quarta-feira, 15 de maio de 2019

MICHAEL RICHARDSON | Surrealist internationalism today

As we approach the centenary of surrealism, the movement that emerged in the aftermath of a First World War that had devastated Europe and instituted a crisis of consciousness within Western thought has known a remarkable longevity. Internationalist from its very inception, surrealism has always crossed national boundaries and found an echo in many countries. Today individuals across the globe continue to identify with surrealist aims and groups are still being formed that lay claim to be responding to the surrealist exigency. While some of these groups may be ephemeral and know only a brief existence, those in Czecho-Slovakia, Madrid, Stockholm, Paris and Leeds have all been continuously active for more than two decades, engaging in a range of activities.
With the exception of the one in Stockholm they have each established impressive journals documenting their own activity and engaging with the situation of surrealism in the world today. Many smaller groups or assemblies of individuals have taken part in international networks that have published, facilitated by electric media, a wide range of material that shows that surrealism still has a force of fascination for some of the younger generation. This confounds the many critics who assume that such movements make a historical contribution before running out of steam and giving way to something new. Thus, the death of surrealism has been proclaimed almost from the moment that it emerged. That the movement should have continued to exist and revitalise itself is almost an affront to the forward march of progress which, in accordance with the linear time that dominates today’s world, takes it for granted that ideas, like everything else, are constantly being superseded by new initiatives. What is it that has allowed surrealism to confound this unwritten but iron law and to have retained its vitality a full century after it first emerged?
In the wake of the collapse of the original Parisian surrealist group in 1969, Jean Schuster posited the controversial idea of a separation between a ‘historical surrealism’ and an ‘eternal surrealism’. This notion was immediately contested, notably by Vratislav Effenberger, who insisted that surrealism could only be historically determined. But if this is so, then logically surrealism must be contingent upon the historical circumstances that gave rise to it. That it might be ‘eternal’ may be going too far, but nevertheless if we are to account for the perennial quality that surrealism has assumed a distinction may need to be made between those elements that are determined by historical exigencies and those that stand above them and respond to more elemental needs. That is, unless its continuation isn’t to be explained as a form of nostalgia for what once was, on a par, for instance, with those revivalists who continue to perform trad jazz, or some other antiquated music, long after it has ceased to respond to the cultural necessities of the age.
One hundred years on from the foundation of surrealism, the world in which we live does in some ways uncannily reflect the situation of a century ago. If those of us who live in Europe or the Americas are not (yet) living in the aftermath of a devastating war, a comparable moral crisis has nevertheless become apparent as a result of financial mismanagement and the disastrous effects of a Western militaristic adventurism, spearheaded by the United States, that has laid waste to the Middle East and elsewhere. This means that moral crisis is essentially no different from that to which the surrealists of a century ago were responding. In other respects, however, our ways of living have changed so fundamentally that to respond to the crisis in the same way today would be singularly inappropriate and consign oneself to irrelevance.
Perhaps the most important difference from the situation of a century ago is that there is now no discernable alternative to the crisis of capitalist accumulation. Then surrealism was part of a dynamic social and political struggle that offered a vision of a new society. This promise perhaps first came into consciousness with the French Revolution (although it had earlier roots), a revolutionary sensibility that perceived the possibility of the formation of a new society established through a root and branch social upheaval. This revolutionary consciousness experienced the vicissitudes of fortune for half a century after surrealism was formed and came to a culmination in 1968. The failure of the various upheavals occurring during this year, especially those in France during May, to effect a meaningful change in the social fabric, exposed the limits of this revolutionary consciousness. More than half a century later, it has still not recovered from this loss. The French surrealists were indeed among the first to recognise the nature of this breakdown in revolutionary consciousness and the Paris group would itself fall apart during the early part of 1969. This was the background against which Schuster made the distinction between a ‘historical’ and an ‘eternal’ surrealism, implying that if one surrealism had died another would arise from its ashes.
This has certainly occurred. The French surrealist group was soon re-constituted, and although it assumed a different form the one that had fallen apart in 1969, its theoretical position remained essentially the same. And while many other groups have since taken shape both in France and around the world, the fault line that was revealed over the course of 1968 and 1968 has not been repaired and it continues to haunt the discourse not only of surrealism but of the whole social and cultural movement of which it was part.
The gap has been filled by various forms of dispersion and relativism that have been given authority through theories emerging from post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-colonialism, post-humanism and other movements of thought whose post- epithet marks the paradigmatic change that had occurred. Perhaps the most significant shift, however, was that made from an internationalist and revolutionary consciousness to that of a localised identity politics. In more recent years this has come to dominate the discourse and underlies movements of change of both the left and right.
Although the surrealists were among the first to recognise that the rigidity of the social and sexual roles imposed on us raised a problematic at the heart of personal relationships, the form that identity politics has assumed from the early 1970s could only be disturbing from a surrealist perspective. The embrace of the unlimited difference that identity politics ushered in (and which has inevitably brought forth its complementary reaction in the various forms of religious, political and economic fundamentalism that would seek to foreclose on the notion of difference altogether) neutralises the rending effect of the surrealist recognition, derived from Hegel and Rimbaud above all, of the otherness of the personality – the realisation that the I is other. Annie Le Brun was one of the first to become aware of the significance of this shift to a politics of difference with the publication in 1977 of her book Lachez tout, in which she excoriated what she called a ‘neo-feminism’ that had ‘virtually dispossessed [every woman] of individual renewal’ because ‘her every
escapade risks being hijacked to serve the construction of an ideology as contradictory in its propositions as it is totalitarian in its intentions’.  Le Brun has since fought a largely lone battle against other forms of identitarian politics, be they the exploitation of sectarian divides that resulted in the Yugoslavian civil war, the doctrine of Creolism in the Caribbean or the technological determinism that has led to the ‘reality overload’ that dominates today’s world. With her idea of a ‘reality overload’, Le Brun has perhaps identified the key element against which surrealist efforts today ought to be directed. This ‘reality’ that ‘rejects nothing and nobody’, as Le Brun puts it, is in constant motion and ‘has become completely invasive… the overabundance, accumulation, and saturation of information force events into the collision of an excess of time and an excess of space’ (Le Brun, 2008: 4). Notwithstanding her nostalgia for the revolt of yesteryear, which in some people’s eyes may undermine the force of her argument, Le Brun is one of the few surrealists to be addressing how this the normalisation of revolt represents one of the crises of our time and specifically effects surrealism. It is a situation that contrasts markedly – or might be seen as the reverse side of its coin – with the ‘paucity of reality’ that Breton identified a century ago as the major enemy that surrealism at that time was called upon to combat and represents a challenge to be confronted.
The reality overload we face today and the alarming polarisation of attitudes it encourages, calls for what José Manuel Rojo has called ‘ an encrypted communication that would safeguard the purity of the phenomenon in itself’ (2014: 282). This communication, as Rojo says, deriving from individual and non-transferable experience, will be judged by how it becomes reproduced in other people as it retains its power and capacity for suggestion and contagion. Such an intimate form of communication should be seen as a form of the untimely activity advanced long ago by Nietzsche in his book of this title and taken up more recently by Giorgio Agamben. As Steven Harris has shown (2016: 397-8), for Agamben ‘there is an “unlived” dimension of contemporary life which is invisible to those most attuned to the contemporary, who are not therefore contemporary’. Paradoxically it is those who are conscious of this untimely and ‘unlived’ dimension who are most contemporary. This was a point that the surrealists Paul Garon, Franklin Rosemont and Penelope Rosemont had made even before Agamben. To address this unlived dimension calls for a practice that eludes the values and mores of the time and maintains its vitality through a critical distance from them. If surrealism retains its significance it is surely through its embrace of its untimeliness.
This idea was implicit in surrealism from the beginning, through their dialectical understanding of Rimbaud’s demand for us to be ‘absolutely modern’. This did not mean embracing the modern as the Italian Futurists and other modernist movements had done, but rather approaching it critically and in an oppositional sense. As Rimbaud also said, ‘the battle for the soul is as brutal as the battles of men’, and the surrealists were aware that this was a battle that had to be fought and not passively accepted. Thus the surrealists only accepted those aspects of modernism that contributed to the development of a new consciousness, what Breton called the ‘modern spirit’ which would rub modernity itself against the grain.  
Beyond historical contingency, therefore, the quest for the real life invoked by Rimbaud and that the earliest surrealists took as their watchword, remains not only pertinent but also vital. In seeking the annihilation of being into a diamond that constitutes the supreme point through its activity, whilst retaining the attitude of ‘total insubordination’ that marked its beginnings, surrealism today perhaps needs to stand against the cosmopolitanism that would abolish distance whilst exalting difference and diversity, and remain true to the internationalist spirit that simultaneously exalts solidarity across cultural and social borders whilst reasserting of the fundamental otherness of the personality. The I is still another, haunted by the apparition of those I haunt.

