Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Surrealist Group as an Individual and an Organisation, again


There has been some discussion as to the different particular characters, the role of such a character, and the circumscription-delimitation, of surrealist groups. A surrealist group is typically circumscribed by a combination of its individual character and its partly implicit "area of recruitment" in geographical and linguistic terms (in fact also in broadly cultural terms, but even less explicitly so). Perhaps this is an occasion for merdarius to restate some points that have repeatedly been scattered in different texts about the nature of surrealist collectivity, and to make some new comparisons and observations about it with the background of the history of the surrealist movement.



Membership, for individuals, is of course a matter of participation in activities (most obviously by showing up for meetings and participating in discussions, games, experiments and walks, but including web-based participations, as well as activities that are very difficult to document such as diffuse development of a collective mythology), and of subjective commitment.

The instance of circumscription of membership: being mostly informal yet rigid, often comes up only when it comes to signing. Declarations, tracts, manifestoes, invitations, open letters, closed letters, etc. Often it is only there that various hangarounds, maybe-members, distance-members and casual participants have to step out of the Schrödinger box and define their membership or not. It is the moment of the devil's contract; selling your soul to the cause of poetry and the imperatives of overindividual dynamics, or retaining your personal conditionals (and career opportunities and the supremacy of civil compromise...).

It will turn out that some who are eager to participate in certain projects (for some especially if they involve a certain public exposure: publications, webpages, exhibitions and performances; for some more a matter of social company) will not have that urge to come out as integral parts of a collective ("fellow travellers" in the negative sense, maybe even "parasites") – sometimes with important contributions to make anyway, but always without the particular mutual trust.

It will turn out that there often is a particular class of surrealists who have an intense and well-established individual creativity and often individual mythology, and who do not have much of a collective discipline but will participate in meetings only occasionally, and will contribute to collective experiments and projects only from a particular characteristic viewpoint; still will continue to manifest a solid solidarity and a commitment to poetry which will make their individual contributions an important part of the collective mythology – the members we will keep putting our trust in regardless of whether they respond to particular demands or requests; which is probably the same category as the pataphysical college called "satraps".

Then there are so-called satellites of different kinds. There we have the unproblematic satellites of exiled members, who moved out but stay in touch. Sometimes these will enroll in locally available groups, facilitating special bilateral collaborations; sometimes they will instigate a new collective activity, which will thus partly appear as a bud-off, yet more or less firmly based in the local conditions. Another kind of fairly unproblematic satellites is participants scattered in smaller towns within the general "area of recruitment" in terms of geography and language, who partake as much as physical circumstances allow them to.

Then, the more problematic and theoretically interesting satellites are those scattered members basing their membership merely on "selective affinities". In their case it becomes critical to what extent the groups have an individuality that is distinct (and visible) enough for a lone individual to actually be able to choose what group to "enrol" in. In some cases it will be a case of merely social preferences, or accident, and typically rely on a certain ignorance of the character of other groups; in others it will be a recognition of the real particularities.

But then, most importantly, the most significant members of a group are not the partaking individual human beings, but the partaking individual modes and mechanisms, and the emergent ambiances and constellations of possibilities. The persons claimed or obsessed by this, or simply contributing to it, typically play a significant but subordinate role. In the end the question of membership is often the question of whether someone is actively or passively becoming available for these intersubjectivities and contributing to them, hopefully in a way which is a dynamic encounter for both parts.



The individual character of each group (or, as some would say, the "authencity", or, why not, the personality of the individual that the group is, or, technically speaking, its methodological/strategical/interest-range/social-characteristics/irreducible-accidentals profile) is what in practice allows distant satellite members, and it is especially important in cases where groups have overlapping recruitment areas. Very often two or more groups simultaneously active in the same geographical/linguistic area is just an expression of a historical split, which is typically a significant one, and one which means a lot to those who were in it, who are able to move more freely, in separate directions, afterwards, but which often make little or no sense to those who arrive afterwards, who didn't experience the conflict but are rather taught it as a mythology, and who can only choose which group to get involved in by chance factors or by savouring the individual character of each group as long as they are openly discernable. And of course there is the tendency for a polemical situation to be swiftly rationalised so that the differences perceived by participants might be quite other ones (though partly self-fulfilling) than the ones at base.

