For a surrealist use of technology /By : Pierre Petiot.

For a surrealist use of technology

Pierre Petiot.


[Excerpt from Issue 2 of Hydrolith – Oyster Moon Press, 2013 – P 264 to 268]

Of two different kinds of tools

There are tools that allow us to do things, tools that make possible that which previously we had no concept of; tools that create new freedoms, tools that open us up to new adventures. These tools are a pure affirmation, Nothing of what they are and allow existed before them and after them, the world is no longer the same. Their function was not known, it was not defined before they appeared, and of course, that function was even less agreed upon. In fact, they initially did not have any function at all, and it is only the sadness of a routine use, the power of habits, that finally gave them their function. These tools do not replace anything in any way and actually they are irreplaceable.

And then there are the tools that serve us, that in some way replace us, that allow us to avoid being there, and which in some way seem to live in our place. They relieve us from our tedious tasks and of the associated efforts, boredom and pain of course, but they also free us, at least partially, of the burden of living. These tools do not allow us to do something more, something that we did not yet know. No, quite the contrary, in essence they allow us not to do something we already knew. What they do, every human being could do before they existed, but they do it. just as well and even better than us, and most of the time much faster and in a more perfect way than us. These tools are a negation, since something had to exist prior to their existence, and this something that previously existed is in some way denied by their existence. Examples of such tools are cars (since we are naturally self-mobile), the dishwasher, the washing machine, etc. And of course between the tools that allow us to and the tools that allow us not to, is the whole range of the ambiguous, as Charles Fourier would have said.

The tools that replace us may be described without much risk of error, as of realist essence. Just like the realist painter, they are redefining what they replace and thus imitate it and reduce it to their actual function. So, doing the dishes is reduced to what the dishwasher can do. The pleasure with which I caress this plate, the forks and knives that I chose and like, the bright transparency of my shining glasses, the pleasure of sharing the task of restoring order within the dishes and kitchen after the friendly feasts, all that, that was to live, fled away into a representation and vanished, down the drain with the rinse water at the end of the washing cycle. From being an ordinary moment of family life, but a moment that was lived differently in each family, the task of doing the dishes has now been reduced to a standard, to a pure convention.

Before the dishwasher, doing the dishes could be whatever we wanted: a pain, a repeated daily boredom, a game when we sent each other thc plates to wipe like Aying saucers, a time to make love, the pretext of a family quarrel, the edge of a murder, the opportunity and pleasure of breaking our own dishes or that of somcone else’s. All this was reduced to pure convention: doing the dishes. that’s what the dishwasher does, and that’s it. And the only adventure that is left to us is that this machine can break down. Although we do not accept this kind of adventure. This failure makes us feel that the machine is being unfair. It broke the rules, it did not fulfill its contract, it betrays us and leaves us there without any way out, maybe even just before our guests arrive… That sort of thing makes us unhappy, it depresses us or makes us angry. It rarely leaves us indifferent.

We can repeat the exercise with the washing machine. I live in an area where, as there are not so many opportunities for local pride, people had the idea of preserving the wash houses. These were places where women would come to wash and rinse clothes in the river, the pond or the lake, in summer as well as in winter, their hands in the cold or even freezing water, knees kept dry and warm in their “carrosses”: wooden boxes filled with straw or hay… These places were the occasion of meetings and discussions among all women, absolutely free from the presence and from the gaze of men. These places were creating, or rather, building, the community of women. They were the equivalent of the bar for males and in fact a true village council of petticoats, certainly not without real power. On summer evenings, young men and girls would gather there to meet and laugh together and inscriptions on the walls of the wash house still show across the centuries the possibly short, but dazzling splendor of the love between Rémi and Marinette, or the shared passion of Alphonse and Louise, would it be with the help of the traditional heart pierced by an arrow or not, and on the whole, the wash house kept the memory of many other loves over time and generations. With a little bit of imagination, but perhaps without any real deception, we may dream that if the walls could talk they would probably tell us, that later in the summer evenings, far from the prying eyes and with the complicity of the water nearby, year after year more than half of the villagers were probably conceived there.

