Monday, January 30, 2012

Surrealism is irreducible

The tendency of capitalism is to reduce all forms of value to exchange-value. This is the basic mechanism of commoditisation. Everything must be brought to market, where all things are interchangeable. Whether it's a ton of cotton or a work of art, a Tarot card or a saxophone solo, the logic of capitalism is to line it up on the supermarket shelf and make it all purchasable with the same currency. It is a logic of equivalence according to which things are made interchangeable – are commoditised – by a refusal to recognise the differences in quality between them. That is why the logic of commoditisation and exchange is also an identitarian logic, because it flattens out difference into sameness: the only differences it can recognise are differences of quantity.

Surrealism, as everyone knows, is among other things a struggle against both exchange-value and identitarian thinking. That is why dialectics is so fundamental to Surrealism. André Breton famously nailed Surrealism's colours to the mast of dialectics in the Second Manifesto:

Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. Now search as one may one will never find any other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point.

This definition of Surrealism as a search for the vanishing point between contradictions is often-cited, but there is a danger that it can be misunderstood when taken out of the context of the manifesto's wider discussion of dialectics. Readers who misunderstand the wider dialectical argument can take the passage to mean that the task of Surrealism is merely to deny the contradictions, rather than to strive to find the vanishing point between them. Dialectics does not mean abolishing contradictions with an act of wishful thinking; it involves conflict and struggle, both within and without, so that by overcoming the contradiction between X and Y we produce Z – and it's the newly-born thing, the Z, that's the vanishing point, the point of surreality. Simply denying the contradictions rather than overcoming them – claiming that X and Y are already just the same thing, rather than actively struggling for Z – is a capitulation to precisely the logic of equivalence and exchange-value that Surrealism opposes.

The prevalence of postmodernism and poststructuralism, which seem to have seeped into contemporary consciousness by osmosis, may at least partly lie behind the apparently increasing frequency with which this kind of mistake is made. Poststructuralism in particular has taught at least two generations that contradictions – now reframed as "binaries" – can be deconstructed through textual play. This notion itself rests on a conceptualisation of texts as comprised of signifiers which are explicitly theorised as free-floating, interchangeable exchange-objects in a flattened-out linguistic field. While conformist humanities undergraduates everywhere are now able to "deconstruct the binaries", including those of class and gender, with a wave of their textual wands, the more popular versions of this style of thinking merge at worst with New Age burbling about "the illusion of reality" and "the underlying oneness of being". Thus the field of struggle has been turned into alphabet soup on the one hand and sentimental goo on the other, and a pattern of thought based on defeatism and/or escapism – "contradictions are bad, but they don't really exist so it's all ok" – has become habitual in all kinds of "radical" and "anti-capitalist" circles.

One of the most damaging consequences of such misunderstandings of contradiction and value is that they ultimately apply the logic of equivalence and exchange-value to Surrealism itself, turning Surrealism into just another interchangeable thing on the shelf. On a practical level this comes up rather concretely, for example, when Surrealists play or collaborate with non-Surrealists who are interested in some of the same things as us, such as jazz, automatism or the occult. Collaborations with non-Surrealist fellow-travellers are often exciting, refreshing, energising and revealing, but only on condition that everyone involves keep sight of the differences between Surrealism itself and the collaborators in question. The fact that some artists use automatic techniques does not mean that what those artists are doing is the same as Surrealism; the fact that contemporary pagans are interested in Tarot and occult symbolism does not mean that Surrealism is the same as paganism, or that the "voice" a pagan hears in the forest is the same "voice" that we hear from the automatic muse. If we deny these differences between Surrealism and its (real or apparent) allies – if we reduce Surrealism to something interchangeable with art, jazz, New Age spirituality or whatever it may be this time – then we have capitulated to the logic of exchange-value when we should be defeating it. Surrealism is irreducible. Accept no substitutes.

Merl Fluin

11 comments:

martin marriott said...

