Marcel Mariën, Crystal Blinkers, Transformaction Press, 1973.
Marcel Mariën (1920-1993) is not the best known of the surrealists – it doesn’t help that he was Belgian. But he has a few claims on our attention. For one, he invented his own version of what is now called object oriented ontology in 1944. For another, he had a theory of the society of the spectacle that pre-dates Debord’s by nearly a decade. And for a third, he was a fine aphorist in the style of Lautréamont.
Mariën had a colorful life. From a working class family, he left school at fifteen to become an apprentice photographer, but after discovering René Magritte, became instead an apprentice to the Belgian Surrealists. Briefly a prisoner of war, he claimed to have spent the remainder of the war years smuggling forged paintings between Brussels and Paris. He had a variety of odd jobs, not all of them legal, including a stint at sea in 1951. At least according to his autobiography, Le Radeau de la mémoire (1983) it was a hell of a life.
He started Les lèvres nues (The Naked Lips) in 1954 while working as a typist in a refinery, as a way to look busy at work and to use pilfered office supplies. Among other things, it reignited the radical spirit of surrealism, which many thought had expired into mere artworld professionalism. The first issue had Paul Nougé declare “It is unthinkable for us to consider literary activity as worthy of occupying our entire lives.” The second issue included Louis Scutinaire’s slogan “You sleep for the boss,” later to become graffiti written on the walls of dormitory suburbs by the Situationists.
In 1958 he worked in advertising and managed to rig a contest so his friends would win it. Using some of the proceeds from the scam he made the film L’imitation du cinema, which was of course banned. After a rather strange book on Stalinism he wrote Théorie de la revolution mondiale immediate in 1958, which concluded the first series of Les lèvres nues, and to which I shall return shortly.
In 1963 he left Brussels for New York, and ended up in Beijing working on the French edition of China Reconstructs. Disillusioned with Maoism, he was back in Brussels again by 1965. He denounced the Maoist practice of send-down intellectuals to the countryside, which he had seen first hand, although this caused certain difficulties with someof his leftist friends. In Brussels, he continued to write, make art, and cause scandals. He published a history of Belgian surrealism in 1979.
The Belgian surrealism of Magritte and the more hard-core Belgian poet Paul Nougé, was a poetics of producing disturbing encounters. The Belgians were opposed to André Breton’s surrealism of automatic writing and contemplation of the marvelous. They were closer to Paul Eluard’s maxim that “the poet is one who inspires far more than he is inspired.” Mariën took from Nougé a poetics of producing disturbing encounters in the moment of reception.
Mariën’s ‘Nonscientific Treatise on the Fourth Dimension’ of 1944 has recently been translated for the Surrealism Reader (Tate 2015). It begins: “Every object, thing and body has four dimensions. A pear, a house or a woman have their height, width, depth and image (or surface). There fore the eye always perceives only the fourth, the image-dimension, which is also mind, thought, dream, memory and that of which we speak… Touch cannot reach the true depth of objects any better than the eye can. The universe is hermetic to them both.” Perhaps we could think of object oriented ontology, of which this might pass as a basic statement, as a late version of surrealism.
Mariën’s postwar journal Les lèvres nues continued the inter-war Belgian surrealist line, and Théorie de la revolution mondiale immediate is in some ways a summation and conclusion to it. But while Mariën continued some aspects of surrealism, he was alert to the changing nature of capitalism and the need to engage with it in new ways. Being based in Belgium, it had a useful distance from Breton’s continuing influence in Paris and kept alive a more political and provocative strain of surrealism.
Famously, Mariën published some key theoretical texts by Guy Debord and his collaborators in the Letterist International, precursor to the Situationist International. There is surviving correspondence between Mariën and Debord from the mid fifties, when Debord helped him research the Stalin book, although Debord would probably not have approved the result.
Had Asger Jorn not sought out the Letterists in his project of forming a pan-European avant-garde, which would shortly become the Situationist International, perhaps Debord might have stayed in closer contact with Mariën. In some ways Jorn replaced Mariën in enabling Debord’s publishing ambitions.
In Mariën, as we shall see, there is a parallel to Debord’s theoretical and practical activity. Both were interested in the commodification of everyday life, the rise of leisure and the spectacle, and the decline of traditional working class agency. But where Debord opted for council communism and the negation of the spectacle in insurrectionary direct action, Mariën had a rather more subtle and indeed surreal conception of the aesthetics of politics.
But first, one thing Debord and Mariën really had in common was what Debord called détournement. His famous programmatic text on it (co-authored with Gil Wolman) actually appeared first in Les lèvres nues. Probably without knowing it, Debord was repeating approaches to writing Paul Nougé had already developed before the war. Nougé took détournement much further, however. He even rewrote a Baudelaire poem (‘La Geante’) in which the only change was the addition of a comma.
