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How Negritude redeemed surrealism


In a lengthy a fascinating article written for the online journal Blind Field, Jose Rosales examines the historical and methodological relationships between surrealism and Marxism. In one of the most compelling sections of the piece, Rosales argues that Aimé Césaire and other participants in the Negritude movement extended surrealism to an arena that Breton and other tried but failed to reach—namely, anti-colonial politics. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Regarding Césaire, two things merit our attention. First, Césaire’s theoretical and political development owes much to his encounter with surrealism and the inspiration found therein – the idea that the imagination cannot be beholden to the requirements and obligations of necessity, practical activity, what Marx would call ‘the working day,’ or the idea that the imagination must be liberated from the colonization of both one’s social and psychic reality. More importantly, however, Césaire’s work remains irreducible to the view that would understand his accomplishments as offering nothing new in terms of theoretical or practical insight due to the fact that these were simply a correct, or corrected, application of everything that can be found in Breton’s writings. It is against this view that we aim to demonstrate the following thesis: whereas Breton only provided us with a vague and hypothetical description of revolutionary subjectivity as defined by the simple act of randomly firing into a crowd, it is the likes of Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas, and Léopold Sédar Senghor who were capable of articulating a concept of a revolutionary agent who would be adequate to the task of abolishing the present state of affairs.

Reflecting on his relationship to surrealism in the 1967 interview with Rene Depestres at the Cultural Congress of Havana, Césaire makes the following remark:

A.C.: Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor.
R.D.: So you were very sensitive to the concept of liberation that surrealism contained. Surrealism called forth deep and unconscious forces.
A.C.: Exactly. And my thinking followed these lines: Well then, if I apply the surrealist approach to my particular situation, I can summon up these unconscious forces. This, for me, was a call to Africa. I said to myself: it’s true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally black.
R.D.: In other words, it was a process of disalienation.
A.C.: Yes, a process of disalienation; that’s how I interpreted surrealism.

From this exchange we see how Césaire came to appreciate something specific to surrealism as a whole: namely, the aspiration of finally doing away with the modern condition of social/individual alienation that is produced by socio-economic inequalities. In the face of France’s ongoing colonial violence, Césaire found in surrealism the desire and search for a new kind of subjectivity, a desire and search that ultimately confirmed his own ideas regarding what must be done in the face of colonial violence. However, and more important for our purposes, it is precisely in this moment when Césaire turned to surrealism as a resource for abolishing the colonial situation where we begin to see the break between Breton’s and Césaire’s surrealist infused politics.

While Césaire worked with and drew from the surrealist tradition, his use of surrealism brought all the tools of the movement into explicit contact with the question of colonialism and colonized subjectivity. Despite what some might say regarding Breton’s early manifestoes expressing solidarity with colonized peoples, Césaire’s thematization of the relationship between Africa and Europe as similar to the relationship between those aspects of unconscious life consciousness seeks to repress, provides one with the historical conditions on which a theory of revolutionary subjectivity adequate to the communist project is simultaneously a theory of subjectivity that seeks to address the way in which colonialism and its effects remain inextricably linked to capital’s self-valorization and self-reproduction.

Image: Man Ray, Centrale Surréaliste (1924). Via Blind Field.