Kirsten Strom, The Animal Surreal: The Role of Darwin, Animals, and Evolution in Surrealism

Kirsten Strom, The Animal Surreal: The Role of Darwin, Animals, and Evolution in Surrealism (Oxford: Routledge 2017) 168 pp. £88 Hb. ISBN: 9781472488213

In The Animal That Therefore I am (2002), Jacques Derrida hypothesises that, with regards to the question of the borders between the human and the animal, there are two types of discourse. The most common type observes and analyses ‘the animal’, but fails to notice its returning gaze. This failure amounts to a disavowal: a refusal to account for the complex dialectical relations of seeing and (not) being seen, of addressing and (avoiding) being addressed, from which emerges the 'I am' of human self-assertion in relation to its nominally primordial animal other. It is the other type of discourse, which registers the ontologically and epistemologically destabilising gaze of the animal other, that Kirsten Strom seeks to unearth in her short but wide-ranging and suggestive study, The Animal Surreal. For Strom, such a mode of discourse can be found in the art and writing of the Surrealist movement which, in her account, critiques what Sigmund Freud calls the 'human narcissism' of anthropocentrism (10). Strom also argues that the primary themes of Darwinism – ‘mutability and mutation’ and an affirmation of the human ‘as animal’ – are at play in Surrealism, ‘in veiled – and perhaps not so veiled –ways’ (11). And, thus, the book sets out to analyse this triad: animals in Surrealism, post-human philosophy, and their relation to Darwinian evolution.

Strom does this over twelve chapters in a series of thematic studies on the representation of 'the animal' in Surrealism through specific art-historical and theoretical lenses such as 'the Uncanny', madness, hybridity, and the feminine. Organising the book around these topics, Strom eschews a chronological or teleological narrative of Surrealism in favour of a transhistorical, transnational exploration, moving between periods and national contexts, and shifting the point of analysis between print, painting, film, and theoretical discourse. Strom examines works by multiple Surrealist artists, authors, and theorists, individually and comparatively, in what she terms the Bretonian tradition, including, but not limited to: André Breton, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Jacques Prévert, Robert Desnos, Luis Buñuel. The final two chapters change tack, addressing Georges Bataille’s visceral, often shocking 'vulgar materialism', which is often understood in contradistinction to the Bretonian ethical, political commitment.

The introductory chapter briefly traces the ‘philosophical question of “the animal”’, from Aristotle’s 'rational animal' to later critiques of anthropocentrism in Derrida, Peter Singer, and others, of which Darwin’s evolutionary theories are identified as the most significant attack on humanist doxas (1). Surrealism, Strom shows, was directly influenced both by naturalism and Darwin, as well as indirectly, through Freud’s psychoanalytic thought, which proposed Darwin’s work was a revolution in thought equal to Copernicanism. Here, Strom raises a common methodological problem: whether Darwinism should be treated as historically situated material, received and mediated by subsequent texts; or as a transhistorical body of texts and concepts, whose themes can be located in any text, whether or not there is substantive evidence of direct influence. As Gillian Beer points out in Darwin’s Plots (1983), it is always both. And understandably, given the acknowledged paucity of references to Darwin in Surrealist work, Strom makes clear her preference for the 'themes' of Darwinian thought. However, she also implies that in Freud we have discovered a missing link that connects Darwinism and Surrealism, suggesting (pleasingly) the former endures in the latter’s unconscious.

A number of Strom’s thematic chapters develop this connection. The second chapter analyses a series of ‘uncanny interspecies encounters’ in Surrealist paintings and film. In these, the physical, scopic relations of animal figures, humans, and the viewer present the former as an embodiment of the unheimlich, producing a reversal through which the viewing subject comes to recognise their own animality. Chapter Nine, on Luis Buñuel’s filmic dramatisation of the ‘biologicity of the human’, places Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents in dialogue with Darwin, to examine how our most fundamental animal functions are sources both of immense satisfaction and suffering. And an earlier chapter delves into Totem and Taboo to illuminate the recurring figure of Max Ernst’s bird-like alter-ego, Loplop. For Strom, Loplop is a Totem which frames the artist’s apparent identification with an animal and colonial other as a critique of the assumed wretchedness of the so called subhuman 'primitive' against which 'civilised' humans define themselves.

