Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Zones of Freedom?






Vigilant readers of this blog (if they exist) will have noted a recurring theme around the question "what is surrealist time?" and consequently the meshing of time and space. I suggested that a model of discontinuous time might serve us better than say, the flow and duration of Bergson, that discontinuity, building upon Bachelard's Instant allowed a breach in the flow of capitalist time and this might in turn allow 'free time' to come into play.
Free time seems to require a consciousness of freedom, so not just that no demands are being made of our time by our bosses, external or internal (isn't the superego the ultimate boss?) but a break from the cycle of production and consumption - useless time, as it were. I didn't think that in saying this, I had reached some extraordinary originality, even in the way I stitched together pieces of a discourse, but I did feel it had some merit and was something that surrealists were not discussing enough, or in sufficient depth. (I may be wrong, but then I'd like to see a better dialogue about these matters in order to improve my own awareness.)
This 'free time' is, in itself, clearly inadequate. It suggests a moment of eruption of freedom and then a return to the life of work and effective servitude to capitalism, even in one's officially sanctified leisure. Nevertheless, it is also, I think, necessary. Not one eruption, but many, together or not, slowly weakening the fabric of oppression, allowing the idea of real freedom to permeate. When I had thought this through to some level of coherence, I saw that it had obvious parallels with Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temporary_Autonomous_Zone) but then I had not considered that I was saying anything astoundingly original, only articulating it in a different way and context.
Most spaces are, in various ways, alienated. They are owned and privatised, fenced off. We are allowed runways from space to space in order to go to and return for work, we can enter spaces as employees, or as consumers, the spaces we are allowed to roam freely are very limited, even in the countryside, most space is owned and fenced off. This has all become more evident over the last year, as many restrictions during the Covid 19 pandemic have made many spaces less available than ever before, and at various times we have not even been able to loiter, but have to move on, exercise, spend our money and return home.
Regarding the last, I am not complaining so much, as I am not a conspiracy theorist who believes the pandemic to be fake. I do, however, note that our freedom was already limited and is far more curtailed, and we will have to be sure that this curtailment is not installed as a regular feature of our lives post-Covid. people can have terribly short memories, and the memory of greater freedom can pass into legend in a disturbingly short time.
Fortunately for me, a modest blog post like this is not expected to set everything right or provide the perfect theory. (PHEW!) However, I think it is worth reminding people of the importance of reclaiming our spaces, take wandering to the limits, even now, and as Covid 19 becomes a memory, reclaim our freedom of public spaces and start to enlarge them, discover new zones of freedom, make the world at large a playground.


Tuesday, 12 January 2021

COMMENTS AND INSULTS

 

COMMENTS AND INSULTS

Every now and then I do get comments to my blog posts and I’m grateful for that, as it shows somebody, somewhere, reads them. However, some people like to unleash what the obviously believe to be pretty damning insults, possibly intended to get me really riled up, presumably. You know, like five-year olds: “You’re stinky!” “No! You’re stinky!” Maybe at a less sophisticated level though. Here are two recent ones:

Comment on post UNDERGROUND (Tuesday, 26 November 2019)

From what I see here, Stuart, you are a rather pretentious pseudo-intellectual with no real grasp of what surrealism is. You espouse a myriad of dogmatic notions in order to elevate yourself as some kind of self appointed authority on matters. You remind me of a person who not only is in love with the smell of their own farts, but, a person who enjoys quaffing them from a wine glass. I see no real understanding of surrealism or of anything else here either.

Comment on post THE SURREALIST COMMUNITY (Wednesday, 6 November 2019)

Its funny you mentioned narcissism because I noticed this in another of your posts. I can't see how you are a surrealist at all. Your writing isn't surrealist and doesn't show a trace of understanding what surrealism is. Thats Breton's ideas of surrealism and those outside of Breton as well. You seem to me to be an unhappy bitter windy old fellow with narcissim problems.

MY RESPONSE

I have always thoroughly despised people who post insults anonymously, as you have here. There’s no substance to anything you say, just empty insults. At no point do you argue with anything I have said, attempted to put a different point of view. If I am all you say, at least I have the courage to put my name to my opinions. Whereas you are a gutless piece of shit, lacking the courage even to put your name to an online comment. What else would I have to say to such cowardly stupidity? Maybe try again when you have grown up or grown a spine?

Friday, 8 January 2021

A MIRROR TO THE DEBUTANTE

 

A Mirror to the Debutante

 

While I enjoyed both issues of the new journal The Debutante[1], I do also have several problems with it, one of which is its declared nature as a journal of “feminist-surrealism”. The first issue contains a very brief “Feminist-Surrealist Manifesto” which does nothing much to clarify the editors’ relationship to Surrealism as the journal and its contributors seem to be ignorant of contemporary Surrealism.