I love you, Merl, and I love intellectual discussion. This discussion you open up here, on what surrealism actually is, what makes a person attracted to such a thing, is wonderful and I am convinced at once that it will be a great service. I am at once re-stimulated to return to the Second Manifesto, and to poke the eyes of desire into the Prole for a third manifesto. How exciting, to grapple with these questions. The first thought upon reading it is to recall that Karl Marx, together with Fred Engels, pioneered the method of analysis we call dialectical materialism, and Marx pointed out that it does not apply to certain great poetry. As you know, Marx was a great lover of poetry, and avidly read the German Romantic poetry of his time. He said some poetic expressions are universally and completely true. That is my first thought. Thank you, Merl.

martin marriott said...

As I recall it, he said that some poetic expressions exist "outside of time." I wonder which ones he had read, which ones he was thinking of. That in itself is a fascinating question, and encourages me to look into the german romantic poets, the "prehensile tail" of surrealism. What fun this all is !

martin marriott said...

Merl, I have to thank you for opening up an entirely new area for my roving eye. I googled Karl Marx and poetry, and heaps of fascinating stuff popped up, enough to feed on for a knife-time. As you can imagine, I'm not a big fan of philosophy, a lived life amongst other live lives, that has my feet and vote, and my eyes popped out of my eyes like a surrealist bugs bunny when i read something by brother Karl in PoemHunter.com. It's quote 24.... Every man is occassionally visited by the suspicion that the planet on which he is riding is not really going anywhere: that the Force which controls it's measured eccentricities haven't anything special in mind. If he broods on this sombre thought long enough he gets the doleful idea that the laughing children on a merry-go-round or the thin, fine fingers on a lady's watch are revolving more purposely than he is. Philosophy stands in the same relation to the study of the actual world as masturbation to sexual love.

martin marriott said...

There is very much to adore and be fascinated by, in the poetic imagery Marx writes here. Just a few things that spring out at me. He talks of the Force. Nowadays, trying to understand the Force is at the obsessive centre of all natural sciences. His love for children and women, in his choosing of those two images. The way he is drawn to the image of a circle, as the answer to philosophy, as we are all drawn to circles as we potter around in our lives. The delightful ease with which he has different circles in his mind simultaneoulsy, one kind of horizontal and one which moves around in all ways, with the simple movements of a woman's arm. the fact that he chooses a woman's hand, for he could have chosen a man's. the pleasure, certainly erotic, as Marx suggests quietly some other circles that a woman might have. And such grace in his approach. He himself clearly has walked in the park and seen the children, and it comes to him naturally to think of children playing, as an alternative to the abstract aridity of philosophy. His magnetic attraction to the circle, nature and women's charming grace is what he soaks into as he feels that philosophy is a wall to life itself in the here and now, how it is an obstacle to his desires to physically move. Thoughout the words, which are so rich in the complete fusion of poetry and thought, one feels at all time his light pleasure in writing it, that he is really inside what label-makers call 'the pleasure principle.' He is having fun. It even has a punch line. What a man he is. What we can adore and hug in his poetry.

martin marriott said...

A few minutes after writing this, which undoubtedly, by me focussing on his images, led to a rise in my own pleasure and openness. I was then at once drawn to the infinity symbol, and how the force inside the universe is infinite and yet there is movement because one of the circles, the woman's hand, moves and swivels around. It also led me, by the intersecting of the two circles but one with mobility, to the image of handcuffs. So I straightaway fused the forces of the universe with the connection between man and woman, the unending bonding, a form of bondage, in which the male is grounded and fixed, yet it is the woman who provides the essential energy. When we now imagine the children playing on the fixed circle, it allows us a great appreciation of the role of the father.

martin marriott said...

There's been a banner hanging at the Occupy movement's playground in New York City. (oh, how John Lennon, lover of the Big Apple, is dancing that dance.) THe banner says,

I Am Not A Commodity !

That is marvellous, the completely personal expression of free-thinking, free-acting, free-dreaming, free-living.

