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

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