Our research group works with the following four projects:
Surrealism and Knowing: Avant-Garde, Science, and Epistemologies
The project investigates the interaction between the natural sciences and surrealist literature. It acknowledges and re-evaluates the influence of surrealism within the 20th-century history of ideas, especially in the light of critical and creative discourses bearing on scientific research. The surrealists adopted scientific themes, tested the epistemologies of science and experimented with its methods. Surrealist writers (such as André Breton, Paul Nougé, and Roger Caillois) regarded their activity as being closer to the sphere of science than that of literature and the surrealist engagement with science was twofold. Firstly, the surrealists were closely interested in their contemporary science, ranging from the so-called ‘new physics’ (e.g. the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics) to the philosophy of science. Secondly, they were intrigued by ‘pre-scientific’ theories, such as hermeticism and mysticism, as well as German Naturphilosophie, which they regarded as complementary rather than antithetical to modern findings. This project conveys surrealism’s current significance to critical thinking in the natural sciences, the philosophy of science and literature.
Keywords: surrealism, epistemology, knowledge, history of ideas (science), francophone literature
This project is funded by the Academy of Finland.
Literature, science, progress
The present crises of climate, disease and inequality have among their many social effects exposed a limited understanding of the role of interdependence in human life. Just as intensified competition over natural resources overshadows recognition of common vulnerabilities in our responses to climate change, the pandemic has generated fear and isolation rather than intensified global coordination. At the same time, growing inequality has boosted concerns for protecting achieved individual and collective gains. These tendencies are grounded in a narrow understanding of progress within the framework of a dialectical unfolding of domination and resistance to domination. They raise a number of issues with respect to Enlightenment ideals of a more comprehensive improvement of our conditions for self-realization and freedom.
Against this backdrop, the project revisits a key moment in the history of imagining ways of living with each other and with nature, at a time when the existing lines between literature and the sciences were drawn. Relying mostly on texts by writers, scholars and public intellectuals in the so-called Nordic countries (Finland and Scandinavia) between the 1870s and the First World War, I explore responses by key figures of the “Modern breakthrough” in Scandinavian literature to the pursuit of epistemic, political and technological mastery over the natural and social world. I pay specific attention to their understandings of cultural improvement in relation to scientific, economic, political and social progress. In a related study, I address the wide-ranging Nordic echoes in art and literature of the “Bergsonian moment”; the attempts by Henri Bergson and others to outline a philosophy of science based on the notion of acting with rather than upon “life”. Finally, I explore cross-fertilizing forms of collaboration between natural scientists and avant-garde writers in the 1910s and 1920s. Taken together, these studies aim at contributing, through the lens of literary and intellectual history, to on-going work towards a critical reconstruction of the narrative of progress.
A Feeling for Nature: Surrealism, from Natural History to Ecology
My project presents a reading of the different ways in which nature and the concept of the natural are addressed in surrealist art and writing. Through an analysis of texts and images, periodicals, exhibitions and collective group activities, my work focuses on the often unusual or provocative and sometimes unsettling or darkly comic perspectives the surrealists opened onto nature, both in terms of the human and the natural world at large. I look at how surrealism began as a creative and intellectual movement that sought to question assumptions about the human condition by re-imagining our understanding of nature and our evaluations of what is natural.
I thus examine how surrealism as an intellectual movement emerged at a time when long-prevailing notions of human nature, the human condition, and the natural world at large were being rapidly dismantled in the wake of the ideas of Darwin, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Freud. Through analysing the influence of these ideas on surrealist art and writing, alongside those of earlier commentors on nature – such as Rousseau, de Sade, and Goethe – I show how the surrealists challenged prevailing reductive notions of the natural and questioned how certain elements of human life and nature-relations are privileged over others. From such reconfigurations whereby dreams, eroticism, play, and other open-ended tendencies take precedent over utilitarian concerns, I propose that the surrealists distinguish the character and value of what is natural from what is understood to be strictly useful.
Given the surrealist movement’s opposition to established socio-economic structures and antipathy to the spread of biological reductionism into economic and political thinking, I argue that the surrealists laid the grounds for thinkers like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, whose radical perspectives have been more widely recognised. In drawing attention to the surrealists’ critical approach to anthropocentrism, their rejection of facile conceptions of progress, and their recognition of human entanglements with the more-than-human, my project addresses the relative absence of references to the historical avant-gardes – notably dada and surrealism – within current debates about posthumanism, arguing that the surrealist critique can be defined as precursory to this relatively recent critical concept.
In terms of visual studies, my work explores the surrealists’ interest in the pictorial dimension of natural history, looking at how the taxonomical idiosyncrasies of Early Modern through Romantic to Victorian natural histories influenced the ontologically and epistemologically disruptive practices of surrealist visuality, exhibiting and collecting. I also look at how surrealists employed concepts borrowed from historical natural philosophies – such as curiosity and analogical thinking, the marvellous and monstrous – and developed critiques that countered given assumptions about natural laws and the ways in which humans have projected specific attributes and values onto nature.
Alongside an analysis of views of nature found in the work of André Breton and Georges Bataille, I offer a reading of the ideas of Roger Caillois, in particular his writings on the continuity of relations between nature, mind and imagination, science and poetry. I consider Caillois’ concept of ‘diagonal science’ as a prototype for interdisciplinarity and draw attention to how he defined the most significant contribution of surrealism to be its connective method of thinking, which, through a particular blend of critical and imaginative engagement, reveals unexpected relations between seemingly distinct ideas and phenomena. In my view, the surrealists’ aversion to linear logic and opposition to the instrumentalization of thought still stands as a vital model for developing knowledge about the relations between things. As such, I argue that surrealist method still offers possibilities for connective thinking and interdisciplinarity which may today contribute to the cultivating of a fruitful, humanly rich and yet genuinely ecological reconfiguration of relations.
Negotiating and Challenging Scientific Ways of Knowing in Contemporary Anglo-American Literature
Since the beginning of the 1990’s, a notable amount of Anglo-American fiction has thematised the relationship between literature and natural sciences. The project approaches this phenomenon by analysing works by the Canadian poet Christian Bök and the American novelist Ben Marcus. Their liminal works combine scientific and literary discourses, methods and forms to the extent that they at times appear to elude any strict demarcation between literature and science. Traditionally, literature and science have been understood as separate domains in terms of knowledge production. Against this background, the project asks what claims the analysed texts are making on the epistemic relationship between literature and science and on the nature of knowledge they produce. Do they reproduce ideas on the fundamental epistemic difference between the two or do they strive to renegotiate or challenge the established hierarchies? The analysis is contextualised by arguing that the studied works can be read as part of the continuum of science-influenced experimental literature and by studying whether this literary phenomenon could be conceptualised as part of the discursive shift brought about by the non-human turn and critical post-humanist perspectives that encourage the search for new ways of conceptualising knowledge.