Most of the texts posted this time are things that have taken some time to finish or edit. The discussion in the Stockholm group has moved on. Recently some of us have indulged in a voluminous and partly emotionally engaged discussion starting out from the concept of "cognitive dissonance". Since epistemology is, in our view, one of the fundamental parts of surrealism, this connected to some of our basic concerns and addressed a fairly wide range of more or less crucial questions, including the role of consciousness, the relationship between neuroscience, psychology, biology and phenomenology, the dynamics of thinking, what makes ideas relevant, the place of subjectivity, and - apart from common subjects of squabbling like rationalism, new age, and postmodernism - also leads back to questions of poetic atmosphere, and probably to the ontology of imagination.
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
We have discussed La civilisation surréaliste here at the Icecrawler earlier, partly in reaction to emphases by Ody Saban and Thomas Mordant about its crucial role. Then, in part as a metacritique, Thomas Mordant gave a speech about it at a gathering of surrealists from several countries in Prague in connection with the opening of the Czech-Slovak surrealist group's major retrospective exhibition "Jiny vzduch" ("Other air" or "Another air"). A long rhetorical speech, it was made even longer by the need for threeway interpretation (French-Czech-English), and the succeeding discussion had no opportunity to cover many of the crucial questions touched. Only a few of us were present in Prague, but we continued discussing it in Stockholm.
We could say our view is unmoved, but probably far less distant from that one expressed by Thomas than we or he might have thought it to be. We could very well take interest in the surrealist civilisation as a concept, though not necessarily as a book, and especially not as required reading or the obvious point of departure for contemporary surrealist activity. For that, the book remains far too obscure and impenetrable, as well as far too immersed in the specific hard historical circumstances of the two contributing groups at the time – and in that sense far more a document of the times (70s) than something pointing towards the future, far more pertaining to the relationship between the two specific surrealist groups in Paris and Prague and not oriented towards international surrealism, far more a development of a framework on a philosophical level than one of everyday practice.
As a concept, civilisation is one of those we could shy away from due to some bad associations, or reclaim and use in a way of our own choosing. And this is not a matter of mere taste or random choice, but specifically of what associations one will be able to trigger under what circumstances. Civilisation could be various things. It could be the overall social organisation or the process of organising it; it could be any such general social framework or one which is specifically contrasted against barbarism (a barbarism that may be identified with "primitive society" or with capitalism or with any heterogenic or unordered mores) and in that case it could be something present around us or something more unattained (a general direction or a specific ideal order, attainable or unattainable).
Probably Bounoure and Effenberger were pointing specifically to the simultaneously immanent and utopian phantom of an overall social organisation present in surrealism and most specifically in the central role of games in surrealism. Yet still they were addressing it as the hitherto uninvestigated second pole visavis the surrealist revolution, and thus in distinct contrast to it. Was the surrealist revolution accomplished, or was it just taken off the agenda when bad boy Schuster had claimed to dissolve the movement? In fact, is it possible to emphasise the surrealist civilisation while not caring much for the surrealist revolution? Yes, it seems it is, but does not this lead to arriving at pragmatical optimism (easily cooptable as practical reformism; personal therapy, more imagination in art, more heterodoxy in the universities, possibilities of artist's careers) or principled pessimism cum eschatology (the "third ark" position of safeguarding the few real splendors of this culture while current civilisation falls apart around us)? Both these options may in fact be viable personal motivations for single comrades, but it is certainly not from those angles we can except surrealism to be a continuing source of revelations and a point of departure for subversive investigation of the world.
So in the middle of this we have the immanent sense of a surrealist civilisation; in the sense of the diffuse sketch of blueprint of viable or desirable social relationships revealed in surrealist games and other interrogations of the unknown. So this is partly about how things actually work out due to real human dynamics, needs and imagination, very often without preconceived ideas, rational thinking, conscious leadership etc – all those points pointed out by more or less functionalist/anarchist antropologists, or biologists interested in self-organisation in complex systems. Sure, this is an interesting area of enquiry, but only to a very small extent specifically surrealist. We remain always more interested in the unknown, and the very potentialities inherent in these modes of interactions with regards to a confrontative questioning of a consensus view of reality and conformist habits. And there, the games are not just a methodological standard for interactions, not just an theoretical example, but also a mere framework of the actual collective experience of potentialities, and not just potentialities in general but also those specific potentialities actually reached within the game as poetic suggestions.
So we can't really be enthused about civilisation without imagining the humongous infernal machines that will erect this civilisation. So we are devising a game specifically about that just now (we were doing this anyway, based on our 2010 enquiry into the phenomenology of the infernal machine, reactualised by some suggestions from Nikola Tesla...).
We will just never favour what we already know.
It is always good to imagine the world from the viewpoint of fellow organisms. A famous one is to see the world from a bat's view. A philosopher even wrote a book about it. Indeed, philosophers' "thought experiments" are typically crude reveries. A biologist may say something else about the probable forms of life experience of a bat and the phenomenology of batness. The bat is, as we know, seeing the world primarily from a nightly, aerial, swiftly and erratically turning and flapping, standpoint, with the landscape and its parts painted for the hearing sense by echoes. This is a very vivid and accurate view, but not only does it play at high speed, it is also extremely demanding as it requires the instantaneous processing of a vast amount of complex information at every moment. No rest until hanging upside down in some hideout.
For this very complex processing of information, bats need a well-developed neural system and brain. But if we assume brainpower is identical with intelligence we go wrong. When basic orientation is such an immensely complex task, there is actually very little capacity left for problem-solving, flexibility, sociality and other things we associate with intelligence. In human terms, bats are brainy yet remain rather stupid.
Next place to start: I really enjoy how time stands still in travelling. The long waiting, spent on board the vehicles themselves as well as in the different terminals, is not really waiting but spending time outside time, which is good for nothing, and therefore very favourable for revery, for non-directed reflection, for unexpected discovery. My friend Riyota Kasamatsu once wrote an essay saluting the surrealist potential of this "transit time", as connected to the watchword of "worthlessness" which was popular at the time.