Nougé’s anti-literature, a chunk of which Mariën reprinted in Les lèvres nues, is key background to Théorie de la revolution mondiale immediate. For Nougé, as for Mariën and Debord, writing is not a representation of the world but an action within and against it. Nougé, who had trained as a chemist, saw writing as a kind of controlled but risk-taking experiment. Writing, like chemistry, works on real materials and tries to produce chemical reactions from mixing its readymade elements in new compounds. For Mariën, this meant a writing that tried to maximize its effects.
The goal of writing is emancipation from habit. Its aim is to produce disturbing or perturbing objects, made out of everyday and banal materials, but monstrous and explosive. The writer’s goal is not to be loved but to be hated, refused, censored. For Mariën it’s a matter of combining cultural and political provocations, whereas Debord’s incendiary texts rather let go of the avant-garde tradition of cultural provocation. Where Debord’s détournement is mostly of the the techniques of modernist art and classical French, Mariën was rather more interested in appropriating the seductive techniques of street-corner con artists and nightclub singers.
All of which comes to a head in Théorie de la revolution mondiale immediate. Debord appears to have broken off relations before this came out, but it is hard to imagine he would have ignored the book, and in any case it makes a great counter-point to his work with the Situationists after the ‘political turn’ in the early sixties. Mariën himself later minimized his connection with Debord for various tactical reasons, but for our purposes it makes more sense to think them together.
Théorie de la revolution mondiale immediate was part of a triple issue of Les lèvres nues and ends its first series. It was later published as a stand-alone book. Its avowed purpose was “a sketch of an imaginary program for the overthrow of capitalismin every part of the world it controls, to be completed within a year, with a program applicable at any moment and everywhere at the same time.” (45)
The first half of the text is an analysis of contemporary capitalism under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. These days one might worry more about the Anthropocene, but rhetorically, the problem is similar: how to think a revolution at a time when it appears both absolutely necessary and extremely unlikely.
The first part is a sound analysis of the stage commodification had reached by the late fifties, And bears comparison with the better remembered texts of the time. The very success of the worker’s movement in its reformist form had produced a leisure culture. Workers were becoming petit-bourgeois in outlook. Technical change had raised up a cadre of educated workers. Communist propaganda no longer worked very well, whereas capitalist propaganda was making inroads into the unconscious of the working class.
The second part is more surrealist science fiction than social science, and I think has to be read as a kind of surrealist-style disturbing text. For the project there is to use the spectacle itself for revolutionary ends. The form of revolutionary organization is the advertising agency. It is to be called the Leisure Club. It creates advertising and popular media addressed to every diverse pastime, hobby or consumer preference – all to be worked out using the latest social science techniques. It’s a marvelous anticipation of social media-era micro-marketing.
The money to start the Leisure Club is to be had on credit, with the goal of succeeding at the revolution before the interest falls due. The professionals who work for the Club as creative workers need not know what its real purpose is. That is the job of The Center. This is a sort of clandestine ‘party of the interior’, a cell of committed Marxists who make the rea decisions.
Once the Leisure Club is up and running, it becomes the basis for the Imaginary Party. This would be a popular and populist political movement, whose actors and celebrities advocate whatever measures will seem popular. The Center will also create the Counter Party to stand for the opposite policies. Curiously enough, one of the Center’s covert activities is what would now be called trolling. But the Center does not stop there. It also creates a sense of alarm and emergency by illegal means, and then uses the Imaginary Party to motivate the masses to seize power.
Not the least interest in Mariën’s text is that it does not see revolution as coinciding with truth and clarity, but rather with a more masterful control of appearances. What opposes spectacle is not transparency but détournement. Here I think Mariën is rather more consistent and farsighted that Debord. Actually, Mariën may be closer to Debord than either of them, or their later commentators, might think. Mariën was too enthusiastic about orthodox communism for Debord, and in any case he had found a more resourceful patron in Jorn. But their theoretical explorations of the spectacle are both what one might describe as maximalist: how could the spectacle be negated as a totality? Mariën updates a ‘Leninist’ organizational form for this, whereas Debord stuck to a rather unexamined faith in council communism.
While there are charming features of the book that date it, there are also many ways in which it is strikingly contemporary. As Sven Lütticken has recently pointed out (New Left Review 96), it is quite likely that former Tiqqun people borrowed the rhetoric of the Invisible Committee and the Imaginary Party from Mariën. One might also think it an anticipation of Adbusters, or even the strategies of Podemos in Spain, which seems to retain a model of the party of the interior while using contemporary marketing techniques. The virtue of Mariën’s text vis-à-vis such actual events is that of of pushing such possibilities to disturbing extremes. It fits rather well with what is now called ‘Agnotology,’ or the study of deliberate obfuscation in the service of power.
