Making Trouble: Surrealism and the Human Sciences never transcends a pedantic tone.
By its definition, surrealism defies convention, but that doesn’t stop sociologist and cultural historian Derek Sayer from taking a stuffy, scholarly approach to recounting the surrealist movement’s early 20th century history. An emeritus professor at the University of Alberta, Sayer prefaces his book by railing against the modern academic establishment, even quoting Susan Sontag in saying “I’ve seen academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.” As a parting shot on his way out the door, he laments what he views as today’s universities too often stifling the creativity of academics. Yet his slim volume Making Trouble: Surrealism and the Human Sciences never transcends a pedantic tone.
Sayer admits his book is something of an oddity, claiming that several publishers rejected it because his manuscript was “too long for an article, too short for a book,” and yet he packs a lot of history into a scant 95 pages. While Salvador Dalí sits at the head of the surrealist table in popular consciousness, Sayer spends little time on him. There’s mention of Dalí’s famous melting clocks, but Sayer otherwise doesn’t dwell on surrealist paintings. He recalls Dalí’s Lobster Telephone to illustrate a “surrealist object,” which combines items not normally associated with each other. But Sayer is far more interested in the man responsible for the Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton, who—despite the artform’s seemingly nonsensical juxtapositions and glorification of coincidence and the subconscious— would posit that surrealism is an unsystematic instrument of knowledge that seeks to open “certain doors that rationalism boasted of boarding up for good.”
In addition to the “surrealist object,” he touches about the many ways adherents pioneered to uncover the “actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason.” He touches upon installation art, which presented physical spaces that promoted surreal experiences, but Sayer treats photography as the most inherently surrealist medium. After all, it’s photography that creates a “duplicate world” or a “reality in the second degree,” and every photograph “petrifies coincidence” and allows the viewer to reflect upon ephemeral moments that no longer exist.
Sayer’s book is at its most interesting when he analyzes the socio-cultural motivations of the surrealists. Despite depicting female nudity in ways that could be construed as objectifying, the surrealist movement was often quite feminist. Breton proclaimed that the “time has come to value the ideas of women at the expense of those of man.” After all, surrealism largely grew out of Dadaism, which itself manifested as a response to the “absurdity” of World War I. In fact, Sayer goes further in pointing to how surrealism sought to subvert the whole of Western civilization built on white maleness at the expense of all others, even claiming that eliminating the primal catharsis found in “savage” festivals once held by indigenous cultures has led to long-repressed impulses eventually erupting into obscenely violent, large-scale wars.
Each of these topics warrants more thorough analysis than they’re given here. But Sayer seems primarily interested in what surrealists had to say about themselves and their movement rather than what they actually did. Maybe he has a point about academia stifling great writing.