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Obscure Objects of Desire Surrealism, Fetishism, and Politics$

Johanna Malt

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780199253425

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199253425.001.0001

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(p.212) Conclusion
Obscure Objects of Desire Surrealism, Fetishism, and Politics

Johanna Malt

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The paradoxical surface, the glass/gloss of fetishistic seduction and denial, is at the heart of surrealism's power. In Salvador Dalí's painting, its pretence of transparency echoes the disavowal of violence at work in surrealist treatments of the body. In the objet surréaliste, it characterizes both the erotic allure of the commodity and the commodified bodily object, brought together in a parody of individual and collective desire. In the glass arcade, it embodies the very workings of commodity ideology. However, the surface also plays another role, one which has yet to be accounted for, and this chapter wants to conclude by delineating this final aspect of the surface as it relates to the political register of fetishism. On the one hand, it is an aspect that takes us back to the concept of the uncanny and issues of presence and absence, familiarity and estrangement.

Keywords:   surface, surrealism, Salvador Dalí, painting, political register, fetishism, presence, absence, familiarity, estrangement

The paradoxical surface, the glass/gloss of fetishistic seduction and denial, is at the heart of surrealism's power. In Dalí's painting, its pretence of transparency echoes the disavowal of violence at work in surrealist treatments of the body. In the objet surréaliste, it characterizes both the erotic allure of the commodity and the commodified bodily object, brought together in a parody of individual and collective desire. In the glass arcade, it embodies the very workings of commodity ideology. But the surface also plays another role, one which has yet to be accounted for, and I want to conclude by delineating this final aspect of the surface as it relates to the political register of fetishism. On the one hand it is an aspect that takes us back to the concept of the uncanny and issues of presence and absence, familiarity and estrangement. For although I chose to move away from the uncanny as a model for the historical and political dimensions of surrealism, its appropriateness as a way of understanding surrealist explorations of identity and anxiety remains unrivalled. On the other hand, it forms a link between uncanny anxiety and materialist conviction, suggesting a new means of incorporating the uncanny into the political; a means that avoids some of the pitfalls of the metaphorical relation which has often been used.

In many of surrealism's processes of artistic creation, the idea of surface contact is central. In Max Ernst's ‘frottages’ and Oscar Dominguez's ‘décalcomanies’, the finished work was based on an image created through contact of the paper or canvas with another surface. In the ‘frottage’, textures were transformed through rubbings into extraordinary landscapes or monstrous figures. In the ‘décalcomanie’, wet ink or paint was squashed between two surfaces, producing patterns that formed the basis of the work. The most common way of understanding such techniques in the context of surrealism is to see them as the visual correlates of automatic writing—as means of reducing the degree of conscious construction involved in making a work of art. The techniques were a way of incorporating randomness and chance into an initial image which (p.213) would then be transformed according to the artist's immediate response to it. The image would be read as a landscape, figure, or other representation, rather as such images are used for associative processes in psychoanalysis. There is a further element involved, however. The principle of surface contact, of imprints and impressions, is a widespread one in surrealist practice, taking in visual and textual images, and engaging with the question of physical presence. In all such images, an indexical trace is left by physical contact with a material object other than a brush, pen, printing block, or other tool guided by the human hand. In Man Ray's rayograms, for example, the paradox of presence central to all photography is made explicit, the images being created in the chemical response to actual contact with the object itself. While in all photographs the object of the representation has at one time existed and been present in order to be recorded photographically, in the rayogram it leaves a more direct physical imprint. Sarane Alexandrian uses a revealing image in his description of the process, quoting Man Ray's own definition of it:

In 1921 he invented ‘rayograms’, which made phantoms of objects appear. He has described the technique: ‘This is the principle of the rayogram, which is sometimes, in my view erroneously, called a photogram. Various objects, whatever one wishes, are placed in the dark on a sheet of light-sensitive paper. This combination is then illuminated by a ray of light. The objects placed on the paper protect the sensitive surface, and so do the shadows they cast, to a degree which depends on the intensity of the shadow. When the paper exposed in this way is developed, the rayogram appears as white silhouettes and incredibly delicately graduated shadows. The effect is absolutely unique to this kind of technique.’1

