Over the past few months a controversy has unfolded over the statements and activities of the Derrame group in Chile. The Surrealist groups of Madrid and Río de la Plata have denounced the Derrame group’s political behaviour, claiming that it has worked in partnership with the Chilean state and cultural institutions on the one hand while refusing to engage in radical political struggle on the other. They have also denounced the theoretical statements Derrame has made in support of its political behaviour. For its part, the Derrame group has responded to these accusations by denying some of them and offering explanations or justifications for others; and the Paris Surrealist Group has stated its friendship and solidarity with Derrame in the face of the accusations.*
Many of the exchanges between Río de la Plata and Derrame in particular have revolved around specific accusations: that the Derrame group has committed certain acts of collaboration (the pursuit of state honours and prizes, accepting funding or support from certain academic and cultural institutions and so on) and has failed to perform others (to participate in or support specific political strikes or protests, for example). As the Madrid group’s open letter to Paris points out, different Surrealist groups worldwide find themselves facing different material and political conditions, and must make their own tactical
decisions accordingly. The Madrid group state plainly that in their view Derrame’s compromises with the Chilean state and ruling class have not been merely tactical but amount to a strategy
which is in no way compatible with Surrealism. We in SLAG will not pretend to know enough about the political situation in Chile to form an independent judgement on these matters. But we are dismayed by some of the theoretical statements the Derrame group has made, which do indeed seem to us to be incompatible with some of the basic principles of Surrealism, and on these principles we are in the firmest possible solidarity with our comrades in Madrid and Río de la Plata.
In a letter of 2005 to the Madrid Surrealist Group, the Derrame group writes:
In Latin America at present we propose a Surrealism that is ceremonial, shamanistic, closer to magic and poetry than to 'materialism'. We could say that it chooses a more poetic, cosmic and spiritual way, like the old mayas, aztecs, incas, kawesqar, selknam.. It is not about looking for what is new, but a matter of rediscovering what was already on the continent for thousands of years. […] Do you think that European Surrealism is different from Latin American Surrealism, or vice versa?
This formulation of “Latin American Surrealism” has justly provoked the anger of our friends in both Madrid and Río de la Plata. It is unambiguous in its rejection of historical materialism. The idea of “Surrealism” as some innate force waiting for thousands of years to be “rediscovered” sounds to our ears too much like Jean Schuster’s notion of the “eternal surrealism” which supposedly “escap[es] history in its latent continuity” (“The Fourth Canto”, 1969). For Schuster the idea of “eternal surrealism” served as an alibi for the abandonment of concrete Surrealist activity in Paris; for Derrame the similarly idealist and undialectical notion of “Latin American Surrealism” is an alibi for the abandonment of the Surrealist principle of materialism. Vratislav Effenberger (cited in “The Platform of Prague Twenty Years On”, 1989) famously replied to Schuster that “this supra-historical and non-ideological conception of surrealism has clearly existed and still exists, and you know quite as well as I do on what side of the barricade”. We make exactly the same reply to this notion of “Latin American Surrealism”.
More recently, in its reply to the Surrealist groups of Madrid and Río de la Plata, the Derrame group appears to retreat somewhat from the notion of “Latin American Surrealism”. While still speaking of “the cosmic mystery of the continent”, Derrame now makes clear that each continent has its own “cosmic mystery”, so that Latin America is not superior in this regard over Europe; and that while the group is insistent on the importance of Latin American geography and cultures, it also embraces the influence of European, African and other cultures. In this context the group now asserts that it is “in favour of hybridity, cosmopolitanism and humanity”. There are two points we want to make about this. Firstly, this qualification of “Latin American Surrealism” is explicitly not
a reversal of their earlier rejection of materialism. When Derrame in this new statement asserts that “our rebellion is spiritual and our works are the best means of resistance,” its is clear that the group means this instead of
materialist and political resistance, rather than alongside or in dialectical relationship with it. Secondly, this vision of “hybridity” and “cosmopolitanism”, in which each continent now gets to have its own latent cosmic surrealism awaiting rediscovery, is just as idealist and undialectical as the notion of “Latin American Surrealism” – because it is simply the same notion, multiplied by the number of continents. It might also be instructive here to refer to recent Surrealist attacks, by Annie le Brun and Michael Richardson respectively, on conceptions of créolité
and hybridity which, by producing a superficial and clichéd relativism, effectively mask oppression, mystify cultural identity and neutralise revolt. What is essential to Surrealism is not the assertion of cultural identities or the creation of aesthetic works – “hybrid”, “cosmopolitan” or otherwise – but the instigation of continuous revolt as a dialectic between universal freedom and local possibilities.
