Surrealism and the Spectacle: How It Was or Was Not Intended To Be

Surrealism has above all been the relish for images and the incantatory magic of chthonic, labyrinthine verbal wizardry.  It wasn’t only Andre Breton who relished Pierre Reverdy (one of the often unsung masters of the prose poem as well) for his understanding of a spoken imprint, a sentence within a sentence, the castanet rapid-fire of thought which, whether good or bad by literary judgment, culminates in a phrase or two which has a spatial orbit all its own:

“The image is a pure creation of the mind.
It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two or more distant realities.
The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be–the greater its emotional power and poetic reality…”

Later in the same paragraph of the First Manifesto he expresses his enthusiasm for sprites of  Rapid Jasmine and Books of August Yellow, he dismisses Reverdy’s idea as a “posteriorized aesthetic” and then dismisses his own point of view.

All personalities, and this could certainly be said of Andre Breton, are schizophrenic to a degree.  As the philosopher Gurdjieff was fond of pointing out, we lose our minds and regain them every hour of every day.  The cork pops, twists in its own orbit, and then decides what fiber it wants to be constituted of.  It is what it is already, of course, but if a cork is unable to twist spaceless white, at least in this text box and decide what it is or is not, we have to throw Surrealism out the window.

This necessary schizophrenia of the soul and the body is nowhere more apparent than in the division between Surrealism and Situationism.  (To add to my case, both long ago renounced “isms”.)  Guy Debord and Raoul Vanegeim produced work which is the becoming more and more prophetic as time goes by, almost boring because it is so true.


“If you’re not very familiar with the dialectic of Hegel and Marx, a lot of this book will be lost on you, but the effort is worth it when you realize the enormity of what Debord is saying about our society.  It becomes even more relevant when, surveying your own environment, and you recognize that he is for the most part right. Debord’s thesis is that the personalities of the people who surround are not their own, but are acquired through images made by pop culture, which replace whatever the person might have become free from these mediated images. “–Jean Sales


The Situationists (without getting too far into their kind of wishy washy world) were a group of hardened social activists who discovered (or made light of) one cursory dimension of art that is extremely dangerous: it can be co-opted.  It can be co-opted not only by the hucksters (Avida Dollars on “What’s My Line?”,  Andy Warhol in a commercial for Campbell’s soup with Sonny Liston looking more terrified than when Muhammad Ali, pretending to be insane, broke out into faux hysterics at weigh ins) but by us.   By assent to technology.


The Situationists accused not only the Parisian group of Surrealists, but all surrealists, of being undercover occultists, particularly after Breton’s not too subtle call to



Perhaps the most venomous and final condemnation of the Surrealists from the SI was published in Internationale Situationniste #1, 1958:

“Although this intellectual generation exhibits more aggressiveness outside France, its consciousness still ranges from simple imbecility to premature self-satisfaction with a very inadequate revolt. The rotten egg smell exuded by the idea of God envelops the mystical cretins of America’s “Beat Generation” and is not even entirely absent from the declarations of the Angry Young Men (e.g. Colin Wilson). These latter have just discovered, thirty years behind the times, a certain moral subversiveness that England had managed to completely hide from them all this time; and they think they’re being daringly scandalous by declaring themselves antimonarchists. “Plays continue to be produced,” writes Kenneth Tynan, “that are based on the ridiculous idea that people still fear and respect the Crown, the Empire, the Church, the University and Polite Society.” This statement is indicative of how tepidly literary the Angry Young Men’s perspective is. They have simply come to change their opinions about a few social conventions without even noticing the fundamental change of terrain of all cultural activity so evident in every avant-garde tendency of this century. The Angry Young Men are in fact particularly reactionary in attributing a privileged, redemptive value to the practice of literature, thereby defending a mystification that was denounced in Europe around 1920 and whose survival today is of greater counterrevolutionary significance than that of the British Crown.

In all this pseudorevolutionary sound and fury there is a common lack of understanding of the meaning and scope of surrealism (itself naturally distorted by its bourgeois artistic success). A continuation of surrealism would in fact be the most consistent attitude to take if nothing new arose to replace it. But because the young people who now rally to surrealism are aware of surrealism’s profound demands while being incapable of overcoming the contradiction between those demands and the stagnation accompanying its apparent success, they take refuge in the reactionary aspects present within surrealism from its inception (magic, belief in a golden age elsewhere than in history to come). Some of them even take pride in still standing under surrealism’s arc de triomphe, so long after the period of real struggle. There they will remain, says Gérard Legrand proudly (Surréalisme même #2), faithful to their tradition, “a small band of youthful souls resolved to keep alive the true flame of surrealism.”

