Surrealpolitik: The Book Launch
By John Schoneboom
[This is a transcript of the talk I gave at the online book launch event sponsored by the International Society for the Study of Surrealism on April 16, 2023.]
Thanks so much to everyone for coming. Instead of doing a reading, I thought I'd give a kind of overview of the book, which by the way is not an academic book. It's for normal people. It came out of work I did for my PhD but I modified it by putting all the fun stuff back in, the stuff that wasn't suitable for academia. With no further ado, here we go.
Basically, the book argues first that we have a problem, and then suggests a way of addressing it. The problem is an increasingly authoritarian and repressive national security state that calls the badly abused F-word to mind. Fascism. And by the way this book deals heavily in badly abused and difficult-to-define words like fascism, terrorism, and surrealism. I think we lose more than we gain by getting overly technical about our definitions so I tend to use them as loosely as possible without becoming meaningless.
The book also talks a lot about the symbolic order, and I think I'm borrowing that phrase from Jacques Lacan by way of Mark Fisher. The symbolic order can be thought of as the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as a culture, stories that tend to use words like liberty and democracy and rights. And another part of the problem of encroaching repressive authoritarianism -- you see how hard I'm trying to avoid the F word -- is this puzzle of how the symbolic order remains so resilient despite so many structural characteristics of our society that are blatantly antithetical to those values we say we have.
I think the symbolic order is almost impervious to facts and arguments because it's ultimately not based on a rational calculation. It's deeper, we're raised with it, so it's more of an indoctrination. So rational persuasion is unlikely to shift anyone's perceptions. It's going to have to be something more like waking up from a dream. The book proposes that a surrealist mode of inquiry, drawing from the ethos, fascinations, and techniques of historical Surrealism, provides a playful yet powerful analytical framework for poking and prodding around this set of circumstances.
So maybe before we talk about why Surrealism gives us such a good response, a few words about the realism it's responding to. Consider realpolitik and capitalist realism. Both of these concepts revolve around the idea of hard-nosed pragmatism and being ultra-realistic. "No nonsense, this is the way it is, we know reality, we're the adults in the room." Capitalist realism is the money and realpolitik is the muscle. Capitalist realism says everything should be run as a business, and realpolitik says we need to sacrifice liberty for security. Never mind if we kill democracy, poison the environment, and blow up the planet. The idea is that there are no real alternatives. This is why, as the saying goes, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
My book is in part a response to Mark Fisher's book Capitalist Realism, where he talks about the resilience of this system, its uncanny ability to defeat or co-opt all challenges, to the point where even anti-capitalism itself can be absorbed and commodified. The key quote for me is:
"Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism's ostensible 'realism' turns out to be nothing of the sort."
So now we're getting somewhere. If the task is to take the real out of realism, to reveal these claims to realism as a sham, that's literally a job surrealism was made for. Here's another quote. This one from André Breton in Arcanum 17:
"How long will we have to wait for a brand new laboratory where established ideas, no matter which, beginning with the most elementary ones, the ones most hastily exonerated, will be accepted only for purposes of study, contingent on an examination from top to bottom and by definition free from all preconceptions?"
This is the stuff. This is what it's about. This is about breaking free of our assumptions, our unconscious biases, our presumed limitations, our cultural conditioning, and seeing the world with fresh eyes. Breaking out of our cages. Examining everything critically. Reframing our perceptions. That's the heart of what a surrealist mode of inquiry is, that kind of gets it in one.
But we can unpack it a little bit and I've broken it out into five essential elements from Surrealism and tailored them to thinking about the national security state or this problem of a growing quasi-fascism:
- Dreams and the Unconscious
- Spectacular Crime
- Black Humor
They all overlap and intermingle and support each other, but let's start in with anti-fascism, which is at the core of the surrealist ethos and is more or less what my book is ultimately about.
I just love this picture. It says so much. Look at all that equipment, no doubt procured on anti-terror grounds. Who is the real target of the security state? Is this a picture of a healthy society?
Some people have seen this coming for a long time. Here's Jim Garrison, speaking in 1967 after his experience with the CIA while investigating the assassination of John F Kennedy: "I'm afraid that fascism will come to America in the name of national security."
Are we really worried about some new form of fascism on the rise or is this just hyperbole? That's a good question and people can have different views but maybe the point is that it's clearly worth asking. Let's just take a quick look at some major cultural characteristics. My framework is a bit US-centric but most of it applies equally well to the UK and the rest of its sphere of influence.
Total surveillance. We know for example from the Edward Snowden revelations that literally everything we do online is watched, collected, and stored by the NSA, our physical movements are tracked, our desires are analyzed, there's all sorts of video and satellite surveillance, etc.
