Surrealpolitik: Surrealism and the Art of Crime

Author: Jonathan P. Eburne

Quick Summary

Eburne examines a lesser-known aspect of surrealism, namely its fascination with the art of crime and by extension violence in the form of war, repression, and the rise of fascism. The fascination is revealed in the writing, art and political thought of the movement: "the group's interest in crime was fundamental to its responses to pressing political and intellectual events of the twentieth century." It shaped the development of surrealism as an ethical system. This is an analysis that easily extends to the subject of terrorism for my purposes. He begins with the idea that "the path of surrealism through the twentieth century is littered with corpses" and examines through particular examples the way violence conditioned the growth of surrealism and the divisions and arguments within its membership. He divides surrealism into three phases: 1) its "heroic" or intuitive period; 2) its "red" period (involvement with Communism); and 3) its "noir" period, which is in some sense a return to the "most brutal imagery of violence and crime" from before the red period. While the noir period was a return to earlier themes, in the "rapidly deteriorating political universe of the 1930s" the surrealists were "increasingly suspicious of the dangers of stylizing terrorist violence." Their project was to view violence aesthetically as a product of culture without aestheticizing violence. Chapter One: Locked Room, Bloody Chamber. Discusses the nascent surrealist interest in "the mechanics of the locked room mystery story", which Eburne see as being "instrumental to the movement's developing epistemology, most significantly in giving form to the surrealists' repudiation of literary naturalism and philosophical positivism." This is the chapter where Breton's misleading criticism of Dostoevsky occurs, along with a discussion of Fantomas and the beginnings of the use of crime as a way of getting at "epistemological violence." Clinical and detached descriptions of murder scenes (as in Soupault-writing-as-Philippe Weil's "Au Claire de la lune"), intentionally removed from horror and moral outrage, from all interpretation, are a way of shocking us out of habits of thought, evidence made "evocative yet virtually illegible, resistant to hermeneutics." The idea is to privilege mystery over solution, to multiply rather than reduce uncertainty and difference. Chapter Two: On Murder, Considered as One of the Surrealist Arts. Here we get into the grisly aspects of Lautreamont's Les Chants de Maldoror and Thomas De Quincey's "On Murder, Considered as one of the Fine Arts" -- explicit murder, rape, depravity -- apparently also reflected in the utterings of Crevel during seances. Focuses mainly on Crevel, along with Benjamin Peret and Louis Aragon. It was Crevel who pushed the surrealists not to be content with dreamy imagery but to find the courage to face the underlying desires and terrors, to develop an ethics, to make surrealism a lived experience. Eburne considers the meaning of the violence as opposed to the poetry and traces how surrealism eventually came to terms with its ethical responsibilities, e.g., of facing the terrors of the unconscious (desire and death) as a mode of living rather than merely reproducing an aesthetic effect. But by grabbing the "aesthetic handle" of the gruesome (as opposed to the moral handle) an ethics can be determined. The challenge, as noted above, is to treat violence from an aesthetic viewpoint without aestheticizing violence. Eburne also notes that "the spectacle of violent crime became a site of conflict within the movement itself." Chapter Three: Germaine Berton and the Ethics of Assassination. Germain Berton was an anarchist who killed Marius Plateau, editorial secretary of the ultra right-wing newspaper Action Francaise. She would have preferred to kill the chief editor Leon Daudet, a prominent royalist, but settled for Plateau out of convenience. Daudet's own son was also an anarchist and he sympathized became infatuated with Berton, committing suicide in front of the Saint Lazare prison where Berton was being held. This was all very sensational and the surrealists took up her cause, only to lose interest when she was acquitted (despite admitting and defending her actions), since she was no longer in revolt, having been condoned by society. The whole matter was significant for surrealism as it forced them into a more serious consideration of the ethics of the violence they were toying with. Chapter Four: Dime Novel Politics. "Dime novels were the products of a kind of automatic writing, Soupault claimed, composed almost mechanically and characterized by a near-absolute degree of spontaneity." Goes into the continuing evolution of the surrealist interest in pulp criminal figures: Fantomas, Jack the Ripper, "Soupault's interest in Edgar Manning, the black criminal dandy of his novel Le Negre", "Breton's obsession with real and fictional deranged when in Nadja", "Crevel's tragic pursuit of the elusive Arthur Bruggle in La Mort difficile". "The movement continued to summon the convulsive forces of dissent". Lots of Soupault in this chapter, and his "Death of Nick Carter" the detective. The overall story is one of surrealism's attempt to broaden the notion of Communist revolution to describe a space beyond good and evil, to "reconcile with the real" and achieve a "surrealistic liberation of the mind". Also addresses the conflict within surrealism about the proper audience for surrealism, i.e., whether it was appropriate for writers like Desnos to write for the public. Chapter Five: X Marks the Spot. Gang wars, mob violence, and Bataille's critique of surrealism through the lens of de Sade. Examines surrealism's evolving relationship with the notion of real insurrectional violence. "The Terror didn't go too far, it didn't go far enough", i.e., it left unquestioned crucial moral and social laws short of a full spiritual/intellectual revolution. Examines the intent and implications of and responses to Breton's statement on surrealism's most simple act of firing indiscriminately into a crowd. Bataille "scorned the surrealists for the extent to which they did not really mean what they said" -- they were all talk and no action, limited themselves ultimately to aesthetics and art. Bataille urges the "sadistic embrace of voyeurism", the "desire to see" as represented by pure fascination of gory gang violence photos. The desire to see in Sade is "as cataclysmic and as unredeemable as the madness of crowds". The job is to face the full terror of the desire and death impulses. Chapter Six: Surrealism Noir. This is the chapter that goes deeply into the Papin sisters and Violette Noziere and charts the transition from what Eburne calls surrealism's red period to its noir period. He sees the move away from formalized communism as neither a retreat nor a failure but a negation "rather than an abandonment" of the group's political activities and a return to earlier interests in the unconscious, but with a more overt political "use-value". "The surrealists made style itself the terrain for better understanding the 'superior reality' of the historical, social, and psychological facts that conditioned lived experience and determined political change." In this chapter we have Jacques Lacan writing in Minotaure, complemented by Rene Crevel's own investigations into the "paranoiac" psycho-social feedback loop as a new frame of reference for political judgment. Chapter Seven: Persecution Mania. Addresses charges (e.g. from Sartre) that surrealism suffered from cowardice and irrelevance in the face of the actual fascist emergency, i.e., the war. Eburne in part refutes and in part recontextualizes the charge. Refutes it as too specific to Breton, who fled to America and (in one view) "retreated" into pure art, when in fact a good number of surrealists stayed in Europe and put themselves at risk. And recontextualizes it as not so much a failure of courage or relevance as a refusal to compromise by abandoning every other principle in order to fight fascism and fascism alone. In particular, the surrealists maintained an anti-Stalinist stance at the same time, and found a broader political fight in the Crevel-Dali-Lacan sense of redirecting paranoiac theory toward collective social myths. Includes an in-depth look at Leonora Carrington's Down Below as representative of the surrealist approach during this period.


