Saturday, March 24, 2012

Surrealism Is Revolutionary

SurrIV have now responded to our text Poaching Durruti’s Egg. There is nothing in their response that persuades us to alter any of the positions we articulated in our original text. On the contrary, the attitudes displayed in the SurrIV text merely illustrate our points.

First, perhaps Poaching should have stated explicitly that its co-authors included Surrealists with backgrounds from five different countries, representing a varied spectrum of political choices and activities, including one person who is a member of the Greek section of the Fourth International (Vangelis Koutalis, who belongs to both SLAG and the Athens Surrealist Group). This might have made it clear to slow-witted readers that the major concern of our text was to restate basic Surrealist principles, rather than to intervene in local organisational politics.

Second, let us note that SurrIV have missed all of the points of our text, and instead have put great effort into a) asking rhetorical questions with no direct connection to the issues at hand, b) pointing out entirely imaginary internal contradictions within our text (for example, there is no contradiction in seeing watering-down alliance-building and disciplinary party-building as two sides of the same coin), and c) complaining about entirely imaginary ad hominem attacks without demonstrating any, while simultaneously attempting one themselves by mistakenly attacking Paul Cowdell for having written the text In Praise of Infighting (of which he is not in fact the author, although a layout glitch in our e-zine may have given that impression).

Third, SurrIV’s claim to be merely an informal link between like-minded friends is either a tactical lie or mere stupidity. Launching a public website with an explicit political-organisational aim is not like starting a teenage hobby club or a Facebook group for a random combination of interests or shared identities. It's not as if we actually need separate forums for, say, Surrealists who are birdwatchers, Surrealists with heart conditions, Surrealists with Jewish ancestry, middle-aged social-scientist Surrealists, pipe-smoking Surrealists, Surrealists aged between 30 and 35, or any other contingent combinations of characteristics that may or may not have anything to offer to particular Surrealists in terms of individual creativity, the facilitation of social contacts, or even the highlighting of certain aspects of Surrealism, but that remain completely uninteresting in terms of Surrealist organisation.

Fourth, we note that two in particular of the arguments that SurrIV raise are very much part of the problem we were identifying in our original text:
  • The argument that it is unreasonable to emphasise the necessity of thinking about what not to do is an example of exactly the mindless political voluntarism that was the prime target of Poaching. No, gentlemen, doing something is not intrinsically better than doing nothing. Doing nothing is in fact very often better than doing just anything whatever out of mere desperation or a feeling of inferiority or a lack of any detailed assessment of the situation. Doing nothing is sometimes exactly the right thing.
  • Again, SurrIV’s attempt to counter our text In Praise of Infighting with a general argument against infighting merely proves our point. A general argument in favour of infighting (which that text does not in fact make) would be pointless, but a general argument against infighting is in effect an argument for tact, superficial alliance-making and mindless voluntarism (if not indeed for closing ranks, duty and discipline) – which was exactly what we were attacking in the first place.
To restate the point of Poaching in other terms: our basic argument is simply that SURREALISM ITSELF IS A REVOLUTIONARY PROJECT. This means that we see the revolutionary implications of Surrealism itself, and that as Surrealists our specifically Surrealist means are identical with our specifically revolutionary means: non-conformism, surrationalism, poetic phenomenology, imagination, games, creativity, refusal, research, theory, poetry, art, music... It is significant that many individual Surrealists choose to engage in specialised political struggles and organisations. It is no less significant that some Surrealists do not. Those who do not are no less revolutionary than those who do, precisely because Surrealism itself is a revolutionary project.

Despite their apparent pretensions, the SurrIV initiative is not analogous to the FIARI project of the 1930s. That was an alliance formed to place our specifically Surrealist means and resources in conjunction with the revolutionary process in the broad sense. It was explicitly not an affiliation drive for a particular political organisation, but offered a platform for genuinely revolutionary artists to ally with the left opposition of the world communist movement, which at the time was apparently led by this brilliant theorist from the Russian revolution... If anything, SurrIV probably has more similarities with the Surréalisme-Révolutionnaire project of the 1940s (an attempt to tie Surrealism to the Stalinist PCF), or with the PCI (Trotskyist) attempt to revive FIARI in the 1960s (the Paris group rejected this attempt, and consequently were attacked by the Rupture group of ‘Trotskyist-Surrealist’ artists).

The poet should first become aware of his nature and place in the world. […] He fights so that humanity can attain an ever more perfect knowledge of itself and the universe. It does not follow that he wants to put poetry at the service of political, even revolutionary action. But his being a poet has made him a revolutionary who must fight on all terrains: on the terrain of poetry by appropriate means, and on the terrain of social action, without ever confusing the two fields of action under penalty of re-establishing the confusion that is to be dissipated and consequently ceasing to be a poet, that is to say, a revolutionary.
(Benjamin Péret, The Dishonour of the Poets, 1945)

It remains a task to develop ways for Surrealism to make political interventions, to find strategies to add our resources to revolutionary processes, and to find particular techniques to communicate and collaborate with other revolutionary actors without compromising our integrity, and some of us will keep thinking and experimenting in this area – but the question of which political organisations Surrealism should support at this moment is as dead, uninteresting, boring and misguided as the ‘anarchism or Trotskyism’ question in general has been for many decades. That's simply not the point.

