Surrealism -- a discussion

 It is one thing to illustrate the changes in surrealism from critique to commercialism - but quite another matter to explain them. It can seem like a personal sell-out, especially if one takes the career of Dali. But I want to suggest there are theoretical and political factors too, and 'apply' some themes from 'critical theory' .  

We can begin by considering Marcuse's work on abstraction. Surrealism has suffered from having its techniques and methods abstracted from the original political and theoretical context, where they were intended to awake the critical imagination. Abstract techniques can then be put at the service of quite different interests, well established and powerful interests, located in the sphere of commodity production.  Even Art (or philosophy) which breaks out of the grip of commodity production at one moment, runs the risk of reabsorption at another moment - autonomy achieved in the critical phase of a movement can misleadingly suggest a permanent autonomy.

Similar themes are found in the piece by Benjamin in Section 4 of One-Way Street and Other Writings . This is a complex and dense essay, written, like much of his work, in a way which defies summary, with many subtle and specialist concepts deployed in the argument, and with deliberate effects introduced by the flow of the language itself. It is also necessary to bear in mind the historical location of the essay: Benjamin had been influenced by surrealism himself, as indeed the first essay in the collection reveals. Within a year, however, he was to chide the movement for its inadequate theory and conception of politics. There's an issue here to be clarified right away - Benjamin (and Adorno) had not long come themselves to the conclusion that they needed marxist theory for their critical work;  and the surrealists themselves (well, Breton anyway) were not far behind in coming to the same conclusion - so the chiding tone is a little unwarranted.

 The issue that I can identify in Benjamin's essay can be simply put - how to make that leap from the liberation of the imagination to real social and political liberation? No one has an answer to this question, not surrealists nor critical theorists (nor any other artistic or cultural or theoretical movements so far - and optimistic ones have often not really come to realise the problem yet!). The  surrealists' answer depended on assumptions that Benjamin wants to call humanist. What follows is an account based on a good deal of discussion of humanism in marxist theory, including bits not really confined to critical theory proper.

Humanism involves a view that there is some universal interest in liberation of the mind or human spirit, that Mind itself is universal, something all humans have in  common, regardless of social class or other social divisions. This view is often radical in intention - but it is seldom specific enough, nor partisan enough to go over into real politics. This theme is well developed in other work by critical theorists - apparently universal projects, aiming at benefitting the whole of mankind, or releasing the human potential of everyone equally, always end by being seized by dominant groups who fill the vacuum left by large generalisations with their specific interests. Who was surrealism for exactly - while the surealists generalised, the ones who took steps to acquire the works, and enjoy the effects in their own ways were the middle classes.

Humanism, according to an argument found in Adorno but popularised by a later Marxist (Althusser [see file]), fails to close with the detail of oppression in society, performs no concrete analysis, but relies instead on the same general concepts to explain a variety of actual forms of oppression. Once you've said that alienation is ever-present in capitalism, you can find it everywhere - in Art, work, academic life, personal life - and you don't need to examine the specifics in these areas.
 Surrealism remains too rooted in conventional culture, says Benjamin, concerned to liberate the imagination, but unable to resist conventional assumptions and beliefs common to a number of bourgeois. Breton, despite his commitment to Freud, also dabbled in astrology, telepathy, magic and the occult. The surrealists liberated themselves with promising psychological theory - but also with the conventional drugs of the trendy middle classes.

Like many artistic people - including Brecht, for Adorno, although Benjamin was more of a fan - the surrealists tended to want to cut through the need for gritty analysis of the role of Art in society, and place their faith in a once-and-for-all leap of the imagination outside of all the dull constraints. The summary of Adorno's position in Rose's book (The Melancholy Science) explains the problems with this approach - the old assumptions and conventions are not rejected thoroughly, but lurk there, in the background,  still potent and influential. 

 The authors of  the Open University commentary A315 make the same point when they say that no artistic movement can leap out of its history of artistic representations or of discourses about them, no matter how oppositional. No deviant youth culture can escape the history of youth culture, we might add, or invent an entirely new set od symbols of its own - hair as a cultural weapoon, dress, music - all these have long been established as the central issues, and the options are pretty limited. No political movement can simply start afresh after the revolution, as Lenin and the others found in 1917. 'The principle of deviance is the same as the principle of conformity', in Durkheim's words.

Experience alone, even the heightened experience of the surrealists, can never substitute for an adequate theory. Knowledge arises from the deployment of concepts to transform experience. Lacking Marx's analysis of the ways in which commodity production grants only a limited autonomy to culture, the surrealists' experience played them false. Benjamin refers to the 'intoxication' of surrealism, the marvellous realisation that the unconscious can not and should not be denied, that narrow rationalism and the cold calculations of capitalism have not exhausted the human spirit. Intoxication remains as an important consolation in the grey reality of modern society - but, as we all know, intoxication only gives a temporary or illusory release, and reality awaits unaltered when we awake. No one knows how to alter that hard reality - perhaps no one wants to any longer.

Benjamin's essay also refers to the ways in which artistic images in capitalism manage to avoid any mention of commodity production. We've worked on this in seminars with advertisements, which create a world in which commodities appear by magic, without production. As we saw on the tape, in this magical world, odd things happen to the product and to the consumer of it. The story always starts after the painful bit when the commodity has been produced and distributed. The pain, blood, labour and exploitation that cling to the commodity are delicately repressed, and new cosier qualities are added by the creative work - a car drive leads to the possibility of sex with an intriguingly ambiguous, but safe, woman; stocking-wearers share some of the reflected glamoour of Grace Kelly or vintage Jaguar cars; drinking Nescafe (but almost certainly not growing or harvesting those real beans) makes you a nice person; Whitbread best is consumed exclusively in a matey, sexy, sociable atmosphere; banks occupy a world of myth and witty self-mockery, and Adrian Mole's unconscious desires appear as comforting and familiar film clips.

The world of surrealism is less cosy and comforting, less easily bent to immediate interests. We feel scandalised, shocked, puzzled or intoxicated instead of comfortingly knowledgeable. But that world is no longer political for us: it's simply a more sophisticated part of the culture industry. At the most, as critics were to say about a later generation of the avant garde, an artistic politics leads to a politics of art - but never to a real politics. But then - no one has managed that! 

References refer to booklist in this file

back to site main page