As an obvious example, the two London groups are clearly different, and some of their differences are quite openly manifest, others hidden; probably some mutual recriminations are misguided and some very accurate.

Of course the situation has nowhere been as complex as in Paris, where there were always parasurrealist or subsurrealist satellite nuclei who stayed inofficial partly by the centrifugal pressure exerted by the presence of the one and only unambiguously official surrealist group. Thus in the absence of that group, especially after the dissolution of the group in 1969 and Schuster's subsequent ban on the label "surrealist" (but to a smaller extent also during the second world war), there was a plethora of groupuscules under various more or less fancy names, claiming part of the historical heritage of the official group or not, very often kept apart by personal enmities, employing different strategies and interest-ranges. Amidst infighting, bad feelings and real difficulties, the groupuscule most adamant at keeping up surrealist activity in a traditional-like way, could still not live up to be a group but designated itself less ambitiously a "liaison". Several years later, when reassuming the group label, again with an accumulative and official ambition yet rigidly circumscribed by a number of contingent historical distinctions and personal enmities, it was not as the surrealist group of Paris (that would have been too controversial but also misleading) but more descriptively as that one among the surrealist groupuscules which is a node in the collaborations of the international surrealist movement (Group Parisienne de Mouvement Surréaliste - GPMS) – perhaps not as exclusively as it might have seemed, but giving a clear hint as to its self-image and its individual character.

But even then, membership in this group has been problematical. I'm not talking about the famous split in three groups in 1995 (later more or less remerged), but about the large number of surrealists and surrealist sympathisers who have liked to participate in surrealist activity but has had various reservations against counting themselves as formal members throughout the entire history of this group, leaving on its tracts a bunch (sometimes impressive) of "amis" of the group listed after the group members; sometimes it's like the actual attendants of surrealist meetings constituted a looser collective (actually with a name, "les alchemistes de la rue Pernelle", since the group's meeting café is on rue Pernelle) with an unspecified relationship to a narrower real group (?). This emphatic separation between participation in surrealist activity and membership in the surrealist group, must be partly based on a general postschusterian anxiety over the surrealist label and partly on particular characteristics of the GPMS that I am unable to analyse from afar; it seems to differ from the usual organisation models and hasn't, as far as I know, been explained.

Quite recently, some people have held forth the "liaison" as if it were an alternative to the group as an organisation model. Clearly, in France it was a defiant-defensive act under circumstances that made explicit group activities impossible (Schuster's ban, diaspora of groupuscules, massive internal contradictions, relative isolation, repression of the ambitions of '68 etc); not something freely chosen as an alternative to a group. As soon as circumstances allowed it, the French came back into a real group, since that is the core form of the historical surrealist experience, and more or less the only form which actually puts the poetic imperatives before personality cultivating and career opportunities.

Core home range

The geographical basis of a group is typically a city, to the extent that surrealism is urban. The French surrealist group has always when existent been based in Paris, the "group of Czech and Slovak surrealists" is at core based in Prague, the Rio de la Plata group with argentine and uruguyan members is nevertheless based in Buenos Aires, etc. However, by analogy with international organisations in other areas (most intimately the communist movement and the psychoanalytical movement) surrealism early showed a tendency to speak in terms of national sections – but rarely actually achieving any organising of such national sections. In some cases the group of a major city claimed to be the movement of the country when counting its individual contacts in other, usually smaller cities (Chicago has done it a lot).

So this is usually more on the level of the "extended city group" than of a real national-level organisation. When it has been about fusing groups in two different cities in a country, this has usually meant that sooner or later the group in the larger city assimilates the group in the smaller city, because the most eager members will be encouraged or determined to take part in as much as possible of the activities of the group in the larger city, while the less eager members will become even less determined, sometimes even actively sifted out by the superordinate group, and actual group activity in the smaller city will cease, or go on in a completely informal and less coherent way.

