Friday, January 6, 2012

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.

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