It is like me. I am writing to you now only because I desire to do so, for no other reason at all, just an impulse to share something with you.

This has been stewing unknown to me for two months or so, and still it rolls out before you like a new-born baby. It does not yet have feet, it is not pop like "Oh, I get it!" But it may be a beginning of something, and I want to share it.

The beautiful rebel, filled with the glory of eternal springtime, who wrote it, is right. They are not a commodity at the moment they wrote it. They wrote it. They felt no impulse to then put in brackets, afterwards, "tho really, life's kind of shit and i'm depresed and fucked-up on drugs and my wife just left me and i've no money and sometime soon those cops over there are going to come and smash my face in and then what will i do because i'm too small to resist them and these so-called friends will scatter like the wind when that happens and i'll be all alone to face this terrible monster charging down upon me and devouring me. They didn't write that, because I saw a picture of the banner and it didn't say that. It just said

I AM NOT A COMMODITY !

It's a wonderful banner, because it can make you wonder about a lot of stuff, whatever you want, and it makes you feel really good inside to read it.

It makes me think now about the 'poetic moment', though I already want to say 'the poetic place.' This place "outside of time," the nowness and liberation and anti-repression of it. I think that feeling, when you are in that place, is like a drug for many of us. Once you've been in it, you can never quite leave it alone. you attend dreary meetings, listen to each other talking about how your getting illnesses now your older, everyone's money worries and pragmatic issues, do some scribbles, it might be kinda fun, and you put up with it only because that feeling you had when you wrote that thing, or did that thing, or saw that thing and you're just not willing to walk away from it. And those experiences your body had, the excitement and aliveness and expansiveness it felt, exerts a tremendous pull, because it's linked to the life-force itself. So it holds you like a magic spell. Like a terrific mushrom trip, there are two parts to your life, before and after the trip. You never are the same after that trip, and it can't be undone. It structurally, physically, changes you into a different person, wider, bigger, more alert, more soaking in, more intuitive, more spontaneous, more urgent and deeper in your connections.

So I'm thinking about this "surrealist moment" or "poetic moment", and i'm thinking it exists though the bailiffs be kicking your door in, though you have no job and no lover, though a thousand childhood shadows lurk next to you, they do not exist in the poetic moment.

I think this is the drug of surrealism.

I think it is that precise moment when you know fully that you are free to do anything at all you wish to, and the world is nothing more than a sexy bowl of fascinating fruit, provided with great care and enticement for you.

I see you, I love you, and I hope you will join in with us in our great adventure.

Fred del Topo said...

This post makes me want to hang myself upside down by the balls, Merl.

martin marriott said...

I am the will, I am the way, I love you and more each day, I am the will, I am the way, a cat from it's tail can't stray, you the the will, you are the way, it's time to make a brand-new day, we are the will, we are the way, let's grab the kids and have some play, for we are the will, for we are the way, so drunken flowers kiss my grave, my heart is now to you enslaved, i ride upon a purple train, my dialectic find in vane, no wall from glory or from pain, the past and future in side the grain, the future never did engage, the past a little of the grey, the witch that flies to me at night, her eyes they are so shiny bright, the reptile of my brain explodes, i'm sitting where a black man rode, inside how it twirls and sings, my penis in a wedding ring, i ride every horse at the same time, inside the melting of my mind, i feel no struggle when i write. i'd rather speak to you at night, a porcupine is made of fur, oh won't you say another world, in silence you lay in my arms, and whisper to me of all your qualms, a castle crumbles to the sea, the waterline is you and me, i step out yet my clothes are dry, to the perfect point i say goodbye, i shed a tear for my sweet song, but the wooded way is green and long, and so to the forest i depart, to talk with trees about my heart, and maybe find a rabbit there, a miniskirt she may wear, and down the rabbit-hole i'll go, to glisten in my week of snow, and all the voices i will hear
just by opening an ear, will tell me all i want to know, the forset beckons -- here I go !

