Tag Archives: Karl Marx

Once more on the Hamburg Theses

fig. 1. Hamburgum.

[You can read my translation of Debord’s The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 here]

The plans announced in my last post with an eye to the 60th anniversary of the first publication of Internationale Situationniste no. 7 have been held up a little. Most obviously and unfortunately by the fact that I contracted covid shortly after posting. More pertinently by what I would call a certain lack I identified in the project of publishing new translations of articles from Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (hereafter IS no. 7).

For instance, I was struck by the spectral presence of what is arguably the pivotal situationist ‘document’, one whose shadow is cast over the entirety of IS no. 7: namely, the mysterious Hamburg Theses.

Published in April 1962, IS no. 7 marked the definitive turn of the SI toward the task that would take it up to May 1968: the relaunch of a revolutionary movement. However, whereas the seventh issue cements this turn, the turn itself had been underway for a good two years. In part, this can be seen in the arguments that raged over the significance of art that reached a peak at the 5th Conference of the group in August 1961. In part, it emerged from Debord’s participation in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group over 1960 and 1961. The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 were a response to both aspects of the SI’s evolution.

In two of the three documents that I have translated from IS no. 7, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’ (The Role of the SI), and Attila Kotányi’s ‘L’Étage suivant’ (The Next Stage), the Hamburg Theses are explicitly cited, even though no clear details of their content are revealed. As was discovered by Thomas Y. Levin in 1989, the Hamburg Theses never existed as a finished document. To the end of better contextualising these documents, I’ve decided to post a new translation of Debord’s 1989 note on the Hamburg Theses.[1]

In early September 1961, as the story goes, Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem were on their return from the recently concluded 5th Conference of the Situationist International (SI). Having embarked, at the conferences end, on a drunken drift (dérive) across the Kattgatt sea from Göteborg to Frederikshavn, the three situationists, in the wake of the acrimonious discussions over what exactly constituted ‘anti-situationist’ activity (and why artistic activity under current circumstances constituted a subsection thereof), wended their way to Hamburg.[2] There, ‘in a series of randomly chosen bars in Hamburg over two or three days at the beginning of September 1961,’ Debord, Kotányi and Vaneigem composed the aptly named Hamburg Theses.[3]

The chief argumentative thrust of the Theses would find its way into other works by the situationists. Debord, in his 1989 note, handily summarised the non-existent ‘document’:

[T]he ‘Theses’ were conclusions, voluntarily kept secret, of a theoretical and strategic discussion that concerned the entirety of the conduct of the SI. […]

Deliberately, with the intention of leaving no trace that could be observed or analysed from outside the SI, nothing concerning this discussion and what it had concluded was ever written down. It was then agreed that the simplest summary of its rich and complex conclusions could be expressed in a single phrase: ‘Now, the SI must realise philosophy’. Even this phrase was not written down. Thus, the conclusions were so well hidden that they have remained secret up until the present. […]

The summarised conclusions evoked a celebrated formula of Marx from 1844 (in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel Philosophy of Right). It meant that we should henceforth no longer attribute the least importance to any of the ideas of the revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement destroyed in the first half of our century; and therefore, that it would be better to count on the SI alone to relaunch a time of contestation as soon as possible, by way of revitalising all the basic starting points that were established in the 1840s. Once established this position did not imply the coming rupture with the artistic ‘right’ of the SI (who feebly desired only to repeat or continue modern art) but rendered it extremely probable. We can thus recognise that the ‘Hamburg Theses’ marked the end of the first period of the SI—that is research into a truly new artistic terrain (1957-61)—as well as fixing the departure point for the operation that led to the movement of May 1968, and what followed.[4]

Two things need to be said in clarification of the foregoing.

First, the two extant English translations of Debord’s note on the Hamburg Theses contain mistranslations of a crucial phrase rendered in the last paragraph, above. In these earlier translations, ‘qu’il ne faudrait donc plus compter que sur la seule I.S.’, became, ‘that it was therefore no longer necessary to count on the SI alone’ (Reuben Keehan), and, ‘that it would no longer be necessary to count on the SI alone’ (Not Bored!). As I noted in my last post, Keehan and Not Bored’s translation have the unfortunate result of inverting the meaning of the phrase in question—arguably the pivotal phrase concerning the import of the Hamburg Theses for the future of the SI.

This mistake alone justifies a new English translation. Nonetheless, I feel that the confusion of these earlier translators was understandable. The phrase in question is a particularly convoluted one in the French.

Nonetheless, the meaning of this phrase in relation to the entire sentence of which it is a part—its internal coherence if you will—should give one pause. For instance, the idea that one would no longer count on the SI alone (as Keehan and Not Bored rendered the phrase in question) does not clearly follow from the preceding clause to which it is the conclusion, i.e., ‘that we should henceforth no longer attribute the least importance to any of the ideas of the revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement’. Perhaps these translators believed that Debord was talking here of the revolutionary movement they proposed to relaunch as opposed to the relaunching itself? Certainly, the SI never suggested that they alone would constitute such a revolutionary movement. However, Debord was not claiming here that the SI would alone constitute such a movement. Rather, he was arguing that given the way that the artistic and political contemporaries of the situationists remained beholden to forms of artistic and political spectacle that were recuperated and ‘destroyed in the first half of our century’, these contemporaries were more likely not to be involved in the relaunch of such a movement. Thus, it would be better to count on the SI alone.

Further, in the seventh issue of Internationale Situationniste, the situationists made the case for actual existence of the forces which would make up such a revolutionary movement—passively, in terms of the sheer weight of the increasing proletarianization of the world, and actively in so far as elements of this proletariat were being driven to revolt, albeit sometimes in less than ‘orthodox’ fashion. Thus, the SI put much store in what was then, in the early 1960s, signs of a burgeoning youth rebellion across the advanced industrial world, as well as the increase in ‘wildcat’ strikes already extensively commented upon by comrades in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group.[5]. The question then, from the situationist’s perspective, was one of ‘organis[ing] a coherent encounter between the elements of critique and negation (whether as acts or as ideas) that are now scattered around the world’.[6] However, such an organisation was, perforce, distinctly opposed to the various authoritarian and hierarchical conceptions of a political or artistic avant-garde beloved of much of the contemporaneous far-left, whether Marxist or anarchist. Underlining this anti-hierarchical sense, the situationists would later say of their role, ‘[w]e will only organize the detonation: the free explosion must escape us and any other control forever’.[7]

fig. 2. Detail of a map of Hamburg.

Secondly, critics have—perhaps justly—been confused when Debord in his 1989 note initially speaks of the Hamburg Thesis as being ‘the most mysterious of all the documents that emerged from the SI’ (my emphasis), only to later clarify that ‘nothing concerning this discussion and what it had concluded was ever written down’.[8] Debord speaks of the Hamburg Theses as a ‘document’ in an ironic fashion, in order to underline not only its non-existence in written form, but more pointedly to draw attention to this non-existence as its most singular and enduring quality.

In the same note, Debord wrote that the Hamburg Theses ‘were a striking innovation in the succession of artistic avant-gardes, who hitherto had all given the impression of being eager to explain themselves’.[9] The question, however, was never one of refusing ‘to explain themselves’, as the ongoing publication of Internationale Situationniste testifies.[10] Debord would explain the avant-garde nature of the Theses by underlining the positive nature of the destructive truth of the Hamburg Theses in a letter to Vaneigem:

we agreed not to write the Hamburg Theses, thereby all the better to impose in the future their central significance to our project. Thus, the enemy will not be able to feign approval of them without great difficulty.[11].

Here, the Theses are spoken of as a trap to the unwary. There is no question that their conclusions became a part of the explicit weaponry of the SI, and yet it was forever put out of reach, an authority impossible to appeal to just as the SI worked hard to disabuse those who, perhaps inevitably, had begun to treat them as authorities. As the group would later write, in an article moreover that took its title from the Hamburg Theses:

It is quite natural that our enemies succeed in partially using us. We are neither going to leave the present field of culture to them nor mix with them. The armchair advisors who want to admire and understand us from a respectful distance readily recommend to us the purity of the first attitude while they themselves adopt the second one. We reject this suspect formalism: like the proletariat, we cannot claim to be unexploitable under the present conditions; the best we can do is to strive to make any such exploitation entail the greatest possible risk for the exploiters.[12]

By refusing to publish a document called the Hamburg Theses, and so being less that ‘eager to explain themselves,’ Debord, Vaneigem and Kotányi were gesturing at what was coming to be a central aspect of the situationist project as they understood it.[13] In IS no. 7, in the wake of the Hamburg Theses, they wagered that, ‘situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[14] This sentence has proved puzzling for many readers, some of whom have read it ungenerously as yet more evidence of the SI’s megalomania. However, by 1961 the situationists around Debord, Vaneigem and Kotányi were beginning to conceive of the particularities of their project as a moment of a more general revolutionary contestation dispersed in time and space. Which is to say, as a moment of the forces of refusal and rebellion that were real products of the spread and development of capitalist alienation.

Contrary to Lenin and Trotsky, for example, and for that matter a fair amount of anarchist theory too, the SI did not see themselves as bringing a theory of revolution to the working classes. Rather, like Marx they held to the idea that such a theory and practice itself emerged from the experience of the alienated and conflictual nature of proletarian life. The young Marx had argued, in words echoed and approvingly used by the SI, that ‘[t]heory can be realised in a people only insofar as it is the realisation of the needs of that people’; thus, ‘[i]t is not enough for thought to strive for realisation, reality must itself strive towards thought’.[15] At best, the SI saw itself as a particularly coherent moment of the struggle for theory from below whose practical truth they found posed not only in their own faltering experiments in unitary urbanism and the constructed situation, but even more so in the wildcat strikes of workers as much as the then flourishing counter cultures of alienated working-class youth.

In opposition to many of their leftist and intellectual contemporaries, the situationists did not see that alienation was being ameliorated or revealed as an idealist delusion, but rather that it was ramified and multiplied with the intensification and extension of capitalist production and consumption across the globe. The question, then, was not one of educating the proletariat in the guise of the eternal sacrifice of the intellectual leader, but rather participating in the clarification and cohering of a fractured and dispersed contestation that was already underway.

And so, the peculiar and not so peculiar situationist sense of the ‘avant-garde’. In artistic, political and military terms, ‘avant-garde’ had come to designate those ‘in advance’ of the main body. In the Leninist and Stalinist vernaculars, it indicated the necessary gap between the merely social democratic consciousness of the worker and the avant-garde consciousness of the revolutionary who would lead the worker to the promised land. For the situationists, the notion of avant-garde, to the extent that it had come to merely justify an unchallenged hierarchy amenable to a capitalist division of labour, had ceased to be of any use. As Debord would put it some years later in The Society of the Spectacle,

Proletarian revolution depends entirely on the condition that, for the first time, theory as understanding of human practice be recognized and lived by the masses. It requires that workers become dialecticians and put their thought into practice.[16]

Which is not to say that the SI rejected its avant-garde role, but rather that it rejected the then dominant conceptions of what constituted a political or artistic avant-garde. Against both, Debord would pose that, ‘now, the first realisation of an avant-garde is the avant-garde itself’.[17] To have itself as its ‘realisation’, instead of the fetish of the art-object or theoretical manifesto, was simply to emphasis the true, ultimate object of the avant-garde. For the SI this was precisely the communist society it saw as the necessary condition for the realisation of the project first outlined in the hypothesis of the constructed situation back in 1957. The question, then, was one of realising the project of communism (or at least the situationist conception of such) and so abolishing the need for such an avant-garde like the SI—an abolition, moreover, that would be embodied in the realisation of a mass revolutionary movement. As they phrased it in IS no. 8, the situationist avant-garde would be ‘a party that supersedes itself, a party whose victory is at the same time its own disappearance’.[18]

The resonance with Marx’s notion of the realisation and abolition of philosophy is palpable—as Debord noted in his 1989 note on the Theses. Marx’s early conception of the intersection of a radical philosophical project and a proletariat struggling to overcome their respective alienations and separations amidst the commercial wastelands of a fledgling industrial capitalism would become a central point of refence for the situationists. Indeed, Debord considered that in Marx’s notion of the congruence of the self-abolition of philosophy and the proletariat could be found a process akin to the various artistic avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries—all of whom appeared to move inexorably toward the progressive destruction of traditional aesthetic and artistic truth. It is here, in the artistic lineage of the SI that one can, perhaps, find the formal antecedents of the Hamburg Theses—the ‘height of avant-gardism’ as Debord called them.

Much as the Comte de Lautréamont and Stéphane Mallarmé had announced and celebrated the shipwreck of language and poetry in Les Chants de Maldoror and Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, as Kazimir Malevich had paused on the representational abyss of the destruction of the art-object in his painting White on White, and as André Breton caught sight of the marvellous amidst the drab of everyday art and alienation, so too Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Attila Kotányi and Alexander Trocchi pushed on to the limits of expression given the prison house of the commodity and its various alienations. To manifest the anti-manifesto, and to leave nothing to posterity but the fading and fallible memory of the passage of a few persons through a rather brief unity of time.

As a young Letterist, Debord had set his sights on destroying the cinema, making a film in which the Letterist effacement of the cinematic image was taken to its extreme. In his film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade(1952), all the images were eliminated to leave a blank screen during its projection, variously white or black depending on the dialogue that was left to occasionally mark the film’s 80-minute run. A few years later, reacting against the nihilist tendencies of his Letterist and International Letterist days, Debord argued that the coming Situationist international must constitute ‘one step back’ from such an ‘external opposition’ to art.[19] The point, for Debord, was never one of re-entering the artistic domain under the banner of the SI but rather investigating the possible uses to which artistic practices could be deployed in developing the situationist hypothesis of the constructed situation. Having increasingly encountered the limits of such experimental use between 1957 and 1961, Debord and his circle forced the issue, breaking the SI away from the artistic morass it had fallen into in order to better chart the new waters of an avant-garde practice at once political and artistic—as much as it proposed, simultaneously, to supersede both. However, this was not a return to the heady days of Letterist nihilism. And the Hamburg Theses is perhaps the most singular proof of this. When Debord spoke of it as ‘the most mysterious, and also the most formally experimental [text] in the history of the SI’,[20] his reference was no longer the impasse of formal destruction that he had faced in his film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade. Rather, the Hamburg Theses, even as it embodied the destruction of form, posed the positivity at the heart of the situationist project: namely, that most pressing question of how best to bring about a social order conducive to the free play and construction of situations as outlined at the founding of the SI.

Anthony Hayes
May, 2022

This post also appears here.


[1] Two slightly different versions of Debord’s 1989 note exist. The first, published in 1997, excised the name of the original addressee, Thomas Y. Levin, from the text of the note. The second, published in 2008, reinstated the full text of the note as it was originally conceived: as a letter addressed to Thomas Y. Levin in November 1989. See, respectively, Guy Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989],’ in Internationale situationniste : Édition augmentée, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1997; Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Thomas Levin, Novembre 1989—Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste),’ in Correspondance, volume 7, janvier 1988 – novembre 1994, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2008.

[2] Internationale Situationniste, ‘La Cinquième Conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg,’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962).

[3] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[4] This is an excerpt from my new translation of Debord’s 1989 note/letter on the Hamburg Theses. For details of the original French version, see footnote 1, above.

[5] See, respectively, ‘Unconditional Defence’ and ‘Instructions for an Insurrection’, both from IS no. 6 (August 1961). For more on the brief relationship between the SI and Socialisme ou Barbarie, see Anthony Hayes, ‘The Situationist International and the Rediscovery of the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement,’ in The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook, ed. Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, London: Pluto Press, 2020.

[6] Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’, IS no. 9, August 1964.

[7] Situationist International, ‘The Counter-Situationist Campaign in Various Countries (excerpts)’, IS no. 8 (January 1963).

[8] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[9] Ibid.

[10] As Debord noted in a letter to his old Letterist comrade, Ivan Chtcheglov, even though publishing the journal could be ‘tiresome’ and prone to ‘inevitable defects’, it remained ‘one of our only weapons’, ‘a living voice […] to envision supersessions more precisely’. Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Ivan Chtcheglov, 30 avril 1963,’ in Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001.

[11] Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Raoul Vaneigem, 15 février, 1962,’ in Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001, p. 127. Italics in the original.

[12] Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’, IS no. 9 (August 1964).

[13] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[14] Internationale Situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.,’ Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (Avril 1962).

[15] Karl Marx, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction [1844],’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works Vol. 3, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 183.

[16] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 4, thesis 123.

[17] G.-E. Debord, ‘L’avant-garde en 1963 et après,’ in Guy Debord Œuvres, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[18] Situationist International, ‘Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature’, IS no. 8 (January 1963).

[19] Guy Debord, ‘One Step Back [1957],’ in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2004.

[20] Debord, ‘Lettre à Thomas Levin, 1 septembre 1989.’

Robert Silverberg Downward to the Earth

I have often imagined a review that never ends, that contains every review that has ever been or ever will be written, snaking on and upward, from ruminations on Gilgamesh to who knows what works the future will bring. But it’s not this one, this is just one of the leaves in that review to come, that has never been and perhaps never will…

fig. 1. The copy I read has this cover. It effectively conjures the elephant-like Nildoror, and Gundersen in futuro-retro-1970s garb, gripping his chest anxiously. Cover art by Stuart Hughes.

It is common to describe science fiction as a literature that projects the concerns of the present into an imaginary future. From this perspective, there are those critics and fans that hail science fiction as the royal road to all that is unconscious in the present. Left or right, hard or soft, SF flows from the space-time of its composition. How else could it be? Unless, perhaps, the author was themselves caught up in an SF story, like a hapless protagonist in a Barry Malzberg story, little suspecting their present was doubly fictional, caught in a reductio ad absurdum with appropriate recursive details.

Like most clichés, this well-worn one that SF is just about its present has a lot going for it. We are encouraged to decode the concerns of the author to find traces of our world in their fantasies of tomorrow. What’s less clear, to my mind, is why we should only be concerned with the present as some type of absolute fact of composition.

