18 The Surre(gion)alist Manifesto
The Politics of the Imagination
The Imagination in Power
The General Strike of May 1968 in Paris was a landmark in radical history. It is known in large part for the fact that it diverged from the expected. It is also known for its inspiring slogans: "Take your desires for realities"; "It is forbidden to forbid"; "Be realistic, demand the impossible." Most of these slogans seem little more than radical nostalgia a generation later. But I would argue that one of these slogans has been realized—totally and absolutely—in the decades since the revolt.
The one successful aspiration of May '68: "L'imagination au pouvoir!'—"Power to the imagination!"
For the imagination is indeed in power today. Though, sad to say, it is not the one that the visionaries of '68 hoped for. Instead, it is the consumptionist imaginary that dominates contemporary culture. Our world is far from the one in which imaginative radicals inspire demassified masses to revolt against the dictates of dour reactionaries. Rather, we inhabit a world in which the most exciting sources of inspiration for the vast majority are the elements of the consumptionist system. A world in which we take their desires for our realities. In which "Coke is It" (Id). A world in which it is not only permitted to permit, but in which demanding the impossible is a way of life—and is great for the GNP!
The old world of hard work and production is not dead. The machine grinds on, and any serious threats to it are dealt with in a suitably productivist manner. Even as maddening echos of "Don't worry! Be happy!" torment our brains, we find that three-quarters of a million inhabitants of the Land of the Free are in prison, while the State proposes to double this carceral capacity. George Bush recently presented some ominous proposals concerning crime. He said he was going to reduce the crime rate and build more prisons. I have nighmares about all those big, empty prisons. Political dissidents beware!1
But the consumptionist/productionist system maintains its power not primarily through guns and repression, but rather through ideological control. If we are interested in critical practice and social transformation, it is important that we understand the consumptionist imaginary and its central place in the system of power. Ironically, this centrality consists precisely in its decenteredness—its dispersion throughout the culture.
What is our relation to the dominant system— the system of consumptionism/productivism? Some members of the Green movement seem to suggest that our function is to make that system less ecologically destructive, more humane, more democratic, less violent, etc. We might call this project "toward a more sustainable system of domination." Or, inspired by the image of Bush and Thatcher as "environmentalists," we might call it "be realistic, demand the inevitable."
Some Greens have proposed that we adopt the slogan "neither left nor right, but in front." This would be equivalent to adopting the slogan, "neither left nor right, but totally confused." Throughout the modern period, enemies of the established system of domination have always been called "the left," while its defenders have constituted "the right." It is no secret that factions from "the left" have often gained power and then reinstituted systems of domination. But those who have then opposed these regimes in the name of freedom and justice have in turn become "the left," or even the "ultra-left," in relation to the new systems of oppression.
Why this fear of identification with the left—a fear almost unique to American Greens? The lame excuse is that it might puzzle the poor ignorant masses who will confuse the Greens with authoritarian Leninists. In other words, that the Greens should help perpetuate the lie that the left consists only of Godless, atheistic Communists who are agents of a foreign power. Submitting to this kind of thought control is equivalent to tolerating the related lies of the system of domination: that Blacks are lazy and unintelligent, that feminists are frustrated man-haters, that gays are child-molesters, and so forth. But we can accept none of these outrageous lies, so why accept an equally ludicrous one?
A slight digression on the ideology of language: Have you ever looked up the term "public enemy" (listed under "ENEMY") in Roget's Thesaurus of the English Language? If you check it, you'll find the following:
public enemy, enemy to society; anarchist, Red or red, terrorist, revolutionary, revolutionist; seditionist, traitor, traitress (fem.).
A veritable reactionary stream of consciousness! No wonder that there is a fear of being branded as "left" in a society that speaks such a terrifying and terrified language. Who wants to be thought a "traitor"? Or, even worse, a "traitress"? The difficult truth is that acceptance of the label "left" means acceptance of our oppositional relationship to the dominant culture. But face the facts, fellow dissidents: calling for a "new paradigm" means having a leftist relationship to the "old paradigm"!
So much for "neither left nor right." And when the world's going to Hell, who wants to be in front?
I propose to organize a new politico-spiritual tendency within the Greens! I am issuing a "call" on behalf of the "Left Daoist Network." We Left Daoists have lacked nothing but a slogan, and this sad state of affairs is about to end. We considered calling ourselves "The Left Wing of the Right Brain." But this will not do, since we Daoists, believing in the Yin and Yang of all things, cannot choose one brain over another, or even one piece of a brain over another piece. Thus, the slogan of the Left Daoists: "Neither Left Brain nor Right Brain, but A Head!"