As a man writing about a publication, almost entirely by women, and avowedly feminist, I would not wish to be disparaging about either, however, a magazine that calls itself surrealist and yet seems to have so little awareness of much of surrealism seems to me to be asking for trouble. The most obvious problem with the term ‘feminist-surrealist’ is not that it foregrounds feminism, but that it implies that other surrealists are not feminist. This is not only simply wrong, but seems to me rather insulting to the many women who have been involved in the surrealist movement over the course of a century.

What knowledge of surrealism they demonstrate is mostly historical and that mostly art-historical. They seem to want to claim a lot of very disparate women artists and some art historians as ‘feminist-surrealists’ who challenge “the patriarchal structures of canonical surrealism” [2]

At this point I have to ask “What patriarchal structures?” I see nothing in surrealism as such that is inherently male, masculinist or patriarchal. Perhaps I’m being blind here, but if so I need accurate analyses of these factors, not only to be aware of them, but in order to help dismantle them. What we do have to acknowledge is that surrealism was almost entirely founded by men, they were mostly disaffected and traumatised young men who, in the wake of the Great War wished to find, not new ways of making art, but new ways of living and understanding life, an effort that required a revolution. It is impossible to doubt that, despite their youth and their intent, they carried a great deal of cultural baggage with them. They were born at the end of the 19th century and many of the early works show, at best, a lack of clarity on gender issues. The volume Investigating Sex[3] does André Breton few favours, for instance, but many commentators have reacted as if comments made in a discussion in the late 20s were definitive of the status of women in surrealism, and the last word on the subject. This view needs to be challenged.

What is especially disconcerting about The Debutante is that they seem oblivious to Penelope Rosemont’s Surrealist Women[4] which, over 20 years ago addressed many of their concerns and, I think I am right in saying this, in presenting the work of over 100 women surrealists, was a corrective to the biased and inaccurate account of Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. However, even Rosemont had to admit to little evidence of surrealist activity by women a hundred years ago, though there were contributors to surrealist journals such as Nancy Cunard, and we should always mention Simone Breton, who was at the centre of the original group, not merely an appendage of  André.

Successive decades of surrealist activity have shown an ever-growing proportion of women involved, and to the point where, in some groups, there is not only equity, but women can even outnumber men, and not just as artists or poets, but as theoreticians and political activists. Just as a very random sample, I might mention Emila Medkova, Suzanne Cesaire[5], Nora Mitrani, Eva Svankmajerova, Joyce Mansour, Jayne Cortez, Sarah Metcalf, Merl Fluin,  Casi Cline and , Annie Le Brun.

The last named has actually been described as an ‘anti-feminist’, which I think is a considerable misunderstanding. Le Brun wrote a number of texts, mostly published in a volume Lachez Tout[6] which lambasts the popular feminism of the time. For Le Brun, much of what passed for feminism was a sell-out and an inverted image of patriarchy, substituting an equally oppressive Matriarchy for Big Daddy. Establishment feminism could be said to point to the ‘glass ceiling’ and demand that women join the boardrooms of great corporations in much greater numbers, and while there are boardrooms, it is hard to argue against female representation there, but the point, surely, is for men and women alike to abolish boardrooms?

Put differently, for me, the point is not to dismiss identity politics as irrelevant, but not to regard identity issues as separate from the central political and social issues either. A genuinely radical movement will always be in favour of the liberation of women, ethnic minorities, gays and other sexualities, the disabled…everybody, in fact. It only works if those various groups, rather than focus entirely on their own particular concerns as black, gay, female, whatever, consider liberation as a whole, how it applies to each and every group, and to each other. Anything else fragments and fails.

There’s another problem, the often fraught question of who is a surrealist. This is sometimes framed as a seemingly narrow question of identity and I know that Merl Fluin, for instance, has pointed out a number of times that Georges Bataille was not a surrealist. In the most literal sense, this is certainly true, and I think that Merl’s concern here is less with establishing an overly dogmatic judgement on the issue as much as defending surrealism against misconceptions such as those revealed in Hal Foster’s Compulsive Beauty[7] which posits a “Bretonian Surrealism” and a “Bataillean Surrealism” going head to head in a sort of battle for supremacy. This ignores the facts that Bataille didn’t call himself a surrealist and many of his colleagues were far from being surrealist in any way whatsoever. I have known people to attack surrealism on the basis of Bataille’s and his friends, actions and ideas rather than those of Breton and the people who actually identified as surrealists, and when one of those people associated with Bataille proposes a ‘sur-fascism’ – I hope you see my point. However, we also have to remember that not only did Breton and Bataille collaborate on Contre-Attaque, but later became friends and Breton invited Bataille to collaborate in both the 1947 and 1959 International Surrealist Exhibitions. Bataille referred to himself as surrealism’s ‘old enemy from within’, not in order to simply destroy it, but to undermine what he saw as it’s too idealistic  elements and to remake its more revolutionary and experiential components over its artistic ones. Many surrealists have considered Bataille as an expression of the surrealist spirit and even as an opposite pole to Breton in that spirit, which at the very least suggests that we should consider being surrealist in terms other than simple identity.