Our present reality is a strange science fictional beast indeed. It recalls to me Karl Marx’s belief that in capitalist societies the ‘past dominates the present’. Marx’s argument was that by virtue of the twin principles of social organisation in capitalism, the accumulation of wealth by way of the exploitation of wage labour, the past comes to dominate the present. More poetically he put it thus: ‘The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living’. The situationists called this ‘dead time’. The experience of wage labour—with its dull rhythms and repetitions subservient to the needs of business and wealth—is it most obvious manifestation.

Once the entire planet had been made over, industrialised into a single market in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science fiction appeared to cheer this vision and chase it across the Earth and the dream of beyond. Dead time is the true subject matter of science fiction, just as science fiction is the poetry of dead time. SF sings of technological alienation, of rockets and of man. Which is not to say that it does not have its own beauty. At its best, SF dreams of overcoming the present dominated by the past; at worst, it endlessly projects the living death of the capitalist present ever on into a future without respite.


The past dominates the story in Downward to the Earth. However, Silverberg endeavours to interrogate this dominance, in the guise of the central protagonist, Edmund Gundersen, and his quest for the redemption of past sins. Indeed, the author does not spare us with a flattering image of our present projected into his fictional future. And yet, in the person of Gundersen, he holds out the possibility of meaningfully reckoning with the missteps of past crimes.

The outline of the story is simple. Gundersen returns to the planet Belzagor to seek redemption. In the course of this tale, he travels upriver to the Mist Country where the inhabitants undergo a mysterious rebirthing ceremony. There, the possibility of transcendence beckons—a familiar trope in this high period of Silverberg’s writings (1967-75). Along the way, Gundersen revisits the old places of the colonial occupation and some of the people who remained behind. In the guise of these characters, old friends, colleagues, a former lover, Seena, and his travelling companion Srin’gahar, an indigenous Nildoror, Gundersen successively throws off the memories of a past that still weighs upon him.

Belzagor. That’s what they called the planet now. The native name, the nildoror’s own word. To Gundersen it seemed like something out of Assyrian mythology. Of course, it was a romanticized pronunciation; coming from a nildor it would really sound like Bllls’grr.[1]

A revealing episode near the outset of Gundersen’s journey upriver is given in a brief discussion between him and his travelling companion, Srin’gahar, the Nildoror. Scratching a map into the dirt, Gundersen attempts to engage Srin’gahar in a discussion regarding the course of their journey. Quickly, we discover that for the Nildoror the map is quite literally not the territory. Bereft of analogues of the human hand, not only do the Nildoror have no written language, equally they have no experience of the abstractly symbolic, whether picture or text. It is in this passage, and later, in the even more elusive chapter on the mysteries of rebirthing, that Silverberg truly renders the alienness of his aliens. No doubt humanity lived its long dream without need or desire for a written language until relatively recently, and yet along the way it fashioned abstract symbols all the same. The idea of an alien intelligence without any need or desire for such abstraction, and so perforce literally at one with their ephemerality, intrigues me no end. Indeed, it reminds me of Guy Debord drawing attention to the systematic abstraction that is entailed in our world of dead time and the commodity-spectacle:

Workers do not produce themselves, they produce a power independent of themselves. The success of this production, the abundance it generates, is experienced by the producers as an abundance of dispossession. As their alienated products accumulate, all time and space become foreign to them. The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map that is identical to the territory it represents. The forces that have escaped us display themselves to us in all their power.[2]

Under the influence of the Nildoror, Gundersen’s journey from his past as a colonial agent is clearly a movement from the map to the territory, from abstraction downward to the earth.

The worldbuilding of Belzagor is one of the most astonishing aspects of the novel. The two sentient species Silverberg populates the planet with, the elephant-like Nildoror and the less seen Yeti-like Sulidoror, are well realised. One could perhaps mistake Silverberg for merely fashioning yet more dubious versions of racist stereotypes. Certainly, the Nildoror and Sulidoror are variously represented as noble, and sometimes savage. But they are never merely this. Silverberg uses them as more than simply a foil to the ‘civilised’ Gundersen. Indeed, Gundersen’s desire to understand the significance of the rebirthing ceremony points to a more potent message that is suggested, in part, in the Debord quote above. It is not that we have simply lost something in the fall into civilisation and abstract culture; rather, the desire to overcome abstractions as truly abstract and wholly autonomous, remains an urgent need.

Unfortunately, Silverberg is unable to extend his sensitivity for the colonised to a more full-blooded representation of human women, or rather the only significant woman in the story: Seena, Gundersen’s former lover. I’m not the first to remark on this common failing of Silverberg. To my mind this is precisely a failing of his future imaginary, his succumbing to the worst ideas and practices of the time in which the novel was composed. Which is all the more striking considering that Silverberg was not insensitive to the stupidities and impositions of hierarchical society. To be fair to him, he is not completely unaware of his failings in this regard. For instance, consider the dolphin protagonist of ‘Ishmael in Love’ (1970), and his somewhat hilarious if still limited comments on the nature of heterosexual male desire in the human. And once one gets past the voyeuristic male gaze that has no equal in his descriptions of Gundersen and the other men in the novel, Seena is more than a simple carboard cut-out as one finds written by too many of Silverberg’s male contemporaries.

In part, Silverberg’s models Gundersen’s quest upon that of Marlowe’s in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He even goes so far as to include a character called Kurtz, who like his namesake in Conrad’s novel operates as a narrative pivot, but nonetheless somewhat differently in Silverberg’s story.

Given the influence of Conrad, what is striking about the human empire that had once ruled Belzagor is its antiquated character. It is patently modelled upon the colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries—most obviously, upon the Congo that had only gained its independence from Belgium some 8 years before Downward to the Earth was published. Considering that Silverberg has little to say about the whys and wherefores of this empire of the future, I will forgive him this anachronism. Simply because he does not use the empire in the usual science fictional way, as a somewhat exotic backdrop that too often affirms the prerogatives and crimes of the actual empires that litter our history. Refreshingly, Silverberg interrogates the brutal truth of empire, on Earth as much as in his fictional setting—and so perforce as it is often unthinkingly used in SF.

Another clear influence upon Silverberg’s novel is the work of J. G. Ballard. One episode, in which Seena tells Gundersen about the fate of a co-conspirator of Kurtz, reminded me of Ballard’s story, The Crystal World:

He was staying at Fire Point, and went out into the Sea of Dust and got some kind of crystalline parasite into a cut. When Kurtz and Ced Cullen found him, he was all cubes and prisms, outcroppings of the most beautiful iridescent minerals breaking through his skin everywhere. And he was still alive. For a while.[3]

Ballardian tropes are scattered throughout the novel. The Drowned World is here, shipwrecked in Belzagor’s humid jungle, alongside other evocations of ruin and cold melancholy: the dilapidated hotel, the abandoned, overgrown colonial stations, the futility of struggling against entropy. Downward to the Earth is at once homage and elaboration that wears its influence proudly.

fig. 2. On the left, one of René Magritte’s illustrations of Les Chants de Maldoror; on the right Félix Vallotton’s fanciful portrait of Isidore Ducasse, aka Comte de Lautréamont. Magritte’s drawing illustrates a scene from the first canto, presumably when Maldoror seduces and destroys the young boy. I like to imagine that this creature is also the one Gundersen encounters in the abandoned company station in chapter eight.

I believe that another, more obscure force worked itself upon Silverberg here. It can be found in the suffixes that Silverberg used for his indigenous aliens: the Nildoror, Sulidoror, and especially the dumb Malidaror, a ‘semi-aquatic mammal’ that we briefly encounter in chapter four. They all, especially the latter, seem to descend from the unspeakable lineage of the eponymous protagonist of that strange, disquieting nineteenth century anti-novel, Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont. Am I merely imagining this? I know that Silverberg had some encounter with Lautréamont. He is mentioned in passing in his much-admired novel Dying Inside. Though again, perhaps he betrays the influence of Ballard. In a Vermillion Sands short story, ‘Cry Hope, Cry Fury’ (1967), Ballard has his protagonist not only reading Les Chants de Maldoror, but appropriately dogged by a Maldororian character. Of course, I may be wrong regarding the influence of Lautréamont upon Silverberg. I hope—inevitably a wretched and sickly hope—that the connection exists. And if you don’t believe me, as Lautréamont remarks in the final line of Maldoror, go and see for yourselves.[4]


I first read Robert Silverberg as an 8- or 9-year-old. It was his first novel, Revolt on Alpha C, published 1955. It is a very different beast to Downward to the Earth. And yet there are structural similarities. Both novels revolve around a choice made by the protagonist, one that must lead either to destruction or transformation—or possibly both.

Revolt on Alpha C is a kids book with classic SF tropes: dinosaurs, rayguns, space-time overdrive and thus, necessarily, rocket ships. It became one of my early templates for SF—which is no bad thing. Remarkably, for my childish and impressionable mind, it had a positive representation of revolution, based upon the Revolutionary War in North America in the 1770s and 80s. Thank you, Robert Silverberg. And thank you, decade of the 1970s, and for the many and varied realities and representations of revolution and revolutionaries in the mass popular culture of the day, even if most of them were cast as dastardly and bad. Silverberg’s was an exception. Come join the revolution on another planet, he said. Was it this call that lodged in my infant brain?

fig. 3. The Scholastic Book Services version of Revolt on Alpha C. Permanently burnt into my longterm SF imaginary. Cover art by William Meyerriecks.

My tumble into Silverberg’s work, though long, has been occasional. After reading and rereading Revolt on Alpha C as a child, I didn’t read him again for many years, and not so successfully. I recall trying to read The Time Hoppers (1967) and not finding it of much worth. Though this review makes it sound like a cool, Philip K Dick gem of a story—could I have been so wrong? Horses for courses as they say. A slew of excellent Silverberg short stories from the mid-sixties made me realise that I was perhaps being unfair by thinking of him fondly only for that slight tale of Space Academy Patrol cadets Larry Stark and Harl Ellison of the starship Carden mucking about on Alpha C IV. And please excuse me for thinking that it is more than merely a coincidence that the ship’s name is also a nom de plume of Cornelius Castoriadis, sometime revolutionary and theorist of Socialisme ou Barbarie. For with a mind made of correlations and paranoias what else could it be?

It wasn’t until I read the excellent ‘Passengers’ (1968), and then not long after Hawksbill Station, both novella and novel in rapid succession, that it was confirmed for me that Silverberg was worth more than a cursory look. But even then, I was confused, mostly because I had read both versions of Hawksbill together. To my mind the novella is the better realisation. The novel adds superfluous detail that only detracts from the horror at the centre of the story. Reading it so soon after the excellent novella only detracted from the latter. And so more years passed before I found myself here. And on my way I recently read the review of Hawksbill Station at Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it. Reading and talking about Silverberg got me to thinking and wanting to read and talk some more about Silverberg. Good fortune: I already had a copy of Downward to the Earth. And so, my review. Is it here that it begins just when it looked like it was ending?


[1] Robert Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, London: Pan Books, 1978 [1969], p. 7 (chapter 1).

[2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, [1967] 2014, thesis 31.

[3] Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, p. 97 (chapter 9).

[4] Comte de Lautréamont, ‘Maldoror [1869],’ in Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2011, p. 219. Translation modified. Note that if Silverberg used an English translation of Maldoror before 1970 he would not have had access to Alexis Lykiard’s excellent version. The only widely available English translation at the time was Guy Wernham’s 1943 version, newly reprinted in a 1966 New Directions paperback. I can see a project taking shape: perusing all citations of Maldoror in science fiction, hidden or explicit. Written up, it would resemble Ballard’s superlative short story, ‘The Index’ (1977).

Babylon in the Sky—Edmond Hamilton

fig. 1. Amazing Stories, March 1963, cover by Lloyd Birmingham, “illustrating Babylon in the Sky” according to the editorial page.

Edmond Hamilton’s late work, Babylon in the Sky (1964), is not a great work. It may not even be a good work. And yet it is competently written and relatively short and to the point. If I were to choose a Hamilton work to recommend to a newcomer, it would not be this one. A better place to start would be among his wonderfully elegiac late works like Requiem (1962) and The Pro (1964); his bleak What’s It Like Out There? (1952); or, not to neglect his early pulp efforts, the melancholic In the World’s Dusk (1936), the superlatively fecund Alien Earth (1949), and his rip-snorting horror adventure—and first published work—The Monster-God of Mamurth (1926).

So why write about Babylon in the Sky? In short, you will lose little if you just skip reading it. Nonetheless, the work itself has a fascinating central conceit: a world split between the creative thinkers and doers ensconced in orbital cities, and the rest of the populace back on Earth rendered largely superfluous to the requirements of a fully automatic production process.

Why were we left behind? an earthbound lay preacher muses as the story opens:

Because we weren’t good enough. Because we don’t worship the right gods, the gods of the machine that can’t make a mistake. Because we don’t speak the right language and don’t have a lot of fancy letters after our names.

Unfortunately, Hamilton does little with his interesting premise. As has been pointed out by another reviewer, the story does not rise above banal propaganda, reading more like a compressed paean to an Ayn Randian division of the world, no doubt beloved of many a fascist SF fan-boi then and since. His viewpoint character, Hobie—literally hobbled by the hierarchical class structure projected into space—turns from anger at his treatment at the hands of the overlords of the Earth to one of actively accepting their rule, once everything has been rationally explained to him. Ah, science.

fig. 2. Two page spread opening the tale in Amazing Stories. The Lloyd Birmingham illustration is possibly the best thing about the story, fist raised against the sky…

I read Hamilton Babylon in the Sky hoping that I could find aspects that would resonate with the near contemporaneous “New Babylon” of that sometime member of the Situationist International, Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka “Constant”—see my discussion of the science fictional aspects of Constant’s “New Babylon” here). The resonance, though apparent in the story, transmits on an opposing wavelength. Whereas Constant’s New Babylon poses the breakdown of the capitalist hierarchy founded on alienated wage labour and the accumulation of capital, Hamilton’s Babylon in the Sky is the further projection of this self-same hierarchy into space. Indeed, the idea of the ruling elites ensconced in space cities above the bulk of humanity reminds me of nothing so much as Marx arguing—with and against Ludwig Feuerbach—that the divine hierarchy is no more than the earthly one projected into an imaginary beyond:

Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice.[1]

In Hamilton’s story the ruling class have literally established themselves “as an independent realm in the clouds”. However, Hamilton’s rulers have finally resolved the “the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness” of their earthly basis: automation has rendered all manual labour superfluous. By the early 1960s the trope of the coming world of automation, material abundance and “leisure” had become something of a cliché, in the capitalist West as much as the state-socialist East. What today seems horribly naïve given the industrialised destruction of the planet alongside the ongoing domination and intensification of alienated work, was then a central plank of the reigning ideology.

In truth, the capitalist utopia of a world finally “freed” of labour is nothing more than the guilty conscience of a ruling class. Having turned the entire world into a vast workhouse of exploitation and profit, the capitalist class have long waxed lyrical about the moral and material benefits of an order built upon genocide, outright slavery, forced labour and concentration camps. That their order has produced more misery, not less, can today be simply gauged. After all, what other society has brought the entirety of the human species—amongst others—to the brink of mass extinction?

No doubt it is too much to leave these charges solely at Hamilton’s doorstep. That he produced an uninspired and even boring take on the question of automation, material abundance and the class division surely does not mark him out from many of his contemporaries. For more assured and interesting science fictional takes I would recommend Philip K. Dick’s Autofac (1955) or Frederick Pohl’s The Midas Plague (1954) for starters.

Hamilton is a peculiar figure in SF. From his first published fiction in 1926 he quickly established a reputation in the burgeoning pulp science fiction scene of the US in the late 1920s and 30s. He flourished throughout the 1930s and 40s, and reached a zenith of sorts with his dominant involvement in the Captain Future pulp series (1940-51), and the first of his Star Kings novels (1949). Hamilton’s star began to fade, however, under the impact of the so-called revolution brought on by John Campbell in the late 1930s and 40s. Nonetheless, Hamilton was never simply a one-dimensional pulpster. One of his great shorts, What’s It Like Out There? (1952), was worked up from an earlier draft dating from the 1930s. Its grim tone and downbeat ending found no home in the pulp scene of the ’30s and had to wait until the more stylistic tolerant 1950s—not to mention a substantial rewrite. Check out Joachim Boaz’s review and extensive discussion of this work for more information.


[1] Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach [1845]’, in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works, Vol.5, New York: International Publishers, 1976, p. 4 (thesis 4).

Surrealism: an irrational revolution

fig. 1. Preparing to attack.

A PDF of this document can be found here. Note that there are some differences between the version presented below and pdf (most notably, the complete bibliography is only available in the pdf version).

This has also been posted on Notes from the Sinister Quarter.

Surrealism: an irrational revolution

by Guy Debord

Translator’s Introduction

In September 1968 a brochure entitled Le Surrealisme: une revolution irrationnel (Surrealism: An irrational revolution) was published under the Encyclopédie du monde actuel (EMDA) imprint—one of its monthly Cahiers de l’encyclopédie du monde actuel (Notebooks from the Encyclopedia of the Contemporary World). The author of this booklet was Guy Debord, despite no author being attributed on the brochure.

Considering the distinctly non-situationist nature of its publication (more on this below) Debord’s essay on surrealism is, perhaps, not one of his major works, despite being his longest published piece upon the subject. Nonetheless, it demonstrates two things very clearly: first, his familiarity with the surrealists; and secondly, the importance of the surrealist project, as it was originally conceived, for the situationists. And, despite the situationists never been named throughout the essay, Debord cunningly inserts them implicitly into the last line when he quotes André Breton as seer: “It will fall to the innocence and to the anger of some future men to extract from Surrealism what cannot fail to be still alive, and to restore, at the cost of a beautiful ransacking, Surrealism to its proper goal.”[1] By Debord’s reckoning the situationists simply were those other horrible workers Rimbaud had foretold.[2]

Particularly striking, in the introductory section of the essay, is Debord’s synthetic account of the “self-annihilation”, “dissolution” and “destruction” that appeared in poetry and painting in the century before the surrealists. Debord had been refining his critique of what he also called the “decomposition of culture” since the 1950s. Scattered over various, mostly brief articles, one can find the elaboration of the situationist critique of “decomposition”, as well as elements of an historical account of its development across the arts, culminating in the “active decomposition” of Dada and Surrealism.[3] Certainly, a more theoretically nuanced elaboration of the self-abolition of culture and the decomposition of modern art can be found in chapter 8 of The Society of the Spectacle. But it is only here, in Debord’s essay on surrealism, that one can find in such succinct detail an account of the “self-annihilation” that appeared in the poetry and painting of the European avant-gardes. Debord’s essay is thus both accomplice and extension of his more explicitly situationist writing on the question.

