Friday, January 6, 2012

january updates

If 2011 was a hectic year for the Stockholm surrealist group (and for the editor of this blog), with the festival in Istanbul, the international surrealist meeting in Athens, the group exhibition in Stockholm, and the new Swedish edition of the Surrealist Manifestoes along with numbers of smaller events, then 2012 opens with a celebration of international surrealism as the International Surrealist Exhibition in Reading, Pennsylvania opens its gates today (!), and at the same time Corrales's massive compendium of the surrealist movement is distributed. But it's not like richness in events has made us abandon our insistence on the necessity of thorough discussion to sort out implications and discover new alleys of enquiry and involuntary revelations.

A few months have passed since the last update but there is no reason to regard this as an exception to the approximately monthly updates intended. We're commencing the new year with a number of small points about surrealism again. This because a few perhaps more original speculations have been stalled by encountering some additional interesting theoretical problems, as usual... (the continuation and spreading of the discussion of surrealist objects, applied specifically to natural cabinets and surrealist boxes; plus an exploration of the concept of "atmosphere") or by the time it takes to read massive books like Corrales's Caleidoscopio surrealista.

Surrealism and Philosophy

A year ago I started working on an overview of the historical relationship between surrealism and philosophy. Not having had the time to write this up, I now find that Georges Sebbag (an activist in the French surrealist group in the 60s, who is now busy producing a broad stream of retrospective but not unsympathetical books about surrealism) is publishing a big book on the same subject. I have not read it yet (it's not released yet is it?), so I cannot say whether it will make my findings and emphasises redundant or increasingly relevant. But it may place it as a topic on the agenda, and certain side musings and rants of mine may possibly take their place in a broader discussion, so why I don't I try and go ahead offering them. Here, a reaction on a fairly recent rereading of Ferdinand Alquié's book about The Philosophy of Surrealism from the 50s, a highly controversial book written by a professional philosopher who was a good friend of the French surrealists and who was always defending surrealism in an often strikingly intelligent and insightful way in the intellectual debate.

I remember the book from my youth (read it 25 years ago) as a very sympathetic book, if slightly boring, and with a very strange basic thesis that surrealism is not hegelian but cartesian.

Rereading it for the first time now, I was at first shocked to see how slyly and instrumentally Alquié puts himself in the particular french assimilationist-cultural-syncretic tradition that has always (or at least since Carrouges, Malraux, Crastre and others published their thoughts about Breton) insisted that surrealism, and Breton in person, is in fact only about "good", that surrealism is radical in being the only ones in the 20th century who dared comprehensively defend human creativity and human goodness; romanticism, individualism and humanism. It is in this particular guise that Breton is indeed counted among the big names of 20th century culture in France. Purely assimilated, recuperated, in-defined. We might define this as an enemy strategy, giving surrealism a place among other cultural currents in the history of 20th century literature and art. (Here in Sweden we have most of the respondents of the 1995 Stora Saltet surrealism enquiry to cultural workers as an example.) At the same time, the leading proponents are very often very sympathetic to surrealism, sometimes very sensitive to its contradictions and openings, sometimes very respectful to its claims of autonomy and speaking for itself; it is clearly the ideology most commonly underlying surrealismophilia, and is held in its entirety by many of the best surrealism scholars. Alquié is clearly one of them. What he says is always congenial with at least some currents and potentials within surrealism, and always respectful and admiring (perhaps in a sense always obviously jealous of taking part in a real adventure). Many very good questions are posed, many very astute observations are made. And in the end, half of the standpoints defended are obviously wrong.

Alquié claims surrealism is essentially cartesian and thoroughly non-hegelian and most surrealists have simply misunderstood this objective quality of surrealism. This claim made the surrealists and especially Gérard Legrand furious already at the time the book came out.

Alquié claims surrealism is all about defending humanity as incarnated in the inherent will to do good and the inherent capacity of making the right judgment by the individual. Thus, just like he dismisses surrealism's hegelianism, he also dismisses its profound expectancies on collectivity, on chance, on deep negativity, on fury, on madness, except as polemical or transitional forms that disrobe the false goodness and humanity of conformism, capitalism and christianity, and he claims that for a true surrealist any of these tropes will have to be immediately abandoned once rhetorically used to prove again the faith in sound intuition for the human good.

Revolt can not be surrealist, and only a tool in passing for a surrealist, in Alquié's view, and thus anyone who maintains revolt, or any other of these negative attitudes, is in Alquié's view not a real surrealist but a dadaist stuck in childish negativity. Alquié does in fact seriously explicitly claim that even as incorporated in surrealism, those classic revolters among the forerunners and even advocates of surrealism were not actual surrealists: Sade and Vaché were not surrealists in the sense Breton claimed they were, Artaud and Tzara never understood surrealism because they remained revolters.

Revolution is still a true watchword of surrealism for Alquié, but he introduces a dichotomy between a good revolutionary attitude which is utopian, and a bad revolutionary attitude which is political. The fact that the surrealists were blinded and seduced by the political project, which made them join forces with dialectical materialism, with marxism, with the workers movement, etc, was just a misconception based on them erroneously believing they were hegelians.

