Monday, January 30, 2012

Surrealism is irreducible

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merl Fluin

Friday, January 27, 2012

Athens meeting report, June 2011

When one is overcome by demoralization and defeat, deeply depressed or on the verge of suicide, that is the time to open one’s Surrealist Survival Kit and enjoy a breath of magical fresh air.

Penelope Rosemont, ‘A Revolution in the Way We Think and Feel – Conversations with Leonora Carrington’ (2002)

In June 2011, when the city of Athens had already long been a beacon of both desperate hope and acute despair, members of the international Surrealist movement met in the Exarchia district, in the city’s heart, to build Surrealist Survival Kits. The rules of the game were simple: to assemble collections of poetic, magical, oneiric objects into portable kits, for the restoration of wonder and reinvention of hope when times are at their hardest. Responding to an invitation issued by the Athens Surrealist Group in July 2010, members of SLAG (Surrealist London Action Group) and the Stockholm Surrealist Group had travelled to Greece to join the Athenians for several days of hope and wonder. We constructed our Survival Kits – some elaborately prepared from beloved fetish objects, some improvised from detritus found on the spot, some individual, some collaborative – and welcomed local people to join us for their display and discussion at an evening of public talks, slideshows, film screenings, poetry readings and improvised music.

The international meeting was held against the backdrop of the deepening economic crisis that is tearing at the body of Greek society. This crisis renders the question of survival apparent in manifold ways. We may feel a spontaneous inclination to jump for anti‐capitalist joy and celebrate the prospect of the breakdown of the present order, but of course the crisis is not only a crisis for state and capital, but also a real crisis for the everyday lives of ordinary people: the claustrophobia of the horizon closing in, the uncertainty over whether one's home and livelihood can be sustained even for the coming months. The kind of survival in play here is one of necessity, of not bowing beneath the increasing organised misery, of preventing the destructive forces of capital from running through their regular routine. But on the other hand, when all options appear to be exhausted, when all escape routes have been blocked and the policies imposed upon us tend towards the ultimate degradation of all traces of life in society, there arises a utopian kind of survival in which imagining all other possible forms of life becomes a real force for resistance; where a basic, specifically Surrealist sense of survival regains its particular relevance. It was in the context of these two modes of survival, framed by massive popular demonstrations against austerity measures and a utopian spirit of playfulness, that the international meeting was held.

The public event was just one aspect of the stream of internal collective discussion and play that went on continuously for three days as we wound our way through meeting rooms, streets, squares, hills, bookshops, bars, kitchens, tavernas and apartments. The discussions were comradely, which means neither platitudinous nor polite: this was an occasion for asking questions, of ourselves and each other. In particular it was a time for hard thinking about the meanings of survival. It became increasingly clear to us that for Surrealists the survival at stake could not be the minimalist victory of simply making it through to another day, or the survivalist tactic of holing up somewhere to protect our treasure until the danger has passed: on the contrary, for us survival could only be, as the Athens group had expressed it in their invitation, ‘the hope for another life’.

As we reflected together on the unfolding results of our game, we understood that what made the kits significant was not the personal collection of ‘favourite things’ by individuals – ‘each one [...] different, for no two people are exactly alike’ in Penelope Rosemont’s words – but the process of assembling them, of finding or constructing oneiric objects from literally any old rubbish that was lying around, the transmutation of base matter into the gold of future time. In other words, our Survival Kit was not the objects themselves, but the ability to find and transform them. Surrealism is our survival kit, and as such is a necessary – though insufficient – condition for the social revolution that must come.

More than anything else, it was the depth and intensity of internal discussion that for us marked the importance – again we want to say the necessity – of the meeting in Athens. The meeting came in the middle of a series of international events, from the Destruction 2011 festival in Istanbul to the later exhibitions in Prague and Pennsylvania, but these were primarily geared towards the public presentation of works and ideas rather than to the development of Surrealist strategies. Events such as those in Istanbul, Prague or Pennsylvania are important for the structure of a group and thus for the international movement at large, but we must also open a space for a steadier process of international meetings. The need for international cooperation on a steady basis existed of course before our meeting; traces of it can be found in the efforts and talks concerning Hydrolith, for example. Our meeting in June was an extension and consolidation of our collective recognition of that need.

