Monday, April 21, 2008

An open letter to a PhD student

Dear Jenny

Thank you for your emails asking for a copy of our manifesto and telling us about the research you are doing on Surrealism for your PhD. We must admit that we were rather surprised to hear from an art historian. After all, everyone knows that academia died in 1969. We have seen websites of some more recent art historians around the world, but they seem to us to be totally superficial, mere imitations of the real art history of the 1920s and 30s. At any rate that's the conclusion we've jumped to on the basis of what came up when we typed the words "art history" into Google.

All the same, we're impressed by the honesty with which you confess your ignorance about the contemporary Surrealist movement – and indeed, more unwittingly, about the wider world. You freely admit that you have no idea what a group like ours could possibly be doing: in your own words, "radical actions, I am sure, but of what type and to what purpose, I cannot imagine ... maybe you are actually working towards a revolution but I know nothing of it". At this point we did wonder what "the Surrealism [you] have come to love, admire and above all, be inspired by" might have been, exactly: apparently not the one which burned – which still burns – with the revolutionary fire of Marx and Rimbaud, freedom and necessity, in a single flame. Obviously your inability to comprehend the possibilities of revolutionary action today must be the result of the weakness of your own imagination because, as you will have read in a book, imagination alone offers us some intimation of what can be.

You seem to be inviting us to persuade you to "believe in" revolution ("I would just like to know more before I believe in it. Otherwise, it would be a blind faith, a hype or both"). But if you want an argument in favour of revolution, all you have to do is look at the dismal fucking state of the world around you. The first question to ask yourself is not whether you think the revolution possible, but whether you think it necessary. When you have answered that simple question, everything else will fall into place, and your self-confessed confusion about contemporary Surrealism will be resolved in a word.

But for now, at least, your letter raises no expectations that you would answer that question as we do. You invite us to "carry on a correspondence" with you, not from any sense of shared purpose, but simply on the basis that you are writing about Surrealism in your PhD. You apparently expect this in and of itself to be meaningful, relevant or even merely interesting to us. Let's be clear: it isn't. Some of our comrades in the international Surrealist movement derive satisfaction from arguing with academics, but we don't get our jollies that way. We feel no desire to explain or justify ourselves to you, nor do we see how your PhD, or the scores of others like it, will be of any benefit to the contemporary Surrealist movement. Like most academics, you complacently believe that academic writing is important, and that we have a vested interest in "setting the record straight" among academics simply because their good opinion is worth having for its own sake. The only circumstances in which we might engage with academics would be if they were offering to put their resources at the disposal of genuinely revolutionary activity. And by resources we mean the material resources of their money, libraries, IT and printing facilities – not the "expertise" they hawk around the marketplace of journals, book catalogues, international conferences, the Research Assessment Exercise, and all the other status games which distract them so effectively from the real, fierce possibilities of the world.

So which is more important to you, Surrealism or your PhD? Clearly at the moment it's your PhD. That's why you find it so difficult to accept that the art history books your supervisor has been telling you to read are wrong when they say that Surrealism is dead; that's why you're parping on about "the Surrealist aesthetic" and the "stature" of the pre-69 Paris group instead of getting down and dirty with the likes of us. You're too busy fellating the mortician to notice that the patient isn't dead.

If and when you decide to obey the demands of your imagination at last and join the ongoing Surrealist revolution, we'll be ready to hear from you.

Until then –

Regards from SLAG ~ Surrealist London Action Group


Jenny (PhD Student) said...

