Wednesday, October 04, 2006


A new theoretical discussion paper
on dialectics, analogy and Surrealist poetics
from SLAG - the Surrealist London Action Group.

This paper is available in English as a pdf file (0.3MB).
French and Spanish translations are also available
(by Dominic Tétrault and Juan Carlos Otaño respectively).
To request a copy and/or to join our mailing list, email SLAG at


Anonymous said...


Dear Merl

I read your text with interest, but have some difficulties with the discussion of dialectic. You start by asserting that in the Second Manifesto Breton’s ’primary reference point for the exposition of dialectics was Engels’ Anti-Dühring’. This is surely not true. Breton may have taken inspiration from Engels and used his examples to bolster his argument, but his primary reference point was undoubtedly Hegel, both through his own reading and – no doubt equally crucially – through discussions with other surrealists, Aragon in particular, whom we know had been reading Hegel critically for several years at this time.

Engels’ dialectics of nature, of which Anti-Dühring is the starting point, have always been regarded as problematic, with some commentators seeing them as incompatible with Marx’s theories. It is a long time since I read Engels, but your discussion doesn’t give me confidence that he provides an appropriate reference point for surrealist use of dialectic.

This is announced by your epigraph. ’Dialectics is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of Nature, human society and thought’. Whatever one thinks of this statement (it seems to me to be nonsense), it is clearly incompatible with Breton’s statement of the aim of surrealism being to determine the supreme point. Breton makes it clear that this point exists; it is not the result of any development, dialectical or otherwise, but needs to be ’perceived’. It responds to a far more profound understanding of dialectic than that evinced by Engels.

If Engels’ assertions concerning ’general laws’ ever had any validity, they have surely been shattered by the findings of twentieth century science. But even in their own terms they make little sense. This is shown by the discussion of the negation of the negation. A grain is not negated by the plant it becomes; this is simply a process of development which may be called dialectical if you are so inclined (the grain, given sustenance by water and other nutrients, is sublated into the plant), but can just as well be explained without any recourse to dialectics. There is certainly no negation involved: the plant merely grows out of the grain. Nor is this development internally generated; the grain requires
nutritive external stimuli without which it cannot grow into the plant; whether it will become a plant also depends upon myriad other factors (such as the quality of the soil in which it is planted) and it is more than likely not to become a plant at all: it may be eaten by insects or destroyed in some other way. The geological example is if anything even worse. If there may be a debateable ’progress’ involved in the passage from grain to plant, this is surely not the case with rock formations, which do no more than supersede one another.

Negation does not emerge as part of a natural process but as a result of a crisis within the process: a particular development having become unsustainable, a negative movement is generated which can only resolved through a further negation. Surrealism itself is a perfect example of such process: a certain crisis of European consciousness having reached a breaking point in the First World War, Dada emerged as its negation, which itself required to be resolved through the negation of surrealism.

The difficulty of developing a dialectics of nature is that we know little about what causes a crisis within natural processes. We can see, for instance, that life naturally reproduces itself through parthenogenesis. For some reason this proved insufficient. Some sort of crisis must have been generated within the structure of life that caused beings to negate themselves through sexual reproduction. This serves life to the extent that it leads to the creation of new life, which introduces a provisional negation of the negation, but leaves intact a more profound negation of which we know little: death. This is why Breton correctly recognised that the dialectic functions at the level of perception; it is not a natural law.

I can’t really understand why you wish to derive surrealist use of dialectic from Engels rather than from Hegel. Is it to sanctify its supposed materialism? Yet if Marx, rightly or wrongly, considered Hegel’s general system to be idealist, no one, so far as I know, has ever imputed this to his dialectic. Engels’ Anti-Dühring was not intended to put Hegel’s dialectic ’right way up’ but to defend it from Dühring’s distortions – trouble is, Engels’ own understanding of Hegel is itself rather crude.

Just as I cannot see how dialectics is a general law of material motions, so I also fail to see how analogy is a law of poetic motion. Dialectics and analogy are complementary ways of thinking about the world which also provide critical tools by which the reductionism of inductive and deductive reason (and the positivistic realism that emerged from them) can be exposed. They cannot, I would have thought, be reduced to the level of ’laws’

I don’t feel competent to comment on your discussion of metaphor and metonymy, although I find your indifference to what Jacobson and Lacan actually said troubling. This seems to fall into the snare that post-structuralism has set, of eluding the real relations of being by consigning everything to the status of discourse. Since both Jacobson and Lacan had direct links with the surrealists, in any discussion of surrealism it is surely necessary to inquire into whether they actually understood it and how far their concepts emerged from out of their understanding or otherwise of it.

Hope these comments are of some use and make a contribution to the discussion. Look forward to hearing how it develops.

All the best


Anonymous said...


Oh shit,

when you were finalising this draft Merl, I was both already too busy and still too involved in our old controversy about metaphor and metonymy to think much about the treatment of dialectics, and since then I've been far too busy too even realise that I hadn't. So, the points Michael raise partly coincides with questions I probably would be going to raise, even though I don't immediately agree with a lot of it. In fact, this is a bit too much for me now, involving
* The whole question of the nomothetic status of dialectics
* both in general epistemological terms
* and in terms of that old marxist debate of "objective dialectics" (dialectics of nature) vs "humanistic dialectics" (human history/ thought)
* and in terms of recent attempt to develop a general theory of dialectics without the terminology, based on a poststructuralist epistemological framework instead, particularly by deleuzians
* and in terms of the dynamics and phenomenology of negation specifically
* And also the whole debate about the introduction of Hegel in france and particularly the sources for the surrealists and other non-Kojèveans
These are partly very fundamental questions which engage me both as a surrealist and in the additional capacities (hobbies?) of historian of surrealism, natural scientist and philosopher of science, so I think they are serious enough to merit a statement of my thoughts which is more worked through than an immediate reaction. So I'll say nothing now, but just you wait until I get the time to write more-

The Jakobson and Lacan question is a much simpler matter.
The notion of stressing the utility of knowledge (creative or else) rather than historical detail accuracy is not necessarily connected to any particularly poststructuralist relativism or loosening of frameworks, but is also an important part of marxist hegelianism based in the sixth (or whatever number it is, I never remember that) Feuerbach thesis, which according to some marxists (including the situationists) represents the single important dialectical leap from bourgeois academic philosophy to marxist philosophy in practice.
Our lack of interest in what Jakobson and Lacan actually said is, I would say, very relative and conditional.
An instrumentalist (or other antirealist) view of knowledge does not imply a lack of interest in accuracy; on the contrary of course the most useful (interesting, poetic, etc) things are often the ones which are the most accurate and solidly based.
In these specific cases, it is very interesting to note how the interaction with individual surrealists and with surrealist thought have been very important in developing a few of their basic theoretic ideas and concepts. Not only Roudinescu but also others stressed the importance of L'immaculée Conception, of paranoia-criticism and of Caillois' mimicry article in Minotaure, for Lacan. In Jakobson, it has been less well investigated as far as I know, but I would guess that his notion of the central importance of poetry, and the need to investigate the mechanisms of poetry in general, has something to do with his connections with surrealism. Still, his examplifying a purely metaphorical movement with surrealist painting is probably not entirely accurate even from his own viewpoint (but more so than from Merls...) and I believe it would be possible to find also in Lacan's thought some strange or symptomatic misunderstandings of surrealism. For both these guys, I would say that their fully developed philosophies (confined and self-sufficient enough to be called systems rather than theories) are mostly relevant within their specialised academic fields - or, if taken on a general level and then creatively adapted to a new class of phenomena, regarding anything at all. In them I see nothing that is in itself particularly relevant to surrealism (without this operation of creative use), and the tracing of influences from surrealism in its constituent parts remains a largely purely academic question (interesting or not).

