Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Sontag and Surrealism

Again, I'm afraid I'm repeating myself.... for me to digest things requires repeating. Perhaps I need 4 brains like a cow has 4 stomachs.

Surrealists did not try to use the newest technology, at least it was not their priority. Rather, they deliberately "misused" the industrial products (photogram, or rayogram, is a kind of misusing, isn't it?), or used some obsolete products. They were interested in forgotten things, garbage....yesterday's newspaper. That's what today's experimental musicians are doing. "Glitch," for example. And soon their methods are taken over by the "mainstream."

Susan Sontag says:

The Surrealist legacy for photography came to seem trivial as the Surrealist repertoire of fantasies and props was rapidly absorbed into high fashion in the 1930, and Surrealist photography offered mainly a mannered style of portrature, recognizable by its use of the same decorative conventions introduced by Surrealism in other arts, particularly painting, theater, and advertising.

The similar things are still happening. I don't care if it's good or bad. That's the way it is.

Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision. The less doctored, the less patently crafted, the more naive-the more authoritative the photograph was likely to be.

-On Photography, Picador, p. 52

Basically, like Adorno, Sontag didn't like populism. And I can imagine that many would scorn them. But I like reading what they say.

Sontag, perhaps deliberately mixes "surreal" and "Surrealism." She states the nature of photography is surreal, then goes on:

Thus the earliest surreal photographs come from the 1850s, when photographers first went out prowling the streets of London, Paris, and New York, looking for their unposed slice of life.

There was no Surrealism in the 1850s. Then she goes like this:

Believing that the images they sought came from the unconscious, whose contents they assumed as loyal Freudians to be timeless as well as universal, the Surrealists misunderstood what was most brutally moving, irrational, unassimilable, mysterious--time itself. What renders a photograph surreal is its irrefutable pathos as a message from time past, and the concreteness of its intimations about social class. (p. 54)

There is difference between Sontag and Sloterdijk on what the Surrealists mistook unconscious for. Sloterdijk points out that it was of Romantic metaphysics, some sort of agency that drives us to desire, inspires us to create, something--I borrow from Sontag--"brutally moving, irrational, unassimilable, mysterious," and so on. Sontag's argument can read that the Surrealists mistook unconscious for time. Or, it can read the other way: time is more brutally moving, irrational, unassimilable, mysterious, than unconscious, but they ignored that fact. If this is the case, it may be possible to assume that Sloterdijk could say that Sontag also mistook time for the ideas of Romantic metaphysics.

Sontag also sees photographs the way Barthes, who pointed the punctum to tell us, "Forget all the story of the image, just watch it. You would feel 'that has been,'" does.


  1. I think in surrealism there is a lot of creative and product misuse, and I would say the photogram is one of those. This is interesting as I am currently writing a short essay on Surreal readings of the city.