Ron Sakolsky: Hands Off ‘Surreal’

Max Ernst 'L'ange du foyer'

Max Ernst ‘L’ange du foyer’

Miriam-Webster has declared “surreal” the word of the year for 2016. As Ron Sakolsky argues below, they don’t seem to know what the word means, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in their dictionary. At least they didn’t choose “anarchy”!



The enemies of poetry have always been obsessed with making it a slave to their immediate ends. They see jet bombers without thinking of Icarus.

Benjamin Péret

On December 19, 2016, the gatekeepers of discourse at Miriam-Webster Dictionary named “surreal” as its Word of the Year.

Far from taking this dubious distinction as a compliment, the living surrealist movement is appalled by Webster’s simplistic, distorted and one-dimensional characterization of the term “surreal” as being relegated to descriptions of disaster situations. As surrealists, we must speak for ourselves to provide a larger surrealist context for understanding the deeper questions of why such disasters happen in the first place and how to transform the present reality of which they are the inevitable byproduct.

According to the Dictionary’s editor, Peter Sokolowski, “Miriam-Webster, which first began tracking [computer] search trends in 1996, found a spike for the word after the 9/11 attacks. We noticed the same thing after the Boston Marathon bombings and the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The single biggest spike in look-ups came the day after Donald Trump’s election. Surreal has become the sort of word that people seek in moments of great shock and tragedy.” To situate the term “surreal” exclusively among the disquieting deeds mentioned above is to do the English language a grave disservice. Surrealism remains the sworn adversary of all forms of authoritarian orthodoxy rather than merely acting as their expressive dimension.

If “surreal’ is to be remembered as the “go-to” word for 2016, let it be recalled for all of its many wonders rather than being stereotyped as merely a descriptor for the malaise associated with terrorism and electoral politics and the terrorism of electoral politics. It is true that the word “surreal” brilliantly evokes that visceral sense of the uncanny associated with such strangely unsettling events, but it is capable of doing so much more. Sokolowski demonstrates his ignorance of surrealism by saying, “I believe there are words such as surreal or love that help us grapple with things difficult to understand”. If he had spent any time at all attempting to understand the subversive qualities of the “surreal” rather than concentrating his attention on mitigating the horrors of the real, he would not have juxtaposed surrealism and love. Love is not foreign to surrealism, but is one of its guiding inspirations along with Liberty and Poetry.

Hands off the word “surreal”! Release it from the miserabilist Procrustean chopping block where Webster has editorially imprisoned it, and let its convulsive beauty illuminate not only the dystopian nightmare but the utopian dream of a world in which we can all live more poetic lives.  And rest assured that what we surrealists call the Marvelous will be the playing field for our passional attractions not just for the year 2016 but for the entirety of the 21st century.

Ron Sakolsky, Inner Island Surrealist Group

December 22, 2016


Ron Sakolsky: Mutual Acquiescence or Mutual Aid


Ron Sakolsky has a new book out: Breaking Loose: Mutual Acquiescence or Mutual Aid? He will be talking about the book at Spartacus Books in Vancouver, Canada, on November 30, 2015, starting at 7 PM (3378 Findlay Street). Ron edits and publishes the Oystercatcher, and has written several books relating to anarchism and surrealism: Creating Anarchy (Fifth Estate,2005), Swift Winds (Eberhardt, 2009), and Scratching The Tiger’s Belly (Eberhardt, 2012). Here I present some excerpts from the Preface to Breaking Loose (the article which gave rise to the book can be found here). In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian IdeasI included pieces on anarchism and surrealism by Andre Breton and the French surrealists.

Mutual Acquiescence or Mutual Aid

Ron Sakolksy

Ron Sakolksy

The story of this book starts with the coining of the term “mutual acquiescence.” It first appeared as part of a single sentence in a 2006 thought piece that I wrote for Green Anarchy magazine under the title of “Why Misery Loves Company” in which I stated: “What I call mutual acquiescence is the polar opposite of the anarchist concept of mutual aid in that it paralyzes revolt rather than facilitating it”…

To be clear from the start, I did not create the term mutual acquiescence as part of a doom and gloom scenario of despair in which misery rules our lives, but as a way of understanding why and how people become immersed in the dead end of believing that misery is the only reality. The latter “realistic” state of mind is what surrealists call miserabilism. I see the relevance of the concept of mutual acquiescence here as bringing the historical connection between surrealism and anarchy into the present moment. For my part, the operative idea was that if we could understand the contemporary phenomenon of mutual acquiescence, we could begin to figure out how to transform its socially ingrained relationships of subservience into vibrant ones of mutual aid. I had no illusions that accomplishing such a task would be an easy one in practice, but assumed that the crossroads of mutual acquiescence and mutual aid would offer us a place to start in that journey toward anarchy…

However, I did not want the title to inadvertently lead to the depressing conclusion that mutual acquiescence made the realization of anarchy impossible. Instead, it needed a dynamic title that would make it clear that in order for the flowing waters of mutual aid to run freely, the dam of mutual acquiescence must be destroyed. Rather than simply blaming all of our woes on the state or capitalism, we can begin the processes of individual and social transformation by understanding the toxic nature of the everyday social relationships that prevent us from breaking loose.
If there is any subtext to this book, written in between the lines is the idea that we all hold a piece of the puzzle called anarchy. In so saying, I do not mean to oversimplify the profoundly complex differences between anarchist ideas from individualist to communitarian ones and from those which prize negation to those that emphasize affirmation. Rather, it is my contention that we need to recognize anarchy as a mosaic rich with diversity and not let any of the internal theoretical contradictions therein make us forget what we have in common. Together in mutual aid and as individuals in revolt, we can take back our lives. We can break loose from the dead weight of mutual acquiescence and set sail for the beckoning shores of anarchy.

Ron Sakolsky

ron creating_anarchy2013_xvi8-wc