Debord situates the Surrealists at the confluence of the revolutions of the early twentieth century. Not only the growing self-consciousness of the dissolution and destructive elements of Modern Art, but also in the phantastic eruption of psychoanalysis and, most importantly of all, “the last great offensive of the revolutionary proletarian movement” between 1917 and 1937.[4] There is no doubt that the fortunes of Surrealism and Dada are bound up with the insurrections and social dislocations of their time, a fact that the Surrealists became fitfully aware of and anxiously engaged with almost from the moment they marked out their anti-empire of dreams. Debord, though, is clear: the fortunes of revolutionary Surrealism faded with the defeat of the proletarian revolutionary movement. Which is not to say that he agreed with Surrealism’s chief failing in the face of the French Communist Party’s attempts to make them submit to their diktat (or better, disappear). As Debord wrote, regarding the pivotal importance of the poetic in the situationist conception of revolution,

[t]he point is not to put poetry at the service of revolution, but to put revolution at the service of poetry. We do not intend to repeat the mistake of the surrealists, who put themselves at the service of the revolution right when it had ceased to exist.[5]

Organised Surrealism eventually overcame its dalliance with and subjection to Stalinism, and this is to its credit. However, it was arguably too late to matter. Despite their efforts to constitute a revolutionary pole outside and against the French Communist Party—for instance in the anti-fascist Appel à la lutte, and the short lived Contre Attaque group—the results were ambiguous to say the least. After the Second World War, notwithstanding the ongoing activity of organised Surrealism and the obvious influence it exerted upon the post-war avant-gardes, the height of Surrealism’s revolutionary moment lay firmly in the past.


The imprint under which Debord’s essay appeared, Encyclopédie du monde actuel (EMDA), was a commercial project and resembles, in its aims, the various collectible encyclopedias I recall occasionally buying from newsagents in my youth and adolescence in Australia in the late 1970s and 80s. See here for a detailed account, in French, of EDMA and its various offshoots.[6]

The ex-Situationist, Donald Nicholson-Smith, has said,

The participation of the “situationist group” in […] [EDMA] wasn’t official. There were a few small-paying jobs to which some members of the SI devoted themselves. The work consisted in drafting “EDMA cards” and, eventually, monthly booklets. (Each perforated card included a 500- word-long text; each booklet contained around 30 illustrated pages.)[7] 

Debord’s booklet on Surrealism was one of many monthly booklets published under EDMA between November 1965 and November 1975. For instance, Mustapha Khayati wrote booklets on Marxism (translated and available here) and the Persian Gulf, and Raoul Vaneigem wrote a booklet on post-Second World War French poetry. Another booklet on Modern Painting, though written by a situationist, remains unattributed.[8]

Nicholson-Smith has recounted how he and his wife, Cathy Pozzo di Borgo, led their comrades into this publishing project, though he notes that it was hardly treated seriously by them, either as work or as an expression of situationist activity:

These editorial activities certainly couldn’t be described as “situationist.” Nevertheless, specific points of view are sometimes discernible in them. […] We were grosso modo [roughly] compensated per piece and individually by Editions Rencontre. This activity was, for all of us, as tedious as it was pleasant. Each person tried, in a general manner, to bypass or slyly parody the official constraints of “objectivity.”[9]

In the example of essay on Surrealism, the gist of Debord’s irony is surely contained in the subtitle.


All footnotes are mine. I have attempted to find, where available, English translations of all the works Debord cites in his article on Surrealism. In those cases in which I have been unable to find an extent translation, I have left the cited title in the original French. Further, in order to not overburden the translation with more footnotes than I have already provided, I have only footnoted references to works in those cases where Debord has quoted from them. Otherwise, information on available translations of other titles cited by Debord can be found in the Bibliography at the end.

Thanks to Peter Dunn and Alastair Hemmens for comments and help with the translation. Needless to say, all errors of meaning and style are attributable solely to me.

Anthony Hayes
Canberra, June 2021

Surrealism: an irrational revolution

by Guy Debord

First published in Notebooks from the Encyclopedia of the Contemporary World (Cahiers de l’encyclopédie du monde actuel), Number 35, September 1968

There is hardly an aspect of modern life that is not more or less profoundly marked by surrealism—whether the arts, literature, advertising, or even politics. The modes of thought and creation elaborated by André Breton and his disciples have exploded everywhere—even still, when its subversive intent disappeared. Where did surrealism come from? Who were its adepts? And how has it evolved?

I. Origins

The crisis of poetry

1. Passionately partisan toward all the irrational aspects of human existence, the Surrealist movement is nonetheless the product of rationally understood historical conditions. It can seem that all modern culture was kept waiting over the last century for this ultimate moment. Such a process was first recorded in the history of French poetry. For instance, the founders of surrealism in Paris in 1924, all originally poets, acted on the basis of this primal experience.

2. Heralded by long-neglected tendencies in Romanticism—e.g., the extremist “Bouzingos”,[10] and the dream-work of Gérard de Nerval—the current which asserted itself around Charles Baudelaire in 1860 can be defined as that of the autonomy of poetic language. Henceforth, poetry—which is to say the people who wanted a poetic use of language—rejected all reasoning beyond itself and gave itself the goal of contemplating its own power. While undertaking the demolition of all conventional forms of expression, this poetry simultaneously set itself against the society whose values it denied and proclaimed itself in revolt against “bourgeois” order. Such poetry rejected everything in the world that was not poetry, while progressing toward its self-annihilation as poetry.[11]

3. This dissolution—manifest in the Symbolist era to the highest degree by Mallarmé, whose work was a progression to silence (“Verse has been tampered with”[12])—had arrived with the irruption of Rimbaud, with its new free language and surprisingly dense imagery. The Surrealists are the descendants of Rimbaud. Having wanted “the systematic derangement of all the senses,”[13] Rimbaud was finished with poetry by the age of 20, signifying the insufficiency of writing by fleeing to the antipodes after 1873.

4. More than in Rimbaud, the Surrealist subversion of language found its consummate model in the writings of the “Comte de Lautréamont”, aka Isidore Ducasse: Maldoror and the Preface to a then unknown work entitled Poésies. Lautréamont introduced into poetry a principle of destruction that did not come into more general use until later, and which was more radical than the Rimbaldian shock that dominated the years immediately after Lautréamont’s death at twenty-four in 1870. Unnoticed at the time, and still barely registered by the Symbolist critique twenty years later, Lautréamont’s œuvre would be rediscovered and promoted by the Surrealists. Lautréamont combined to an extreme a mastery of the powers of language and their self-critical negation. He reversed all the givens of culture and bequeathed to surrealism its definition of beauty: “beautiful […] as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”.[14]

5. Before 1914 the consummation of the process of the internal destruction of the old poetic forms was pursued by: Alfred Jarry (principally in the theatrical “Ubu” cycle); in some aspects of the work of Apollinaire—“Oh mouths men are looking for a new language”[15]—the theoretician of The New Spirit in art and poetry (e.g., the suppression of punctuation in his collection Alcools and his later “conversation poems” [16]); the Futurist poetry initiated by the Italian Marinetti, which had Russian partisans—notably the young Mayakovski; and the pre-Dadaism of the poet-boxer Arthur Cravan, who become in the Great War “a deserter from seventeen countries”.[17] In Zurich in 1916 the Dada Movement was founded, in which the poem was reduced to the juxtaposition of independent words by Tristan Tzara (“thought is made in the mouth”[18]); and ultimately to onomatopoeia by Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters.

Destruction in Modern Art

1. In the other principal field of what would become the artistic expression of surrealism—painting—an analogous movement of liberation and negation was produced in parallel with that determining the stages of innovation in modern poetry. Impressionism, inaugurated in the works of Edouard Manet and Claude Monet, broke with academic representation and submission to the anecdotal subject from around 1860. The autonomous assertion of painting was founded on colour and moved toward an always more radical challenge to the accepted norms of figuration.[19]

2. Toward the end of the century, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin pursued this research. Of these painters, Gauguin formulated the best program by writing that he “wanted to establish the right to dare everything”.[20] The Fauvism of their successors would, in turn, be surpassed around 1907 by the Cubism of Braque and Picasso. In the Cubist painting the represented object itself was disintegrated, beyond the perspective constructed amidst the Italian Renaissance.

3. Around 1910, an extreme tendency in Expressionism—a current principally from Germany and Northern Europe, whose content was explicitly linked to a social critique—constituted the “The Blue Rider” [Der Blaue Reiter] group in Munich, whose experiments in pure form led to abstraction: Paul Klee remaining on the frontier with Kandinsky the first to fully establish himself there. A little bit later Malevich’s “suprematism” consciously attained the supreme stage of the destruction of painting. Having exhibited a simple black square painted on a white background in 1915, Malevich painted a white square on a white background in 1918 during the Russian Revolution.

4. The anti-painting of the Dadaist movement more immediately determined the Surrealist explosion: collage, mixing image and writing, the correction of famous paintings (the Mona Lisa adorned with a moustache), and directly provocative objects like the mirror in which art lovers see only their own faces exhibited under the title of Portrait of an Imbecile (Portrait d’un Imbécile). Above all this absolute extremism was embodied in the work of Francis Picabia. Additionally, Giorgio de Chirico’s anxious portrayal of constructed landscapes in his “metaphysical phase” (before 1917) constituted one of the sources of Surrealist sensibility in painting and elsewhere.

5. Another decisive experiment for Surrealist painting was conducted by Marcel Duchamp. From 1912 he restricted himself to signing “readymade” objects, while composing a painting on glass which he left unfinished after many years of work: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even(La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même). Echoing the disdainful refusal which Rimbaud was the model for, Duchamp abandoned art from around the First World War, and for the last fifty years has been principally interested in the game of chess. His prestige has always been great among the Surrealists, none of whom have pushed contempt for artistic activity as far as he.

Freud and the exploration of the unconscious

1. The thought and affectivity that would define the Surrealist movement was influenced by the many challenges that exploded amidst the different disciplines of knowledge at the turn of the century. All these disputes converged on the refusal of Cartesian rationalism, which had reigned universally for a time in the history of European society. The old image of the world was shattered by anthropological ethnology, the appreciation of non-European and primitive art, Einstein’s theories of space-time relativity, and Planck’s discoveries of the structure of matter. Meanwhile, society itself was being called into question in certain respects through the dialectical thought originating with Hegel. However, at surrealism’s birth nothing produced an impact as decisive as that of the Freud’s psychoanalysis.

2. Freud’s discoveries of the role of the unconscious, repression, the interpretation of dreams, “Freudian slips”, and the aetiology and repression of neuroses, appeared in the last years of the 19th century. By 1910, Freudianism had become an international movement developing a theory and therapeutic. But in France, as in countries more generally submitted to the influence of Catholicism, psychoanalytical thought remained almost unknown and derided—even after the First World War. Psychoanalysis would find itself received in the poetic avant-garde in advance of its appearance in the medical milieu.

3. André Breton, who studied medicine, was one of the first defenders of Freud in France. Breton would derive a new form of poetry—automatic writing—from the Freudian technique of spontaneous association, and unveil it in his 1921 book, The Magnetic Fields, written in collaboration with Phillipe Soupault.[21] For surrealism, automatism—by which the creativity of the unconscious is recorded—represented the same method, now rationally understood, that accounted for the poetic language of Lautréamont and Rimbaud, and even the entire share of actual poetic creation evident in the bulk of poetry from previous times.

4. Surrealism considered that the possible uses for Freud’s discoveries went far beyond the foundation of a new poetry. They were also a perfect weapon for the liberation of human desire. Although such an interpretation did justice to the more revolutionary side of Freud’s work, it could not fail to oppose the conformist tendencies that remained in his social thought. The Surrealist position was comparable rather to Wilhelm Reich’s or the interpretations that have been presented in the wake of Herbert Marcuse’s. But a more fundamental misunderstanding arose from the unilateral Surrealist choice in favour of irrationalism, taken so far as a belief in occultism. Freud, on the contrary, always scientifically pursued an enlargement of the rational.

The malaise in civilisation

1. In the Surrealist revolt, what unified both the refusal of the old poetic conditions and the refusal of all moral and social values, was the experience of the First World War—into which the future Surrealists had for the most part been thrown. From the brutality of the conflict and the absurdity of the social order which imperturbably reconstituted itself upon its ruins, Dada drew its absolute and collective violence—which, in the troubled Germany of 1919, mingled with the attempted worker revolution of the Spartakists.[22] Surrealism did not retreat from the perspective inherited from Dada. In a social milieu less extensive but longer lived, it would incarnate a total critique of dominant values.

2. The Surrealist movement declared itself the radical enemy of religion, nationalism, the family and morality. It took up, with a vigour accentuated by the surprising forms of its language, all the positions of extremist anarchism (adding to it both a negation of science and common sense). It saluted in the work of the Marquis de Sade an exemplary manifestation of revolutionary thought.

3. Dostoyevsky stated that “without God […] everything is permitted”.[23] The Surrealists came to think this exactly—that everything is possible—and this euphoric confidence strongly coloured the first years of the movement. To their social critique (the first issue of the journal The Surrealist Revolution announced, “it is necessary to formulate a new declaration of the rights of man”[24]), they joined a firm belief in the magically efficacious value of poetry pushed to the absolute extreme. “In solving the main problems of life”,[25] the dictates of the unconscious would substitute itself for other psychic mechanisms.

4. From its first appearance, Surrealism was thus a report on the historic bankruptcy of bourgeois society—though only grasping the latter on the spiritual plane. It perceived and denounced the crisis of the bourgeoisie as being essentially a crisis of its psychic mechanisms, from which the Surrealists expected a concrete liberation resulting from the discovery of other psychic mechanisms. The disillusionment of the Surrealists regarding these soon led them to face the alternative of either acknowledging the need for a revolutionary struggle within present-day society, or simply accepting their self-imprisonment in the artistic representations they wanted to surpass—the latter being the sole area of the real world that their surrender to the dictates of the unconscious could effectively transform.

II. Aims and themes

The dictatorship of the dream

1. André Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) opens with a contemptuous critique of real life. “Man, that inveterate dreamer” is satisfied by nothing, except the memories of childhood.[26] The imagination alone gives access to “the true life” that Rimbaud said was absent.[27] The dream and poetry freed of all conscious control are indiscriminately translations of this. One moves toward “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality”.[28]

2. In the idealism of its first phase, surrealism defined itself as an insurrection of the spirit. In the third issue of The Surrealist Revolution, the insulting ‘Address to the Pope’ declared “no words can stop the spirit,” and the eulogistic ‘Letter to the Buddhist schools’ said that “logical Europe crushes the spirit endlessly […].”[29] At the same time the movement reproduced, somewhat abusively, a phrase of Hegel’s on a card:[30] “One cannot expect too much from the strength and power of the spirit”.[31]

3. To say everything is to completely reject the tyranny of social and mental rationality.[32] Surrealism was defined by Breton as, “pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern”.[33]

4. Surrealist poetry, “ultimately, can do without poems”.[34] However, inseparable from the possibility of saying everything must also be the possibility of doing everything. Although the desire to carry out revolutionary action in the real world quickly led Surrealism to various tactical considerations, the Second Manifesto of 1930 would still evoke, to the end of expressing its revolt, “the simplest Surrealist act,” which would consist of “shooting at random, for as long as you can, into the crowd”.[35] The Surrealists would take up the defence of some contemporary criminal actions: the Papon sisters who slaughtered their employers,[36] and Violette Nozières who killed her father.[37]

“Change Life”

1. In seeking to apply Rimbaud’s watchword, (“change life”), by identifying it with one of Marx’s, (“transform the world”), the Surrealists in practice relied upon collective experimentation with specific processes.[38] Automatic writing was initially expanded upon during the “time of trances”—in which speech was given in a hypnotic state, notably by Robert Desnos.[39]

2. The founders of the Surrealist movement, individually and as a group, practiced a systematic wandering in everyday life (this was foreshadowed, in a derisory fashion, towards the end of their participation in the French Dadaist movement with the organised visit to the Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre church[40]). A group would randomly walk along roads, departing from a town arbitrarily chosen on a map. Breton would write, in Nadja, that his steps carried him “almost invariably without specific purpose” toward the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle; or that every time he found himself at the Place Dauphin, he felt “the desire to go somewhere else gradually ebbing”.[41] Aragon, in Paris Peasant, would evoke the passages of the 9th arrondissement and the nocturnal exploration of Buttes-Chaumont.[42]

3. Without doubt, the most immediately effective technique by which the Surrealists modified their conditions of existence, and the reactions of their entourage, was the deliberate recourse to collective scandal. For example, the sabotage of conferences and theatrical performances;[43] the insults and violence at the banquet given in honour of the poet Saint-Pol-Roux;[44] and the insulting pamphlets against Paul Claudel, or when Anatole France died (A Corpse).

4. But the quest for the marvellous—of encounters expected from “objective chance”, which is the very response that desire called for, when passing by bizarre objects whose meaning is unknown, such as those discovered in the flea markets of Saint-Ouen[45]—would finally play out around encounters with other people: friendship and love. On the Rue de Grenelle, the Surrealists opened a “Centre” in which any who could respond to aspects of their research were invited to present themselves. A text of Breton’s, entitled ‘The New Spirit’ and collected in The Lost Steps, related the attempt, inexplicably impassioned, of finding an unknown person that Aragon and himself had successively seen some moments before in the street.