To describe these images as ‘phantoms’ of objects reveals a typically surrealist understanding of their qualities, and I will be returning to their ghostly aspect. But the question of the imprint also recurs in relation to the surrealist object. In Nadja, Breton relates the following encounter with a significant object, or, more precisely, with two interconnected significant objects:

Je me souviens aussi de la suggestion en rnanière de jeu faite un jour à une dame, devant moi, dʼoffrir à la ‘Centrale Surréaliste’, un des étonnants (p.214) gants bleu ciel quʼelle portait pour nous faire visite à cette ‘Centrale’, de ma panique quand je la vis sur le point dʼy consentir, des supplications que je lui adressai pour quʼelle nʼen fît rien. Je ne sais ce quʼalors il put y avoir pour moi de redoutablement, de merveilleusement décisif dans la pensée de ce gant quittant pour toujours cette main. Encore cela ne prit-il ses plus grandes, ses véritables proportions, je veux dire celles que cela a gardées, quʼà partir du moment où cette dame projeta de revenir poser sur la table, à lʼendroit où jʼavais tant espéré quʼelle ne laisserait pas le gant bleu, un gant de bronze quʼelle possédait et que depuis jʼai vu chez elle, gant de femme aussi, au poignet plié, aux doigts sans épaisseur, gant que je nʼai jamais pu mʼempècher de soulever, surpris toujours de son poids et ne tenant à rien tant, semble-t-il, quʼà mesurer la force exacte avec laquelle il appuie sur ce quoi lʼautre nʼeût pas appuyé.

[I also remember the apparently jocular proposition once made in my presence to a lady, asking that she present to the ‘Centrale Surréaliste’ one of the remarkable sky-blue gloves she was carrying on a visit to us at this ‘Centrale,’ my sudden fear when I saw she was about to consent, and my supplications that she do nothing of the kind. I don't know what there can have been, at that moment, so terribly, so marvellously decisive for me in the thought of that glove leaving that hand forever. And even then this matter did not assume its true proportions, I mean those which it has retained, until after the moment this lady proposed coming back to lay on the table, on the very spot where I had so hoped she would not leave the blue glove, a bronze one she happened to possess and which I have subsequently seen at her home—also a woman's glove, the wrist folded over, the fingers flat—a glove I can never resist picking up, always astonished at its weight and interested, apparently, only in calculating its precise weight against what the other glove would not have weighed on at all.]2

What fascinates Breton about the bronze glove is not simply its weight, but the force with which it presses on the surface beneath, where the blue glove would not have pressed at all. Even though no physical imprint is left, it is in contact with another object that the gloves become significant; contact with the surface on which it rests, with Breton's hand, with the mysterious woman's hand from which Breton is so reluctant to see it parted. And it is the paradoxical relation of these gloves to one another that introduces another register in which the present or absent object resonates: that of positive and negative space. The blue glove, which contains (p.215) the living hand, has no weight at all in itself, yet the bronze sculpture is a solid, heavy representation of a weightless empty glove. The negative image of the rayogram here becomes three-dimensional in the solid representation of a hollow, empty form.

Gloves and shoes being a popular surrealist choice of object, this idea of hollow and solid forms resurfaces in a work by Dalí from 1936 described briefly in Chapter 4. It consists of a tray of small items, including a worn shoe, a plaster cast of a foot, a flat piece of limestone shaped like a foot seen from the side, and a pair of chocolate gloves in silver paper. In perhaps the most obvious representation of the issues of positive and negative space, Dalí seems to take us through a metonymic chain, exploring the associations of shape, solidity, and hollowness, and adding to them his personal preoccupation with the edible in the use of the gloves.3 The edible object itself evokes a hollow space—that of the stomach—which these handless but solid gloves are to fill. The shoe and the plaster-cast foot, meanwhile, are not only the positive and negative images of each other; the cast implies a further process of negative and positive imprinting, that of creating and filling the mould. The shoe itself, like the empty glove, is a negative image of a bodily form, what Jacques Derrida, referring to Van Gogh's painting of a pair of old shoes, calls ‘ces objets convexes quʼil a retirés de ses pieds—ou ces objets creux dont il sʼest retiré’ [these convex objects which he has removed from his feet—or these hollow objects from which he has removed himself].4

