Sloterdijk on Dalí
April 29, 2021
Here’s a few excerpts from Peter Sloterdijk’s Foams, the third book of the Sphere’s trilogy. These comments concern Dalí’s 1936 performance-lecture at the New Burlington Galleries in London, at which the artist appeared on stage dressed in a deep-sea diving suit to which no-one had thought to attach an air-supply, only to start asphyxiating immediately, to enthusiastic applause from the audience.
It was not for nothing that the Surrealists developed the art of confusing the bourgeois as a form of action sui generis in the early phase of their attack wave—firstly, because it helped the innovators to distinguish between the in-group and the out-group, and secondly, because public protest could be taken as a sign of success in dismantling the traditional system. Whoever scandalizes the bourgeois declares allegiance to progressive iconoclasm. (Sloterdijk, 2016, p. 147)
He writes that this strategy is based on the assumption that cultures have skeletons in their closets—to shock is to make visible what lurks in the unspoken cultural background. This is an example of what Sloterdijk elsewhere calls “background explication” or “latency breaking.”
If the early avant-gardists fell prey to a fallacy nonetheless, it was the notion that the bourgeoisie they were meant to shock always learned its lesson much more quickly than any of the aesthetic bogey-men had foreseen. After a few turns between the provocateurs and the provoked, a situation inevitably came about in which the mass-culturally loosened bourgeoisie took the lead in the explication of art, culture and meaningfulness through marketing, design and self-hypnosis. The artists dutifully continued shocking, without registering that the time for this method had passed. (Sloterdijk, 2016, p. 148)
The mistake of the Surrealists was to believe that a bourgeois consciousness would be invested in keeping its background in tact, in preserving its taboos. Quite the contrary—once exposed to latency-breaking procedures art audiences started demanding and applauding their own exposure. This situation reveals the ambivalent status of Surrealism as a ‘revolutionary’ force:
These findings can be verified using Dalí’s failed performance, which was informative precisely in its failure: firstly, it proves that the destruction of the consensus between the artist and the audience cannot succeed once the latter has understood the rule that the expansion of the work to encompass its own surroundings must itself be read as the work’s form. The enthusiastic applause Dalí received […] illustrated how consistently the informed public followed the new contracts for art perception. Secondly, the scene showed the artist as a latency-breaker bringing the profane masses a message from the realm of otherness. (Sloterdijk, 2016, p. 149)
Once shock is expected by audience, the symbolic terrorism of the Surrealists can no longer succeed in its revolutionary aims. Rather, it is absorbed as one more stakeholder in the bourgeois contract. The artist is reduced to something like a bureaucrat of a tamed unconscious whose irruptions are always-already anticipated.
At that time, Dalí, like Breton and others before him, already viewed his work as a parallel campaign to what was termed the ‘discovery of the unconscious through psychoanalysis’—the scientific myth absorbed by many among both the aesthetic avant-gardes and the educated audience in the 1920s and 30s […] From this perspective, Surrealism locates itself among the manifestations of the operativist ‘revolution’ that carries continuous modernization. On the other hand, Dalí clung in decidedly anti-critical fashion to the Romantic conception of the ambassador-artist who walks among the unilluminated as the delegate of a meaning-laden realm beyond. With this posture he exposes himself as an imperious amateur who embraces the illusion of being able to use advanced technical devices to articulate metaphysical kitsch events. This is exemplified by the user attitude, which childishly leaves the technical side of the performance to ‘specialists’ without verifying their competence. The lack of rehearsal before the appearance also betrays the artist’s negatively literary approach to technical structures. (Sloterdijk, 2016, p. 150)
The incrongruence between the Surrealist’s self-portrayal and real function plays out in the technological subtext of Dalí’s performance. The attempt to maintain the pretence of the explorer-ambassador unravels in the face of his technical incompetence as professional-bureaucrat.
Nonetheless, there is a lucid aspect to Dalí’s choice of outfit. His accident is prophetic—not only in the audience’s reactions, which heralded applause for the uncomprehended as a new cultural habitus. That the artist had selected a diving suit reliant on an artificial air supply for his appearance as an ambassador from the deep connects him directly to the development of atmospheric consciousness that, as I attempt to show here, is at the center of cultural self-explication in the twentieth century. Even if the Surrealist only arrives at a semi-technical interpretation of the global and cultural background as a ‘sea of the subconscious,’ he postulates a competence to navigate this space with professional procedures. His performance illustrates that conscious existence must be lived as conscious context-diving. Anyone in the multi-milieu society who ventures outside of their own camp must be sure of their ‘diving gear,’ that is to say, their physical and mental immune system or social space capsule. (Sloterdijk, 2016, pp. 150-151)
Ultimately, Dalí’s amateurishness is prophetic in that the technological gap it reveals anticipates the opening up of the ‘unconscious’—more accurately, the cultural background—as a site of technical excavation in the twentieth century. In this new order, latency-breaking operations enter the province of engineers and technicians rather than poets and artists, whose task increasingly becomes to provide a kind of post hoc packaging for the disruptive shockwaves emanating from technological frontiers way out in front of them.
The accident should not be attributed to amateurism alone; it also exposes the systemic risks of atmospheric explication via technology and forced access to the other element via technology—just as the risk of poisoning one’s own troops in gas warfare was already inseparable from the actions of military atmoterrorism. If Dalí’s description of the incident is not an exaggeration, then he came close to going down in the cultural history of modernity as a martyr of dives in the symbolic realm. (Sloterdijk, 2016, p. 151)
- Sloterdijk, P. (2016). Spheres III: Foams (W. Hoban, Tran.). Semiotext(e).