Surrealism and Haiti #4: Anthropology and Ethnography

In December 2015, seventy years after his first visit catalyzed the overthrow of the Haitian Government of Elie Lescot, the Surrealist leader André Breton returned to Port-au Prince in association with the Ghetto Biennale and the University of Muri to deliver a new series of seven lectures on Surrealism in the 21st Century…

[Translated from French by DC Miller.]

Mesdames and Messieurs,


I spoke last time – or should say, I tried to speak, given one can never be completely certain whether one has truly spoken, and on this matter, least of all – of language, the Surrealism of language, and the Surrealist point of view on language – so similar in some respect, to moving through a crowd.

Today, I’ll speak of knowledge. And in particular, of special structures of encounters so essentially defined by their first moves as to make their afterlives like the inevitable unfolding of their consequences.

As some of you may know, amongst my shipmates on the Capitaine-Paul-Lermerle, the ship which took me from Marseille to the New World in 1941 was the man who was not yet, but would become the famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.

Ten years younger than myself – I was at this time 45 – but already in complete possession of the wealth of the experiences he’d acquired in Brazil – and in complete possession, too, of a mammoth, battered trunk stuffed with documents pertaining to his field work – I met him on the bridge between Casablanca and Martinique, where we struck up a conversation which continued for the next six weeks, and four years.

One cannot, I think, underestimate the pleasure that an erudite companion can deliver to a journey – not only that, but one can also recognize that certain forms of both companionship and conversation are indeed only possible in this context. Levi-Strauss and I shared a few friends and associates, as well as interests: in the primitive, and modern art, the colonies, and European culture, and the relationship between originality and beauty.

We avoided, mostly, speaking of the war – for reasons some of you will understand – there was little, after all, by then which still could profitably be said. Instead we spoke about ethnography – his specialism, to be sure, but also at that time a field close to my own concerns.

We confessed our mutual admiration for the great scholar Marcel Mauss – his lively and audacious teaching, in which unthought-of comparisons flourished like exotic fauna – his important article on potlatch, and his vital personality, which extended to shadowboxing with the heavyweight champion of Africa, Al Brown at the Cirque d’Hiver to send off the Dakar-Djibouti expedition in 1931. We shared our critical perspectives on the Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1936, and our ideas about the Musee de L’Homme in Paris – before 1928, a curiously unscientific Moorish-Byzantine structure housing a jumble of exotica, where Picasso, around 1908, had first begun to make a study of l’art negre – afterwards, on the appointment of Mauss’s colleague Paul Rivet, an increasingly sophisticated fixture on the Paris social scene. (It stands to recall – a sight not easily forgotten – the grand opening of the Oceania Hall in 1930 when models from the great fashion houses went on parade.) And we had both been readers of the short-lived journal Documents, this sui generis collage of images and text, fortuitously juxtaposed – hideously enlarged photographs of slaughterhouses and big toes – this anarchic labyrinth of heterogeneity and formlessness devoted to the pale moons in the firmament of reason – which in 1930 was succeeded by the more recognizably art-centric Minotaur.

And so much perhaps is already enough to give some hint of the situation of ethnography before the war, and the transformation underway: a certain lively interpenetration of both personalities and disciplines beginning to hive-off from each other into distinct camps – to, I think, the mutual loss of both. Levi-Strauss and myself parted company in Martinique – he embarked for Puerto Rico, on an immaculate white Swedish steamer, dragging his gargantuan trunk; I myself stayed longer, and I was glad I did.

The island was hysterical with the madness of the war, but by one of those chance happenings that lead to pivotal moments I was able during my stay there to meet the great black poet Aimé Cesaire. Cesaire at that time was publishing with his wife Suzanne the Surrealist journal Tropiques. With André Masson, who’d left with me from France, I came across an issue one day in the market – by pure chance – and from there inexorably I was led to this black man, who handled the French language as no man in France was capable of handling it – using it to stride forth into the unexplored, throwing ignition switches as he went. And of course – and not without some irony – Tristes Tropiques would later be the title of Levi-Strauss’s subsequent stupendous book about his own intellectual formation.