Does Money Grow on Trees?
At the last National Greens Conference, a delegate told me that he couldn't understand all this talk about being against capitalism. "How could anyone be against capitalism?" he asked. "You have to make a living somehow!" The delegate, an intelligent person and a graduate of a major university (no necessary connection implied), had never encountered the idea that capitalism could perhaps be a historical phenomenon, or that any other mode of economic organization might be possible.
Another delegate, perhaps trying to absolve us from any lingering guilt-feelings about, as they say, "buying-in" to the prevailing system, assured us that "Money is Green."
"Money is Green"! A revolutionary slogan for our times!
There are, of course, other views. One prominent political philosopher, paraphrasing another prominent playright, called money "the visible divinity—the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and overturning of things, it makes brothers of impossibilities. It is the common whore, the common pimp of peoples and nations."
But today, "Money is Green." Consider the implications. Money is green. Like skin is white. Like flags are red, white, and blue. Money is green and everybody drives a car.
We are badly in need of the radical imagination. We are sorely in need of utopian thinking. When a system of power has taken hold of the imagination, it is a totalitarian power. It can only be fought on its own ground—imaginary ground.
The Politics of the Imagination
The modern project of domination has been based on both the repression of imagination and the "harnessing" of the imagination. Ideologically, the first stage of this project was a general war against imagination. (An undertaking which was itself a great feat of the imagination!) In fact, the true goal was the restriction and restructuring of imagination, and its channeling on behalf of the emerging systems of power: the modern nation-state, the developing system of capital, and individualized patriarchy.
The stridency and severity of the early modern attack on imagination is striking. For example, Descartes, the patriarch of modern rationalism, while exalting "pure intellection," remarks that "this power of imagination. . . is in no wise a necessary element in my nature, or in my essence, that is to say, in the essence of my mind, for although I did not possess it I should doubtless ever remain the same as I now am . . . . "2 The true fear, of course, is that with the imagination "in his nature," he would ever remain different. That is, the unity of the imperious Cartesian intellect/ego would be shattered, and its transcendental purity irreversibly defiled.
Hume, the towering figure of empiricism, the other major branch of modern Western philosophy, showed no less hostility to the imagination. He urges "the limitation of our enquiries to such subjects as are best adapted to the narrow capacity of human understanding." He notes that the "imagination of man is naturally sublime, delighted with whatever is remote and extraordinary, and running, without control, into the most distant parts of space and time in order to avoid the objects, which custom has rendered too familiar to it." Sounds rather appealing—but Hume's point is to recommend the ordinary over the extraordinary, to counsel walking in preference to running, and to propose a strategy of thought control, ironically consigning the objects of imagination, if not to the flames, "to the embellishments of poets and orators, or to the arts of priests and politicians."3
Even Rousseau, the Father of Romanticism and a bit of a dissident in relation to the tradition, gives stern warnings concerning the dangers of imagination. "The real world has its limits: the imaginary world is infinite. Unable to enlarge the one, let us restrict the other, for it is from the difference between the two alone that are born the pains which make us truly unhappy."4 Granted, there is some wisdom in this approach, particularly if we apply it to the grotesque consumptionist imaginary of late capitalist society. But for Rousseau, the danger was in the imagination per se. If he did not share fully in the general enthusiasm for light of the thinkers of the Siecle des Lumieres, he exceeded his rivals in his extraordinary fear of the Dark, that mysterious source of troubling images.
