking about the more "brut" type of collage where beloved objects are kidnapped and made into worshipped fetishes with mythological qualities, and therefore not standing on their own but in fact stand out in their new poetic functions as integrated into a living personal mythology. No, what I refer to is those more traditional casual collage compositions whose visual appeal rely solely on a particular beautiful integrated object.

So, in neither of these cases the collage itself has really managed to create something. But still, they may be, in some sense, good collages. Far worse are those that are mere vehicles for quotations or allusions to emblematic components in the surrealist tradition. A little Breton or Lautréamont or Magritte, or the titles of their famous works. Indeed variating the contexts and constellations entered by such emblematic elements is a mechanism of selfmythologisation, which in this particular form more than anything else fulfills the function of identity politics, of reinforcing a canon, and strengthening the identity of belonging to it and the mutual recognition of those who have chosen to do so. And usually completely uninteresting on the level of imagination or poetry.

In my opinion, it sometimes gets even worse. And, to start tying threads together here, I'll claim that erotic collage is the worst. As a lasting theme in surrealist art, eroticism did have a peak in the 50s and 60s, and since then, I could claim (at the risk of upsetting some friends) that erotic surrealist art has been weak on the whole (anyone digging deep enough will find some exceptions, of course). In erotic collage we see the most obvious examples of creators feeling fully content with having put together a witty or fully banal sexual joke, or an artistic excuse for an exciting nude portrait or a mere bodypart. If erotic elements naturally draw our attention for biological reasons, and even more so due to the conditioning from the commercialisation of the erotic and the erotisation of the commercial, it seems like their uninspired use in art is itself a mere recognition on the artists' behalf of that uninteresting capacity of such images and the further conveying of the same function in a slightly altered context of the artists own, without the integrity to transform them into something different, something related to the unknown. Marcel Mariën's work is perhaps emblematic for this, largely consisting of a boyish "daring" complacency with crude sex jokes, the banality of which is only occasionally overshadowed by their entertaining silliness.

Then, drawing is, in my experience/opinion, not in an equally poor state as collage. Drawings too range from often inconsequential large quantitity exercises to inspired or unexpected real poetic visions. But an uninspired drawing still needs a little effort, a little imagination, probably far more than a bad collage. The sexual component has different implications too. Resorting to sexual puns and ever-returning genitals in drawing is less a further-conveying of a conditioned overexposure, and more of a recognition and interpretation of a particular element in ones actual creative processes – an interpretation that may perhaps often be a somewhat hasted rationalisation (turning certain shapes into genitals instead of letting them remain in the uncertain to see if they will transform into something unexpected), but it is far from a lack of or belying of real imaginative content. It is returning it to a possible source quickly, which is not untrue to it, just missing some other possibilities.

If we should in some connections take care before releasing images, without adhering to a ban on pictorial production, we should at least especially think twice before disseminating poor collage (which devaluates our intentions) and superficial eroticism (which objectively takes place in current ideological and sexist offensive against women and against emancipatory potential of eroticism). It's worth trying, but it's worth trying not as a concession to purely external concerns, but rather to halt and make sure that our attempts are in fact objectively different from the trash noise they will take place in so that they will actually retain some subversive potential.

M Forshage

(Sex joke – rather funny)