Monday, February 20, 2006

THE END OF CIVILISATION? (Response to an Enquiry)

The following text responds to an enquiry on 'The End of Civilisation?' posed by the Prague Surrealist Group in November 2005. The questions were distributed to members of the international Surrealist movement; responses are being collated and will appear in a future issue of Analogon.

1) Which stage of development (rise, stabilisation, decline) describes our present Euro-American civilisation (i.e. roughly in the period of the Modern Age) in view of the ambitions and qualities by which this period identifies itself and distinguishes itself from other parallel civilisations (Islam, the Third world, etc.)

2) What kind of shift (progressive or regressive) do you perceive within the last 30-40 years? What could you name as the most substantial characterising moment (paradigm, value orientation…) of the civilisational/cultural, social, psychosocial or other transformation.

I will take these two questions together.

There is a level at which the answers to these questions seem fairly obvious. We are living under a form of advanced capitalism which is globalised and consumerist, which can perhaps most pithily be summed up in Debord’s phrase as the Society of the Spectacle, and which is currently inseparable from US imperialism. This has a double aspect. On the one hand, the acceleration of globalisation makes it increasingly difficult to talk about different national ‘societies’ or regional ‘civilisations’ as discrete entities in any meaningful way. On the other hand the interests of US imperialism are well served by the ideology of ‘Western civilisation’ as something which is discrete and indeed in need of aggressive protection from its enemies, in which role they have most recently cast ‘Islamic fundamentalism’.

If one goes beyond this level, however, it appears that these answers – and even the questions themselves – have not yet moved as far as possible beyond the anthropocentrism with which surrealism today is so concerned. The classification of history into ‘periods’, and the narrative of those periods’ ‘evolution’, still places humankind in what Svankmajer has called the leading role. Indeed the problem of how to conceive time outside of anthropocentric history has been before us since at least Arcanum 17. In this book Breton evokes the figure of the child-woman precisely because she is – so he claims – outside time, but I would argue to the contrary this figure is still beholden both to anthropocentrism and to patriarchy. By far the more successful break with anthropocentric time, although Breton himself does not quite recognise this, is embodied in the Percé Rock, which as he notes is not eternal but nevertheless comes in and out of existence outside of any human timescale. Arcanum 17 begins with the marvellous organic and inorganic rhythms of the rock, the sea and the seabirds. I think we can justly regard those rhythms as movements of non-anthropocentric time, as the pulsing of inhuman life. Where Breton inhabits the anthropocentric time of war in 1944, and we inhabit the anthropocentric time of war in 2005, there is also avian time, marine time, mineral time. Thus whereas Breton conjures ‘the salvation of the earth by woman’, I suggest that a more fully anti-anthropocentric view of history might instead imagine the salvation of the earth by seabirds. As surrealism moves in this direction, new fields of enquiry open up before us, from the erotic rhythms of cell division to the alien passions of a coral reef, from the convulsive beauty of whales to the objective chance of microbes.

Here then we have two views of time. One places humankind at centre stage and diagnoses the goods and ills of humanity under its various forms of civilisation – and indeed, one might add, under its forms of barbarism, a concept which is no less anthropocentric than that of civilisation. The other rejects anthropocentrism so decisively that it is a view of time which can barely be called historical at all in any sense in which that term is usually understood. The difficult task of surrealist praxis now is not simply to spurn one of these views in favour of the other, nor to try to fuse them into a single idea, but rather to bring them into dialectical relationship with each other. In doing this we may be able to analyse the current status of human civilisation while at the same time moving beyond the anthropocentric limitations of either civilisation or barbarism.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Not simply 'London Surrealists': A MANIFESTO FOR SURREALIST LONDON

'The matter of our work is everywhere present', wrote the old alchemists, and that is the truth. All the wonders lie within a stone's throw of King's Cross Station.
~ Arthur Machen, Things Near and Far.

The SURREALIST LONDON ACTION GROUP (SLAG) is not simply a group of Surrealists who happen to live in or around the London area. SLAG is a group which celebrates the Surrealist city, and actively seeks the SURREALISATION of London and of the lives of all who live and work in it.

The Surrealist approach to London is psychogeographical first and foremost, but it is NOT the pseudo-poetic, romanticised, nostalgic, all too fashionable – and ultimately conservative approach of, say, Iain Sinclair, or Peter Ackroyd, as presented in the latter's London: the Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000). ‘Psychogeography’ in the commoditised form has become indistinguishable from tourism, and ‘secret London’ just another current in the constant stream of images which alienate us from each other, ourselves and our surroundings in the Society of the Spectacle: a vision infected with what André Breton in the Second Surrealist Manifesto called ‘a cancer of the mind which consists in thinking all too sadly that certain things "are,'' while others, which might well be, "are not".’

