By Michael Richardson
In a note published on the Internet 'Surrealism and the Machine', Pierre Petiot has sought to make a case for a correlation between surrealism and computers. Rarely have I come across a piece of writing so badly thought out, and yet so revealing. If anyone wants evidence of the debraining function the computer serves, this is surely it. It is difficult to believe that anyone could make such a statement and assert they are doing so from a surrealist point of view.
Petiot claims an affinity between machines and surrealism, yet surely he must be aware that from the very beginning the surrealists (continuing the trajectory marked out by Dada), in so far as they were interested in machines. were concerned to undermine their very functionality. The computer, on the other hand, is the machine of functionality par excellence ; in fact it transforms everything into a condition by which it can be defined by its function. As such it is surely, in its very essence, anti-surrealist. Furthermore unlike other machines, computer technology probably renders it immune to the sort of subversion the Dadaists and surrealists used to undermine the 'wonders' of the technological age.
To say this is not to reject computers entirely. Surrealists like everyone else need useful things. Computers bring pleasure as they bring pain, they open up new possibilities as they close others down. This is the nature of the development of technology and it would be foolish to deny it. However, as should be obvious to anyone connected to surrealism, the development of computers, like all technology, principally serves the development of the dominant, in this case capitalist, society. Having been developed, it may have possibilities to work against that society and the consequences may be different from what might have been expected by those developing it, it may turn against its makers, like Frankenstein' monster, and even destroy them. If it were to do so, however, it would also destroy itself, because the parameters of its existence are determined by the makers. Like any technology, computers may be an aid to creativity. but only if one accepts them for the 'lamentable expedient' they are.
True there may be technological developments - photography, cinema - that have an expansive quality that serves the spirit and this gives them some surrealist application. This, however is a residue that materialises through the fact that these media are not contained by the conditions that gave rise to their creation end despite their apparent limitations of form. It is difficult, however, to see how this can be the case with computers which do not have, as far as I can see, any such expansive quality: they are, in their essence limited to certain applications.
In fact, more than perhaps any other technology, their development has been strictly controlled and directed by the needs of capital for the expansion of information gathering and transmission (we should not forget that the impetus for the development of computers was to serve military and political ends as part of the Cold War). In this respect, they appear to be even more strongly implicated in systems of capitalist control than railways, electric lights or motor cars. These points may be arguable. But if they are, the points put forward by Petiot hardly convince.
Let us look at what Petiot bases his argument on. He speaks of computers as involving a 'unique movement by which the mind opens to radical alterity'. I would like to know how this occurs. The computer is the product of the human mind, or rather, it is the product of particular human minds. As such it is, and surely can only be, subject to the limitations of those minds. But it is not simply a matter of the limits of the human mind. The computer is a machine, and therefore subject to its own - machine - limits. The computer thus results from a negotiation that allows the production of something that lies between the aspirations of limited minds and the limitations of machines but this occurs only from a human perspective: machines themselves have no stake in this process. Yet a further limit is placed by the fact that all research into this production needs to be funded, and those funding it impose terms and conditions on the possible findings. As much should be obvious to the dullest of minds and Petiot shows some awareness of this.
Perhaps this is even what he means when he speaks of an opening to radical alterity - I guess, at least, that you could say that having to engage with the limitations of machines is a sort of form of engagement with alterity but only if that was the purpose of the activity, which it plainly is not. The whole impulse for computer research is to get machines to do the bidding of humans. In so far as there is engagement with their alterity it is only as a means to break down their resistance and make them submit to the human will. As such the making of computers has everything to do with giving orders.
Furthermore, as he rightly states, computers have 'their roots in language... never has a machine been so clearly made of language than the computer'. Now, surely we do not need a Lacan or a Wittgenstein to alert us to the extent to which language limits the possibilities of the mind. Yet Petiot would have us believe that an instrument that has its roots in language can be used as an oracle! Really? An oracle, do we have to remind ourselves, is founded not in language but in revelation, which comes from elsewhere? If it can be contained by language, it cannot be an oracle, but only a conjuring trick - an act of charlatanism - having oracular form. Petiot seems to be completely taken in by this charlatanism. The functioning of the entire computer system, as he says. is founded on a rigid binary structure. What he doesn't say is that this binary structure is in turn founded in dualistic schemas that have been the basis of Western thought for centuries. This is completely different from the structure of the I Ching, which, in accordance with Taoist philosophy, is not based on binary oppositions, but on the complementarity of opposites, something that the very binary structuring of computers makes impossible.
Petiot even seems to emphasise the limitations that computers impose on the imagination, by insisting on the fact that yea need to accept 'the strange rules of the game' in order that 'a sort of dynamics of dreaming unfolds and settles, something like a double flow'. This is precisely the great hazard that computer technology - or more precisely uncritical acceptance of it - brings with it, in that it imposes even upon dreaming (which ultimately is our only guarantee of liberty) its own 'rules of the game' which, no matter how strange they may be are still rules, and even especially rigid ones. As such, they are incapable of even engaging with dreams. Far from collapsing 'the false dichotomy between reality and thought', it should be obvious to all that what computers do is to reduce everything to the level of thought, and this is thought, it should be said that is limited to a very narrow spectrum. Within that spectrum. it may make it possible to achieve unheard of, even wondrous things. All well and good, providing it is kept in perspective. But for myself, I have no wish to limit myself in this way. And, if I have understood it correctly, surrealism has always refused such pitiful limitations - it is not interested in the wondrous but the marvellous. And, it has never been here., but has always been elsewhere.
In today's world, computers are - sometimes wonderfully, more often tediously - necessary. For myself, I, in being able to be in contact with faraway friends, even though I am aware that mediated by distance and by the machine, this is an unsatisfying and superficial contact which, even as I make use of it, causes me to be painfully conscious of how much it is foreclosing on the possibilities for the greater intensity of personal, tangible contact with people with whom one is present in the here and now.
By collapsing distance, making the there here, computer technology reduces everything to one level of reality from which it is increasingly difficult to escape. It imposes upon us endless everyday tasks that, in the realm of appearance open possibilities to us while simultaneously in the realm of the real, foreclosing on those very possibilities. We are forced too often to read things that should never have been written. Our existence is cluttered up with trivial obligations that the very convenience of the computer makes it impossible for us to ignore. It should be obvious that the computer is the enemy of poetry as it is the enemy of freedom. In this it is the culmination of capitalism to accumulate and control the means of spiritual life open to humans. That it can from time to time elude such a task does not alter the fact that in its essential nature it serves an oppressive order.