And hegelianism, for Alquié, is, not incorrectly, fundamentally antihumanism. If there is such a thing as qualitative leaps, and if there is such a thing as objectivity outside the human mind, then that means that intuition, the good, and individualist humanism are threatened, and then one will jump onto any headless haphazardly-rationalised project such as politics, and abandon the supremacy of spontaneous individual intuition to dangerous speculative reason and to the dangerous collective.

So not only politics, revolt and negativity are not surrealist, but all the efforts towards objectivity and self-abandonment in surrealism: collectivity, chance, method, automatism, ritual as well as any inspiration from, including mock-replication and real pilfering of elements of science, cannot be really surrealist whenever the individual's intuitive judgment is sidestepped (which was one of the main points of such practices).

Surrealism is reduced to profound humanism. Half of the particularity of surrealism is dismissed right away, and the other half would be dismissed by implication. Alquié's view is really interesting as a well-phrased and intelligent systematical expounding of that very misrepresentation which, in far less clear-thought ways, is typically shared by the majority of the surrealismophiles, surrealism fans and surrealismologists within the cultural field, because according to it surrealist activity outside the cultural field is but a vain gesture and the only relevant place for surrealism is a source of warm inspiration for people's little cultural practices.

Well, you just go ahead. We who are active in surrealism place see far more in it; we are expecting far from more it, and we are seeing it deliver far more than that in our experimentation and our general collective experience which you guys will keep misunderstanding the relevance of.

Mattias Forshage

(glass tub bed)

Excursus about Orthodoxy

It is a rather funny and shaky undertaking to write an argument against orthodoxy. It is always easy to win the vote of the laughers and the lazy for whom any call to order, commitment and stringency is a personal threat; while any argument attractive enough can be utilised as a doctrine to avoid own thinking... But trying to steer clear of sophistry, the basic point here is that surrealism is perpetually productive; it is a point of departure that can always produce new suggestions and will always need commitment to find its relevant applications, and any notion of orthodoxy is therefore contrary to its dynamics and rather seems inclinded to enclose it in a preconceived and therefore misleading form. If there is such a thing as surrealist orthodoxy, there are two faces of it that we may encounter here and there.

The most common is a proud retrospectivism, typically seen in aging surrealist artists. For them, surrealism is a thing of the past, but one which lies very close at heart to them personally, and through surrealism they made themselves their name and they made some crucial experiences and often had the best time of their lives. Because of that, they tend to regard surrealism as a rather precious secret, and many who are devotedly interested are welcome to the remaining exclusive men's club of its enjoyers. These people often welcome contemporary surrealist activities because they think it is all about young surrealismophiles trying to approach and revive the spirit of long gone days, while they themselves can become centerpoints and authorities, since they know what the real thing is, in contrast to these youngsters charmingly naive groping experimentation. Of course, this is an obvious misunderstanding of what surrealism is about, but it seems quite "natural" for any old person who is not active in a living collective connection (and who doesn't want to learn any more in life), to look for apparently likeminded company, for admirers and listeners, and for occasions to be the one who knows best. These people typically speak about surrealism and the surrealists in the past tense, "the surrealists always said..." "the surrealists despised..." "surrealism was always against..." and typically the surrealist doctrine thus conveyed is a code of behavior, a rigid set of nonconformist living rules forged in the 20s and 30s and not changed since. They clearly don't think that surrealism can have changed, can be applied on phenomena of later decades, can have a particular relevance in any contemporary situation (except as an eternal reminder of all that's good in art and life, which hasn't changed), can be used as a point of departure for openended experimentation, can be used as a source of inspiration for advanced enquiries and new kinds of revolt... This attitude was in fact a lot more common some time ago, and its decline has natural reasons. It's simply the circumstance that people who have met Breton and the original surrealists, and thus have an obvious argument for claiming they know what it's all really about, are dying off. While their often very sympathetic persons and their often very rich experiences are often sorely missed, we say good riddance to their attitudes and teachings. Those selfrighteous arthistorians and recent-generations-hangarounds that will still propagate such attitudes are far more lightweight and will not bother us more than flies. (1)