Paul Cowdell, Merl Fluin, Mattias Forshage, Aniano Henrique,
Patrick Hourihan, Vangelis Koutalis, Josie Malinowski,
Wendy Risteska

SLAG ~ Surrealist London Action Group

Friday, March 16, 2012

Poaching Durruti's Egg

Four years ago, when the banking system collapsed, there were still some who argued (hoped?) that it was just a temporary glitch in capitalism’s unwavering dominance.

So much for self-deluding idiots.

Capitalism is a self-destructive exploitative system. With each new day we see it fighting to save itself by the savage slashing of all the basic components of human life. Capitalism will only be able to survive by vomiting its crisis onto the backs of those it uses to produce its profits. They, in their turn, will only be able to overthrow it by their deliberate actions.

In the last year we have seen a change. The working class, the mass of the oppressed, have made their first tentative steps onto the stage of world politics again. We have no results, no victories – yet. But the first steps have been taken.

Even the biggest idiot in thrall to the supposed dominance of the market now recognises that we’re in a situation of unprecedented political turmoil. In places like Wisconsin – once a watchword for Middle American staidness and stability – revolution is no longer a dirty word, no longer unmentionable. It is beginning to make sense to the very people who will wage it.

Situations are unfolding. We continue to insist that the world must change.

For Surrealists this is something of a vindication. Our revolutionary impulses drive us to seek corresponding actions. We want to act, to engage with the crisis, to transform this world. For some it can be intoxicating to find that they are, at last, not alone. The breaking of a genuinely revolutionary wave can lead others to seek solace in what they already know.

Political developments unfold as external events. They sweep us all up by the simple fact of their occurrence, but just being swept up as the object of events doesn’t mean we’ve triumphed. For that to happen, we need to intervene as subjects, to engage with our entire beings, to contribute our deepest desires and sharpest critical thinking to the direction of the transformation.

This requires us to make some decisions. What those decisions are is being fought out already, although the discussions are all too often implicit and assumed.

Above all, we need to consider what decisions not to make.

In the current context there will be increasing pressure on Surrealists to make tactical concessions to ‘radical’ politics – to water down our Surrealism, or abandon it altogether, so that we can work in broadly ‘radical’ political and art movements. Tactical manoeuvres will be proposed, and because of the gravity of the political situation, they will be tempting. This may also be behind the recent tendency to establish Surrealist ‘liaisons’ and loose collaborations rather than groups. How very tactful this is, in the face of political upheaval, differences and disputes!

Fuck tact. Surrealism hardly lacks history on this question. Aragon’s ‘Red Front’ was a move towards propagandist writing: the controversy marked the beginning of his rapid adaptation to Stalinism, which necessitated his ditching Surrealism. Stalinism pursued its treacherous Popular Front in France as well as Spain: propagandist opposition can easily be accommodated within class collaborationist political liaisons.

In Britain, the new ‘SurrIV’ initiative is a case in point. Although in terms of numerical support SurrIV seems to be minuscule, its appearance on the scene at this juncture is both alarming and instructive. It appeared silently, like the ghost of Red Fronts past, in February 2012, and describes itself as a ‘virtual meeting place for supporters and sympathisers of the Fourth International who identify as surrealists’.

The formulation of SurrIV’s target audience as those who ‘identify as surrealists’ is a mealy-mouthed evasion, and a prime example of a lowest-common-denominator approach to forging liaisons. By both reducing Surrealism to a form of identity politics and obscuring Surrealism’s profoundly objective character, it presents Surrealism as something that is easy, accessible and makes no demands on anyone, least of all on Surrealists themselves. This is part of a general drift, which we have already critiqued elsewhere, to present Surrealism as just another instrument in the cultural repertoire, and Surrealists as a disparate and easy-going bunch of collaborating individuals. SurrIV’s vagueness on this point undermines Surrealism under the guise of inclusion. After all, Keith Wigdor, Santiago Ribeiro and every fantasy artist on the block ‘identify as surrealists’.

SurrIV states that it is ‘an informal collaborative project’, and that it ‘has no formal links with any existing socialist or surrealist groups, nor is it in competition with them’. More of that fucking tact! Placing itself explicitly outside of any existing Surrealist groups and declining to challenge them, this ‘collaborative project’ is an informal liaison precisely in an area where more formal and rigorous political discussion is necessary.