Under this regime of the Spectacle, with its tourist ‘experiences’ and its media image-fetishism, many people feel that they know what to expect of London, just as they feel they know what to expect of Surrealism. Superficial aspects of London have been turned into media images, just as the superficial (‘mannerist’) aspects of Surrealism have been adopted by the media and culture industries- this is ‘surrealism’ reduced to style (i.e. 'surrealism' with a small ‘s’), with little or nothing to do with Surrealism as a movement. Genuinely Surrealist London, like the Surrealist Movement itself, is in constant flux, just as reality itself shifts, mutates and so reveals its inconsistencies: ‘a world that some call reality but which is only an incessant discovery; a mystery reborn indefinitely’ (Pierre Mabille).

Surrealist psychogeography is in an altogether different vein. Our expeditions through space and place operate not at the level of the image, but at the level of the encounter, at once more fleeting and more visceral than the mythopoesis-lite of tourism and nostalgia. The city for us is not a passive background or external world to be mapped, recorded, classified, and ultimately rationalised in the spirit of Augustan taxonomy; something to serve us with the illusion of gaining control over the uncontainable, but an active subject, to be conjured as one might conjure an egregore and explored as one might explore a lover. Our encounters with London are not just with its physical locations but also with its dreams, desires, fears and loves, its premonitory horrors and revolutionary hopes: in short, with its SURREALITY.

In London we station ourselves on the periphery of the comprehensible and are taken to the realms of the improbable and beyond, to encounter Imagination grappling with Reason, or to be more precise, Imagination avenging itself upon Reason, joyfully and without mercy. In our 'elective places' - fixed points, multiple magnetic poles in the space-time continuum around which (r)evolve Surrealist place and Surrealist life: the secret roads, ancient subterranean rivers, plague pits, those tear-jerkingly poignant junk shops of the Holloway Road and stalls of Cheshire Street, the murky waters of the Serpentine, the reality-check architectural contrast between the Square Mile and Bethnal Green, the soon-to-be-defiled loveliness of the Lea Valley; and such street names as Bleeding Heart Yard (EC1), Cornflower Terrace (SE22), Black Lion Lane (W6), The Ring (W2), Crutched Friars (EC3), Gothic Road (Twickenham) and Candy Street (E3) - we embrace perpetual correspondences and submit to objective chance, conduct an archaeology of the present and future, discover points of departure into the infinite depths of London's erotic universe. We haunt the city and are haunted by it: we love its absurdity, its sublime kitsch, its artificiality, we delight in its playfulness, no less than its fevers and migraines, capricious cruelties and abominable debaucheries, tantrums and seizures. Marvellous phantoms haunt London: a stroll in the park can become an event of eternal significance, an unfolding of myth, marked by strange encounters, talismanic found objects and chance provocations.

Of course our methods are not confined to London. They can and should be copied and adapted to reproduce the encounter with Surreality in any environment, in any city, town, village or field, elsewhere, anywhere or (with the Surrealist atopos) nowhere. But the SLAG takes London as the centre of its Surrealist explorations and experiences. It is the place where we live Surrealist life. Marooned on the city’s rocks, we dive into the ‘mystery and melancholy of the streets’, and moving like a ‘blind swimmer’ (Max Ernst) we seek out the wonders, the signs and portents, concealed behind the surfaces of the everyday. Ever in pursuit of the ineffable, something that lies just over the horizon of the visible, the habitual, the predictable, the banal – something that endlessly mutates and proliferates, something that ultimately is not a ‘thing’ at all but is movement itself, analogical restlessness, the permanent revolution of metonymy –the Surrealist is like the hero of Georges Limbour’s Le Cheval de Venise, ‘never lost, for the path he takes is always towards what he does not know.’ The Hunting of the Surrealist Snark, the pursuit of Surreality, ought not to be undertaken in the shallow, tainted pools of art books, of paintings in galleries or objects in museums, but in the city streets, in the very heart of the demonic angel where desire is paramount and ‘dream’ and ‘reality’ are indistinguishable, become one. Here we may be privileged to observe the transfiguration of the ordinary into the fabulous.

