Saturday, 24 October 2009

Ideology tries to integrate even the most radical acts

Dada embodied both the consciousness of the crumbling of ideology and the will to destroy ideology in the name of authentic life. But Dada in its nihilism sought to constitute an absolute – and hence purely abstract-break. Not only did it fail to ground itself in the historical conditions by which it had itself been produced, but, by deconsecrating culture, by mocking its claims to be an independent sphere, by playing games with its fragments, it effectively cut itself off from a tradition forged by creators who in fact shared Dada's goal, the destruction of art and philosophy, but who pursued this goal with the intention of reinventing and realizing art and philosophy – once they had been liquidated as ideological forms, as components of culture – in everyone's actual life.

After Dada's failure, Surrealism for its part renewed ties with the older tradition. It did so, however, just as though Dada had never existed, just as though Dada's dynamiting of culture had never occurred. It prolonged the yearning for transcendence, as nurtured from de Sade to Jarry, without ever realizing that the transcendence in question had now become possible. It curated and popularized the great human aspirations without ever discovering that the prerequisites for their fulfilment were already present. In so doing, Surrealism ended up reinvigorating the spectacle, whose function was to conceal from the last class in history, the proletariat, bearer of total freedom, the history that was yet to be made. To Surrealism's credit, assuredly, is the creation of a school-for-all which, if it did not make revolution, at least popularized revolutionary thinkers. The Surrealists were the first to make it impossible, in France, to conflate Marx and Bolshevism, the first to use Lautréamont as gunpowder, the first to plant the black flag of de Sade in the heart of Christian humanism. These are legitimate claims to glory: to this extent, at any rate, Surrealism's failure was an honourable one.

Dada was born at a turning-point in the history of industrial societies. By reducing human beings to citizens who kill and are killed in the name of a State that oppresses them, the model ideologies of imperialism and nationalism served to underline the gulf that separated real, universal man from the spectacular image of a humanity perceived as an abstraction; the two were irreparably opposed, for example, from the standpoint of France, or from the standpoint of Germany. Yet at the very moment when spectacular organization reached what to minds enamoured of true freedom appeared to be its most Ubuesque representational form, that organization was successfully attracting and enlisting almost all the intellectuals and artists to be found in the realm of culture. This tendency arose, moreover, in tandem with the move of the proletariat's official leadership into the militarist camp.

Dada denounced the mystificatory power of culture in its entirety as early as 1915-1918. On the other hand, once Dada had proved itself incapable of realizing art and philosophy (a project which a successful Spartacist revolution would no doubt have made easier), Surrealism was content merely to condemn the spinelessness of the intelligentsia, to point the finger at the chauvinist idiocy of anyone, from Maurice Barrès to Xavier Montehus, who was an intellectual and proud of it.

As culture and its partisans were busily demonstrating how actively they supported the organization of the spectacle and the mystification of social reality, Surrealism ignored the negativity embodied in Dada; being nevertheless hard put to it to institute any positive project, it succeeded only in setting in motion the old ideological mechanism whereby today's partial revolt is turned into tomorrow's official culture. The eventual co-optation of late Dadaism, the transformation of its radicalism into ideological form, would have to await the advent of Pop Art. In the matter of co-optation, Surrealism, its protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, was quite sufficient unto itself.

The ignorance that Surrealism fostered with respect to the dissolution of art and philosophy is every bit as appalling as the ignorance Dada fostered with respect to the opposite aspect of the same tendency, namely the transcendence of art and philosophy.

The things that Dada unified so vigorously included Lautréamont's dismantling of poetic language, the condemnation of philosophy in opposing yet identical ways by Hegel and Marx, the bringing of painting to its melting point by Impressionism, or theatre embracing its own parodic self-destruction in Ubu. What plainer illustrations could there be here than Malevich with his white square on a white ground, or the urinal, entitled Fountain, which Marcel Duchamp sent to the New York Independents Exhibition in 1917, or the first Dadaist collage-poems made from words clipped from newspapers and then randomly assembled? Arthur Cravan conflated artistic activity and shitting. Even Valéry grasped what Joyce was demonstrating with Finnegan's Wake: the fact that novels could no longer exist. Erik Satie supplied the final ironic coda to the joke that was music. Yet even as Dada was denouncing cultural pollution and spectacular rot on every side, Surrealism was already on the scene with its big plans for cleanup and regeneration.

When artistic production resumed, it did so against and without Dada, but against and with Surrealism. Surrealist reformism would deviate from reformism's well-trodden paths and follow its own new roads: Bolshevism, Trotskyism, Guevarism, anarchism. Just as the economy in crisis, which did not disappear but was instead transformed into a crisis economy, so likewise the crisis of culture outlived itself in the shape of a culture of crisis. Hence Surrealism became the spectacularization of everything in the cultural past that refused separations, sought transcendence, or struggled against ideologies and the organization of the spectacle.

A pamphlet published on 7 June 1947 by the Revolutionary Surrealists, a dissident Belgian group, had issued a salutary warning to the movement as a whole. Signed by Paul Bourgoignie, Achille Chavre, Christian Dotremont, Marcel Havrenne, René Magritte, Marcel Mariën, Paul Nougé and Louis Scutenaire, it declared:

Landlords, crooks, Druids, poseurs, all your efforts have been in vain: we persist in relying on SURREALISM in our quest to bring the universe and desire INTO ALIGNMENT... First and foremost, we guarantee that Surrealism will no longer serve as a standard for the vainglorious, nor as a springboard for the devious, nor as a Delphic oracle; it will no longer be the philosopher's stone of the distracted, the battleground of the timid, the pastime of the lazy, the intellectualism of the impotent, the draft of blood of the "poet" or the draft of wine of the litterateur.