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Surrealism is a shrimp
(third part of a pentaptych (or hexaptych?) of not-very-exciting technical texts, the series of notes as prerequisits for autosurrealismography – see also The process of defining surrealism and What about surrealismologists?)
We don’t need a definition of surrealism. We need surrealist activity and surrealist sensibility. And within that, we will now and then stumble upon practical and theoretical problems which will make it interesting for us to think about the meaning, the logical and ontological status of surrealism, and the mechanisms by which it is detached from other concepts, by which it creates itself staying separate but making alliances and partial confluations with other currents, movements and perspectives, et cetera.
Some basic semantics: the surrealist tradition
Surrealism is a movement, a tradition, an activity, a sensibility and a point of identity. It is not a style, a doctrine, a religion, a theory and an institution. Of these different aspects, these different ways it is meaningful to talk about surrealism, the surrealist tradition seems to be the logically central as all the others gain their meaning from it. For different people, in different situations, other aspects might seem more central or even more fundamental, but it is also by way of the surrealist tradition that surrealism gets a content that makes it possible to make objective correlates. For example, the surrealist movement is surrealist, can recognise itself as surrealist, and can meaningfully claim to be surrealist, only inasmuch as it rests on the surrealist tradition, and also its innovations, novelties and deviations only make sense inasmuch as they take the surrealist tradition to new areas and new combinations.
Then, the surrealist tradition is the part worth taking a closer look at. It is mostly a continously disenveloping investigation and creative expression of a field of investigation and creativity; a rhetoric, a sprit, a vague methodology, a particular hope, connecting with each other a growing set of classic themes, classic aims descriptions and classic techniques. The tradition is the volontary historical continuity of these investigations, a freely chosen and mythical social community spinning over many decades and countries accumulating experience in this field. As soon as we place ourselves in this tradition, we become comrades with the earlier explorers, and their results become ours.
Thus, the core meaning of surrealism is dynamically and intrinsically tied to the developments and activities of the surrealist movement. We do find surrealism outside it, and long before it, but it is only in the light of the ongoing activities that these various elements get their surrealist meaning. The adhesion of such elements to the surrealist tradition is a part of surrealist activity. The tradition and the activity do not exist without each other.
Schuster’s famous idea of the distinction between eternal surrealism and historical surrealism makes no sense and is just a piece of really bad metaphysics; this has been pointed out before but is worth repeating.
Some boring semantics: the surrealist adjective
There is a surrealist identity. Different criteria can be applied to who is a surrealist. The most common criteria is either or a combination of three: subjective surrealism (who regards himself/herself as a surrealist, preferrably based on adequate knowledge of the surrealist tradition), objective active surrealism (who pursues a surrealist activity, in everyday life investigations and subversions, in thinking, writing, painting, playing etc, preferrably in several of these), objective formal surrealism (who is involved in the surrealist movement by participating in a group or in network collaborations, in discussions, journals, exhibitions, anthologies, declarations from within the surrealist movement, preferrably actively and by own choice). These criteria all make sense by way of the surrealist tradition.
The subjective and the objective formal criteria are very straightforward to apply, even though the circumscriptions will have to be specified for the particular purposes wherever the question is asked. But the objective active criterion is more fundamentally problematic. What activity do we regard as surrealist if not a subjective surrealist identification or an association with the surrealist movement is there to highlight it?
On an intuitive level this is still fairly easy, and we might explicate it as those activities which are in line with the overall aims and some of the particular methodological characteristics and some of the thematic focuses that are part of the surrealist tradition. Again it is the surrealist tradition which decides. In this sense, it is also fully comprehensible and makes sense to speak about not only the surrealist painters and surrealist poets but also their surrealist paintings and surrealist poems. Single works merit the adjective by their being congenial with the surrealist tradition, often but not necessarily also inspired by and in turn inspiring that perspective. It does not have to be more difficult than that.
(Some people are eager to make it more difficult. A particular strand of surrealists like to modestly repeat that “we probably don’t really live up to surrealism”. Michael Richardson recently in a personal communication gave this a more coherent explication, claiming that surrealism must not be conceived as something attainable, and specifically that no works can be surrealist films, surrealist paintings or surrealist poems, because surrealist work is “’the annihilation of being into a jewel that is neither of ice nor fire’, lies beyond life and death and therefore cannot exist in this realm of existence”. This perspective does have some appeal, but it is not consistent with the traditional usage within the surrealist movement (and indeed, would force the the movement to rename itself as the “movement for surrealism” instead?) and mostly it will just create unnecessary difficulties.)
Because of course we keep forcefully denouncing that there could be any stylistic or doctrinal criteria from which to judge whether things are surrealist or not. Let us not be obstinate, there are stylistic and doctrinal elements in the surrealist tradition, yes there are, but none that are homogenous, straightforwardly applicable, nor very interesting. A certain style which we associate with surrealism, or a certain opinion we regard as central to surrealism, may serve to initially awaken our interest when we see it elsewhere, but we would certainly not regard it as part of surrealism unless we also found a meaningful creative relationship with other and more general concerns within the surrealist tradition.
Some ludic semantics: the surrealist shrimp
As the meaning of surrealism rests in the surrealist tradition which is continually actualised and partly revised in the surrealist movement, it is quite obvious that one of the things we can do with it is to play with it. As we have learnt from this tradition itself, play is an easy, difficult, joyful and instructive way of opening new perspectives and leaving behind ones own petty prejudices. Similar to how experimental identifications of the self in play and in poetry is far more interesting than the self which is analytically or spontaneously-defensively constructed; identifications of surrealism which appear in surrealist games, in poetry, in playful improvisations which are part of alliances and collaborations, will produce numbers of suggestions which can gain further meaning when they are confronted with each other, or pondered upon, or transferred into new media, and thus incorporated into the elements of a mythology in becoming. “Surrealism is a secret society, which will initiate you into death” Oh yeah? Well how is this going to happen?
A couple of years ago, the Stockholm surrealist group were fond of a game we invented that we called “the objectification of morals”. It was a simple analogy game where we found concrete objects as correlates to abstract concepts. We chose an abstract concept, each player suggested one sensory characteristic associated with the concept, and from the constellation of adjectives we kept discussing until we found an object that embodied all these sensory characteristics. The first succesful round was doing this with the seven deadly sins, which we sent as a somehow contribution to the surrealist exhibition in Plzen 1999. Once, we tried with Surrealism. I don’t remember now what the actual sensory adjectives were, (like, hmm, wet, calcareous-hard, quick, submarine, itching? This is obviously just a pedagogic later rationalisation) but it was very easy to realise that what we had all converged in a shrimp.
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