There was a handful on the Francophone left who had an interest in marketing and advertising based on actual experience, including Michèle Bernstein (who actually had a pretty successful career in advertising, partly reflected in her novels All The Kings Horses and The Night), and George Perec (whose Things: A Story of the Sixties of 1965 is based on a stint in market research). Lütticken claims Mariën wrote his book in answer to a question from Bernstein about how the left might respond to advertsing.
I had originally intended to include a chapter on Mariën in The Beach Beneath the Street and rather regret that I didn’t. Mariën opens up a fresh avenue for thinking about the Situationist International at a time when its textual corpus and interpretive margin are pretty much exhausted.
There’s much in Mariën of contemporary relevance. Théorie de la revolution mondiale works as a sort of science fiction story in negative as to how power actually is managed, and a sort of wish-fulfilment fantasy about using the spectacle otherwise. It’s a rare Marxist attempt at media theory, and still worth investigating. Some of its provocations can still work today. It could work its way onto various course outlines in media studies, the history of the avant-gardes, and so forth.
There’s a tiny handful of things on Mariën in English. (A bit more in French of course, but that’s of no help to those of us who teach in English). Xavier Canonne’s Surrealism in Belgium (Mercatorfonds, 2007) covers the basics. Mieke Bleyen’s Minor Aesthetics: The Photographic Work of Marcel Mariën (Leuven University Press, 2014) is particularly helpful. (I got much of the information in this post from it). She reads him in a Deleuzian vein as a ‘minor’ artist, spilling out and past the coherent subjectivities of the poet or the artist.
She is particularly good on the late photographic work, although unlike Bleyen I don’t think this work is ‘queer’ at all. Rather, I think the charm of Mariën is the relentless heterosexuality of his pictures and collages, combined with his inability to take straight male desire seriously. The ‘male gaze’ in Mariën is fetishistic but also delirious, fixated on odd combinations of body parts with toys or everyday objects.
One gets the flavor of Mariën’s rather literal surrealist physicality from some of his aphorisms. There’s a nice selection of these in English in Marcel Mariën, Crystal Blinkers (Transformaction Press, 1973). Here’s a selection:
“One must really be very old to have any interest in youth.” (114)
“I’m going to betray you with your body.” (96)
“Thanks to man, women are complicated.” (104)
“The eyes are the mirror of the body.” (104)
“A pornographic film shot in x-rays.”
“To encore a strip-tease.” (138)
“I was my mother for nine months.” (144)
“Beautiful as the deliberate meeting on a dissecting table of a scalpel and a naked belly.” (96)
The last of these is of course itself a détournement of a famous line from Lautréamont that was something of a surrealist mantra. Its rather literal and physical aesthetic principle runs through much of Mariën. Here’s a few other aphorisms on aesthetic lines:
“We laugh, but never at the same time as you.” (11)
“Lies hammer through the truth.” (103)
“To the reader: — you bore me.” (118)
“We would do well to remember that the only way for a poet to have any relations with the public is to turn his back on it.” (56)
“To confide an empty bottle to the waves.” (97)
“Jam made of forbidden fruits.” (99)
“The deaf prefer Beethoven.” (140)
There’s a kind of comic realism at work throughout. Mariën’s work is I think always revolutionary and surrealist, but where the ambition is not a live that could ever be rationalized or clarified or enlightened. Nor is the irrational and desire to become ethereal and spiritual as it does in much of surrealism under Breton’s influence. Rather, Mariën’s work is about interrupting the sleep or reason and power with the chance encounters of everyday life itself.
To me, his is a work of low theory, which I see as something akin to what for Bleyen is minor photography. The vulgar, in every sense, is always at the center of Mariën. Desire is always vulgar, for example. That’s the key both to Théorie de la revolution mondiale immediate and to the photo and collage works.
I’ll conclude then with some more of the aphorisms, which I think convey Mariën’s distinctive wit. Those among the left who are pessimists about our species being are rather rare. There’s a tendency (clearest perhaps in Badiou) to think we are fallen angels who can be restored to the heavens. That’s the essential position of the optimists. Pessimists know us to be nothing more than monkeys with aspirations. But perhaps only Leopardi and Chamfort were able to combine pessimism about our species-being with a progressive political vision. One where even us mere mammals might better live out our days. I think Mariën share in that perspective:
“Vultures die last.” (93)
“Life is a butcher’s shop where they only sell fish.” (95)
“Being, Nothingness and Baby.” (96)
“The dead have a hard life.” (103)
“The egoist is content with little.” (113)
“One meets more policemen among moralists than moralists among policemen.” (116)
“God is afraid of man.” (119)
“One never bathes twice in the same bathroom.” (13)
“Have you ever been alive? Curious sensation, isn’t it?” (152) - Mckenzie Wark