Agamben, Giorgio. “What Is the Contemporary?” in What Is an Apparatus? Trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009, 39-54.
Blanchot, Maurice (1995) ‘Reflections on Surrealism’, translated by Charlotte Mandell. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Harris, Steven (2016) ‘The Surrealist Movement from the 1940s’, in A Companion to Dada and Surrealism, edited by David Hopkins. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.
LeBrun, Annie (2008) The Reality Overload: the Modern World’s Assault on the Imaginal Realm, translated by Jon E. Graham. Rochester: Inner Traditions.
Rojo, José Manuel (2014) ‘Consequences of the Misuse of Electricity: On the experimental phase of the capitalism of the spirit’ Hydrolith, issue no 2, originally published in Salamandra 11-12 (2002).
Schuster, Jean (2001) ‘The Fourth Canto’ in Surrealism Against the Current, translated by Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski. London: Pluto Press.


Artista convidado: Jan Dočekal (República Checa, 1943)

Agulha Revista de Cultura
Número 134 | Maio de 2019
editor geral | FLORIANO MARTINS | floriano.agulha@gmail.com
editor assistente | MÁRCIO SIMÕES | mxsimoes@hotmail.com
logo & design | FLORIANO MARTINS
revisão de textos & difusão | FLORIANO MARTINS | MÁRCIO SIMÕES
ARC Edições © 2019

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