Indeed and inevitably, the lack of access to the tools of conventional productive work, whichever they are in the situation of each person, creates a certain void, a void that tends to get filled. There are no immediate practical tasks for the mind (unless it indeed impractically gets stuck in the mode of paranoid worries and repetition-obsession). It is not work, it is not productive side activities, it is not useful leisure, the reproduction of labor force.
With no practical tasks at hand, with the mind in several respects vacant, we enter absentmindedness, which is a state of availability. This is where thought gets its opportunity to play freely, including taking a rest, leaving the stage open for various other modes of movement of the mind. This is an area where automatism, obsessive imagery and vivid revery sometimes play havoc, and sometimes just have their little stand in some corner and the limelight remains unoccupied. This is a state which has a great potentiality to focus on the unknown, and even more which is actually focused on potentiality; the mind is available for something to happen, and it might or might not.
This is why I typically prefer to travel alone – so as not to have to spend this whole time playing out normal social interactions. Unless one is busy with socialising with a companion, there will also typically emerge potentially interesting interactions with strangers. Potentially, not necessarily; it is all about availability. Of course, I try to avoid the entertainment with which ideological forces struggle to fill this void with advertising, indoctrination and numb relaxation of all kinds. For everyday transports I regrettably often fall into a practical need of utilising transport time for something useful, but at least whenever I am on something considered a journey, I very often avoid picking up self-chosen entertainment like novels, or picking up a laptop to do some regular work of one or the other kind. Yet there is no need to stick to any of these preferences as rules, because all these entertainments and conventional tasks will produce a certain boredom or just feeling of inadequacy, and the "withdrawal" into availability will eventually be spontaneously preferred.
It was quite refreshing to see a lot of the old fantasies about this "transit time" confirmed from an unexpected angle in Olga Tukarczuk's very readable novel Bieguini 2007 (eng Runners, sw Löparna).
From this viewpoint it is remarkable to see the large amounts of people nowadays spending all such free time playing little games on their phones. A certain amount of travellers in every waiting area, in every train car, will be busy filling their time with such desperate filling out the void and avoiding the potentialities that void might contain. (And I'm not primarily complaining about new technologies, I was just as irritated with the widespread habit of reading the newspaper while travelling, long before mobile phones with games came.) So with such games, typically of the simple kinds, a lot of people make sure to stay out of boredom by rapid repetitive action, cognitively demanding but intellectually dull. Games, the crude ethologists and neurologists say, are an advanced type of behavior, keeping motoric-sensorial-neural systems vigilant, good practice for hunting and for escaping predators.
But in the framework of contemporary human society, it would seem that these one-person high-speed no-thought games are much more characterised by their role as generalised entertainment, fulfilling the function of fending off thought, availability and potentiality. Indeed a lot of people in this society are in a fragile state, and know or suspect that any undirected thought might easily get stuck in repeating worries, problems, shortcomings, traumatic experiences, and lead to depression or nervous breakdown. For a lot of people, massive entertainment (be it TV, newspapers on the morning train, mobile phone games etc) is simply selfmedication against severe depression. Of course, the same entertaining noise that keep obsessive repetition away also keeps away any serious enquiry of one's desires (what one really wants to do), any serious reflection over one's situation (are there things that are in fact intolerable, and need to change, sometimes even with means already at hand) as well as any play of imagination that might constitute an inner counterpoint to depression.
There is a lot of important dynamics waiting in boredom. Because boredom is not about boredom, but only about the absence of desperate measures for entertainment. It is about facing the unscheduled, useless and sometimes extremely useful, it is about letting the mind go, and see it wander off, and discover beautiful stuff, or not.
This is not a question of denouncing modern digital gameplaying on the whole. That would not only be vain and pointless but also beyond my knowledge. Furthermore, apparently, there is also a vast sphere of ambitious games, more similar to actual playing, involving inventiveness, imagination, complexity, interpretation as well as eclectic and new mythologies, poetically suggestive graphics, and often actually entailing the development of entirely new skills, new ways of moving, new circumscriptions of the subjective unit, new utilities of the spirit, and therefore slightly altered bodily existence and individual existence. I don't know, but it seems to represent an analogy to the altered states in poetry. Of course such games tend to become obsessive and probably often outcompete most of the things that makes life itself an exciting game, but this is a delicate question, and not at all my subject here. I'm talking only about those trivial games available as apps on people's mobile phones, with which they are "killing time" unless there is any other entertainment around; making themselves permanently unavailable-occupied, extinguishing absentmindedness and potentiality along with threatening introspection, overview and boredom. The mind is constantly busy solving perfectly trivial problems. There is an incredible capacity, there is even an immense activity going on, but all this capacity is kept busy with this one particular activity and nothing is left for anything else. Just like bats! But still without the excitment of flying, of catching insects, and of experiencing the night...
Recently I've become aware of the immense popularity of Joseph Cornell in the US (in the most diverse camps), as well as that direction within conceptual art (especially in the UK) that "addresses" the natural cabinet in order to "pose questions" about the nature of collecting and knowledge. Based on that I am growing eager to make certain distinctions regarding my own boxes, especially with an exhibition coming up. This triggered a discussion about poetic phenomenology of objects in general, and about poetic phenomenology in general, two of the favourite subjects of the Icecrawler, and some initial contributions are therefore cited at some length here.
My boxes investigate a poetic phenomenon and are intended to have a poetic effect or none at all.
Thus, I'd like to emphasise that to begin with, they are not aesthetical object in some utterly narrow sense, intended to please the eye. But they are also not primarily intended to arouse some amazement in a simple sense, as the old natural cabinets and Kunstkammern were; I am not picking the most spectacular or unique objects, there are no artisan skills, I am not aiming to impress.
They also don't have a primarily anecdotal or rhetorical purpose. I do not want (here, I do want that elsewhere) to teach and demonstrate the diversity and its implications through a combination of systematisation, sensory concretion and arousal of amazement mixed with afterthought and speculation. I couldn't care less about the concept of art, and I don't think it is exciting, necessarily productive, or even particularly interesting, to raise questions about game theory, play, collecting and systematics in an artistic framework. In no way do I want to "question" "highlight" "thematise" "address" the fascination before diversity.
