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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Calling the Lobster Telephone

What surrealism can teach social scientists

Joshua Nichols

Making Trouble: Surrealism and the Human Sciences

Derek Sayer

Prickly Paradigm Press

95 pages, softcover

ISBN: 9780996635523

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 waking and the dreaming world. This can either lead you to the frightening possibilities that all of this is merely in your head (which modern philosophy refers to as the problem of other minds and, if taken far enough, can lead to a loss of contact with reality) or that the shared normative framework that allows us to share a social world is dissolving, leaving us in the condition that the sociologist Émile Durkheim termed “anomie,” which can be translated as “normlessness.” There is another word connected to “surreal,” suggested by the title of Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay Das Unheimliche. The work is translated, somewhat unsatisfyingly, as “The Uncanny.” A happier English translation would be the rather ungainly term “unhomeliness,” which helps direct our attention to the intimately troubling nature of this experience—it is one that follows you home and exposes something you cannot retreat from, an abyss that stares back, to borrow Nietzsche’s evocative phrasing.

Axel Kinnear

My point here is that what you generally do not see associated with the term “surrealism” is a serious methodological text in the social sciences. That is precisely what Derek Sayer is offering us with his latest book. While this association might not be initially welcomed by the more staid among social scientists, I believe that any reader who decides to inquire further and explore the idea will be richly rewarded. (This has certainly been my own experience. Full disclosure: I pursued a master’s degree in sociology under Sayer’s supervision at the University of Alberta before moving on to complete doctorates in philosophy and law, as well as the requisite law degree.) In Sayer’s work the connection between the surrealists and the foundational figures of sociology (Marx, Durkheim, and Weber among others) is by no means implausible. Rather, there is a strong contextual and methodological resonance.

It is helpful for us to remember that both sociology and surrealism are rooted in the end of the long 19th century and the impending breakdown of European colonial imperialism; Durkheim’s “malady of the infinite” (the evocative phrase he used to describe the condition of anomie) captures something endemic in both this period and ours. It is a condition we can see hinted at in the mid-19th century with the darkly impressionistic shift in J.M.W. Turner’s work in paintings such as Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon Coming On) (1840), Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), and Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway (1844). Turner filters the symbols of 19th century progress and empire through a lens that shows us only a dizzying movement of light and shadow without distinct shape or direction. In these paintings, there is an inescapable sense of impending disaster, collision and shipwreck that, to my mind, connects these works to the social and political malady that the surrealists inherit and attempt to investigate. As Sayer puts it:

The surrealists always insisted that surrealism was an instrument of knowledge rather than just a literary or artistic movement. A central part of their critique of the white, western, bourgeois civilization they had come to despise was a sustained challenge to modern scientific rationality as a privileged vehicle for understanding the world. In this respect they anticipated some of the core arguments of later postcolonial and feminist perspectives, seeking to provincialize the privileged standpoints from which knowledge is usually derived.

Sayer’s use of surrealism in Making Trouble is more in line with the origins of the term itself. After all, its original context is the aftermath of the First World War. André Breton was a psychiatrist treating victims of shell shock. What was surreal was not only the individual’s life, but the culture itself. How can you relate general claims to morality with the horrors of the trenches and shell shock? This question was not an academic one for the surrealists, as the majority of them served in the war and were struggling to make sense of that experience and their own everyday reality. Their question was: How do you live between the waking and the dreaming world? And beyond that, how do you show others that they too are in this liminal state between sleep and waking? How do you bring them to the notion that the dream-reality barrier is undecidable? Max Ernst (who served as a gunner in the German army in the Great War) captured this when he explained of Dada:

[It] resulted from the absurdity, the whole immense stupidity, of that imbecilic war. We young people had come back from the war in a state of stupefaction, and our rage had to find expression somehow or other. This it did quite naturally through attacks on the foundations of the civilization responsible for the war. Attacks on speech, syntax, logic, literature, painting and so on.

These are the tasks that surrealism set for itself. It was not merely an aesthetic. Rather, it was a way of being in the world. Michel Foucault evocatively captured the heart of this project in an interview for Arts Loisirs in 1966 when he said that “the dream for Breton is the unshatterable kernel of night at the heart of the day.” Or, to use a connection that Sayer fleshes out beautifully, we can think of Breton’s surrealism in light of Walter Benjamin’s work and see it as a set of “techniques for awakening”—not to some ultimate reality in which the truth is clear and present, but rather to a liminal space between the subject and the object. There is, as I see it, more than a little resemblance here between surrealism and the ancient Skeptics. The aim of the philosopher Sextus Empiricus was not some zero-sum truth game, but ataraxia, which he defines as an “untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.” Skepticism provides us with a set of arguments that focuses on how we can claim to know things, but its ends are not confined to simply winning arguments. Rather, the point was to achieve ataraxia or—as Pyrrho maintained—acatalepsia, which refers to an ability to refuse dogmatic claims to absolute truth and instead see that for every such claim there is a contradiction that may be advanced with equal justification.