After Martinique, Levi-Strauss in fact endured a difficult few months traveling around the Caribbean – peculiarly for such a world-renowned explorer, Levi-Strauss detested traveling – and I beat him to Manhattan, where we resumed our friendship and our discussions. I still remember many Sundays – so many that they feel almost like a single one – that we spent browsing the antique shops of Third Avenue with Max Ernst, who had spared himself the imprecations of the naval voyage by flying over the Atlantic first class on the clipper with Peggy Guggenheim – fishing marvels out of boxes – zebrine and tigroid quasi-objects traversing time and space from every corner of the terraqueous globe.

Levi-Strauss, as I have said, had not yet turned into the figure he would become, but he had already been working in Brazil, and started thinking seriously about the problems of his field – the relation between man and knowledge – the relation of the here and elsewhere, the subject and the other, and especially the problem of the point of embarkation, of position, his, and more generally our own.

In the first place the pragmatic problem of arrival – this enigma of what must necessarily exist for an encounter to take place – in our cases, valid visas, and four hundred US dollars in our bank accounts to prove that we would not become financial burdens to the government of the United States. And then more historically and theoretically, the relationship between colonialism and ethnography.

It was, to be exact, the colonial enterprise to map, to survey, to put under surveillance, and therefore dominate a territory that led to the original formation of the ethnographic discipline – the effort to draw maps of coastlines and geography developing into a project to map populations, political and social structures – eventually desires – with these techniques, initially directed at the colonies, finally repatriating back to Europe – just like the machine guns that Europeans turned on Africans were ultimately turned back on themselves. One could not claim, in other words, that ethnography was innocent. At the same time, how to circumscribe the guilt? Were there abuses, is the project itself guilty – or is the guilt located in the subject, man, himself?

That was a question Levi-Strauss and I debated. It is a question for ethnography, but not only – really, as already stated, it is a question about knowledge, purchased, as we know, always at a certain price in sorrow, and the uses to which it can be put, ranging across attitudes, approaches, curiosity and needs.

One of course should not fixate on ethics either. There is, after all – one can’t deny – a kind of self-indulgence in the obsession with morality, as if the quest for purity of some person or another held general interest or significance for anybody but themselves. Still, I think the question of what attitudes to knowledge one may have or can have is not totally invalid, given especially that there was a dimension of Surrealism which consisted fundamentally – of nothing else – except inquiry.

For example, during the Époque des Sommeils, and then subsequently in the Bureau of Surrealist Research – which we opened simultaneously with the publication of the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, in 17 Rue de Grenelle, Paris. Which installed itself, in Artaud’s sense, as a form of space that was itself a proposition: that Surrealism was not, and is not today, only an aesthetic category, but a practice, an activity, capable of generating knowledge of an equal status to scientific knowledge. But not of the same form.

It is not irrelevant that for the duration of its operation we kept the Bureau manned, continually, by two Surrealists, so that members of the public could acquire information on Surrealism if they so wished. But that it was necessary in each case that they first crossed the threshold – that they dared.

That, fundamentally, they were in possession of audacity – before all knowledge. For what is one without the other? It was the same with La Revolution Surréaliste – here again, our purpose was never to create a doctrine of Surrealism for theoretical consumption – but to embody it, within the structure of a project, as a medium.

Even the very word Surrealism to some degree existed in these terms – as a kind of password to all the possibilities extending from it – possible activities as well as thoughts – hence the necessity, which we felt intensifying through the thirties, to keep this word transparentpure. A tactical mistake, perhaps; in retrospect it’s clear the mission was impossible. But still not, I think, a fundamental error – given the necessity was, and still remains – even at the price of some discomfort.

No doubt, some of you are already aware of what I am discussing here, through these notations of activities, this shuttling between activities and forms of thought: what ethnographers since at least Durkheim have spoken of as kinship structures. Elementary correspondences and elective patterns of affinity – Levi-Strauss addressed them too. And one may certainly observe apropos Surrealism the outlines of a nimbus of activity – a parcours of associations and events – events of almost total insignificance from the point of view of an external gaze but extreme importance for us personally, since they tied together motives, in all cases individual, as a question of an acte gratuit, of individual expression and experience – but united by the fact.

Such was this very intimate relationship between Surrealism and ethnography – not merely conceptual, but actual – a relationship of overlap, of mutual respect and productivity related to a certain period of youth – when must seek out others to discover who one is. A relation, then, of mutual questions, yielding to new answers in the context of, not just a search for fundamental structures of experience as a theoretical activity, but their expression in the context of a form of life.