But from the beginning, the imagination has had its defenders. Perhaps the most radical critic of the splitting off of imagination from the self was Blake, who perceived, at a relatively early date, the importance of the control of imagination to the system of repression and domination:
The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man, & when separated From Imagination and closing itself as in steel in a Ratio Of the Things of Memory, It thence frames Law & Moralities To destroy Imagination, the Divine Body, by Martyrdoms & Wars5
This revolutionary defense of the imagination has continued. In 1968 the French and Czech surrealist groups stated in the "Platform of Prague" that: "The repressive system monopolizes language, to return it to the people only after it has been reduced to its utilitarian function or turned towards ends of mere distraction. Thus, people are deprived of the real power of their own thoughts; they are forced. . . to rely on cultural agents who provide them with patterns of thinking which naturally conform to the good and efficient functioning of the system____With such a vacuous language, people cannot formulate the
ardent images that make the satisfaction of their real desires absolutely
imperative . . . . "6
Long before, the Surrealists had read Freud. Not to find out that they should adapt to what Freud took for "reality"—capitalism, the state, patriarchy—but to find out that reality is "elsewhere." Freud, despite himself, showed that the deadening world of commerce, of bureaucracy, of the endless repetition of the same, is not the world of the highest, or deepest, reality. The reason that Freud inspired the surrealists was that his analysis of dreams revealed that all of us—the clerk, the machine operator, the sign painter, even the political activist or the academic drudge—are poets, creators, masters of the image, the symbol, and language. We are all dreamers and all revolutionaries. A phantom haunts civilization, and it is not the working class. It is the imagination at play. The Phantom of Liberty.
In a Bad Place
The highest aspirations of the imagination are called utopia. But utopia is just as much the enemy of the imagination, and is our own Nemesis. We live in the shadow of a terrifying utopia. And we must search the shadows for those other utopias that have been eclipsed.
Civilization has its feet firmly planted in the reality of domination, and its head firmly planted in the utopian imaginary. We must pull up both by their roots. The dominant utopia is the utopia of Progress, of the conquest of nature, of the rationalization of society. It is a utopia of infinite powers of production and infinite desires for consumption. It has taken on a multitude of forms, and inspires both of the systems of Super Power that threaten to destroy the earth: it is essential both to the Socialism of the Rich in the West and the Capitalism of the State in the East.
The Mind of the Megamachine thinks Utopia.
Utopia in this sense is an abstract idea, a closed system, a weapon to use against the unenlightened or evil forces of resistance. Vaclav Havel wrote eloquently about such authoritarian utopianism, which (in rather uncharacteristically anarchistic phrasing) he describes as a reaction against "life's outrageous chaos and mysterious fecundity." Those who are "tragically oppressed by the terror of nothingness and fear of their own being" are led "compulsively to construct and impose various projects directed toward a rationally ordered common good," thereby "putting an end to all the infuriating uncertainty of history."7 The result is what he calls, borrowing a term from Beloradsky, the "eschatology of the impersonal," in which a monstrous automatic machine develops that is beyond the control even of its creators. In his view, there is a direct path from the utopia of denial to totalitarianism and concentration camps. As a Czech, he cannot but think, of course, of the progression from the productivist utopia of Marxism-Leninism to the Gulag of Stalinism.
But Havel is perceptive enough to see that the utopianism of the corporate capitalist West leads in a similar historical direction. "Soviet totalitarianism was only an extreme manifestation . . . of a deep-seated problem that also finds expression in advanced Western society" in which there is also "a trend towards impersonal power and rule by mega-machines or Colossi that escape human control." It is the "juggernauts of impersonal power," whether these be "large-scale enterprises or faceless governments," that "represent the greatest threat to our present-day world."8
This Utopia of domination is utopia as escapism. This danger is especially real for those utopians who have been frustrated in their efforts to realize their dreams, or who do not even reach the level of praxis. Utopia as escapism remains in the vacuous realm of what Hegel called the Beautiful Soul, of those Dreamers of Moral Perfection who are unable to cope with the ugliness and ambiguity of the world, and therefore cling to a bloodless Ideal.
The utopia of escape has its satisfactions. We believe because belief fulfills needs and satisfies desires. Utopia can be an escape from the imperfections of the world and their reflection within our own selves. It can be an escape from the exigencies of the real, from history and its unavoidable tragedies. It can be an escape from the minutiae of the everyday. It can offer an imaginary compensation for being denied real power or having real efficacy. If we can't escape from the Bowels of the Beast, we can lose ourselves in the Bowels of the Movement.
In this sense, utopia is neurosis, a defense mechanism, a convulsive reaction against self and world. It is the imaginary domination of reality, rather than the imaginative transformation of reality. It is thought's revenge against a recalcitrant reality.
Seize the Daydream!