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The path of surrealism through the twentieth century is littered with corpses...[T]he writers and artists of the surrealist movement dedicated themselves to experimental intellectual practices that responded directly to the violence of twentieth-century history. And while this violence erupted most conspicuously during the mass upheavals of war and revolution, it could be confronted most explicitly, according to the surrealists, in the immediate and vulgar realm of everyday crime...[T]he group's interest in crime was fundamental to its responses to pressing political and intellectual events of the twentieth century. (page 1)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror]
Recognizing the popular and clinical impact of crime to be an admixture of fiction and fact, the surrealists viewed crime as a phenomenon of the marvelous, an event characterized by the discrepancies and excesses it brought to light. Louis Aragon, in a series of aphorisms published in 1925, refers to this phenomenal quality as "the contradiction that reveals itself within the real." Aragon would later uphold this phenomenon as a mechanism for political change, arguing that the marvelous provides a means for diagnosing crises within existing political and cultural orders, as well as for attacking, in turn, the ideological forces that sustain them as reality...The surrealist fascination with crime is fundamental, I propose, to the movement's collective project, a radical synthesis of diverse fields of knowledge that sought to transform the ordering systems through which we understand and experience modern life. (page 1-2)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Everyday Life, Culture, Simulacra/Illusion, Gaslighting]
As early as 1919 the surrealist group began to follow contemporary murder cases with a growing attention to the ways in which such crimes challenged accepted categories of public order, motive, and criminal taxonomy. Throughout the movement's history, items from the back pages of popular newspapers played a critical role in shaping the group's strategy for assessing how and why certain forms of violence tended to elude public scrutiny. The surrealists also unearthed a then-overlooked corpus of European literature and thought; they recognized in the works of figures such as the marquis de Sade, the comte de Lautréamont, Arthur Rimbaud, Alphonse Allais, Anne Radcliffe, Eugene Sue, Sigmund Freud, and the German Romantics an intellectual genealogy that presented crime as an event through which systems of law, science, morality, and speculative thought suddenly came into relief. The surrealists' interest in crime encompassed both the specificity of individual criminal cases and the broader register of political violence in modern life. (page 2)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Culture, Terror]
Too often, in the eyes of its critics and advocates alike, surrealism has tended to designate a quaint set of formal practices that yielded the movement's unusual, and seemingly obfuscatory, visual and verbal works as well as its broader "utopian" program of dream and revolution. Even now, in an era longing to resist the mounting pressures of orthodoxy and fundamentalism, many scholars continue to brand surrealism as an orthodoxy unto itself, albeit an orthodoxy of the bizarre...[but] surrealism itself demanded, in the words of Andre Breton, a perpetual crisis in consciousness whose methods changed as the movement's participants changed. It is this insistence on change -- even on crisis and internal debate -- that has challenged scholars and critics with the task of defining such a tangle of writers and artists, practices and ideas. Major recent studies of surrealism have broadened the field of surrealist scholarship by focusing on the participatory and even dialectical nature of the movement, as well as by featuring writers and artists whose contributions had previously been overlooked. Moving beyond the axiomatic work of defining and introducing the movement, I argue that the rifts, disagreements, and exclusions through which surrealism consistently reinvented itself reflect the volatility of a group of public intellectuals bent on challenging the existing epistemological and political order, the silent pacts that guarantee reality as an a priori set of givens. (page 5)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics]
Breton...writes: "The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level." Interpretations of these lines from the Second Manifesto have fueled attacks against surrealism in general, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre's charge that the movement, like Breton's statement, represented a feeble attempt to organize "revolution" around the inner dictates of the individual -- a vulgar and politically bankrupt fusion of Leninist and Freudian rhetoric. Yet Breton is not invoking the "inner dictates of the individual," nor is he simply mobilizing this act of terror as a rhetorical flourish. He means it literally, but stresses that "my intention is not to recommend it above every other because it is simple, and to try and pick a quarrel with me on this point is tantamount to asking, in bourgeois fashion, any nonconformist why he doesn't commit suicide, or any revolutionary why he doesn't pack up and go live in the USSR." Surrealism's struggle lay in reconciling its radical break from the "ideology of continuity" with its awareness that even radicalism tends toward the continuous and the familiar whenever it expresses itself in forms, such as gunshots, that are merely extensions of preexisting violence...

The group's analyses and debates about the status of violence in the modern world extended to the very question of using revolutionary violence as a political strategy. To what extent could political violence ever be distinguished from crime? How did anti colonial violence differ from terrorism, from ethnic cleansing, or from colonial wars of invasion? Such questions, central to the activities of the surrealist group throughout the movement's history, show the surrealists' dedication to a public intellectualism that confronted the most fundamental principles of revolution and avant-gardism. (page 7)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, The Left, Everyday Life, Truth & Real, Fascism, Culture, Terror, The Other, Simulacra/Illusion, Gaslighting]
Crime itself is hardly a modern phenomenon. What is modern, though, are the institutions of police detection and legal psychiatry invented to diagnose it, as well as the public eye of the media that frames it as a spectacle. This spectacle presents a disorienting array of cultural extremes: private suffering and public sensation, destruction and production, reason and unreason...Each crime scene, illuminated by flashbulbs and searchlights, becomes a site of contested meanings; each corpse sets in motion waves of public sentiment, popular imagery, and civic action that oscillate between fascination and outrage, between sensationalism and the social process of restoring order. (page 7-8)
Tags: [Surrealism, Terror, Ambiguity]
It is criminography -- the notion of crime as an art, as a form of inscription -- that provides the epistemological basis for the surrealist analysis of historical transformation. In its composite nature and paradoxical relationship to science and the empirical world, criminography, like surrealism itself, tends toward the discontinuous, at once demanding and producing analysis. (page 9)
Tags: [Surrealism, Terror]
As part of the movement's broader practices of experiment and play, however, these creative practices tended to nominate other, non-surrealist objects -- flea market finds, trinkets, newspaper articles, artifacts, totems, or so-called primitive art objects - for consideration as art. I argue that the surrealists studied crime in precisely this manner: without ignoring the cruelty of criminal violence itself, they understood that at the moment it becomes subject to representation, the historical event of crime begins to obey the characteristics of art as a proliferation of objects and artifacts that bear the paradoxical relation of art to the empirical world. (page 10)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion]
Benjamin understood that the surrealist writings of the late 1920s developed a critique of ideology that was both similar and influential to his own, a recognition that bourgeois values, prejudices, and privilege could be found in the most surprising places. That is, the surrealists articulated how political power found its expression in the most seemingly banal forms, such as city streets, interior spaces, and even the plots of detective novels...In particular, [scholars'] interest in the role of surrealism in the development of a "gothic Marxism" -- a form of Marxian thought that could account for the unconscious forces of individual and socioeconomic determination alike -- stresses the importance of surrealism's links to historical forms that articulate similarly irrational forces...

Yet the surrealists also dedicated themselves to confronting institutions of power and domination that were fully evident. Organizing themselves consciously to engage in political struggles against colonialism, fascism, and Stalinism, the surrealist intellectual project had as much to do with militancy as with Benjaminian gothic Marxism. What unites these facets of surrealist praxis is the dynamic and heterogeneous nature of the movement itself. In examining surrealist thought within the conceptual framework of crime, I aim to resist assigning surrealism a consistent set of aesthetic, epistemological, or methodological principles. In place of any such attempt to standardize a fixed definition of "surrealism" or "the surreal" -- a practice that leads inevitably to all kinds of distortions and reductions -- I examine how the group itself struggled throughout its history not only to reconcile but also to draw wisdom from its own most irreconcilable ends, its fiercest debates, and its manifold intellectual commitments as an avant-garde collective. (page 12)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Ambiguity]
More ethical than utopian, surrealist writing and art are at once endlessly playful -- dismembered, self-reflexive, allusive -- and deadly serious. Dislodged from its rationalist claim to define and describe existing appearances, surrealist verbal and visual language constitutes a new form of materialism that entered instead into the more contested realm of thinking. That is, as language described by Maurice Blanchot as "rhetoric become matter," it does not so much state as refract, rearrange, delve, and surpass its own claims...[T]he rifts, disagreements, and exclusions through which surrealism consistently reinvented itself reflect the volatility of a movement bent on challenging the silent pacts that guarantee reality as a verifiable set of givens. At the same time, the outbursts of crime and terror animating surrealist work draw attention to the ways in which violent historical phenomena likewise throw into relief the conflicting systems of representation and understanding used to make sense of them. As a lens for political analysis, the varied public and institutional responses to crime -- from the measurement systems of Bertillon cards to the splashy sensationalism of the penny press -- could certainly be used to problematize the limits and excesses of the immediate cultural order...Approached in this way, crime discourse could do more than reflect contemporary social and political systems; it could form the very language through which the historical forces governing these systems might be rendered concrete. (page 12-13)
Tags: [Surrealism, Truth & Real, Culture, Terror, Lead Quote Candidate]
Surrealism offers a useful platform for addressing the contemporary problem of violence, I conclude, because the surrealist critical project during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s itself confronted the stakes of incorporating violence as a political strategy...Even beyond its active period as an avant-garde movement, surrealism continues to offer new ways to think about politics, history, and ideology, as well as a forum for debating the political responsibility of intellectuals. (page 17)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics]
For Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky's protagonist, is not a passive observer of the room. The scene cited in the Manifesto in fact describes Raskolnikov's reconnaissance visit to an old pawnbroker who occupies the yellow parlor, and whom he will soon murder with the blunt side of an axe. The narrative gaze of the description is thus cast quite literally with an eye to murder...There is in fact a telling gap in Breton's quotation, an ellipsis that omits precisely the element of dramatic purpose whose absence from the supposedly "empty" room he rejects...By expurgating these lines, Breton empties the larger passage of any such ominous purposiveness. As a result, the description of the room becomes little more than a fragment of narrative ornamentation, allowing Breton to transform the lack of originality of the room's decor into a symptom of the imaginative bankruptcy its representation threatens to reproduce...