Furthermore, it is not primarily about microcosms systematically mapping a personal mythology. And finally, it is not at all anecdotal objects in some sentimental, autobiographical meaning, it is not souvernirs and not diary pages.
However, all these possible aims or functions that I am here fending off, may actually be present in single boxes. But the point is that to the extent that they are, this is because they appear to be orchestrated by the poetic ambition and to orchestrate the poetic phenomenon, nothing else. It is all about an irreducible appropriation of the extended field of possibilities manifested in a poetical constellation of single more or less auratic objects released from utilistic functions including the aesthetical and privately signifying, nothing more, nothing less.
"The interesting things turn up in the last paragraph. This is something I'd like to know more about, even though it's not necessary. But you may very well examplify, the poetic phenomenon surfaces when Tintin blows his nose in the thrown glove falling in a bottle in the whale's stomach. When Maldoror suddenly turns, terrified, etc. /.../ As it now stands I get the impression that the polemics is the point of the text as if you wanted to exhibit the boxes polemically or perhaps are embarrassed by possibly being mixed up with cultural careerists."
"While reading the text I see primarily a negative constructivity emerging, since the poetic effect is in a theoretically self-effacing way connected with as well as relieved from those of its adjacent signifyings and constitutings that surrealism has made itself acquainted with in its historical oppositional role. Riyota may be right that this via negativa feels, from a worldly standpoint, stylistically oppositional and clumsy. But that poetry which we are encouraged to look out for is actually characterised like a negation of the negation in the manner of the mystic, the dialectician or the charlatan. It is not its utilistic forms (including the aesthetical ones) or reifications but also doesn't necessarily exist independently of them, and instead it lives right there exiled in thought or in the "concept" in order for everyone to rediscover in the temporarily actualised field of possibilities?"
"It sounds very interesting /.../ Poetry is the breathing of the soul. It is not about something but out of something. It is like stock which has been boiling for very long, that essence collected at the bottom. One finds poetry in simplicity, silence, nature. /.../ Snails growing out of the body."
An ambitious interpretation
"I think it was clarifying/.../ it addresses a few ways to look at objects or phenomena in the context of an exhibition, to suggest what concerns the present ones rather than judge others. The movement passes through some negative definitions into a positive one, and the text presents several types of signs, or of functions of signs, where the last one is the poetical.
I was most surprised by the distinction between simple amazament and that which concerns the poetic sign. If we try to distinguish the signs through their structure or diagram then both have launch pads for the soul, but that sign which brings "amazement in a simple sense" has a fixed cosmic referent (nature as larger objectively existing reality behind the object, in the relief of which the mystical, religious, terrifying or romantical of the object trickles or pours forth) while the diagram of the poetic sign appears sketched as entirely, and necessarily, separated from the world (the referent, denotation, directness-towards-the-world of interest and intentionality) and the subject (with its collective as well as individual psychology I suppose). The positioning of the poetic sign against the aesthetical I assume tries to separate those emotions or "Gefühl" which are actualised in connection with dimensions of the expression such as hue choice, geometry, brush stroke width, line curvature intensity, lighting, etc etc, dimensions which often cross-pollinate synaesthetically, but I suppose that what MF is trying to say is that it's not about it being a radical separation between those dimensions within the poetic sign, but rather that they are not essential for it. But then there remains two non-signifying and one signifying dimension, the way I see it. First the concepts, which I suppose it is crucial for the poetic sign to have an exchange or linking with (such as the concept of Tintin, the concept of the cigar, etc), and then the purely material intensities of the expression (which if detached from the aesthetical and the signifying becomes void, empty form) and finally, if this dimension isn't already covered by, and incarnating, the aesthetical; the transcendentally symbolic. I reversed the order here but I hope it will be obvious that the presence of the signs in the objects shows that there is a relationship of signifying within it, while the transcendentally symbolic is, just like pure material intensities, elements of the sign which have a positive reality in themselves before they are related to subjects, objects/cosmos, or concepts.
I would like to see some elaborations.
Is that the way the signs of simple amazement are distinguished from your poetic sign through maintaining an essential relationship to the world?
Why fence off the relationship to world and subject but not to concepts?
Does the enjoyment of the poetic sign demand a kind of surrealist epoché in relation to a natural utilistic attitude? An epoché that has to be taught to the spectator for the exhibition to have the intended effect? (As 3d-glasses for a 3d-film)
It seems very nuanced to want to "empty" only certain dimensions of the sign, or characterise different signs as different cheeses characterised only by their distributions of cavities.
Especially in relation to Dogen Zenji or Madrid. The "zen-signs" or "zen-machine" of Dogen had emptiness at the subject's place, emptiness at the object's or the world's place, emptiness at the relation's place, and emptiness at emptiness's place. Now Dogen "empties" places, but keeps the places (which creates a generative void), while MF seems based on his idea to want to remove some places and keep some, empty some and fill some."
"I am initially grateful that you (CA) elaborate on the distinction between simple amazement and poetic. There is a lot in what you say. Simple amazement puts itself in a simple relation to a big, by a certain necessity somehow abstract, generalised magnitude of the background: nature, god, or whatever. It always become something of stage props, somehow homogenised. It is a gothic amazement. And even though reactions are rarely simple, I believe it is somehow characteristic for this amazement that it primarily arouses a passive emotionality which often isn't even emotional: one smiles, puts the thumb up and says "awesome". No, that was not what people did in the natural cabinets. O, I really like these simple movements of emotion too. Because when strong they are also necessarily less simple, will always harbour an uncanny ambivalence, a fascination and fear and longing for the unknown, this immense threshold chafing the arch of the foot. Ok no waterproof shots here either. It may be true that the "poetic sign" is distinguished from that of simple amazement "by maintaining an essential relation to the world" in the sense that all ambivalences, accidentals and particularities are an important part of the whole, mainting its essential amazingness by not resisting being reduced, while this can be contrasted against the essentiality of simple amazement – on the one hand logically risking to empty the world of essence by idealising and rhetorically reducing it to a selected rhetorical function, a "major point", an "essential meaning", but on the other hand also places its faith in the same world as something in principle accessible beyond the speech it gives rise to, an "unio mystica" that isn't integrating the potential directions of its dynamic but instead autotomises them as crimes against the unity.