In opposition to the utopianism of domination and escape is a utopianism which is a critique of domination and a vision of a reality beyond it. Ricoeur has said that the "deinstitutionalization of the main human relationships is . . . the kernel of all utopias," and that though it "may be an escape,. . . it is also the arm of critique." He has also noted that "utopia has two alternatives: to be ruled by good rulers—either ascetic or ethical—or to be ruled by no rulers."9
The latter possibility is what Marie Louise Berneiri calls, in
Journey Through Utopia, the libertarian utopia. The libertarian utopians "oppose to the conception of the centralized state, that of a federation of free communities, where the individual can express his [or her] personality without being submitted to the censure of an artificial code, where freedom is not an abstract word, but manifests
itself concretely____"10 Indeed, as in the utopias of Fourier and Morris,
the division between work and play dissolves.
For Fourier, the new society is to be founded on a harmony of the passions, which, rather than being repressed, will be expressed in socially complementary ways. This, he says, is not only his own theory, but that of God, the Cosmic Utopian himself:
Passions so much downgraded by philosophers, are the most sublime work of God, the one to which He applied the most profound calculus. Only one kind of harmony can be seen in other branches of movement; but all are united in the mechanics of passions. This is an immense orchestra arranged for five billion instruments or characters which will inhabit our planet—not counting the animals, vegetables, aromas, and minerals all of which enter into the framework of harmony of passions, the harmony with which everything is coordinated. This will be difficult to believe, but it will be demonstrated that God knew how to apply his theory of the harmony of passions the means through which each one of the five billion individuals will be useful for the happiness of all the others.11
For the radical utopian tradition, society has always been seen as "a work of art." Nietzsche knew it was music, though for him (like anarchist utopian Godwin) the music is primarily played solo. Fourier imagined it as an ecstatic communal symphony. Creole utopians in the Delta of Dionysius know that it's jazz.
While Berneiri discusses a variety of libertarian utopian conceptions in literature, Ronald Creagh, in his study Laboratoires de L'Utopie, has given abundant evidence that the quest for such utopian community has a rich history in the multitude of experiments in libertarian communalism carried out across the North American continent, from the Owenite and Fourierist experiments of the early 19th century to libertarian countercultural communes of the 1960's.12
So it would be a disastrous error to look to utopian thinking only for visions of the future—no matter how libertarian, just, peaceful, ecological, or virtuous in any other way that future may be. For utopianism is above all about the present. The most utopian of utopianisms is also the most practical. It demands Heaven on Earth. It demands Paradise, not hereafter, but Now. Utopianism affirms the presence of the eternal, the sublime, the marvelous—in the present. As Erazim Kohak has phrased it, "Perhaps real success is not that time is transformed in its flux but that, in each moment, value ingresses in it, that each moment humans glimpse the glory of the true, the good, the beautiful, the holy____"13
Utopianism finds these ultimates, not in some higher realm or some indefinite future, but in the depths of our being and the heights of our experience. Indeed, it finds them even in the false, the evil, the ugly, and the profane. Utopia is present in the all the creative play of energies, in spiritual and material voyages of discovery, and, of course, in everything touched by the transformative imagination. Utopia is already present or it is a fraud.
At it's deepest surre(gion)al level, utopianism is merely a fully awakened topianism.
Words from Green Lips
We sometimes look to the past for hints of what this awakening might mean. For example, we discover that in 1871 the people of Paris awoke to a rather radically utopian idea. They decided to abolish capitalism and the state. They undertook the creation of a free municipality, which they called the Paris Commune. The Commune is one of the most numinous episodes in the history of revolution, and in the history of the imagination. In its few short weeks of existence, it opened up possibilities that remain an inspiration well over a century later: possibilities of freedom, of justice, of popular participation, of social creation. While this experiment was brutally crushed by the forces of reaction, it lives on in the radical imagination.
I can hardly mention the Commune without remarking that as I was first writing these words Chinese students were in the process of carrying on the tradition of the radical imagination, fashioning images of a Goddess of Democracy, and creating what Premier Li Peng called "an anarchic state." My reaction at the time was to remark as follows: "The American news media harp on the fact that the students are demanding 'democracy.' Unfortunately, in the context of American ideological discourse, 'demand for democracy' is immediately translated into 'Big Mac Attack.' Though the media have shown students demonstrating for democracy, they have never, so far as I know, identified the song that these democratic students sing endlessly. It's called the 'Internationale'—and it is not about Big Macs. Actually, its more likely that their nasty leaders, rather than the students, will usher in the invasion of Big Macs—though they'll probably rename them something like Deng-Burgers. (Hold the Mao.)"