In the 1924 Manifesto Breton uses his critique of Crime and Punishment as a means for asserting, by contrast, the promise of surrealist and Freudian understandings of the psyche. Unlike naturalism and positivism, these contemporary modes of analysis authorize the imagination to explore "the depths of our mind" as an alternative to more hidebound conceptions of experience. But surrealism, like psychoanalysis, also relied on naturalism and positivism, even as it rejected their limitations...In...1921...Breton makes the dramatic claim that the invention of photography in the nineteenth century "dealt a mortal blow to old means of expression." Breton's Ernst essay furthermore allies the mortal blow of photography with the development of automatic the "veritable photography of thought." (page 25)
Tags: [Surrealism, Realism]
Without itself offering a positive model or ideology for truthful understanding (the detective genre is, like the photographic black box, a blind instrument), surrealism's recourse to the locked room mystery establishes the intellectual conditions of surrealism as conditions of epistemological violence rather than of ideological certainty or heady discovery, characterized by the genre's blind and ostensibly impartial assassination of old forms of thought. (page 27)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror]
The report does not render the bloody room legible; rather it catalogues the impressions left by objects in the room in a way that isolates empirical detail from analysis and inductive reasoning. The elements of empirical reality may all be present, but their arrangement is not subject to logical reconstruction, nor does it obey the continuities of naturalist description; the details instead form a meticulous yet blindly taxonomic inventory. This primal scene of murder may know something, but it does not necessarily make any sense. (page 29)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror, Rationality, Media, Realism]
These uncertainties in turn dramatize the efficacy of "Au Clair de la lune" as an apparatus for systematically reproducing the kinds of enigmas its locked room investigation refuses to solve. (page 30)
Tags: [Surrealism, Ambiguity]
Surrealism's task, in the movement's early years, would be to redeploy these [realist] forms in ways that would call attention to their epistemological function -- their historical status as indices of the real -- and yet suspend their totalizing function as guarantors of noumenal experience...Its strength lies in its capacity for multiplying, rather than for artificially solving, difference and uncertainty...Just as Roussel's sensational machines assassinate description with description, Soupault's "Au Clair de la lune" invokes the locked room apparatus of a detective mystery in order to assassinate the interpretive function of detection and the return to social order it promises. (page 36)
Tags: [Surrealism, Ambiguity]
Leroux's detective mystery appealed to the surrealists for its suggestion that the novel's mechanics were designed to manufacture evidence and false trails as forms of literary experience which the locked room apparatus set in play. (page 44)
Tags: [Surrealism, Conspiracy, Disinformation, Ambiguity, Paranoia]
The significance of the surrealist papillons [flyers they would paste at random around Paris] lay in their playful multiplication of, rather than solutions to, difference and uncertainty. (page 45)
Tags: [Surrealism, Ambiguity]
The surrealist slogans aim likewisse to rein scribe the inchoate "realm of our experience" as an intersubjective and textually overdetermined framework; yet rather than providing the means to ensure its logical, ordered resolution, the slogans are distributed with an aim to "deprive us of a frame of reference" in order to recast knowledge as what Maurice Blanchot has called a communication with the unknown. This unknown referred neither to the unknowable nor to the transcendental reality of the noumenon, but rather to the point at which interpretive systems break down -- the limits of understanding. That is, extending the surrealist assassination of unitary logic and its ideological confines into the realm of the everyday, the activities of the Surrealist Research Bureau attempted to apply this mortal blow as a form of communication that would actually prevent any singular, unitary idea from taking shape. (page 46)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Everyday Life, Rationality, Ambiguity]
As Breton writes, Soupault too had explored such ways of instigating a "conversation with the unknown" through a similarly decided strategy of random strikes. Breton continues: "Similarly, in 1919 Soupault went into any number of impossible buildings to ask the concierge whether Philippe Soupault did in fact live there. He would not have been surprised, I suspect, by an affirmative reply. He would have gone and knocked on his door." The results of this investigation are irrelevant, except insofar as they produce the opportunities that create an environment whereby, in Walter Benjamin's words, "every square inch of our cities" is a crime scene and "every passer-by a culprit." (page 48)
Tags: [Surrealism, Terror, Conspiracy]
The [surrealist] group's aesthetic self-consciousness, I argue, recognized murder as a form of cultural production that generated corpses...Rather than projecting a fixed set of formal aesthetic principles upon the social world, surrealism's aesthetic judgments were proprioceptive, under the aegis of aesthetics, they brought about a scrutiny and analysis of this discursive and specular realm of social relations that extended to contemporary politics...[T]he group's transition from a rebellious faction within Parisian Dada to a surrealist collective hinged on disagreements over the role of murder in the surrealist imagination, especially in differentiating the aesthetic treatment of crime from an aestheticization of crime itself. (page 51)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror]
[Peret's] appeal to aesthetic judgment aims to shift the object of outrage from the horror of the crime to its banality...Peret argues that the sexual killing should be grasped by what De Quincey calls its aesthetic "handle." For Peret, this aesthetic treatment offers a means for rendering the virtually overlooked crime observable and subject to analysis in ways that avoid simply fixating on the innocence of the victim or the guilt of the murderer. (page 54)
Tags: [Surrealism, Terror]
In their perverse and anarchistic isolation of practical reason from aesthetic judgment, Peret and De Quincey each suggest that morality's very promise of sustaining a social order was itself a fantasy; morality -- what Kant called "practical reason" -- was instead a set of conventions that eclipsed the degree to which this social order was already collapsed, or, more precisely, to which the social order reproduced its own collapse as the necessary condition for its existence. For Peret and De Quincey alike, this phenomenon became especially visible in the contemporary rise in "great" murders of an exceptionally unmotivated, culturally symptomatic nature. (page 56)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror]
For all but the immediate participants and witnesses, the experience of any such event is overwhelmingly secondhand. Sensationalized by the press, gawked at by passers-by, whispered about i hushed and horrified tones, or cited as an example for public outrage, safety, or moral benefit, murder is already subject to representation and details of "design...grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment." Maria Tatar has proposed that contemporary avant-garde depictions of sexual murder in Weimar Germany compensated for this distance or alienation between the spectator and the event through exploitative and violent relations of fantasy: identification, voyeurism, catharsis, and the experience of sublimity. I contend, however, that surrealist and porto-surrealist writings like Peret's, i spite of their callous rhetoric and ironic distance, derive their "aesthetic" approach from an ethical commitment to dislodging judgment -- moral and aesthetic alike -- from the formalism of national myths and institutions...In doing so...they offer the beginnings of a surrealist intellectual program, a critical aesthetics with its own inherent imperative for judgment. (page 56-57)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror]
Crevel's "scandalous" tales [i.e., his explicit mediumistic outpourings] were suppressed, I argue, because they confronted the proto-surrealists with their own reluctance to address the ethical implications of their newly developed practices...Even after his reconciliation with the surrealists in late 1924, Crevel would remain critical of "automatism" and automatic writing, as well as, more tacitly, the movement's Desnosian predilection [i.e., quasi-mystical posing]. For Crevel this was no jealous retribution but a serious accusation that revealed his commitment to understanding avant-garde experimentation as an extension of lived experience, of politics, and of intellectual practice. (page 62,63)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Everyday Life]
Revel became disgusted with what he considered the porto-surrealists' enchantment with unconscious (or mediumistic) imagery as imagery, and not as a true conduit for self-exploration, which would demand the anxiety and discomfort that lay in the expression of the "subterranean work of thoughts"...[T]he surrealist exploration of psychoanalysis, automatic writing and mediumistic activity should not, Crevel argued, simply highlight the beauty and intrigue of psychoanalytic symptoms, the products and projections of unconscious processes; these practices should rather demand an encounter, however difficult or traumatic, with the desires and motives that guide them...Crevel's attacks against what he considered surrealism's tendencies toward abstraction and aestheticism stressed that the unconscious is not a treasure trove but a dangerous mechanism; its recourse to the absolute is made possible only by its terrifying and terroristic intimacy with desire and death. (page 70,71)
Tags: [Surrealism, Truth & Real, Terror]
[From a semi-autobiographical novel written by Crevel:] "I accuse memory. Evil comes from what we that memory is in reality a hallucination." (page 72)
Tags: [Surrealism, Lead Quote Candidate, Literary/Poetic, Dreams]
Crevel, as we have seen, was in fact deeply suspicious the avant-garde's tendency to aestheticize the explosiveness of historical acts of violence. As he argues in his pointedly titled essay "Which Way?," published in a 1923-24 issue of The Little Review, "many a person has manufactured a bomb to destroy detestable monuments and has then been content simply to place his bomb on the mantelpiece, make a thousand copies of it which he puts on sale like the Venus de Milo in cheap plaster." Revel's complaint invokes the bomb-throwing turn-of-the-century anarchists such as Ravachol, Emile Henry, and the Bonnot gang, whose notoriety and terrorist tactics fascinated many of the early surrealists. Such anarchist attacks provided spectacles of revolt, but beyond their initial impact, there wasn't much to prevent them from becoming little more than spectacles in the end, aestheticized in spite of their violence. Yet whereas Crevel's essay advocates transforming such plaster casts back into bombs, it does not do so to embrace their return to deadly force...For Crevel, as would become the case for the surrealists more broadly, aesthetic relations [a substitute for actual violence] were a conduit for ethical relations. (page 75)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror]
[According to Aragon and Crevel] the ethical imperative of surrealism lay in its commitment to heeding a demand to think independently. That is, its practices sought both to obey and to propagate the command of thinking itself, rather than to heed predetermined moral laws or to obey transcendental principles of "experimental" or "practical" judgment. (page 76)
Tags: [Surrealism]
No longer an autonomous political reactionary [i.e., in the famous Berton-with-surrealists collage], Berton has been made into an object to which others react. As I have suggested, this transformation is critical to surrealist praxis more broadly: such an objectified, aestheticized figure becomes a spur for the derangement of systematic thought rather than a model for imitation. This, I propose, is how it became possible for Germaine Berton to serve as both an object and an influence for the surrealist group. (page 93)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror, Rationality]
Surrealist political thought of this period [mid to late 20s] derived much of its polemical energy from its discussions and arguments about collective action, which invoked dime novel villains and other fictional criminals. The resistance of these figures to discipline and co-optation might have seemed to make them anathema to any viable political understanding. Such pulp criminal figures were central to surrealist political thought, however, rather than exceptions to it -- whether Desnos's fascination with Fantomas and Jack the Ripper; Soupault's interest in Edgar Manning, the black criminal dandy of his novel Le Negre (1927); Breton's obsession with real and fictional deranged women in Nadja (1928); or Crevel's tragic pursuit of the elusive Arthur Bruggle in La Mort difficile (1926). The appeal of such characters was in part their privileged access to urban underworlds, as well as their ambiguous status as figures of "absolute liberty."...Indeed, even as its leftist turn demanded a greater call to order, the movement continued to summon the convulsive forces of dissent and discussion around which the group had come into being. (page 98)
Tags: [Surrealism, Terror]
Soupault's modernist update of the dime novel franchise recasts Carter, the white American detective, as the agent in an oneiric narrative of pursuit in which Carter dies. (page 101)
Tags: [Surrealism, Literary/Poetic, Dreams]
Dime novels were the products of a kin of automatic writing, Soupault claimed, composed almost mechanically and characterized by a near-absolute degree of spontaneity. (page 103)
Tags: [Surrealism, Terror, Crime/Noir]
The other surrealists...sought forms of collective practice that could reconcile the spiritual freedom Soupault championed with the political actuality promised by party communism...This did not mean that all surrealist writing and art was to become instrumentalized in the service of "effective" revolutionary praxis instead the group mobilized its experimental energies toward broadening the theoretical basis of communism. (page 122)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics]
The imperative to "mobilize all the powers of the imagination" defined the surrealist movement's political commitment in the years following the Rif War. (page 126)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics]
Like Freud's depiction of the dream-work as the condensed and distorted projection of unconscious wishes, Desnos's poetic and cinematic marvelous eluded the conventional censorship of commercial narratives. It described instead a space beyond good and evil that Desnos attempted, in turn, to reconcile with the real. This reconciliation, he argues in a 1924 essay, is the "revolutionary" goal of surrealism, and, more specifically, of surrealist ethics as "the sense of life and not the observance of human laws." Yet whereas Breton argued for the inextricability of socioeconomic revolution from a surrealist liberation of the mind, Desnos's understanding of revolution privileged the latter aim...Desnos writes:

"They are a gang -- from the priest to the professor -- who invoke the spirit, who make a living from it, and who make it serve the lowest ends. It's against them, and against this deformed spirit, that the surrealists mean to fight. 'You claim to ruin bourgeois painting and yet you make paintings. Go and destroy the Louvre,' people told me on the way out of the surrealist exhibition. If we destroyed the paintings in the Louvre we would be individualists. Likewise you don't just go out and shoot fascist delegates. But you fight the capitalist spirit. Right now it's less a matter of carrying out revolution than of preparing for a battle of opinion." (page 128-129)
Tags: [Surrealism, Politics & Art, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, The Left, Fascism, Capitalism, Dreams]
Unlike other contemporary critics of surrealism, who tended to dismiss its theoretical work as either dangerously reactionary or naively intuitive and hostile to rigor, Bataille instead criticized the all too deliberate log through which surrealism grounded its politics. The group's call for revolution had more to do, he felt, with the philosophical appeal of dialectical materialism than with the reality of violent rebellion...Bataille criticized surrealism, in other words, for the same disavowed moralism he saw in X Marks the Spot, and for the same vagueness for which older Marxists such as Marcel Martinet had disparaged them several years previously in calling them "Lenins-in-short-pants."...The surrealists had heeded Martinet's critique all too earnestly, Bataille, suggested, eagerly refashioning themselves as leftist intellectuals at the expense of acknowledging the "bloody farce" of real insurrectional violence. (page 141)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution]
The surrealists, in effect, heeded Sade's critique of the French Revolution in Philosophy in the Boudoir: the Revolution's descent into Terror meant not that the Revolution had gone too far but that it had not gone far enough; it let unchallenged presumptions about the sovereignty of law, the family, God, the Catholic church, and, most broadly, the bourgeoisie. Bataille's review of X Marks the Spot makes a similar claim in its impatience with the residual idealism of the pamphlet's hard-boiled images of dead gangsters. (page 143)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Terror, Crime/Noir]
According to Eluard, Sade's writings offer a dialectics of their own, wherein the liberation of appetites functions as a critique of the moral and social laws that police them. This critique in turn demanded a broader conception of liberation as an upheaval of the ideological structures that govern human experience, and no longer simply as an exercise of bodily appetites. (page 145)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Crime/Noir]
Breton...raises the stakes of Nadja's momentary recourse to cold-blooded murder in stating that "the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd."...The difficult part of revolution is not its violence; indeed, Breton suggests that violence is all too simple. What is difficult is the full realization of a project of emancipation that extends to all facets of life, and that places the most extreme demands on its practitioners. Revolution, Breton writes in the Second Manifesto, requires the kind of commitment to the overthrow of bourgeois capitalism that can be experienced only as a despair so strong as to render extremism imaginable...Breton's most notorious statement, in other words, invokes murder not as an extension of surrealism's alleged methodism into the field of political violence, but as the hypothetical extreme that Breton claims to be the measure of surrealism's refusal to operate simply as a method, whether aesthetic, epistemological, or political. (page 149-150)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Terror, Capitalism, Literary/Poetic, Ambiguity, Paranoia, Crime/Noir]
Unlike the psychiatrists of the Société Médico-Psychologique, Bataille scorned the surrealists for the extent to which they did not really mean what they said: their violent written and visual rhetoric, he argued, was circumscribed by a conceptual idealism that, for all its attempts to embody the idea of revolution physically, was not truly physical at all.The antidote for such conceptual idealism, Bataille claimed, was a form of critical practice derived from Sade. The surrealists praised Sade's prison screams as a mode of political expression directed against the repressive institutions of an aristocratic social order; Bataille, by contrast, championed the fundamentally inarticulate nature of any such cries, asserting that they nevertheless had prompted the masses to storm the Bastille. (page 150)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Crime/Noir]
The "great constructions of the intellect" -- whether concepts such as Revolution, Justice, "Decency and Integrity," or movements such as surrealism and communism -- are never truly revolutionary or shocking because their aim of imposing a conceptual order fails to indulge the "desire to see" that resurrects L'Oeil de la Police, and even X Marks the Spot, from their idealism. Whereas human life, Bataille claims, "always more or less conforms to the image of a soldier obeying commands in his drill," the inverse is true of spectacles of horror. The "sudden cataclysms, great popular manifestations of madness, riots, enormous revolutionary slaughters" all manifest an inevitable backlash against this image.

