Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Surrealism and philosophy

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.)

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