Part of the wash houses that I am talking about, and that fueled my childhood, were made of iron sheeting, and so are for most of them the washing machines too, so that the secret of the transmutation of the powers of imagination into nothing, as a result of the washing machine is not at all related to matter. And it is not a matter of function either. The washing machine is designed to wash clothes, as is the wash house. Simply, when using the wash house, there is no substitution of a piece of human existence by a mere convention. In addition, the village tradition had created for the wash house a lot of unintended uses that had nothing to do with the original function of the building. But while cats have invented a particular use for washing machines, quite comparable to a TV for man, at least until the spin is not switched on, man has not invented many other uses for a washing machine than the washing of clothes.

If a surrealist, or let’s say Marcel Duchamp, had been able to suggest the transformation of a washing machine  into a place for love trysts or into a “bedroom” for such an activity, it would be easy to find people to categorize it as a surrealist act, as a delicious way to misuse a washing machine. Yet, that’s exactly the kind of subversion of the original technical purpose of a wash house that the young people of my village spontaneously invented, by deliberately ignoring the realist’s use of it, which states that a wash house is made for washing clothes, period.

That translates easily enough into modern terms. The poor young people in my Parisian neighborhood who are not rich enough to pay for drinks, even cheap ones, and who hence cannot meet in a café, spontaneously transformed the self-service laundry where I sometimes go in the next street corner, into their meeting room. They actually have no choice but to meet there in winter when it is freezing outside or in any season when it is pouring. They do pretty much anything there that they are not prevented from doing, including on occasion some drug deals. But I have also seen them occasionally use the places as a poetry workshop: one evening I saw a boy whom you might have thought illiterate, counting on his fingers the syllables of the rap song that he was carefully writing on a little notebook. That was absolutely touching! However, as the place is closing at 21:00, it is quite impossible for these young people to use it as a love tryst place, just as it is not possible for them either to write graffiti on the walls like the traditional lovers used to do in washing houses, because such behavior would exclude them permanently from the place.

On the whole, it seems clear that these young people subvert the intended use of this realist self-service launderette, as occasionally a “bouncer” type or even the police may be sent there to restore the realist order, that enforces the rule that a self-service laundry is only meant for the purposes of doing laundry.

On the other side of the mask

The kind of man who is passionate about technology is not a realist. His purpose as soon as he has become aware enough of the true nature of his passion is in no way to use his favorite technical object for its intended use, but rather for just about anything that may happen to come to his mind. We can therefore say that the man passionate for technology, just the opposite of what is usually said about him, is not a fan of technology for its own sake, but racher a fan of technology for his own sake.

As soon as you get rid of the repeated imagery of the obsessive loner who polishes his car on Sundays, because he is not able to deliver quite as tender caresses to his wife or — when necessary — to her rival, you will soon be facing the strange phenomenon of the personalization of any kind of transportation means, individual or, taking into account the fashion of tagging in railway environments, even collectively. And that is quite a different matter.

For the love of customization is not a solitary vice. On the contrary; it socializes. Enthusiasts have to find the tools, spare parts, paints, and ideas, and above all, the peers to share their judgments and admiration of the works. This builds a world, and in terms of facts or as regards the attitudes involved, there are no real differences between the Facteur Cheval or my ex-neighbor Picassiette, and most of the “Apaches” who outrageously customize their cars or their motorcycles, except perhaps a deeper quality of innocence and of freedom of mind, although this would yet have to be evaluated.

When the facteur Cheval builds his “Palais Ideal” or when my previous neighbor Picassiette covers his house, garden, chairs, tables, stove, beds with a mosaic of broken crockery and glass, it is often quite agreed upon finding this admirable. But when some enraged fan covers his car or motorcycle with the same sort of tiling, or even worse, than the one used by Picassiette (once the keeper of Chartres cemetery), then open admiration suddenly becomes questionable.