5. The most famous of these meetings was with the young woman, Nadja, reported by Breton in the book which bears her name. Nadja was spontaneously Surrealist. Dream and life were mixed-up for her. Freudian slips and coincidences directed her behaviour. In the end, she was committed to an insane asylum. With regards to this, Breton’s comment, “all confinements are arbitrary,” reminds us that surrealism, though often attracted to explore the boundaries of madness, denied that we could precisely define its frontier.[46]

Surrealist values

1. “The word ‘freedom’ alone is all that still excites me”, wrote Breton in the first Manifesto.[47] The entirety of the Surrealist movement can be defined as the expression and defence of this central value. They identified it with the revolt against all constraints which oppressed the individual—first by affirming an absolute atheism. The cause of freedom drove surrealism to rally around the perspective of social revolution, and then to denounce its authoritarian falsification.

2. For Surrealism, passionate love is the moment of true life (even in realist poetry). A life which deploys itself in the dimension of the marvellous, which abolishes the repressive logic that is inseparable from the dominant productive activity. Even though Surrealism declared itself in favour of the general liberation from morality, as well as saluting the emancipatory value of the “utopian” critique of Fourier, more restrictively its own conception of love was in principle monogamous (above all through the impact of Breton’s personal influence).[48] The Surrealists would chiefly exalt “mad love, unique love”.[49]

3. The reign of poetry as a unitary reality—well beyond poems or fugitive poetic moments that dispense “at well-spaced out intervals” a grace which opposes itself “in all respects to divine grace”[50]—depends upon the hypothesis that “there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions”.[51] The “determination of this point” has been the essential motive of Surrealist activity (Second Surrealist Manifesto).[52] In its research, Surrealism wanted to mix the most modern and diverse experimental means with the occultist tradition.

4. Although they wanted to guard against defining an aesthetic or even attaching any importance to artistic activity as such, Surrealism traced a distinct definition of beauty, certainly applicable beyond the artistic universe, but in actuality rendered in the determinate artistic creations the Surrealists nonetheless furnished: for instance, the “convulsive beauty” that Breton announced at the end of Nadja.[53] Envisaged solely for “passionate ends”, it is the beauty born from the “puzzling” encounter with new relations emerging between objects and existing facts.[54]

The means of communication

1. Above all, surrealism found expression in painting and poetry. In these it obtained the most remarkable results. Automatic writing—of which Breton would say that its history is that of a continuous misfortune[55]—was quickly abandoned to the profit of a partially worked-up poetry.[56] Painting followed two principal directions: the exact reproduction of elements whose coexistence appeared contradictory (e.g., Magritte); and a formal freedom which constituted an enigmatic ensemble (e.g., Max Ernst).

2. Surrealism produced films within the narrow limits imposed upon it by the problems of economics and censorship. It sought a fusion of poetry and plastic expression in the poem-object. The dream accounts and various formulas for irrational collective play were also the “fixed forms” created by its activities.[57] Except in the case of the Belgian Surrealist André Souris, surrealism was not preoccupied with music, in which the contemporaneous experiments of Edgar Varese (after the semi-Dadaism of Erik Satie) pushed toward the general course of artistic dissolution. In principle Surrealism was contemptuous toward the novel, ignoring James Joyce, whose work marked the complete destruction of this genre by way of a liberation of language the counterpart of that which had ruined the old poetry. In contrast, surrealism did not intervene in architecture due to its lack of material means. Nonetheless, the Surrealists paid the utmost attention to some of the free creations and dreamlike currents in this domain: that of Postman Cheval[58] and Gaudi in Barcelona.

3. The critical activity of surrealism was considerable. This was primarily the case in the accounts of its own research into the dream and life (e.g., Nadja, Communicating Vessels). Increasingly, and in parallel, there was also the rediscovery and re-evaluation of past cultural works, both in painting—from Bosch to Arcimboldo—and among writers. The Anthology of Black Humour presented by Breton constituted the most famous monument of this latter aspect of the Surrealist oeuvre.

4. The theoretical and programmatic work which accompanied all the stages of the movement was principally carried out by André Breton. In Surrealism’s first phase, one must add to Breton’s Manifestoes, the writing—in different ways—of Pierre Naville, Antoine Artaud, Louis Aragon and Paul Nougé.[59] Later, Pierre Mabille (Egregores) and Nicolas Calas (Hearths of Arson) attempted a deepening of theory.[60] At the end of the Second World War, Benjamin Péret in The Dishonour of the Poets would defend the Surrealist positions on poetry and revolution, against the formal and political reaction of patriotic poetry.[61]

III. The men and their work

André Breton

1. The principal works by which André Breton asserted himself as the leading theoretician of surrealism were: The Lost Steps (1924), Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), Introduction to the Discourse on the Paucity of Reality (1927), Nadja (1928), The Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930), Communicating Vessels (1932), Mad Love (1937), and Anthology of Black Humour (1940).

2. Though his theoretical activity has long inclined cultivated opinion to underestimate Breton’s poetic work—to the advantage of those Surrealists considered more specifically poets (notably Paul Éluard)—today it is difficult not to recognise the highest poetic accomplishment of the movement in André Breton’s oeuvre. His principal publications are: Earthlight (1923), Free Union (1931), The Revolver with the White Hair (1932), Fata Morgana (1940), and Ode to Charles Fourier (1945).

3. André Breton’s activity as a critic, often mixed in with those of his books that should rather be designated theoretical works (in particular, The Lost Steps and Anthology of Black Humour), was also deployed, throughout his life, in a great number of articles and prefaces that considered all those old and contemporary works—from Maturin to Lautréamont, and from Germain Nouveau to Maurice Fourré—that could be related to the Surrealist spirit. In 1949, he unmasked—upon a first reading—a supposed unpublished work of Rimbaud’s, which had been authenticated by experts (documents pertaining to this collected in Flagrant délit).

4. One must reserve a special place for his critical and theoretical work on painting. It is expressed in books (from Surrealism and Painting in 1928 up until L’Art magique in 1957, the latter work in collaboration with Gérard Legrand), and in the numerous prefaces for exhibitions, which toward the end of his life became his principal work.

5. Finally, the most irreplaceable part of Andre Breton’s activity was his role as instigator and ringleader of the Surrealist movement, which, since its origin, has been identified with his life. Breton was the strategist of the entire struggle.

The Surrealist poets

1. Of all the early Surrealists, Benjamin Péret (1899-1959) remained ever faithful to the initial project—just as nothing corrupted the friendship that bound him to Breton. As well as fighting for the Spanish Revolution in the POUM militia, all his life Péret chose subversion, which he expressed in the supremely free form and content of his poetry: Dormir, dormir dans les Pierres (1925), From the Hidden Storehouse (1934), and I Won’t Stoop to That (1936).[62] His entry of the poem ‘Epitaph for a monument to the war dead’ into an Académie Française competition has been noted as the greatest scandal a Surrealist poem ever provoked.[63]

2. Paul Éluard (1895-1952) was the first Surrealist to be recognised as possessing the qualities of an authentic poet—despite belonging to the movement. After Capital of Pain (1926), he would publish several collections which benefited from a certain notoriety: Love, Poetry (1929), La Vie immédiate (1932), La Rose publique (1934), and Cours naturel (1938). Abandoning surrealism in 1939 to rally to the French Communist Party, Éluard was the author who maintained the most personal tone during the Resistance.

3. In contrast to his poetic collections—Le Mouvement perpétuel (1925), Persécuté, Persécuteur (1930)—Louis Aragon contributed, above all, to Surrealist expression in his prose works: Paris Peasant (1926) and Treatise on Style (1928), after producing one of the major works of the pre-Surrealist period: Anicent or the Panorama (1921). However, it was the polemics and prosecutions set in train by his political poem ‘Red Front’ in 1931 that produced his rupture with his Surrealist friends. Aragon joined with the Comintern line, and from then on dedicated himself to a militant and didactic poetry (e.g. Hourra l’Oural!, 1936), consisting of a return to traditional versification, which was to blossom in his neo-classical poems of the Resistance (‘Le Crève-Cœur’, 1940—‘La Diane française, 1945).

4. A little earlier, in 1930, Robert Desnos (1900-1945) renounced the “essential, unforgettable role”—as Breton emphasised in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism[64]—which he had played from the beginning of surrealism (Mourning for Mourning, 1924, Liberty or Love, 1927), to dedicate himself to a restoration of regular verse. He remained faithful to a political engagement which led him to the Resistance and then to his death in a Nazi concentration camp.

5. Many other poets embellished surrealism: Raymond Queneau,  René Char, Tristan Tzara (for a brief time after Dadaism and before he joined the French Communist Party), Jacques Prévert (almost all of his work would only be published 15 years later), and in his youth, Aimé Césaire. The Belgian, Henri Michaux, should be mentioned separately, because he never belonged to the movement, but drew close to it through an undeniably similar inspiration.

The painters and other artists

1. Undoubtedly Max Ernst is the greatest of Surrealist painters. Consistently exemplifying the Surrealist sensibility, Ernst experimented with all the possibilities taken up by subsequent painting: from his work Friends Reunion (Rendez-vous des Amis) (1922), constructed according to the aesthetic of the collage and heralding “pop-art”, to the lyrical abstraction of Europe After the Rain (L’Europe apres la Pluie) (1940-42), which, at the time of the Second World War marked out the path for “action painting”.

2. The Belgian René Magritte (1898-1967), upon discovering his own expressive form at the beginning of surrealism, e.g. The Lost Jockey (Le Jockey perdu), for ever after remained faithful to such precise figurative representations of impossible meetings—of which The Empire of Lights (L’Empire des Lumières), painted after the last war, is perhaps the most striking realisation.

3. Many other painters, originally from various other countries, participated in the Surrealist movement (Hans Arp, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Victor Brauner, Salvador Dali, Oscar Dominguez, Wolfgang Paalen, Roberto Matta, Toyen, Arshile Gorki), or were to some degree influenced by its results and momentarily fell under its sign.

4. Furthermore, surrealism has defined the work of many other creators operating in other arts. For instance, the American photographer Man Ray, and the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (the latter for a brief time until the early nineteen thirties). Undoubtedly, the most celebrated example is that of the cineaste Luis Buñuel. In 1929 he realised, in collaboration with Salvador Dali, the short film The Andalusian Dog (Un Chien andalou), and in 1931, the longer film The Golden Age (L’Age d’Or), which was almost immediately sabotaged by activists of the extreme right and then banned by the police. In both films lies the essential expression of cinematic surrealism.

The lost poets

1. If many of the original and later participants abandoned the Surrealist revolt after a time to settle down under various artistic styles, some, on the contrary, disappeared by living this revolt to the absolute extreme—and the refusal it proclaimed. They were swept away by the madness and despair that constituted the other face of the Surrealist demand for total liberation.

2. The most well-known case is that of the poet Antonin Artaud (Umbilical Limbo, 1924[65]). An actor as well, Artaud conceived a “theatre of cruelty” (i.e. direct aggression aimed at modifying the existence of the spectator), which is today at the centre of the most advanced theatrical research. Entirely devoted to an all-consuming metaphysical revolt, and quickly proving incapable of following the attempts at political revolution which preoccupied his comrades, Artaud was soon alone, and then found himself locked away for many years in an asylum where he wrote the astonishing Letters from Rodez. He would die soon after the Second World War, released but by no means pacified (e.g., To Have Done with the Judgement of God).

3. Leaving no other work apart from the texts collected in 1934 under the title Papiers Posthumes,[66] Jacques Rigaut openly displayed his passion for suicide, comparable to that which would later rule over the Italian writer Cesare Pavese. But what was an “absurd vice” to the latter, appeared a logical necessity to Rigaut the Surrealist. He played a part in that borderline tendency of surrealism that was always inclined to contemptuously judge the acceptance of the existing conditions that evidently included Surrealist activity—despite its extreme declarations. Some years before his death, at the beginning of the movement, Rigaut would address this critique: “You are poets, whereas I am on the side of death”.[67]

4. A similar desire for self-destruction possessed René Crevel, author of the story Difficult Death (1926), and the violent pamphlet Le Clavecin de Diderot (1932). In 1925, in the second issue of The Surrealist Revolution, Crevel responded quite positively to an enquiry entitled Is suicide a solution?: “Human success is fake money, lubricant for wooden horses. […] The life that I accept is the most terrible argument against myself”.[68] In 1935 he would commit suicide according to a procedure he described exactly in his 1924 book, Détours.

5. It is necessary to place Jacques Vaché here too, who killed himself some weeks after the 1918 armistice. He had written that “I object to being killed in wartime”.[69] Met by the young André Breton in 1916 in a military hospital in Nantes, Vaché certainly exercised the stronger influence. He diverted [détourné] Breton from what still attracted him to the vocation of poet.[70] Vaché lived and affirmed a “theatrical and joyless futility of everything”.[71] Nothing of modern culture—Alfred Jarry excepted—could resist his systematic disdain. Though dead before knowing of Dada, Vaché prefigured its general attitude. As in the case of Rigaut, the sole book of Vaché’s that exists, War Letters (1919), is a posthumous collection, only containing the rare letters that he wrote, almost all of which are addressed to Breton.

IV. The history of the movement

The revolt of the spirit

1. Napoleon’s celebrated remark to Goethe, “Destiny is politics”, can be applied more absolutely to the destiny of surrealism than all other modern adventures. Surrealism quickly found itself desiring to surpass its pure voluntarism of the spirit in order to meet political reality—first as progress, then defeat. Surrealism never went beyond this defeat, and all the parallel attempts that wanted to repeat the “automatic” innocence of its beginnings were simply disgraceful repetitions.[72]

2. The idealism of surrealism’s first phase was expressed in its most extreme form by Louis Aragon. Having evoked “senile Moscow” in his contribution to A Corpse (devoted to the death of Anatole France), he found himself entangled in a polemic with Jean Bernier, editor of the communist review Clarté.[73] In the second number of The Surrealist Revolution Aragon responded: “You have chosen to isolate as a prank a phrase which testifies to my lack of appetite for the Bolshevik government, and with it all of communism. […] I place the spirit of revolt well beyond all politics. […] The Russian Revolution? forgive me for shrugging my shoulders. On the level of ideas, it is, at best, a vague ministerial crisis. It would really be prudent of you to treat a little less casually those who have sacrificed their existence to the things of the spirit.”[74]

3. Above all under the influence of Antonin Artaud, the third number of The Surrealist Revolution (April 1925) was almost entirely dedicated to a hymn for the East—in which its thinking, pessimism, and even mysticism, is clearly preferred in its entirety to the technical logic of the West.[75] Asia is the “citadel of all hopes”.[76] But it is always a question of its thought. Nevertheless, for Artaud this coexistence of purely metaphysical demands and theatrical preoccupations would lead to his expulsion the following year.

4. In the same year, 1925, the Rif rebellion in Morocco—repressed with difficulty by the united action of the French and Spanish armies—gave the Surrealists the opportunity to intervene on the political terrain. In common with the editors of the journals Clarte and Philosophies (Norbert Guterman, Henri Lefebvre, Georges Politzer), they signed the manifesto The Revolution First and Always (October 1925) which declared, “We are not utopians: we conceive this Revolution only in its social form.”[77]

5. In 1926, Pierre Naville would go even further, in his essay La Révolution et les Intellectuels—Que pensent faire les surréalistes ?[78] He would rally entirely to Marxism, presenting the proletarian struggle as the sole concrete perspective and would thus quit the Surrealist movement.

In the service of the revolution

1. Under the pressure of these experiences, the Surrealists became close to the French Communist Party. Breton, who declared himself a partisan of all revolutionary action in July 1925, “even if it takes as its starting point the class struggle, and only provided that it leads far enough,”[79] joined the Communist Party a year later, at the same time as his friends Aragon, Éluard, Péret and Unik. They presented their position in the brochure Au Grand Jour (1927).[80]

2. The disillusion was rapid. The communists showed a keen distrust of all those who adhered to strange, independent preoccupations. Breton could not bear the trivial militantism that they wanted to impose upon him.[81] At the same time they deplored the respect that the communists showed for those that the Surrealists had condemned as bourgeois cultural trash (e.g., Romain Rolland, Henri Barbusse). The Surrealists’ opposition did not extend to an analyse of the evolution of either the Russian regime or the Communist International in the previous decade. So recently born from the desire “to have an end to the ancient regime of the spirit”,[82] the Surrealists would attribute the weakness of the Party at this moment strictly to its “materialist” and political functions, founded uniquely on its defence of “material advantage” (Breton, Legitimate Defence).[83]

3. Additionally, another tendency was constituted from Surrealism. Rejecting its politicisation, this tendency would evolve into a revival of literary activity by rejecting the group discipline that established Surrealism. The essence of this current’s common expression was the revolt against Breton, who was identified—not without cause—with such discipline. Breton was the target of the virulent A Corpse of 1930, written by Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert, Robert Desnos, Michel Leiris, and Georges Bataille.[84] Though never a member of the Surrealist group, Bataille gathered for a time the dissidents around his journal Documents.

4. From 1930 the journal of the movement (which would cease to appear in 1933) changed its title, becoming Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution. Breton’s circle was dissatisfied with the Communist Party but declared that they would place themselves at the command of the Third International. Contrary to their opponent, Pierre Naville, who had become a partisan of Trotsky’s and his International Left Opposition, the Surrealists remained oriented toward the orthodox Communist organisation while claiming to keep their distance.

5. This ambiguous position would lead to a new crisis for Surrealism. In 1931 Aragon and Georges Sadoul rallied completely to the Communist line and renounced their Surrealist friends.[85] In 1933, Breton, Éluard and Crevel were formally excluded from the Party, because of an article in the Surrealist journal written by Ferdinand Alquié, which denounced “the wind of cretinization blowing from the USSR”.[86]

Surrealism alone

1. In France, after the fascist coup attempt of 6 February 1934, the Surrealists took the initiative of issuing a Appel à la lutte [Call to Fight],[87] which would become the first platform of the future Vigilance Committee of Intellectuals.[88] This committee, which demanded that worker organisations realise “unity of proletarian action”, would play a role in the origins of the Popular Front of 1936 in France.[89] But while the formation of the Popular Front would result in the dissipation of the contempt nourished among the left against the Communist Party—even silencing those critiques considered detrimental to common action (the intellectual milieu notably would orient itself toward a sympathetic position with the Communist Party)—the Surrealists would always find yet more adversaries in the Party, and so become more isolated. In 1933, in the brochure On the Time When the Surrealists Were Right, they denounced Soviet Russia and its “all-powerful leader under whom this regime is turning into the very negation of what it should be and what it has been”.[90]

2. The Surrealist declaration, The Truth About the Moscow Trials, read by Breton at a meeting on 3 September 1936, asserted: “we consider the verdict of Moscow, and its execution, to be abominable and unpardonable. […] We believe such undertakings dishonour a regime for ever.”[91] Stalin was denounced as “the great negator and principle enemy of the proletarian revolution.”[92] Further, “Defence of the USSR” must be replaced with the slogan “Defence of Revolutionary Spain”.[93] The same declaration saluted the revolutionary forces of the CNT-FAI and the POUM, and announced that the Stalinists “who have entered into a pact with the capitalist states, are doing everything in their power to fragment these elements [i.e. the CNT-FAI and the POUM].”[94] In 1937 the Surrealists were among those who attempted to mobilize international opinion by revealing the persecutions against the POUM and the sabotage of the Spanish Revolution. But alas, already in vain.

