A response to Alain Joubert’s “Cartes sur table: adresse aux surréalistes”, the opening essay in What Will Be

Cover design copyright of Brumes Blondes

Alain Joubert thinks that Surrealism is at risk of falling into obsolescence. He may or may not be right about that. In this time of global revolt and unprecedented repression, is Surrealism as a movement sufficiently informed, equipped and strategised to be proactive on the ground? Can we, for example, negotiate our ways safely and effectively through the heavily surveilled and “militarised” zone of the electronic public sphere, on which many of us are now almost wholly reliant for communication with each other and the wider world? Do we even understand the new forms of organisation, autonomy and activism that are emerging, much less know whether or how to use them? Is there a danger that we’ll just carry on exhibiting, Lulu-publishing and blogging away in a version of Surrealism-as-usual until the jet stream finally washes us all out to sea?

The bleak little outburst above is mine, though, not Joubert’s. His essay rests on the bold premise that Surrealism today needs to take some radical action to get its house in order. But his premise is presented by fiat, not argument. The only “evidence” he offers to back it up is a remark made by André Breton to Octavio Paz in 1964: “I doubt that the world that is beginning can be defined as either affirmation or negation: we are entering a neutral zone, and the Surrealist revolt will have to express itself in forms that are neither negation nor affirmation. We are beyond condemnation versus approval.” I cede to no one in my admiration of Breton, but if one is making an argument that the whole Surrealist movement needs to change direction, a single quote from the great man does not quite seem enough to carry it off.

From this starting point Joubert leaps somewhat unexpectedly to Karl Popper, citing his distinction between “closed” societies, which are “magical and tribal”, and “open” societies, which are those in which “individuals are faced with personal decisions.” Hitherto, says Joubert, Surrealist groups have operated as closed societies, enclaves from which forays or guerrilla-style raids can occasionally be made into the outside world. But now, he says, Surrealism should embrace the model of the open society, which is more in accordance with Breton’s statement of 1964. He’s not, he says nicely, suggesting that existing groups should be excluded from the movement. But it’s simply more appropriate these days for the International Surrealist Movement (his capitals) to operate as a “diaspora” of free individuals. This way of operating will also strengthen the movement, because it will lead to a pluralism and proliferation of Surrealist discoveries, a whole host of new, complementary and non-identitarian truths.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think any of Joubert’s argument makes a lick of sense, and not just because of my instinctive incredulity that any Surrealist would really suggest abandoning magic in favour of individualism. For starters, the argument is flagrantly self-contradictory. We’re supposed to be moving beyond negation and affirmation, and yet we somehow have to choose between two kinds of “society” presented as binary opposites – to say yes to one and no to the other. Um, pardon?

And if we take at face value these two “societies” (I don’t know enough about Popper to be able to take them any other way), then it strikes me that a Surrealist group encompasses both of them at once: it is simultaneously tribal and individualist; it is simultaneously about magic and freedom; it is, in fact, a perpetually unfolding dialectic between those two things. That’s what gives a Surrealist group its distinctive character, distinguishing it from a collaborative network on the one hand and a brainwashed cult on the other. The peculiar experience of being in a Surrealist group seems to be phenomenologically difficult for those who have never had it to understand; it’s the thing academic surrealismologists most often get most hopelessly wrong. (I encountered another in a long line of examples at Tate Britain’s recent launch event for On The Thirteenth Stroke Of Midnight, when the otherwise very sympathetic and certainly well-intentioned Michel Rémy revealed a startling incomprehension that a Surrealist group might be anything other than just a bunch of Surrealists who live in the same geographical area and collaborate with each other every now and again.) But it’s weird, and even a bit worrying, to encounter that misunderstanding from within the movement.

Tribalism and individualism, magic and personal decision-making, these are not mutually exclusive, and the Surrealist group is the arena par excellence for bringing them all into play: what is closed is also already open. Perhaps we might try thinking about some of these questions not in terms of Popperian open or closed societies, but rather by considering the Surrealist group as an open system in a Prigoginian sense: exchanging energy and information with its environment, seething with disorder and process, subject to feedback loops and non-linear fluctuation patterns that at points of high intensity can erupt, change and transform into new shapes and even whole new systems.

Maybe the aspects of Surrealism’s socio-political environment to which I pointed in my opening paragraph are pushing Surrealist groups towards a Prigoginian “bifurcation point” when the movement will either disintegrate or be utterly transfigured into something new. In that case, Joubert will have been right that Surrealism today is at a watershed. But I see no convincing case so far to abandon group organisation in the face of it. When push comes to shove, I’ll stand with my tribe, individually and magically.

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