Bite Notes To Cairo

Every once in a while, the international Surrealist movement is convulsed by a massive internal punch-up. Now is one of those onces.

A huge fight has broken out about an exhibition being planned in Cairo and Saint-Cirque-Lapopie early next year.

Everyone’s biting, yelling and throwing things. And writing emails. So many emails. My Inbox is full of them. What started out a few months ago as a trickle of tentative “what do you make of this?” messages has suddenly turned into a Severn Bore of declarations and denunciations.

Truth to tell, I don’t have any strong opinions about the exhibition. I was invited to participate, but I decided I didn’t have any material worth sending. So I passed over the invitation and just got on with other stuff and left it at that.

I haven’t followed the ins and outs of the exhibition plans. I haven’t kept track of who’s furious with whom about what. To be frank, an Inbox full of pain and anger does not make me want to find out more at this point.

So I don’t have anything to say about the rights and wrongs of this particular row. But I do have something to say about Surrealist rows in general.

Freud tells us that dreams have two kinds of content. There’s manifest content, which is the surface-level image or storyline: I dreamed my purse was full of pickled gherkins. And then there’s latent content, which comprises all the unconscious meanings and associations. (It doesn’t take a Sigmund to guess what my pickled gherkins might mean.)

I think much the same can be said of rows among Surrealists. There’s the manifest content, which is the topic of the row – in this case, the politics of a particular exhibition. There’s also the latent content, which comprises all the unconscious associations, identifications and intersubjective dynamics that get unleashed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the manifest topics of our rows are unimportant. I’m definitely not saying that the topic of this row is unimportant. A lot of my friends seem to think it’s earth-shatteringly important, and I’m in no position to disagree, precisely because I haven’t kept up with it.

All I’m saying is that the latent content of our rows is also important, and we need to pay better attention to it. If we find ourselves getting furiously angry, or wildly exhilarated, or hopelessly crushed, or even just plain apathetic, it’s worth enquiring within and between ourselves to ask why.

Not because strong (or weak) feelings are bad (or good) per se, but because their latent content can tell us something revealing about ourselves, our comrades and our movement as a whole. Just as the latent content of a dream tells you something revealing about yourself and your relationships.

In the case of the ongoing Cairo row, for example, there may be unconscious intergenerational currents worth bringing to the surface. Angry parents (mostly fathers) spanking impertinent children. Upstart children (mostly sons) spanking fuddy-duddy parents. Probably some other kinds of spanking as well and yes, that is an innuendo.

Perhaps none of it has a bearing on the row’s manifest content. But doesn’t it tell us something about the Surrealist movement in general?

Doesn’t it give us pause for thought and reflection?

Years ago, I wrote a text about Surrealist rows and their unconscious dynamics. To say it went down badly is to put it mildly. Maybe it hit too raw a nerve. Maybe I just didn’t make a good case for it. Or maybe some readers took umbrage at the title.

Be that as it may, I’ve reproduced that text below. Not to say “I told you so” (ok, maybe a little bit to say “I told you so”, it’s always a fun thing to say). But because I want to encourage all of us (myself included) to be a bit more self-reflexive. Even in the heat of internal battle.

Surrealism is supposed to be about (among other things) sublating the division between conscious and unconscious.

Let’s do that with our own unconscious, at least.

In Praise Of Infighting

From the inception of the movement to the present day, Surrealists have been devoting time, energy, ingenuity and material resources to hating each other’ guts. We have a glorious history of splits, infighting, self-destruction, cannibalism and general fuck-uppery. When we fall out with each other it is rarely a case of politely agreeing to disagree. We spit, we scratch, we scream, punch and kick, tear at each others’ veins, banish each other to outer darkness, drag each other through the shit, and every fight is always to the death.

The attitude of many Surrealists today seem to be that this kind of infighting is a bad thing, at best unnecessary, at worst potentially fatal to the movement as a whole. The same plaintive cries go up at every fight, not just from the appalled bystanders but also, as often as not, from the protagonists of the infighting themselves. Why do Surrealists fight so viciously, and so often? Shouldn’t we be fighting our enemies instead of each other? Why can’t we be more united? Aren’t we all struggling for the same goal?

I’m not interested at this point in the rights and wrongs of particular splits and fights, including those that I’ve played a role in myself. I’m also not very interested in arguments to the effect that open disagreement and/or free expressions of anger within the movement are ‘healthy’, because the imperative to psychological or emotional health seems is something of which Surrealists should be highly suspicious at best. Instead I want to take a step back and to reflect on some possible alternative ways to think about Surrealist infighting.

