Notes on Capitalist Surrealism

Surrealism, refusing any hereafter apart from this world and professing a doctrine of immanence, is nevertheless, inasmuch as it disqualifies the objective World, the messenger of some transcendence.

Ferdinand Alquié, in his Philosophy of Surrealism, makes clear a tension I have always struggled to elucidate in the work of Mark Fisher — the tension between immanence and transcendence.

It’s a problem that’s present throughout Fisher’s work but it is only following the unfulfilled promise of Acid Communism that people seem to take an interest in the innate “psychedelia” of his work, its emancipatory “trippiness”, as if it is only after saying the quiet part loud that people are able to take notice. And even then, only at the very end.

But it is a mistake to assume that the promise of Acid Communism is not already heavily foreshadowed, as if nothing prior to that unfinished introduction gave us a hint of such a project.

I tried to explore this in Egress, but then after a while I thought I’d got it wrong. For all the time spent exploring Fisher’s sense of the Outside, his more accelerationist mode insists that the only way out is through — there is no outside the capitalism. But then the inside, as he writes in The Weird and the Eerie, is only a folding of the outside… It’s easy to make yourself dizzy trying to figure out which it is…

But like the surrealists, it seems Fisher wrestles with many of the same tensions between this world and that of our imagination, the tension between matter and the idea. It is all too easy to superficially resolve this tension for ourselves when looking at the aesthetic outputs of this mode of thinking, just as surrealism is so often reduced to an absolute flight from objective reality rather than constituting its mirror image, or its unconscious, which is always ejected outwards by sur-. But as is the case with the language of the post- — which Fisher discusses in his Postcapitalist Desire lectures — surrealism always remains attached to that which is declares a break from. It is defined by its break, by its relation to some conception of realism.

This tethering tends to make people think of such projects as innately melancholic or pessimistic, as if any acknowledgement of our capitalist reality (and the mundane horrors that define it) serves only to remind us of the melancholic weight of our ball-and-chain, intruding on the fantasies of a prisoner otherwise hoping to forget himself and his predicament. But the point of surrealism, at least as Alquié explains it, is that this “thirst for happiness colors all the spirit’s motions and, in particular, precedes the attitudes of negation and revolt that are only its other side.” (Is it any surprise that so much of Alquié (sadly untranslated) work is about Spinoza.)

It is this same manoeuvre that makes Fisher’s postcapitalist desire a turn not to a different project but the (il)logical next step of his prior works — a capitalist surrealism.

In the work of Mark Fisher, negation (misinterpreted as pessimism) is often all that people see. They cherish the “key” works — Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Life — but often ignore or skirt over what surrounds them. The Ccru is seen by many as a sort of adolescent aberration, for instance, rather than precisely the preceding mode of expression that makes the subsequent negation possible. Just as André Breton, in Alquié’s study, “never saw in [Dada’s] revolt and its negation anything but the necessary means for the positive realisation of man”, so did Fisher conjure the negative out of cyberpunk for the very same goal.

Then things come full circle, the negation gives way to a new positivity, feeding (on) a new era of hope, but perhaps too late or for too short a duration, so that the world is not quite ready to embrace the negation again. Hope is dashed in 2017 for many — and for so many reasons. But the process begins again. Fisher’s Acid Communism becomes fertile ground for hope and love, but this is never an end unto itself (which was arguably why be had so much distain for the hippies). Counterintuitively, love and hope are seeds for rage and revolt. But of course they are. Love Will Tear Us Apart is a post-punk anthem and mantra not for its innate tragedy but its promise that love itself requires, in every instance we encounter it, that we rip up our world and start again.

Alquié describes how Claude-André Puget, in his text for La Révolution surréaliste, makes use of love and hope in much the same way. He writes that, “after evoking a love crucified in one ecstatic moment, [Puget] ends his text by returning to a love’s deception which seems to me inseparable from a movement of critical reflection and some feeling of culpability”. This is why so many surrealist texts are ill-fated love stories or erotic fictions, he argues. Taking view of the whole process, from arousal to a kind of post-coital depression, love becomes ridiculous. But Alquié also notes how Breton’s texts, unlike Puget’s, never collapse fully into resentment. Breton’s lust for beauty and the erotic is never quite satisfied, perhaps because it is never really for some objectified “woman” in any realist sense — despite how it may superficially appear. “Woman” is a form given to a male desire but comes to represent so much more. It is for this reason that the women in Breton’s texts are not, Alquié argues, “the easy mistresses of libertine novels”, but instead “harbingers of the new Eve, always placed beyond our desires. They are the bond, and like a bridge, between waking and dream, and they seem to promise a reconciliation of the two.”

Mark Fisher does not fall for an all-too-French eroticism and its outdated gendered equivalences, but instead folds the whole project in on itself. If Fisher is never recognised as a surrealist, perhaps it is because his thought supercedes the mores of that particular project, coming at the end of a much longer trajectory: responding not only to Dada and surrealism but also to the situationists and punk’s various offspring, never settling and instead also seeking out that “something new” and unnamed, which he nonwrheless names for us with nifty neologisms, at least until these terms inevitably run their course through the hype cycle.

He continued to pick up new weapons.

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