Another aspect of the same problem that I have often encountered is when somebody contacts me, ostensibly about surrealism, and promptly enthuses about an artist with few, if any, links to surrealism. If we include that artist’s own comments on the matter, the conversation might go like this.

Fan: “I love X, X is my favourite surrealist!”

X: “I am not a surrealist, I don’t much like surrealism.”

Me: “X is not a surrealist”

Fan: “You are SOOO narrow-minded!”

You see the problem. The easiest solution would seem to be to ask, when the person did not themselves identify as a surrealist, or participate in surrealist activities, whether they are of surrealist interest. As an example, consider Malcolm De Chazal. His religious ideas kept him separate from the surrealists, but his ideas were crucial to thinking about poetic analogy in the post-war period. He is, in many ways, alongside surrealism, there were real points of contact and influence. Like Bataille, but in a very different way, he can’t be considered wholly apart from surrealism, and surrealism would be poorer without him, but he can’t be wholly subsumed within surrealism either. It would be disrespectful to the person as well as detrimental to the truth.

The artists included in The Debutante are often asked about the ways in which they are ‘feminist-surrealists’. This presupposes that they do identify as such and I am afraid that too often their responses are not very enlightening, show little knowledge of contemporary surrealism – and usually not much of it historically either – and usually are not questioned in any depth as to what this might mean.

This might all be seen as a hostile critique of The Debutante, I don’t feel it is, however. I remember, with some embarrassment, things I said and wrote in my earliest days identifying as a surrealist. My naiveté was considerable, my heart was in the right place, and, fortunately, few saw my more stupid statements. Armed with more knowledge and slightly more intellectual sophistication, I am not sure I avoided saying anything stupid either. The question here is whether the editors of The Debutante are willing to undergo a thorough revision of their initial attitudes, or stick with what, in expression at any rate, is a fundamental misconception of surrealism.  I think that if they choose the former, a dialogue might be fruitful, not in selling a feminist surrealism, but in articulating a surrealist feminism and making that more explicit and developed could be interesting indeed.



[1] The Debutante: The Feminist-Surrealist arts journal. (2020) Issues 1 and 2. Edinburgh. (https://www.thedebutante.online/)

[2] Interview with Penny Slinger. In: The Debutante (2020) Issue 1. Edinburgh. P.21-24.

[3] Investigating Sex (1992) Ed. Jose Pierre, Dawn Ades. London Verso Books.

[4] Rosemont, P. (1998) Surrealist Women: An international anthology. Austin. University of Texas Press.

[5] A pleasant surprise to see a short piece on Suzanne Cesaire on their blog: https://www.thedebutante.online/post/surrealism-and-us-a-love-letter-to-suzanne-c%C3%A9saire-or-the-truth-about-the-colonies

[6] Le Brun, Annie. (1978)  Lachez Tout. Paris. Le Sagittaire.

[7] Foster, Hal (1995) Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge MA. October Books. MIT Press.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

When Autumn Is Spring

I am growing old. Despite my best attempts, I am ageing and now, at the age of 66 I am about to retire. And when I retire I shall move house, leave London, where I have lived all my life and move to Wiltshire with Jane.
This is the most significant change in my life since I left work to go to art school, back in 1979. Like then, I intend to focus on painting, an activity I ceased to enjoy many years ago and now feel I have a good basis for resuming with curiosity and with relish, not to mention a certain amount of anxiety. I might make a mess of it and find that my urge to paint is a kind of dying spasm of what was once a passion. I don't know, but I must find out.
I will no longer be earning my living, except for a small amount of teaching for the Open University, which will provide me with some extra income. We shall be living in a cottage in the countryside a short distance from Fonthill Abbey, the home of William Beckford, the author of 'Vathek', possibly a suitable neighbourhood for a surrealist?
We shall have a studio as big as the little flat I currently live in, and a large garden that ends in a winterbourne that, when it flows, flows into Fonthill Lake. Some of our nearest neighbours will be sheep.
I am growing old, and yet I also feel as if I am undergoing a kind of rebirth. I remember when we asked Toni del Renzio, shortly after his 90th birthday, to join the London Surrealist Group and he said "I feel as if I am entering a whole new period of my life". sadly, at that age, it was not to be, and he died about a year later, but as somebody from a long-lived family, I can hop to last, maybe as long as Toni del Renzio, and this can indeed be a kind of spring, a renewal of life and of my vital forces, my creativity. I don't know, maybe it is just my overly optimistic dream? But then don't I owe it to myself to at least try to live that dream to the utmost? Who can stand in my way but myself?