So I'll get onto this sometime soon...


Pearl Handel said...


So, then, dialectics.

When I said at the start of the paper that Engels was the Second Manifesto's primary reference point for dialectics, I was talking specifically about dialectical materialism. My use of the words "primary reference point" was probably sloppy here. Of course the primary (in the sense of initial) reference point for Breton's discussion of dialectics is Hegel -- just as it is for both Marx and Engels. But the Second Manifesto is not just an argument for Surrealism's relationship with dialectics tout court, but specifically for its relationship with dialectical materialism. Just as Hegel's dialectical idealism proved inadequate for revolutionary politics, so it has also proved inadequate for Surrealism. Breton is absolutely explicit about this: "at the point where we found it the dialectical method, in its Hegelian form, was inapplicable for us too" (the italics are Breton's, and the sentence of course directly echoes Engels' own words about Hegel in his writing on Feuerbach: "one started out from his [Hegel's] revolutionary side [...], from the dialectical method. But in its Hegelian form this method was unusable", i.e. unusable for revolutionary purposes). It's at precisely this point that Breton introduces Engels, beginning with the example of the rose which I cite in the paper, to expound the dialectical materialism with which he clearly aligns Surrealism, and as he says himself towards the end of this section of the manifesto, "our allegiance to the principle of historical materialism ... there is no way to play on these words". In light of all this it seems to me rather tendentious to claim that Breton is merely using examples from Engels to bolster his argument.

This leads on to the question of Engels worthiness or otherwise as a guide to dialectical materialism. Yes, there have been many attempts to denigrate Engels as a vulgariser of Marx. I am not going to pretend to be able to cite chapter and verse on who has said what against Engels, or on the specifics of what their wider political reasons for doing so may have been (although I understand that Jean Hippolyte was one of these detractors, which may link back to Mattias' point about Kojève and Hegel in France). I will merely say that I have no problem with Engels as a guide to dialectical materialism. Actually though I have a slight feeling at this point that Michael and I may be talking at cross purposes, because what Michael has actually accused Engels of is not a vulgarisation of Marx but a vulgarisation of Hegel, and in this Michael appears to be rejecting dialectical materialism in favour of the Hegelian dialectic. I, on the other hand, am embracing dialectical materialism -- as a starting point at least, if not necessarily as an endpoint. I hardly need to point out that embracing Engels is not a rejection of Hegel, but a (dialectical) development from Hegel.

I'm not a scientist, so I'm wary of making any big claims about the natural sciences, especially with the gimlet-eyed Mattias looking on, but I don't think it's at all self-evident that Engels' dialectics of nature was "nonsense" in its own day; Stephen Jay Gould, for example, was an admirer of Engels' writings on evolution, and he was hardly a marxist partisan. Nor do I think it self-evident that dialectical materialism has been "shattered" by subsequent developments in science. Even the most ardent dialectical materialist would not expect Engels' formulations to hold good for all time -- that would be, well, undialectical -- but, again, developments from a scientific position are not ipso facto rejections (or shatterings) of it. That is why I say that I embrace dialectical materialism as a starting point but not necessarily as an endpoint.

I think I will leave my comments there. I don't imagine I have persuaded Michael of the virtues of Engels' dialectical materialism, but I hope I have at least clarified why I took it as my starting point in the paper.


Anonymous said...


Finally got an opportunity to sit down and gather my thoughts about dialectics. Some of it will be more or less obvious, and I apologise if some parts of it seems like pinpointing general knowledge. On the other hand, there will be other parts which are temporary reconstructions that I haven't yet doublechecked/considered in peace and which may be mistaken. Still, this is not explicitly related to the discussion in Laws of Motion.

There is no merit for understanding dialectics in regarding it as a theory or a doctrine. I prefer to see it as a model or a method. It concerns general historical dynamics. It is a pregnant model in that it often appears to have great explanatory value, and even more that it suggests a certain class of solutions to all kinds of problems.

In an idealist universe such as Hegel's, a good model is in a sense more real than chaotic empirical data, and within that context a general theory of dialectics can be understood as a set of natural laws. Marx and his friends changed the framework, and here I'm not referring to the supposed shift from idealist to materialist metaphysics, but in epistemology; the degree of "reality" of theory lies for Marx neither in its order, beauty, rationality and intuitive power (as perhaps for Hegel) nor in its robustness and explanatory power for empirical phenomena (as perhaps for modern science), but in its emancipatory power, which probably requires some of both the aforementioned but is eventually measured only in its historical consequences.

Jonas adds: That the degree of “reality” in a theory lies in its emancipatory power is something that Hegel probably would agree upon on a profound level. When Hegel writes the Phenomenology, it’s not only to trace the genealogy (be it historical, epistemological, generic) of consciousness as such, but to actually let the Weltgeist move forward through the dialectical development of the concepts employed.

The debate about Engels' role in marxism has been long and shifting. Admittedly, one of the things he was busy with was the simplification of the ideas that Marx had developed together with himself and occasionally others. It appears like he did that partly because of the obvious temptation of suddenly getting a mass basis for this philosophy, and partly because he had a taste for generalisations and for system-building. Thus he linked his and Marx's philosophy to the great systems within natural science of his days, which certainly is an original contribution to marxism and to philosophy, and in this he may be said to have founded the doctrine of dialectical materialism.

Jonas adds: As a passing note, Engels never used the term dialectical materialism”. Instead he used the term “materialist dialectic”. The term “dialectical materialism” was effectively introduced in marxist theory through Plekhanov. It’s true however that Engels tended to incorporate systems of natural science with the method of dialectics and theory of materialism, whereas Marx had an interest in natural science more out of curiousity and hunger for knowledge.

In the Soviet Union, and in the third international, and in a lot of the classic western marxist theorists, dialectical materialism was the marxist/emancipatory/workingclass superior alternative to bourgeois science (and philosophy). But since it admittedly had a different epistemological and methodological basis, it had no need nor wish to legitimate itself in the terms of bourgeois science. And within the doctrine, the factors that made it good science was exactly the same ones that made it a good philosophy or made it good politics, and it contains no particular scientific criteria, no particular scientific method, no particular scientific epistemology - it simply redefines the meaning of the concept science into whatever is at hand as dialectical materialism. Such a selfsufficiency proved productive in the field of philosophy and social sciences (at least in the west), but not in natural science; in the soviet union and elsewhere, socialist natural science became an unresolved mixture of ordinary western science, marxist phraseology and some ill-conceived hunches.

It is still difficult to conceive what dialectical materialism really claims and what it actually might solve. This fundamental vagueness along with the almost messianistic hopes of it being able to explain everything conditions a lot of the mentionings of it surrealist texts of the 20s and 30s, where it usually looks to us today as a redundant addition to the lines of thought motivated by political voluntarism.

Thus, the dialectics of nature issue was not much forwarded by post-Engels marxists. The manuscripts now known as "Dialectics of nature" remained unpublished for very long, and the foremost source for a discussion of wether there are natural dialectics remained Engels rash outline in Anti-Dühring. The shared assumption of much of the debate was that dialectical materialism equals science, and the principles of dialectics are laws, but there was no agreement as to in which field they were valid as such; in human history only, or in nature as well.