To start with the idea that we shouldn’t fight because we’re all ultimately struggling for the same goal: what, then, is the goal of the Surrealist movement? The pat reply to this question is usually: to change life and transform the world. That famous Bretonian watchword uniting Rimbaud and Marx sums up exactly how and why Surrealists do not, in fact, share a common goal. The Surrealist movement, as we all so fond of repeating, is neither an art movement (because we regard the social revolution as a burning Surrealist necessity) nor a political movement (the annihilation of one’s being into a diamond which is no more the soul of ice than of fire is hardly a comprehensible political demand). Our insistence on the simultaneity of Marx and Rimbaud, life and the world, social revolution and the imagination triumphant, is what makes Surrealism – regardless of the specific political commitments of individual Surrealists – in its essence a utopian movement. Our goal is utopia: our goal is nowhere: we have no goal.

So we are not all pursuing a common objective which we will attain that little bit sooner if we unite and work together. Unity is a red herring. Surrealism is a collective adventure, but collectivity is not the same thing as unity, any more than adventure is the same as pursuit of a goal. And insofar as splits and infighting are searing shared experiences of rage, passion, pain, mutual hatred and destruction – not to mention hilarity and exhilaration – don’t they count as particularly intense expressions of, precisely, collectivity, shared experiences not just within but also between the warring groups? Even perhaps – let’s push the argument – peculiar forms of collective adventure in their own right? Surely there’s no one in the movement who thinks that collectivity should be safe, agreeable, or merely positive in any generally accepted sense. Negativity is a vital dimension of any truly collective dynamic, and I’m suggesting that it is more exciting and productive to embrace and investigate its periodic eruptions than to regret or condemn them. The forest of the unknown is full of horrors as well as enchantments.

Embracing and investigating collective negativity requires inventiveness, courage and terrifying honesty. This is not the least of the reasons why we are usually so reluctant to do it. Nobody wants to spend their time at group meetings or on collaborative projects gnashing their teeth and drinking their comrades’ blood. But while the group members sit around the table, having their discussions and playing their games, the maw of the group’s collective unconscious is ever open. The more ‘successful’ the group on its own terms – the more it exceeds the sum of its parts, the more exciting, the more intuitive and creative it becomes – the wider the jaws, the sharper the teeth…

So let’s embrace and investigate the monsters that this collective unconscious vomits forth. Here comes one now, a real whopper: his name is Oedipus, and if we ignore him he most definitely will not go away. For those individuals who have grown up under the sign of the nuclear family – which is probably a fairly large proportion of those currently active in the Surrealist movement, given its geographical and cultural distribution – the dynamic of the Oedipal family romance is one of the most readily available patterns of group interaction, and one against which we all need to be constantly and explicitly vigilant. The danger lies precisely in the fact that the family romance, in Surrealist contexts as much as in mainstream ones, often dissembles its more blatantly oppressive aspects behind the compensations it offers in return: companionship, comfort, a sense of shared identity, an occasional refuge from a fucking horrible world. The danger is that the collective unconscious (whether of a formally constituted Surrealist group, or of a looser or more temporary collective, or even at the level of the movement as a whole) may all too easily lapse into an Oedipal mode and silently form itself into the private haven of a ‘family home’, complete with nursery and servants’ quarters. There’s the parent-child dynamic: respect your elders, do your homework, nurture my potential, change my nappy. There’s the sibling dynamic: you’re my brother, you’re my sister, you’re my rival, they love you more than they love me…

The family romance plot is almost certainly present in the collective unconscious of almost every current group and collective, because for most of the participants it is not just the first pattern of group interaction they ever knew, but the one which formed their ‘personalities’ at a basic level (and this is also one of the reasons why Surrealism must be anti-humanist and opposed to ‘personality’). The intensity of rage, pain and joy unleashed by really serious infighting probably comes in large part from this unconscious family dynamic. What can be more thrilling than to kill one’s father? What more appalling than to be attacked by one’s child, or more paralysing than to watch one’s parents and siblings tear the family apart?

The monster of Oedipus demands constant and explicit vigilance, then, and the deliberate invention and cultivation of alternative forms of collective life. All kinds of alternative models are already to hand and many more remain to be invented, from superhero teams to libertine conspiracies to wolf packs. The difficulty is always to make those models work as really operational egregores rather than merely as rhetorical self-exhortations, and that will only be possible if we first accept and embrace the power of collective negativity, including Oedipus, as a creative force in its own right.

The trick is not to fight the monster, but to embrace and transform it into something else. Tam Linn is transformed into a newt, an adder, a bear, a lion, a red-hot iron and a burning coal, but it’s precisely because Fair Jenny refuses to let go of him that he finally becomes her beautiful naked lover.

All images in the public domain.
“In Praise Of Infighting” first appeared on
Icecrawler/Heelwalker in 2010.

Take a peek behind the veil.

Success! You're on the list.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s