Review of Making Trouble: Surrealism and the Human Sciences

Making Trouble: Surrealism and the Human Sciences
by Derek Sayer

Prickly Paradigm Press (Chicago UP),
Chicago, IL, 2017
pp. Paper $12.95

ISBN: 9780996635523.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
July 2017

This could have been a book by an angry young man, but the author, emeritus professor at Alberta University, is more or less about to leave the profession. This book is however less a testament than a wakeup call, and as such it addresses a much larger audience than the specialist of social theory and cultural studies, the two domains in which Derek Sayer was professionally involved. An historian of French Surrealism outside France (see my Leonardo Review of his previous book, Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History, Princeton UP, 2013,, Derek Sayer opens this pamphlet book with a timely attack on the managerial streamlining of research in the humanities as well as the social sciences. And by the way, the very fact that more and more funding bodies and university administrators have ceased to distinguish between both fields is one of the most direct and hard-hitting consequences of this streamlining, although much more for the humanities than for the social sciences, apparently less vulnerable in this regard. Sayer quotes in length from the instructions from the ESRC (the Economic and Social Research Council of the United Kingdom), a document which we should avoid calling “Surrealist” for this is exactly what these instructions are not, the author agues.

As all researchers know, the bureaucratic newspeak of application forms and research tips has nothing to do with the spirit of critical inquiry, question making (instead of problem solving), and opening new ground that should be the core business of all scientific investigation in the human and social sciences. The depressing insignificance of the now commonly accepted definition of research as the self-fulfilling prophecy of riskless methods and total lack of theory is counterbalanced is this book by a vibrant plea for another way of doing research, with room for serendipity, much trial and even more error, in short anarchy (the opening chapter logically ends with a quotation by Paul Feyerabend). That Surrealism–which in France was the direct continuation of Dada–can be considered a form of intellectual and political anarchy is beyond doubt, at least in its purest and most radical forms of the 1920s (things will become somewhat muddled in later years and Derek Sayer is certainly not trying to mask the loss of bite of the movement in many other moments of its history). The question remains however whether this family resemblance between Surrealism and anarchy suffices to inspire new and liberating forms of doing scientifically acceptable research. Sayer’s answer to this question is an unconditional yes, and the original French way of seeing or rather doing Surrealism, not as a form of art or a new aesthetics but as a pathway to the discovery of oneself and society, makes this claim extremely plausible.

Sayer develops his argument in two ways, which one might call internal and external. First of all, he presents the various techniques and experiments invented or activated by the Surrealists in their quest for a truth not only hidden but simply never questioned due to the crippling power of social habits, political taboos, and day to day pragmatism. All of these techniques have in common to shake up the normal, putting between brackets if not utterly destroying our usual ways of thinking, experiencing, and expressing that prevent us from accessing the real. Surrealism is thus not contrary to what is often argued in art-historical traditions a kind of belated Romanticism, a flight away from society and evasion to the safe and ethereal world of some sublime self, but a profoundly realist movement, an attempt to produce hard facts. From automatic writing to the use of drugs, from the photographic reproduction of the optical unconscious to the pre-Situationist bewilderment of urban dérive, Sayer gives a very clear and useful mapping of Surrealist devices and practices not as tricks or gimmicks but as truly scientific methods.

Second, Making Trouble also discusses a wide range of author and methodological developments–mainly in anthropology, history, and sociology, that is in social as well as in human sciences–that have implemented the spirit of Surrealism in their work and managed to produce radically new insights by breaking all known rules of scientific theory, methodology, and best practices (which have remained, Sayer argues, more or less unchallenged since more than a century). The discussion of the British “Mass Observation” project in the 1930s is used here as a key example, yet Sayer’s set of examples and models is taken from many other disciplines, including literature (Galeano) and house design (Walpole).

Making Trouble is a necessary publication. At the same time, it also repeats––although in much smarter and seducing ways than I could–what is now no longer a secret. It is written in the stars that the human and social sciences will soon be forced to (partially) abandon the methodological straight-jackets of empirical and quantitative research they all too easily accepted to follow. Real innovation can only come from those who do more than measure and count.