But taken in the classic sense of scientific laws, the principles of dialectics obviously do a bad job. There is a very wide range of phenomena that are a lot easier to account for with models of simplicity, of linear correlations and of the total being nothing more than the sum of the parts. Then there is also a class of phenomena which are non-linear but non-dynamic; the processes of equilibrium and homeostasis. Regarding a lot of things in the natural world but also in the societies of man, the field of dialectics is thus pretty much confined. But of course its common within nomothetics to suggest that apparent counterexamples to rules are actually only special cases confirming that rule, even when they are empirically dominating. Especially in the case of stasis it seems to make sense; to regard stasis as a special case of dynamics is immediately attractive and goes well with modern physics' way of abandoning but still recognising Aristotelean mechanics. It is more difficult to account for simple linearity as a special case of non-linearity - still possible of course, but it will probably not appear to have the largest explanatory value among competing theories, and we are far out in the problems of ad hoc.

Jonas adds: Regarding stasis, it is simply wrong to say that modern physics abandon but still Recognise Aristotelean mechanics. First of all, Aristotelean mechanics was effectively abandoned by Galileo through the establishment of inertial frames. This marked the beginning of classical physics, not modern physics. Secondly, the problem of stasis is through the development of thermodynamics (and thus modern physics) recognised as a problem of friction, of irreversible processes, and is thus no longer a special case of dynamics.
Regarding simple linearity as a special case of non-lineartiy, I would argue in the opposite. The entire history of natural science has until the 19th-century been directed towards a study of linear phenomena, because of its susceptibility to mathematical description. An example of this is the study of equilibrium. It was discovered – mainly through the developoment of thermodynamics in relation to chemistry - that linear phenomena really is a special case of non-linear phenomena. The investigation of non-equilibrium processess as non-linear phenomena thus undertook a rapid development, which for example played an important role in the development of biochemistry.

That discussion about whether to apply dialectics to the whole of nature or to the human world specifically just doesn't make sense if you don't want dialectical materialism to replace science and be a general and infallible truth. I'm not sure about this, but I think the philosophers of Frankfurt, and possibly others, actually advocated a sense of dialectical materialism as method. For historians of ideas this has superficially looked like advocated the side of "humanistic dialectics" (restricting dialectics to be valid in the human sphere only) in the conflict, but it appears to be more fruitful to regard it as an invalidation of the whole debate. The dialectical laws are not "out there" governing any part of reality, but dialectics provides excellent tools of understanding history, and thus all kinds of human products, and thus our social and mental situation now. Since the philosophers of Frankfurt was not well versed in natural science, they were not interested in applying the dialectical method to the study of phenomena outside the human sphere.

However, natural science is, at least partly, of course historical as well. Biology certainly is, which was acknowledged by Marx and Engels together in their great appreciation of Darwin, and geology obviously likewise, acknowledged by their appreciation of Lyell. The extent to which astronomy and physics are historical was perhaps not too obvious at the time. But it would be difficult to deny that dialectics, conceived as an analytical method and a model, makes sense in the study of natural phenomena as well. The manuscripts and articles put together as "Dialectics of nature" show a wide selection of suggestions, ranging from the mere application of dialectic terminology to well-known phenomena to being able to highlight the dynamic properties of natural phenomena in a way that the contemporary positivist science was more or less unable to.

But after that, several parts of natural science have certainly proceeded in that direction. Of course, science sticks to it reductionist ambition which is part of its methodology (but not necessarily of its metaphysics), but it's usually mostly the propagandistic, popular versions of science that sweep away complications and utilise fateful simplifications. In so many fields, it has turned out that the reductionist programs instigated by positivism has led to a mere superfluous understanding of phenomena. In some fields, there has been launched new lines of research entirely to study the patterns of complexity. In biology, macroevolution, systems ecology, epigenetics and several other subjects are all about that. I know physics less, but obviously chaos research, and probably those damned fractals, are all about that too.

Jonas adds: In physics famous examples are meteorology, turbulence and to some extent celestial mechanics.

Most of these fields do not utilise a dialectic terminology. It may be argued that this whole sphere of non-linear dynamics is far too general to be about dialectics specifically. I don't agree. This is actually exactly the way in which the dialectical model is useful; to trace and describe historical dynamics of complex systems in broadest possible terms, charting the history, the field of possibilities, the overdetermination/underdetermination of the outcome, fundamental ambiguity of even the smallest elements, the sudden release of non-linear (non-recallable) change.

Jonas adds: This is an excellent description of complex systems. One might add a difference between the dialectical assumptions and complex systems: The dialectical method is concerned with the internal contradictions of an object/material (history, nature, concepts, being, whatever), and how these contradictions generate an internal movement that is not dependent upon external influences. In complex systems, the slight disturbances from the environment might lead to large-scale outcomes. Thus, the development of the
system is not internal. A system (for example different chemical feedback systems) can be in an unstable equilibrium which develops into non-equilibrium through the slight effect of an external disturbance.

Some post-structuralist philosophers, who are into dialectics but sternly resolved not to give in to the old ghost of Hegel and use his terminology, and who are fascinated by natural sciences but restless enough to be able to work within them, are working hard to describe this sphere of non-linearity in nature and to do it without Hegel. I never tried to investigate this trend on my own, but books put in my hand written by the deleuzian DeLanda examplify it clearly. In a sense, this is only adding arm-chair syntheses and philosophical pretentiousness to what a lot of physicists and biologists are doing on an empirical basis. In spite of that, this appears to me to be more interesting than most of what else happened within philosophy for a few decades.

But of course there are also aspects of dialectics which are not immediately applicable outside the human sphere. The play of contrariesand the phenomenology of negation.

First of all, it seems like antinomies in general have no meaning outside the human sphere. Therefore the play of contraries, often considered the essence of dialectics, regardless of whether interpreted on a logical or a temporal level, simplified into the textbook schedule of thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis, or conceived in a more general form allowing more complexity. Of course, real life phenomena are usually complex, but it may be only of the level of concepts that this complexity specifically contain contraries, because it is only there that the notion of a contrary has a meaning. Sometimes great efforts have been made to cite simple empirical examples to diprove the aristotelean laws of logic. These can be easily dismissed by the logician with the simple distinction that real empirical phenomena are complex and ambiguous and thus "systematically misleading" (as they often say), while the laws of logic simply deal with the purely analytical logical abstracts. Perhaps it is to take this one step further to suggest that simple logical determinations (delineating units etc) can be meaningful only in the human sphere; even there, they may not apply confidently, things are basically potentially ambiguous and dynamic there too, but at least in that sphere they may reconstruct original intentions or adapt to funcational communicational efforts - while for non-human phenomena it will remain conditional and/or conventional concerns only which makes the delineation of the objects, of parts and whole, of distinct parts, of which factors contitute the environment, of unity over time, etc. Panta rei, but only in the human sphere it makes sense to expect phenomena to adapt in some meaningful sense to our categories of thinking.

Jonas adds: One might – depending on the development of particle physics and quantum dosmology – be able to argue that the play of contraries might be important through the series of symmetry-breaking that took place in the early universe (the splitting up of the four different forces of nature) and which since then has constituted the fabric of the dynamic of the universe. This play of contraries might even be important on an even earlier level in the theory of inflation.