(p.216) Part of the force of these images comes from their ability to evoke a lost human presence. The hollow form still bears the traces of the body which once occupied it and the inanimate object seems to resonate with a memory of that bodily presence. Such objects lead us on an iterative journey through rehearsals of uncanny familiarity and traumatic absence in which surrealism enacts a ‘fort/da’ game all of its own. The empty glove or shoe also reminds us of fetishistic disavowal, both denying an absence by standing in for the human form that is no longer present, and at the same time drawing attention to that absence. The blue gloved hand both is and is not replaced by the solid emptiness of the bronze glove.

The issues raised by these images can be aptly described using a comparison with Margaret Cohen's reading of the opening sentences of Nadja. Cohen points out that Breton's question ‘pourquoi tout ne reviendraiil pas a savoir qui je “hante”?’ [why couldn't everything come down to knowing whom I ‘haunt’?]5 must be read both as an intimation of the many uncanny ‘hauntings’ the book recounts, and as a self-definition based on social context—on the people he ‘frequents’. As she puts it, ‘His first move in defining his identity is to suggest himself as a product of the social conditions in which he lives.’6 A similar combination of associations marks surrealist images of negative and positive space, of presence and absence. They can undoubtedly be read as intimations of the uncanny, as ghostly tokens of a lost human presence. In their multiplications and replications, they can even be seen, in the light of Benjamin's ‘Work of Art’ essay, as critiques of the very possibility of presence, as enactments of the way in which ‘authentic’ presence (like Breton's elusive self-presence in Nadja) becomes lost in the displacements of reproduction.

But, like Breton's problematized ‘hanter’, they can also be read as a materialist understanding of the world. Just as Breton himself is defined by his social surroundings, the present or absent object in these images is defined by the space around it, by the space it occupies, or fails to occupy. Even the ‘frottages’ and ‘décalcomanies’ find their origin in the contact of the work of art with objects in its material environment. In the case of the positive and negative (p.217) images of shoes and feet, gloves and hands, the object is identified by the space it creates for itself in its environment, contact with which always leaves an imprint or trace. The solidity of the bronze glove or the chocolate gloves draws attention to this process, filling the space which should be empty, but filling it with something other than the human hand which its very form implies. And there is a further dimension to the issue of the object's relation to its material context. The positive/negative image draws attention to the way in which the object acts on, or in surrealist parlance, ‘contaminates’ its surroundings: weighing on surfaces, moulding shoes and gloves to the shape of the body. Even what seems to be empty space is shaped by what surrounds it, as the casts demonstrate, solidifying and making visible that empty space. The uncanny and the political convictions of surrealism come together in these images then, marking them as both tokens of uncanny disturbance and expressions of a philosophy in which both objects and individuals are created in their relation to others.

Just as in the surrealist objects I discussed in Chapter 4, the question of mediation through representation is also raised. In the surrealist object, different degrees of artistic or reproductive mediation are incorporated into the work, drawing attention to the various mediating processes at stake. Industrially manufactured products are juxtaposed with industrially reproduced works of art and with artisanal and naturally occurring objects. The result does not, however, simply equate these processes of production, presenting them as equally subject to fetishism and commodification in its different forms. Their differences come into play in illuminating each other, and in creating a tension between the unifying and the divergent fetishizing forces. In the positive/negative image, the idea of presence is mediated through the relation of the object to its surroundings. The mark it leaves on them may be the sole, encoded memory of its presence, just as the object itself is defined by the boundaries of that which surrounds it and is not it. In both the surrealist object and the positive/negative image, the individual or component object is mediated by its relationship to other objects. This is, indeed, the conviction that underlies the very principle of the surrealist object. It is the reconfiguration of component objects that reveals them in a new light: not homogenizing them by uniform representation, but preserving, and even drawing out, the particular status of each. An erotic fetish is not the same as a (p.218) fetishized commodity, and neither does the surrealist object present it as such. Yet in drawing each into a physical association with the other, the erotic content of commodification and the reifying undertow of fetishistic desire are revealed.

