Surrealist Lab: Whose Unconscious? (Part 2)
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 07-30-11
Investigations of a Madman
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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/aesthetics/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. Sheer linguistic detritus made an appearance. 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, for some reason I 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.

In the second part of the automatic writing experiment something else happened. I reacted to the feeling that I was writing pure gibberish by -- somewhat paradoxically -- trying to sidestep the linguistic oddities that were present to mind and get "deeper" into my unconscious. But what happened then was in one sense the opposite.  I became, rather, more self-conscious. What I wrote started to have elements already of a reflection on the process I was undertaking. In the automatic text, the phrase in the fourth line "we felt a little bit meta at a higher level" embodies this shift precisely. It should be incursion by the feeling that I was watching over my own shoulder and trying to already synopsize what was going on for the sake of the particular forum I was writing about (a Journal of Dada and Surrealism).

What was odd, of course, is the "we." This could symptomize perhaps the split subjectivity entailed in the contradictory tasks of writing "authentically" from the unconscious, and trying to "understand" what was happening in consciousness in order to write about it. In the most radical interpretation, the "we" might be the voice of that split subjectivity itself, speaking in the first person plural.

However, it could simply also indicate a rhetorical performance of split subjectivity; knowing that the pronoun "we" signifies chaos and schizophrenia, I simply used it in order to convey the effect of multiple dizzying layers of thought.

Which is the truth of the matter? The only real way to settle it would seemingly be just to ask what I intended! The problem with this is that in accordance with the rules of the experiment, I didn't intentionally intend anything! I wrote automatically, scrupulously avoiding any intentions of which I was conscious.

So while it may be that there is a truth here that just can't be recovered, we might instead opt for the hypothesis that there is no precise truth here -- and this is due to the fact that a rhetorical position and an authentic meaning are not fully separable (as decades of poststructuralism have helped us come to grips with).

To state the idea as simply as possible: we never simply express, we always write on a particular platform for a particular reason, to a particular audience (even if that audience is just ourselves, at some later point, as in the case of a journal). This is the root of the now classic Derridean notion that writing is difference: it differs from itself by always enmeshing itself in contexts that take it outside of itself. And the real kicker is that this “difference” is not an “accident” that meaning could be protected from: it is the precondition for meaning itself.

"There is some secret about rhetoric and truth that's mixed up in the goal of absolute transparent uneditorship that any surrealist editor would do wise to try to ignore," I wrote (or was written) in the automatic writing experiment. Despite myself I was already starting to reflect on the problem. Trying one’s best to ignore the inevitable truth/rhetoric entanglement is, in some sense, necessary for the Surrealist project of “pure psychic automatism.” But paradoxically, it is in automatic writing that the entanglement presents itself most dramatically. This is because it forces the issue. When there is no task at hand other than to write whatever comes to mind, the normally-taken-for-granted (tacit) parameters limiting what one would in fact write loom into view.
The question that is necessary to consider here is: is this the stuff of an encounter with “the unconscious?” The answer I think depends partly on a further question: whose unconscious? Perhaps it’s not the orthodox Freudian unconscious of complexes, neuroses, and cathexes, but rather the Lacanian model, in which the unconscious is ordered like a language -- always existing in relation to the Symbolic Order (the extra-subjective system of culture and inherited meanings.) Or instead we might look to the more contemporary idea of the cognitive unconscious: a semi-hierarchical system of information-processing mechanisms that enable us to navigate our environment and regulate our behavior (the domain of psychologists like Piaget and Helmoltz). The artificial intelligence scholar Marvin Minsky uses the metaphor of a “Society of Mind,” in which mental activities are executed by emergent groupings of independent “agents” (or “Daemons,” in the terminology of the philosopher Daniel Dennett). Indeed, a sense of fragmentation/disparateness, leading to dynamic assertion of (somewhat unstable) order, characterized the automatic writing experience.

(These various models of the unconscious are not necessarily mutually exclusive; in fact Piaget thought that there would ultimately be a synthesis between his cognitive version and the Freudian.)

Whatever the nature of the unconscious mind, it does seem to me that the practice of automatic writing is useful for its exploration--even if it is unable to fulfill the role that the Surrealists envisioned for it. More systematic research should be forthcoming on this subject, at the boundary of aesthetics and psychology,--which need not be erased as a site of inquiry simply because Freud and Breton are no longer dominant in their respective fields.




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