21st Century Surrealism: The Omnipotence of Dream Memes

When dreams reproduce images we see online, dreams become as easy to recreate and share as a meme. The subreddit r/thomastheplankengine is dedicated to doing just that

Before all the definitions, competing manifestos, alliances with all manner of leftist politics, excommunications, exiles, fistfights, reconciliations, global war, revolutions, resistance, and offshoots, it must not be forgotten that the term “surrealism” was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 in a letter to fellow writer Paul Dermée. A few months later, Apollinaire used surrealism to describe a community production, his play Les mamelles de Tirésias: Drame Surréaliste; this was three years before surrealism’s emergence as an art movement, which of course Apollinaire influenced deeply. Conceptually mired in ideological conflict and fractal factioning since its early days, it is difficult to conclusively establish what surrealism is. However, one common genre trope is that surrealism does seem to arise out of communal interaction with media. For the past three years, by creating, recreating, curating, and consuming memes from dreams, called planks, the 46,700 members of the subreddit, r/thomastheplankengine, have been unintentionally and unconsciously functioning as a community deeply engaged in surrealist practice.

In terms of design, r/thomastheplankengine is not different from any other subreddit with active moderators, graphic content tags, flairs, in-jokes, icons, and general expectation of kindness. In fact, if only looking at the form and not the exact content of the subreddit,  r/thomastheplankengine is not entirely distinct from subreddits dedicated to the active creation of surreal memes. That being said, self-consciously “surrealist” forums are more in line with the popular understanding of surrealism as weird art. From communicating with various members of r/thomastheplankengine, I have found that they hold as many views of the relationship between planks and surrealism as there are factions within surrealism––that is to say, nearly innumerable. That said, there is a commonality to the posts on r/thomastheplankengine that largely evoke surrealist concepts and techniques: the content is recognizably absurd, often humorous, and superficially indistinguishable from the collage look of most memes.

Acceptable memes to post on r/thomastheplankengine are categorized based on their degree of separation from the dream. A regular plank simply recounts the dream, or aspects of the dream, in the meme form, whilst a true plank is a meme taken directly from a dream. One member labeled regular planks as “surreal” while identifying true planks as “nonsensical.” Though I’ve grown quite appreciative of regular planks, what drew me to r/thomastheplank engine were the true planks, which more align with Breton’s understanding of surrealism as the pseudoscientific examination of the unconscious. I find them fascinating because, perhaps, they are the best representations of objects brought from the collective unconscious into reality. As explained by two different members, planks often rely on celebrities, popular characters, stock photos, and other hallmarks of mass media; like most memes, they consist of images and videos easily found online. 

While the surrealist painter has to retain the image from the dream in their mind, with the understanding that some information will be lost, the online surrealist is capable of unconsciously producing planks that would remain virtually unchanged if they were produced consciously. In a sense, the image they’re recreating from the dream already exists online; they simply need to collate it together. Collage––in modern thought––was generated by the art movements that preceded 20th century surrealism. But it is planks’ relation to other surrealist techniques, namely automatic writing and drawing, that captures what Breton calls “psychic automatism.” In much the same way that a surrealist writer––equating subjective randomness with the unconscious––would generate a poem, possibly in a sleepy state, consisting of whatever words came to their mind, images not consciously chosen by the online surrealist end up in their reality. As one member put it, the wonder in a true plank comes from “knowing it was an original creation that I didn’t really create.”

    Absurd humor bridges planks with surrealist art from the past. In, for instance, Yvan Goll’s surrealism, wherein everything heard on a walk might be transcribed into a poem, and André Breton’s surrealism, wherein the events of a dream might be recorded immediately upon awakening, the end result incorporated an “extreme degree of immediate absurdity,” as Breton describes in his 1924 manifesto. Consciously created memes, too, have been noted for their absurdity and comedy. This is due to their immediacy, their reliance on, as Goll put it in his manifesto, published two weeks before Breton’s, the “rapidity of association between the first impression and the last expression” to convey meaning. Excluding those where length is the point, I cannot imagine taking more than a few seconds to understand most memes; the format is suited to quick jokes.

Unsurprisingly, heavy users of media, as many of those who responded to my questions described themselves as, find comfort in rendering their dreams through pictures, gifs, and other visual arts; it is as envisioned by Goll’s manifesto, which proclaimed the 20th century the century of film. He writes, “Film transcribes events that materially happen in reality and raises them to a more direct, intense, and absolute state: surrealist.” 

Perhaps the term irrealism, rather than surrealism, is better applied to regular planks. Though based on Bretonian principles, irrealism mirrors the surrealism of Goll’s manifesto, such as when it states, “This transposition of reality to a superior (artistic) plane constitutes Surrealism.” “Irrealism, which also considers the dream state to be of fundamental importance, differs from surrealism in that it sees itself very much as being in the realm of art and artistic technique,” GS Evans, of The Cafe Irreal, writes. He goes on to specify that irrealism additionally differs from (namely Breton’s) surrealism by framing dreams as coming from “a consciousness that is closed in on itself and using a symbolic language” to communicate. Through this framing, we, possibly, arrive at why regular planks are so popular on r/thomastheplankengine. The world, according to one member, “is quite scary and extremely absurd and weird. And these surreal memes express this absurdity of the human condition. But in a safe and sometimes almost comforting way.”