The incorporation of manufactured objects into works of art, and even my own emphasis on the object as the locus of surrealist political engagement, bring with them a threat. The risk is that by incorporating commodities, the surrealist work simply celebrates them, incorporating the very fetishism they represent as opposed to adopting a critical position in relation to it. At times, it is true, surrealism seems to glorify and revel in commodity forces, presenting them without critical mediation.7 Similarly, on the psychosexual side, fetishism threatens to engulf the object in a solipsistic play of gratifications from which ‘objective mediation’ is entirely absent. Without wishing to overstate the similarities, such a predicament can in some ways be seen as a version of both Breton's narrow path between apolitical subjectiveness and pleonastic dogmatism, and Adorno's tension between schizophrenia and reification. The difference is that whereas in the subjective register, such a tension threatens to result in impotence and/or compromise, in the object it can have a troubling critical power.

What these two fetishizing tendencies do in the context of the surrealist response to objects, is inscribe the process of fetishistic desire within the social and historical order connoted by the economic context of those objects. The economic history of the object as product, whether it be industrial or handmade, is an ever-present factor, adding a social dimension to that which tends towards the private, the sexual, the individualistic. In turn, the processes of commodity fetishism are seen in their erotic aspect. In the surrealist context the role of desire in the commodity emerges, even (or perhaps especially) when, in the case of obsolete commodities, the desire to possess them is no longer present.

But even this tension between the erotic and the commodified is incomplete if the work of art claims to stand outside it. In Chapter 3 I suggested that Adorno's view of the fetish status of the work of (p.219) art is useful in this context. For Adorno, art's origin in ritual gives it an inalienable fetishistic quality. Indeed, he states that ‘the truth content of artworks, which is indeed their social truth, is predicated on their fetish character’.8 Yet works of art must not attempt to make a virtue of that fetish character in order to reinvest themselves with the aura of the cultic—they cannot ‘advocate delusion’.9 Once again, surrealism walks close to the edge of such false consciousness, either denying its own involvement in the commerce of fetishism, or, conversely, revelling in it. As I argued in Chapter 6, Salvador Dalí's paintings tread particularly close to that edge, going to great lengths to sustain the fetishistic delusion that they are transparent windows onto the world of the unconscious, but doing so in order to elucidate the delusions to which all art is prey. Surrealist objects, meanwhile, relentlessly parody the signifiers of artistic credibility to similar effect. Frames, pedestals, domes, and vitrines are incorporated as if to claim the status of works of art, yet that very status is undermined by both the often ridiculous nature of the objects themselves and the relationship between the object and the framing device. This typifies fetishism's double-edged quality; it is both a distorting fantasy and an encoded message, and art can neither exalt it nor shake it off. Such is the lesson that Adorno's perspective on surrealism offers: art cannot claim to be above the distortions and delusions of the commodity society in which it partakes, but can, in its response to its own status, give us a glimpse of the possibility of freedom from those delusions. Like the fetish, it seems to take the place of what is lacking, but in that very act of replacement, draws attention to the lack. The art we have in a commodity society occupies the place of a free art, but is not free, and in the act of standing in, it must define that which, in itself, it is not and can never be.

The surrealist object often relies, as I suggested in Chapter 4, on distancing layers of mediation to contextualize the violence it does to the human form. Its depictions of the body are almost always filtered through several mimetic strata; the body is incorporated in the form of shop dummies, casts of famous sculptures, figurines, and in my example of Dalí's Buste de femme rétrospective, metal replicas of two figures from a painting. But there is a danger here too. The surrealist object cannot simply shift the blame for its (p.220) commodified representations of the body elsewhere, claiming that since the commodification and violence originally took place outside its scope, it can simply mirror them without implicating itself. It must, and in most cases does, include itself in its questions of mediation, and here, once again, the paraphernalia of artistic display plays a role. The frames and pedestals not only parody art's claims of authenticity and of being a space apart; they also ensure that the surrealist object includes itself in its explorations of representation as mediation. They raise the question of the object's own role in distancing the viewer from the actual body and the possibility of actual violence, under the auspices of art.