In this context Sade becomes the true revolutionary to the extent that the "desire to see" which is exercised in his works is as cataclysmic and as unredeemable as the madness of crowds...[T]he Revolution was not the product of rhetoric or intentional political speech but the consequence of a collective desire to participate in Sade's scream...The screamer, according to Bataille, had truly stared into the darkest recesses of horror without seeking refuge in a "prison" of intellect, and this scream was itself seductive in turn. (page 153)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Terror, Rationality, Literary/Poetic, Madness, Crime/Noir]
[W]ithout a sadistic understanding of an incontestably thundering and torrential nature, there could be no revolutionaries, there could only be a revolting utopian sentimentality. (page 154)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Crime/Noir]
[Georges] Sadoul's essay is by far the most paranoid, arguing that the popular appeal of magazines like Detective extended the reach of the powerful right-wing police chief Jean Chiappe....For Sadoul, the law was merely the pretext for a conspiracy of police forces, whether professional, amateur, or journalistic...[H]is intent is to suggest the complicity of even this widely read magazine...with the ideological function of police activity. This function is fascist, Sadoul argues, to the extent that participation in the surveillance and pursuit of so-called criminals is less a question of desire than an automatic function of the state...the sensationalism Sadoul decries represented not a liberation of desire or an explosion of perversity but, as Aragon similarly expresses in his "Introduction to 1930," the "revenge of censorship on the unconscious." (page 156-157)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Everyday Life, Fascism, Culture, Conspiracy, Media, Paranoia, Surveillance, Crime/Noir]
Aragon's increasing orthodoxy would culminate in his break with the movement in 1932, following the legal and intellectual fracas surrounding the publication of his propagandistic poem "Red Front" in 1931. Conversely, the resistance to orthodoxy expressed by writers and artists such as Crevel, Dali, Breton, Giacometti, and Tzara signified an unflagging commitment to revolutionizing intellectual as well as social conditions. Whereas Sadoul and Aragon would emphasize the literal, institutional complicity of the popular media with police work, these other surrealists would instead stress ideological complicity as the target of revolutionary labor. Drawing on Breton's call, in the Second Manifesto, for surrealist activity to prompt a rise de la conscience -- meaning both a crisis of conscience and a crisis in consciousness -- there emerged a counter-Stalinist tendency in 1930s surrealism, which would insist on the Sadean pursuit of revolutionary action on the ideological front, and not merely on the social front. This meant an interrogation of the most intimate structures of human consciousness, pursued not in opposition to organized political action but as an extension and a possible modality of it. (page 160)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, The Left]
The best-known development during this period [1932-ish, the Age d'or affair] was Dali's invention of paranoia-critique, a response to Bataille's critique of surrealism that was designed to counteract what Aragon identified as "the revenge of censorship on the unconscious." In Dali's paranoia-critique, Andre Masson's early notion of a "physical idea of the Revolution" found a new incarnation as a psychic mechanism whose "revolutionary" potential Dali advocated in an essay printed in the first issue of Le Surrealisme au Service de la Revolution in 1930, titled 'L'ane pourri" (The Rotting Donkey). Dali's theory of paranoia heeds Bataille's claim that it is through participation in spectacles of violence, rather than through grand ideals or "irons of intellect," that it becomes possible to overthrow existing ideological frameworks. Yet Dali strongly disagreed with Bataille's presumption that such spectacles were natural occurrences that could be experienced without idealism or fancy concepts. Dali argue that the Bataillean effect of spectacular participation could instead be produced through the capacity of paranoia for generating simulacra whose presence vies with other "images of reality"; as a result, one's ideologically overdetermined confidence in such images would begin to self-destruct. (page 161)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion, Paranoia]
Rather than targeting popular magazines or specific bourgeois cultural institutions -- what Sadoul called "the function of the industrial power of a bourgeois nation" -- Dali targeted la conscience itself as an ideological apparatus policing bourgeois class relations. (page 161)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics]
Paranoia, Dali argues, systematizes a mental crisis which is analogous to hallucination, yet which expresses itself instead in terms of recognizable and empirically verifiable evidence. As paranoia calls on the exterior world to validate its obsessive ideas, its troubling power derives from its exacting particularity; as Dali writes: "Paranoia uses the external world to assert the obsessive idea, with its disturbing characteristic of making this idea's reality valid to others. The reality of the external world serves as illustration and proof, and is placed in the service of the reality of our mind." Dali notes the "inconceivable subtlety" of paranoiacs, who take advantage "of motives and facts so refined as to escape normal people" and thus "reach conclusions that are often impossible to contradict or reject." As a result, these "conclusions," in the form of simulacra, can at their most powerful compete with, and even displace, reality itself. "It is because of their failure to cohere with reality," Dali writes, "and because of the arbitrary element in their presence, that simulacra can easily assume the form of reality and that reality, in its turn, adapts itself to the violences committed by simulacra."

Unlike what Breton would call the surrealism of its mid-1920s "rational phase," Dali's paranoia-critique no longer relied on accurate critique to expose the ideological excesses of contemporary society. Instead it mechanically -- yet critically -- misinterpreted reality in order to provoke a "crisis in consciousness" that would dislodge contemporary thinking from its ideologically overdetermined sense of the real. (page 162)
Tags: [Surrealism, Simulacra/Illusion, Madness, Gaslighting, Paranoia]
Monnerot argues that "the slightest dream is more perfect than the best poem because it is by definition concretely adequate to the dreamer for whom it is an individually historical fact." Toward the realization of this dream, he claims that what will be required is something akin to Georges Bataille's theory of heterology, a means of pursuing the ways in which "directed thought, science, and industry will be able to serve as vehicles for dream."...Indeed, having read Bataille's work from the early 1930s, Monnerot began to work toward an extensive sociological study of forms of sacred experience that bring forth such "waking dream states" as group phenomena...Monnerot's emphasis on the collective experience of a poetics without language would help to bring about the eventual reconciliation of the surrealists with Bataille in the mid 1930s. (page 172)
Tags: [Surrealism, Dreams]
The intransigence to which Breton refers thus became, in Eluard's words, a function of the parallel course of surrealism's "political aspirations" and "the free exercise of experimental surrealism."...The transition from the overtly Marxist SASDLR to the luxuriously illustrated Minotaure reflects surrealism's political migration from a "red" period of communist activism to what I call its "noir" period...Designating a break in the stylistic transparency of realist representation, the mannered proliferation of stylistic motifs in romans noirs and symbolist poetry, as well as in certain interwar crime films, exceeded its own formalism in order to evoke the terror and social dissolution at work in historical reality. These effects became a guiding interest for the surrealists in 1933, s they suggested the role to be played by psychoanalysis and art alike in confront and diagnosing the historical pressures at work in the present moment.

This change in the group's tenor constituted neither an "exasperated" retreat from politics nor, for that matter, a failure of the movement to establish an effective political platform. Instead this noir period accomplished what might be considered a negation, rather than an abandonment, of the group's overt political activities, a return to earlier surrealist interests such as automatic writing and the interpretation of dreams for the sake of understanding more fully their value as theoretical tools. The political use-value of this dialectical return lay in its reassessment of the moral and epistemological bases of surrealism's political platform, in response to a historical moment rapidly becoming -- to cite the title of an article in Minotaure 3-5 -- an "Age of Fear." (page 175)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Crime/Noir]
Unlike the more celebrated surrealist images of the early 1920s, this composition [the before & after juxtaposition of the Papin sisters] invokes, through absence, the disruptive violence of the Papin murders for analytical rather than affective purposes. Its aim is no longer to "disorient us in our own memory by depriving us of a frame of reference," as Breton wrote in 1921, but rather to orient. Indeed by 1933 disorientation and disillusionment were no longer simply the watchwords of surrealist activity but had instead become conditions of political life under the threat of the seemingly incomprehensible rise of fascism. In this context the surrealist image offered a new frame of reference for political judgment; yet its value as theory would derive less from philosophy or logic than from the clinical study of paranoia, whose challenge to the naive realism at the core of communist thinking would provide the epistemological grounds for a renewed surrealist commitment to political resistance, directed explicitly against fascism....[P]aranoia increasingly offered...a form of thought that "was both autonomous and critical," and "could destabilize a consensual understanding of the real." (page 179-180)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Fascism, Madness, Gaslighting, Paranoia, Crime/Noir]
Yet whereas a paranoiac might claim to have an unmediated relationship with things-in-themselves, the disease itself could be read and understood as a representation of the aggregate factors that produced it, such as the subject's social conditions, case history, and structures of unconscious desire. As Jacques Lacan argues in the first of the two articles he published in Minotaure, paranoia's systematic distortion of a subject's relationship to the real provided a "new syntax," a system of representation that offered a model for better understanding the nature of causality in the first place. Paranoia's "new syntax," the surrealists suggested, was already a representation of complex structures of social and psychological determination that could be mobilized for the sake of political understanding. (page 180)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Madness, Paranoia]
As early as 1923 Louis Aragon had begun to define, in anarchist and individualist terms, the ethical position toward violence that he would later maintain in "Red Front." He writes that "if an individual becomes conscious of the monstrous inequality, of the vanity of all speech in the face of the growing strength of a certain faction, I hold this individual to be authorized, moreover, to resort to terrorist means." (page 184)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror]
Rene Crevel's 1933 essay "Notes toward a Psycho-dialectic" makes precisely this theoretical move [i.e., a surrealist theory that expands the fields of Marxist inquiry beyond its own orthodox presuppositions]. Published in the same issue of SASDLR as Eduard and Peret's review off the press coverage of the Papin sisters, Crevel's article uses Jacques Lacan's recent doctoral thesis on paranoia to articulate how psychotic crime could provide a means for better understanding political expression. Crevel thus revises Aragon's justification of violent insurrection as a function of "visionary" class awareness, instead describing proletarian revolution as a gradual process of increasing consciousness as a subject...

