Surrealist sabotage and the war on work

By Abigail Susik

Surrealist sabotage and the war on work


  • eBook

Book Information

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-1-5261-5501-6
  • Pages: 296
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £80.00
  • Published Date: October 2021
  • BIC Category: Humanities / Social & cultural history, The arts / Art & design styles: Surrealism & Dada, Art History, History of art, POLITICAL SCIENCE / Labor & Industrial Relations, SOCIAL SCIENCE / Feminism & Feminist Theory, HISTORY / Modern / 20th Century, ART / Criticism & Theory, Feminism & Feminist Theory, Humanities / 20th century history: c 1900 to c 2000, Society & social sciences / Sociology: work & labour


In Surrealist sabotage and the war on work, art historian Abigail Susik uncovers the expansive parameters of the international surrealist movement's ongoing engagement with an aesthetics of sabotage between the 1920s and the 1970s, demonstrating how surrealists unceasingly sought to transform the work of art into a form of unmanageable anti-work. In four case studies devoted to surrealism's transatlantic war on work, Susik analyses how artworks and texts by Man Ray, André Breton, Simone Breton, André Thirion, Óscar Domínguez, Konrad Klapheck, and the Chicago surrealists, among others, were pivotally impacted by the intransigent surrealist concepts of principled work refusal, permanent strike, and autonomous pleasure. Underscoring surrealism's profound relevance for readers engaged in ongoing debates about gendered labour and the wage gap, endemic over-work and exploitation, and the vicissitudes of knowledge work and the gig economy, Surrealist sabotage and the war on work reveals that surrealism's creative work refusal retains immense relevance in our wired world.


'This original and enthralling work is not only indispensable for understanding the political and revolutionary core of surrealism but for rethinking strategies of resistance and creation in the present. With this lucid critical study, Abigail Susik recovers an insurgent surrealism at a moment when global capitalism is escalating the immiseration of human labour and when its productivist imperatives are devastating the planet.'
Jonathan Crary, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory, Columbia University

'Abigail Susik's brilliant account of surrealism's sustained aesthetic subversion and outright attack on compulsive wage labour and its genealogy in the late-nineteenth century radically reorients our understanding of this influential international movement. With great erudition and conceptual savvy, she places surrealism in the social history of work-place rationalisation, labour struggles and the feminisation of white-collar labour. Surrealist automatism is shown to function like work-to-rule sabotage. Automatic writing emerges as a gendered subversion of the automation of the work place present in surrealist photography and in the eroticised imagery of the typewriter and the sewing machine. Surrealism can still inspire challenges to the nature and organisation of work in the information age.'
Andreas A. Huyssen, Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

'Charting the rejection of the so-called "work ethic" by the surrealists in their theory and art, this groundbreaking study sheds new light on the activities of the surrealist movement in the 1920s, 1930s and 1960s, across two continents. Abigail Susik's deeply impressive investigative scope, combined with precise attention to historical, social and economic context, yields new interpretations of a wide range of work-resistant, pleasure-principled, anarcho-Freudian forays into poetry, painting, photography and sculpture by surrealists, drawing upon a truly extraordinary range of scholarly sources. Mentored by theorists from Marx to Marcuse, surrealist techniques and imagery are revealed as instruments of the saboteur. Meanwhile, urgent questions that are so rarely broached today with the kind of clarity given them by workshy surrealists and their ultra-left allies - who works, for what, at what cost and why bother? - are raised on every page of this illuminating book, demonstrating that surrealism lives, loves and plays, but does not labour: yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Gavin Parkinson, Senior Lecturer in European Modernism at The Courtauld Institute of Art

'To read Susik here is to enjoy the generosity of her stimulating and seditious theoretical thoughts.'
The Brooklyn Rail


1 Genealogy of the surrealist work refusal
2 Surrealist automatism as symbolic sabotage
Simone Breton and the gendered labour of the surrealist automatist
Tracing stenographic surrealism and the dame dactylographe
Psychic automatism and feminisation
3 Óscar Domínguez: autonomy and autoeroticism
'These phosphorescent youths': Domínguez and surrealism, 1934-35
Domínguez's Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle (1934-35)
Operating Maldoror's vamp machine
Dysfunctional tools in Domínguez's anti-work oeuvre
4 Direct action surrealism in Chicago
Prologue: activist avant-garde
'Incendiary time bomb': The Rebel Worker (1964-66)
Robert Green, Gallery Bugs Bunny, and Chicago automatism
Chicago surrealism and Herbert Marcuse contra the performance principle
Epilogue: override dysfunctions and the 'Klapheck computer'


Abigail Susik is Associate Professor of Art History at Willamette University and co-editor of Surrealism and film after 1945 (2021)

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