The Bitter Victory of Surrealism

A surrealist photo collage of several hands appearing out of a rocky landscape. The sky is occupied by a human eye.

Situationist International critique of the Surrealists, from International Situationniste #1.

Submitted by Fozzie on November 22, 2022

Translated by Ian Thompson, January 2015. Proofread and Edited by Anna O’Meara & Mehdi el H. From here:

"The success of Surrealism owes much to the fact that the most modern aspect of this society’s ideology has renounced a strict hierarchy of artificial values and openly makes use of the irrational, alongside the relics of Surrealism."
Report on the Construction of Situations, June 1957

Framed within a world that has not been fundamentally transformed, Surrealism is a success. This success has backfired on Surrealism, which expected nothing less than the overthrow of the dominant social order. Meanwhile, the intensifying delay in mass action devoted to this overthrow, along with the contradictions of advanced capitalism and a matching impotence in cultural creation, maintain the currency of Surrealism and promote a multiplicity of degraded repetitions.

Surrealism has an impassable nature in the conditions of life it has encountered (and which it has scandalously prolonged until now) because, as a whole, it is already an addendum to the art and poetry annihilated by Dadaism, with all the possibilities 1 [of art and poetry] [lying] beyond the Surrealist postscript to art history – in the issues of constructing an authentic life. All those who want to place themselves after Surrealism rediscover questions which predate it (Dadaist poetry or theatre – research into a collection of secondhand goods 2 ). Thus, for the most part, the pictorial novelties which have attracted attention since the end of the war are merely details, isolated and enlarged, taken — secretly — from the coherent mass of Surrealist contributions (Max Ernst, at an exhibition in Paris in early 1958, recalled what he had heard from Pollock in 1942).

The modern world has caught up with the clear lead that Surrealism once had on it. Demonstrations of innovation in the disciplines which are genuinely advancing (the scientific techniques) take on a Surrealist appearance: in 1955, a robot at the University of Manchester wrote a love letter that could pass for an example of automatic writing by a less-than-talented 3 Surrealist. However the reality controlling this progression is that, [as] the revolution has not come 4 , everything that [once] constituted a margin of freedom for Surrealism finds itself co-opted and utilised by the repressive world the Surrealists had fought.

The use of tape recorders to teach sleeping subjects sets about depleting life’s storehouse of dreams in the pursuit of pathetic and repugnant utilitarian goals. Nothing, however, constitutes such a clear co-opting of Surrealism’s subversive discoveries as the exploitation of automatic writing, and the collective games based on it, found in the technique of canvassing ideas called “brainstorming” in the United States. In “France-Observateur”, Gérard Lauzun writes:

“In a session lasting a set duration (ten minutes to an hour), a limited number of people (6 to 15) have complete freedom to express as many of their ideas as possible, no matter how outlandish, with no risk of censure. The quality of the ideas isn’t of much concern. It is absolutely forbidden to criticise participants’ ideas, or even to smile while they are speaking. Additionally everyone has the absolute right, the obligation even, to steal from and add to the previous ideas. (…) The army, the civil service, and the police have also found uses for the technique. The world of scientific research itself substitutes brainstorming sessions for conferences and ’round-tables’. (…) A writer/producer at the C.F.P.I. needs a title for a film. Eight people can put forward seventy in around fifteen minutes! Then, a tagline 5 : one hundred and four ideas in thirty four minutes – two are kept. (…) Lack of thinking, irrationality, absurdity, and sudden changes of subject are the rule. Quality makes way for quantity. The main goal of this technique is to eliminate the various barriers of social constraint, timidity, and fear which often prevent some people from speaking up at meetings or during administrative conferences – from advancing absurd suggestions which may contain some buried treasure! With these barriers lifted, we observe that people speak and, above all, that everyone has something to say. (…) Some American managers have been quick to see the advantages of such a technique in employee relations. Those who are able to express themselves demand less. ‘Organise brainstorming sessions for us!’ they tell the specialists: ‘to demonstrate to our employees that we care about their ideas, since we’re asking for them!’ The technique is becoming a vaccine against the revolutionary virus.”

Translators' note: As this new translation was being produced, I cross-referenced it to an existing translation made by Reuben Keehan, available on-line here. I would like to acknowledge the work done by Reuben Keehan, and the real assistance his translation provided to me. However all final decisions (for better or worse – which is for the reader to decide) in this translation are mine alone.

  • 1“ouvertures” – literally openings
  • 2“dans le style du recueil «Mont-de-Piété»” – literally “in the style of a pawnshop collection”
  • 3“peu doué” – literally “not very gifted”
  • 4“la révolution n’etant pas faite” – literally “the revolution has not been made”
  • 5“slogan” – slogan, or advertising headline (‘tagline’ is specifically related to films)