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Surpassing realism: How surrealism offers an alternative

Writing by Elizabeth Hamilton, artwork by Berenika Murray.




Mark Fischer’s Capitalist Realism is my anti-capitalist gospel, but it bares comfortless conclusions. It seems that the truth of any aspect of our political hellscape (to put it lightly) can be illuminated by its daunting analysis and theory. Fischer describes a constructed capitalist ‘Realism’ that prevails over political discourse and beyond. Capitalist Realism’s main force is to justify and recreate the capitalist global order we live in today at every turn. No doubt is allowed that this is the only way we can live, thinking otherwise is ‘unrealistic’. This is what I always come back to when trying to understand the ‘why’s’ and ‘how’s’ of the mindless and universal acceptance of the way things are. I certainly felt awoken from my ‘dogmatic slumber’, as philosopher Robin Mackay described it, in digesting Fischer’s theory. However, attempting to find an antidote to our current predicament is a formidable task. Uncritical resignation to only one possible ‘Reality’ seems to perfectly encapsulate the world of neoliberal capitalism, so how can we possibly expose the reality behind the ‘Reality’. In Surrealpolitik: Surreality and the National Security State, John Schoneboom offers a diagnostic tool: Surrealism. If ‘Reality’ is flawed, then perhaps our task is to go beyond the ‘Real’, to appeal to the Surreal.


Schoneboom responds to Fischer, borrowing his theory of a symbolic order of ‘Realism’. Fischer’s theory is that capitalism has a monopoly over what is widely considered realistic, indeed reality. Capitalist Realism is the force and symbolic order that suppresses transgressive thought and imagination of alternatives, resigning most people to blind acceptance of our socioeconomic landscape. However, they are not to be blamed, Fischer details the powerful extent to which Capitalist Realism prevails and infiltrates our minds. ‘I promise’, says Capitalist Realism, assuring us freedom, integrity, democracy, opportunity, human rights, but practising the exact opposite. And the world consistently and conformably looks away. 


To attempt to address this, Schoneboom revives Surrealism as a mode of inquiry, offering it to the 21st Century. He argues that Surrealism’s preoccupation with the unconscious, dreams, fiction, delusion, taboo, humour, juxtaposition, and anti-fascism need to become tools in every radical’s belt to unpack our world. Surrealism was a deeply political artistic movement. The mainly French members were broadly leftist, anti-imperialist, and anti-fascist. While key tenet of Marx’s thought was that humanity was naturally productive, the surrealist seemed to offer a vision of humanity as naturally imaginative, so this is where we need to seek freedom. Schoneboom specifically sees value in appeal to the surreal where the symbolic order is obscuring growing fascist trends of ‘systematic repression of thought, expression, and action’. Schoneboom points a condemning finger at the national security state. He highlights the juxtaposition ‘dreamworld of virtuous free democracy’, and the accumulating repression of the national security state, seen in growing surveillance, censoring, unquestioned military matters, and indefinite detention. Thus, the surrealist’s focus point of revolt is against the repression of thought, both conscious and unconscious, seeing value in thinking that is not ‘realistic’ or rational. Surrealism’s project is fostering the ‘emotional climate’ that will fuel revolution. Imagination is a powerful tool of revolt, we need to learn to imagine alternatives to our neo-liberal world, so this is relevant now more than ever. Exposing the juxtaposition between the symbolic order and how we feel towards these affronts on freedom requires coaxing out these feelings first. This is surrealism’s expertise. 


Fischer and Schoneboom describe how consciousness is colonised by neo-liberal declarations of ‘Reality’, how a realm of thought is prescribed society-wide that precludes critical thought of alternatives. Could unconsciousness, the focus of Surrealism, be a tool to surpass these restraints? Fischer highlights that even our unconscious is invaded and restricted by the symbolic order, maybe it has not much to offer to begin to liberate thought. However, transcending the ‘logical’, ‘reasoned’ ideas that reside in our conscious mind by allowing the unconscious to flourish could still have value. It seems that the irrational nature of the unconscious has rendered it useless to, and thus rejected by the symbolic order. By making space for alternative forms of thought, we may be able to encourage acceptance and expression that could form a path to the transgressive. In its illogical nature, the unconscious is not as susceptible to the appeals to ‘reality’ that Capitalist Realism demands. The unconscious may not be free of Capitalist Realism’s infiltrating, but putting it in the spotlight could still reveal things our conscious worlds do not.


An example of the unconscious and conscious diverting in interesting ways to our goals can be found in dark humour. Surrealism can point at the people who consciously and openly defend the police, the boss, the government, and yet will simultaneously consciously and openly laugh at media ridiculing these groups, revealing incongruences or even darker truths about them in hilarious ways. Schoneboom astutely remarks that, unlike political beliefs, humour is conveniently irrefutable, it cannot be subjected to intellectual defence, exposing truths behind the symbolic order without making any arguments. Dark humour has been used in art and activism to surrealist ends, exploiting juxtaposition and consistently revealing humanity's vitality and optimism in response to a world that is set on destroying this. The art and activism of the Guerrilla Girls are an example of this,   making art that both makes us laugh and encourages reflexive consideration of patriarchy in art. They bring light to the things we may have failed to critically evaluate, and have let slip into our unconscious precisely by making us laugh about it. Through dark humour, Schoneboom notes, the human spirit resists the bleak world we live within, appealing to the surrealist trust in the inner self as a tool of revolt. 


Further exploration of dreams, paranoia, and spectacular crime builds Schoneboom’s surrealist mode of inquiry. Surrealpolitik is a must read for anyone concerned by Capitalist Realism’s construction and obscuring of our world. The task of the radical today is finding ways around or through the capitalist’s appeals to inevitability, and reclaiming and restoring the inner world using Surrealism’s tools of interrogation is our way out. Schoneboom remarks that Surrealism offers the opportunity to ‘loosen reality’s grip on us’. Somewhere in the rise of neoliberalism, reality, which was once the radicals best tool to expose the suffering this world creates, has become the radical’s enemy. ‘Reality’ is not reality at all, we must look past these constructions, and to do that we can look within. It is no longer enough to talk of freeing the person, we must first free the imagination. This is the offering of political Surrealism to the 21st Century.


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