That Was Then This Is Now Or Then Again

Conservatives look back. Progressives look forward. That’s how it used to be. These days I don’t know where to look. In this untimely blog post I think even more disjointedly than usual about the politics of time, magick and Surrealism.

1. Gimme That Old Time Religion

There’s a default assumption among most of the occultists in my circle that older is better and ancient is best of all.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the notions I’m talking about: the quest for ancient magickal roots, whether in pre-dynastic Egypt and/or pre-patriarchal villages and/or neolithic “shamanism”.

Of course, being an unbearable smartarse, I generally can’t resist the temptation to point out that there is zero actual evidence to support any of these claims about ancient lineages. At best there are some highly speculative modern interpretations of what prehistoric rock art or monuments might have signified. Interpretations that reveal far more about modern archaeologists’ preoccupations than they ever could about what really went on in ancient peoples’ heads.

Prehistoric art at Pech Merle. I don’t know what it means, and neither do you.

The bald fact is that we don’t know why people made these things, or what they meant, or whether their societies actually had magick or shamans at all.

At some point in the inevitably ensuing argument someone will usually say that we do know about this stuff because we know that “tribal” or “natural” or “indigenous” or even (god help us) “primitive” societies today have them. And then I will get really, really angry because the equation of people living today with prehistoric people is just racist bullshit, so don’t get me started. (Ok, I got started already. This is the topic of my essay on Anthropomancy, which you can download from here.)

The underlying assumption is that if a tradition is really, really old, that means it’s really, really true. This assumption often comes wrapped in a conspiracy theory: the “dangerous” truth in question got suppressed by the forces of patriarchy and/or Rome and/or Christianity and/or <insert historical villain here>, but it survived anyway, passed down as a precious secret through an unbroken lineage of enlightened or wise or magickal keepers of the flame, just because it’s so damned true.

(I’m deliberately making all of this a bit more simplistic and cartoonish than it usually sounds when people are rehearsing this narrative for real. But only a bit.)

Ironically, the use of ancientness is an alibi for truth is itself pretty ancient. Neoplatonists in late antiquity used to dismiss the new religion of Christianity as a jumped-up parvenu that simply couldn’t be taken seriously, just because Plato was so much older. Christians countered this by claiming that the truths of Christianity had originally been revealed to Moses, who was older than Plato so ner ner na ner ner. Sometimes Platonists would claim that Plato had got his philosophy from even older sources, such as Zoroaster or Thoth/Hermes. (There’s an entertainingly nerdy outline of all this in the first few episodes of SHWEP.) The point is, older was better.

For some magickal practitioners, origin myths are enabling myths. Obviously, I don’t have a beef with mythopoeia. If origin myths are your thing, have at it. Just don’t take them for sociological or historical facts.

2. Surrealism Is A Historical Invention

Everyone knows that Surrealism started in the early 20th century. There is no Surrealist origin myth in the same way that there are magickal origin myths.

There are quests for precursors, of course, but those usually don’t go back more than a few hundred years. The oldest precursors mentioned in the famous list in the 1924 Surrealist manifesto are Dante and Shakespeare, and even they come with huge caveats.

Jarry is Surrealist in absinthe.

But precursors are not origins, and when Surrealism looks for precursors, it does so as part of a deliberate and (more or less) self-conscious project to invent a tradition. This is clearly explained in an excellent post on “Surrealism And Tradition” on the Swedish Surrealist blog Icecrawler/Heelwalker:

A theme running through the surrealist manifestoes, which is not their main point but nevertheless very significant, is the retrospective invention of a surrealist tradition. This means laying bare a line of radical poetic thought culminating in surrealism itself. In contrast with the standard image of an avantgarde modernist movement wanting to make tabula rasa with tradition and invent itself as something absolutely new, surrealism has always and everywhere worked with finding precursors to socialise with, constructing the line, globally as well as locally, leading up to surrealism.

It is this very invention, the surrealist tradition, that Jean Schuster radically misunderstood when he proclaimed the dissolution of the French surrealist group and thought he was able to dissolve historical surrealism as such in 1969. Schuster was talking about the distinction between historical surrealism and timeless surrealism […]. What he didn’t understand is that timeless surrealism, all these elements to a radical poetic practice from all times and all societies, didn’t exist in an independent way but formed a line only to the extent that this was tied together in historical surrealism. It was historical surrealism that was able to identify and connect such elements of timeless surrealism, and it was historical surrealism’s search for sources of inspiration and for accomplices beyond time and space that made it meaningful to point out the quality of timeless surrealism in these.