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Monday, 2 December 2019

THE PLATFORM OF PRAGUE (1968)

The following link takes you to the Platform of Prague which was a joint statement of the Paris and Prague surrealists in 1968. This is also available in "Surrealism Against The Current" edited by Richardson and Fijalkowski. It is often considered to be the last statement of the integrated surrealist movement before Jean Schuster's 'Quatrieme Chant'. The fallout ensuing from the latter document, announcing Schuster's 'auto-dissolution' of surrealism, meant that no such document was possible for surrealism as such, although several quite considerable texts have been written over the years, they typically represent the views of a particular group or individual.
Although not written by Breton, who had died two years previously, this text could be seen as the last of the manifestos of surrealism. It stands as a major restatement of surrealist principles, updating them, if you like to the age in which this text was written. However, that was over 50 years ago. What would be very interesting now would be a similar restatement for the 21st century, but while there will be texts from groups and individuals, I don't think we will ever see a text so central to surrealist endeavour in such an integrated and universal way. What is disturbing is how relevant it is today when we consider repressive systems.

Recently, I attended a lecture by Simon Sverak of the Czech and Slovak Surrealist Group and found we were in agreement that a similar rethinking and restatement of our priorities for surrealism in our time was necessary. Such a text could only arise out of discussion between both collectives and individuals, and I don't know how possible it is. Certainly such publications as Hydrolith and the last issue of Brumes Blondes have provided valuable snapshots of the surrealist movement in recent times, but seem to come to no unified conclusions.

http://criticallegalthinking.com/2011/01/12/the-surrealist-platform-of-prague-the-vessels-always-communicate/

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Underground

I was very struck by a new post by Merl Fluin. You can read it here: https://gorgoninfurs.com/2019/11/24/were-all-members-of-a-secret-society-are-you/?fbclid=IwAR0EEWrgWN9-Knn7TTQOz1LJFzTvq25A6pmaBQ2xRUyoRZYA590OyDjNz7w

I don't always agree with Merl, although mostly on degrees of emphasis and nuance rather than principle, but I thought that, at least on first reading, as I travelled through the wastes of South East London, this resonated with me very strongly. I did think it worth throwing in a few extra, possibly stray, thoughts on the subject.

Worth reading, if you don't know it, Jean Ferry's "Kafka, Or The Secret Society" which I know from the book "Custom-House Of Desire" edited by J.H. Matthews, but you can find it online here:
http://cafeirreal.alicewhittenburg.com/ferry.htm

Also, incidentally, nobody told me there was a book of Ferry's stories available in English: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jean-Ferry-Conductor-Other-Tales/dp/1939663016

Consider also the idea of the Egregore, found in esoteric traditions, but also in surrealism, through Pierre Mabille. Although this concept has been described in terms of a 'group mind', understandings of the idea are quite variable. Mabille's own understanding is expounded fully in his book "Egregores Ou la Vie Des Civilisations" which unfortunately has not been translated into English, but a brief explanation can be found in Michael Richardson's book on Bataille: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Pg9RxLKMOgQC&pg=PT41&lpg=PT41&dq=mabille+egregore&source=bl&ots=UJa0QYkCJy&sig=ACfU3U1bDZZmW5DCwtQHRPVoVh8MPJRvOQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwipu6mQ8YfmAhWHSRUIHXK_AE8Q6AEwA3oECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=mabille%20egregore&f=false

One of the most important points for me in Merl's post was the opposition of the mass and the collective. It seems to me that this is often not understood and that many who would espouse individualism imagine that any collective effort must be opposed to individual freedom. But we are always, like it or not, social animals, and even our solitude is socially conditioned. In fact good social bonds can encourage individuality and personal freedom. Oddly enough, the very proponents of individualism are often the most conventional-minded, the most conformist and the least respectful of difference. Too often their doctrine is "you have a perfect right to be just like me!" Better to be like Thelonious Monk.

Image result for thelonius monk underground