Although these exchanges between Madrid, Río de la Plata and Derrame were initiated by the pamphlet published by Río de la Plata in January 2006, in a deeper sense the real substance of the dispute is the Madrid Surrealist Group’s statement “El Falso Espejo
/The False Mirror” which appeared in 2000. With the exception of the letter from Paris, all of the contributions to the Derrame dispute so far have referred explicitly to this paper and justified their positions in relation to it. Indeed the formulation of “Latin American Surrealism” quoted above comes from the Derrame group’s response to this paper, and is explicitly intended as a counter-argument to it. In this sense the recent crisis over “Latin American Surrealism” is just the latest phase in a slow-burning debate over the argument advanced in “The False Mirror” in favour of poetic materialism
. Poetic materialism is a strategy to deal with the objectively new material conditions now facing Surrealism worldwide, that is to say, with globalised media-culture and its specific forms of alienation, which are best summed up in the phrase “the Society of the Spectacle”. It proposes an orientation of Surrealist activity away from the production of visual materials – which the Spectacle can assimilate all too easily to its own ends – and more firmly towards the poetic praxis of everyday life. While the revolution of everyday life has always been a core Surrealist principle, the strategic implications of poetic materialism are nevertheless potentially huge for a movement whose stock-in-trade has hitherto been exhibitions and other visual productions. What is at issue is no longer just the rejection of art and its institutions, but the strategic refusal to produce works, especially visual works, for the aesthetic contemplation of an audience at all. In this context the Derrame group’s retreat into ahistorical idealism makes perfect sense as the avoidance, conscious or otherwise, of the necessity for Surrealism to change if it is to survive the historical conditions against which, with our respective local tactics, we all
Surrealism is neither eternal nor cosmic – no more so than the forms of oppression against which we revolt. The political and social structures of capitalism have undergone profound changes in the last few decades, not least in response to the challenges it has faced from those who have struggled to destroy it. If we wish to continue to struggle in the name of Eros, freedom, poetry and love, and if we wish to do so effectively
, then we will have to develop new strategies for these new conditions. Those who have come out in opposition to the strategy of poetic materialism during the Derrame affair so far seem to have done so by abandoning materialism altogether. Rather than retreat to the collective and individual consolations of aesthetic production, Surrealists would do better to have an urgent international debate about strategy – not just to test and evaluate poetic materialism, but to develop a range of possible strategies which could face up squarely to what is new in today’s material conditions without losing sight of Surrealism’s core aims and principles. We must not allow our enemies to outsmart or outrun us: we have to keep thinking, and keep moving.*The sequence of events as we understand it is as follows:
1. The Río de la Plata Surrealist Group publishes the pamphlet Unmistakable Miserabilism Signs, denouncing the Derrame group (January 2006).
2. The Paris Surrealist Group sends a letter of support to the Derrame group, offering solidarity with them in the face of the pamphlet (July 2006).
3. The Madrid Surrealist Group writes an open letter to the Paris group in which it sets out its opposition to the Derrame group and its support for Río de la Plata (July 2006).
4. Enrique Lechuga writes an open letter to the Madrid group protesting at remarks about his website (www.sonambula.com) (August 2006).
5. The Derrame group writes a response to defend itself against accusations by both the Madrid and Río de la Plata Surrealist Groups (August 2006).
6. The Río de la Plata Surrealist Group issues its response to Derrame’s defence (August 2006).