Surrealist Lab: In Search of Automatism (part 1)
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 07-24-11
at the Art Science Research Laboratory
Image Source

In a recent post, "With A Lunatic Gesture We Forsook Jujitsu" (Automatism A), I tried my hand at some automatic writing. This was a practice codified by the Surrealists under the direction of Andre Breton, but its provenance dates to long before that. Its purpose has depended on the historical circumstance. For instance, it used to be seen by 19th Century psychics as a way of channeling supernatural sources, even aliens. For others, namely the Beat poets, it was merely a way of loosening spontaneity and creativity, wine being another. But what I was most interested in was automatic writing in the strict, Bretonian sense.

In his first Manifesto, Andre Breton defines "Surrealism" as: "Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations."

(Notice, visual art is nowhere referred to in this statement.)

The absolutism of Breton's influential statement is both tantalizing and maddening. What troubles me the most is whether there is in fact such a thing as "pure thought," outside of reason or "aesthetic or moral preoccupations." 

Breton is invoking a kind of reverse Kantianism: instead of the "thing-in-itself" he is trying to pin down "thought in itself."

But where do reason/aethetics/morals end and "thought" as such begin?

It was this idea that I had in mind as I began the automatic writing session: that I would be attempting to capture my thought in its "pure" workings, i.e. "disinterestedly" (another term Breton used.) For the purposes of full scientific transparency, I did it in the middle of the night, in the semi-hypnotic state that one reaches right before sleep (Hypnagogia). Lying on my bed, instead of allowing myself to pass into unconsciousness, I woke up, sat down on my desk, and began typing directly into the content management system used by and

I discovered some things in the process. One: at first my writing had what I would call the quality of "gibberish." The sentences appeared to be driven by a certain syntactic or phonetic stylization, meaning they were composed of vaguely interesting juxtapositions of words and had a rhythm to them, but semantically made very little sense. Sheerly linguistic detritus made an appearence. I'm studying German for instance, and therefore random strings of German words seem to crawling around in my head -- but my grammar is far from competent. So I for some reason wrote, "etwas unterscheiden zwischen werden Erde gesehen," meaning, according to google translate, "Will differ slightly between Earth seen."

Is this "pure" thought? Maybe? It is certainly as disinterested as it could possibly be. But it also seems doubtful that it is what was really intended as the result of the method. Did I perhaps violate some implicit rules, like for instance, "don't write in any foreign languages you don't really speak?" Table that for now.

(post to be continued....)












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