3. The final political foray by surrealism was made in 1938 in accord with Trotsky, exiled in Mexico. It was based upon an “International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art”, through which they wanted to associate independent artistic creation with authentic revolutionary struggle.[95] The manifesto, written by Breton and Trotsky, but signed in place of the latter by the painter Diego Rivera, declared: “If, for the development of the material forces of production, the revolution must build a socialist regime with centralized control, then to develop intellectual creation, an anarchist regime of individual freedom must be established and assured from the very beginning.”[96]

4. The Second World War scattered the Surrealists. Breton, Péret, Tanguy, and Calas would go to the Americas,[97] whereas Éluard remained in France and definitively rallied behind the French Communist Party. It marked the end of Surrealism’s political action, and, at the same time, the termination of the truly creative phase of the movement: almost all the most important books of Surrealism had been published before 1939. The most notable artists had already appeared and had produced the essentials of their œuvre, on which they would continue to work thereafter.

5. The nineteen thirties, in which the “Surrealist revolution” met with total defeat, linked to the collapse of revolutionary perspectives across the world and the concomitant rise of fascism and the march to the Second World War, was also the time in which Surrealism became better known in many European countries, the United States, and Japan—and in which different affiliated groups were established. Several “International Expositions of Surrealism”—the first in London in 1936, the second in Paris in 1938—have demonstrated the artistic richness of the movement.


1. In France, after the war, the importance of surrealism was admitted, though initially in a paradoxical fashion. Many former Surrealists were recognised as having major artistic or literary value, but for personal works after their passage through the movement. For instance, Raymond Queneau for his novels (Pierrot mon ami, 1943, The Skin of Dreams, 1945), and his poems; Michel Leiris for his autobiography Manhood (1939); Jacques Prévert, who, with Paroles (1946) was the most popular poet of the time. Aragon and Éluard were recognised as masters of the poetry of the Resistance. Similarly, Tzara, who was also a poet of the Communist Party, though less representative. René Char, former Maquis leader, attained a certain notoriety with his Leaves of Hypnos. Henri Michaux was also discovered. Likewise, among the painters, it is Dali—having become Catholic and Francoist, and a methodical self-publicist—who offered the public a somewhat altered vision of Surrealism. In contrast, the movement was almost unknown in its real history, and figured no more in the actual avant-garde of the development of ideas. This role was now taken up by Existentialist thought and the literary productions of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Maurice Mereau-Ponty.

2. Nonetheless, as the fashions and enthusiasms of the post-war dissipated, Surrealism took its place as the principal current in modern art. A number of books contributed to illuminating this role: Maurice Nadeau’s History of Surrealism, Ferdinand Alquié’s Philosophy of Surrealism, Victor Crastre’s André Breton and Ado Kyrou’s Le Surrealisme au Cinema.[98] At the same time, the resumption of diverse cultural experimentation necessarily led to the acknowledgment of Surrealism’s contribution, insofar as it embodied almost the totality of “avant-garde” results which had to be surpassed.[99] Many foundational Surrealist books were republished in the years immediately prior to this.

3. During the entirety of this time a Surrealist group continued to exist around André Breton. The group expressed itself in a succession of journals: Medium, Le surréalisme, même, and La Brèche. The latest to date is Archibras.[100] This group, composed chiefly of young adherents faithful to Surrealist orthodoxy, preserved a formal functional likeness with surrealism before the war. For instance, it decided upon several exclusions (notably that of Max Ernst, who accepted a Prize from the Venice Biennale).[101] It cannot be said that these epigones produced any striking work whatsoever. The main change in the thought of the group was constituted by an always more distinct recourse to occult interpretations, i.e., from the “Great Initiates” to Gnosis.[102]

4. Without doubt the central contradiction of surrealism was to produce a new artistic era based on the radical refusal of art. Surrealism has always been, nonetheless, conscious of this difficulty. Knowing well that it must reach beyond the artistic world, it attempted to finally break through this frontier—along which it still meanders—by way of revolutionary practice and its expectation of finding a sort of magical path. This paramount incompatibility was aggravated by circumstance: Surrealism found its time dominated by the contradiction of the revolutionary process itself. It did not clearly recognise this contradiction and reacted to the collapse of revolutionary perspectives by reinforcing its tendency to believe in traditional magic.

5. It is in such an art wrapped in magic (an art moreover that should comment upon itself rather than produce more in order to be finished with art) that Surrealism placed its last hope. It is permissible to think that the results of such a great human project are a little paltry, and that so many of its novelties have fallen into a well-worn conformism. Nonetheless, there remains the example of a demand that bears upon the entirety of life, and the fact that this protest found its own language. Perhaps the last word on the irreducibly successful part of the Surrealist adventure can be found in this prognostication from Breton’s Second Manifesto of Surrealism: “It will fall to the innocence and to the anger of some future men to extract from Surrealism what cannot fail to be still alive, and to restore, at the cost of a beautiful ransacking, Surrealism to its proper goal.”?[103]


[1] André Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, in Manifestoes of Surrealism, ed. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 164. Translation modified. No doubt Debord considered the Situationist International precisely as these future men beautifully ransacking the Surrealist project.

[2] See, Arthur Rimbaud’s letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871, in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition (2005). In the early days of the Situationist International, Debord presented the group as precisely the “movement Breton promised to rally to if it were to appear”—a promise that he never kept (at least by situationist reckoning). See, Situationist International, ‘The Sound and the Fury [1958]’, in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[3] The classic early iteration of Debord’s critique of decomposition can be found in Report on the Construction of Situations (1957). However, its successive elaboration and transformation, particularly as it pertains to both the critique of Dada and Surrealism, and the emergence of the later critique of “recuperation”, can be traced through the following articles: One More Try if you Want to be Situationists (1957), The Sound and the Fury (1958), The Meaning of Decay in Art (1959), All the King’s Men (1963), The Situationists and the New Forms of Action in Politics and Art (1963), Captive Words (1966) and On the Poverty of Student Life (1966).

[4] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, [1967] 2014, thesis 191.

[5] Guy Debord, ‘All the King’s Men [1963]’, in Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[6] André Decollogny, Portrait d’une encyclopédie de l’actualité : Encyclopédie du monde actuel EDMA (Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Bibliothécaire, 1977).

[7] Donald Nicholson-Smith, ‘On the Encyclopédie du monde actuel. Remarks collected by Gérard Berréby’, translated by NOT BORED! (2014).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jean-Francois Martos calls the Bozingos (Fr.: “les Bousingots”), an “extremist fringe” of Romanticism, “who appeared in France after the revolution of 1830, and who the Dadaists recognised as their forebears”. See, Jean-François Martos, Histoire de l’internationale situationniste, Paris: Éditions Ivrea, [1989] 1995, p. 83. Bohemian poets and artists, their members included Petrus Borel, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, Philothée O’Neddy, Xavier Forneret and Aloysius Bertrand. For a brief account of the Bouzingos, see, Enid Starkie, ‘Bouzingos and Jeunes-France’, in On Bohemia: The Code of the Self-Exiled, ed. Cesar Graña and Marigay Graña, London: Routledge, 2017.

[11] In sum, Debord’s perspective on the movement of decomposition in poetry—and by extension all of the arts.

[12]On a touché au vers ” Literally, “we have touched upon the verse” or more colloquially, “we meddled with the verse”, or even “we have struck a blow against verse”. See, Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Music and Letters [1895]’, in Divagations, ed. Barbara Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 2007, p. 183.

[13] Debord misquotes Rimbaud: “le dérèglement systématique de tous le sens”. The reference is to Rimbaud’s letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871: “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement [dérèglement raisonné] of all the senses.”. See, Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Wallace Fowlie ; updated and revised by Seth Whidden, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 306, 307.

[14] Comte de Lautréamont, ‘Maldoror [1869]’, in Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2011, p. 193 (sixth canto). Translation modified. For more on the surrealist definition of beauty see section II below, ‘Surrealist values’, point 4.

[15] Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Victory (La Victoire)’, in Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), ed. Anne Hyde Greet, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, p. 336, 337.

[16] The term “conversation poems” [“poèmes-conversations”] was used by Apollinaire to describe his use of snippets of overheard conversations in some of his poetry. See, for instance, the poems ‘Les Fenêtres’ (Windows) and ‘Lundi Rue Christine’ (Monday in Christine Street) in Guillaume Apollinaire, Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), trans. Anne Hyde Greet, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

[17] André Breton, Anthology of Black Humor, trans. Mark Polizzotti, San Francisco: City Lights Books, [1940/5] 1997, p. 255 (‘Arthur Cravan’).

[18] Tristan Tzara, ‘[Dada] manifesto on feeble love and bitter love [1920/21]’, in The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, ed. Robert Motherwell, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1981, p. 87.

[19] For an account of Impressionism and its milieu, somewhat influenced by Debord’s critique, see T. J. Clark, The Paiting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his followers, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

[20] See, Paul Gauguin, The Writings of a Savage, trans. Eleanor Levieux, New York: De Capo Press, 1996, p. 214 (Letter to Monfreid, October 1902, Marquesas Islands). Translation modified.

[21] The Magnetic Fields [Les Champs magnétiques] was first published in 1920.

[22] For more on the Spartakist Bund and the German Revolution of 1919, see, Gilles Dauvé and Denis Authier, The Communist Left in Germany 1918-1921, trans. M. DeSocio[1976] 2006; Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917-1923, trans. John Archer, Leiden: Brill, [1971] 2005.

[23] See, Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, New York: Everyman’s Library, [1881] 1992, p. 499 (part III, book 9, chapter 7, ‘Mitya’s Great Secret. Met with Hisses’). The argument regarding “everything is permitted” is first presented in part II, book 5, chapter 5, ‘The Grand Inquisitor’.

[24] This demand was inscribed on the front cover of the first issue of The Surrealist Revolution. I suspect its origin was as a sign at the Central Bureau of Surrealist Research, 15 Rue de Grenelle—cf. Louis Aragon, ‘A Wave of Dreams (Une vague de rêves) [1924]’.

[25] The citation is in fact a détournement of a negative assessment of Surrealism that the surrealists published alongside other such examples in the first issue of The Surrealist Revolution (p. 25), under the title of ‘Extracts from the Press’. The entire citation, from L’Echo d’Alger, reads: ‘Surrealism appears to be synonymous with dementia. If it succeeds in replacing other psychic mechanisms in solving the main problems of life, we can abandon all hope of solving the problem of dear life.’

[26] André Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, in Manifestoes of Surrealism, ed. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 3.

[27] “La vraie vie est absente.” Wallace Fowlie translated this as “real life is absent”. See, Arthur Rimbaud, ‘A Season in Hell (Une saison en enfer) [1873]’, in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 280, 281 (Delirium I: The Foolish Virgin, The Infernal Bridgroom).

[28] Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, p. 14.

[29] Antonin Artaud, ‘Address to the Pope [1925]’, in Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations, ed. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Pluto Press, 2001, p. 142; Antonin Artaud, ‘Letter to the Buddhist Schools [1925]’, in Selected Writings, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 105. Translation modified.

[30] In 1924 and 1925 the Surrealist group made a series of small cards to publicise their existence, particularly that of the Central Bureau of Surrealist Research at 15 Rue de Grenelle, Paris. Some of the cards reproduced quotes from favoured writers; others had slogans that would in their turn became famously associated with the group—for instance: “Parents! Tell your children your dreams”, or “If you love, you’ll love Surrealism”.

[31] The phrase of Hegel referred to, appeared in his inaugural address at the University of Berlin in 1818: “One cannot overestimate the greatness and power of the spirit” (translation modified). In the context of his address, in particular the recent Napoleonic period, Hegel emphasised this “strength and power” not only as a moment of the struggle for independence from the recent French “tyranny”, but also its significance for “spiritual life in general”, and the pursuits of philosophy in particular. No doubt the surrealists “abuse” of this phrase was doubly ironic for Debord. It suggests both the weakness of the “strength and power of the spirit/mind [l’esprit]”, as well as precisely drawing attention to the chief contradiction of the surrealist project: that their revolution of the mind was never able to adequately address the historical materiality of the spirit. Indeed, the young International Letterist Debord attempted to address this question when he and his comrades détourned this abused phrase while addressing a question asked by the Belgian surrealist group in 1954: “Does thought enlighten both us and our actions with the same indifference as the sun, or what is our hope, and what is its value?” To which Debord and his comrades replied, in part: “This world was born of indifference, but indifference has no place in it. Thought is valuable only to the extent that it awakens demands and compels their realization. […] One cannot expect too much from the strength and power of the spirit.”

[32] The Situationist International considered “the insubordination of words” and “the assertion of the right to say everything” the radical pivot upon which the Dada and surrealist movements turned. See, Guy Debord, ‘All the King’s Men [1963],’ and Mustapha Khayati, ‘Captive Words: Preface to a Situationist Dictionary [1966]’, in Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[33] Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, p. 26. Translation modified.

[34] André Breton, ‘The Disdainful Confession’, in The Lost Steps [Les Pas Perdus], p. 7. Debord took up this claim of Breton’s in order to argue for its supersession: “it is now a matter of a poetry necessarily without poems”. See, Debord, ‘All the King’s Men [1963]’.

[35] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 125. Translation modified.

[36] In his A Cavalier History of Surrealism, the situationist Raoul Vaneigem writes that “it is hard, though, to explain the failure of the [Surrealist] group to raise a similar cry in support of the Papin sisters [as they did for Violette Noziere]” (p. 26). As far as I can tell, the Surrealist group did not release a dedicated pamphlet in support of the Papin sisters, as they did for Violette Nozière (see next footnote). They did, however, register their approval of the sisters’ murder of their bosses, in the fifth issue of Surrealism at the Service of the Revolution (1933).

[37] Note that Debord reproduces the Surrealist misspelling of the surname Nozière (i.e., by adding an “s”). For more on the Surrealist support for Violette Nozière, see the poem that Breton contributed to the pamphlet the group issued in support of her: André Breton, ‘All the curtains in the world… [1923]’, in Earthlight, ed. Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2004.

[38] At the end of his 1935 Speech to the Congress of Writers (a speech moreover that Breton had been prevented from giving in person due to his confrontation with one of the Russian Stalinist dignitaries attending), Breton had pointedly written: “Transform the world,” Marx said; “change life,” Rimbaud said. These two watchwords are one for us. See, Breton, ‘Speech to the Congress of Writers [1935]’, p. 241. We have seen above that the quote, “change life”, was taken from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. The Marx quote is adapted from the final thesis of his Theses on Feuerbach. In English this is rendered as “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” In French, “change” is rendered “transformer”—i.e., to transform of change.

[39] “L’époque des sommeils”—literally “the time of sleeps” or “period of sleeps”. I have used the same term—“the time of trances”—Richard Howard used to translate this phrase in his rendering of Maurice Nadeau’s The History of Surrealism (1965). Howard had previously rendered it both hilariously and inadequately as “Nap Period” in his 1960 translation of Breton’s Nadja (p. 31). For more on the “time of trances/period of sleeps”, see, André Breton, ‘The Mediums Enter [1922]’, in The Lost Steps [Les Pas Perdus], ed. Mark Polizzotti, [1969] 1996; René Crevel, ‘The Period of Sleeping Fits [1932]’, in Radical America: Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution, ed. Franklin Rosemont, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), 1970.

[40] For a detailed account of the Dadaist visit to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, see, Michel Sanouillet and Anne Sanouillet, Dada in Paris, trans. Sharmilia Ganguly, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, [2005] 2012, pp. 177-180 (chapter 12, The “Great Dada Season”).

[41] André Breton, Nadja, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Grove Press, [1928] 1960, pp. 32, 80.

[42] See, in particular, the sections, ‘The Passage de l’Opera’ & ‘A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont’, passim., in Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant [Le Paysan de Paris], trans. Simon Watson Taylor, London: Picador Classics, [1926] 1987, pp. 27-123, 125-202.

[43] For example, the disruption of the Polti banquet. See, Maurice Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, trans. Richard Howard, Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, [1944/1964] 1978, p. 103 (chapter 6).

[44] See, ibid., pp. 122-124 (chapter 7).

[45] See, Breton, Nadja, p. 52.

[46] Ibid., p. 141.

[47] Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, p. 4. Translation modified.

[48] For more details regarding their paradoxical positions on sexual morality, see Vaneigem’s A Cavalier History of Surrealism, pp. 49-51.

[49] See, in particular, André Breton, Mad Love [L’Amour fou], trans. Mary Ann Caws, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, [1937] 1987.

[50] Breton, ‘Preface for a Reprint of the [First] Manifesto (1929)’, p. xi. Translation modified. Note that the most commonly available translation, that by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, the translators have rendered Breton’s “une grâce que je persiste en tout point à opposer à la grâce divine” as “a grace I persist in comparing in all respects to divine grace”. A more faithful rendition would draw out Breton’s intent of confronting or opposing his conception of the grace of surrealist activity to that of the divine.

[51] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 123.

[52] Ibid., p. 124. Translation modified.

[53] The final sentence of Nadja reads: “La beauté sera CONVULSIVE OU ne sera pas.” “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE OR it will not be.” Breton, Nadja, p. 160. Translation modified.