*

more... ahem... considered thoughts on marx and engels, dialectics, breton's letter to the seers in 1925 and his saying goodbye to those who went back to literature and art in 1930, and of course his prole to a third manifesto, which of course is what he, as an older man who lived a very full life and wanted to pass something on to whover might find it, bequeathed to us fun-loving kids.
for now, the sun and nature beckons like a glove made of rhino-stone, salamanders, a passing vampire, incubated goldfish and hiccups.

martin marriott said...

Just got home snd looking at one of the games we are playing, from Alice, called 'down the rabbit hole'

here is the latest poem posted by Stuart Inman.


VERTICAL DESCENT

For a moment I see with my eyes wide open
These beings without faces
Their hands full of strange weapons
They glow with a dull white light
They live in an air of grey mud
They are crushed into the mud and disappear
The mud is corrugated like an owl
Who turns into a raven made of night stitched with night
A raven of black neon
Which fills a pale sky
blue as a Piero
But the air crumples into thin paper
And now their is only the window like a watermill
Always opening and closing as it turns
A watermill without walls a window without water
A world of glass shadows
While the vapour I call my hands
Condenses into blood
I yet refuse to believe
That I will never touch the skin of the mirror
Or kiss it's closed eyes.



*


That is a brave man. and a poet.

martin marriott said...

I'm glad you didn't delete this, and put an end to our telepathic chat, which is only just beginning and will continue beyond our deaths for reasons i am starting to understand.

*

I don't have any books anymore, but i tok a look at a copy, i think pluto of the manifestos and such. jj's sinking his teeth into it now, and jazzman has just finished nadja, and tim's painting up the energy-currents of the universe and ten of us will be making a joint collage tomorrow, which will be the nicest way for everyone to plop around and get familiar. but, to be frank, and you can call me frank, as you know, ten is enough to make an ambitious investigation into the universe and it's material forms, such as our own sweet and terrible selvs, but basicaly what is required in some way is a grouping as well of maybe 200, sprawling and living and scoping and spacing around london. and, of course, paris beckon like eating an egg sandwich on a train-trip. it's not like when we were kids. some good old souls there are in their finale-time, and it is our humble responsibilty to go there for some chunks of time and do our strings, and let some younger spirits there bounce into us, and re-connect them with the healthiest,least damaged of the elders and in this way we will build a very beautiful surrealist group which will be a sensual love-drug of scientific enquiry into a nothingness forever splashing shapes and colours into our faces which produce and reproduce like chamelions of dandelions in blue stockings crosing their legs in a pub.

*

Breton mentions the wod 'dialectics two or three times in about the last 200 pages of that book, so let it not be an unclimbable wall to reading the other 2,376 words he writes. I hope no-one gets hurt in the earthquake His leter to the seers says something very plainly. 'It is now only you I am talking to.'

he is only interested in talking to seers.

he is only talking to seers

he talks to seers

from now on he will only talk with seers.

he is talking with seers.

he is talking with seers, and plans to continue only doing that.

he does do that.

for the rest of his life he does only that.

ponder the little lights he talks about in those wordings, in flats on the outskirts of paris. who was letting him in and what were they teling him. and why does he decide this is now the centre of his life.

i am only talking to seers



to




scientists





he





says.







xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


hey,please ask Paul if me and him could have a quick beer together sometime, just me and him.

thankee and everything. xxx

martin marriott said...

upside down by the... all inverted owls welcome, my sexy batgirl. tell paul i woke up at 2.30am, and moved in my half-sleep 3 pamphlets away from the window. i looked at a line on the outside and the lightbulb of a life popped on. because the title of our brave new mag is the overflowing milkmaid with curved feet. not even from me, from tim's automatic writing. clearly the vampire girls are hiding in dark corners right not away from the solar sword, but if paul is a good knight from days of yore, he may want to share some story-line that he finds in british true history. the songs that merl can't figure out yet, the myths she turns awy from , the myths and ocultation of surrealism it's simply if one digs breton or your on some other trip. cal me paul, as if your balls are exploding ! the beers on me.