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SubStance 34.2 (2005) 47-65

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The Futures of Surrealism:

Hegelianism, Romanticism, and the Avant-Garde1

University of Westminster, London

In the course of urging upon us a "re-reading of the history of the modernism of the 1920s," Colin MacCabe counterposes, in a recent work, the writings of Georges Bataille and those of a man he calls that "loathsome Leninist Breton" (MacCabe, 82). The comment is an aside—it appears in brackets and in a book devoted to the late 1960s cult film Performance—but is perhaps all the more significant for that. For it would seem to reflect, all-too-fashionably, an extreme version of a pervasive contemporary doxa concerning surrealism and the relationship between these two figures. It is not my intention to trace the genealogy of such a view—though it would probably go, in part, via the selective "translations" of French theory (and of the Tel Quel group in particular) into the terms of Anglo-American post-structuralism2 —but, clearly, a pivotal moment in the construction of this opposition is represented by the writings of those associated with the American art journal October. In the 1997 Formless: A User's Guide, for example, co-authored by two of the journal's editors, Yves-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, the former feels able to assert that "there is no connection whatever between Bataille's sense of the Sacred [as what is "wholly other"] and Breton's contem-poraneous reappropriation of the marvellous" (53, my emphasis).

Now, it would not be hard to show that this hardly corresponds to Bataille's own conception. Indeed, Michael Richardson has demonstrated this very well in the detailed introduction to his superb collection of Bataille's writings on surrealism, and one could easily cite supporting statements, such as that in the 1946 essay "On the Subject of Slumbers": "I would now like to affirm [surrealism] from within as the demand to which I have submitted and as the dissatisfaction I exemplify" (Bataille 1994: 49). My intention in noting this is not, however, to elide the important differences between Breton and Bataille's positions. Rather, the initial aim of this paper is to ask, first, what might be revealed by the recent tendency straightforwardly to oppose the likes of Breton and Bataille, and second, to question some of the "philosophical" conceptions that [End Page 47] would seem to underlie such an opposition—a questioning that may have certain more general implications for contemporary "theoretical" accounts of modernism and the avant-garde.

One term missing from Formless: A User's Guide (its sole mention is in rather negative terms) but far more central to the earlier work of Krauss in particular, is that of "postmodernism." Although rarely made explicit as such, Bataille (like Duchamp and a few others) clearly has a pivotal role within Krauss's work of the early 1980s, as representing a kind of proto-postmodernism that points forward to—and in part explains—contemporary practice. In this sense, we are encouraged to read the "philosophical" divide between Bataille and Breton as that which also divides postmodernism from modernism and the avant-garde, despite the historical complication this evidently involves. The nature of this division is made very clear by Krauss, in her essay "The Originality of the Avant-Garde":

…postmodernism establishes a schism between itself and the conceptual domain of the avant-garde, looking back at it from across a gulf that in turn establishes a historical divide. The historical period that the avant-garde shared with modernism is over. This seems an obvious fact.

Krauss's rhetorical assertion of obviousness indicates, as always, the anxious force of a desire for the clarity of a limit that this very rhetoric signals as fragile. Moreover, it is this anxiety that is then transferred to the relation between Breton and Bataille on Krauss's reading.

While this is not the place to re-open the rather moribund debates surrounding the concept of postmodernism, suffice it to say that if this concept has come to seem...