I also regard the seductiveness of negation as a cornerstone. And of course I mean dialectical or substantial negation. Not anything possible to confine to logical negation, which strictly speaking cannot imagine anything else out of "dull life" than "not the case of dull life", and if we struggle hard can produce a series of contradictory negations of each determination "exciting life" "dull death" "exciting death" etc without discerning any qualitative difference. These games of logical juxtapositions is characteristic of the totally barren varieties of purely formal nonconformism. Almost as barren are usually attempts at absolute negation, of just trying to wipe the context/ the past out of existence and pretend an absolutely fresh start, an absolute freedom; easily, like any type of principled abstentionism, leaving intact that which is left behind; this is the popular notion of exodus, which post-structuralist political philosophers happily envisaged as a type of non-dialectic negation.
The trope of real negation would in some sense be absolute, in that it is about establishing a radical departure, about burning bridges or burning ships, leaving the whole field of the presently given with its constellations of superficial oppositions (absolute divergence); but it is necessarily a qualitative leap and not merely a logical or contextual one, a breaking point where the hitherto present is in a sense annihilated but still contained in a sublated form in the new. In this sense, the negation is the "imaginary solution" taking flesh. Difficult as it is to describe this in a transparent way, it might simply be because it is primarily is an enthusing vehicle for the spirit to imagine the new and desirable. In terms of that old textbook scheme, any antithesis must be a synthesis and vice versa. Opposition within a given framework is not a dialectical movement.
As it is fittingly represented by an upwards movement, leaving the ground of the presently given, the dialectical leap, the negation is also linked to ascension.
The aspect that the negation suddenly changes the meaning of everything, shuffles all constellations, involves a total reconfiguration, is the most general characterisation of revolution.
And finally, the mapping of the new vantage point as one above the hitherto present with its superficial antinomies, where the air is new and unbelievably fresh, in surrealism traditionally the "supreme point of the mind".

So, in that sense, it may actually seem like dialectics is a purely human thing, since it is only human thinking which is inspired by dialectical movements of thought. Even if these movements are obvisouly part of general human thinking as a capacity, it remains important not to treat dialectics as a descriptive phenomenon. Most of human thinking does not display dialectics, there has to be a radical departure, a negation.
Whenever we describe non-human phenomena with these terms, it's obvious that this is either metaphoric or at least a conditional model, which may serve to elucidate some properties of the process but do not have dynamics of their own. The violent changes that occur in nature are only in a sense revolutions, quite obviously they are special cases of major restructuring in the non-linear processes. The human mind obviously is directed, and dialectic terms may sometimes describe and sometimes help/inspire that movement.

(by the way)
The surrealismologists have written a lot about the surrealist Hegel reception and I haven't made any efforts to overview that field. I remember Marguerite Bonnet wrote about in the introduction to Bretons Oeuvres complètes t 2, but of course I don't understand much french. Obviously, few people in the french group read german, none of those who were more agenda-setting on the theoretical level, and thus early surrealist understanding of hegelian dialectics relied a lot on translations and commentaries. Of these, it has been said that Victor Cousin and Benedetto Croce were among the most important. I have no idea. The famous academic reintroduction of Hegel in France, in the translations of Hyppolite and lectures of Kojève, which became canonical due to all the future leading french structuralists and existentialists attending, was not very important to the surrealists, mostly because most of the surrealists were not active as academics; even though of course it could be mentioned that there were several ex-surrealists or almost-surrealists or surrealists-outside-the-group in the auditorium (Leiris, Bataille, Lacan, Queneau etc). Obviously, the surrealists also read Engels Anti-Dühring, which certainly isn't the most profound presentation of dialectics to be found, but probably was on the french CP required reading list, and obviously, Breton did find use for the more or less simplified formulations in it. They probably filled the dual function of providing simple but adequate formulae of dialectics as background for his own points, and blinking to the communists.

Anonymous said...


Dear Merl

Some further thoughts on dialectics:

I feel there are a few conceptual leaps in your discussion. It is a long time since I thought about these questions (or at least in these terms), and I don’t have time to look for references, so please correct me if I am talking off the top of my head. First, what do you mean by ’dialectical materialism’? My recollection is that this phrase is nowhere to be found in Marx (or even in Engels) and is both a vulgarisation and a mystification, if not a contradiction in terms (if materialism is ’dialectical’ then it logically follows that there must be something that is not matter; it therefore admits idealism). Marx had a far too subtle mind to allow himself to use such a mechanistic term.

Hegel’s dialectic is a methodology, not a principle of explanation. It helps us to understand the process of change but it cannot explain the nature of things themselves. It can therefore be neither ’idealist’ nor ’materialist’. I am a bit confused as to what you see as the distinction between ’dialectical materialism’ and ’dialectics tout court’. I also get the feeling that you are conflating ’dialectical materialism’, ’historical materialism’, the ’dialectics of nature’ and the ’negation of the negation’. I am equally confused when you speak of Engels’ argument as a (dialectical) development of Hegel. How? In what way is it possible for the dialectic to be dialectically developed? It can be argued (as Marx did) that Hegel’s discussion or use of it is faulty, incomplete, or inappropriate in particular circumstances, but I can’t see how it can be ’developed’. The essence of Marx’s criticism of Hegel is not that his dialectic is idealist, but that he used it to analyse an abstraction: the unfolding of the human spirit. What this results in, according to Marx, is ’the dialectic of pure thought’. Thus Hegel’s idealism is not inherent to his philosophy, but the result of his insufficiently critical approach to the world. Equally I don’t think Engels intended to develop the dialectic but to apply it to nature, an area in which Hegel himself believed it was not appropriate.

I did not describe Engels’ dialectics of nature as ’nonsense’ but as ’controversial’. It was the quote you were using about general laws appeared to me nonsense. The specific examples you gave also did not seem to me very convincing. However I am sure there is much that is still of great value in Engels’ writing on evolution.

In relation to the quotations from Breton and Engels about Hegel’s method being inappropriate I would want to know the reasons they give. I don’t know the context of Engels’ statement, but in the case of Breton we know that in the Second Manifesto he was keen extricate surrealism (and himself) from persistent allegations of ’idealism’. We need therefore to enquire into whether there is substance to these statements or whether they are merely positional statements. I don’t have a copy of the Manifestos to hand but my recollection is that the first statement does no more than show that Breton had tactical reasons to indicate a distance from Hegel. The statement about historical materialism seems quite clearly hyperbole inserted for the eyes of the PCF. The dogmatic assertion ’there is no way to play on these words’ seems to make this clear, especially as history since that time has shown us how easy it is to play on these words … I almost get the feeling that Breton was being ironic here. In any event, it is not enough to state what Breton says. The question is: are these statements are consistent with the overall content of the Manifesto and more generally with the practice of surrealism? In my view they are not.

More significant, though, is not whether the Second Manifesto is consistent with dialectical materialism, but whether dialectical materialism offers an appropriate frame of reference for surrealism today. This concept, even if there is something of value in its formulation by Engels, has been so corrupted by the ideological dross that has accrued to it over the past seventy years that one wonders whether it is still possible to talk objectively about it. But even then it seems to me that Breton – and surrealism in its generality – always had a far more sophisticated understanding of dialectics than Engels and therefore to see surrealism by that light appears an impoverishment.

Since writing this I have received the very interesting response from Mattias which clarifies a lot of points that are beyond my knowledge.