For Surrealism, it’s the future that counts. Her de Vries and Laurens Vancrevel make this point forcefully in their introduction to 2014’s What Will Be, in an explicit rebuke to Schuster:

When the group in Paris dissolved itself in 1969, the surrealist adventure was not ended. On the contrary: an even stronger interaction between the surrealists, spread over many countries and languages, has arisen. The famous formula of the manifesto “Rupture inaugurale” dated 1947: Surrealism is what will be, seems to be now its leading principle.

And it’s worth going back to “Rupture inaugurale” itself, since it further clarifies that Surrealist mythopoeia is always oriented towards the future rather than the past:

The hour has come to promote a new myth, one that will carry man forward a stage further towards his ultimate destination.

This undertaking is specifically that of surrealism. It is its great rendezvous with History.

It is in the nature of dream and revolution to agree, not to exclude each other. To dream the revolution is not to renounce it but to pursue it doubly and without mental restrictions.

To avert the unliveable is not to flee life but to throw oneself into it totally and irrevocably.


Kapow! Stick that in your timeless pipe and smoke it.

3. The Archaeology Of Hope

It was in this spirit of “what will be” that I devised the international Surrealist game The Archaeology Of Hope.

The idea of the game was to invent, create and finally exhibit a collection of objects brought back from the future – a better, brighter, freer future. It’s no coincidence that I came up with the idea in winter 2016, just a few weeks after the inauguration of President Trump.

In the initial invitation to participants, I explained the underlying idea:

We live with a latent brighter future that is not – yet – but that must come into being, must become manifest. Its signs and wonders are already here, streaming backwards towards us; the task of Surrealism is to both discover and invent them. Surrealism is nothing less than an archaeology of the not-yet.

(The game and its results are fully documented in a publication of the same name that you can download for free from here.)

The notion of the “not-yet” in relation to hope was inspired by Ernst Bloch, and specifically by the Surrealist reading of Bloch provided by Michael Löwy in the 2010 publication Hydrolith:

Bloch’s philosophy of hope is above all a theory of the Not-Yet-Being, in its various manifestations: the Not-Yet-Conscious of the human being, the Not-Yet-Become of history, the Not-Yet-Manifest in the world. In his research on the anticipatory workings of the human spirit, dreams occupy an important place, from their most everyday form – the daydream – to the “forward dream” inspired by wishful images.

His greatest work, The Principle of Hope, is an immense and fascinating journey through the past, in search of images of desire and landscapes of hope, scattered among the many varieties of utopia – social, medical, architectural, technical, philosophical, religious, geographical, musical and artistic.

What is at stake in this very specific, and typically Romantic, modality of the dialectic between the past and the future is the discovery of the future in the aspirations of the past – in the form of an unfulfilled promise: “The rigid divisions between future and past thus themselves collapse, unbecome future becomes visible in the past, avenged and inherited, mediated and fulfilled past in the future.” The point is not to sink into a dreamy and melancholic contemplation of the past, but to make it a living source of revolutionary action, of a praxis oriented towards the achievement of utopia.

This introduces another layer of complexity to the relationship between past and future in the form of the dialectic between the two. The past contains the seeds of the future – seeds that yearn to germinate, seeds that we can find and nurture.

Bloch’s vision of this historical dialectic bears obvious similarities with Walter Benjamin. Indeed, Löwy positions Bloch, Benjamin and Breton alike in a current that he calls Romantic Marxism. In his book Morning Star, Löwy describes Romantic Marxism as

the subterranean current running through the twentieth century, beneath the immense blockades constructed by orthodoxy. [Romantic Marxism is] a kind of thought which is fascinated by certain cultural forms of the precapitalist past and which rejects the cold, abstract rationality of modern industrial civilisation – but which changes that nostalgia into a force in the battle for the revolutionary transformation of the present.