The Skeptics refused Aristotle’s famous claim that philosophy begins with wonder (the Ancient Greek term thaumazein being closer to the shock and awe sense of the word) by basing it on doubt and thereby exposing foundational normative claims as being little more than an argument from authority—the schoolyard phrase being “because I said so”—or infinite regress (the unsatisfying claim that the foundation of the world is “turtles all the way down”). The similarity with the surrealists (especially Breton, but it can be seen in other family members of surrealism—both within Breton’s inner circle and in the more distant relatives who associated more with the self-proclaimed inner enemy of surrealism, Georges Bataille) is that the aim is not to escape the dream to return to the waking world, but rather to learn how to live in a world where dream and reality are inseparable features. In other words, the view from nowhere is simply not possible and so the dream of metaphysics and its promise of objective norms is little more than dogmatism. What remains is a form of skeptical inquiry that follows dreams because they are the lines of fracture in social norms, so as to attack the very foundations.

Which brings us back to Making Trouble, as Sayer’s aim is not to point to a set of methodological tools that can be used to simply bring disorder, but rather to point to the tools that the surrealists manufactured and their resemblance to some of the most productive critical resources of the social sciences. He helps us to see the surrealists as intellectual forerunners for the kinds of critiques of the world later made by social science.

This would not be all that surprising for those working in the French tradition of social theory, as the connections between leading figures in the surrealist circle (and at its edges) and those of the post-structuralists of the 1960s and ’70s extend beyond the confines of the academy. The surrealists published cutting-edge (or perhaps better yet bleeding-edge) periodicals such as Minotaure (1933-1939) and Acéphale (1936-1939) that combined the works of art, literature, poetry, and social theory by their luminary friends and associates. They created secret societies that mixed together the insights of French anthropologists and sociologists studying so-called “primitive religion,” such as Marcel Mauss and Durkheim, with a violently convulsive sense of theatre that we can see most clearly expressed in the avant-garde playwright Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. In their Paris the worlds of art, literature, philosophy, and the social sciences crisscrossed and overlapped in a social tapestry that extended from the academy to the café and beyond. Their influence on philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida is both deep and lasting.

Sayer builds on these connections by providing us with thought-provoking examples of resemblance between surrealism and the work of some of the leading social scientists of the last century in the Anglo-American context. The most striking, to my eye, is the work of Robert Merton, Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, and Harold Garfinkel. It is Garfinkel’s description of his method of “making commonplaces scenes visible” in particular that draws out the rich resonance between surrealism and social science methodology:

Procedurally it is my preference to start with familiar scenes and ask what can be done to make trouble. The operations that one would have to perform in order to multiply the senseless features of perceived environments; to produce and sustain bewilderment, consternation, and confusion; to produce the socially structured affects of anxiety, shame, guilt, and indignation; and to produce disorganized interaction should tell us something about how the structures of everyday activities are ordinarily and routinely produced and maintained…my studies are not properly speaking experimental. They are demonstrations, designed, in Herbert Spiegelberg’s phrase, as “aids to a sluggish imagination.” I have found that they produce reflections through which the strangeness of an obstinately familiar world can be detected.

This notion of methods for making trouble brings us to the context of this book and the current state of the social sciences in the university—which is, Sayer argues, plunged in a bureaucratic stasis. Should the value of knowledge be measured by its potential productive utility or number of citations in a given year? This is the premise that lurks behind new systems of assessment such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the United Kingdom and other methods of qualitative assessment that lay claim to being more “objective.” The problem with these tools and systems is not simply that they exist, but rather how they can be used to yield conclusions that they cannot possibly justify, and how they suppress others that don’t cleave easily to their logic. After all, what would the “impact factor” have been for Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra or David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature during their lifetime? As Hume famously put it in his autobiography, the Treatise “fell stillborn from the press.” Its impact was posthumous and continues with us to this day. While counting citations may serve as a useful indicator of a number of different things, as the means for determining “impact” it is, at best, a ramshackle metric. When this is introduced through the formal instruments of law and policy and then applied to the governing bureaucracy of the university as the means to determine the value of academic work and the best distribution of funding, this ramshackle metric is converted into something approximating religious dogma. What is on its own a provisional metric of some limited utility can acquire an aura of impersonal authority that makes it almost impossible to refute and, in the guise of “performance” and “impact,” become a means to attack academic freedom.

