Friday, June 02, 2006


The visual image is no longer an effectively revolutionary tool for Surrealism. This point has been made by the Surrealist Group in Madrid in The False Mirror, an essay first circulated in 2000. This essay presents a rigorous diagnosis of the situation of Surrealism in contemporary media-culture. It argues that visual images now mediate experience so completely that the visual image in itself has become an instrument of alienation, including alienation from the subversive power of imagination. The contradiction between the real and the imaginary has disappeared, to be replaced not by the transformation of life and the world which Surrealism proposed, but rather by the passivity, alienation and subjection which total mediation and simulation produce. Therefore, according to this essay, it is no longer either sufficient or possible to oppose any kind of Surrealist visual imaginary to that of capitalism, since images are now the tools of domination, and any “subversive” imagery is instantly banalised. Visual creativity remains no less essential than any other kind at the level of the individual, small group or potlatch, but at the level of the social no visual product can now have any revolutionary effect or be anything more than just another image sliding across the screen of media-culture.

The consequences of this analysis for Surrealist praxis are profound, as the essay itself goes on to highlight. The forms of visual communication which Surrealists have historically used and continue to use, notably exhibitions and visually oriented publications, no longer have revolutionary value, not just because of the well-worn failings of the category of "art" as such, but now even more profoundly because all such visual products have been degraded into just another cultural consumable. The historic task now facing Surrealism is therefore to invent new forms of communication – a task which is by its nature prefigurative, since it constitutes a search for “a utopian outline of a future poetic language”. And in pursuit of this task Surrealism cannot rely on its heritage or assume that the same methods and practices which have been effective in the past will continue to be so today. In short, Surrealism must renew and even reinvent itself by plunging forward into the unknown. The essay ends by suggesting that this plunge will be a plunge into poetic materialism: a making concrete of the poetic image which brings the imaginary and the real into a dialectical relationship, not by the production of Surrealist images but in the poetics of everyday life as realised through practical activities and experiments:

“what we denominate poetic materialism would be an imaginative current that transforms the reality of being, a temperamental flow that remodels the forms of reality that it wants to transform: it would be resolved in the field of immediate action, letting itself be accompanied by the pleasure principle.”

Examples given in the essay of this poetic materialism include psychogeographical games and experiments, dérives, the Objectively Offered Object, and other forms of “metamorphic actionism” which were already being practised in 2000, and which Surrealists have continued to practise ever since, sometimes indeed under the explicit rubric of poetic materialism. However it must be acknowledged that the old-style exhibitions and publications have also continued to appear (and we ourselves have in some cases continued to participate in them). To that extent we can therefore conclude that the implications of The False Mirror have yet to be fully assimilated by contemporary Surrealists, and perhaps that they have not yet even been discussed or debated in sufficient depth. If the conclusions put forward in that essay are taken seriously, then Surrealism must make considerable efforts in the direction of both practical activity and political-theoretical analysis in order to become an effective revolutionary force in the face of material conditions very different from those prevailing in 1924.

The reinvention of Surrealism as poetic materialism means not just facing up to new problems, but also abandoning old ones to which some Surrealists today (again, ourselves sometimes included) still cling as if to a security blanket. For example, the meaning of the occultation of Surrealism, which in 1930 was simply avoiding public approval, must now go further and encompass the total refusal to mediate poetic experience. One of the implications of this is that the problem of how to “spread the word”, to correct “misrepresentations of Surrealism”, or to “get our message across” to an ignorant and alienated public is no longer at issue. In a world where the medium is the message and all messages are ipso facto mediated, “spreading the word” can only ever mean adding to the depthless babble of media-culture information. In this context, while not being heard amidst the babble is a failure to communicate, to be heard in that babble is already to have been banalised and hence is also a failure to communicate. Rather than thinking in terms of “spreading the word”, we need to start thinking in terms of engaging in more effective practices; to stop thinking of Surrealism as a discourse and to concentrate on its importance as an activity; to stop trying to “get the message across” by the propaganda of word and image, and to concentrate instead on the propaganda of the deed.

