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Some notes on surrealism and organisation

The surrealist movement, a reputedly avant-garde moment, has long been a covert source of tangential commentary on the organisational practices of intimate affinities, on the temporary homology of heterogeneous desiring-energies. After the mid-30s, when a much sought-after rapprochement with the French Communist Party dissolved into enlightening acrimony, the various outernational surrealist groups have had cause to by-pass a more formal manifest approach to organisation and opted instead for loose affiliations, for an ourganisational ethos conducted by practice and the materials of that practice. For the surrealists there has been no ‘organisational question’; instead, there have been practices-of-life that inform the quality of relations-between. From ‘fortuitous encounter’ and the ‘sleeping-fit sessions’ to ‘occultation’ and identity dissolution the surrealists have indirectly, by means of poetic rather than discursive texts, pursued a non-alienated investigation into the ‘structuring power of passion’.


Annie Le Brun: “It’s only the incongruous relation of multiple presences around you that will violate you as you wish”

At the outset there were no pre-sets. Collaboration in common was taken as an apriori, an indicator that the dichotomy of self and group was a bourgeois misnomer. Working together in editing magazines had already become group authored works in non-literary forms (questionnaires, collages); and poetic texts, aided by objective chance, allowed the sum of social knowledges to be appropriated but not possessed by egos. There was always something bigger than the group and its works, something wider and more ventilated than the individual possession of knowledge. It is no surprise, then, that loose affiliations such as these should be bounded by such an intimacy, an intimacy allowed-for by the suspension of ego-defences and a shared quest for the marvellous. This enabled the Parisian group to embark on the ‘sleeping fits’. Whilst not a form of organisation in the strict sense, these collective trance sessions bordering on the group analysis of dreams, are demonstrative of the outer limits of any ourganisational remit: the abreaction of unconscious material in an endeavour to overcome social repression and discover the desires and anxieties of a social life hollowed-out by capitalism. When Louis Aragon spoke of ‘talking with the lights out’ and of “faith in the trance” removing “the impediment of self-censorship which so restrains the mind”, he highlighted that the surrealists were committed to a kind of public self-abolition, to a quality of non-repressed communication that, in involving ‘the intervention of a personal non-self’, gave voice to unconscious dynamics that not only traversed the group but the society of which it was a part.

André Breton: “.. this being must become other for himself, reject himself, condemn himself, abolish… to the profit of others in order to be reconstituted in their unity with him…”

This aspect of ‘non a priori’ relation that extends to the very utterer of the trance (he/she is a stranger to themselves) is played out in the surrealist notion of the ‘fortuitous encounter’. This notion also extends the sense of intimacy that is the supportive prop of the ‘sleeping fit’; an intimacy with a modality of reliance, independent dependence, that Breton offered marked the group itself: “a minimal dependence freely accepted”. The meeting by accident, the encounter with others who are not of your ‘type’, the sudden outbreak of communicativeness between ‘strangers’, has always been self-policed and warded-off. However, the surrealists embraced this sense of random social pleasure and encapsulated it with the phrase ‘unknown guest’. This kind of open and pre-disposed invitation marked the groups boundaries as porous, indeed, it is often difficult – with all the group and inter-group comings and goings and their ‘stellar friendships’ – to talk of a group that is demarcated as a ‘group’: M.Rémy wrote of the London Surrealist group of the 30s “It’s more of a collective desire, not formalised but constantly being formalised.” A perpetual constituting dynamic, befitting the pursuit of desire, becomes a praxis of being-together.

Gellu Naum: “We struggle blinded by transparencies”

The surrealists, then, provide many covert clues to the problem of how to organise becomings, how to maintain ‘open-beings’ as instituting. Once the subject is seen as a rhizomatic terrain, a blurring container of multiple selves, then the old methods of political organisation can be deemed prolific in their failures. This may account for the orientational tensions between the Surrealists and the communist parties (not just in France but also in Czechoslovakia and Romania) whereby a battle between the party of the proletariat that enshrined a working class identity and the surrealists with their inchoate sense of the multi-centred subject took place under the manifest rubric of art -v- politics. The latent ontological dynamic of surrealism, the dissolution of identity as practiced in the poetic dispersal within the general intellect of language, may explain why, at times, the notion of a ‘secret society’ and ‘occultation’ has taken a not uninteresting hold on surrealism. You can’t ‘talk with the lights out’ in the afternoon sun.