Regarding the surrealists’ reception of Hegel, though, there was probably greater direct contact than Mattias suggests. Pierre Naville read German and Denise Lévy, the cousin of Simone Breton, who became Naville’s wife, was a prominent translator of German texts, esp of romanticism. There is evidence that she was instrumental in providing the surrealists with direct access to previously untranslated works.

Furthermore, there is the whole heritage of French symbolism, which was permeated by a kind of Hegelianism. We know that Mallarmé and Villiers, in particular, drew quite strongly on Hegel but one feels it was a thread that ran through the work of many of the great poets of the period (I can’t imagine that Lautréamont could have written the works he did without some close awareness of Hegel, for example). Admittedly this was an idealist understanding of Hegel and could not have been based on very much direct knowledge of his work but it was still significant, to the extent that Roger Caillois once said that the value of philosophical thinking in France in the 19th century was to be found not in its philosophers but in its poets. The surrealists, and Breton in particular, were imbued with this tradition and it needs to be taken into account alongside marxism when considering their understanding of Hegel.

Hope this helps and look forward to seeing other people’s responses.

All the best


Anonymous said...

Dear Michael

I have read the recent postings on ‘Laws of Motion’ with some interest. I was expecting there to be some controversy around this document. I was surprised, though, to find it developed over dialectics. In your most recent correspondence you expand on some of the confusions. I apologise, therefore, if some of my comments seem so obvious as to be unnecessary of restatement. When we are discussing philosophical positions, with their implications for our practice, it is as well to be over-clear.

You begin by asking about ‘dialectical materialism’. To state this as clearly as I can, our dialectics are materialist in that they assert the primacy of matter over thought. Our materialism is dialectical in that we assert that all matter is in motion. There is no contradiction here, nor does this in any way admit idealism. Would ‘historical materialism’ admit anhistoricism? Your argument here is a reductive fallacy drawn from formal logic, and it has nothing at all to do with dialectics. It owes more to an academic deconstructionism wholly inimical to dialectics.

It is not idealist to acknowledge thought. Denying thought would not make us bad dialecticians, or automatic idealists, it would make us idiots. The essence of the question, though, lies in the relationship between thought and matter. We would only become idealists if we saw matter as reflecting thought (rather than vice versa) – as Hegel did.

I think that this is the central misunderstanding in both your posts. You seem to regard it as possible to separate Hegel’s dialectic from its place within his system of thought without in any way adapting or developing it. In your first comments you said that ‘If Marx, rightly or wrongly, considered Hegel’s general system to be idealist, no one, as far as I know, has ever imputed this to his dialectic’. In your second post you deny that Hegel’s dialectic can be either materialist or idealist.

This is simply not the position of Marx and Engels, nor of Marxists working on dialectics after them (Plekhanov, Mehring, Lenin, and Trotsky spring to mind). Marx and Engels were both explicit that Hegel’s dialectics were idealist. I apologise for the lengthy quotes, but the persisting confusion here misrepresents Marx and Engels’ position on Hegel. It is as well to adduce their own responses. Here is Engels writing on dialectical materialism in Ludwig Feuerbach:

‘[O]ne started out from [Hegel’s] revolutionary side, from the dialectical method. But in its Hegelian form this method was unusable. According to Hegel, dialectics is the self-development of the concept [emphasis added]. The absolute concept does not only exist – where unknown – from eternity, it is also the actual living soul of the whole existing world … According to Hegel … the dialectical development apparent in nature and history, ie the causal interconnection of the progressive movement from the lower to the higher, which asserts itself through all zig-zag movements and temporary setbacks, is only a miserable copy of the self-movement of the concept going on from eternity, no one knows where, but at all events independently of any thinking human brain. This ideological reversal had to be done away with. We comprehended the concepts in our heads once more materialistically – as images of real things instead of regarding the real things as images of this or that stage of development of the absolute concept … Thereby the dialectic of the concept itself became merely the conscious reflex of the dialectical motion of the real world and the dialectic of Hegel was placed upon its head; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing before, and placed upon its feet again. And this materialist dialectic … for years has been our best working tool and our sharpest weapon’.

(You asked in what context these remarks were made. Ludwig Feuerbach appeared in 1888 in order to give a ‘comprehensive, connected account’ of their relationship with Hegel, via Feuerbach, under conditions where Marxism was spreading while classical German philosophy was re-emerging).

Here, too, is Marx in the Afterword to the second German edition of Capital, Volume 1:

‘My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, ie the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea”, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea”. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought … With [Hegel] it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell’.

He was even blunter in private correspondence. Complaining that Eugen Dühring had falsified his position, Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann ‘my method of exposition is not Hegelian, since I am a materialist, and Hegel an idealist. Hegel’s dialectics is the basic form of all dialectics, but only after being stripped of its mystical form, and it is precisely this which distinguishes my method’.

Both Marx and Engels were thus explicit that Hegel’s dialectic was idealist (Marx talks of dialectic ‘in its mystified form’). In passing I would suggest that this might be a reason Hegel did not believe it was appropriate to apply the dialectic to nature. You write that you ‘did not describe Engels’ dialectics of nature as “nonsense” but as “controversial”’. Actually, you described them as neither, but as ‘problematic, with some commentators [although you did not say which] seeing them as incompatible with Marx’s theories’. However the quote you described, and continue to describe, as ‘nonsense’, was itself taken from Engels work.

Your suggestion that Engels did not intend ‘to develop the dialectic’ does him a disservice. He said that he was ‘not concerned with writing a handbook of dialectics, but only with showing that the dialectical laws are real laws of development of nature, and therefore are valid also for theoretical natural science’. From Hegelian idealism this was a development.

The question of developing dialectics seems problematic to you. You write that Hegel’s use of dialectic could be seen as faulty or incomplete, but question how the dialectic itself could be developed. As is clear, Marx and Engels saw no such problem in the development of dialectical thinking. Hegel’s own dialectic constituted a development from Heraclitus: the development is dialectical in that Hegel also overturns Heraclitus’ spontaneous materialism. (Lenin attacked Lassalle for misrepresenting Heraclitus as Hegelian and in the process ‘spoiling [his] liveliness, freshness, naiveté and historical integrity). Trotsky noted that to regard dialectical materialism as ‘eternal and immutable’ would be ‘to contradict the spirit of the dialectic’. Neither Marx nor Engels ever dismissed Hegel’s contribution to dialectics: on the contrary, they went to great lengths to show the interconnectedness of their advances with the brilliance of his original work. This is how historical materialist analyses work.

This interconnection between Hegel and Marx and Engels is present through the Second Manifesto, and throughout much surrealist writing on dialectics. When Au Service de la Revolution published extracts from Lenin’s philosophical notebooks, André Thirion referred to them as ‘the Hegel-Lenin dialogue’. (Given your continued rejection of Engels’ definition of dialectics given as the epigraph to Merl’s paper, it is also worth noting that Thirion talked about their impact on ‘all those who aspire to disentangle the laws of the evolution of all material and intellectual objects’). This is not, though, an either/or question. As is clear, Breton had read much of the Marxist philosophical literature, and was familiar with the developments Marx, Engels, Plekhanov and Lenin had made. (He told André Parinaud that when they approached the PCF they were already familiar with the ‘major philosophical writings’, citing The Holy Family, The German Ideology, Anti-Dühring, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism amongst others). To use Heraclitus’ image, the relationship between Hegel and Marx and Engels is the tension of a strung bow.