It may seem in some ways that the focus of my argument has shifted in the course of its development, moving from a Marxist towards a more psychoanalytic frame of reference. This is partly true. Having set up the parameters of a fairly straightforwardly political problem, it was always my aim to move away from them in search of possible answers to the questions they raised. Those answers were not to be found in the realm of the autonomous subject, but in the surrealist response to the forces of economics and desire at work in the object world. At the same time, it remains important to present the issues of fetishism and the object within the context of more overtly political theories in order to stress their strong political implications. Desire and commodification are inextricably linked in the surrealist practices I have examined—each informs and partakes in the other. The fetish model successfully moves the debate away from problematic extrapolations of collective, social processes from individual, psychological ones. But this cannot be achieved without including desire in the economic and historical register. Indeed, it is the presence of desire in the fetishism of commodities that makes the fetish in all its forms such a powerful model. The images of surrealism are, in Adorno's words, ‘commodity fetishes on which something subjective, libido, was once fixated’.10

As for the surrealist objects in which I have detected such critical power, they seem, if anything, all the more expressive as they age and degenerate. Made of ephemeral, even disposable components which were never meant to last so long, they cannot help but show their age. But works which deal so eloquently with obsolescence (p.221) need not fear growing old. At the end of ‘Looking Back on Surrealism’, Adorno remarks, ‘if Surrealism itself now seems obsolete, it is because human beings are now denying themselves the consciousness of denial that was captured in the photographic negative that was Surrealism.’11 The failure of surrealism's political project is not a failure of surrealist critical power, but perhaps our failure to recognize its portrait of a commodity society for what it really is.


(1) Alexandrian, Surrealist Art, 90. The quotation is from Man Ray, Self-Portrait (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1965.)

(2) Breton, Nadja, 64–5 [55–6]. A photograph of the bronze glove is provided on p. 66.

(3) A loaf of bread in the shape of a bow-tie also appears.

(4) Jacques Derrida, La Vérité en peinture (Paris: Flammarion, 1978), 296. The same painting is discussed by Fredric Jameson, who compares it to Andy Warhol's Diamond Dust Shoes, which he says ‘is like a photographic negative of the Van Gogh’, going on to state: ‘It is indeed as though we had here to do with the inversion of Van Gogh's Utopian gesture: in the earlier work a stricken world is […] transformed into the stridency of Utopian colour. Here on the contrary, it is as though the external and coloured surface of things—debased and contaminated in advance by their assimilation to glossy advertising images—has been stripped away to reveal the deathly black-and-white substratum of the photographic negative which subtends them.’ Interestingly, he detects in the Warhol a shift of affective emphasis from the depiction of the shoes to the surface of the painting itself, claiming that ‘there is a kind of return of the repressed in Diamond Dust Shoes, a strange, compensatory decorative exhilaration, explicitly designated by the title itself, which is, of course, the glitter of gold dust, the spangling of gilt sand that seals the surface of the painting and yet continues to glint as us.’ The glossy barrier of the painting surface is hypostatized here at the expense of the commodity itself which appears debased and tawdry—the only desirable element allowed to remain is a fetishized surface that no longer even correlates with the object it contains. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), 9–10.

(5) Breton, Nadja, 9 [11].

(6) Cohen, Profane Illumination, 63.

(7) This ever-present threat suggests that it would be valuable to compare surrealist presentations of the commodity with those produced by pop art. The pursuit of such a comparison might examine how each movement responds to the visual appeal of the commodity fetish and the role played in it by desire.

(8) Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 227.

(9) Ibid. 228.

(10) Adorno, ‘Looking Back on Surrealism’, Notes to Literature, i. 89.

(11) Ibid. 90.