It is advisable not to dismiss surrealism too quickly as frivolous, in contrast with the sérieux of ethnographic science. The connections between anthropological research and research in literature and the arts, always strong in this century, need to be more fully explored. Surrealism is ethnography’s secret sharer –for better or worse- in the description, analysis, and extension of the grounds of twentieth-century expression and meaning.

“The coupling of two realities, reconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them...”
- Max Ernst, What is the Mechanism of Collage? (1936).

André Breton often insisted that surrealism was not a body of doctrines, or a definable idea, but an activity. The present essay is an exploration of ethnographic activity, set, as it must always be, in specific cultural and historical circumstances. I will be concentrating on ethnography and surrealism in France between the two world wars. To discuss these activities together—at times, indeed, to permit them to merge—is to question a number of common distinctions and unities. I am concerned less with charting intellectual or artistic traditions than with following some of the byways of what I take to be a crucial modern orientation toward cultural order. If in what follows I sometimes use familiar terms against the grain, my aim is to cut across retrospectively established definitions ant to recapture, if possible, a situation in which ethnography is again something unfamiliar and surrealism not a bounded province of modern art and literature.

The orientation toward cultural order I am evoking cannot be neatly defined. It is more properly called “modernist” than modern, taking as its problem –and opportunity- the fragmentation and juxtaposition of cultural values. From its disenchanted viewpoint, stable orders of collective meaning appear to be constructed, artificial, and indeed often ideological or repressive. The sort of normality or common sense that can amass empires in its fits of absentmindedness or wander routinely into world wars is seen as a contested reality, to be subverted, parodied, and transgressed. In what follows I will suggest reasons for linking ethnographic activity to this set of critical attitudes, dispositions usually associated with the artistic avant-garde. In France particularly, the modern human sciences have not lost contact with the world of literature and art. And in the hothouse milieu of Parisian cultural life, no field of social or artistic research can long remain indifferent to influences or provocations from beyond its disciplinary boundaries. In the twenties and thirties, as we shall see, ethnography and surrealism developed in close proximity.


Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1981), 539-564.