A classic case being how the Columbus, Ohio group was briefly assimilated en masse into the Chicago group in the 70s; other cases of even smaller groups have perhaps not even been recorded in our internal history as such... A more recent case appears to be the swallowing of the Santander group by the Madrid group? I have no detailed knowledge about Czechoslovakia (currently Czechia and Slovakia), but it looks like activities in Brno (and possibly Bratislava?) have been (repeatedly?) assimilated into Prague-based activities.

A different case is that of the current Athens group, which is more of a fusion between the former Ioannina group and another Athens group, a fusion necessitating a reformulation of the basis for both nuclei and resulting in a truly new group. In fact this is very often the pattern by which a lively group is first formed, on one scale or another. The Stockholm group was formed by the fusion of a trotskyist grouplet and a grouplet of industrial musicians. Back in the earliest days, the first surrealist group was formed as a fusion of the Littérature group and the Aventure group, somewhat later joined by the L'Oeuf dur group, the Rue de Chateau group and the Rue de Blômet group, plus several gravitating individuals. Perhaps it is possible to describe the origins of every single group in these terms; surrealist experimentation may start among a small coherent circle of friends, or a nucleus resulting from a split, but it is only when confronted with another circle of strangers, independently doing something remarkably similar yet strangely different, that a surrealist activity finds its expression in an objective and durable form? But since such fusions occur on different levels it might be difficult to rigidly decide where they have in fact already occurred and where not.

National level

Wherever there are two actual groups in the same country willing to endure, they have typically developed different individual characters, often different enough to take part in different international networks or subnetworks, sometimes different enough not to be recognised by the other as surrealist at all. And it is in this area, concerning the two classic Belgian groups, that we find the perhaps only example where a national organisation of surrealist activity has had any constructive organisational meaning, because if it wasn't for an occasional urge to appear as a national section there would probably have been very little collaboration between the very different surrealist activities in Brussels and Wallonia in classical times.

There were no encompassing organisation in national sections in the 30s in spite of the leninist fad, the few that leaned towards that direction were a bit hanging in the air as there appeared to be no international preference for the particular model; some had occasion to give free reign to the impulse only in FIARI, which nevertheless had very few real national sections but mostly individuals outside France (with the Egyptian section as the luminous exception). In the 40s, the "Cause" organisational effort failed before leaving the ground, and during the postwar decline there was no one around to question the tendency that the Paris group kept calling itself "the surrealist group" and involve as signators of various texts more or less the few individuals in other countries they had contact with (as honorary or satellite members rather than representatives of their countries). Ok, technically, there has been many groups which have employed the designation "the surrealist group" without further specifications, in their respective language, but usually then implying "of this particular place"; not so the French group which obviously regarded itself as "the surrealist group" period. Ok, with somewhat more firm reasons for it than others could claim, being led by the founder of the movement and standing in an interrupted but fairly obvious continuity with the original group, yet hereby implying an ontology not recognising the fact that surrealism as such had become (or had been revealed to be at its core) international.

The different kinds of organisations that were possibly or manifestly the local equivalents of the surrealist group in other countries were at least not formally recognised as such in any kind of over-national structure. On the side there was the Surréalisme-Révolutionnaire, and Cobra, and of course the Situationist International, all formally constituted by national sections (in fact Cobra was constituted not by national sections but by real groups representing countries, allowing for Denmark to be represented by two different groups); in SR and SI, several sections were purely nominal, consisting of single individuals, or haphazard constellations of independent contacts who didn't know each other, or they were ran entirely by exiles in the more central cities; at no point in time there were more than just a few sections who had some autonomy and had an actual collective activity. The "organised international" as an organisational model never became much more than a politically inspired projection space.