I also completely agree, and I am grateful for your claiming it, that any polemical edge is a secondary thing; the aim is to relativise all the girders that common rationalisations often get stuck at, and typically wishes to have as fundamental bolts that the whole structure can be reduced to. If I am excused for seeming stuck in architectural metaphors, it is the space that is created which is the raison d'etre of the building, not any of its girders... And in that case I am connecting metonymically to the space created in a box, where the coincidence and the potential interactions of the objects play. And intertextually to another draft I've been circulating, about the concept of "atmosphere", which is also about generating space. The spaces created by the holes in a cheese, it's a little bit like those classical plasticine models of anatomical structures, single organs and entire bodies, like trees of coral, filigree-works making up jungles of petrified worms. The structure is constituted by the possible routes throught it, not by the scaffolding, not by the allegedly structural elements that are actually just scaffolding for the really possible routes...
What type of epoché the appropriation of poetic pleasure demands I also wonder how to understand or describe. Let's continue the discussion."
concretisation in terms of objects
Of course, boxes are an arena for surrealist objects to meet, to play, to develop relationships. The "night at the museum" fantasy lies at base, animated film is one of the nearest responses; what are in fact the chosen objects doing – when relieved of utilitarian purpose, when allowed to develop hidden urges and potentialities, and various relationships to other such objects.
And this is one of the factors that make it important to distinguish between the poetic dynamism of the objects in a surrealist box, and the dynamism of pure marvel of objects in the cabinet framework: in the cabinet it is till the amazing, exotic and impressive purpose or original connections of the object that counts, the objects are still defined by their original framework (still "doing their job") and have not entered the poetic state of vacancy-availability-freedom.
But far worse is of course the framework of conceptual art, where the work is reduced to the very question that spawned it, which it is intended to express, and which therefore makes it completely redundant as a work of art. The objects are here again hired to do a onedimensional work, to stand as mere signs, as preconceived hints of a particular statement.
Though of course both works of pure marvel and conceptual works might have specifically poetic dynamics in spite of the intentions of the artist...
concretisation in art history terms
Surrealists started to investigate boxes in connection with the "object craze" in the mid-30s, when the fetishistic vigilance towards found or odd items were solidly connected with the overall goals of the movement through Hegelian notions of "objectivity" (objective chance, objective humor, found objects etc).
Of course it had an immediate historical precursor in dada and constructivist assemblage as well as "readymades", but significantly further back into popular forms of wonderboxes, from commercial viewing-boxes over classical natural cabinets or kunstkammern to all kinds of fetishistic shrines for ritual purposes.
Now with the new sense given to this activity in surrealism, Joseph Cornell stood out as the foremost surrealist artist specialising in boxes, but important early examples are also to be found in several of the poems-objects of André Breton. Partly very different yet in the same area were Kurt Schwitters' and then Louise Nevelson's sculpture.
Certain artists kept experimenting with boxes through the 40s and 50s, but in the 60s it became more widespread and has in fact been one of the common genres of surrealist art since. Mimi Parent, Robert Guyon, Tom Gutt, Josette Exandier, Peter Wood, Ragnar von Holten, Milan Napravnik, Jan Svankmajer, Gilles Ghez, Dominique Paul, Kathleen Fox, etc...
And of course artists outside an explicit surrealist framework make boxes that are perfectly surrealist in the sense of superordinating their purely poetic content, even in Sweden.
rehabilitation of marvel
There should be no attempt to belittle the importance of the sense of marvel though. It is clearly of one the things that characterise many of the things important in life, and it is a crucial component in art. Yet it alone does not art make.
Marvel, from electrified fascination to highly emotional astonishment, may be a proper basic response to abundance and beauty, and specifically be the appropriate recognition of psychic dynamism that has been great enough to go too far. But in art it will have to be employed by other spiritual agencies to become a specifically poetic vehicle; it will have to abandon massive impressiveness as a trope (which easily become a paradoxically homogenous screen), it will have to assume specific mechanisms of attaching to the most ambiguous and far-reaching aspects of the phenomenology of spirit.
Not the least by focusing on the elusive or even enigmatic little areas emerging, sometimes as surprisingly frozen spots in vast interspaces, sometimes as fine leaks from increasingly ambiguous relationships, leaks eventually forming lattices and streambeds, in both these images specifically creating an arena for unexpected, soft and sweet or jerking as well as awkward gymnastics of the spirit.
As manifestations of beauty or marvel, art (well at least good art) will be enjoyable anytime. As manifestation of poetry it can even contribute to make life worth living and reminding us what to focus on and demand of it. But what can make art actually particularly interesting on the other hand is specifically its capacity as a vast field of the phenomenology of spirit. It can lay bare and will examplify and illuminate specifically these mechanisms through which poetry works its magic.
The psychoanalysts as well as the classically or religiously minded art psychologists see a functionality in this spiritual dynamism that would explain the effect of art... and tend to shoot beside the goal. Not the least because in art it specifically concerns a dynamic spiritual dynamics that may nowhere be reduced to its functional connection. In a way, there was somehow more of a point in the original effort of structuralism, which seemed so arbitrary, to study the function of poetry by scrutinising its technical means, which was clearly insufficient as explanation for its effects, and thereby could partly illuminate the whole while leaving the door open for a more unprejudiced acquisition in honestly fascinated ignorance, still pondering where exactly poetry does emerge?