On reading your first post I wondered why you seemed to be arguing for the primacy of Hegel, when you seemed not to be espousing Hegel’s idealism. Looking again at the Second Manifesto, the presence of Engels is palpable and, notwithstanding your reading of passages as ‘positional’ or ironic, quite genuine. Returning to your posts, it seems that you are not so much arguing for Hegel as against Engels. The unsubstantiated suggestions that Engels’ work was somehow incompatible with Marx’s, the hints that he had a less subtle mind than his closest collaborator over a 40-year period, are, I have to say, not new. From the Machists, against whom Lenin wrote Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, onwards, attacks on Engels have often been a way of attacking the substance of Marx’s thought while paying lip-service to his importance.

Although you hint at your disagreements with Marx you do not ever state them explicitly, generally attributing them to some other unspecified source. But the crux of your comments becomes clear in your discussion of Breton’s orientation to the PCF, and your suggestion that Breton’s comments about Engels were ‘merely positional’. The question here seems to be whether surrealism is actually compatible with revolutionary activity.

You talk quite correctly of the ‘ideological dross’ accumulated on Marx’s work over the last 70 years. I do not think that without an analysis of how this worked that is in itself sufficient. However, you then use that 70-year period to cast a question mark over the period pre-dating it. You wish to read Breton’s statement that ‘there is no way to play on these words’ as ironical, in the light of the subsequent deformations of Marxist thought in the Soviet Union. You wish to distance Breton from what happened after 1930 without acknowledging that he was writing in 1930. This lack of context stems from the absence of an historical materialist perspective. Similarly, you talk of 70 years of dross casting a doubt over whether it is still possible to talk objectively about it. Having thus raised a question mark (and it is a legitimate and serious historical question) you use it to go back to 1930.

This conflation of the period of the Second Manifesto and the period since effectively strips the Manifesto of its living content. In 1930, the rise of Stalinism was by no means a finished question. Breton was engaged in a living struggle. Seeing surrealism explicitly as a revolutionary movement, Breton oriented himself within that ongoing struggle. If this were simply a ‘positional’ manoeuvre to court the PCF, as you suggest, why did Breton (and he was not alone) then continue the struggle against the increasing stalinisation of the PCF? If it were simply a positional cosying-up to the PCF, why on earth would Breton subsequently associate himself with Trotsky, of all people? If it was just about demonstrating his hostility to idealism, why not take the path of least resistance and adopt the mechanical materialism being espoused by Stalinism a la Aragon and Eluard?

I am by no means suggesting that the Second Manifesto is a straightforwardly Marxist work, although its engagement with Engels clearly precludes it from being the Hegelian piece you argued for initially. I do, though, think that it constitutes an attempt to engage with a revolutionary philosophy. In this respect, it follows Lenin’s definition of philosophy as a guide to action, and is consistent with Marx’s point that whereas philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world, the point is to change it. As surrealists, our ambitions are surely revolutionary – that would be a minimum starting point for our engagement.

In your apparent separation of method from philosophy, you seem to be suggesting a different model of philosophy. My reading of your posts is that for you philosophy is something to be adopted or abandoned as the need takes. Whether you recognise it as such, this is itself a philosophical system - an eclectic pragmatism.

The question remains of whether one wishes to work out a revolutionary philosophical system. Certainly Marx and Engels did, which is why they developed dialectics from Hegel’s idealism. The suggestion that ‘dialectical materialism’ (a definition popularised by Plekhanov) is a vulgarisation of Marx’s work comes mainly from those who see no need for revolutionary thought, nor its dissemination as preparation for revolutionary activity. If you will forgive one final quote, this is Marx again. His words are a ringing definition of the revolutionary nature of dialectical thought, and also contain a warning about what happens in its absence:

‘In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary’.


Paul Cowdell

Anonymous said...


Dear Paul

I’m not sure that this discussion is going anywhere and we seem to be talking at cross-purposes. However, I do feel I have to take up some of the statements in your letter.

You say that materialism is about asserting ‘the primacy of matter over thought’. This is a rather novel definition and begs the question of why matter should be asserted above thought. Is this simply a dogmatism, or an attempted colonization of the mind by matter? Either way it seems rather disturbing and I would be interested to know how it could possibly be justified. The principle of all materialism as I understand it is that matter is the substance of the world and thought is simply a particular manifestation of it. This is actually stated by Marx precisely in the quote you give: ‘the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought’. Once you introduce a ‘relationship between thought and matter’ you automatically cease to be a materialist and become a dualist. I am also unable to see how asserting that ‘all matter is in motion’ makes it dialectical. And why does this need to be ‘asserted’? That matter is in motion is a truism that might be explained in other ways: we could equally assert that this motion is random or that it follows from a relation of cause and effect.

I don’t see how this has anything to do with ‘formal logic’ and the link with deconstruction completely escapes me.

However, as I said, I am speaking a little on the hoof here, since these questions were things I considered in detail around twenty years ago and I don’t have time now to check references, so I am ready to be corrected if I have confused myself or mis-remembered the issues. However, I don’t find that the evidence you give provides substance to your argument.

Nowhere in the quotes you give does Marx say that Hegel’s dialectic is idealist. His whole emphasis is on the way he used it which resulted in a philosophy that became idealist. In none of the quotes does Marx even hint at ‘developing’ Hegel’s dialectic. On the contrary, he complains that it is already over-developed and argues for the opposite: he wants to ‘turn it right side up’, to strip it of its mystical kernel.

When Marx speaks of his dialectical ‘method’ as being the exact opposite of Hegel’s, it is surely clear that he is referring to the way he is APPLYING the dialectic. How can something that is its exact opposite be said to be a ‘development’ from it?

You seem obsessed with a progressivist ideology which appears to be closer to positivism than dialectics. You even speak of Hegel as ‘developing’ Heraclitus’s dialectic. This is not what Hegel himself claimed. He said that Heraclitus ’takes the dialectic itself as principle’ and that there is thus ’no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic’ (Lectures on the History of Philosophy).

Of course, he found the germ of his idea in Heraclitus and, in elucidating his dialectic, Hegel was drawing upon previous philosophers, like Plato or Fichte. He may have refined their conceptions, but it is not really accurate to call this a development (or maybe it is in the case of Fichte, but only because his dialectic is mechanical and not really of use for anything). But Plato’s dialectic remains perfectly valid if one wishes to remain within the sphere of abstract reasoning. What Hegel did was to apply a greater precision to the dialectical method so that it became possible to use it for the analysis of social, historical and phenomenological data. Maybe we need someone today to refine the dialectic so that it ceases to be susceptible to mystification, whether of the type of ‘dialectical idealism’ Marx condemns or the ‘dialectical materialism’ that is its Twentieth Century complement. In this respect the final quote you give from Marx is amazing: Replace the words ‘Germany’ with ‘Soviet Union’ and ‘bourgeoisdom’ with ‘bureaucracy’ and he could be discussing dialectical materialism.

The quote from Engels reveals a very crude understanding of Hegel’s dialectic and surely cannot be taken seriously. ‘Dialectics is the self-development of the concept’! Really! That would have been news to Hegel. If this is the basis from which Engels ‘developed’ the dialectic it doesn’t inspire confidence.