International networks and scaffolding

When new activities were reflourishing in the 60s, hardly any attempts seem to have been made on the organisational level to account for or respond to this. Even inside France, by irony of fate, the small Lyon group which might have seemed destined to be swallowed by the Paris group, in fact survived the Paris group in 1969. During the late 80s and early 90s there was this polarisation between an alliance of groups working in a trotskyist style for a rigid "reconstituted international" on the one hand, and an explicitly anarchist dissident network on the other hand. The rigid one consisted only of groups, being official national representatives, but the dissident one was not just loosely associated individuals but also comprised groups (often shortlived groups such as the ExTrance group in the absence of a London group, the Agama Expedition resulting from a split in the Stockholm group, and the Chateau-Lyre group as the then current incarnation of the dissident "Melog gang" keeping its distance from all "officially" aiming regroupments in Paris, the Alabama group whose relations with the "official" Chicago group were deteriorating, etc) as well as subnetworks surpassing national delimitations (like Dunganon and later Droomschaar, and networks of Arabic and Chilean exiles). Many countries had representatives of both, but Swiss, Colombian and Japanese surrealists were all "dissidents", and importantly the Prague group was involved in both networks (while the Phases network apparently was friendly with both but, as always, refrained from taking sides?). Based on the "rigid" initiative, three issues of two international bulletins came out, then came to a halt.

In fact this occured as the boundary was getting blurred between officials and dissidents (consider the various signatories of rather different colours of the 1492-1992 tract! ("...mientran sean los viajeros los que ocupen el lugar de los videntes..."/"as long as tourists replace seers"/"...tant que les voyageurs parviendront à se substituer aux voyants...") Even more odd appears the 1991 tract against Marc Eemans ("Saint-Pol-Roux assassiné!"), signed by a motley international selection including representatives of the Chicago group, large parts of the dissident network, plus the secret remaining Belgian surrealists who were staying out of all international organisation, and the old guard of French 60s ex-surrealists who dissolved the French group and tried to impose the ban on the word "surrealism"!

Around the turn of the millennium, there were still or again tireless attempts to reawaken the international bulletin (which came to nothing), still based on a circle of "core groups", but with the "dissident" milieu largely blended into the official groups, and some of the official groups applying an increasingly self-critical, situationist or in itself dissident outlook, the shining surface of orthodoxy was not just blurred but partly merged into the general environment. Today suggestions along the "rigid" line is brought up again at times, but seem very difficult to implement. I'm not saying intensified communication between active groups would be a bad thing, only that it requires either voluntary-based openness or someone's decision of circumscription. It is probably clear that there is no immediate correlation between how "truly surrealist" or "official" a group is and how active it is. If a few well-established groups are widely recognised as belonging to a core, there is a larger number of groups unproblematically counted in by those groups they stay in contact with but regarded with open suspicion by others; either because of inclusion of "unorthodox" elements, just lack of established record, specific doubts about profiles, or simply doubts as to whether they actually constitute surrealist groups (rather than, i e artists groups or other fora for mutual practical help and co-marketing, local surrealist networks without actual collective activity, nostalgic or wishful structures without much content, one active individual sometimes involving friends, etc).


In small languages, the language community is often an area typically circumscribing the basis for organising. This is not the case when it comes to English, French and Spanish, each spoken in several different countries and often known by people elsewhere. English, French or Spanish- (+ Portuguese) speaking groups will have to be geographically circumscribed and/or have a very distinct individual character.

Especially in very large cities like London and Paris the main groups will gain a certain accumulative character, and attract several members who have the major language as their second or third language only and sometimes have rather poorly developed skills in it. Consider especially the early history of the French group; Paris was the place to be, regardless of whether you knew French or not, and if you were a surrealist, why shouldn't you hang out with the surrealist group? The French group, as several other metropolitan large groups, has often had linguistically defined subsections of exiles mostly speaking their own mother tongue or some other shared language in small open cells, often physically in the midst or near periphery of wider ongoing activities.

Then of course, French as a colonial language but even more as an extranational language for the educated and liberal elites of other countries made knowledge of surrealism travel fast in the beginning, and was what facilitated establishing of surrealist activities early in Serbia, Romania, Argentina, Egypt and Japan; later the French language made Quebec and Martinique strongholds of surrealism of the New World. Language communities have facilitated collaboration between surrealists in Spain and Argentina, or between surrealists in Portugal and Brazil. (Though remarkably rarely between surrealists in the UK and US). There has been something like international networks of Spanish-speaking surrealists, and briefly (as far as I know) for Arabic-speakers. With French as a second language, some groups appears to have been almost bilingual (publishing in two languages in parallell or in a sequence) and nowadays some groups are almost bilingual with English as a second language. Perhaps the only more fundamentally and complexly bilingual group was the French-English one in New York during the war? But then that group was specifically organised as an international group of largely exiles (war-time activities in other havens like Mexico and England might have been equally babelian), claiming no specificity and just providing a meeting point for those individuals having ended up at that spot.