Another old “problem” whose importance needs to be re-assessed is that of the status and value of digital art, which at certain points during the last few years has generated some heat within the movement. Many of the objections to computer-generated visual productions have centred around the supposedly poor quality and ineffectiveness of such work as Surrealist images. But if the analysis presented in The False Mirror is correct, then there is no longer any such thing as an effective Surrealist visual image anyway, and the controversy is in that sense redundant. However from the point of view of poetic materialism computers may have a potential for effective Surrealist experimentation, particularly in the direction of the anti-anthropocentrism which has been one of the genuinely path-breaking new turns of recent Surrealism. If, in the words of The False Mirror, “the experience of the unconscious is the experience of Surrealism”, then this leaves us with the new problem of how to reinvent the experience the Unconscious so as not to limit it to any pre-given or anthropocentric notions of what constitutes the human. What is the dynamic unconscious life of animals? of objects? And if these questions are promising ones for Surrealist enquiry, then shouldn’t the unconscious life of that class of objects known as computers also be included? The potential value of computers and/or digital works for poetic materialism therefore lies not in the quality of the images themselves, which may or may not be as bad as everyone says, but rather in the experiments that computers may allow us to conduct in anti-anthropocentrism, in non-human forms of perception and non-human experiences of the Unconscious.

It is important to be clear that we are offering neither promises nor proscriptions in the name of poetic materialism. Neither we nor our comrades in Madrid are suggesting, for example, that Surrealists should stop creating visual images. We continue to accord supreme value to the free and spontaneous imagination in all its manifestations, including visual creativity; we are simply demanding a more realistic assessment of what such creations can achieve at the level of the social simply by virtue of being images. Nor are we suggesting that games and experiments of the type put forward under the rubric of poetic materialism will solve all problems at a stroke. When one plunges forward into the unknown, one does so without guarantees, and if one continues to orient oneself around familiar landmarks – Sade, Breton, magic, anarchism, love, eroticism, freedom and all the others – one must be prepared to ask first which of them really can still be relied upon nowadays and which must be abandoned as misleading mirages from the past. Above all, in asserting the strategic necessity of experiments in practical revolutionary Surrealism, we must be cognisant of the force of the unknown which lies behind the concept of the experiment. An experiment, by definition, never fails: it merely tells us something we neither knew nor expected in advance.


Anonymous said...

This is something that the Madrid group has probably already dealt with, but what of transient mediums for conveying images into the public sphere? I'm not convinced that all imagery is already recuperated, regardless of how it is situated.
Graffiti, stickers, improvisational landscaping, and so forth have a place to play in a renewal of a surrealist practice that intervenes in the everyday milieu without using the habitual forms of museum, gallery, and so forth.
There was a (brief) discussion years ago about the essay "On the Subversive Power of the Poetic Image' from the Madrid group. Some found their position to be inflexible, but as the 'surrealist mannerism' the Romanians mentioned so long ago is still a problem, their critique and proposals could be timely. I'll see if I can find the discussion thread, if you're interested.

Robert said...

Breton was saying much the same thing about 70 years ago, innit?


Pearl Handel said...

Shibek: thanks, I would be really interested in seeing that thread if you can track it down. I think your comments/queries about graffiti etc. are very much to the point. I guess I would say -- tentatively, as I think all of this needs further discussion and my conclusions so far are provisional -- that what makes the difference is not the image itself, but how it is produced & situated. In other words, what is still potentially subversive about image-making is not the product (the image itself) but the process (participation in the activity of producing it, detourning it, or whatever, in the context of playful/experimental practice). I'm certainly not going to stop making images, either individually or with others, but what I find of subversive and poetic value in image-making is the experience of making the image. The image as such, as a stand-alone product, for me has no subversive power in and of itself, it merely acts as evidence of the poetic experience. The same can be said of graffiti: actually doing graffiti can be poetic and subversive, but I don't think just looking at it as a non-participant is so, and I certainly think that the recuperation of graffiti artists as, precisely, 'artists' (Banksy being the prime example in the UK) is an instance of that.

Robert: actually, no, I don't think this is exactly the same as what Breton was saying 70 years ago. For Breton and the early Surrealists, the image itself still retained some subversive power. The Madrid group are saying that that is no longer the case because the material conditions of capitalism have changed. I don't think that everything that can or must be said about Surrealist strategy was already said in the 1920s or 1930s.