Why? Because it is about a car or a motorcycle, fetish objects of “the consumer society”, and not a house, not an architectural and thus not an artistic and “noble” object. Yet the house of Picassiette, that I know well, is nothing other than a typical workers house from the early 20th century, that is, roughly, the same type of serial product as cars and motorbikes and, whether we like it or not, an object of consumption just as well. Whatever may be the ardor, the ability for madness or the genius of the artist, to customize one’s car or motorbike will appear as doubtful and subcultural, while to personalize one’s suburban house into a submarine, into an airstrip for flying saucers, into the Sixtine Chapel, into a Hindu temple, or into any other sort of building of a much more resolutely non-identifiable type, will usually raise much less art-related questions.

The passions of personalization may be lonely, as often goes with the architectural customization, they may even be somewhat mystical, but whatever the object that serves as a pretext for letting their delusions wander, customization addicts, be they either men or women, are usually nothing like sad consumer idiots. They are dreamers. And technology is not what consumes them: their dreams do.

What the mad teach us

One cannot be thankful enough to surrealism to have taken interest into madness and to have done so, not in narrow medical terms (and hence realist), that aim to free the madman of his madness, but on the contrary to have done it with the idea of using the lessons learned of madness in order to free the non-mad people and thus by immediate consequence the mad persons as well. It would hence be unfair to criticize surrealism for not having persevered in this wonderful direction that it had opened and that no other school of thought has been bold enough to ever resume since. Of course, going on along this path would have required that the participants of the Surrealist movement had like Breton had, some experience in both the observation and the theoretical aspects related to madness itself. This was not the case.

But even without this minimal understanding of the field, just by looking at the signs and ordinary social representations of mad men, it could have been seen that they had something to teach us about our relationship to madness. For instance, the most prevalent image of the fool in the French society is that of a man who walks with a funnel on his head.

This image reveals that one of the characteristics of the fool is the ability not to use a tool as agreed, which in the case of the funnel is to pour a liquid into a container, the opening of which is too narrow, and I must emphasize the positive aspect of this ability, because it is not proven that a fool who walks around with a funnel on his head is so far unable to use the same instrument to pour water or wine into a bottle, as well as those deemed sane around him. What characterizes the fool in the eyes of the crowd here, is not specifically a lack of ability or even a disability such as the inability to meet a technical convention, but instead an ability to go beyond this convention. In other terms, to break free from convention. What this traditional image of the fool points out here – as in many other occasions – is an indication of an exceeding capacity, the path to a possible freedom, and that the alienation that the fool’s behavior tells us about in this case, is not his but ours.

Let’s consider for a while how things are in their simple materiality: the constraints that seem to belong to the tool, to the technology and from which the fool’s presence of mind may free us; are they really located in the tool itsell, in the funnel object as such? As soon as the question is raised in rigorous and honest terms, everyone except perhaps some deeply mad persons shall admit that a funnel was never seen to compel a man to do something. But is this, however, what is said by the ways of speaking we use to express that — do we have the words to put it another way — tools, machines, the technology, the “technological system’ impose constraints upon us, and that we should get free from them? Sadly, the weakness of our power of expression forces us here to state without shuddering a true folly, a folly that is a testimony of a no less true animism which civilized mankind thought to have been far away for thousands of years…

For the funnel actually does not compel nor enclose the fool in any way, but we do, and it’s not the funnel that forces us into this strange laughter made of false condescension and true terror, by which we pretend to make fun of the mad, but that actually expresses our panic at the thought of what the only power that we fear on earth as in heaven could be: the power of a fully unleashed human mind.

The spirit in the machine

What the detractors of tools, machines, and technology, hate is as they will say the stress associated with them, and rightly so because each technical object is indeed inhabited by a spirit. A very powerful spirit which is its purpose, its instructions for use, in short the (very highly recommended) agreed upon way of using it. And I would add, that without this spirit, the tool itself is nothing, concretely and so to say physically nothing. And that’s what is kindly highlighted in the South African film called “The Gods Must Be Mad”, in which an object as innocent

and simple as an empty Coca Cola bottle, dropped from an aircraft in the Kalahari desert, and picked up by a Bushman was suddenly revealed as dizzyingly deprived of any function and meaning. The spirit of the tool having abandoned the Coca Cola bottle, it proved to be far more empty than due to the mere absence of contents only: absolutely and completely empty. And in spite of all interpretation attempts performed by the bushman society, the bottle was found unfit for any use and ultimately quite harmful to this society.