In the late thirties, it was the College of Sociology, this group around Bataille, Leiris and Cailois which had been responsible for Documents, and subsequently, Minotaur which continued to pursue this track – meeting twice a month in the back room of a bookshop on Rue Gay-Lussac, organizing lectures and discussions on the obscene and the sacred, their identity and difference. Now is not the time to resurrect the sometimes atmosphere of strain between myself and certain members of this group – after this passage of eight decades, suffice to say, like time itself, all divergences are relative. Only no-one should mistake the situation – even in our most heated moments – as ever representing a true opposition. It was a matter only of the emphasis, with a weight becoming heavier as events escaped from our control.

Let me repeat a sentence Monsieur Bataille once said, but which we both believed – that he felt he could not understand a myth unless he could himself believe it; unless he understood, that is, the way in which he already believed it. As with language, as with the unconscious, in fact beliefs are not destroyed, merely transformed – like Christianity – which started life as a theology of supersession, and has been superseding itself ever since – into ever new, definitive dogmatic forms.

Against which this masquerade – in an effort only to determine where the fault lines truly lay – on, as they say, the end of everybody’s forks – this whole vast, unknown territory composed of, and divided, at the same time, by a practice of collage. As defined by Ernst, as a tactic of compiling two realities upon a plane apparently unsuited for them, in order to determine, ultimately, what this plane might be. The objective being to illuminate a certain gap or absence, reflected by a double negative – in the same way they say that lovers use themselves to hide each other’s absence.

For Levi-Strauss, collage implied a practice both discovered in in his expeditions and employed in his own method – bricolage – a kind of logic of construction from fragments of meaning in which cultural practices and/or artifacts were set beside each other – without distinction. So for example – it became possible to see a fetishism reflected also by particular activities and artifacts and practices in the contemporary world. But it was in fact Roger Caillois who presented this idea most radically – in the context of a critique of Levi-Strauss – within the body of a text which, upon its publication so many years ago, instigated such a furious response from Aimé Cesaire that it is Cesaire’s piece which is best remembered.

Perhaps unfairly.

For Cesaire was a great poet, amongst the greatest, but he was not a philosopher, and one cannot deny there is a way in which he misses Caillois’s central point – his focus on the forces that control perception. Let’s stick with saying that Cesaire paid back in passion what he purchased from precision, directing his complaints against things that Caillois did not say – accusing Caillois, for example, of denigrating Negro culture in the name of Western Universalism – when his true claim was that one must not deceive oneself into presuming one has acquired universalism insofar as one continues to assume a certain privilege for categories which one cannot deny come to exert a structural effect upon the way in which a discourse is unfolded.

In the end it is a question of what one considers to be most important – the object of the exercise, or the goal towards which it aims. If that goal is knowledge, one must consider what it’s worth; if passion, one must reach more deeply still into oneself – to reach the point in which one finds oneself, like Georges Bataille, believing all the accusations with one could ever think to direct against oneself.

If one seeks to map, for instance, the network of symbolic meanings into which everyone is tied, one must begin with the experiences closest to you, but here there is a greater force or subtlety that operates then knowledge.

As I said – the twenties was a decade in which Surrealism and ethnography, myself and Levi-Strauss, were able to relate as equals – as companions on a common quest. This was before our own suppression, and the professionalization of the latter, of ethnography – this transition which also sometimes overtakes one’s friends from youth.

Here again, career success had the effect of, even a kind of stupefaction that resulted from eliminating the impurities – this grit within a discipline – from which, in truth, the power of a form of thought derives. It is the confrontation with the formless – the formlessness within itself – which throws thought back on itself as something deeper than a discipline. This power of the need to seek out limits – to extend beyond the limits of the known, without this yet being considered a transgression.

This necessity for challenge. This acceptance of this fear – which now and then is the great teacher, This great teacher of desire. A desire for an intimacy, with the other, who may, or may not, be real. A desire for a kind of knowledge – which may, or may not exist. A knowledge which, transecting both the surplus and the shortfall which exists here, or elsewhere – of the general fascination for frontiers. As well as even creativity – which has become regarded as something almost like a resource to be tapped – which does not at the same time turn itself into a resource.

After the war, ethnography became a subject for universities across the world – just at the moment that “the outside” – the outside of the civilized world which had served as its first object – began to disappear on the impact of the captive globe. In the fifties, structuralism, this philosophy of technocrats – identified with Levi-Strauss, but denuded of his wit – took hold in France, its ground prepared by the schematic thought of Sartre.