It never occurred to me at the time, but as I look back now at this Blochian inspiration for The Archaeology Of Hope, I’m struck by three points:

  1. “The subterranean current running […] beneath the immense blockades constructed by orthodoxy […] a kind of thought which is fascinated by certain cultural forms of the precapitalist past and which rejects the cold, abstract rationality of modern industrial civilisation” doesn’t sound a million miles away from the “ancient current” notions of magick I complained about above.
  2. My origin-myth-loving occultist friends do not on the whole look favourably on my dialectical-materialist tendencies, to put it mildly. This has always been baffling to me, because dialectics is a theory of transformation, and transformation is also supposed to be the heart of magick. What’s more, as any fule no, both Breton and Marx took their inspiration with regard to dialectics straight from Hegel. And there’s more than a suggestion that Hegel in turn took his inspiration straight from the Western esoteric tradition, especially kabbalah. This case is made at length in Glenn Alexander Magee’s Hegel And The Hermetic Tradition, a book I probably need to reread at this point in my thinking. And by the way, if Magee is correct, then this also explains (1).
  3. If the engine of hope is a dialectic between the past and the future, then that leaves us with a rather obvious question: what about the present?

4. Now

They always try to portray us as desperate individuals, on the grounds that we act, we build, we attack without hope. Hope. Now there’s at least one disease this civilisation has not infected us with. We’re not despairing for all that. No one has ever acted out of hope. Hope is a form of waiting, with the refusal to see what is there, with the fear of breaking into the present – in short, with the fear of living. To hope is to declare oneself in advance to be without any hold on that from which something is expected nonetheless. It’s to remove oneself from the process so as to avoid any connection with its outcome. It’s wanting things to be different without embracing the means for this to come about. It’s a kind of cowardice. […] Hope, that very slight but constant impetus toward tomorrow that is communicated to us day by day, is the best agent of the maintenance of order. We’re daily informed of problems that we can do nothing about, but to which there will surely be solutions tomorrow. The whole oppressive feeling of powerlessness that this social organisation cultivates in everyone is only an immense pedagogy of waiting. It’s an avoidance of now. But there isn’t, there’s never been, and there never will be anything but now. And even if the past can act upon the now, this is because it has itself never been anything but a now. Just as our tomorrow will be. […] A mind that thinks in terms of the future is incapable of acting in the present. It doesn’t seek transformation; it avoids it. The current disaster is like a monstrous accumulation of all the deferrals of the past, to which are added those of each day and each moment, in a continuous time slide. But life is always decided now, and now, and now.
– The Invisible Committee, 2017

I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act.
– Greta Thunberg, 2019

5. Sunlit Uplands

Conservatives look back. Progressives look forward. That’s how it used to be, for a while at least. These days the rhetoric of hope is being recolonised by the hard right, a bullish optimism fuelled by fascistic energy, while so-called progressives weep for the good old days of the Democrats and the EU. Trumpist or Democrat, Brexiteer or Remainer, it’s all just a spectacular non-debate about how best to keep capitalism going.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Obama and Trump both amount to the same thing, or that Boris Johnson isn’t a worse disaster than many of the alternatives. One of the two sides in this ideological war is most definitely worse than the other, scarily so.

But it’s not a question of waiting around hoping that the least worst option is going to win. We don’t have the time.

If [Bloch’s] discourse of hope sometimes veers towards excessive optimism, we should remember that he very explicitly criticises what he calls “that banal, automatic progress-optimism”. Arguing that this false optimism has a dangerous tendency to become a new opium of the people, he even thinks that “a dash of pessimism would be preferable to the banal, automatic belief in progress as such. Because at least pessimism with a realistic perspective is not so helplessly surprised by mistakes and catastrophes.” Consequently he insists on the “objective unguaranteedness” of utopian hope.
– Michael Löwy

6. Final Caveat: The Society For Cutting Up Then

By the way, I’m not saying that all magicians are origin-hounds, or that Surrealism has a monopoly on the future. In particular, I gratefully acknowledge that there’s a strand of magick that’s no less future-oriented than Surrealism. And what’s more, it’s one that owes an explicit debt to Surrealism, especially automatism and the cut-up.

I’m talking of course about the countercultural strand that runs from Burroughs and Gysin through Academy 23 to Thee Temple Ov Psychic Youth and various manifestations of chaos magick.

Genesis P-Orridge performing with Throbbing Gristle in 2009.

But I’m not going to attempt to sum up that particular strand of magick in a few paragraphs in a single blog post. What am I, an idiot? Don’t answer that.

The Archaeology Of Hope catalogue cover design by Janice Hathaway
Photograph of Genesis P-Orridge by Seth Tisue, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0
All other images used in this blog post are in the public domain

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