It is you who are not placing a proper historical perspective on the Second Manifesto. Breton was perfectly well aware in 1929 of the threat of Stalinism (after all Trotsky had been expelled from the Soviet Union at the beginning of the year and Breton had close contacts with the Opposition) and knew he was treading on eggs; he was thus trying to find an accommodation which maintained communication with an increasingly intolerant PCF without compromising surrealism. Using terminology that did not alienate them was therefore necessary. You impute to me the ridiculous suggestion that the Second Manifesto is ‘Hegelian’. Let us be clear: the Second Manifesto is neither Hegelian nor marxist; it is surrealist.

In the end, though, these arguments are purely scholastic. The essential point is: does dialectical materialism have anything of value to offer surrealism today? Nothing in what you say convinces me that it does. In our time claims to legitimate dialectical materialism through marxist revolutionary practice seem pretty hollow given the mess ‘marxists’ have made of the world in their clumsy efforts to change it. Were he around today Marx would no doubt even more vociferously reiterate his withering comment to those who would erect an ideology on his thought that ‘At least I am not a marxist!’ You say ‘The question remains of whether one wishes to work out a revolutionary philosophical system.’ This is a question the French surrealists emphatically answered in the negative at the time of their discussions with the Fourth International in 1964. History since then has surely only served to emphasise how right they were. But why all this obsession with laws and systems and development? Whatever happened to surrealist spontaneity?

All the best

Michael Richardson

Anonymous said...


Dear Michael

Thank you for your response. I did not reply immediately, as I also remain unconvinced that we will make much headway, not least because you attribute to me positions I do not hold. I did not, for instance, suggest that you thought the Second Manifesto Hegelian. I said explicitly that you were not arguing for Hegel so much as against Engels, and I have seen nothing here to make me change that opinion. However, I do feel that your response has clarified some questions, as you hoped.

Chiefly, I think that your misreading of Marx is now much clearer. You continue to insist that Marx did not condemn Hegel’s dialectic as idealist, and that Marxist dialectics constituted no development from Hegelian dialectics. The former is simply wrong, and I was initially unsure how you could continue to defend it against Marx’s own (very clear) comments. That this is motivated by hostility to Marx becomes apparent from the inconsistencies within your arguments. In none of the passages I quote, you say, ‘does Marx say that Hegel’s dialectic is idealist’. Two sentences later, though, in trying to demonstrate that Marx did not ‘develop’ Hegelian dialectics, you talk of its ‘mystical kernel’. Which is it? Did Marx not think Hegel’s dialectic idealist, as you claim, or did it really have a ‘mystical kernel’, as you also claim?

And if it did have a ‘mystical kernel’ of which it needed to be stripped (as you say), why would this not constitute a development? In attributing to me ‘a progressivist ideology’ you seem to argue that no adaptation of philosophy can be regarded as a ‘development’. This leads to the absurd position where Hegel does not ‘develop’ Heraclitus; if Hegel’s adoption of every proposition of Heraclitus is the end of the story, what is Hegel’s contribution to the dialectic? Why, then, is Heraclitean dialectics not in and of itself sufficient?

The answer is in your appeal to Plato. Your argument is that the application of the dialectic was developed by Hegel, but Plato’s dialectic ‘remains perfectly valid’ for ‘abstract reasoning’. In other words, there is an ideal dialectic, a dialectic that has the ideal form of a dialectic from whatever angle, that does not need to be applied to remain perfect. Such a conception of a philosophical method removed from its application is wholly idealist. It is alien to Marx, and, I would suggest, to surrealism.

Notwithstanding your historical protestations, this is at the root of your continued conflation of Marxism and Stalinism. Many surrealists (including most members of SLAG) would disagree with my conception of a revolutionary philosophical system. They would, though, agree on the necessity for a form of thought that meets revolutionary requirements. It is worth recalling the Platform of Prague here: despite the appalling depredations they had experienced under Stalinism, the Prague group sought ‘not to institute a historical trial, but to examine the tragic experience of the deviation of Bolshevism into a police state so that it may serve today’s revolutionary vigilance’ (emphasis added). That leaves a number of alternative conclusions open, but is motivated by a desire to reconquer what was revolutionary in Marx’s thought for revolutionary purposes.

Your response, though, suggests that you are unable to see beyond Stalinism’s deformations of Marxism and can no longer see anything to be examined. The section of the Fourth International with which the Paris group discussed in 1966 had fallen under a similar spell. Thirteen years earlier it had been involved in a split in the FI, having supported the argument that revolutionary activity was off the agenda because of the strength of Stalinism. What they confronted, they claimed, was ‘centuries of deformed workers’ states’, so the task of revolutionaries was to merge with what appeared to be the strongest local organisations – including the Stalinists. (The attempt to reconstruct FIARI was itself a retreat, as the French surrealists recognised).

Even were this not the case, though, the appeal to the French group’s record on revolutionary philosophy in the late 1960s is somewhat problematic. Only three years later, after all, the Paris group suspended its activities. The consequences of this traumatic experience are still being confronted by surrealism internationally. In his account of this collapse of collectivity, Jean Schuster drew distinctions between ‘historical’ and ‘eternal’ surrealism. His idealist interpretation finds an echo in your distinction between philosophical method and application.

Finally, of course I agree with you about the necessity for surrealist spontaneity. The inter-related question, though, is what happens to any systematic surrealist research?


Pearl Handel said...

Dear Paul, Michael, Mattias & Jonas

I certainly do not agree with Paul about the need for a revolutionary philosophical system, at least not in any unitary sense (which is why I am happy to incorporate "volatile fragments" of other systems as tools in my own thinking). However I certainly do agree -- as I expect we all do -- on the need for systematic Surrealist research, and hence for methodology. The Second Manifesto announced the adoption of dialectical materialism as a Surrealist methodology. I remain convinced of the sincerity of that announcement and can see no historical reason for -- and, more importantly from my point of view, no present-day advantage in -- trying to explain it away as some kind of un- or semi-intentional faux pas on Breton's part.

However as I have already said this does not mean that dialectical materialism should be regarded as an unchanging methodology good for all time, but rather as something to be developed (and perhaps ultimately even superseded). In this respect I think the most interesting contributions to this discussion -- in the sense that they have the potential to open up new areas of enquiry and to equip us with new methodological tools for Surrealist research -- are those made by Jonas and Mattias about the natural sciences, and especially about non-linearity and complexity. I have only a rather oafish layperson's understanding of these topics but it does seem to me, on an intuitive level at least, that phenomena such as objective chance could be fruitfully analysed in terms of complexity, and that thinking about it in this way might yield new insights for Surrealism. As someone with a background in social sciences I take to heart Mattias' caveats about the differences between social/"humanistic" and natural sciences in the applicability of dialectics, and there is a danger of taking over scientific terminology and "applying" it to other spheres in a clumsy, superficial or shallowly metaphorical way. (Actually, Jonas' cosmology example suggests that such apparently "humanistic" or purely logical phenomena as the play of contraries might also be present in non-human spheres, which may indicate that some of this danger could be overrated, but I am nowhere near competent to comment on that.) However I would like to suggest (and at this stage it is only a suggestion) that this methodological division between natural and social/humanistic sciences is itself something Surrealists might want to question, especially if we wish to do some serious work on the development of non-anthropocentric models and methods. We might want to try whether it is possible to think about, say, power, eroticism or imagination in ways which do not centre on a pre-constituted "human" figure, and in doing so we might find models such as complexity or non-linearity more relevant than more traditional/conformist versions of social science have been. Of course, some mainstream social scientists have themselves also started to work with the notion of complexity, although with variable results so far.

