Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work
(Manchester University Press, 2021)
Adroit historian of Dada, Surrealism and new media aesthetics, Abigail Susik’s book Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work is an intense exploration of the international Surrealist movement’s involvement with sabotage as an aesthetic act. This copiously illustrated hardback focuses on the years between the 1920s and 1970s, when many Surrealists labored to transform the ‘work of art’ into a form of pleasure-principled anarchic anti-work. This goal, Susik shows, stemmed from the revolutionary core of dreamy-but-politically-progressive early Surrealism, but would eventually become the Fluxus goal of merging art into life. Sadly, though, in our time, that attempt has been increasingly trivializing—one might even say erasing—the once important concept of high art, rendering it merely a cognitive artifact of once held tasteful discriminations. As a side attack on such decay, Susik’s well-made book, binding Surrealist automatism to workplace sabotage, raises issues for deliberation that benefit opportunities to review the premise of the life-as-art/art-as-luxury-lifestyle aspiration as nothing more than a consumerist enterprise equipped with cloaking theoretical elements that have artfully ducked anti-capitalist and anti-art critical postures.
The key riposte now may be in how algorithmic-assisted automatic actions may take on bi-gender subversions of automation in the oppressive work place. As binary forms are contradicted, disruption operates through the exhaustive mechanism of pinpointing nuances ad infinitum along the gender spectrum. Such endless excess would relate to how Surrealist techniques are here theorized as instruments of the saboteur. This mind-rattling vibratory approach is in league with major parts of the book that read as an exegesis of surreal sex machines in the service of hectic masturbation. While remaining masterful, thoughtful, and accessible, Susik does not shy away from stressing the gendered labor of nonproductive sexual pleasuring associated with the eroticized industrial machine. Especially the sewing machine as involuntary—or voluntary—vibrator when in contact with female fabric industry workers. Indeed, just such orgasmic goings-over receive expansive explanation here and are fleshed-out with multiple artistic examples.
Apprising the full picture, Susik stresses that the Surrealists were not naïve about art as an automatically critical or transcendent project, even as they rejected rationalized wage-based work in favor of time-consuming toil that was self-motivated. They realized that art itself could be exploitative of labor and an egregious commodification under capitalist appropriation. Susik points out that Surrealists merely valued and desired subversive unproductive labor over productive labor. And that they made art in abundance in spite of an important—but under-appreciated—cri de cur: Surrealism’s 1925 declaration of an ongoing guerre au travail (war on work).
This history of Surrealist dream-weapons as saboteur skills and revolutionary theories is organized into four distinct sections. Though the book does not actually gel as a cohesive unit—or need to, it has a cadavre exquis feel about it. Susik, who also co-edited Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance (Penn State University Press, 2022) and Surrealism and Film After 1945: Absolutely Modern Mysteries (Manchester University Press, 2021), uncovers diverse radical anti-work positions by analyzing the work of André Breton, Simone Breton (née Simone Kahn), Georges Bataille, Raymond Roussel, Man Ray, Joseph Cornell, Meret Oppenheim, Giovanna, Salvador Dalí, and others. Marcel Duchamp’s comical conceptual hand is all over the place, but Óscar Domínguez—in particular his 1935 machine-erotic painting La Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle (Electro-Sexual Sewing Machine)—receives a good deal of art historical consideration. Given Domínguez’s less than art star status, that is most opportune. Domínguez’s sculpture Brouette (Wheelbarrow, c. 1937) even graces the cover of the book, as shown in the Man Ray photograph Model Wearing Vionnet Evening Gown with Brouette by Oscar Domínguez (1937). It shows a relaxed female model wearing a dress by couturier Madeleine Vionnet, lounging in Domínguez’s wheelbarrow sculpture padded with sumptuous red satin. The photo combines elements of lazy glamour and absurdity in a manner typical of the Surrealist anti-work agenda. There is also an interesting epilogue on the paintings of the German artist Konrad Klapheck. His elegant L’intrigante (Die Intrigantin) painting of a sewing machine from 1964 perfectly demonstrates the Surrealist interest in combining the mundane with the erotically unexpected as transferred into Pop Art.
But a highlight of the book is the chapter on the far-left anarchist Chicago Surrealist Group, founded in Chicago in 1966 by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, Bernard Marszalek, Tor Faegre, and Robert Green after a trip to Paris to meet André Breton. In terms of trying to rethink stale strategies of creative resistance, the focus here is on connecting radical labor history with non-binary subversions. This chapter establishes the transatlantic continuity of Surrealist theory and allows Susik to recover an insurgent Surrealism, just as global capitalism is escalating the misery of much human labor while devastating the planet.
To read Susik here is to enjoy the generosity of her stimulating and seditious theoretical thoughts. Her Surrealist fever-dream history of subversion as sex machine invites you into a contemplation of your intimate erotic life, put in relationship to its oppression—and to find within that oppression not despair, but insinuations of a secret saboteur.