Lacan's 1932 thesis on paranoia was appealing to Crevel because it allowed him to expound a materialist theory of unconscious development, which stressed the social rather than the constitutional, genetic, or even instinctual development of paranoia's delusional system. Lacan's study of paranoia stands in opposition to the two major French theories of the illness: the notion of automatism, which understood the mind as series of automatic functions, and of constitutionalism, which understood the mind as organically fixed in its irregularities. Lacan's theoretical breakthrough was to propose instead that paranoia is a delusional system with an emphatically social basis, a condition brought about through the dialectical interplay between the subject and other people. Lacan's theory of paranoia does not simply reject the patient's delusional structure, through which the subject strikes out against her own ego-ideal in the form of a persecuting enemy, as a false or alien theory of persecution; it understands the illness as already a synthesis of conscious perception and unconscious judgment. By studying the social conditions that contribute to paranoia, Lacan thus structures his own theory as a dialectical extension of the illness itself. (page 185-186)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Madness, Paranoia]
For Crevel, Lacan's thesis was promising to the left for its understanding of paranoia as a psychotic structure that systematically accuses the very ideological forces signified by Freud's notion of "culture." This culture was repressive not simply because it beat back the death drive but because it represented the full force of bourgeois social conditioning which in the France of the early 1930s, was beginning to take on a frighteningly discernible shape: an attachment to so-called family values that sanctioned patriarchal privilege and a rampant homophobia; and an ever-present xenophobia and anti-Semitism whose deep roots in twentieth-century French culture only strengthened what Crevel and the surrealists considered to be a growing fascist sympathy among the French bourgeoisie.

The "accusation" performed by murderous exhibitionism thus does not canonize the psychotic as a revolutionary figure; insofar as the physical illness represents the moral illness that produces it, Crevel's structuralist notion of behavior as a representation allows his further ideas about political illness and oppression to be a matter of extension...Yet Crevel's version of political and psychological causality structured as a "fortuitous encounter" is particularly useful to surrealism insofar as it rethinks the causality not only of presumably legitimate revolution but of the most inexplicable, brutal, and regressive of events as well -- whether domestic murder or the growing domestic appeal of fascism. (page 189)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Fascism, Culture, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Madness, Gaslighting, Paranoia, Crime/Noir]
Lacan's attention to the historical basis of psychiatry [in Minotaure I] is meant to dislodge the practice of diagnosis from questions of criminal responsibility or irresponsibility, which risked reducing definitions of insanity to a moral choice policed by the state...For Lacan, the disciplines brought together in Minotaure -- artistic, psychiatric, and theoretical -- were all necessary to the study of mental illness, since paranoia reveals the work of signification and imagery in the formation of subjectivity, and not just within the fields of cultural and artistic production alone. Lacan's work on the Papin sisters builds on his description, in the first issue of Minotaure, of paranoiac lived experience as an "original syntax," a mode of symbolic expression that could be at once intentional and yet still determined by real social tensions. (page 190, 191-92)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion, Madness, Gaslighting, Paranoia, Crime/Noir]
Lacan suggests...that the real effects of social relations on the subject -- so readily misrecognized, in the case of the Papin sisters, as direct class oppression -- become recognizable as motives for the crime only insofar as they become visible as motifs. Indeed his title, "Motifs du crime paranoaique," suggests that, in this sequel to his earlier article on paranoiac style, the French term motifs can signify both causal motives and stylistic motifs. That is, Lacan's study of motive stresses how the structure of psychosis involves a simultaneous interpretation and representation of lived reality; within this structure, social and material conditions are manifest not merely as the facts that a subject represents to herself, but also as the determining forces that the unconscious must represent to the consciousness.

Christopher Lane has argued that this psychotic structure -- which is not political in itself, since the people involved are unaware of its meaning -- may be politicized insofar as its motifs, its exhibitionism, provide a reminder of "the fragile supports on which subjectivity is so reliant, and the way each precarious identification fosters an illusion of psychical stability." (page 193)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion, Madness, Paranoia, Crime/Noir]
I call this surrealist understanding of political and psychological reality "noir" because the noir genres studied by the surrealists throughout the movement's history, and with increasing rigor during the 1930s, represented what I argue is a paranoiac response to contemporary historical and political events. Participants as well as observers in a period of developing historical emergency, the surrealists were acutely aware of the danger of remaining unconscious protagonists in the historical drama of the 1930s...Whereas the characters in noir fiction struggle in vain to make sense of the forces to which their actions are subject, the stylistic universe of the noir aesthetic itself makes possible the analysis it denies its characters. Through this analytical access, the noir aesthetic becomes theory, itself a speculative means for investigating the structure of reality -- exterior to the aesthetic form itself -- that made action possible...Indeed, what seems progressive about noir and gothic fictions is precisely their configuration of political, psychological, and historical questions as a problem of representation, or, more accurately, as a problem of style...Could not the standard noir plot twist be described as the uncanny realization that an evil "out there," against which the protagonists so gallantly attempt to safeguard themselves, is suddenly revealed to have been in their midst all along?...The possibility that the most abjectly alien acts of terror were themselves already both interpretations and representations of lived reality suggested a method for interpreting the historical present. For the surrealists such acts were legible as motifs not only within the narrative framework of gothic fiction but within the contemporary world as well...[I]t was surrealism's efforts to account structurally for otherwise invisible, unconscious forces determining the course of history -- just as it had once been the group's original claim to "photograph" the unconscious through automatic writing -- that lent its noir period a political use-value. (page 193-195)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror, Crime/Noir]
The object in the drawing by Nouge and Magritte ['Homage to the Papin Sisters'] unsettles its order and "innocence" in a way that no more legitimates the crimes than Eduard and Peret's press review does; what it achieves instead is the effect of transforming the housekeeper's curious expression from an unconscious absorption to a knowing trace of a smile...[T]he drawing's paranoiac depiction of the non-neutrality of innocent spaces becomes all the more immanent. (page 196)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics]
During the course of the group's relationship with Minotaure, the surrealists shifted their efforts from theorizing the validity of revolutionary violence to finding strategies for deriving paranoiac knowledge. The surrealists, in other words, strove to create an atmosphere that did not so much constitute "revolution" as it was conducive to the knowledge represented obliquely in Nouge and Magritte's drawing: the means -- moral as well as material -- are at hand. By calling surrealism's period of political and epistemological reassessment both a noir period and a period of negation, I have argued, first, that the group's poetic and political aims in 1933 were not limited to revealing irrational forces at work within exterior reality. Rather, the surrealists studied how such forces were organized as coherent structures of motive, causality, and perception in a way that revealed their contiguity with existing structures of political and ideological logic. Second, I maintain that this noir period enabled rather than performed the group's political work. The theoretical experiments of this era provided the basis for a new "morality of revolt" that advocated a massive collective restructuring of society on diverse fronts -- from mental institutions to literature to family structure to political parties -- instead of the merely destructive violence of Aragon's "Red Front." (page 197)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Everyday Life, Truth & Real, Culture, Simulacra/Illusion, Myth, Madness, Paranoia, Crime/Noir]
[I]t is critical to note that the surrealists' reaction to the Noziere affair is different from their relation to Violette herself as either a body, a subject, or the object of their attention. In the book she remains very much a set of signifiers, never photographed or represented "realistically" like Germaine Berton or the Papin sisters, insofar as her features, appearance, and physicality are not fixed in or by a single image...Breton explains this process of transmutation into myth in the book's first lines, as a function of the media spectacle Violette has become:

