Obscure Objects of Desire: Surrealism, Fetishism and Politics

Jan 7th, 2013


Was the surrealist ambition to revolutionise consciousness a natural fit with revolutionary politics? The relationship between art and politics has historically been problematic: witness the sterile, unsubtle style of Soviet Socialist Realism. Surrealism’s degree of individualism is arguably more extreme than that of other literary and artistic movements, however, as it focused on exploring the workings of the artist’s mind. Surrealism also pioneered techniques such as automatic writing which restricted the artist’s conscious control over his creation. This passive, inward-looking aspect of surrealism made it apparently incompatible with political commitment. Surrealist leader André Breton nonetheless claimed that his movement’s concern with the liberation of consciousness was a perfect fit with communism’s aim to liberate the people.

In Obscure Objects of Desire: Surrealism, Fetishism, and Politics (Oxford University Press, 2004), Johanna Malt explores how far Breton’s political ambitions for surrealism were realistic. Where these ambitions were misled, Malt attempts to understand surrealist art as a form of fetishism, in which the work of art simultaneously acknowledges and denies certain truths about reality. Although the book’s title evokes surrealist objects and these are a significant part of the study, Malt discusses a number of other surrealist modes of production: Dalí’s paintings, Breton’s poème-objet, and novels (Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris, and Breton’s Nadja, Les Vases communicants and L’Amour fou).

Malt outlines the ways in which the surrealists, from the late 1920s, increasingly sought to anchor their work in the material world: surrealist objects which were designed to offer a physical recreation of the products of the mind; Breton’s accumulation of references to physical objects in his writing; and the group’s use of familiar, everyday objects which would have resonance for everyone. From the beginning, the surrealists insisted on the need to overcome what they saw as the artificial division between dreams and waking life, the world of the mind and physical existence, desire and reality. Breton felt that this last goal most closely corresponded to the communist party’s goal: working towards a system that would satisfy everyone’s needs better than the prevailing one.

Malt identifies contradictions and fissures in the surrealists’ stance, however. She suggests that Breton’s desire to control surrealism’s power and harness it towards positive objectives (political or more general ideals) led him to deny its darker side: he attempted to ignore the uncanny and the death drive in favour of the marvellous and true love. This is how Malt comes to understand surrealist creation as a form of fetishism. The surrealists know that there is a darker side to the unconscious, just as they know that psychical and physical, like literary and visual media, cannot be fully reconciled: their art is an attempt to deny this knowledge, and to cover it up, just as the fetish attempts to cover up and deny the male child’s realisation that he is separate and different from his mother.

Malt is far from dismissing surrealist art as a form of self-delusion, however: on the contrary, she argues that its power (both political and artistic) lies not in its ability to overcome or elude the circumstances of its production, but insofar as it makes its audience aware of these circumstances, and offers a glimpse of alternative ways of living. Such works of art act, according to Adorno, as ‘plenipotentiaries of things that are no longer distorted by exchange, profit, and the false needs of a degraded humanity’.

Malt’s style of writing is refreshingly clear, making her book a genuine pleasure to read. She incorporates a broad array of thought-provoking ideas, but always successfully relates these ideas to her central argument. Malt does not assume very much prior knowledge on the part of the reader: she offers a useful review of concepts such as fetish and aura, gives succinct but comprehensive background to Dalí’s fascination with Millet’s Angélus, as well as specifying why materials such as hair, fur and feathers carry such a charge. At the same time, Malt offers a compelling new way of understanding surrealist objects in the context of both fetishism and politics. As a result, this is a book that will be of interest for those with expert knowledge of surrealism as well as those who would simply like to learn more about the movement.

Although Malt is generally very good at calibrating her extensive knowledge of surrealism, its contemporary literary and psychoanalytic theory, and the arguments of present-day surrealist scholars such as Hal Foster, Dawn Ades and Michael Sheringham, there are some places where she fails to explain in enough detail. The most persistent gap is in her use of Adorno. She quotes him directly, then re-formulates his ideas in an attempt to clarify his ‘densely philosophical criticism’. Unfortunately, this clarification may come too late or not at all. The nature of the ‘alienation’ he describes is only specified several pages later, leaving an unaccustomed gap in the reader’s understanding. Malt returns several times to Adorno’s notion of the ‘tension between schizophrenia and reification’ that he says is characteristic of surrealism. This is clearly more than just the dynamic between subjectivity and objectivity, but Malt never elucidates the idea fully. Similarly, while she does explain how Benjamin used the term ‘aura’ in different ways at different times, she fails to give such a thorough account of Foster’s psychoanalytic concept of the term, even though readers are less likely to be familiar with it.

Given the book’s title, an apparent allusion to Luis Buñuel’s film Cet Obscur objet du désir, I was disappointed that there was no reference to neither the film nor the surrealist director in Malt’s book. This is a shame, especially given the dominance of castration anxiety in Cet Obscur objet, and its famous concluding scene in one of Paris’s ‘passages’: a discussion of this film would have fit in very well with Malt’s exploration of shopping arcades, window displays and commodity fetishism. It is also a pity that Malt did not include more discussion of cinema in general: it would be fascinating to see how she would adapt her theory to the moving image. She does incorporate a few tantalising cinematic references: comparing cinema to the shop window (both having been a locus of women’s desired projection of self-image), citing Aragon’s hallucination in front of a shop display in the Passage de l’Opéra and comparing it to ‘some sideshow tableau or cinematic illusion by Méliès’, and referring the reader to Dalí’s drawings that illustrate the stages of his paranoiac-critical transformation like a ‘sequence of film frames’. Much has been written on the history of surrealism and cinema and why the relationship was so problematic, so new ways of theorizing the relationship are always welcome.


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