One could make small models just to localise one's actual interest. An impromptu analysis of the determinations of a work of art from just the other day goes:
- first a series of aspects that are simple objective determinations:
* who is the artist/artists
* surrounding conditions (social and mental environment)
- then a series of aspects that are fairly simple yet negotiable determinations:
* immediate frame of reference (allusions, contemporariness, represented objects etc)
* style and skills
* gesture (social implications of creation)
- then a series of highly contingent determinations:
* immediate social dynamism of the work (ritual, use)
* subjective cross-fertilisation (encounter with spectator's associations and creativity)
* objective historical dynamism (possible historical repercussions on collective subjectivity and events)
- and then a series of complex objective determinations:
* inner gesture (psychological implications of creation)
* language and ontology (unconscious frame of reference, functional systems of the spirit)
* inner direction and dynamics (inherent inner world, dynamic direction, utopia, imaginary universe)
* springwells (the basics poetic mechanisms the work taps into)
— and all of this was just to sort out everything I didn't mean when suggesting "springwells" as an interesting angle to approach... On the other hand it could create criteria of some polemical point, such as against any purism or subjectivism, and also against various sociologisations that use to overemphasise the little aspect of subjective purposes in connection with social usage, be it in the form of the propagandism of the narrowminded politicos, the purely abstract hailing of creativity as a "free" and good thing by some postsituationists and more broadminded politicos, as well as the colorblind focus on procedure ("participatory culture") by the post-live-role-playing activists we sometimes discuss with. Against any subjectivism and utilism, art is primarily about the objective spiritual contents and potentialities (primarily the four aspects listed as complex-objective above). Without that it is just an abstract model, which might seem to be a good thing from a radical perspective but does not demonstrate this and instead is just believed in, in an ideological and utilistic way. But O those springwells.
And then these people who speak about surrealist art – if the ignorant will try to reduce surrealist art to one formula (or two or possibly three formulae for the broadminded), also the most knowledgeable and sympathetical will want to give an exposé of surrealist art typically by presenting a series of artists grouped chronologically, or "thematically" through a small selection of methods and themes in an unresolved mixture. Not only is this enumeration of themes a bit frustrating epistemologically as well as analytically, but in cases where it admits its temporary character as a background for potentially interesting observations and indulges in such observations on a more sensible level, these observations are often formulated as pertaining to one artist's oeuvre. The arbitrary degree of abstraction in circumscribing one artist's oeuvre as an entity in the spirit appears highly unsatisfactory to me. I would like to talk about the phenomenology of the spirit on the whole, with surrealist art (which, as we all must admit, is not a particular kind of art, but simply any art that focuses on essentials!) as a mindblowingly rich field of demonstrations.
Therefore I suggested eight such springwells that surrealists often tap into in their creative activities – and tried to avoid what I considered more of methods (such as automatism, paranoia-criticism and obsessive imagery) as well as more of themes (such as eroticism, romanticism and horror); but I might have been completely wrong in that; themes become springwells, springwells become methods, methods become themes, and vice versa? And of course these eight are not a classification but just the point where the analysis reached a certain reflexive equilibrium and started calling for empirical testing...
The eight springwells I suggested were:
1. atmosphere and enigma
2. the poetical image, analogy, collage
3. metamorphosis (including morphological imagination and alchemy)
4. automatical rage (fureur poetique)
5. organic growth and the inhuman
6. raw vision and irreducible mythology
7. spontaneous interpretation and fundamental ambiguity
8. pure marvel
Nature could tap into the same eight... Yet nature is not subject to the same set of determinations (listed above) and therefore the same dynamism perhaps issuing from the complex relationship between them. But instead quite another set of determinations and another configuration of dynamism. And there is, I think, as always a lot to be learnt from confusing the two as well...
Surrealism and philosophy is a productive conjunction.
If we acknowledge that surrealism is not a philosophy (thus it has only secondary appliations in philosophy, it has never made an effort to relate specifically to – or express itself in the terminology of – contemporary professional philosophy – in stark contrast to popular-philosophical existentialism and academic poststructuralism!).
(It has not been interested in formulating its theoretical approach as a "system" and it has not struggled to "resolve" on a theoretical level its heterogenous sources of inspiration. It has been inclined to acknowledge different approaches as useful for different questions or practical purposes (Breton's reliance on the toolbox image in the 3rd manifesto) and it has insisted that they share something which is revealed in their confluence in the poetic practice of surrealism, that they thus bear an inner coherence in terms of potentialites, which is opposed to eclecticism, the haphazard and incoherent mishmash of preferences of for example individuals...)
Nevertheless it does make use of philosophical ideas and its theories and methods are easily interpreted as having philosophical consequences. To explicate and elaborate on such philosophical consequences is a major task for those so inclined. Here will follow just a brief recollection of those more or less basic concepts of surrealism particularly useful or obviously relevant in this context.
OPEN RATIONALISM is probably an encompassing formula rather than a specific theoretical project.
On the one hand, it is Bachelard's "surrationalism"; the idea of a new modality of thought after the surpassing of hitherto reigning narrow rationalism, analogous with the leaps within the development of the science of physics.
On the other hand, it is specifically in the combination of scientific thought, poetry, hegelian dialectics, and analogical thinking from the hermetical tradition that the surrealists have considered this breakthrough to be obviously promised, at the same time as Bachelard proposed his theories. Because at heart on a certain level there is simply the combination of hegelianism and hermetics: OF DIALECTICAL AND ANALOGICAL THOUGHT; of historical and ahistorical, which is the fusion which makes the fundament of surrealism on the intellectual level. There are many typical and rich motives here: the sublime point of the spirit where contraries cease to be perceived as contraries, the interminate ascension of continuous negations/revelations, absolute divergence, utopianism, the refusal to dismiss ambiguity: figures of thought that relate just as much to political and artistic applications as epistemological. Whoever enjoys models may see surrealism exactly as the crossroads where dialectics, analogy, empiricism and imagination meet.
It is also possible to see open realism itself, over-realism, as an aspect of open rationalism, and that is a way to come onto the rest of the basic questions.
OVER-REALISM is the closest approach to an ontological statement that surrealism ever reaches; the refusal to deny any forms of reality their reality, the demand for reintegration in an over-reality; the surreal. Yet it must be acknowledged that this is not an ontological ultraliberalism where anything goes, but it specifically claims that widespread rationalisations and simplifications are particularly misleading, and in practice that nothing is what it seems to be. In the process of breaking through the layers of trivialising mystification, surrealism will join company along the route with the major distrusting-revealing systems like psychoanalysis, historical materialism, natural science, but also actual paranoia and esoterics... This over-realism is probably more or less the same concept as the absolute among the romantics, while eagerly insisting on the the immanent aspect thereof. Just like in the romantics it expresses itself in a mobility between forms of consciousness, a reappraisal of the apparently meaningless, and not the least a vigilance towards paranoid mechanisms of ascribing meaning (paranoic-critical method) and towards chance (objective chance) in the generation of meaning frameworks and adventures by means of a generalised overdetermination, realism of associations, and automatism; and by all means also orthodox psychoanalysis and ideology criticism, and generate reenchantment. There are other more specialised questions relating here: that of the ontology of the imaginary, which gains a central role from an over-realistic perspectives. As does some of the basic themes of occultism and mysticism, and the entire world of mythology, which surrealism likes to engage while insisting on abstaining from "metaphysical commitment", i e all forms of belief.