Jean Ferry: “It is very difficult for some people to join. Many, who ardently desire to, never succeed. On the other hand, others are in it without even knowing. One is by the way never quite sure of belonging…”

What marks goal-orientated organisations, like narrowly political groupings, is that ‘belonging’ can be conditional upon shared identity. For the surrealists, who, in their quest for new desires and new fabrics of feeling, preferred affective to causative relations, it was a matter of these ‘identities’ being seen as ‘sensitive points’ rather than ‘focal points’. With ‘requital’, and hence active attentiveness to the other, as a principle organising force of group relations, one can always be sure of belonging. The post-war Neon grouping express this quite euphorically: “Here is a meeting of being characterised by the same lines of balance. An exalting friendship at the heart of an elective group which situates itself beyond ideas, beyond the gregarious”. However, just as the haeccity of being creates sound waves from the ‘self’ so too the surrealist groups themselves should be able to mutate, become imperceptible. This was maybe what lay behind the notion of ‘occultation’; a kind of exodus from the repressing representation of a ‘Surrealism’ a la Avida Dollars, a kind of overly demonstratable closure that belies the dissolving of the group-self/self-group in the turbulence of a wider, non-ideologically guaranteed yet unpredictably modifiable, society. The surrealists, occulted, would become the unknown guests.

Georges Bataille: “The one isolated, driven from the pettiness of his person vanishes obscurely into the human community”

The debacle of the defections to the CP (Aragon, Nezval), the Second World War and its massacres and migrations almost completed the occultation of the surrealist movement. A sense of absent comrades reactivated the already present sense of a kind of infra-organisation, akin to Marx’s ‘historic party’ (“this reach beyond the possible is what constitutes the continuity among the human generations” – Camatte), that brought the absent, the excluded and the executed close once more. The sense of poetic receptivity and ‘active attention’ that bonded and emboldened the surrealists, their enlivening interaction with objects and text, acted as a form of emotional transference rather than as a knowledge-bank of interpretation. In the late 60s the Czech group spoke of ‘transmentalism’, which, in words taken from Agamben’s discussion of friendship, is, perhaps, an effect of that “otherness immanent in self-ness” that triggers the surrealist interest in clairvoyancy. Friendships, the multimutual circulation of desiring-energies, are, afterall, a prerequisite to the resuscitation of the ‘structuring power of passion’ as an organising ‘principle’. Mad love, mad revolutionary love, love beyond nature and oedipus, beyond-two, for … ‘active participation in the mutations of matter’ (Paresi).

André Breton: “Still today I am counting on what comes of my own openness, my eagerness to wander in search of everything, which I am confident, keeps me in mysterious communication with other open beings, as if we were suddenly called to assemble”

Whilst the surrealist groups can be seen as self-selecting unelective affinities, or as, in the words of the Coupre group of the late 60s, a ‘non-directive collection of attitudes’, what saves them from a narcissistic hermeticism is that the desiring-energy that animates the groups, their practical pursual of non-goal orientated passions, is eloquently productive of the nuances, the haeccities, that establish minor differences, delicacies, as propulsions for collective becoming. Perhaps, what underpins the surrealist project is the futurity of Fourier and his phalanstries. Here following your inclinations becomes a matter of self-organising according to the dynamics and modulations of the material-prop of the passions. The refraction of such desires through the tempered agency of those of others who are co-organised becomes a means of grounding the possible of these desires socially. Such tangibilities can aid the push to sensually appropriate created relation. The surreal is the pursuit of more reality…

July 2005

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