Calling the Lobster Telephone

What surrealism can teach social scientists

If you were to ask someone what the term “surrealism” means, you might well call to mind images of Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks, René Magritte’s bowler hats, or André Masson’s strange and troubling, almost Boschian, scenes of violence and eroticism. Surrealism’s most common reference points are, after all, to this set of European artists, familiar from a particular (and to my view puzzling) species of poster in which artists’ names occupy no less than a quarter of the available space—reminder for those who are unfamiliar with the work and cultural trophy for those who claim to be.

The second, everyday sense of the term that you are likely to be directed to is the adjective “surreal,” which, given the nature of recent political events, has suddenly taken a place of prominence in our lexicon. The sense of disorientation it conveys confronts us as a blurring of the boundaries between the...