But, as we need to keep in mind, surrealism is not a philosophical project. A crucial aspect of most of its most central undertakings and questions concern POETIC PHENOMENOLOGY. What is that makes certain things feel immediately meaningful, like portals to the unknown, and small fireworks in the reenchantment of the world? There is a tendency to advocate that the poetical phenomenon, in order to remain in focus, must be studied with poetical means, which is largely the means of over-realism, or specifically for example reverie or material imagination, as Bachelard concretised into a method and "thematic criticism" exploited; but at the same time conditionally accept all kinds of other enquiries throwing light on the poetic, not the least the psychoanalytical, and the structuralist both in its Czech and French varieties. An important point of departure here would remain the concept of the spirit as an integrative poetic epistemological organ, and poetry as an integrative form of knowledge, as immediately taken over from symbolism.
But while some questions of that kind apparently can be dealt with in a detached way, like in an allegedly valuefree professionality of the academic disciplins, or a calm-seeking belle-esprit of the art sphere, then for surrealism it remains of primary importance, in the classic modernist manner, to refuse to separate art and life; all of these questions for surrealism call for their practical application in CHANGING EVERYDAY LIFE, in acknowledging the immanence of the unknown, and organising life so as to meet its challenges rather than codifying practical chores. Everything in surrealism is about life as such, the daily VIGILANCE, and not the least the implimentation of PLAYING, EXPERIMENTING and artistic CREATION in everyday practice, in order to generate dynamising disturbances, seeds of revolt and insights, and those dynamic situations that the situationists call situations.
Furthermore, in practice, surrealism unconditionally valorises the UNTIMELY and USELESS, since narrow goal rationality and pragmatic shortsightedness primarily is about reducing away the unknown and all ambiguity and isolating us within the wooden coats of narrow rationalism and narrow realism. Over-realism in its entirety, open rationalism, and the dynamising of everyday life, all express this, as does specifically the salutation of PLAY. In practice this "uselessness" has two controversial applications; how surrealists tend to dismiss all shortsighted instrumentalism specifically in revolutionary politics, and concerning personal careers. Concerning careers, the surrealists remain nonconformists in contrast with most of their artist and writer colleagues who give in to the practical need of making a sellable brand out of their name and sell whatever creative skills they might have to the any bidder presenting themselves (surrealists will often appear secretive or obscure in commonly refusing "chances" of publicity on moral and political grounds since publicity has a dynamism which is often contrary to poetry, to communication of necessity, to serious reflection (due to its inner mechanisms as well as the open ambitions of those who control it and are controlled by it). Concerning politics, the surrealists insist on irreductive, maximalist, life-encompassing political themes, unlike most of their revolutionary colleagues refusing to put up unto an indefinite future the questions of freedom; in the way it became popular in the 60s to refuse to consider less than the entirety of life and of the spirit in the mobilisation of revolt; and thus, surrealism will always have an important affinity with naive anarchism as well as creative and vain UTOPIANISM, as well as with various more or less science-approaching forms of METHODOLOGY. (Disclaimer: the affinity with naive anarchism and vain utopianism does not necessarily mean that surrealists will favour either as a political alternative, but will always keep addressing the necessities that feed them.)
(As two book projects about surrealist games have failed already, I should probably post some of the materials here, just in case I get hit by a car or something.)
The central role of games in surrealism can be understood either through participation in its ludic spirit in actual games, or analytically, for those who lack the experience, or have it and want to interrogate it further and find ways of generalising it. (I was going to say "through participation in actual surrealist games" but added the extra determination "in its ludic spirit" when I came to think of own experiences of people participating in the former without participating in the latter, remaining either unserious or cynical or obstructive or just purely intellectual...)
There has to be circumsciptions. Many historians and sometimes surrealists themselves include various experiments, interrogations, enquiries and creative methods as games (a few even emphasise the ludic element in individual creativity in general). It can be very interesting to investigate the ludicness of all such activities, but the understanding of what this ludicness consists of, must be based on actual games.
Caillois's theory of games
A systematic enquiry into games in surrealism does best to use as a point of departure ex-surrealist Roger Caillois analysis of games from 1958, building on the groundbreaking work of Johan Huizinga but to my knowledge remaining the most clarifying general framework for analysis of games so far.
In Caillois's analysis, the constitution of play as a sphere in itself detached from other social activities, is due to it fulfilling a number of criteria that separates it from useful social activities:
1) free; participation not obligatory
2) separate; circumscribed in space and time, defined and fixed in advance
3) uncertain; course and outcome undetermined
4) unproductive; creating neither goods nor wealth, returning to status quo (except maybe redistributing wealth among participants)
5) governed by rules, or
6) make-believe; accompanied by a special awareness of a separate reality or of a free unreality, as against real life
(where all must appear simultaneously, except only either 5 or 6 which are mutually exclusive)
Surrealist games may stretch some of these criteria a little, and, it seems, thereby, point out some internal problems of Caillois's set of criteria.
But let's continue with the structure of Callois's concept. He introduces a classification of games as focused on one of four basic mechanisms:
A) agon, competition
B) alea, chance
C) mimicry, simulation
D) ilinx, vertigo
(where A and B are mutually exclusive, but C and D can embrace each other or either of A and B)
and for each of these Caillois suggests a bipolar distribution between
I) paidia, improvisation, turbulence and carefree gayiety
II) ludus, binding with arbitrary, imperative, impractical conventions
(this bipolarity exists for A-D though number I appears more connected with C and D and 6 and number II more with A and B and 5)
if focusing on surrealist games we might have chosen some other parameters as main compass directions, but this concerns all games, and surrealist games too can be analysed in terms of the relative importance of each of these four.
