Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Conceptualising surrealist walking

Spontaneously, it makes sense to regard surrealist walking as militant investigation. I was recently invited to talk in a connection implying this consideration, even though it was, luckily, not an event of conceptual analysis but a discussion trying to suggest the points of, and invoke and examplify the process of, surrealist walking.

(Conceptually, since this is one of those places that do that: the concept of "militant investigations" as developed in Italy in the 60s by Romano Alquati and friends, is a dynamic and inspiring concept regardless of how widely one accepts currently available items in the margin as instances thereof.
 And the practice of surrealist walking is a continuingly rewarding practice which is not dependent on legitimation in political or philosophical terms to be meaningful.
 "Militant investigations" is the systematical practice of mapping everyday lives, conflicts and desires so as to reveal new patterns and new openings on a substantially empirical basis. Very often it is used to reveal real conflicts and real needs on workplaces, but just as fundamental is the organisation of everyday life. And the area of relevance benefits from being widened from the spheres of organising household labor and consumption to all aspects of everyday life.
 Conceptually: "everyday life" includes the area of play, love, sleep, dream, idling and fun, and "real needs" includes all needs of stimulation and provocation including intellectually, emotionally and poetically, and "social relationships" include all the potential unexpected encounters, love affairs, etc. Militant investigations in a wide sense are the empirical investigation of social reality and everyday life, with an aim to transform. Eleventh Feuerbach thesis, you know.
 Social reality is the sum of all social relationships, and the radical transformation of social reality equals social revolution.
 Specifically, militant investigations works in assuming that people's everyday experiences that are often disregarded as meaningless are part of meaningful patterns that reveal something which can be used in order to challenge the social order. It works by highlighting the invisible, and it works by discovering which contradictions that make sense in everyday life.)

Readers of this blog may know surrealist walking. Typically you just wander spontaneously, usually in the urban environment, alone or in a group, but trying to stick to the special kind of availability than distinguishes betweens urges of habit, laziness, cowardice or least resistance, and urges of discovery, curiousness, desire, inner necessity, and poetry. Being in a group easily provides release from certain utilistic constraints: one needs no idea of direction, and can always assume (if it is difficult not to worry) that someone else is leading. But there are also far more systematic approaches which are easily available to a single individual too, and indeed very often call for a splitting up of the group into divergent excursions and later reassembly for comparing notes. As surrealists, we typically arrange such driftings as games, focusing on a particular method of moving or of interpretation or a particular theme or sphere of association. Or a plethora of methods, and the autonomous movement of a living entity of which the individuals are merely parts.

Surrealist walking investigates the environment (typically the urban environment) in a transformational sense: moving as vagrancy, moving without authorisation, moving beyond utilistic transport; moving through a "sea of signs" (making oneself available to emergent patterns of meaning amidst the vast flow), through a "forest of symbols" (discovering the layering of patterns of meaning, the hiddenness of certain poles of intense meaning) , through a "succession of ambiances" (clear domains of tangibly different fields of possibilities inspiring different kinds of thoughts, actions, fantasies and interactions), through a "web of encounters" (bouncing from one intersection point between trajectories to another in a sequence that generates an adventure); demasking, opening up and generating meaning as it goes. It is indeed the successive revealing of "another city", which overlaps with the one on the official maps, but through a gestalt switch instead structured in accordance with desire and sensibility, a network of ambiances and surprises. It is about the reenchantment of lifespace. Making the city a liveable place by disenveloping the undervegetation in plain sight, and let our relationship with the place and our spatial movement be as meaning-generating as it would be.
A crucial aspect of this seems to be the "suspension of metaphysical judgment". A direct contrary to the miserabilist approach of no-nonsense "common sense" which aggressively assumes that things that coincide are necessarily random and have no connection, that things that speak to you actually spoke about something else and have nothing to tell you; surrealists tend to assume that coincidences make sense, that what you meet is relevant in connection with your present adventures and worries, that what you find is a response to what you are looking for, as a way of rebuilding a meaningful world, not as if it was all expressions of some particular fate or hidden will, not in the manner of the clinically paranoid as something that you need to obey or escape for otherwise you will get hurt, but simply as an inevitable part of life, as an expression of the ways by which meaning is generated. Messages speak, associations abound, interesting connections are preferred, doubts arise, hidden patterns emerge, insights awake, worlds in which the imagination enjoys to work claim space.

Of course a lot of this general manner of drifting and interpretative movement is codified by some of the surrealists' successors, the lettrists and situationists, and its inception into radical movements today very often as distinct post-situationist interpretations with different proportions of anarchism, poststructuralism, heterodox marxism, desire philosophy and live-role-playing in their foundations. Through this part of tradition, there is an increasing tendency to focus on the dynamics and disregard the ambiances; attentive to factors that facilitate movement in one direction or another but less likely to exert a sensibility to the places themselves and acknowledge their spirit. Such drifting is typically fuelled, and attracted or repelled by, the spirit of places but without recognising it and questioning it. Modern activists are well aware of the contradiction between free availability and imposed control over space, and sometimes may have a tendency to interpret all available signs as signs of this particular conflict (at worst seeing the landscape only as a massive bulletin board for signs of exclusion and the occasional scattered stickers with shouts for freedom). But signs of what you were already looking for are not signs in the sense of free movement and in the hope of discovering hidden patterns, it is necessary to move beyond the preconceived conflicts to see other potential conflicts arising, and especially the utopian suggestions, be they already put into practice or just feral hunches.

The conflicts in the urban environment are thus not just the ones in terms that are perhaps conventionally targetted by militant investigation (conflicts between access and exclusion, free popular use and controlled use) but also conflicts between actual use and possible use (in terms of playful, poetic, wild or utopian use) and conflicts in atmosphere and directionality which surrealist methods may perhaps be specifically useful for finding (conflicts in emerging patterns of meaning, but also conflicts in categories and implications of found objects and material association chains). The transformation invoked is both the change already implied in the investigation, rendering the environment meaningful, readable, savourable, and the direct changes of slight disturbances as well as the opening up of paths through the urban landscape, and the change suggested by conceptualising new use of places, including the various forms of exchange and alliances with other people encountered there.


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