Their singing of the "Internationale" now takes on a greater significance. That great anthem, written in the week following the crushing of the Commune, commemorates its triumph and tragedy. Thus the students sang of their ideals of freedom and justice, and at the same time foreshadowed their own fate. Their rulers saw the need for a military invasion to protect the long-term economistic one on which their power depends.
The Commune lives on in many senses.
One of the most remarkable figures associated with the Commune was a young poet named Arthur Rimbaud, whose work (all of which he completed between the ages of 16 and 19) was a truly astounding expression of the revolutionary imagination. In one of his most delirious poems he ironically juxtaposes the banal rhetoric of advertising, the yearnings of desire, and the ekstasis of utopian imagination:
Priceless bodies, beyond race or world or sex or lineage!
Riches in ubiquitous flood!
Unrestricted sale of diamonds!
For sale —
Anarchy for the masses;
Wild satisfaction for knowing amateurs;
Atrocious death for the faithful and for lovers!
For sale —
Homesteads and migrations, sports,
Enchantment and perfect comfort, and the noise,
the movement and the future they entail.14
Forgive me for the prosaic translation, but he's saying that Coke is not the Real Thing, and what is you won't get with money. Echoes of Rimbaud can be heard in the words of all the movements of the revolutionary utopian imagination over the past century. In the surrealists, the situationists, and even in the most radical of the post-structuralists today. Whom or what will we echo? (Or are we capable only of videotaping and xeroxing?)
Rimbaud is reported to have written a revolutionary constitution inspired by the Commune, proposing a system of direct self-rule, reminiscent of the Athenian polis, in which free and equal citizens would gather to deliberate and determine democratically the fate of the community. He thus wished to recreate the public space of the Polis, but to populate it not with rational Greek citizens but with mad Parisian anarchists.
I mention Rimbaud, this "great anarchist," as he was called by Walter Benjamin, for his fusing of the revolutionary imagination with revolutionary politics. I also mention him and the Commune because it allows me to close with an excerpt from a poem about that Commune. A poem that brings us back to our topic of "Green" and the politics of the imagination. I quote from Vermersch's "Les Incendiaires" (1871):
Today, in Paris, on the cobblestones
They trample our dead underfoot;
The fathers machine-gunned, the mothers disappeared,
In their blood-stained cradles,
The orphans, reaching out their hands,
Plead for mercy
From the triumphant assassins!
What threat for the future is held
In the hands of those little children;
What words will some day be spoken through the green lips Of those bloodied corpses . . . 15
This is our question. In this noisy world, how will they speak, the green lips of these bloodied corpses?
1Over the fifteen or so years since this was written, the state has managed not only to reach its goal, but even to increase the prison population to over two million. Ironically, the "Sweet Land of Liberty" may soon have a prison population as great as the entire population of the Republic at its founding.
2Rene Descartes, Discourse On Method and Meditations. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960), pp. 127-28.
3David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1977), p. 112.
4Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education. (New York: Basic Books, 1979), p. 81.
5From "Jerusalem", Chapter 3 in William Blake: The Complete Poems. (London: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 793.
6 The Forecast is Hot! Tracts & Other Collective Declarations of the Surrealist Movement in the United States, 1966-1976, edited with introductions by Franklin Rosemont, Penelope Rosemont, and Paul Garon. (Chicago: Black Swan Press, 1997), p. 247.
7Vaclav Havel, Open Letters: Selected Prose, 1965 - 1990. (New York : Knopf, 1991), p. 301.
8Quoted in Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century. (New York: Norton, 2000), p. 212. This grasp of the horrors of concentrated power led Havel to a rather radical decentralism that dissolved into little more than nostalgia for a less centralized era as he himself drew closer to the centers of power.
9Paul Ricoeur, Lectures on Ideology and Utopia. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 299.
10Marie Louise Berneri, Journey Through Utopia. (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 8.
^Translated from Oeuvres, Vol. X, p. 346, in Nicholas Riasanovsky, The Teaching of Charles Fourier. (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1969), p. 32.
12Ronald Creagh, Laboratoires de L'Utopie: Les Communautes Libertaires aux Etats-Unis. (Paris: Payot, 1983).
13Erazim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 217.
14Arthur Rimbaud, Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works. (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 238.
15Vermersch, "Les Incendiaires" in Les Temps Nouveaux, No. 39 (1910), reprinted at <http://poesie.webnet.fr/poemes/France/Vermersch/Lhtml>.