Monday, October 29, 2007

Another entry I left on Silliman's blog

Simon, Curtis etc,

You are certainly right that there is a different aim behind many of these contemporary Surrealist-influenced writers than the Surrealism of the 1920s - they don’t have the sweeping political goals of Breton & Co.

While that may be lamentable, calling them "soft" is part of a reductive rhetoric that I don't agree with - most certainly gendered - going back to Modernism. That is why I wanted to call attention to that.

To say that Simic & Co merely want to "entertain" is just more name-calling, it's not getting at their project at all. Certainly someone like Edson (who I think of as the big influence on a lot of the Tate/Simic school of writing, and who I think is pretty much the most interesting of the bunch) can be deeply unsettling. His goal may not be the total liberation of the mind, but his goal is certainly beyond mere "entertain." At his best, I think he is far more "unsettling" than a lot of Breton's pretty love poetry etc.

As for advertising, this has actually been the subject of a great deal of scholarship. "A Boatload of Madmen" comes to mind. This book discusses the importance of Man Ray and Dali to the development of advertising. What is interesting about Ian comparison to it is that advertising has *much* more to do with Breton (though Dali and Man Ray more so) and the Surrealism of the 1920s than it has to do with Tate &Co. Tate couldn't sell pure gold if his life dependend on it!

This is true of the avant-garde as a whole. The use of collage and a lot of core practices of the avant-garde were in large part influenced by advertising, the movies and other mass culture. So advertising both influences and is influenced by the avant-garde.

What I'm trying to suggest is that these things don't break down as neatly as some of you seem to want them to. It is quite possible that a certain kind of Surrealish attitude is central to both advertising and Breton's politically liberatory project.

3 Comments:

Blogger Simon said...

[I posted this in response at Ron's blog, but the field is getting crowded so let's continue here.]

It's not name-calling, but it is expressing a value judgment. On the other hand, if you honestly see "soft" as a gendered term, I can't argue. You're a smart guy.

I haven't read Simic in a long time, but I have heard him read, and I enjoyed it (in a non-pejorative sense.)

I'm not a scholar of this movement by a long-shot, but my father was an ad man. The "surrealism" one sees in commericals today is, I believe, something rediscovered by the creative departments on Madison avenue in the 1950s [on edit: 1960s, sorry!], and it's not connected to the advertising that you say was an inspiration for the first generation. That said, my father was not on the creative floor, although he does have stories from there that make it seem that at least some of the creatives were more sophisticated than I am giving them credit for.

In a sense, I think it's possible that there are at least two moments when the techniques of surrealism were found. And I think the rediscovery has been less exciting, less provocative, safer. Perhaps "safe" is a better word than "soft"?

I think it's also important to recognize shifting cultural contexts. Our media world is itself surreal -- intentionally. I think it makes it harder to be a surrealist, if you go "on your gut" the way the old school seemed to do, you are apt to find yourself ventriloquized by the corporation.

I want to say that Thomas Frank in the Baffler had clever things to say about all of this.

10:29 AM  
Blogger CLAY BANES said...

i have to hark back to my earlier suggestion school of quietude be renamed school of frankie avalon. when someone asks, "what kind of music do you like?" the quietests will answer, "i hate the school of frankie avalon!" and they will high-five and congratulate each other and swap comic books. then everyone will think all music is school of frankie avalon and keep on ignoring it.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Certainly advertising has changed, but I wanted to counter the image that seemed to be presented by the Silliman commentators that the "original" Surrealists were some kinds of true beacons of anti-commerce. That's I think a very reactionary stance. And I think Frank falls into this idea too. The world is so surreal therefore poetry should not be? Seems like the other way around.

The other thing worth noting I think is that Surrealism changed in Europe. It's not like it remained constant and then Americans defiled its purity. European Surrealism changed not just in every country it went into (a form of Surrealism became dominant mode of Swedish poetry starting with Gunnar Ekelof, and leading to people like Transtromer), but in France as well. Michaux became a leading second-generation Surrealist, and it was he (not Breton) who was the major influence on Edson, who was a major influence on Simic. So it's complex. I have to go to bed now.

7:33 PM  

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