It begat post-structuralism – theory – this philosophy of university instructors – the administrators now of all the warehoused Western youth – who looked back with jealously to Bataille and to Artaud in their rebellion against their masters. And today, of course we have post-colonialism too – this thought of Brahmins in denial.

Meanwhile – outside of the academy – the artists of the frontiers nurse their feelings of ambivalence regarding their recent, only partial incorporation in the system – grateful for exposure, while bristling at the universality corroded by the ways in which they’re being framed. This protocol embodied by the notion of displaying a peripheral reality, unable to suppress the knowledge of that fact, while attempting to transcend it, they find themselves possessed by guilt, responding to this call to represent their nations – a thing they feel they cannot do.

Meanwhile, and to an extent that perhaps under-appreciated from their perspective– universality is denied to Western artists too – those who represent no territory aren’t granted platforms except to the extent they demonstrate they’re willingness to join the circus of critique, as if now this was all that’s left. For all concerned, the situation is outrageous, since what else can an artist aim for but the universal? But everywhere, they’re railroaded towards the relative, towards documentary, towards displeasure.

I began this lecture aiming to speak of knowledge – of Surrealism and ethnography and the knowledge of man. I’d like to close it by remarking briefly on the United Nations, this body theoretically committed to the brotherhood of man, at least, in whose name it speaks.

It was in fact three years after the conclusion of the Second War World – and three years after I first came to Haiti – that the signatories of the United Nations General Assembly met in New York on December 10 1948 to agree amongst themselves the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: this document which sought to legislate into agreement a baseline level of humanity after the recent calamitous encounter with the inhuman.

It opened the way for the political and social world that we have today – where nations no-longer explain their actions as flowing naturally from territorial aggression, but on the basis of defending human rights – for example, here in Haiti, where following the Earthquake UN troops dispatched to do so provoked a cholera epidemic, amongst their other crimes. With this kind of episode in mind, some have argued human rights serve only as a proxy for imperial ambitions, as if a screen did not possess an agency, mysterious though it may be. But there is a need to believe in something, almost at any cost, and the less plausible it is, in certain ways, the better.

It is indeed, as others have observed – this whole complex of human rights, including courts, and lawyers, bombs and armies – the last utopia, so-called, after the collapse of communism conceived as a persuasive project. As in the Renaissance utopias – for instance both Thomas More’s, and  Campanella’s City of the Sun, here too we see involved a journey overseas.

So here we are. Of course Surrealism is itself a humanism – and if at any point we’ve found ourselves in conflict with the relevant authorities, it has only ever been over the issue of how narrowly this term may be defined. And if if Surrealism finds itself compelled today to keep some distance from a legal definition of a human being, it is not because we are opposed to the position that every human must be equipped with basic things, but connected to our view that it is necessary to go beyond the categorical to arrive at the same place.

And that is what I wish to emphasize again here. For myself, and from the perspective of Surrealism, the issue is again with the conception of humanity as such, and the possibilities for the human form. And this, not just conceptually, but in reality.

For where in fact does this human being now and begin and end? Where does one begin and end, when the beginning of one’s breath is the end of someone else’s? Today, the progress of technology has delivered to us to a new century, playing itself out in the crepuscularity of computer screens. We’re no longer in the “century of hands” defined by Rimbaud but in a century of fingers, a relay race from one screen to another. And it is this challenge, I believe, which will define the anthropology – the ethnography – of the centuries to come. An ethnography of virtuality conducted in the hall of mirrors and identity that today constitutes the contemporary – that constitutes our contemporary selves.

It is a matter of identity, and at the same time of belonging – of what in us belongs, and doesn’t, to each other. Of frontiers and limits that now run right through us, instead of on the other side of oceans. No longer the attempt to find a universal structure for humanity in the jungles of Brazil – but the construction of such structures in the present – either by others, or by us. And for us.

I began this lecture by remembering an ocean crossing. To return again to seas – perhaps it is indeed in the case, as some have said, that man is like a figure on the sand, being washed away by an incoming tide. But man is, too, this very tide.

And thus it is my firm belief that something will survive this end, which – at least as regards this lecture – has now arrived.

Thank you very much.

Submit a comment