In all this I am speculating. I think Surrealists need to be prepared to speculate, to experiment, to try new ideas and run the risk of making wrong turnings or hitting dead ends. As I said in the Laws of Motion paper itself, we have to keep moving, and in notions of complexity I can see some pathways for the development of Surrealist methodology which might be able to grapple with changing material and epistemological conditions while itself remaining both materialist and revolutionary.

This discussion of science and method has taken us into some of the questions raised by the Voices of the Hell Choir document rather than by my Laws of Motion paper, which was really intended to open up a discussion of analogy.


Anonymous said...


Dear Paul

I don’t think we can get any further with this as it is clear we are arguing at vast cross-purposes. Hopefully though we have opened up a debate into which others will contribute.

I will however clarify some points.

1. It is not a matter of being ’for’ or ’against’ anyone, but of discovering what is living in particular thinkers. I have a great regard for Engels, who was a fine social analyst, but he was not a philosopher and to take his work on dialectics (which in any event was intended as a popularisation) seriously today simply seems perverse.

2. I am unable to see how anyone can ’develop’ the dialectic. It is the wrong word to use about any methodology. If someone said ‘Newton developed Bacon’s induction’, it would be an obvious absurdity. Saying ‘Engels developed Hegel’s dialectic’ is the same thing. Development is anyway incompatible with the profound sense of dialectic, which does not explain change through development but through the encounter or clash of opposites. Even if you don’t accept this, it would certainly be impossible to develop Heraclitus’s dialectic for the simple reason that his writings are so fragmentary that no one, not even Hegel, could be clear what it was. It would be accurate to say that Hegel discovered dialectic in its raw state in Heraclitus: when you discover gold, you don’t develop it; you refine it. But our problem here perhaps lies in the understanding of the word ’development’ which for me is so tied in with the worst aspects of Enlightenment ideology that it has to be used with extreme care. I must admit that it gets my back up when I see development being used in the sense of ’improvement’. I do find it amazing that you are unable to see a difference between ’stripping’ and ’development’ - surely they are exact opposites - although this does present some tantalising possibilities. Perhaps striptease joints could be called ’development parlours’ and advertised as contributing to the ’personal development’ that is seen as so essential to effective work patterns these days! Come to think of it maybe it is appropriate at a time when the word ’development’ so often really means ’stripping underdeveloped countries of their remaining wealth’.

3. Your understanding of ’idealism’ seems to me as weird as your understanding of materialism. The ’ideal’ in idealism does not imply something that is perfect. The popular use of the word to mean something utopian or unrealistic has nothing to do with any philosophical sense of the term. And, even more, idealism is not the same thing as mysticism. Sorry I stupidly mis-quoted the phrase in Marx as mystical ’kernel’ instead of ’shell’ in my previous missive – however, this only emphasises my point since a shell is only a protection and by removing it you free its essential qualities. The idea of something having an ’idealist shell’ would not make any sense at all. Marx did not use words lightly. If he had meant that Hegel’s dialectic was idealist this is surely what he would have said, and he would certainly not have used the metaphor of a shell to describe it. Although it is true that most commentators do regard Hegel as an idealist, this interpretation has been challenged by many people, most of them marxists. Raya Dunayevskaya, for example, makes a very convincing case for Hegel as a materialist. However, to say something is idealist is not an insult. Wasn’t it Lenin who said that intelligent idealism is far better than stupid materialism? You seem to apply the word ’idealist’ indiscriminately to anything you don’t like. Whatever one thinks of Schuster’s distinction between historical and eternal surrealism it certainly has nothing idealist about it. In fact one of the criticisms of him was that he was a rather dogmatic materialist. Given your dislike of anything ideal I would be interested to know how you explain the absolutely central role of Fourier (whose ’dialectic of nature’ was far more important to Breton’s thinking than that of Engels) in the history of surrealism.

I would also point out that the collapse of the French Surrealist Group in 1969 occurred for extremely complex reasons most of which had little or nothing to do with the surrealist relation to marxism or revolutionary activity. Also, the Platform of Prague was not a statement of the position of the Prague group but a joint statement by the French and Czechoslovak groups.

All the best

martin marriott said...

The discussion on dialectical materialism seems relevant to the discussion on visual imagery. Karl Marx said 'people make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.' If we are indeed in the 'society of the spectacle', then dialectical materialism is true for the natural world, the rest of the universe, but is no longer applicable to human society nor inner thought proccesses.

The 'circumstances', ie, the growth of mass media, advertising and fashion, have ended the situation where people make history. Yet it seems to me the opposite is happenning -- for example, the political struggles by workers and peasants, strikes and land-struggles throughout Latin America at the present time. The fact that many in Paris didn't see the shooting of two of their young people as simply a 'spectacle'. The labor stoppages in the U.S. in May '06, which were the largest
multi-city political strikes in U.S. history. So perhaps we don't need to abandon the perspective of changing the world. Or, indeed, that 'poetry shall be made by all.'

This is not to say the Madrid and London statements don't hit home (to me, I mean) in all kinds of ways, they do, in the deepest way. I look forward to more of them. At the same time, Breton and Peret never thought some exhibitions of framed paintings were going to overthrow the capitalist system either. There was a 5th Avenue in New York then too. Dali found it. and a Hollywood. And now, as then, the majority of humanity are not primarily consumers, but producers. We spend the majority of our non-sleeping hours in production. The most populous occupation is farm-work, not internet surfing. Most people don't have cellphones. Roughly half the world has no access to electricity, or piped water, never mind Playboy, Vogue and cable TV.

Pearl Handel said...

Martin, you and I have discussed some of these things elsewhere and I'm sure we'll continue to do so, but I have to admit that you've completely lost me here. I don't understand why you think the Society of the Spectacle means that dialectical materialism is no longer applicable to human society. Nor do I understand why you think it means that people can no longer make their own history or change the world. The Society of the Spectacle is a name given by Debord to a particular configuration of global capitalism. That configuration of capitalism is to be resisted by all available means and strategies. The point is simply that those means and strategies, to be effective, must be somewhat different from the means and strategies used to resist other configurations, and in particular that the use of visual imagery and information is politically loaded. The fact that most of the global population does not have cell phones, internet access etc. does not invalidate the critique of the Society of the Spectacle, any more than the fact that most of the population works in agriculture invalidates the critique of industrial capitalism. On the contrary, the whole point of the critique is that the Society of the Spectacle actively reproduces the oppression of most of the world's population, just as any configuration of capitalism has always done.


martin marriott said...

Hi Merl. I guess Debord must have somthing going for him, since we have such different readings of what he's saying!


I was reading Charles Bukowski recently, and came upon this lovely line: "I worked for two years in a fluerescent lighting factory, where we made lightbulbs so bright that no-one could see."

pretty good line, eh?

particularly makes me think of airports, though it also sneaks under my bedsheets too, so to speak.

I don't think the level of working class resistance is at such a level yet to impress too many people that "class struggle un- re-configured" is still the name of the game, there is much soul-despair amongst those who have spent their adult lives in these miserable decades, but i hope the real struggles do increase enough that they become irresistable!
as they do, so will we surrealists blossom, too! (not that we have to wait! long live poetic materialism! long live the deed!

comradely, Martin