Stockholm group as an example

The Stockholm surrealist group has without any particular consideration about it seemed to find it natural to constitute a pole of organisation for, more or less, active surrealists from all of Sweden (the southern province of Skåne has sometimes had its own epicentra or competing activities), and in fact also scattered heads from Norway and Finland. Notably, the group has never showed an ambition to organise surrealists in Denmark; perhaps this is largely because unlike Norway and Finland, Denmark has a history of surrealist organising of its own (though no recent efforts). The Stockholm group has organised various satellites of all the different categories; a few important "satraps", a few long-standing members exiled in different parts of the world, and also a small number of those with a merely selective affinity. A few of these latter weirdos have weirdly known some Swedish (for unfathomable reasons) but the language has not been a major unifying factor, since so much of the activities and writings of the Stockholm group are in English anyway.

And if we are speaking Swedish, obviously there are people in Finland doing so too, and it is not very different from Norwegian at all, and not so different from Danish. Is there an "ethnic" community? Well, people do speak about "hyperborean" or "thulean" "racial characters" as well as a "scandinavian" "temperament". And we have the general conditioning from cultural forms, national ideologies, and local traditions. Fragments of a shared sense of what is "normal", items of a ridiculous national stereotype which may be real on the statistical level. We are less inclined to recognise all of this, or rather to accept it as something relevant to the aims and instincts that has brought us together under the aegis of surrealism...

Instead the group has a quite distinct individual character. If indeed we started out in "frenzied voluntarism" and orthodoxy, we have nevertheless always emphasised certain things such as collectivity, theory and games, and we've been going frequently in and out of intense focuses on dreams, analytical responses and surrealist organising, and for the past 15-20 years we have continuously emphasised epistemology, objectivity and self-scrutiny, recent years have renewed focus on the imagination, geography, methodology, science, etc. During this we were for brief periods pulled along by the dynamics of certain political movements, of a deleuzian "anti-oidipalism" or a bataillan "low materialism", and of situationism. We've tried very different strategies towards publicity, politics, art and literature, and international initiatives; these do not seem to be constants (but maybe the strategical-experimental attitude towards them is). Our specific way of constituting "personality traits", such as our specific mixture in combining humor and seriousness, polemics and solidarity, openness and closedness, ability and uselessness, silence and noisiness, rush and slowness, soberness and madness, etc, may be far more difficult to characterise, at least for ourselves. And it depends on the angle. People who know us only from our English-language writings have expressed surprise when they meet us and see how much we laugh, while some who meet us in person more than read our writings have sometimes either complained that we drink too little, or experienced us as incurably silly nogooders. As do we all now and then, but then we typically attack it on an analytical level... But we have a strong feeling that our current focus on methodology and its specific methods solidly based in games, imagination, phenomenology and analytical thinking, its strong scientophilic and antihumanistic tendency as well as its silliness and its outbursts of collective and individual creativity, its awareness of the history of the surrealist movement combined with a curiosity towards tendencies of the present, somehow represent something very distinct, something which not only has some clear differences from other groups' approaches but which also has layed bare an objective surrealism in a particular way. Thus, it is possible for some to feel congenial with the Stockholm group's spirit without staying in Sweden or knowing Swedish (and it is possible for a surrealist in Sweden to feel alienated by the group's direction...).