Indefinite detention. That's the sort of completely insane practice whereby a person is grabbed, declared an enemy combatant, and thrown into a prison forever without ever being charged with a crime, without ever being given a reason, never mind evidence of anything. There was a bit of a fuss for a minute about that being illegal so in 2012 the right to do it was signed into law in the US, and it explicitly includes US citizens, constitution be damned.
By the same law, by the same unaccountable executive say-so, anyone declared an enemy combatant can also simply be killed. You don't have to be charged with a crime, no reason needs to be given, nobody needs to show any evidence of anything. You go on the list and you're killed. Boom. Again, US citizens are included as potential victims.
Torture. "We tortured some folks," as President Obama famously said. There are laws against it, but they have loopholes that allow you to kidnap people and send them to places where the laws don't apply. It's called extraordinary rendition. Torturing people is part of our culture. We know about it thanks to whistleblowers.
Censorship and Propaganda. We're swimming in it. These are the tools of narrative management, symbolic order maintenance, or what I recently heard called spectacular epistemology, the notion that narrative equals truth. These are primary methods of establishing the boundaries between permitted and tabooed thought. I will have a bit more to say about this later on.
Anti-Terrorism laws used against protesters, used to suppress dissent. This is common. It is the usual use of anti-terrorism laws. The American Civil Liberties Union concluded for example that there was no evidence the PATRIOT Act had done anything against terrorists but plenty of evidence it was routinely used to violate the rights of innocent people including environmental activists and peaceful advocacy groups. The FBI once used a terrorism law to infiltrate a vegan potluck dinner. True story. Not joking.
How much of this stuff is too much? What would have to happen before people would say hey, we made a wrong turn somewhere, let's not go this way? Seems we can pile on any number of facts and it makes little difference. Some of us grumble about it but overall the symbolic order survives all of this, maybe bruised, maybe tarnished, but still standing. But the process does create tensions under the surface, and the political and artistic challenge in a surrealist mode of inquiry is not to argue or persuade but to shift the framework of perception somehow maybe by working those tensions to a tipping point. I think one of the reasons for the resilience of the symbolic order is that we continually repair it when it ruptures, and we do that with a kind of dreamwork. Which brings us to the next signature element of the surrealist mode of inquiry.
Dreams. We need to go deeper. The surrealists were of course interested in dreams and the ways the unconscious influences our waking life and vice versa. This slide is from the movie Inception where Leonardo DiCaprio is able to enter people's dreams and affect their lives.
"Well dreams, they feel real while we're in them, right? It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange. Let me ask you a question. You never really remember the beginning of a dream, do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what's going on. So how did we end up here?"
How indeed. I think that quote is apt for our purposes here because, apart from wondering how we got here, we're trying to get to that feeling upon waking that what we've been experiencing in our culture wasn't normal at all, it was actually very strange.
I'm rolling a few ideas together under this rubric of dreams. The first level of this is trying to maintain awareness of all the ways our realities are to some degree projections of what we've been conditioned to expect to see, because of things like confirmation bias, inattentional blindness, just socialization, and what Herbert Marcuse called the absorption of ideology into reality. As one neuroscientist put it, you never, ever see reality. That's kind of base level generalized human stuff.
Then there's this idea of the fragility of dream narrative, the discontinuous nature of dreams. We're one place, then we're in another. We don't know how we got there, but we don't mind because we don't wonder. We might be hanging with our grandmother who died twenty years go. Doesn't faze us at all. The dream reality contains all these jarring elements but we do dreamwork to keep it all going, constant repair jobs, we ignore, we adjust, we accept. As I mentioned just before, I think this is the kind of thing we sort of do for the symbolic order when it ruptures. Somewhere, maybe unconsciously, we repair it or ignore it or create a kind of regenerative amnesiac narrative, whatever it takes to protect this comforting familiar thing. But also, just as dream reality is infinitely plastic, sustains impossible contradictions, and is perpetually renegotiable, so is the national security state itself.
In the hall of mirrors that is intelligence agencies, terrorism, and counter-terrorism, landscapes shift suddenly, enemies become allies, the groups we fight against in one place fight with us in another, terror attacks blamed on leftist groups were really done by NATO-sponsored right-wing paramilitaries. If it were merely shifting alliances of convenience according to the exigencies of the geopolitical moment, that would be ordinary realpolitik. But when the US military admits that a notorious terrorist was literally a fictional character, and then he continues to be in the news anyway, that is when realpolitik becomes surrealpolitik. And yes that really happened.