It’s part of the ABC of the Surrealist movement that Surrealist collectivities as such cannot be ‘supporters’ of any particular political group or party. Surrealism can only support the social revolution as a process – ‘au service de la révolution’, not in the service of political groups. As our comrades in Athens have written of the relationship between Surrealists and the Left:

These two dimensions of the human adventure, political practice and subjective expression, in this society are segregated. The Left tries to piece them together, without questioning the segregation itself. Within its parties and organizations, as a rule, there is no space for subjectivity, but there is always space for a periphery of artists, as ‘fellow travellers’, thus setting up an alibi that compensates for the lack of any creativity on the part of the politically enlisted subjects. The segregation is repressed. It is not only that it does not tend to be challenged, but also that it is corroborated as something given in advance. […] Where we need to turn our gaze is towards a new community, a universal culture and universal polis, that will breathe within the social field, that will sublate the division between mental and manual labour, that will be incarnated by self-organized collective undertakings, that will be exercised through labour that is also a game, that will unfold itself in a time admitting of many unrepeatable times, many self-emancipated subjectivities.

Who is providing an alibi for whom in SurrIV? If the Fourth International is turning to Surrealists to enhance its artistic or cultural credibility, it is clearly doing so as an add-on, with no attempt to transform its own subjectivity or creativity, in exactly the way the Athenian text describes. This attitude to the position of artists is made explicit by Artists of the Resistance, an initiative of the Coalition of Resistance: ‘We must remember that we are not just artists but fighting against all cuts.’ Artist, know your place! The Coalition of Resistance is supported by the Fourth International.

If, conversely, SurrIV is turning to the Fourth International for the latter’s revolutionary credentials, then it inevitably makes its participants’ Surrealism secondary to their support for Fourth International. In that sense the SurrIV initiative is reminiscent of the old Stalinist tactics of opening up small controlled zones of so-called fellow travellers, zones in which no real travel is ever permitted to take place. Those who choose to enter those zones will become useless to Surrealism and, in the process, will also become useless to the social revolution.

Let’s be clear about what it means to ‘support’ the Fourth International. The Fourth International is an actual political network, made up of particular political organisations (in the UK, the organisation in question is Socialist Resistance). SurrIV is thus, absolutely explicitly, a meeting point for ‘supporters’ of a specific political network. But the Fourth International itself has a very particular and well-known take on what ‘support’ for it means: supporters of the Fourth International, in their role as supporters, seek to build the Fourth International and to persuade others to join its cause. By definition, then, and despite their mealy-mouthed protestations of innocence, SurrIV is not simply an example of Surrealists engaging in discussion with or about a revolutionary political current, exchanging ideas and criticisms. They can’t have it both ways: if they are not working to build the Fourth International, then they don’t really support it. The launching of the SurrIV initiative is not about what its participants bring to the revolution as Surrealists, but about using their Surrealism as a calling card for the Fourth International.

So how can Surrealists engage in revolutionary struggle without compromising either Surrealism or revolutionary politics? We must go into these struggles acting on our own impulses, adding our own subjectivities, stepping out into the unknown while struggling to realise our own perspectives. Manifestos aren’t just holiday documents, the right thing to be heard saying. They must embody what you’re actually fighting for. The demand for a free revolutionary art was, and must remain, a call for ‘free creation’ and a gathering of forces against ‘the loud choruses of well-disciplined liars’. That doesn’t mean making tactical concessions or finding the lowest common denominator for joint action. It means fighting at the height of our artistic and theoretical powers.

Independent revolutionary art must be genuinely independent and revolutionary, and must ‘uncompromisingly reject the reactionary police patrol spirit’. Disagreements between independent revolutionary artists – and there will be many – will thus be conducted with all of our passions and convictions, and will be conducted for our revolutionary goals. Alchemy and synthesis, not subordination or compromise.

In 1937, back from fighting with the POUM on the Spanish front, Péret half-dreamed the words:

My beloved inclined toward anarchist attitudes and admired Durruti. She was not entirely with me, she wasn’t born to my life, but I hoped that she would make up her mind soon, that she WOULD BLOOM.

She must make up her mind soon. The world is waiting for her bloom.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Left and Culture Reloaded

A Declaration by the Athens Surrealist Group

Time and again, we must insist on words and their meanings. Every formulation implies some focalizations, carves out a direction while repressing or even excluding others, demarcates a particular horizon, and brings forth the possibility of one range of significations against several others. The problem concerning the relationship between the Left and culture – as long as the terms “Left” and “culture”, and their connotations too, are uncritically embraced – comprises a displacement of the real – and crucial, if we still take as our yardstick the accomplishment of universal social emancipation – problem of the relationship between the real movement to change the existing order of things and subjective expression, which is hooked to the world and refracts its echoes. This is the problem of which we must speak, reckoning the two terms of the above-mentioned relationship as two available ways to tread the same road. Through the displacement effected by the wording of the “Left” and “culture”, what is being repressed is the dichotomy – which is insurmountable within the context of dominant social relations – between political practices that are motivated by objective class interests and have their bearing on objectively ascertainable balances of power, and cultural practices that originate in subjective obsessions, accentuations, fixations, regressions and outflows, and culminate in works to whose interpretation subjectivity again is the key.