Reading Freudian psychoanalysis with Darwin, then, doesn’t just show how the three are intertwined but reveals how Surrealism blurs the frontiers of the human and the animal. This is figured spatially in the film art and collage as well as in Surrealism’s numerous monstrosities, hybrids, and mutations. Strom is interested in crossing borderlines for the ethical and political questions they raise and the oppressed have long been associated with the animal. But for Strom such a connection can have emancipatory potential. Strom’s chapter on Surrealism, women, and animals, examines works by Leonora Carrington, whose preoccupation with horses and other animals suggests a sympathetic ‘trans-species’ identification that subverts the hierarchical idealism of intertwined speciesism and patriarchy. Later, Strom explores Breton’s 'automatism', which in her account undermines simplistic conceptions of insanity, illuminating ‘those parts of the mind that may be “animal”, as well as those parts […] that may be uncannily automatic’ (92).

It is only towards the end of the book that Strom excavates the darker implications of an alliance between Surrealist unreason and Darwinian evolution. Chapter Ten unveils Darwinism’s anti-humanist underbelly, enumerating the ways in which evolution undergirds Social Darwinian capitalism, imperialism, and fascism. Here, Strom does test the limits of her own thesis that Darwin offers a liberating critique of human narcissism, but argues that Surrealist art can provide depictions of nature’s savagery that militate against 'the survival of the fittest' as a model for social organisation. By contrast, the final two chapters indict Georges Bataille for a ‘glorification of brutality in nature’ that is complicit with the most fascistic elements of the Social Darwinian master narrative. However, this critique of Bataille’s biopolitics omits Bataille’s theory of 'general economy', which posits a materialist conception of excess that opposes the determinism of Social Darwinian political economy. Elizabeth Grosz’s recent radical feminist reworking of Darwinian sexual selection, Becoming Undone (2011), cites Bataille’s general economy to propose an understanding of Darwin and animality that is neither idealist nor reducible to a deterministic materialism, but affirms the excessive creativity of evolutionary change .

Nevertheless, Strom concludes both by acknowledging the kinship between Bretonian and Bataillean Surrealism, while drawing an important distinction between their respective critiques of humanism. For Bataille, that the animal does not speak, does not work, does not possess taboos – like Heidegger’s animal lacking 'world' – places it below the human. Darwin sought to establish that, in many cases, animals did possess these nominally human traits, seeking out – like Derrida – the gaze and the voice of our animal other. And it is this ethical imperative, to seek out of the animal view, to register its presence, that both drives Strom and which she uncovers in her analysis of Surrealism.

The Animal Surreal is a valuable contribution to the study of Darwinism’s cultural afterlife, offering new critical perspectives to both scholars of Darwinism and experts in Surrealism. Its commendable range and the alacrity with which it shifts between artworks and periods makes this book compelling to read. However, for the same reason, it provides a fragmented picture of the Surrealist movement. This is, perhaps, deliberate, given the book appears in Routledge’s Studies in Surrealism series; its readership is likely to desire an analysis of Surrealism’s Darwinian themes and contexts rather than another enumeration of the history of Surrealism. However, for a reader primarily interested in the cultural history of Darwinism, the picture of Surrealism provided here is a partial one.

At the same time, while each of its ten short, thematic chapters chart a lively and suggestive route through Surrealist art and its Darwinian substrate, these chapters sometimes fail to develop some key theoretical and historical questions. The book omits analyses of key figures such as the naturalist Jean-Baptise Lamarck, or the philosopher Henri Bergson, which would enrich our understanding of the historical and conceptual relationship between Surrealism and Darwin. And while Freud is a key figure throughout, the book could develop even further the possible connections between notions of 'instinct', the unconscious, or the question of language in psychoanalysis with similar Darwinian themes, and their relation to Surrealist art. If these can be considered drawbacks, it is only because the book’s insightful readings of Surrealist art in relation to Darwinism are deeply suggestive, drawing connections between multiple philosophical, historical, biological, and aesthetic themes, concepts, and works, opening out many new avenues of research.

Niall Sreenan, Kings College London

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