[54] Ibid., pp. 159, 50. Translation modified. Note that Richard Howard renders “des fins passionnelles” as “for emotional purposes”, rather than the more appropriately surrealist, “for passionate ends”. Regarding “puzzling encounters” being the very stuff of “convulsive beauty”, recall how Debord (in section I above, ‘The crisis of poetry’, point 4), spoke of how Lautréamont “bequeathed to Surrealism its definition of beauty: ‘beautiful […] as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’.”

[55] “I will not hesitate to say that the history of automatic writing in Surrealism has been one of continuing misfortune [une infortune continue].” André Breton, ‘The Automatic Message [1933]’, in What is Surrealism? Selected Writings, ed. Franklin Rosemont, London: Pluto Press, 1989, pp. 100-101.

[56] I translate ‘une poésie semi-élaborée’ as ‘a partially worked-up poetry’. Debord’s intent is to show how far Surrealism had moved from its founding principles, i.e., ‘pure psychic automatism’ which was consciously opposed to the productions of art.

[57] For instance, perhaps the most famous of its games, ‘Exquisite Corpse’ (cadavre exquis), was in essence a word-game that can also be considered a collective engine for the production of surrealist poems.

[58] Consider Breton’s poem, ‘Cheval the Postman (Facteur Cheval) [1932]’, in Earthlight, ed. Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2004.

[59] There is next to nothing of Naville’s work available in English translation, at least from his period of membership of the Surrealist group, and in particular his important Marxist critique of Surrealism which marked the beginning of the end of his membership: La Révolution et les Intellectuels (1926).Artaud’s work has long been available in a variety of accessible translations—for more on Artaud see the section ‘The lost poets’, paragraph 2, below. Aragon until recently suffered a similar fate to many surrealists, but much of his work during his membership of the group (up until his departure for Stalinist climes) has now been translated. Unfortunately, more needs to be done on translating Paul Nougé’s work, some of which has now appeared in English, but so much more remains to be seen.

[60] Similarly, much of Pierre Mabille’s and Nicolas Calas’ most important Surrealist work has not seen translation into English. For the former, see Mirror of the Marvelous ( 1998).

[61] Péret targeted his former comrades Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, who had adopted uncritically the French nationalism espoused by the Communist Party during the war and occupation of France.

[62] Unfortunately, Péret’s literary work has received less attention from English translators and academics—perhaps due to his uncompromising radicality both artistically and politically. Selections from two of the listed works—From the Hidden Storehouse (De Derrière les Fagots), and I Won’t Stoop to That (Je ne mange pas de ce Pain-là)—are available in translation in Benjamin Péret, From the Hidden Storehouse: Selected Poems, trans. Keith HollamanField Translation Series 6, 1981; Benjamin Péret, Death to the Pigs: Selected Writings, London: Atlas Press, 1988.

[63] My translation of ‘Epitaphe pour un Monument aux Mort de la Guerre’ is available here: https://prolenoprole.home.blog/2019/04/25/.

[64] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 165. Translation modified.

[65] Published July 1925 by Editions de la Nouvelle Revue Française.

[66] Papiers Posthumes [Posthumous Papers] has not been translated in full into English. For selections, see both references to Rigaut’s works in the Bibliography below.

[67] See, Jacques Rigaut, ‘Pensées: Thoughts, Maxims, Jottings (A Selection)’, in Atlas Anthology III, ed. Alastair Brotchie & Malcolm Green, London: Atlas Press, p. 178 (no. 157). Translation modified.

[68] René Crevel and others, ‘Enquête : Le suicide est-il une solution ?’, La Révolution surréaliste, no. 2 (15 Janvier 1925), p. 13.

[69] See, Jacques Vaché, ‘War Letters [Lettres de Guerre]’, in 4 Dada Suicides, London: Atlas Press, 1995, p. 230, Vaché to Breton, 9. 5. 18 (Letter Eleven to André Breton).

[70] See, André Breton, ‘The Disdainful Confession [1923]’, in The Lost Steps [Les Pas perdu], Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996, p. 2.

[71] See, Vaché, ‘War Letters [Lettres de Guerre]’, p. 216, Vaché to Breton, X. 29-4-17 (Letter Four to André Breton).

[72] In this brief phrase we find the essence of Debord’s critique of the failings of the post-surrealist avant-gardes.

[73] For more on Aragon’s argument with Bernier, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, pp. 109-110 (chapter 7).

[74] Louis Aragon, ‘Communisme et Révolution’, La Révolution surréaliste, no. 2 (15 Janvier 1925), p. 32. What is most striking regarding the claim of Aragon’s “idealism”, is that he infamously joined up with the Stalinist inheritors of the Russian Revolution some six years after writing this. The insinuation here is that his “idealism” remained constant—both in terms of his unthinking criticism of the Russian Revolution, and his later embrace of the idealism of those Western leftists who excused the totalitarian horror of Stalinism in defence of its impossible ideal.

[75] For more on this, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, pp. 115-117 (chapter 7).

[76] Robert Desnos, ‘Pamphlet against Jerusalem [1925]’, in The Surrealism Reader: An Anthology of Ideas, ed. Dawn Ades, Michael Richardson, and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Tate Publishing, 2015, p. 103.

[77] Parisian surrealist group, ‘The Revolution First and Always! [La Révolution d’abord et toujours!] (1925)’, in Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations, ed. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Pluto Press, 2001, p. 96. Translation modified. For more on the relationship between the surrealists and the editors of Clarte and Philosophies, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 8, ‘The Moroccan War’, passim.

[78] ‘The Revolution and the Intellectuals: What do the surrealists think?’ Unfortunately, this important work has yet to be translated into English. For excerpts, and a discussion of its impact upon the surrealist group, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 9, ‘The Naville Crisis’, passim.

[79] André Breton, ‘Pourquoi je prends la direction de la révolution surréaliste’, La Révolution surréaliste, no. 4 (15 Juillet 1925), p. 3.

[80] Au Grand Jour (In Broad Daylight). I have not been able to find a complete English translation of this text. For discussion of its content and context, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 10, ‘Au Grand Jour’, passim.

[81] Debord would later develop a critique of such “militantism” as he saw it in the para-Trotskyist group Socialisme ou Barbarie during his brief membership, 1960-61. See, Guy Debord, ‘To the participants in the national conference of “Pouvoir Ouvrier”, 5 May 1961,’.

[82] Breton, ‘Pourquoi je prends la direction de la révolution surréaliste’, p. 2.

[83] Breton, ‘Legitimate Defence [1926]’, p. 33. The idea that the French Communist Party—and Marxism more generally—expressed a “vulgar” materialism, insofar as it was concerned with the material conditions of the proletariat’s life more than this life itself, would be taken up by Debord and the situationists as a part of their critique of the post-war “bourgeois idea of happiness” that permeated the revolutionary and non-revolutionary left. See, Situationist International, ‘Collapse of the Revolutionary Intellectuals (1958)’, Situationist International Online. For more discussion of the latter, with an eye to the context of the debate, see, Anthony Hayes, ‘The Situationist International and the Rediscovery of the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement’, in The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook, ed. Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, London: Pluto Press, 2020.

[84] Jacques Prévert, ‘A Corpse – excerpt (Une Cadavre) [1930]’, in The History of Surrealism, ed. Maurice Nadeau, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978. For more on the context of the writing of the 1930 A Corpse, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 12, ‘The Crisis of 1929’, & chapter 13, ‘In the Service of the Revolution’, passim. For Bataille’s illuminating account of A Corpse, written some years later, see, Georges Bataille, ‘Notes on the Publication of “Un Cadavre” ‘, in The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism, London: Verso, 1994.

[85] For more on this, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 14, ‘The Aragon Affair’, passim.

[86] Ferdinand Alquié, ‘Lettre à André Breton, 7 mars 1933’, Le Surréalisme au service du Révolution no. 5 (1933). For more on this text and its context, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 16, ‘Surrealist Politics’, passim.

[87] Dated 10 February 1934.

[88] The Vigilance Committee of Antifascist Intellectuals (Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascists) was founded in March 1934.

[89] See, Various, ‘Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascistes’ (accessed 9 April 2021).

[90] André Breton and others, ‘On the Time When the Surrealists Were Right (Du temps que les surréalistes avaient raison) [1935]’, in Manifestoes of Surrealism, ed. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 253. Translation modified; André Breton and others, ‘When the Surrealists Were Right (excerpts)’, in Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations, ed. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Pluto Press, 2001, p. 111.

[91] Breton and others, ‘Declaration: “The Truth About the Moscow Trials” (1936)’, pp. 117, 118.

[92] Ibid., p. 118.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Fédération internationale de l’art révolutionnaire independent, aka FIARI.

[96] André Breton, Diego Rivera, and [Leon Trotsky], ‘Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art [1938]’, in What is Surrealism? Selected Writings, ed. Franklin Rosemont, London: Pluto Press, 1989, p. 185. Translation modified.

[97] Breton, Tanguy and Calas would go to New York. Péret went to Mexico.

[98] Neither Crastre’s nor Kyrou’s books have been translated into English.

[99] Here, Debord is gesturing at the post-war avant-garde currents in Europe who were all consciously engaged with the legacy, and supersession of Surrealism and Dada: for instance, Revolutionary Surrealism, COBRA (aka The International of Experimental Artists), the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, Letterism, the Letterist International, and ultimately the Situationist International.

[100] Medium (1953-55), Le surréalisme, même (1956-59), La Brèche 1961-65) and Archibras (1967-69). All of these journals existed in the period after Debord’s own appearance in the milieus of post-war avant-gardism, i.e., in 1951. Perhaps this is why he failed to mention one other post-war surrealist journal, Néon (1948-49).

[101] In 1954—and consequently was expelled from the group.

[102] Breton would come to speak, in 1953, of the “poetic intuition […] finally unleashed by Surrealism” as “the thread that can put us back on the road of Gnosis as knowledge of suprasensible Reality, ‘invisibly visible in an eternal mystery’.” (Breton, ‘On Surrealism in Its Living Works [1953]’, p. 304). Earlier, in the 1940s he had spoken of the beings that may even inhabit such rarefied realms—the “Great Invisibles” (Breton, ‘Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Not [1942]’, pp. 293-94). However, correspondences between the Surrealist project, and older hermetic and magical traditions were not limited to the group’s late existence—see, Breton, ‘The Mediums Enter [1922]’. As Debord notes, such tendencies became more distinct after the Second World War. For instance, Sarane Alexandrine, a member of the Surrealist group after the Second World War, even believed that the surrealist Pierre Mabille “initiated” Breton “into the secrets of geomancy and prophetical astrology” sometime in the 1930s or 40s (Alexandrine cited in, Tessel M. Bauduin, Surrealism and the Occult: Occultism and Western Esotericism in the Work and Movement of André Breton, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014, p. 24). Debord’s reference to “Great Initiates” is perhaps related to such initiations; it is also the title of Édouard Schuré’s 1889 book, Les Grands Initiés, on the subject of the ancient arts of “initiation” into the ways of esoteric and magical knowledge. Nonetheless, Breton considered such investigations as an expression of a materialist conception of the fundamental identity of thinking and the phenomena of the world. See, for instance, the late discussion of his friendship with Pierre Mabille in ‘Drawbridges [1962]’—Breton’s preface to a new edition of Mabille’s Mirror of the Marvelous (1940).

[103] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 164. No doubt Debord considered the Situationist International precisely as these future men beautifully ransacking the Surrealist project.


fig. 1. Illustration by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon. Taken from the original publication of Faith of Our Fathers in Dangerous Visions (1967). For more on Mao, see the situationist image and text, below.

Some thoughts on Philip K. Dick’s Faith of Our Fathers

Over the years I’ve found myself returning to a Philip K Dick short story called Faith of Our Fathers.  Or, to be more exact, I am haunted by the central conceit of this story. The idea at its heart resonates long after the details of the story begin to fade.

First published in 1967, in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology, Dick imagines a future in which the Cold War has been won by the East. The protagonist is a minor bureaucrat in Vietnam. Though “protagonist” doesn’t get to the heart of Dick’s main characters, who are often thinly veiled versions of himself inextricably enmeshed and propelled by the situations they find themselves in, rather than being actors and shapers of plot and destiny. Anti-protagonists perhaps.

Of course, as so often happens in Dick’s fictional worlds, not all is as it seems. However, in Faith of Our Fathers, Dick elaborates a subtle transformation upon his familiar theme of the false and the true. As the protagonist at first suspects and soon discovers, the apparent world is not the real one. But rather than finding a single hidden truth, the protagonist discovers that the truth is multiple, ‘a variety of authentic experiences’ hidden by a single, consensual hallucination.

Here Dick is playing with the intuitive sense that reality is singular, unitary and most importantly objective—in the sense that there is only one reality, no matter how big or potentially infinite it is, and that its being is independent of a particular subjective experience of it. The concomitant of such objectivity in this case, is the idea that a false reality would almost certainly be the result of a subjective experience, whether through a defect in an individual’s perceptual capacities (e.g. as the result of a psychosomatic impairment like schizophrenia) or through the “external” alteration of perception (e.g. as the result of mind altering substances).

Dick upends this common sense in Faith of Our Fathers, insofar as he presents the false reality as singular, and in a way objective, whereas the true reality is multiple and subjective—though not exactly in the latter case. In later comments upon this work, Dick seemed more concerned with resolving his story’s conceit to the question of different subjective experiences of the one true divine reality.[1] Here, unfortunately, Dick offers a less interesting insight into his story, than the story alone. We do well to remember a comment of Marx’s: that we should not judge an individual merely by what they think about themselves, but rather by way of an examination of the conflictual social and material relations in which they find themselves.[2]

Indeed, it is the central conceit of Faith of Our Fathers and not Dick himself that speaks to us today (see some earlier comments of mine, here, on why I think we can use an author’s works for other purposes, even one’s at odds with the author’s intentions). Global capitalist society is the consensual hallucination that we have been submitted too, bolstered by the soporific ubiquity of money, wage labour, and the commodification of the entirety of our desires, no matter how mundane or extraordinary. Indeed, the singular achievement of pro-capitalists has been to cajole enough people into believing that there is no alternative to the rule of the market, and even more incredibly that its reign is in effect the most rational and even most natural form of human organisation. That the contemporary global market is a type of shared delusion, a hallucination in which we poor saps are drugged in a haze of commodity choices and the struggle to simply survive by means of—or in the absence of—waged labour, has become increasingly stark.

Living as we do in a world in which the West “won” the Cold War, what is perhaps most illuminating for us is the sense that such a victory resolved none of the underlying issues of the Cold War—in particularly, the purported success of the capitalist model. Indeed, this is far more obvious almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union than it was in the first few years of the 1990s. In this sense, the sheer mundanity of Dick’s imagined Eastern Bloc victory aptly describes both the banal triumphalism of the US in the wake of 1991, and the mundane horrors of globalisation and accelerating climate change that we have enjoyed as a consequence.

To be clear: in no way am I advocating for the so-called “communism” of the Eastern Bloc that Dick himself found repellent. Undoubtedly, the people of the old Soviet Union suffered under a hallucinatory nightmare version of “communism” that was cynically used by Stalin and his successors to mollify the truth of the continued existence of all the old garbage of class society. If we dig down into the reality of life in the Soviet Union, what is clear is that the working classes had little or no control over the state or the economy, a state of affairs conspicuously reminiscent of the “free” West.[3] Indeed, the symmetry of the contending sides of the Cold War was a common trope in some of Dick’s greatest works of the 1950s and 60s. Dick’s novel The Penultimate Truth (1964) is perhaps the best exploration of this theme. Also check out the brilliant short story Foster, You’re Dead! (1955) regarding one of the more egregious stupidities of the Cold War in the US.[4]

To be honest, it’s been some time since I last read Faith of Our Fathers. The detail fades, the central conceit is crystal clear. Time for a reread.

fig. 2. Image and text taken from the article ‘Le point d’explosion de l’idéologie en Chine’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 11, October 1967. Translation of the article available here. Translation by me of the text accompanying the illustration, below.


This Chinese mass, arranged in such a way that in itself it composes a screen portrait of Mao, can be considered as a limit case of the concentrated spectacle of state power (see Internationale Situationniste no. 10, pages 44 and 45), of which “in the under-developed zone… all that is [considered] admirable is gathered together in ideology and—at the extreme—in a single man… to be applauded and consumed passively.” Here the fusion of the spectator and the image of contemplation seem to have attained a police-like perfection. Sometime later, by believing it useful to go even further beyond this degree of concentration, the Chinese bureaucracy was able to leap over the machine.


[1] Additionally, Dick was keen to distance himself from those commentaries that tried to assert that he was advocating for the Eastern Bloc’s victory in the Cold War. See the Notes to both versions of Dick’s Collected Short Stories. Here, I’m referring to Volume 5 of the Subterranean Press 2014 edition of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, pp. 472-73.

[2] See, Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).

[3] Note I am not advocating for a working-class state. However, the far more interesting and tricky question of the self-abolition of the working class, and the destruction of the capitalist state and economy in the red heat of communism is for another time.

[4] In this regard, also see the Situationist International, Geopolitics of Hibernation (1962).

Thinking through The Time Machine–Part 2

fig. 1. In the year 802,701 everyone will be either New Wave or Post Wave. Taken from the Eternity Comics version of The Time Machine, 1990.

In my first post on Thinking through The Time Machine, I proposed that the principle idea that lay at the heart of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine—that utopia is dystopia—became the ground and guiding principle of 20th century science fiction.