A movement more liberating than the surrealism of 1924 — a movement Breton promised to rally to if it were to appear — cannot easily be formed because its liberativeness now depends on its seizing the more advanced material means of the modern world. But the surrealists of 1958 have not only become incapable of rallying to such a movement, they are even determined to combat it. But this does not eliminate the necessity for a revolutionary movement in culture to appropriate, with greater effectiveness, the freedom of spirit and the concrete freedom of mores demanded by surrealism.

For us, surrealism has been only a beginning of a revolutionary experiment in culture, an experiment that almost immediately ground to a practical and theoretical halt. We have to go further. Why is becoming a surrealist no longer a meaningful option? Not because of the ruling class’s constant encouragement of “avant-garde” movements to dissociate themselves from the scandalous aspects of surrealism. (This encouragement is not made in the name of promoting originality at all costs — how could it be, when the ruling order has nothing really new to propose to us, nothing going beyond surrealism? On the contrary, the bourgeoisie stands ready to applaud any regressions we might lapse into.) If we are not surrealists, it is because surrealism has become a total bore.

Decrepit surrealism, raging and ill-informed youth, well-off adolescent rebels without perspectives (though certainly not without a cause) — boredom is what they all have in common. The situationists will execute the judgment that contemporary leisure is pronouncing against itself.”

ImageNeither side was right entirely, of course, and the man pictured above–Benjamin Peret, perhaps the most uncompromising of all the surrealists–came from a poor background, remained in poverty most of his life by choice, and was kept as a political prisoner more than once.  And he still found time for marvels:

Little song for the maimed

Lend me your arm
To replace my leg
The rats ate it for me
At Verdun
At Verdun
I ate a lot of rats
But they didn’t give me back my leg
And that’s why I was given the Croix de Guerre
And a wooden leg
And a wooden leg
(Translated by David Gascoyne from the French)
The point of this heady diatribe is that we have taken our eyes off the ball as Surrealists, Situationists, or whatever.  Even the spectacle itself now wears glasses which are steamed by a spectacle behind it; and yes, it is true, we willingly (if not at all times consciously) submit our marvels to these industries.If we are not to be complete hypocrites about it, we have to look at, for instance, Facebook.
Here we have the penultimate capitalist figure, Mark Zuckerberg, who has stolen some of the most vital information from us and sold it to third parties without even really apologizing.
If we are to remain in a permanent state of rebellion and not merely hold the tenets of the Surrealist creed to be fun little additions to an adolescent fantasy, we need to do something new.  I call on surrealists and writers at large to get more involved in understanding what this “social network” is, who is behind it, etc.   This is a series of surrealist aphorisms about the subjectAphorisms: La Surrealistica Snowden + Facebook

Peach fuzz of October’s approach. The tide enmeshes hair slowly, a crucible of bones flipping toward the shore in a new creature. Birth anew.


The age demands a thermal X-ray no one can squeeze into. The idea of a “picture” is as dated as a “Kodak Moment”. Avatars are not free, bytes draw blood. Networks will spill our names back in rainstorms of barcoded idenmnity, strips of fortune cookies letters running backward. *


Dice were originally used for purposes of divination. A dice game could end in wild gunfire, the pride of men. Now our eyes have been cut from the snake. We arrange our pips in holograms that drop in a privacy so open it could be a roadstop sign.

For the first time we spy on ourselves and want our Administrators to nod at our voyeurism.


The stripshow, the bordello, the seance, the circus is common as direct deposit. Control spins as wildly as porch shingle nunchucks on a tricycle lit up by faulty electricity. The Watchers read our palms half asleep. It’s that easy.


* The monitor itself is a deep fossil. It is a pagination and a deep freeze of each nuance, wink or nod. Who signed us up? Us. * All the JPG’s were wound in time for the mirrors to debunk our dispersion, and collect it like a pieces of a glass house with mirror windows of flashbulbs.


Who is the Landlord for our likes and dislikes? Our affirmations and negations may one day face us on a ride to see our children, to church, to meditation, and post our prayers. . The ones we never say, even, to God. Each click is memorized for eternity. * The earnestness of the nose in dialect, the drowning fever seize, is laminated. Soft plush fever of the instant abides. The tribes haven’t run home–they’ve been taking pictures of their flight.


A palette is formed. A Rubix Cube. Our faces as places, tiny as soot blotches, contort in the cubes casually. Keep the trains of our algorithms moving. A slim executive, probably not a bad guy. Just doing his job.

An alchemical hourglass switches barrels like a shotgun The man in charge wears a wire to the paranormal ballroom. * A galley of missing posters in an art museum photographed by a man with no license and a big white truck, rife with clean graffiti, drives off into the night.