    In contrast to historical surrealist groups, r/thomastheplankengine seems largely harmonious. Possibly this is because political discussion is essentially not present, outside of any politics or—more commonly—political figures that appear in planks. One member commented that “I must say I have no idea surrealism can be political. I’m just here for the weirdness.” According to the 1938 anti-Stalinist manifesto, “Towards a Free and Revolutionary Art,” supposedly written by Leon Trotsky and Breton but published under the names of Breton and Diego Rivera, “We believe that the supreme task of art in our epoch is to take part actively and consciously in the preparation of the revolution.” 

What manner of revolution envisioned has been communist, anarchist, or supportive of anticolonial resistance but the relationship between surrealism and radical politics seems logical to me. What bridges Bretonian surrealism and the Afro-surrealism of Aimé and Suzanne Cesaire, Leopold Senghor, and Toni Morrison is some rejection of reality as currently conceived, whether it be of the senses or colonial and imperial oppression. For members of the Négritude movement, dispelling fraudulent European perceptions of reality meant drawing from Africans (within and without the continent) of the past. Aimé Cesaire was a politician in Martinique, but it is the surrealist whose speaker, in “Barbare,” [Barbarian] vivifies the earth, connecting it to the coming revolt, by calling on the memory of the dead to shatter the current reality, saying: 

des morts qui circulent dans les veines de la terre

et viennent se briser parfois la tête contre les murs de nos oreilles

et les cris de révolte jamais entendus

qui tournent à mesure et à timbres de musique

[of the dead who circulate the veins of the earth

and at times come break their heads against the walls of our ears

and the cries of revolt never heard

which turn in measure and in timbre with music]

    Though r/thomastheplankengine is unlikely to use surrealism to bring forth the revolution anytime soon, moments where the exploration of the self through dreams leads to potential changes in reality do occur. Surrealism “works to the advantage of the ideal of self,’ which marshals against the unbearable present reality all those powers of the interior world,” as Breton writes in his 1924 manifesto. When asked about their relationships to media, one member of r/thomastheplankengine responded that, “My virtual self is as big part of me as the guy behind the screen.” They agreed that dream memes are an expression of the self and further clarified that “media, social sites, and memes” are parts of their dreams because they are part of their life.

At heart, many of the the intentional surrealists of the past and the accidental ones of the online present engaged the unconscious because of some disillusionment with reality. Though surrealists might frame it as approaching a truer reality than that accorded by the senses and distraction of modernity, surrealism can be viewed as a form of escapist art. A Bretonian surrealist might reject the label of artist, but if any of their surrealist projects are shown to an individual unfamiliar with surrealism, they will likely consider them art. Likewise, in expressly trying to create art out of their dreams, members of r/thomastheplankengine have brought forth work indistinguishable from surrealism. Perhaps these accidental surrealists are demonstrating that humans are more inclined to surrealistic concepts and acts than one would imagine. Perhaps escapism, first experienced by most of us as daydreaming, needs to be looked at through surrealist eyes. My experience with this surrealistic community has led me to reframe escapism, namely that done through the consumption of media online, not as avoidance but a surrealist endeavor, exploring what appeals to the aspects of our mind of which we are not in full conscious control. One member, active on the discord, is known for lucid dreaming, as that is one way to increase your chances of having a true plank. They responded, “be a woman,” when asked what one of their goals was when lucid dreaming, further adding that, “ill legit just have 2 hours a day to be a girl if i want.”

    While none amongst r/thomastheplankengine would, as Breton did in his manifesto, state that they believe in the “omnipotence of dream,” one member of the subreddit told me that creating planks helped them rediscover their unconscious. Another, who was familiar with Breton, said in correspondence that some of Sigmund Freud and  Carl Jung’s theories, those of the former being particularly important to surrealism, were “being sort of proven true” by r/thomastheplankengine. Considering that the existence of the unconscious is in doubt, virtual objects indistinguishable from their dream incarnations—though artistically intriguing—might not hold much, if any, psychoanalytic meaning. Accordingly, mapping the phenomenon of dream memes to various surrealisms might not be fruitful. However, my discussion with this subreddit, conducted through the lens of surrealism, and surrealist techniques, has proven illuminating. The unconscious might not exist, but we certainly experience dreams. As the member with whom I was in correspondence expressed, citing the similarity with remembering a dream and a trip, for some, “the experiences we have while we are asleep are sort of just as real as the ones we have while we are awake.” Planks, especially true planks, are one virtual, but undeniably existing, representation of this experience of reality, “even if they’re mostly just fun.” 

 While true planks might be the ultimate modern manifestation of Breton’s surrealism, most members of r/thomastheplank engine would not wear the Bretonian label. Through the aesthetic sensibility of a true plank is secondary to it faithfully recreating the dream meme, one consistent choice made by the subreddit members reveals a sort of unconscious aesthetics at play. One member noted that they “see a lot of posts in Impact font, which is probably because by this point it’s ingrained into our heads as the ‘meme font.’” June Singer wrote in Culture and the Collective Unconscious that the Jungian concept of “the collective unconscious lies beyond the conceptual limitations of individual human consciousness, and thus cannot possibly be encompassed by them.” The virtual collective unconscious, however, (or at least r/thomastheplankengine’s) has a font. To some extent, it can be visualized consciously.