What is most troubling about The Time Machine is how bleak its perspective is upon human nature. Even before the ultimate revelation of Eloi and Morlock society, Wells’ protagonist ruminates upon the “quiet” that has befallen future humanity. In the year 802,701, Well’s Time Traveller—“for so it will be convenient to speak of him”—finds the ruins of an advanced culture and the childlike Eloi playing amidst the debris. At first, the Traveller speculates that the Eloi are what remains of the ineluctable decay of full luxury communism.[1] However, he is soon proved wrong. Upon discovering the presence of another species, the Morlocks, the Traveller revises his picture of a fallen, degenerate communism and replaces it with a picture of a fallen, degenerate capitalism:

At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position.[2]

For those familiar with the text, more revelations were to follow. In particular the horrible truth of the relationship between the Eloi and Morlock—though strictly speaking, the Morlocks, given that they have speciated and are no longer of a natural kind with the Eloi, are more subterranean cowboys than cannibals. Nonetheless, what remains consistent across the Time Traveller’s speculations, and the successive revelations of his errors, is the single “truth” that any human society derived of the struggle against material want and natural alienation, is doomed:

I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last. Once, life and property must have reached almost absolute safety. The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work. No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed.[3]

In the two alternatives Wells presents—communism or capitalism—there is no escape from social entropy. The only real choice appears to be one of how best to ameliorate the decline. This is what I mean by arguing that Wells in effect proclaims utopia is dystopia. Despite the best laid plans, once a certain “ease” is achieved the rot sets in.

After the commercial success of The Time Machine and his early scientific romances, Wells’ would turn to the project of outlining a vision of utopia. What his early work and later “socialist” thinking shared was this dim view of human nature. At the heart of Wells’ picture of the future of humanity is the necessity of its decline—unless, that is, something was done about it. In works like Anticipations (1901), Wells’ would preach, to stave off for a time the necessity of decline and destruction, a eugenics Hitler would, perhaps, have been proud of. Such thinking was considered “progressive” in some corners, for instance among Fabian socialists who courted Wells’ “visionary” thinking.

To be fair to Wells, he soon moderated some of the more excessive racist and eugenicist remarks found among his early utopian speculations in Anticipations. However, across his work Wells’ vision of “socialism” had little in common with the various contemporaneous Marxist and Anarchist conceptions. Wells was no advocate of self-emancipation. For him, the shit of ages could only be removed by way of those better educated and disposed to remove the dirt—people such as himself. Indeed, Wells’ pessimism and disdain for the lower orders remained one of the constants of his mature work and so-called utopian vision.

In the realm of the burgeoning science fiction of the 20th century Wells’ wager—that short of a dictatorship of people like himself the future is dystopia—would soon be met, in part, by Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon’s vision in the 1930s was more Homeric and cosmic than Wells’. In contrast to Wells, Stapledon believed that the second law of thermodynamics, while inescapable, did not have any moral or social import—apart, that is, from the necessity for all finite things to pass in the infinite order. Stapledon is the Pulp Hegel to Wells’ more pedestrian analytic of apocalypse. Stapledon’s epic of the rise, fall, then rise and fall again of the human and its many progeny over billions of years is vastly preferable to Wells’ small-minded glimpse of eternity.  

fig. 2. Wells’ grim speculation at their most expansive. From the Marvel Classics Comics version of The Time Machine, 1976

Nonetheless, I am less interested in the literary criticism of Wells’ work than I am in its suggestive qualities. I am more interested in using Wells work beyond its limitations. For instance, in a future post I will look at his wildly speculative notion of the speciation of humans based on the capitalist polarity: i.e. of workers and bourgeoisie evolving ultimately into Morlocks and Eloi. Based as it is on the faulty logic of Ray Lankester’s notion of social degeneration, it is perforce ludicrous. But precisely because of this, and particularly considering Wells’ grim satirical intent, it is a fiercely suggestive idea.

Similarly, if we leave aside Wells’ undoubtedly dubious thoughts on the nature of social “evolution”, and his pessimistic and questionably “scientific” conclusions, we are struck by the stark beauty of his evocation of the passage of time—something Olaf Stapledon picked up on. The real force of The Time Machine’s narrative is best summed up in the Time Traveller’s headlong flight into far futurity. And there, ultimately to find the “vacuous naiveté” of the Schellingian absolute made manifest, that cosmic night “in which, as one says, all cows are black”.[4]

The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.[5]

To be continued


[1] H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, chapter IV (Heinemann text, 1895).

[2] Ibid., chapter V.

[3] Ibid., chapter X.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface, paragraph 16, Pinkard translation, 2018.

[5] Wells, The Time Machine, chapter XI.

SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation

fig. 1. “Apart from us, have any piloted ships come here?” “No one has ever come. We are extremely far from other routes. That’s why I want to keep it secret. Even my men are ignorant of the coordinates of our position.” Comic détournement in Internationale situationniste, no. 7, p. 46. Source: not known.

SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation

About 3,500 words

1. Introduction

It is almost impossible to speak of ‘science fiction’ in relationship to the Situationist International without also speaking of what they meant by ‘utopia’. However, I plan on doing just this—at least to begin with. In this post I will briefly look at the role of science fiction (SF) in the Situationist International (SI). In a future post I will expand on this by looking at the role the terms ‘utopia’ and ‘utopian’ played in the SI (though I will touch on the question of utopia, below).

2. Science fiction as ideology

Science fiction motifs appeared in the publications of the Situationist International (SI) from the outset. Most obviously it can be found in the images that surfaced in the many and varied détournements of science fiction comics in their journal. Perhaps not so obvious are the science fictional qualities of central concepts and practices, such as ‘psychogeography’, the ‘hypothesis of the constructed situation’ and ‘unitary urbanism’.

In the early days, situationists were not completely averse to describing aspects of their critique and program as science fiction. Later, in 1961, the year that the pivot away from the more artistic phase of the early SI began, the editors of Internationale Situationniste spoke of ‘a hostility to all religions, even science fiction’.[1] The implication being, not just that science fiction constituted a religion, but perhaps even worse: that such a religion could only play an ideological role in contemporary capitalism.

By 1961, the circle around the situationists Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem began to understand ideology in a similar sense to that outlined by Marx in The German Ideology and the Theses on Feuerbach (in the latter work, the critique of ideology, though implicit, is never called such). This was in stark contrast to then present-day Marxist orthodoxy, who largely followed Lenin’s conception of ideology rather than Marx’s. Indeed, Lenin’s conception bore more of a likeness to that of the originator of the term, Antoine Destutt de Tracy, than Marx’s critical appropriation of it. Against this vulgar sense, Marx drew upon Ludwig Feuerbach’s criticism of religion, and Max Stirner’s criticism of Feuerbach, in formulating his critical concept of ideology. For Marx, religions—at least Judeo-Christian religions—were ideological to the extent that they posed their ruling ideas separate from, or even opposed to the social and material practices in which they were embedded. The classic example is the divine ‘holy family’, which is in effect a projection of the earthly family into an otherworldly beyond. The key here is the idea of separating and opposing ideas to material reality—as if such ‘ideas’ constitute a realm or substance apart from material reality. Certainly, such substance dualism (of ideas & matter) is central to most religious thought. However, such an inverted conception is more subtle in ideology less obviously religious. If we take the example of science fiction, we can see a similar inversion when authors unquestioningly pose present-day bourgeois society as a timeless model of human mores and practice. Indeed, as Marx pointed out in Capital and elsewhere, a similar projection—albeit backwards in time—was made by classical political economists like Adam Smith, when they assumed that human nature from time immemorial was in essence bourgeois.

Science fiction is ideology, then, to the extent that it transforms the capitalist present into a timeless form of human social organisation by way of projecting such a present either deliberately or unwittingly into an imagined future. In doing so, such SF neither questions the necessity of the present, nor suggests that tomorrow could be different—or even better—than today.

3. Science fiction in the situationist international

In the second issue of their journal, Internationale Situationniste, December 1958, Abdelhafid Khatib noted that his fellow situationist Asger Jorn defined ‘psychogeography […] as the science fiction of urbanism’.[2] By saying so, Jorn—by way of Khatib—was drawing attention to the transformative and future oriented aspects of ‘psychogeography’, insofar as the situationist proposed the radical transformation of not just the technologies of the city, but even more so the behaviour and morality of its denizens.

In the first issue of the journal Internationale Situationniste, psychogeography was defined as ‘the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organized or not) on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’.[3] The situationists had inherited the psychogeographical project from the Letterist International (LI), of which some founding situationists had been members of—notably Guy Debord and Michèle Bernstein.[4] Psychogeographical study had arisen directly as a result of the urban drifts (fr: dérives) that the International Letterists had begun to carry out around the year 1953.

By the time of the founding of the SI in 1957, psychogeographical research had come to be seen as the general rubric under which a distinctly situationist project was to be conducted. What is key to recall at this point is that both psychogeographical research, and the urban drifts from which such a study was derived, proposed to chart new behaviours and emotions in opposition to those that were permitted, and, indeed, constructed by the bourgeois city.[5] That the projected results of psychogeographical research was the complete transformation of the urban environment, as well as human behaviour, was made more clear in Guy Debord’s Report on the Construction of Situations presented at the founding conference of the SI in July 1957.[6] Jorn’s claim that psychogeography should be conceived as the science fiction of urbanism can thereby be read as a positive statement about the future of the city under the guise of a situationist transformation.

Unfortunately, this is the only citation in a situationist publication of Jorn speaking positively about science fiction, and I have been unable to find the source of Khatib’s quote. Nonetheless, it seems that Jorn was perhaps the most favourably disposed of the situationists toward science fiction. Among his œuvre are several science fiction themed paintings. I will return to the question of Jorn and science fiction in a later post.

fig. 2. Asger Jorn, Femelle interplanétaire (Interplanetary female), 1953.

Apart from Jorn’s positive disposition to SF, and the many and varied uses of détourned[7] SF comics in the situationist journal, the term ‘science fiction’ was used more often than not in a pejorative sense. Two instance that come to mind: when the SI dismissively referred to ‘the science fiction of revolutionary thought that is preached in [the journal] Arguments’;[8] and their updating of Rosa Luxembourg’s pithy maxim ‘socialism or barbarism’ as ‘the urgent alternative: revolutionary solution or science-fiction barbarism’.[9] In the former case, SF is used in a manner akin to orthodox Marxists deriding the ‘utopian’ nature of their opponents on the left (more on this below, and in a future post). In the latter case, Debord and his co-author were gesturing at the lived reality of contemporary global society in the sense that the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic ‘science fiction barbarism’ beloved of the pulps had become the grim reality of a world on the brink of nuclear destruction.

Perhaps the clearest attack on science fiction itself—considered as a cultural genre—was made by Guy Debord in 1961. In an address delivered to Henri Lefebvre’s Research Group on Everyday Life, Debord contrasted the situationist conception of the transformation of everyday life with that ‘presented in science fiction, in which interstellar adventures coexist with a terrestrial everyday life kept in the same old material poverty and archaic morality’.[10] A similar argument was made by Debord’s comrade Raoul Vaneigem almost two years later, this time aimed at Planète magazine, one of the chief platforms for a self-consciously futurist if nebulous science ‘fact’ and fiction in the France of the 1960s:

Playing on the truism that science and technology are advancing faster and faster without anyone knowing where they are going, [the editors of the journal] Planète harangue ordinary people with the message that henceforth everything must be changed—while at the same time taking for granted 99% of the life really lived in our era.[11]

Debord’s and Vaneigem’s target was not so much science fiction tout court as it was that dominant tendency which conceived of future changes and transformations primarily in technological terms. According to the SI, and despite Planète magazine’s self-consciously ‘modernist’ and radical self-presentation, its conceptualisation of the future was as religious as the capitalist ideology it unthinkingly projected into an imagined future.

The SI’s criticism of SF that projected the present into the future was hardly new. Indeed, it was almost identical to a similar charge made by the French author Michel Butor in 1953.[12] What was new was the SI’s attempt to understand this through the optic of Marx’s concept of ideology, as well as the SI’s own conception of recuperation—which drew upon Marx’s critique. I will return to the question of the situationist conception of ‘recuperation’, below.

I have spoken elsewhere about the problem of science fiction simply translating the capitalist present into a far future setting—consider parts of my discussion of the Soviet era science fiction novel Andromeda Nebula by Ivan Yefremov. Additionally, in my last blog post I touched on the idea that H. G. Wells was both pioneer and exemplar of the modern science fiction author as purveyor of dystopia.  This later question, of dystopia as reaction to the often naive, invariably socialist utopias of the nineteenth century, is perhaps as old as Dostoyevsky’s contempt for one of Vladimir Lenin’s favourite authors: Nikolai Chernyshevsky. To my mind, science fiction—and speculative fiction more generally—is overburdened by its creation amidst Wells’ social Darwinian reaction and ‘improvement’ upon the nineteenth century utopia. The ascendency of this science fiction was coincident with and provided cover for the real ‘utopian’ victory: that of capitalism in the post-war 1950s and 60s. Worse, the non-places of capitalism exploded after the 1960s: so many genres and subcultures spun from the counter-cultures of the 1960s and 70s. Science fiction, that genre with a history of about a century, one of many present-day utopias that can be any place thanks to the commodity-spectacle, is a place of struggle nonetheless, simply because it is one of the many phenomena of the social antagonism inherent in capitalism. Thus, as the situationists almost put it, we still have a single choice: science fiction socialism or barbarism.

I will now turn to an examination of this tendency by way of a brief examination of the concept and practice of ‘unitary urbanism’ in the SI

4. The science fiction of unitary urbanism

In the first three years of the SI’s existence—1957-1960—‘unitary urbanism’ developed into one of the chief practices of the group under the general project of psychogeographical research. As a result of the urban drifts (dérives) and psychogeographical study pioneered by the Letterist International, Debord came to pose the possibility of ‘the concrete construction of momentary ambiences of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality’.[13] He called this the ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’, in which the ephemeral, ‘momentary’ situations of life—in contrast to the chaotic and hierarchically planned boredom of alienated life—would be consciously constructed by situationists.[14] Indeed, Debord posed this hypothesis as the ‘central idea’ of the SI, and the most obvious general result of previous psychogeographical research. Further, insofar as the constructed situation implied a critique of the boredom and alienation of the capitalist life, whether as work or commodified leisure, the realisation of the hypothesis was envisaged as contingent upon the overthrow of the capitalist as much as the ‘really existing socialist’ societies of 1957. Nonetheless, and despite locating the ultimate success of this hypothesis in a post-capitalist future, Debord also proposed a theory of ‘unitary urbanism’ in order to experiment with the possibilities for constructing situations in the urban present. To an extent, the urban drifts (dérives) of the former Letterist International were reconceived as an element of unitary urbanism.  Additionally, the theory itself was developed in the pages of the journal Internationale Situationniste. And perhaps the most interesting, definitely the most iconic expression of this development was that of the ‘New Babylon’ models, plans and descriptions organised and executed by the Dutch situationist, Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka ‘Constant’).

fig. 3. The situationist pentagon. Detail from situationist poster, ‘Nouveau théatre d’opérations dans la culture’ (1958). From top to bottom, left to right: construction of situations; unitary urbanism; experimental behaviour; urban drift; psychogeography; situationist architecture; permanent play; détournement of preexisting aesthetic elements.

It is easy to mount a case for the science fictional qualities of Constant’s ‘New Babylon’.[15] Constant imagined a future city suspended over the present in a dream-like scaffold of levels and labyrinths that was dedicated entirely to the Situationist conception of play:

We demand adventure. Not finding it on earth, some want to seek it on the moon. We, however, are committed to changing life here on earth. We intend to create situations, new situations, breaking the laws that prevent the development of meaningful ventures in life and culture. We are at the dawn of a new era, and we are already attempting to sketch out the image of a happier life, of a unitary urbanism—an urbanism designed for pleasure.

[…] The future cities we envisage will offer a wholly new variability of sensations in this realm, and unforeseen games will become possible through the inventive use of material conditions, such as modifications of air, sound and light. City planners are already studying the possibility of harmonizing the cacophony that reigns in present-day cities. This problem will soon give rise to a new field of creation, as will many other such problems that will present themselves. Space travel, which seems likely in the near future, might also influence this development, since establishing bases on other planets will immediately raise the problem of sheltered cities, which may provide models for our study of future urbanism.

[…] The city of the future must be conceived as a continuous construction on pillars, or as an extended system of different structures from which are suspended premises for housing, recreation, production, distribution, etc., leaving the ground level free for traffic circulation and public meetings. The use of ultralightweight and insulating materials that are currently being tested will permit light construction with supports spaced well apart. In this way it will be possible to create a multilayered city: underground, ground level, upper stories and terraces, with areas ranging from that of a present-day neighbourhood to that of a metropolis. It should be noted that in such a city the built-up surface will be 100% and the free surface 200% (ground level plus terraces), whereas in traditional cities the figures are approximately 80% and 20%, and even a garden city can at most reverse this latter proportion. The terraces, forming an outdoor terrain that extends over the whole surface of the city, can be used as sports fields, as landing pads for airplanes and helicopters, and for vegetation. They will be accessible everywhere by stairways and elevators. The different floors will be divided into adjoining, communicating and climate-controlled spaces, making it possible to create an infinite variety of ambiences and facilitating the wanderings of the inhabitants and their frequent chance encounters. The ambiences will be regularly and consciously changed, using all technical means, by teams of specialized creators, who will thus be professional situationists.[16]

fig. 4. Technical services and airport. Photo partially reproduced in Internationale situationniste, no. 4, p. 24, under that title. Detail of the Yellow Sector [La zone jaune], from Constant’s New Babylon model.

Constant’s New Babylon is rich in suggestion. Its strikingly futuristic structures were posed as practical solutions, based on current architectural and technical practices, to the chaotic and confused urban expansion and development of the industrial and industrialising world of the 1950s and 60s. However, less emphasised here in Constant’s account was what he called the ‘psychological influence’ of ‘creating ambiances’, i.e. in the experimental elaboration of unitary urbanism. Indeed, Constant’s New Babylon tended to primarily accentuate the technical side at the expense of the behavioural side—of which an intimate interrelation had figured prominently in the elaboration of psychogeographical research from the earliest days of the urban drifts (dérives). As would be later said of him by the SI, after Constant had resigned from the group in June 1960, ‘other situationists had to remind him that at the present stage of the project it was necessary to put the accent on its content (play, free creation of everyday life)’.[17] Such a conclusion, however, was the result of a longer argument between, primarily, Constant, on the one hand, and Debord and Asger Jorn, on the other.