The surrealists (much like the Skeptics) offer us a useful set of tools to counter this kind of bureaucratic dogmatism. Their approach to the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the so-called “objective criteria” of these schemes of measurement is to ask what can hope to guarantee the objectivity of the criteria. This is not a caustic acid that simply dissolves everything and leaves us empty handed. The aim of Making Trouble is not unending negativity; nor is it to replace one system with another. Rather it resonates strongly with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s remark that the goal of his philosophical approach is not to refine or complete the system of rules, but to find a form of clarity that would make the philosophical problems that trouble us completely disappear.

The kind of social science Sayer shows us in Making Trouble focuses on assembling and arranging reminders and examples that can help us see that our seemingly objective criteria—which we use to construct the everyday world—provide only a limited perspective and cannot offer us absolute certainty. Like Wittgenstein’s therapies, this form of social science helps us open our eyes to the horizon of possibilities that the plurality of perspectives have to offer. This is, at least to my mind, the proper province of the social sciences. They are critical practices of investigation whose aim should be to assist social actors in seeing what they are doing anew, thereby offering them an opportunity to do things differently.

The line of disruptive thinking from the Skeptics through Wittgenstein through the surrealists is by no means the only heritage of the social sciences. This area of study also developed out of the long 19th century and the interstitial processes of European imperialism. The disciplines of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and economics clearly exhibit these origins. They were forged as sites of social investigation that were inseparable from the colonial and imperial projects of making the modern nation-state. This project was predicated on the 17th-century Peace of Westphalia and its makeshift solution of establishing an anarchic community of politically self-contained and legally autonomous units. The challenge was to shore up the arbitrary force of the sovereign by grounding it in the people (whether by the fictional formalism of a social contract or a more ephemeral notion of a general will), and only a unitary body politic, it seemed, would do. The overlapping pluralism of the European composite monarchies with all of their regional distinctions had to be formed into “the people.” The 19th century compounded the complexity of the problem as the European nation-states developed more extensive systems of colonial administration to maintain and expand their empires. The social sciences were marshalled and they served, in many cases, to extend the reach of empire.

As the 20th century opened it was clear that the rifts had spread and combined. The hulking imperial leviathans of Europe were on a collision course, the impacts of which would serve to fundamentally reorder the legal, political and social dimensions of the international order. It was in the spaces between the glittering European metropoles and the blood and muck of the trenches that surrealism was born. The surrealists are, in so many ways, the fin de siècle offspring of Nietzsche’s blinking last men and Marx’s haunting spectres. In Making Trouble it is the questions of the social sciences and methodology that take centre stage.

A fuller treatment of that context can be found in Sayer’s Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (Princeton University Press, 2013). In this related and far more extensive book, Sayer offers us the history of a city that sits at “the crossroads of Europe” and the edges of empire with all of its fights for national identity. It is, as its title suggests, not simply a history of a single city, but of a history of a city as the capital of the 20th century. This is not to suggest that Prague offers us a history in the tradition of the grand narrative. Quite the opposite, this is a text built on the model of the pluralistic perspective of montage and cubism. As Sayer puts it:

Prague furnishes a very different vantage point on the experience of the modern than London, Paris, Los Angeles, or New York; a perspective that—as with Braque or Picasso’s cubism or the Dadaists’ photomontages—challenges our familiar fields of vision…What, to my mind, makes Prague a fitting capital for the twentieth century is that this is a place in which modernist dreams have time and time again unraveled; a location in which the masks have sooner or later always come off to reveal the grand narratives of progress for the childish fairy tales they are.

Prague’s crossroads vantage point has much in common with that of the surrealists. Both serve to expose the blood and soil that has always accompanied the European dreams of order and empire.

The story of the role played by the social sciences in maintaining those dreams is not an unfamiliar one. Foucault charts it clearly. What Sayer offers us is a reminder of the place of the surrealists in the critical response to this movement. It is the scale of the social sciences played in another key. Its aim is to undermine, erode, and displace this dogmatism. Sayer’s Making Trouble offers us a series of reminders and examples so we may see that “strangeness of an obstinately familiar world.” It is, simply put, a view of the social sciences as practices of freedom.

This slim volume has much to recommend itself to the curious lay reader. Its only shortcoming is its length, but readers who make their way through Making Trouble and find themselves wanting more could turn to its companion book, Prague, and plunge fully into the text.

Joshua Nichols is an assistant professor at the School for Public Administration at Dalhousie University and a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.