Plastic/Explosive: Claude Cahun and the Politics of Becoming Otherwise

Helterbrand, Ryan. Plastic/Explosive: Claude Cahun and the Politics of Becoming Otherwise. 2017. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.
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Plastic / Explosive: Claude Cahun and the Politics of Becoming Otherwise is the first full-length English-language treatment of the long-neglected political work of Claude Cahun, a French Surrealist writer and activist most famously known as an avant-garde photographer active in the 1920s but who later formed a powerful anti-Nazi resistance movement on the Channel Island of Jersey in the 1940s with her collaborator Suzanne Malherbe, dubbing themselves 'the Nameless Soldiers.' They fought the Nazis with what they called Surrealist 'weapons of chance,' mounting a devastating campaign against the German soldiers that sought to confuse and demoralize them, fomenting revolt in the Nazi camp. While contemporary Anglophone scholarship is focused almost exclusively on Cahun's self-portraits, I argue that Cahun's most important contribution to our present moment lies in her radical rethinking of the place of the artist and avant-garde aesthetics in revolutionary political struggles, a theme that runs throughout her literary work of the 1920s, her political work with the Surrealists in the 1930s, and her resistance activities against the Nazis during the 1940s. The study, then, is oriented around two central questions: what can be the role of the artist in radical political struggles? And what part might an avant-garde aesthetic have to play in them?

The first part of the dissertation, 'A Multiple Always,' investigates by turns Cahun's radical rethinking of the link between avant-garde art and revolutionary politics throughout the 1920s, her political work with Andre Breton and the Surrealists in the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires in 1932 and 1933, her polemics with Louis Aragon during the 'Aragon Affair' in 1933 and 1934, her complete disillusionment with bureaucratic Communist politics during the First International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture in 1935, and her decisive intellectual engagement with Breton and Georges Bataille in Contre-Attaque in 1935 and 1936. The second part, 'The Nameless Soldiers and their Friends,' turns to Cahun's resistance work against the Nazis on the island of Jersey between 1940 and 1944, showing how her resistance movement was at once the culmination and transfiguration of her literary and political work from 1925 to 1940, a movement that explicitly operated at the intersection of avant-garde art and radical politics and intentionally blurred the line between them. By the end of the work, I hope not to have answered conclusively the twin questions guiding the study - what can be the role of the avant-garde artist in radical political change? And what part can an avant-garde aesthetic itself have to play? - but to have provided the reader with a new way of approaching them through the life and work of Claude Cahun, giving Cahun her due as one of the most powerful and innovative thinkers who worked and fought at the intersection of these problems.

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Completed/published
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