There are still quite sane men on Earth who talk to their tools. As they are quite aware that tools have souls, it does not seem incongruous to them to speak to these souls, to try to obtain from them the kind of favors that we normally expect of proper functioning. We, unlike these animists, no longer see the souls of things and therefore we do not distrust them. And we often laugh at these people’s primitivism, but we have nevertheless retained inside of us enough of this primitivism to happen, while being the spontaneous rationalists that we are – to yell heart and guts at our machines when they deprive us for a moment of what we expect from them: “Are you going to start up… you fucking …”.

We see that, basically, in our modern society as in ancient societies, everything is spirit and hence everything is human, and that, when carefully considered, spirits did not leave us, but simply went below the threshold of consciousness as is reflected in our innocent swearing.

Of the inhumanity of windmills

A usual criticism regarding tools, and even more regarding machines is their inhumanity, and all well considered, what else could be otherwise inhuman? Some behaviors of some men sometimes can be said to be inhuman, but to state that men in general or even some men can be as such, by nature, inhuman, obviously leads to a contradiction in terms. Similarly, Nature, this mother strange and foreign to us, that made us and includes us, cannot be considered inhuman. One can say that Nature is indifferent, merciless, and cruel, but no one would consider Nature to be capable of inhumanity.

Neither tigers, nor wolves, nor lions, nor hyenas, nor even the plague are inhuman in the sense that the extermination camps were inhuman. What is inhuman in the gas chamber is not in the room. It is not the room itself nor the gas. It is an industrial process applied by people to other people and in which machines or tools are in fact used as masks. Just as were used as masks the wagons, locomotives, railways, ticket counters, and trains that were used to carry people to industrially planned mass slaughter. In the same way too, as a mask is used to hide the face of the executioner in order to highlight the purely social nature of an execution, that is to say, of a crime,  thus freeing the craftsman who performs it of any guilt. It is this same power, obviously social and human but collective and anonymous which, by a strange abandonment of their common sovereignty, is projected into a beyond or a  below of men. This collective and anonymous power is what is at work in technical protocols. This anonymous human power is the root of this “deadly seriousness of the machines” described by Marcel Duchamp. This is also what the banality of evil analyzed by Hannah Arendt about Eichmann is made of.

This inhumanity that is usually attributed to tools or machines is obviously nothing other than the inhumanity of men, incorporated within tools and machines, but of which their living souls have moved away, and of which they are now absent, so to say. It is in some way of the same nature as the gods, who also may appear inhuman to the extent that they look human. Hence is it useless to fight this inhumanity in the tools or in the machines, since that is precisely not where it is. We may only call inhuman what men are capable of.

And it is a fact that men haunt the technical processes as they haunt masks. The human beings caught and articulated in a technical processes are interchangeable, as are the faces behind the masks. The masks, just as well as the technology, are made of this interchangeability. Behind a mask there can be anyone, just like any human being can (theoretically) replace any other human being in a technical process. Both the mask and the technical process will survive all those who once haunted and acted them, and thus diminish and ridicule these human beings. But conversely, as soon as we abandon our tools and machines for a moment, they become absurd. They immediately take on a sense of being dead and have a spectral aura or sensation on to them. They are like inhabited by our absence and dressed in the moiré of our shadows… We haunt our machines just as they haunt us.

But a mask has two sides, one outside and one inside, and while, when it is considered from an outside point of view, behind the mask there may be anybody, for the person inside the mask things are quite different. Because people do not only use masks to hide, they use masks much more essentially to transform themselves, in order to become someone or something else, and for anyone who wears a mask whether voluntarily or not, the mask is always an adventure of the mind. This use of the mask opens up the mind, builds a new presence of the mind each time, and may be brought to a glow or a trance when passion grows.