All the world's curtains drawn before your eyes
It's pointless for them
Before their mirror gasping for breath
To stretch the jinxed bow of ancestry and posterity
You no longer resemble anyone living or dead
Mythological to the tips of your fingernails (page 209)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Simulacra/Illusion, Myth, Media]
True antifascism, the surrealists argued, required more than a mobilization against some strange, alien threat. Rather, as the Noziere case fully revealed, it required a fundamental attack on petit-bourgeois values not just the revolution in class relations to which the surrealists remained committed throughout the 1930s, but even more fundamentally, a revolution in family values -- a revolution, in other words, in gender relations. Like the rewriting of Violette's name, this revolution would require not only violence but also a form of writing and thinking that is at once stealing and flying, a surrealist libération de l'esprit. (page 214)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Fascism]
Down Below is as much a work of paranoiac theory as a memoir of Carrington's nervous illness; its paranoia is characterized not only by its unconscious production of symptoms (interpretive delirium, persecution mania) but also by its auto-analysis and its self-conscious ties to surrealist discourse...Indeed, Carrington's narrative of "inner experience" is in dialogue with the writings on paranoia that form a central part of surrealist thinking in the 1930s and again in the mid-1940s...[and] show Carrington in the process of redirecting paranoiac theory toward contemporary surrealist thinking about collective social myths. (page 218)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Madness, Paranoia]
Paranoia was...politically valuable for the way its auto-punitive structure systematically accuses the very ideological forces and "accepted formulas" that Carrington attempts to purge from her system in the opening pages of Down Below. For Crevel, as for Carrington, these accepted formulas, this "thick layer of filth," represented the full force of bourgeois social conditioning on which the spread of fascism throughout Europe was predicated. In this light, the cure for paranoia did not simply mean a reduction of the illness's symptoms...but, more significantly, required a recognition of the subject's self-punishing drive as having a social genesis. (page 228)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Culture, Madness, Paranoia]
Staging paranoia's reflexive play of delusional identifications as an artistic problem, I argue, offered the surrealists a critical system for diagnosing the social forces that threatened to replicate themselves in the age of fascism...Salvador Dali's "Non-Euclidean Psychology of a Photograph," published in Minotaure in 1935, most succinctly illuminates surrealism's "paranoiac" strategy of overlooking an obvious threat in order to highlight broader, more latent evils. (page 233)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Fascism, Madness, Paranoia]
Muller's sense of the "world of reality" to be discredited differed enormously from Dali's: for Muller, what was currently under siege was the "man-made" fabric of European social relations rent apart by fascism, its humanist claims demolished by Hitler's genocidal politics of hatred. The surrealists, though, implicated reality as the set of "learned machinations" that resulted in the West's complicity, conscious or unconscious, with the rise and militarization of fascism. (page 240)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Fascism, Gaslighting]
Breton, in his book Arcanum 17, written in Quebec toward the war's end, and thus after the publication of Down Below, responds to the news of the liberation of Paris with a warning that extends Carrington's crisis in consciousness into the postwar historical moment: the end of the Second World War was not necessarily the end of fascism. We must not, he urges, confuse liberation with liberty, or the remission of an illness with the onset of health. "Recovery," in both Breton's and Carrington's accounts, refers not to the simple relieving of symptoms but to "a constant renewal of energy." As Breton writes, "Liberty is not, like liberation, a struggle against sickness, it is health." (page 242-243)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, The Left, Fascism, Culture]
Neither funny nor especially comic in the generic sense, black humor (l'humour noir) describes the quality of indifference with which certain writers portray acts of injustice, destruction, and evil in their works. this indifference, Breton suggests, is social as well as aesthetic or analytical; it yields a means of perception undistorted by morality or law, and it thus offers, too, a form of intellectual commerce Breton describes as "the mysterious exchange of humorous pleasure between individuals." This pleasure was not necessarily joyful. Indeed in both its prewar and postwar historical contexts, black humor paraded a degree of stylistically and moral recklessness -- a jouissance -- at odds with an era of serious political commitment; yet this exchange of humorous pleasure paradoxically gave voice to unconscious political desires, including forms of anger and unrest otherwise inadmissible to intellectual discourse. (page 244)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Humor]
Whereas many artists and writers of the postwar surrealist group turned their attention toward ethnography and hermeticism in their investigation of alternative social myths, many of the critics, intellectuals, and popular writers who responded to surrealism centered their attention on the poetics of black humor. For Breton -- and, as we will see, for other figures of the postwar era who might also be considered "black humorists," principally Chester Himes, Marcel Duhamel, and Leo Malet -- the concept was far from an aesthetic or literary-historical category alone. Rather, black humor formed a significant part of postwar French intellectual discourse surrounding the question of writing as a political and ethical practice. (page 245)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Humor]
[O]ne of the most significant events in the history [former Surrealist Marcel] Duhamel's Série Noire [was] the publication in 1958 of the first "original" novel commissioned specifically for the series, a crime thriller by the expatriate African American novelist Chester Himes, titled La Reine des pommes (or The Five-Cornered Square) [aka Rage in Harlem]. Independently of any formal affiliation with the movement, Himes's foray into crime fiction achieves what might be called a vernacular surrealism, one that registers the effects of his commerce with Duhamel, insofar as Duhamel established a large part of the material and formal conditions of Himes's transformation into a crime writer. This vernacular surrealism is one of the legacies of the movement's interest in crime, significant less for its popularity than for its implicit response to intellectual conditions in France after the Second World War...