If we translate the question about the possibility of real political action capable of changing the world into a question along the lines of “what must the Left do?”, then we have already begged the question we should be posing, a question that is hard to resolve: namely how, in the mainstream political scene, there might emerge an expression of the scattered forms of the agent and self-organized actions, the sole actions that truly guarantee any actual political conduct that will alter the relationship between power and society on the road to emancipation. And what’s more, how it might be possible for such an expression not to restrain the revolutionary dynamics of those forms, but instead to render them politically prolific, leading to their generalization. In fact the Left, contrary to the image projected by its bureaucracies and micro-leaderships, marks only a limit on the political spectrum of capitalist democracy. Within the parties and organizations of which the Left consists, the phenomena of substitution, hierarchical functioning, the entrenched allocation of tasks, and the reproduction of the inequality between those who govern and those who are governed, are the rule rather than the exception. After decades of Stalinism, the political experience obtained through left-wing political collectivities usually correlates not with the horizon of self-emancipation, but with the cage of the citizen who is socially alienated, subjected (to domination), and destitute of any real power.

“Culture”, from the other side, today pertains to a whole industry producing commodities, to an array of social relations that are posited as a demarcated and mapped out (in departments) territory for anyone who chooses to express themselves as a subjectivity through writing, painting, sculpture, music and so forth. The mirror that every aspiring creator of words or images encounters is a priori turbulent, punctuated with social contradictions. The space of culture is abstracted from the experience of social antagonism in order to contain the intensities of the latter in a seemingly anodyne reflection of the creative auteur (who fancies that s/he is attaining his/her autonomy just because s/he is expressing him/herself) in his/her work, a reflection that appears cleansed of the misery of real everyday life, and this is exactly why it ultimately affirms the perpetuation of that life.

It is not a matter of contenting ourselves with a rhetoric about “a world to change” which fails to thematize, here and now, the possibility of actually changing the world, breaking the chains of the “citizen”, claiming the position of the active revolting subject. Nor with a delusion of subjective independence that validates the really existing cultural industry and the distribution of roles within its limits (“writer”, “painter”, “man of letters”). These two dimensions of the human adventure, political practice and subjective expression, in this society are segregated. The Left tries to piece them together, without questioning the segregation itself. Within its parties and organizations, as a rule, there is no space for subjectivity, but there is always space for a periphery of artists, as “fellow travellers”, thus setting up an alibi that compensates for the lack of any creativity on the part of the politically enlisted subjects. The segregation is repressed. It is not only that it does not tend to be challenged, but also that it is corroborated as something given in advance. The Left, remaining just “Left” – evenly assimilated, that is, into the field of the capitalist state – has its artists, and in their turn, artists, eagerly assuming their role inside the cultural industry, have a left-wing political reference to claim. We do not in the least intend to give a description that levels the field, erasing every difference. Nevertheless, we want to underline that the cause of social emancipation is decided in practice. There are undoubtedly left-wingers who assert their dedication to the struggle for communism, but with regard to the setting of their own activity, they still consider the issues of agency and self-organization as collateral issues; and there are also artists who don’t neglect to emphasize their revolutionary mood, but who keep producing works of art under the control of capitalist state.

Only a twofold gesture that will place both the “Left” and “culture” under the sharp edge of critique could point towards another horizon, where political action and poetic frenzy will be manifestations of a subjectivity that retrieves, and invents, the evanescent unity of its body with the world, through a posture of revolt and solidarity. Where we need to turn our gaze is towards a new community, a universal culture and universal polis, that will breathe within the social field, that will sublate the division between mental and manual labour, that will be incarnated by self-organized collective undertakings, that will be exercised through labour that is also a game, that will unfold itself in a time admitting of many unrepeatable times, many self-emancipated subjectivities. On this new community – which is in accord with the free societies of the future, divested of all servitude imposed by capital and the state – it is worth putting our stakes from now on, whether we are writing poems at night in our beds, or facing the oppression of the state and the exploitation of bosses in the streets or workshops, or even when we are discussing with our comrades “what is to be done”. The surrealist movement, to which we have chosen as a group to belong, attempts to detect such an horizon here and now, calling into play every means that can help us, as oppressed human beings, to achieve the goal of universal freedom, without for a moment substituting for it or postponing it for a future that is not, already now, experienced, as it lets itself unfold as a bundle of real possibilities in this unsettled present.

17 October 2007