The other variety, which unfortunately is not subject to any mechanism of natural decline, is defensive sectarianism. In some centers of collective surrealist activity, it is assessed that the times are so dire that surrealism must be safeguarded against novelties and dilution. A commendable task, but alas so often leading to a certain wilful narrowmindedness, static selfrighteousness and a certain paranoia; ghettoism or sectarianism. Since it concerns active surrealism, it allows for surrealism to have had a historical development, and it allows for contemporary surrealist experimentation and experiences to enter into the body of surrealism. It's perhaps mostly about dismissing certain lines of experimentation that seem farfetched, dismissing the need to be vigilant about tendencies in the contemporary world, and of expecting anybody who wants to contribute to ideally first prove themselves as devoted and knowledgable and unlikely to go astray. I apologise for utilising a logical argument again, but doesn't the notion of orthodoxy imply a certain number of factors: 1) a doctrine that is explicit and coherent enough (or vague, charismatic and flexible enough) to be defended at all times and in a way to provide responses to all questions addressed to it, 2) a trust in one's own capability of deciding what is line with this doctrine and not, 3) a trust in one's own capability of deciding who is in accordance with this doctrine and not, 4) an assessment that safeguarding the doctrine is absolutely necessary; the possible reasons I could think of for this are the following: a) so frail that it will crumble if diluted and misapplied, or b) so complicated that it will not have any objective workings in accordance with its aims if not accompanied at all times by the entirety of its corollaries and the whole of its proper form, or c) so immediately dynamic that it must be kept safeguarded in order not to spill out wildly out of control and make us miss some historical opportunities that we are not presently capable of handling? I don't think surrealism fulfills 1 or 4a-c, and I would spontaneously and methodologically avoid and recommend avoiding 2 and 3 as obstacles to vigilance towards the unknown. (2)

(1) This "type" was discussed in the obituary of Ragnar von Holten. A useful book trying to summarise what surrealism was all about in this vein is José Pierres L'Univers surréaliste 1983 (which in spite of its timeless claims is stuck in a mixture of pre-war prejudices (it is fundamental that surrealism is against music, traditional art from the pacific is superior to that of other continents, etc) and specific french 50s detours (dismissing Hegel, dismissing Marx, dismissing the need for contemporary political action, praising the celtic heritage).

(2) Our closest sparring partners in comradely quarrels about orthodoxy are some friends in the Leeds group (who defend it but regularly are far more dynamic than to fully embody it), but there has been declarations of trust in orthodoxy occasionally turning up in several of the more long-lasting historical surrealist groups and a few of the quite recent ones.

A particular variety is presented when faith in orthodoxy is coupled with an urgency to stay vigilant towards the contemporary situation, and thus allow for one's own radical temporary reinterpretations to be integrated into the doctrine (technically we could call this "orthodox revisionism": what was right yesterday may be totally wrong today and vice versa). Of course this was developed into a fine art close to us by Debord (claiming to have learned it from surrealism) and through the situationists has been reintegrated into a surrealist outlook in some camps (such as the Madrid group's famous ban on images). The vigilance part of this often promotes very interesting speculations; the orthodoxy part of it is extremely difficult to apply without an implied power structure where someone has the authority to make such strategical choices for the whole movement, or a formal organisation of decision-making internationally; both of which are not in accordance with the dynamism and present guise of the surrealist movement.

ps about surrealist groups

To add a perhaps somewhat more pointed tone to the discussion about surrealist groups (Icecrawler october) we could emphasise that there is also a distinction between a group in the widest sense (a pole of communication, collaboration and potential collective dynamics) and a group with a distinct dynamism of irreducible collectivity. Characteristic for the latter is of course that it goes beyond the sum of pooled resources and has a life of its own, a direction, an atmosphere or an explosive power beyond what anyone intended for it ("emergent properties" in the language of modern philosophy and natural science that badly wants to avoid the Hegelian vocabulary of a "dialectical leap").

And therefore, it is important for a surrealist group that it is at all times ready to omit the names of individual contributors – it will sometimes want to list them all for the purpose of the devil's contract, and it will often want to point out individuals as more or less involuntarily responsible for single emissions for the purpose of facilitating communication, interpretation and tracing of personal mythologies, not for achievements; it will always be ready to omit names because it is the invocation of the collective spirit as a creative entity which is the game and the experiment; and as a necessary counterweight to individualist careerism and personality market, individual anonymity is always an attractive option. In fact we could see an important dividing line between those surrealist that still put surrealist activity in the first room and keeps pondering how to implement Nougé's warning that Breton quoted in 1929 ("I would like to see that those among us who are beginning to make a name for themselves erase it") and those who treat surrealism more as a label and a contact network by putting surrealist activity second to their own credentials and individual artistic oeuvre.

And we could add that it is important for a surrealist group that it is at all times ready to abandon representativeness. Even if it the surrealist group from an ontological and historical viewpoint is an instance of surrealism, it will get hampered by this fact if it worries too much about managing the label. The surrealist label gives us access to a wealth of previous experiences and to a vast framework of experimentation and collaboration; but in order to let the ludic collective spirit free in this experimentation it is necessary to sometimes forget the label. Surrealist groups have been known to feel obliged to more or less postpone all actual surrealist activity for the sake of first sweeping the doorstep by trying to correct and attack all misunderstandings and misrepresentations of surrealism first. Considering that this society will keep producing an endless stream of such misrepresentations, such a strategy may potentially keep a surrealist group perpetually in a state of irritating preparations by fighting obstacles that are not necessarily obstacles. Now, in practice, I know of no surrealist group that has actually completely abandoned experimentation, games and creativity for sterile polemics, but there are several which seem to have regarded the latter as the primary collective focus while the former are pursued peripherally, in smaller groups, on spare time or in secrecy. Nothing wrong with secrecy of course, it just becomes self-contradictory to create the misrepresentation of surrealism as being a primarily polemical undertaking specifically in order to rectify misrepresentations.