In La Reine des pommes, Himes breaks with the instrumental use of language that characterized both Wright's and, in France, Jean-Paul Sartre's notions of "engaged writing." In its place he develops a violently comic fictional universe to which he later referred in terms of absurdity. Extending linguistic slippage and excess to the level of narrative itself, Himes's crime writing flies doubly in the face of social realism and existentialism by embracing absurdity as both a social condition and a narrative apparatus. At the same time, Himes always stressed that this humor was not a formal invention but something borrowed. That is, what he called "absurdity" was, in the lived experience of black Americans in Harlem, also emphatically real. (page 246)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Humor, Culture, Crime/Noir]
In its abandonment of protest fiction's epistemological and ethical certainty, Himes's writing for the Série Noire reveals a comic affectation consistent with the surrealist notion of l'humour noir, itself a critical intervention into the field of political writing that was hostile to literary and political naturalism. Indeed what Himes's crime writing shares with surrealist thinking of the post-World War II period is its affected indifference to truth and justice, its sympathy with the shared spirit of writers who expunge the expected characteristics of aesthetic or moral value. This helps to explain what Himes meant when he claimed that although he had "no literary relationship with what is called the Surrealist school," and that he "didn't become acquainted with that term until the fifties," nevertheless "it just so happens that in the lives of black people, there are so many absurd situations, made that way by racism, that black life could sometimes be described as surrealistic. The best expression of surrealism by black people, themselves, is probably achieved by blues musicians." (page 247)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Humor, Culture]
Himes's transformation into a "French" writer is characterized not by what his fiction loses in translation but by what it gains: namely, an involvement in French, and particularly surrealist, thinking about modes of writing that frustrate instrumentality through their irretrievable lapses and excesses of meaning. (page 247)
Tags: [Surrealism, Literary/Poetic, Dreams]
The publication of La Reine des pommes in 1958 as an original French novel represents an incarnation of surrealist humour noir insofar as it establishes a continuity between surrealist thinking about language, violence, and revolt, and hard-boiled fiction's stylized abstraction of political and racial experience in the United States. Taking part in a refusal of social realism's presumption of clear vision and a stoic subject, to which Breton's Anthology likewise alludes, Himes's novels seek access to the political and the real only by means of the "dissonant, discordant, always jarring" affect of the noir aesthetic. (page 248)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Humor, Crime/Noir]
[A]s [Maurice] Blanchot asserts, while there may no longer have been a viable surrealist school after the war (at least in France), "a state of mind survives. No one belongs to this movement anymore, and everyone feels he could have been part of it." Has surrealism vanished, he asks? "It is no longer here or there; it is everywhere. It is a ghost, a brilliant obsession. In its turn, as an earned metamorphosis, it has become surreal." (page 250)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism's Promise]
[Leo Malet's] novels maintained their investment in a surrealist intellectual genealogy and Malet continued to reflect on surrealist practices throughout his career, composing new "surrealist" poems as late as 1983. (page 251)
Tags: [Surrealism]
In a 1966 magazine article celebrating the [Serie Noire's] thousandth title, Gilles Deleuze noted that this distance from the classic mystery novel is not only aesthetic or moral but epistemological as well. Abandoning the detective story's Oedipal search for truth, the stories supplant any such "metaphysical or scientific" quests with an economic system of retribution based instead on the exchange of falsehood for falsehood, error for error. There is no metaphysical certainty, no definitive object to compensate for the proliferation of falsehoods: the hyperbolic economy of exchange is, in Deleuze's words, "a process of restitution that permits a society, at the limits of cynicism, to conceal that which it wishes to conceal, to show that which it wishes to show, to deny evidence and to proclaim the unrealistic." Deleuze lauds those novels in Duhamel's series whose formal elements embrace this representation of society "in the fullest power of its falsehood." (page 253)
Tags: [Surrealism, Paranoia, Crime/Noir]
Deleuze's notion of parody refers less to the novels' play on the conventions of the detective story form, however, than to their parodic relation to "the real" itself. He suggests that the novels presuppose the artificiality and even "falsehood" of lived reality, supplanting mimetic representation with the projection of simulacra. (page 254)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Humor, Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion, Realism, Crime/Noir]
Chester Himes's Harlem crime thrillers, and La Reine des pommes in particular, take this parodic ambition to precisely the baroque excesses at which Deleuze hints. Yet in doing so, the novels end up embracing this parody in a very different way, with a complex combination of political anger and a vernacular ear that resonates more with the cultural project of surrealism than with Deleuze's "copy without an original." (page 254)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Humor, Culture, Simulacra/Illusion, Crime/Noir]
Himes's realization that his own social protest novels were themselves entangled in this equilibrium of falsehoods coincides with his abandonment of this form of writing. As he explains in My Life of Absurdity, his turn to a genre in which violence is neither the stuff of tragedy nor perpetually looming as the burden of an ironic fate was itself a protest against the protest novel. Himes writes: "i wanted to break through the barrier that labeled me as a 'protest writer.' I knew the life of an American black needed another image than just the victim of racism." The violence with which Himes populates his detective fiction thus represents a twofold adjustment: first, its multiplication of falsehood within a Harlem teeming with crime and deception gives free rein to the exploration of the "unconscious" desires of Himes's previous novels, which are given no opportunity to distinguish between different kinds of violence...Second, Himes's crime fiction abandons his earlier frustration with the ideological circuit of absurdity and instead embraces it to the extent that these conditions, though oppressive, nevertheless constitute the imaginative fabric of African American life and vernacular culture. Certainly in La Reine des pommes Himes embraces the jokes, dozens, and witticisms, he implicitly condemns in If He Hollers. This double adjustment constitutes Himes's rejection of both Wright's and Sartre's notions of engaged writing in favor of an indulgently disengaged dark humor; removing the responsibility for "real" political action from its presumed place immediately manifest within the text, this humor leaves the question of violent rebellion to simmer in the imagination. (page 260-261)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Humor, Crime/Noir]
Like Himes, Breton argued that writing provided the means for exploring and understanding the forces -- good and evil, and often painful and unconscious -- that structure lived experience. But it was no substitute for political violence, for actual rebellion. Instead, as the surrealist photographer and writer Claude Cahun writes in her 1934 polemic Les Paris son ouverts (The Bets Are Open), the strength of poetic language lies in its resistance to the cognitive certainty presumed by propaganda and protest writing alike: it "keeps its secret" even as it paradoxically "hands over its secret [livre son secret]. (page 263)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution]
[Himes and Duhamel had] a shared set of ideas about writing: resistant to the narrative and cognitive certainty of naturalism, this writing is consistent with the critical aims of postwar surrealism. As I have argued, Duhamel's absorption of surrealist principles into the editorial framework of the Série Noire achieved an extension of surrealism into the public sphere. (page 264)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism's Promise, Crime/Noir]
[Himes's] method, rather than subsuming its political anger and desire within a singular narrative consciousness, a single "private eye," instead multiplies the inconsistencies of vernacular speech and the confusing vicissitudes of American absurdity. Much like Walter Benjamin's notion of how surrealist photography achieves a "salutary estrangement between man and his surroundings," Himes's absurdist universe blinds the "private" eye in order to give instead "free play to the politically educated eye, under whose gaze all intimacies are sacrificed to the illumination of detail." (page 264-265)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Humor, Ambiguity]
What Himes refers to as his own version of surrealism, a vernacular surrealism allied with the blues, thus has less to do with the formal descriptions of surrealist practices found in Breton's manifestoes than with the political legacy of the group in the postwar public domain. This legacy, especially in its infiltration within the "philosophy" of Duhamel's Série Noire, lingered as an insistence on the conflicts and even falsehoods of language, the resistance of writing and its motives to an immediate political use-value...Like Cahun's ideas about surrealist poetry, Himes's black humor contradicts the existentialist faith in African American vernacular forms as means of expression alone, suggesting instead that they "guard their secrets" in order that their political anger, their unconscious, subterranean cachet of revolutionary knowledge and desire, remain open. So too, I contend, does there remain an openness within surrealist discourse more broadly; no longer limited to the active movement, this discourse was distributed throughout postwar intellectual life, and throughout the world, as an intransigent form of political expression as much attuned to the "mysterious exchange of humorous pleasure" as to the objective recognition of social injustice. (page 265)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics, Humor, Crime/Noir]
The ties between surrealism's politics and the problem of terrorist violence briefly became a public issue once more in 2001, in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Recalling the surrealist movement's anti colonial and anti-Western rhetoric, which had been especially visible during the 1920s and 1930s, the prominent French curator Jean Clair excoriated the movement for its resemblance to al-Qaeda. In a newspaper editorial published in December 2001, Clair juxtaposed the destruction of the World Trade Center with Louis Aragon's 1925 rant against the "white buildings" of New York City, suggesting a causal (rather than merely analogical) relationship between fundamentalist terrorism and the interwar European avant-garde. In making this juxtaposition, Clair contends that "the surrealist ideology never stopped hoping for the death of an America it saw as materialist and sterile, and for the triumph of an Orient that served as the repository for the values of the mind." ore than simply a historical coincidence, Clair argues, surrealism's anti-Western and pro-"Oriental" ideology helped "prepare the minds" of European civilization -- yet prepared them not for revolution but for an anti humanism complicit with the forms of totalitarianism and state terror that would follow, from Stalinist purges to the Holocaust.

Clair's polemic was an attack on avant-garde rhetoric, though, rather than a critique of the surrealist movement's actual political thinking, as represented in the many tracts, pamphlets, and speeches the surrealists produced throughout the movement's history. Indeed, Clair's own charge of surrealism's complicity in 9/11 -- a rhetorical gesture par excellence -- is a reaction, he claims, against the ideological stakes of surrealism's own intensified rhetoric, whose insults and violent polemics "are no different from those found in the fiery attacks of the fascist leagues or, on the other side of the political spectrum, those soon to be addressed to the 'mad dogs' in the Moscow trials. They signal an era." Violent rhetoric produces violent action, Clair maintains; and because surrealism spoke, and because its rhetoric thus served as the conduit between its artistic practices and the political sphere, surrealist appeals to violence and to the dissolution of Western humanistic ideals cannot safely be viewed as autonomous artistic utterances. In "seeking to conflate vita contemplativa and vita politica," Clair argues, the movements members become as subject to judgment and condemnation as any member of a political party. (page 268)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Backlash, Fascism, Culture, Terror, Paranoia, Surveillance]
Oscillating between Trotskyite and neo-anarchist political affiliation throughout the 1950s, surrealism's postwar project was oriented toward defending political and intellectual freedom against the military and ideological state apparatuses that worked to suppress it. Thus, although it recalled the anti colonialism of the 120s in its political imperative, by the mid-1950s surrealism's project was not defined in the same terms as its prewar incarnations; rather than seeking to incite revolutionary thought of action through their works, the surrealists instead committed themselves to defending and extending such thought and action as it happened. (page 271)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Fascism]
In refusing the mantle of humanism, surrealism opened itself to the discomfiting possibility that its work would be overshadowed by the allure of terrorist action or of political expediency. Yet as the group's long-standing fascination with crime reveals, the movement was dedicated less to destroying al laws than to thwarting the tendency for experimental thought to become law. The surrealist experiment, then, might be understood as the attempt to mobilize art to "suppress the exploitation of man by man" by causing an insurrection within thought. Herein lies surrealism's essential contribution to twentieth-century thought: not, as Jean Clair claimed, in "preparing the mind" for the atrocities of terrorism and the Holocaust, but in preparing the mind to defend itself against the forms of ideological closure that ensure the continuation of such atrocities. (page 276)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Impact, Everyday Life, Fascism, Terror]