The argument between Debord, Jorn and Constant remained live during the life of the SI in the sense that its conclusions contra Constant’s conception of unitary urbanism became situationist doxa. Unitary urbanism was a theory governing the experimental practice and attempts at verification of the situationist hypothesis of the constructed situation. To reduce it merely to a design problem was to misunderstand both its theoretical nature and its existence as the practical expression of psychogeographical research in the broad sense of the latter—i.e. as a question of the transformation of human nature and society as much the technologies of these transformations. Some years after Constant’s resignation—and more hostilely—the SI would write:

There is, however, a diversion that has threatened us more gravely than all the others: the risk of not differentiating ourselves clearly enough from some modern tendencies, and their explanations and proposals regarding the new society to which capitalism has brought us — tendencies which, behind different masks, all lead to integration into this society. Since Constant’s interpretation of unitary urbanism this tendency has been expressed within the SI, and it is incomparably more dangerous than the old artistic conception we have fought so much. It is more modern and thus less obvious—and certainly with a more promising future.[18]

Here, the Situationists were gesturing at their concept of ‘recuperation’. By their reckoning, Constant, having left the SI, had become one of the chief exponents of just such a recuperation, insofar as his reductive elaboration of New Babylon as a design problem was compatible with both the artistic and architectural mainstream of capitalist society—of design journals and art exhibitions, for example. Indeed, as the SI witheringly pointed out a year after he resigned, Constant,

now presents models of factories in his catalogue published in March [1961] by the Municipal Museum of Bochum. Apart from plagiarizing two or three poorly understood fragments of situationist ideas, this wily character has nothing better to propose than to act as a public-relations man in integrating the masses into capitalist technological civilization.[19]

5. What is recuperation?

fig. 5. “What is it? [But] we considered every obstacle! Could this be an unknown one?” Comic détournement in Internationale situationniste, no. 6, p. 4. Source: not known.

That revolutionary critique could be recuperated by the capitalist market was not a new phenomenon in 1961—but it was not that old either. As Debord argued in The Society of the Spectacle, it was old as least the German Revolution of 1918.[20] What was new, however, was the situationist theory of recuperation. As Debord so pithily put it in 1963, when speaking on the problem of capitalist power and its language: ‘power lives off stolen goods. It creates nothing; it recuperates’. Mustapha Khayati continued in 1966:

Words forged by revolutionary criticism are like partisans’ weapons: abandoned on the battlefield, they fall into the hands of the counterrevolution. And like prisoners of war, they are subjected to forced labour. […] Ideologues of every variety, the watchdogs of the reigning spectacle, carry out this task, emptying the content from most corrosive concepts and putting them back into circulation in the service of maintaining alienation: dadaism in reverse. They become advertising slogans (see the recent Club Med prospectus[21]). Concepts of radical critique suffer the same fate as the proletariat: they are deprived of their history, cut off from their roots. They become grist for power’s thinking machines.[22]

Culture is never simply a production problem; it is a declaration of intent to the reigning powers and all who labour for them. The SI’s wager was that Constant, first cut-off from a broader conception of unitary urbanism, and then cut off from the self-consciously revolutionary project of the SI, tended to aid in the recuperation of situationist practice.

6. Concluding remarks

The question of the SI’s dispute with Constant is an interesting one, but I fear that the intent of this expanding post is getting lost in the maze of his story. For more detail check out my PhD thesis, here.[23] What I am trying to get at, convoluting though the telling may be, is that those situationists who opposed Constant’s reductive understanding of unitary urbanism and psychogeographical research, even if intrigued and engaged by unitary urbanism as a technological problem, were more concerned with the broader, revolutionary implications of ‘its content (play, [and the] free creation of everyday life)’. In this sense, Constant’s project is, indeed, closer to contemporaneous conceptions of science fiction, and the predominance there of presenting the future in terms of technological change as opposed to social and natural species transformations. What the SI came to call ideology.

To the extent that Constant reduced the elaboration of unitary urbanism to primarily a technical problem, we can consider him a purveyor of science fiction in the sense that Debord and Vaneigem criticised. From around 1961, the SI tended to see such science fictional elaborations of unitary urbanism as a form of activity that tended to be integrated with contemporary capitalist alienation insofar as they were practical separated, or presented in isolation from an explicitly anti-capitalist revolutionary project.  By this reckoning, the post-SI Constant became an exemplar of the ideology of science fiction—ideology here used in Marx’s pejorative sense.

In future posts I want to investigate the ‘practice of utopia’ that the SI opposed to Constant’s and others’ mere science fiction. By invoking ‘utopia’ in a positive way, and associating it with the end to which present revolutionary means should be aimed, the SI attempted to rescue the idea of utopia for a revolutionary imagination overwhelmed by the cult of work, the false pragmatism of political realism, and the totalitarian reality of dystopian, Russian-style ‘communism’. In effect they proposed the détournement of utopian socialism in the interests of present-fay revolutionary practice. And within such a détournement, pulp science fiction had its role to play.



[1] Situationist International. ‘Editorial note’ at the end of Asger Jorn’s article, ‘Pataphysics: A religion in formation’. Translation modified. Original: ‘La pataphysique,  une religion en formation’, Internationale Situationniste, no. 6, Aout 1961, p. 32.

[2] Abdelhafid Khatib, ‘Attempt at a Psychogeographical Description of Les Halles’. Original : ‘Essai de description psychogéographique des Halles’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 2, décembre 1958, p. 13.

[3] Situationist International, ‘Definitions’. Original: ‘Définitions’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 1, Juin 1958, p. 13.

[4] See, in particular, Debord’s ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ (1955).

[5] For more on psychogeography and drifts, see Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography (1955) and Theory of the Derive (1956).

[6] See, Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations (1957).

[7] ‘détournement: Short for ‘détournement of preexisting aesthetic elements.’ The integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.’ (Internationale Situationniste, no 1, June 1958).

[8] Situationist International, ‘The Meaning of Decay in Art’. Original: ‘Le sens du dépérissement de l’art’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 3, Decembre 1959, p. 5.

[9] Debord & Pierre Canjuers (aka Daniel Blanchard), Preliminaries Toward Defining a Unitary Revolutionary Program (1960).

[10] Guy Debord, ‘Perspectives for Conscious Changes in Everyday Life’. Original: ‘Perspectives de modifications conscientes dans la vie quotidienne’, in Internationale situationniste, no. 6, aout 1961, p. 24.

[11] Internationale Situationniste [Raoul Vaneigem], ‘Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature’. Original : ‘Domination de la nature, idéologies et classes’, Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963), p. 7.

[12] Michel Butor, ‘The Crisis in the Growth of Science Fiction’, in Inventory: Essays, ed. Richard Howard, London: Jonathon Cape, 1970. Which is not to say that such critical speculations were absent in the field of science fiction or came from without. Indeed, such speculation was a hot topic among leading examples of contemporaneous Anglo-American SF like Galaxy magazine and even Astounding—though in a more confused and at times reactionary fashion in the latter.

[13] See, Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations (1957).

[14] Or at least their initial conditions of such constructed situations. Don’t forget that Debord’s constructed situation is a critique and inversion, or sorts, of Jean Paul Sartre’s concept of ‘situation’.

[15] Constant’s project was named by Debord. The film ‘The New Babylon’ (Новый Вавилон) was a 1929 silent film written and directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg in the USSR. The film deals with the 1871 Paris Commune and the events leading to it and follows the encounter and tragic fate of two lovers separated by the barricades of the Paris Commune. In the film, a vision of commodity consumption is envisaged at the store La nouvelle babylone. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his first film score for this movie. Footage from the film was later included in Guy Debord’s film version of his book The Society of the Spectacle (book: 1967; film: 1973).

[16] Constant, ‘Another City for Another Life’, translated by Ken Knabb. Original : ‘Une autre ville pour une autre vie’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 3, Décembre 1959, p. 37.

[17] See, ‘Situationist News’ (December 1960). Translation modified. Original: ‘Renseignements situationnistes’, in International Situationniste, no. 5, Decembre 1960, p. 10.

[18] Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’. Translation modified. Original: ‘‘Maintenant, l’I.S.’ in Internationale Situationniste, no. 9, Aout 1964.

[19] Situationist International, ‘Critique of Urbanism’. Translation modified. Original: ‘Critique de l’urbanisme’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 6, Aout 1961, p. 6.

[20] Guy Debord. The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 101.

[21] See, ‘The packaging of ‘free-time’’, from Internationale Situationniste, no. 10,  March 1966.

[22] Mustapha Khayati, ‘Captive Words : Preface to a situationist dictionary’. Original: ‘Les mots captifs, préface à un dictionnaire situationniste’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 10, Mars 1966, p. 54.

[23] Anthony Hayes, How the Situationist International became what it was, Canberra: Australian National University, 2017.

The science fiction spectacle (2)

fig. 1. “What isn’t surpassed rots, what rots incites supersession.” From a situationist ad for Raoul Vaneigem’s Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations (1967).

When I first set out to write this blog post I intended to show off some of the science fictional motifs that appeared in the activity of the Situationist International (SI). For instance, the many détournements of science fiction comics that appear over several issues of their journal; and the science fictional qualities of some of their ideas and theories—most obviously ‘psychogeography’ and ‘unitary urbanism’. Broadly, the point was, and is, to demarcate the science fiction of the SI—the science fiction (SF) that appears in their work—from another related project I am also trying to chart: the ‘science fiction spectacle’. However, I am going to set aside looking at the SF of the SI for the time being to briefly return to the question of what exactly is the ‘science fiction spectacle’.


In a previous post, when speaking of the ‘science fiction spectacle’, I was perhaps not as clear as some would have liked (including myself). There, I noted that the SI infamously claimed that their ‘theory is in people like fish are in water’.[1] Rather than being the megalomaniac claim some have accused them of (though the Situationists were not averse to megalomania), the point they were driving at was a simple one. In contrast to the pro-capitalist idea that revolutionary critique and contestation comes from without capitalism (where exactly… Mars…?), the situationists argued that their critique of ‘the society of the spectacle’ was merely one iteration—albeit a particularly coherent one—of a broader critique being generated within the then present capitalist society.

To be sure, the situationists were not simply arguing for the equivalence of these criticisms. Indeed, they were clear: their concept of ‘spectacle’ was presented in order to ‘unify and explain’ the apparent diversity of seeming unconnected phenomena—for instance, the various industrially produced news, propaganda, advertising, mass entertainments and commodities that were increasingly marking the ‘modern’ world of the 1950s and 60s (what some have called the ‘media landscape’ or ‘admass’).[2]

What is the ‘spectacle’? For now, I will note that Debord’s concept of spectacle is an amplification and development of Marx’s concepts of alienation, ideology and the commodity-fetish. What links these latter with the concept of spectacle is that they all pose that aspects of human practice have become objectified or externalised in such a way that they appear to be ‘autonomous’ of these practices. For Marx, the ‘fetishism of commodities’ was an attempt to describe this autonomy, in which the commodities produced by humans appeared to ‘live’ their ‘real’ life as repositories of ‘value’ amidst their circulation, marketing and sale, independent of their conditions of production:

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social. […] [T]he commodity-form […] [has] absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

For Debord,

The fetishism of the commodity—the domination of society by “sensuous things which are at the same time supersensible”—attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the perceptible world is replaced by a selection of images which exists projected above it, yet which at the same time succeeds in making itself regarded as the perceptible par excellence.

I will return to the question of what exactly is the ‘spectacle’ in more detail in a future post.


By way of what I call the ‘science fiction spectacle’, I propose to illustrate the situationist critique of the ‘spectacle’ with reference to various examples of science fiction that dealt with the same object of criticism (the commodity-spectacle), and at the same time (the 1950s and 60s). I am not arguing that such science fictional ‘criticism’ proposed a theoretical critique of the ‘society of the spectacle’ in the same fashion as the SI, but rather that the criticisms that do appear in the SF of this era can reasonably be used to illustrate and even justify situationist claims.

Apart from a passing familiarity with the situationists, I have a longer interest in science fiction that stretches back through my childhood. More recently I have become fixated on Anglo-American science fiction from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In particular, it is short SF from this period I am most fascinated with—short stories, novelettes and novellas. In a brutally pragmatic fashion, it is easier to plough through a few hundred short stories than novels. However, there is more to my interest than this. Not unlike Orson Welles, I feel that short form SF is ‘better than the long ones’—and for similar reasons.[5]  The short form is perfect as modern fable, or rather an anti-fable in which contemporary morality is not so much the lesson as the object of criticism.

Elements of what the situationist proposed to cohere under the concept of ‘spectacle’ can be found in Anglo-American science fiction of the post-war period: specifically, between 1945 and 1970. Exemplars of such science fictional criticism can be found in the work of Frederick Pohl (e.g. The Midas Plague, 1954, and The Tunnel Under the World, 1955), and Philip K Dick’s (e.g. The Defenders, 1953, and The Mold of Yancy, 1954). However, the emergence of such ‘sociological science fiction’ was broader than these two better known authors. [6]

The years I propose—1945 to 1970—are not merely accidental. Even though the situationist development of the concept of ‘spectacle’ lay between 1957 and 1967, with the highpoint of its development between 1962 and 1967, Debord and others had been developing their critical practice from at least 1951. That there was ‘something in the air’ between 1945 and 1970 akin to the full-blown situationist critique of the 1960s is something I would like to explore. Additionally, the endpoint of 1970 is similarly non-accidental. The world changed after 1968–at the very least, became more cynical about the dominance of the ‘spectacle’. Debord would note, shortly after 1968, how the ‘negativity’ of the rebellions was already ‘invading’ the commodity-spectacle. As David Pringle and Peter Nicholls have noted, ‘[a]bout the end of the 1970s traditional sf about the media seemed to wither away almost overnight: during the 1980s harsh satires about the world of admen, once almost commonplace, became scarce’. I would hazard to argue that this was a result, a least in part, of two processes: on the one hand, the more general calling into question of what the situationists called the commodity-spectacle in the wake of 1968; and on the other hand, the utter triumph of the self-same commodity-spectacle through the ultimate defeat of the movement of 1968—not to mention the sheer brutal omnipresence of the once ‘new’ world of mass communications by the 1980s.

To be clear, I am not proposing that I am the first to note the critical content of science fiction from this period. Indeed, the literature on the critique of the ‘media landscape’ in science fiction—to name just one of the elements—is well advanced. Rather, I want to examine these stories not only as responses to the developments in capitalist society in the immediate post-war period, but further propose that we can draw upon these stories in the situationist style: détourn them for critical purposes.

Among other things, I will return to the idea of the ‘science fiction spectacle’ in upcoming posts.


[1] Situationist International, ‘The role of the S.I. [1962]‘, trans. by Reuben Keehan. Translation modified.

[2] See, in particular, thesis 6 and 10 of Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.

[3] Marx, Capital, volume 1, chapter 1, ‘The fetishism of the commodity and its secret’.

[4] The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 2, thesis 36, translation modified.

[5] Orson Welles, ‘Introduction’, in S.F: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Judith Merril, Dell Publishing: 1956, p. 8.

[6] Elsewhere I have begun to examine Russian science fiction from the same time. And I would hope that this project will lead to an examination of other iterations of SF around the globe of the mid-twentieth century.

The prehistory of the human imagination

fig. 1. ‘Wreck! Smash! Destroy!’ Detail of ‘The prehistory of the human imagination accordingly closes’ (see below).

The images and imaginary of Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare still exert a profound influence upon me. “Still,” in the sense that they first crashed upon my sensibilities as a frivolous and anxious 12 year old, and now forty years later remain radioactive, albeit somewhat decayed.

When I discovered Dan Dare he was already old. The reprinted story, The Man from Nowhere (Dragon Dream, 1979), was what seemed then a very long twenty-five years past in 1980. So much had seemed to have happened in the intervening years.

Today, it is this vision of Dan Dare more than the explicit story that remains potent. Though I’m not arguing that one can be painlessly extracted or divorced from the other, like some metaphysical surgery that finally cuts the cord of form and content. Nonetheless, I have a huge soft spot for the first two stories of Hampson’s—the Venusian bound ‘Pilot of the Future’, and the somewhat Martian ‘Red Moon Mystery’.

From a critical perspective the vision and story of the future presented in Dan Dare is problematic. Taking off in 1950, Hampson’s imaginary future of 1996 is mostly devoid of women, excepting the wonderful if somewhat underutilized Professor Jocelyn Peabody. And despite the utopian planetary unity and species universalism of the series, and the fact that Colonel Dare’s Space Fleet is a global organisation, none of the main characters are non-Europeans. Hank Hogan, the consonantly named Yank, and the French Pierre Lafayette are as exotic as it gets. Created in the wake of the Second World War, this is a boy’s own tale of British daring-do in space (+ some wartime allies…), one-part stiff upper lip, another part the spirit of the Blitz. Needless to say, none of the roll call are Russians.

Analyzing Dan Dare is not without interest. Certainly, these stories have much to tell us about the time and place in which they were composed, not to mention what was imagined there about the end of the 20th century. At its best Dan Dare expresses the optimism associated with the United Nations after the victory over fascism in the 1940s. At its worst, the stereotypes and oppressive reality of the 1950s sit uncomfortably with its vision of the future. But I find that the representational content of culture—at least in terms of a purported realism or near future realism in this case—is often the least interesting aspect. The tensions of the present in which it created are patently on display; but it is the possible hidden in this thicket of the imaginary that is by far its most interesting content.

I believe that Dan’s adventures are best used for other purposes, beyond mere consumption or citation. This cultural artefact needs to be revived and put back into play. The situationists called such revivification détournement; the 19th century Uruguayan writer Isidore Ducasse called it simply plagiarism. Drawing upon both of the foregoing, I’ve been known to call it open plagiarism.

The détournement below, ‘The prehistory of the human imagination accordingly closes’, is drawn from two sources. From the Dan Dare story ‘Rogue Planet’ (Eagle, Vol. 7 No. 8, 24 February 1956 and Vol. 7 No. 10, 9 March 1956), and Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology (1978). The title is a riff on the closing sentence of that famous paragraph from Marx’s Preface to his A Contribution to A Critique of Political Economy (1859).

Keep your spaced eyes peeled for more Dan Dare détournements

The prehistory of the human imagination accordingly closes

fig. 2. ‘The prehistory of the human imagination accordingly closes’. Right click and select ‘view image’ for a larger version.