This is quite the opposite of this anonymous and disembodied social power which appeared first in the technical process and which seemed so strongly woven of shadows. The same technical process can be repeated thousands of times, but as soon as you really take the risk, a mask is never embodied in the same way twice.

By means of the folly that it offers to us, the mask teaches us some wisdom about the tool. Now, what happens if we turn the technological rituals the other way round? What happens is Art, or Science, or Technology. But all three were once one. A unity that was broken by the industrial age. What happens is adventure, risk, the ability to go beyond ourselves by means of machines and tools. The same flamboyant presence that lit the mask from the inside, now may flow in the actors’ mind. Yes, of the actors, because Jazz, as well as Surrealism, exist, both of them with the ability to have given rise to a curious possibility of thought, which is that of its sharing” (“André Breton – Second manifesto” quoted by Julien Gracq in his book “André Breton” – French version p.37), and if in these two wonderful examples of automatism, each individual experience is unique, it burns and it feeds into the experience of others and even much more intensely in the common experience.

Of a denial that is not a denial

People who feel hurt by tools and machines (who are quite numerous these days) have a natural tendency to flee from their company. But flight, in a species as deeply gregarious as ours, is impossible and they all know it. Hence they deny, to the extent that they can, what hurts them, but they do not know how to avoid it. They try to reduce their use of technology as much as possible. You will often hear them state that the use of their cars, of their computers, and so on is nothing but strictly utilitarian. “For me, this machine is a tool, it is only that,” they will say. They do not realize that this strange sort of denial, that this wording “it is only that…” is the very footprint and the overt act of realism, the very perceptive and intellectual trap that they think to escape from, and to fight against. So that for the one who hears well enough, the protective words “ it is only that…”, actually sound like the sure sign of a lost. battle. Because by thinking ibis way, these valiant technophobes have become themselves the very enemy they wanted to fight.

In the world of realism where the use of each thing is defined and regulated, all things appear as what they should be, and the appearance of each new tool drags after itself a host of new pressures and constraints that begin to resonate in the future like a noisy string of pots. These constraints do not belong to things, they are social because nothing can ever compel men except other men.

They consist of uses, suggested, allowed, agreed, recommended, required, legal and ultimately mandatory uses, of which no person is entitled to shirk under penalty of exclusion or punishment.

They also bring forth our expectations, since any tool, any machine, implements a prediction, and thus forces us to expect that this prediction is fulfilled. Through more repetition, expectation from a hope that it once was, became dullness and then solidified into boredom, and then was finally changed into despair. But what else are this expectation and this boredom made of, except of us being away from ourselves, starting with the absence of this part of ourselves that we have left in the machine, and by which it works without us. So says the story, in which all believe or pretend to believe. Realism, Spectacle are only woven out of our desertion. So that to boast of reducing your use of technical objects to what is accepted, agreed upon, recommended, required, legal and binding; that is something like thinking of possibly breaking yourself free by mumbling frequently enough and with a firm conviction, “Yes. Master”.

“Only that…”. Here is the sign and the anthem of the “maitre of disappointment”, the subtitle and the pilot fish of each realist image, this irony from where it thrusts at you: “Look, it works“. The marvel, then, finally was “only that”, and out of there indeed any sort of marvel seems to have vanished. What is left is only the wonder of the effect, of the deception, of the trompe l’oeil, which delights us first and then to which we are giving way, and in the end, “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation“.

Let’s look beyond though, let’s force our vision a little. Something still vibrates and throbs beyond the boundaries: this “only that…” that Realism points at, we just have to send it back, to see that this “only that…” is only what Realism itself is, and it is certainly not at all a marvel. The marvellous however is still there, as usual, just a little bit beyond, just behind, on the other side of the mask, just behind the grimace. It is there, but simply it is not, it has never been, it will never be “only that“. But in fact, this “Look it works…” of the representation, is it anything else other than the pretentious version of the modest and faithful little song of machines and tools? With this difference however: a realist picture is not only a machine to show things, it is a machine to give orders. It is a machine to show things as they must be seen.

Pierre Petiot 

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