Surrealist games in the light of Caillois's theory
Some of Caillois's points are not so crucial for surrealism, or the specific character of the surrealist games might bring their meaning into question.
Free? Sure, for a particular occasion of playing. Yet the commitment to game in surrealism is a more ambitious commitment, and lies at heart at the commitment to the surrealist adventure, the invocation of the poetic transformation of everyday life and the selling of one's soul to poetry and to that cause.
Separate? Yes and no, because since surrealism encourages the game to contribute to reenchanting reality, it is encouraged to grow out of its initial frames and claim its rights in areas we couldn't quite foresee. Though the original establishing of a game is constituted separately, creates its own rules, its own time, its own connections of meaning, and hopefully threatens to turn them back upon our usual world.
Uncertain? Yes, very much. We don't know where it will take us and we don't know what it will make of us.
Unproductive? In the sense of useless: yes very much. Yet indulging in the useless and unguaranteed is exactly the kind of activity that we expect to be productive in terms of experiences. And it keeps producing artifacts, and its artifacts might gain a secondary use as art or new knowledge or whatever. We expect the interesting stuff to come from this source, but we can't calculate with it. In fact, from the surrealist viewpoint, even the most conscious production of art will not be this separated from the mechanisms of play.
Governed by rules, or make-believe? As defined by Caillois, this make-believe is something deeply problematical from the viewpoint of surrealism. Separate reality, yes in that is not governed by utilistic concerns of our usual habits, but that separate reality has a dynamism of not staying separate but instead being able to intervene in quite dynamic ways in all areas of life. However it is difficult to see the mutual exclusivity between such a reality (in fact a "parareality tending towards overreality") and the governing by rules. The experience of surrealist games in fact tells us specifically that ambitious rules are often a fruitful way of invoking such a reality. There is no contradiction. The games of surrealism are clearly governed by rules in most cases but not all, but we are often eager to revise the rules en route, or improvise new sets of rules according to what the previous results suggested, or according to whim, or according to suggestions of lyrical intoxication into a separate reality. If make-believe in the typical cases is a focused temporary complete faith in a particular suggested view of reality, surrealism is usually more about suspending metaphysical judgment, playing along in order for ideas or scenarios to reveal their potential without necessary succumbing to even temporary faith.
Agon? Rarely. Not important.
Alea? Very often.
Mimicry? Oh yes, but often striving towards simulating the unknown to gain insight in it rather that simulating something known.
Ilinx? Sure, but hardly in itself.
Ludus? Very much. But again without seeing a contradiction versus paidia. Most of surrealism has taken place in intimate interplay between improvisation and impractical conventions.
Some important characteristics of surrealist games, or play in surrealism, that has not been accounted for so far in this model:
collectivity: and this collectivity works together with the method (governed by rules), the alea and the ilinx against the individual.
interpretativity; it typically includes a paranoiac-critical moment; assessing the pattern of the artifacts or insights produced either as a conclusion of the game, to be integrated in theoretical speculation, further creativity and further games, or more immediately as a basis for revising the rules and continuing.
and repeating some key points from above:
intervening and reenchanting (transforming life)
interaction of improvisation and rules
using the products yet remaining in the domain of the useless
Again, play, especially as shown by surrealism, is not all that different from art and science. Maybe that is the major weakness of Caillois's analysis, that since it retains a focus on analytic functionality from an academic viewpoint, it is not only about illuminating what games are about but also to classify in social morphology where exactly the border goes between play, art, science and other enterprises. Of course, in reality they may not be all that separate, but the academic will want to keep them separate in order to account for them within that particular analytic framework. While the rest of us may have reason to emphasise those aspects and moments where the boundaries are vague and perhaps even non-existent, where play and art, play and science, play and daily social interactions, are merged or transformed into one another. There is even nothing wrong with practical utility, as long as it is acknowledged as the trivial puzzle-solving it is, that needs to be put into a wider framework of playing and curiousness towards the unknown, and not vice versa.
(I realise that there has been a systematic assessment of Caillois's principles in a surrealist context before, by Martin Stejskal in Analogon #6 (1992), unfortunately largely inaccessible to me because of language...)
This is an event. There has been few histories of the surrealist movement that weren't either extremely sketchy or completely misinformed, and the ones that weren't, typically still kept arbitrarily, cynically and ignorantly restricting its topic geographically to just a small number of countries and chronologically to end at some date long ago, and thereby misses the fundamental internationalism of surrealism and its ability to inspire ever new activities and therefore as a weapon of choice arouse ever new incarnations. The new Caleidoscopio surrealista – una visión del surrealismo internacional (1919-2011) by Miguel Pérez Corrales, La Pagina eds., is thus far more than a kaleidoscope of surrealism, it is a standard compendium potentially of similar weight as the indispensible Dictionnaire général de Surréalisme et de ses environs, without the illustrations but with a more consistent and far more updated outlook than the DGS.
In fact, those of us who already had had the opportunity to pick up anything like this are extremely few, and now, with this volume, the overview becomes available to anyone with any pretensions of objectivity; so many of those academic historians can now be dismissed; you haven't done your homework – go back and read this book and learn what the surrealist movement has been. (The journalist critics however can probably not be compelled to read bulky books.)
Sitting with a similar dataset on my own, I am probably one of the few who could make a detailed assession of the material throughout; express proper impressment where rare sources have been consulted and where even more information than I have been capable of tracing is referred; point out the various lacunae and potentially controversial delimitations, point out minor errors. Especially in the form of spelling of names, and citing erroneous lifespans, there are a number of those, but considering the vast amount of biographical information included, it has to be concluded that it is a very small fraction, far less than in academic standard works. (And a rather insignificant one to most readers. So I won't be going over these details here.)
So, especially to the extent I am in a similar position, I have to admire the determination to let go at one point. It will never be complete, and if closer to complete it will be far more than these 700 pages. Here, especially, there is no explicit method, no explicit circumscription criteria, and therefore it is open not only to a particular amount of subjectivity (which works good) and a particular amount of impressionism (more regrettable but perhaps unavoidable). I mean, it is inevitable that there are, even in such a book, some omissions, several missings of rather crucial points, and correspondingly, a lot of space given to stuff less crucial.