French Surrealists have seen Paris as both a 'soluble city', and as a woman; the late, Leeds-based Surrealist Anthony Earnshaw saw his city as a slattern; we see our city as a multi-headed OVERLY-EMOTIONAL HERMAPHRODITE, with putrescent erogenous zones, vulvae gaping wide in tunnels and doorways, clitorises in the street furniture, arseholes in alleyways, dildos throbbing and phalloi bursting from the erectile-gherkin architecture. With its myriad snapping jaws and delirious mouths kissing itself with cannibal tongues, London is a city continually devouring itself, digesting itself in an unstoppable act of MAD LOVE.
Paul Cross, Jill Fenton, Merl
February 2006


SLAG projects are online at:

Surrealist London is a city that will always remain to be invented

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Surrealists love blasphemy. In our case we are happy to admit that this is not least because of the thoroughly infantile pleasure we take in offending those we despise, in smearing shit on their idols: in actuality, we wear our infantilism with pride, and regard all erotic pleasures of this sort as valid political currency in their own right.

But for surrealists blasphemy is a crucial political weapon, not just because of the distress it causes to the religious institutions and their millions of dupes, but also because of the disarray into which it throws the apologists of the liberal ‘democratic’ state whose so-called defences of liberty are thereby unmasked as hypocrisy.

When examining the current furore over European newspaper cartoons of Mohammed, we prefer to start not from ‘freedom of speech’ as an abstract liberal principle but from a recollection of the actual events. The recourse to abstract principle – to wishful thinking about what the world ought to be like rather than an assessment of what the world is actually like – is a standard manoeuvre of liberal argumentation, and as such we reject it. Let us then be clear from the outset that the publication of these cartoons in a despicable right-wing Danish newspaper was a racist act deliberately intended to provoke a reaction from muslims. Perhaps the ferocity with which certain politicised muslim constituencies worldwide have risen to the bait has taken the protagonists by surprise, in which case they might justly be regarded as naive, but naivety is not innocence.

In the wake of this provocation, wholly predictable battle lines between the ‘religious’ Middle East and the ‘secular’ West have been reaffirmed, and thousands around the world have dug into their entrenched positions. This ‘clash of civilisations’ manoeuvre serves only the interests of militarism, imperialism and state power, and surrealists are not about to fall into line with it by defending ‘western’ values. In our view neither ‘eastern’ nor ‘western’ civilisation is worthy of the name, and we would wholeheartedly welcome their immediate mutual destruction.

From our vantage point in the UK, the double-bind in which both the press and the government now find themselves has highlighted the extent to which all talk of ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ under the liberal state is, quite simply, bullshit. The Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, for example, has affirmed the right to free speech (how generous of him!) while declaring that that right should not be used to insult or cause offence. In other words, you have the right to free speech, but you do not necessarily have the right to exercise it. The mantra of ‘respect’ and ‘responsibility’ has been repeated by press and politicians alike, and it demonstrates that the so-called basic rights and freedoms of liberalism are in reality little more than favours for which we are expected to be grateful and which we should not mistake for genuine possessions to be used at will.

We therefore have little interest in defending free speech as it exists in our society, the tawdry gift of a hypocritical ‘democracy’. Surrealists are unruly children who say what we like regardless of whether the grown-ups grant us permission. Nor are we about to support the right-wing and/or liberal press just because it engages in blasphemy, any more than we support muslim protestors just because they set fire to the outposts and symbols of European states.

The goals of surrealism are to change life and transform the world.

To change life means the total destruction of all forms of religion, not just religion as institutions and material powers but also as a set of private beliefs which are, quite plainly and without exception, a pack of lies. In pursuit of this goal we urge all people to revolt, to blaspheme, to voice their contempt for all religions worldwide.

To transform the world means the total destruction of what currently passes for ‘western’ civilisation, with its alienation, exploitation, militarism, patriarchy, racism and self-destructive anthropocentrism, no less than the total destruction of all forms of religious law, Islamic or otherwise. In pursuit of this goal we urge all people to seize their own freedom and to fight their oppression, whatever form it takes, with all the weapons at their disposal.

Both of these goals entail the abolition of the state, whether in its secular or its religious guises: the state is the enemy of all life on earth, and anyone who looks to the state either to guarantee her/his freedom or to protect her/his dignity is nothing other than a fool.

Surrealists stand up for blasphemy, but not as a token of ‘freedom’ under a liberal regime, nor even as a simple expression of secularism: blasphemy can only have any sense or value for us insofar as it is part of a wider movement of total revolt, in the pursuit of genuine freedom – the eroticisation of the world, the everyday incarnation of poetry, the permanent revolution of Mad Love, in short, the unending, ecstatic explosion of THE MARVELLOUS.


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