I also include propaganda under this rubric of dreams because it explicitly shapes our collective unconscious, the whole cultural framework of perception. Also, propaganda grew up along with surrealism in the 1920s, when Walter Lipmann and Edward Bernays both wrote their influential works on propaganda. The propaganda theorists were almost as concerned with the unconscious as the surrealists were. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and he made some pretty Freudian references in his writings on propaganda, like the need to "regiment the public mind." I think it's important to realize that propaganda isn't just something that happens to other people, something that happens to morons. It's ubiquitous. We all breathe it. It's essential to the symbolic order that we're so concerned with analyzing.
If propaganda is positive reinforcement of an official narrative, it works hand in glove with censorship to protect the narrative from dissenting competitors. How a society treats dissent is perhaps the most vital indicator of the kind of society it is. One of the oldest tricks in the book is to push dissent out of bounds, to taboo it, to marginalize and delegitimize the dissenters. In the old Soviet Union they'd call them mad and put them in asylums like the Serbsky Institute. We do something similar here, and we've seen some recent examples of dissent being called crazy conspiracy theory or Russian disinformation and being banned from social media, even when what has been asserted is true. That's quite a strong trend and I think it's one of the more alarming things going on, and one of the most telling.
This segues nicely into the next signature element of the surrealist mode of inquiry, paranoia. Another rich area with different layers to it. Many of you are probably familiar with the work of Jonathan Eburne, whose book Surrealism and the Art of Crime describes the sort of noir period of 1930s surrealism and their fascination with paranoia and spectacular crime, which we'll get to next. I think at the heart of it is this idea of the overlap between the mechanisms of delusion and ordinary socialization, the various interesting problems associated with telling the sane from the insane, and just the fact that we live in extremely paranoid times. I like to say there's two kinds of conspiracy theories, the ones we all laugh at and the ones we don't because they're our front page news stories. In any case, a surrealist mode of inquiry seeks to "discredit the world of reality" (in the words of Salvador Dali) by examining it for signs of delusion. Surrealism sort of acts as reality's psychotherapist.
Moving along, there's clearly a surrealist interest in Spectacular Crime. Here we have Breton's famous quote, and the surrealist movement became fascinated with a few notorious murderers, like the Papin Sisters who were live-in maids who killed and mutilated their employers. The idea of spectacular crime has obvious current relevance to terrorism and the national security state.
Baudrillard -- we can call him a postmodernist but I like to think of him as a post-surrealist -- speaks of the perfect crime being the murder of reality, the disappearance of illusion into reality.
And I think we've seen some support for his idea in the real world, in our little glimpses into the ruptures of the symbolic order as represented in this small sampling of headlines. This is the kind of thing Michael Taussig also has in mind when he speaks of "epistemic murk" and the "fiction of the real." It's a paranoid, surrealist wonderland with lots of dreamlike inconsistencies ready for potential exploitation.
Our fifth and final signature element of a surrealist mode of inquiry is black humor. I mean, if nothing else, a bit of humor makes all of this stuff easier to take, and what kind of humor is it going to be if not black? And if there was any doubt that a dark sense of humor is a hallmark of surrealism, André Breton's Anthology of Black Humour pretty much lays it to rest. But it's a very useful form of humor, a way of exploiting incongruities, highlighting absurdities, speaking the unspoken, acknowledging the tabooed, multiplying uncertainties, and disturbing meaning frameworks.
I would note the influence on Breton of Jacques Vaché's concept of "Umour" as a "sensation of the pointlessness of everything" as well as a weapon of resistance against the "debraining" machinery of the official symbolic order, debraining being a concept he borrowed from Alfred Jarry.
Good old George Orwell needs a place in all this, and his comment "Every joke is a tiny revolution" is I think particularly true of black humor.
I'll wrap up this bit on humor with an observation by our old friend Baudrillard, who wrote:
"Say: This is real, the world is real, the real exists -- no one laughs. Say: This is a simulacrum, you are merely a simulacrum, this war is a simulacrum -- everyone bursts out laughing... You can imagine a culture where everyone laughs spontaneously when someone says: 'This is true', 'This is real'."
I think that would be a good aim of a surrealist mode of inquiry, to inspire exactly that sort of spontaneous laughter, say next time they tell us why we need to go to war.
Just to wrap up, I'd say the goal of a surrealist mode of inquiry is not to argue or persuade or tell anyone what to think about anything, but to promote an awareness of the contingent and potentially delusional nature of what we take to be hard reality, of course to be critically skeptical, particularly of the realism claims of the national security state, but to look inward as well as outward, and ultimately to arouse feelings of revolt and foster a mental state that is conducive to change towards a better matching of nominal values to actual practices.