But maybe we are distilling our individual character by not focusing on our native language? We are apparently not much interested in translating things into Swedish for example. Almost everybody in Sweden speak English anyway. Unlike other small languages where it is considered a heroic task to keep the local language alive, among other things by publishing a lively original and translated literature, in Sweden there are few incentives to publish the necessarily very small editions of translations when it is so much easier to read English originals or English translations. Translating something into Swedish is typically more of just an attempted advertisement coup, to try to make the narrowsighted massmedia notice something (and often fail). Of course, translation is fun, and is a good ground for a sometimes very productive intercourse with interesting texts and with languages, but publishing translations all too often seems like a waste of time, effort and invested money. And since we know the subtleties of English less well than native English-speakers, there is perhaps not so much sense in our contributing to translating things from other languages into English either. Maybe we are just rationalising some laziness and the unavoidable bad experiences from the world of publishing here?

And some of our writings may perhaps be more stiff, repetitive and unimaginative than necessary, simply by our more limited vocabulary and more limited fingertip skills in English?

Maybe we are failing to catch on to relevant tendencies of the times, and establishing relevant contact surfaces, and occupying available arenas of subversion, just because we seem, with the exception of certain periods or certain individuals, usually very detached from what is going on in swedish literature and swedish art, and often from swedish politics? Maybe we are simply unable to live up to the necessities possibly imposed on us by a sense of responsibility for being the national node of surrealism? Yet it would seem that to the extent that we actually would be such a node, an important aspect of that would be specifically to not care about all this crap in the midst of it... to choose a direction not consciously as a response to perceived external imperatives but on an overindividual level as the sensibilities and desires conditioning and conditioned by the dynamism of the manifest collective activity as such...


This is all about groups being the core of surrealist activity. Only in a group physically meeting regularly there can be the gradual development of a communicative sense of superindividual association, playing, vigilance; only when walking together and playing games at the same table (or same lawn, or whatever) there can develop a particular sense of overindividual organisms which are central to the sense of surrealist activity. I have no understanding (but this might just be my personality) of being active as a surrealist in a place, or even visiting a place, without seeking out the surrealists there, just to check who they are, see what experiences they have to share, and see if there emerges some particular common ground for further experimentation, play or investigation.

I'm not ignoring other routes. Of course practical collaborations, and communication and friendship between individuals, go on almost as easily with digital communication nowadays. Much more than old romantic time-consuming letter-writing, this allows for a rich development of the network of contacts around groups, for quickly sharing thoughts and works, for instigating various experiments, games and projects that are not geographically based at all but cut across all major subdivisions and categorisations (except that they typically leave behind those who are old or technophobic or poor enough to stay away from the internet), and a rich communication between groups. This is great, but it does not replace the particular sense of communication and activity based on the physical meeting, experimenting, emotionally intense discussions, and worthless hanging around of individuals. Digital communication is rather the next level; a poor basis for acquiring experiences but a great tool for communicating them. Clearly, the networks thus constituted are the suitable global organisation of surrealists: with groups as basic units, and individuals wherever there are no groups and wherever they have either found a group to relate to as their primary group (based on personal friendship and/or recognition of the group's individual character) or they have the time and facilities to establish a solid network node on their own. Since no one controls a network of that kind, every node will establish its own constellation of contacts, and the structure actually consists of a large number of partly overlapping structures. This is what a network is, and this is what we actually have.

There is no use for the national level in organising; nations have little relevance to our non-local aims, our shared tradition and methods, and to our real structures anchored in the combination of solidly city-based groups and selective affinities. There is no use for any n-th attempt to resurrect the dream of a controlled international with sections that has to fulfil particular criteria and be officially stamped as real by those who know best.

Whenever the groups have distinct characters, it is possible for people to join them from a distance and based on selective affinities. Physical distance will of course always limit the participation in the group activity though. Surrealists who are isolated by circumstances anyway will of course be able to develop the most fruitful collaboration with the group they feel the closest affinity with. And dual memberships seem to enhance communication and collaboration. But some people who prefer some distant surrealist group over in fact locally available surrealists, who are not eager to meet and try to find points of contact with the surrealists of the same city, may perhaps act on psychological projections, and, more importantly, voluntarily abstain from the most central sense of surrealist activity, that of collectivity, of the substantial collectivity of developing intersubjectivity in a group of poetic explorers (or super-powered weirdos). That experience can never be removed from the very core of surrealism. No networks based on partly real, partly imagined communities along linguistic, national, ethnic or stylistic lines can replace it.