Dear Pearl Handel and co.,

I too am surprised you heard "from an art historian". Or, is the "PhD Student" of your title to be conflated with an "art historian"? I suggest a dictionary to begin with. Try the Oxford Dictionary of English. If the first edition doesn't help, then, do try the second and revised one.
On a similar note, you might want to consult a public library (if the academic ones are slightly beyond your reach), under the art theory and above all, the art criticism sections, other than Google. When you do that and if I have nothing better to do with my time, we can talk about art history in some vigorous and exciting terms, as opposed to sluggish (coincidentally, isn't the phonetic relation between SLAG and sluggish a rather beautiful one?) and lethargic ones.
In the meantime, let me respond to your long awaited "proper reply", though "open letter" is a much more accurate choice, I do find. To clarify, "open letter" seems more appropriate because a "proper reply" would necessitate a critical response to something someone has said and not a piece of writing made out of fragmentary quotes, arbitrarily extracted from the context, indeed the meaning of one's thoughts and arguments. In this case mine.Unless of course you weren't competent enough to do this. Then again, in the field of research and communication (two words you might also wish to look up) this is rather elementary.See, your "proper reply" not only distorted the questions I raised, but also conveniently muted the really crucial ones that un/wittingly missed your notice. What happened for example, to the principle of openess I juxtaposed to your "occultation" and your attempt to relate the latter so monolithically and reductively to the historical Surrealism-the one you claim to be continuing?Are you indifferent to, or simply ignorant about this critical element (of openess and by implication, communication) within Surrealism, I wonder?
Now, to actually respond to your own wondering, the latter should not have even occurred to start with, had you understood what I meant by arguing that "for me Surrealism is something larger than life". Did I have to be so exclicit so as to mention Marx and Rimbaud so as for you to be able to make the relevant links? Apologies, I thought I was addressing individualls well-versed to the ideology of the historical Surrealism, including the cliche names and words.
I would recommend the use of some imagination, but this is bound to be reductive once dictated and also, in your case in particular, I'm afraid that it will only take you to paths already taken and not the "what can be" you aspire to go.
Speaking of which, it is neither the necessity nor the possibility of a revolution summed up in the "what can be" that which I have questioned (pitty you've wasted a whole paragraph supposedly counter-arguing something already agreed on). It is your exact participation in it I have doubted and challenged. As for my "self-confessed confusion about contemporary surrealism" you too would probably suffer from it (most constructively), if you compared your group to the ones most powerfully and meaningfully active in the 1920s and '30s. Against their stature you can only be shadows. And particularly deformed ones, I'd say. No wonder you will never hear from an art historian! As a PhD student, I momentarily mistook you for someone else. I do apologise. You are right, there is no "sense of shared purpose" here. No sense at all, in fact. Not even "if it is only to debate, or better still, communicate", as my correspondence naivly read, prior to your distortion.
And to be clear, I never claimed my PhD to be "meaningful, relevant or even merely interesting to [you]". To recall, you were the ones asking "to know more about the nature of [my] research" etc so as to allow me access to your precious manifesto. Something which by definition, should be accessible to everyone, for it to claim the title and a meaning. How lame can this be?Providing a 'manifesto' (not to sign but to simply read!) upon email request and subject to conditions?If this highly unjustifiable esotericism and individualism (masked as grouped activity, let alone Surrealism)is your interpretation of "genuinely revolutionary activity" , invoking a project that encompasses "changing life" and "transforming the world", then you have clearly no understanding whatsoever of what such a project entails and means.
You are certainly not part of those "status games" you are so scornfully opposing. You have constructed your own "status game" which is in fact a farce. Played according to your own whims, terms and resources and which will never go further than your blogs.
Why should I even consider "getting down and dirty with the likes of you"? I would much rather be with the academics, if there needs to be a crucade of some sort. At least most of them are inspiring and they allow enough space for critical questioning and debate.
You have asked me all the wrong questions!"Surrealism or [my] PhD?" Is that what really interests you to know? None of the two, my answer is, if it matters that much to you. Research is what I'm after. And, yes, writing, as well!Of an intellectually stimulating, exciting and unconditional type-unknown to you. To that end, patients and corpses interest me not.
Be sure that for the purposes I serve and I am served by, I shall never succumb to the demands of a SLAGgish/sluggish "imagination". My research here is done, I shall look elsewhere-and here's the final word you may find useful looking up.

John Mansfield said...

I think that for something to count as a "revolution", you really need other people to go with you. And probably quite a lot of people.

I may do all sort of subversive things (in fact I do), but if they only happen within my own little circle of existence, and almost nobody else knows / cares about them - then that's not revolution. It's just me doing my own thing. Which is great.

cut_throat said...

John, are you suggesting that Surrealists can't call ourselves revolutionary because we've never been a mass movement? That is appallingly defeatist. It is also patently false. The revolutionary character of Surrealism is not quantitative but qualitative. It comes from the passion with which we practise our principles. We are not prepared to water down those principles to make ourselves more palatable to the world at large. That would be the politics of the lowest common denominator – in fact it would be more like marketing than politics.

Your comments about "little circles of existence" are similarly defeatist. To pursue the Marvellous, whether alone, with a few friends, or with a whole international movement, is to practise the Surrealist revolution in everyday life. Since each of us already contains multitudes, even a small Surrealist group is already a teeming army. Multiply that army by thousands and you still have only glimpsed a fraction of the poetic power at our disposal. If the circle of your own existence is little, it's because you have chosen to keep it that way. Take your own revolutionary power more seriously, and you could populate a galaxy with one beat of the heart.

A.Torch said...

Sounds like John Mansfield's definition of a revolution dictates broad geographical areas touched or linked by like-minded individuals with a common cause or goal? If so, maybe you and Miss Jenny Phd should be aware that our Movement never stopped in your neatly ribbon-tied package you call Art Historical time-lines, for the sake of making the chapters in YOUR books flow better. I am here to unequivocally state that the Revolution reaches from London to overseas, on behalf of myself and the St. Louis Surrealist Group (USA). You will also find similar groups in the same service of Surrealist Revolution in Portland, Chicago, the West Coast and other areas of the U.S., major cities in Australia, the founding group GPMS-France, Stockholm, Athens, Prague, Leeds and London...... just to name a few active groups! So dear Jenny before you speak ignorantly again maybe you should go back to the library and do more research and then come back again for more edification. Best wishes -
Andrew Torch and the STLSG (USA)