Since there is hardly such a thing as a lack of method, only more or less conscious and more or less consistent methods, we'll have to acknowledge that the method here is that of vaguely completist, but even more impressionistic, bibliographical chronicle, far more than a historiography. It enumerates and relates a wide and well-informed selection of publications, events and individuals, it does not impose any particular questions on the material, it does not consistently focus on certain aspects, it hardly analyses, tries to look through, see patterns, and since it has no circumscription criteria it can always give the space it likes to certain publications and not regret omitting the omitted.
Personally, it is in fact these dwellings on certain rather randomly selected publications which is the only part which I would seriously have liked to see far less of: long lists of the contents of particular journal issues or anthologies, interspersed with brief subjective judgments; there are so many places where very little space have been left to actual historical and biographical data in favour of arbitrary details about some more or less useful recent publications, very often some recent retrospective exhibition catalog or a recent mention in a surrealismological bulletin like InfoSurr, and in these cases it does of course fulfill a function of source reference which is otherwise very difficult to squeeze in such a massively accumulative-synthetic account. But on the other hand it is often scattered hommages by contemporary or more recent surrealists, or long lists of other names mentioned in the same publication... Though on a greater scale, this is just like a "publications received" section of InfoSurr or Phosphor, a chronicle and not a historiography. Nevertheless, this also fills the function of providing some references for the facts, a task which is extremely difficult in a work of such a scope and such a degree of vast synthesis.
And then I should perhaps examplify what I consider to be imbalanced alotting of space between recent/contemporary surrealist activities: the fact that some untraditional or controversial groups like the Recordists are not mentioned at all (and the Surrealist Action Turkey only in passing) while for example Derrame are given significant space, the fact that certain isolated individuals are given plenty of space while other more collective yet informal strongholds are barely mentioned; the fact that certain surrealist groups like Minnesota and LSG are completely overlooked. It is, regardless, truly astonishing to see so much data amassed with only so minor errors – they are not few, but almost always without great consequences – some names are misspellt, some people's locations are dislocated, a few associations are arbitrarily assumed and a few not-quite-truthful anecdotes are repeated without checking facts.
Yet the book does not open itself to criticism in the area of displaying such lacunae or misbalances; since it lacks any explicit criteria for circumscription and focus. In that sense, we can never be sure what would actually merit a place or not in this story. And that makes it also slightly less useful as a compendium, we can't know that it is within the purpose of the author to give us the full information in any particular question we might be seeking, maybe it's not really part of his scope.
Especially the treatment of British surrealism holds lacunae and errors. The Surrealist group of England in the 70s, the Surrealist Research Group of the 90s, and the contemporary London Surrealist Group are not mentioned at all, The Moment group not in the main history but only in Peter Wood's personal entry etc, while perhaps unproportionate weight is given to 80s ExTrance group. The Birmingham surrealists refusal to participate in the 1936 is, as far as I know, still unconfirmed; Mesens' imposing rigid bylaws of the surrealist group in 1940 is treated with distortive sympathetic understanding, Lyle's quarrel with Coupoure and Chicago's subsequent quarrel with Lyle in 1970 is misrepresented. Four names are misspellt in this section. Kathleen Fox is strangely considered a member of a (in fact non-existent) Welsh surrealist group.
Other countries which I am less than happy with the treatment of, are Germany, Italy and Austria, which are indeed among the most difficult countries to write about here, since surrealist evidence has been scattered and obscure though important. Also Eastern Europe in general is typically rather sketchwise treated. The strangest chapter of all is the small one about Switzerland, which does not cover active surrealists in this country (Oppenheim, the Basel group around Laszlo, the Le La group, the Elephant Celebes activity) but focuses on interned brut artists (a category not covered in other countries).
On the other hand, the detailed information about especially Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries (both on the Iberian peninsula and in South America) is just excellent, and in many cases far more than I have been able to extract elsewhere. Here any imbalances and omissions are clearly volontary and polemically motivated. Against the long tradition in nationalist art history and literature history in Spain to consider vaguely surrealism-influenced or surrealism-parallell artists and writers who did not engage in the international surrealist movement to be an indigenous surrealism independent from and superior to "french" international surrealism, Corrales claims there was extremely little surrealism in Castilia in historical times, thereby well-motivatedly highlighting the internationally oriented surrealists in Catalonia and the Canaries (as well as the obscure Aragonese) and denying much relevance to the famous national official names like Aleixandre, Alberti, Cernuda and Garcia Lorca, but in the process also underemphasising Hinojosa and surrealist ambitions in early days of the Gongorista/generation of `27 environment on the whole. While at the same time in the case of Brazil, resting heavily on Sergio Lima's historiographical efforts, emphasising a lot of such vaguely surrealising "indigenous surrealism", which in this context has perhaps less been used by official academic historiography as a baton against international, organised surrealism.
Corrales set out to demonstrate that surrealism is international rather than French, and continuing rather than a thing of the past – which is easily, but here indeed commendably done – but also to show that the way surrealism has popped up in different guises in different countries does NOT mean that there is only a bundle of different national surrealisms which are not necessarily closely related to each other. The latter point is also an important one, if surrealism is internationalist it is also one, regardless of the different emphases made and historical conclusions drawn by different surrealist activities in different places. Yet it is a point which is far more difficult to make without a particular method, and without a clear interpretation. So in the end, this unity is still assumed more than demonstrated, and the author is as happy as anyone to relate anecdotes about contradictions, without making an effort to sort out constants and variables in characterisations.
This book is not just a correction of the narrowness of a reader's prejudiced conception about the limits of surrealism, it is, thereby and beyond, also a massive compendium of suggestions of artists, poets and theories to check up works by and be inspired by, suggestions of crucial points in history where it becomes extremely interesting to research further into the response and significance of surrealism and the strategies of the surrealists at that time and place, suggestions of people to get in contact with!
Wow. What an achievement. Still so open. Still calling for response.
(illustrations are collage sketches by Gabriella Novak from the collective Stockholm surrealist group work on the Analogical Bonegarden for the International Surrealist Exhibition in Reading, Pennsylvania january 2012)