Thus the one‐night public event that took place during the meeting in Athens was just a part of the whole, and the collective task of creating it served simply to give energy and focus to our longer internal discussions and play. There was no predetermined agenda for those discussions; rather, the intention was for all participants to collaboratively shape the gathering itself. In exactly the same way, the three‐day meeting gave energy and focus to what has already become a richer, stronger collaboration between the groups that were able to participate. During discussions we were able to elaborate the history and current projects of the respective groups, thereby creating an understanding of the different conditions and the particularities of the groups present, as well as confirming our wide and unproblematic agreement. As the crisis deepens and the tear gas spreads, that richness and strength of solidarity will only become more essential to our survival.

Our intention is to continue to build on the relationships forged at Athens by holding regular international meetings on a similar model, and we hope to strengthen this sense of explicit, frank and serious discussion of the basis of our collaborations (and our arsenal of strategies) with other centres of Surrealist activity around the world, and to build those newly forged relationships outwards to encompass ever more participants from the Surrealist movement worldwide.

Athens Surrealist Group
Stockholm Surrealist Group
Surrealist London Action Group (SLAG)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Act now to defend the poet Angye Gaona!

The poet and Surrealist Angye Gaona has now been charged formally by the Colombian prosecutors with the crimes of drug trafficking and "rebellion". The trial is scheduled to start on 23 January at the special criminal court in Cartagena de Indias, and if found guilty Angye could face a jail term of 20 years. She is wholly innocent of the charges against her.

In press articles and interviews Angye has passionately defended the cause of indigenous people (many of whom are being killed by paramilitary gangs on the orders of land developers – Angye has called this "genocide"), trade unionists and the working class (who are constantly being repressed by government-backed industrialists). She has also called the current Colombian government "a terrorist government". For these reasons she is considered a nuisance by the ultra-conservative government.

Angye was arrested in January last year on her way back to Colombia from a trip to Venezuela. At that point she was imprisoned without charge, but was later released following international pressure. After her release she was formally charged with drug trafficking. Once that charge was underway she was then also charged with "rebellion"; the prior charge of drug trafficking meant that she could not at that point apply to any foreign embassies for political asylum . Hence she had no choice but to face trial in Colombia. She is currently under house arrest in the single room she shares with her six-year-old daughter.

Her trial may have a very serious outcome if nothing is done. Colombia is known for its political trials. At the moment some 7,000 political prisoners are serving long sentences in terrible and overcrowded prisons. It is necessary therefore to make it clear to Colombia's judiciary that Angye's case is being closely followed worldwide.

To this end, Angye's friends and supporters are being asked to write to the examining judge in her case to request a fair trial. The form of words below is based on a text suggested by Cristina Castello. To increase the pressure you may want to send a copy of the letter to the Colombian embassy or consulate in your own country. It will also be helpful to the campaign – and be a morale boost for Angye – if you would contact the campaign to let them know that you have sent the letter.

Further information about Angye's case and the campaign to defend her is available on the following sites: (in French) (in Spanish) (in Portuguese)

Al Sr. Juez de Conocimiento
Centro de Servicios Juzgado Único Penal del Circuito Especializado De Cartagena Adjunto
Centro Barrio San Diego
Calle De La Cruz No. 9–42
Antiguo Colegio Panamericano 2º Piso

Cartagena de Indias

Ref: Radicación or SPOA 13001-60-01129-2009-02149-00

Dear Sir

As citizens of the world and passionate defenders of liberty, we wish to express our concern at the situation of the Colombian poet Angye Gaona.

Angye Gaona is certainly no drug trafficker. She traffics only in words, and in a fierce determination to defend human rights in her own country.

In solidarity with Angye Gaona we therefore ask you to defy political pressure and exercise your faculties of justice and reason.

Her poetry and her humble living conditions testify to her innocence more eloquently than any lawyer. Her only "crime" has been to speak the truth through her poetry.

Poets are the soul of the people, and it is surely of crucial importance to Colombia that the life and liberty of its poets should be respected.

We hope that you will ensure a fair and balanced trial that will do honour to your country.

Yours faithfully