A Pineal Eye Soliloquy, or, The Critique of Surrealism Continued

Diagram from one of René Descartes' works.

Mimicry is a definitive word for the operations of Surrealist aesthetics and it enters the scene through the Surrealist publication Minotaure. Roger Caillois defines mimicry as the activity through which the eye becomes a camera reproducing itself as a camera.

[…] life seems to lose ground, to blur the line between organism and environment as it withdraws, thereby pushing back in equal measure the bounds within which we may realize, as we should, according to Pythagoras, that nature is everywhere the same.[1]

Mimicry tries to regress to a world before the separation between nature and culture, the signifier and the signified, the subject and the object. The desire to play with spectres results in a becoming spectre. The subject leaves behind all individuality and becomes one with the world. Mimicry wants to take the shape, colour, and the structure of nature. And it wants to do this through cultural products. Mimicry erases the boundary between life and literature and even when there is no head, there is the subject automatically doing what it has to do.

According to the Surrealists, mimicry is able to deconstruct high and low. It is the Cartesian hierarchy that is under attack. In Descartes the eye is given priority over the foot. Mimicry aims at turning the hierarchical organization of the body against itself. Mimicry automatically submits to the environment and that way, the subjects of mimicry believe, the Cartesian subject is turned upside down. Descartes wanted to be certain of everything, and his will to certainty lead him to suspicion and scepticism. To overcome his scepticism Descartes had to question everything around him first. So as soon as he started thinking he was actually thinking against himself. When he said, “I think, therefore I am,”[2] his inner voice was saying this: “To be sceptical requires thinking, and since I am sceptical about everything I must be thinking, and for me to think requires being, therefore I must be.”

Descartes came to realize that he cannot be suspicious about his suspiciousness. For if he were to be so, he would again be suspicious. But why did Descartes think that he was telling the truth when he said “I think therefore I am”? I can be sceptical about everything but not about the “I think.” Therefore I cannot be sceptical about “I am.” “I am” cannot exist without the “I think.” So thinking is a precondition of being and since I am thinking then I must be. But what if I were to say, “I am fishing, therefore I am.” You cannot say this, because fishing is not a sign of being. You might be thinking that you are fishing, but might in fact be sleeping and having a dream in which you see yourself fishing. But thinking is different from fishing and dreaming; being and thinking are preconditions of one another.

What happens when Descartes is thinking of being is consciousness conceiving itself as a thinking being. In Descartes the subject can say “I” outside of language. Descartes does not distinguish between the speaking subject and the object being spoken about. Lacan’s theory that language splits the subject and this split is constitutive of both the cultural subject and the unconscious explains Descartes’ paradox. Descartes thought consciousness could conceive itself directly, without the mediation of language. But this is impossible, says Lacan, for before the acquisition of language there can be no-thought. The subject regresses to Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position and acts on his/her primitive drives. In Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position the dominant drive is the death-drive which pulls the subject towards inorganicity and nothingness under the guise of oneness, Nirvana, and omnipresence, it promises a life at a superior realm of being. Descartes was imagining that he was conscious of his thought, but he was in no way conscious of what his thought symbolically meant.

When consciousness closes in on itself and thought becomes its own object, the subject and the object are imagined to be integrated. The gap between the subject and the object is filled with language, which actually splits the subject and the object. What Descartes is not conscious of is that language has a role to play in his thinking process. Descartes is not aware that he needs language to even begin to think. And through exclusion of language from the thinking process the Cartesian subject remains locked in a stage almost prior to the mirror stage, a fantasy world of oneness with the universe.

Just like Christopher Columbus who didn’t realize that he had discovered a new continent, Descartes opens a new field for philosophical thinking but was not aware of what he had done. He didn’t name this new field. In this new field Cogito was establishing itself upon the principle that consciousness is one with itself and at all times thought reveals itself to itself. For Descartes God was a priori to the human subject because for God to exist it has to situate itself in the subject’s mind as God first. Descartes had no thoughts about the role of culture in the formation of the concept of God. And if there was a God that God couldn’t be telling lies for that wouldn’t fit in with the symbolic idea of God. So all the naïve truths Descartes was sceptical about at the beginning, such as that there is a transcendental world beyond consciousness, must have been true. With this thought in mind Descartes declared that being and thinking are one and the same thing.

the pineal glandThe Surrealists who see themselves beyond Hegel and Nietzsche intend to overcome the Cartesian mind-body dualism, but do, and fail in achieving, that which is almost exactly the opposite of what they intended to do. Instead of stressing the gap between the signifier and the signified, the subject and the object, they ridiculously act out what they say they are criticizing. Their only difference from Descartes is their attempt to freeze the movement of thought while for Descartes there was no movement of thought at all, the thought was always already static. While Descartes was saying, “this is one,” and pointing himself out, the Surrealists are saying, “this one is not the one it appears to be.”

Although the Surrealists borrowed the concept of pineal eye from Descartes, they used it against him. With this pineal eye One looks outside and feels like what One sees is inside. The distance between One’s eye and the object of vision does not exist. That which you see on the surface of the outside is the depth of the inside. The depth of the inside is at the same time the depth of the outside. The depths and surfaces of the insides and outsides are one and there is no boundary of this “one.” This One creates its limits as it goes beyond them. It is its crime, punishment, and prize at once. The constitution and the breaking of the law that it writes for itself take place at the same time. The crime and the execution of the punishment are one. The limit, the law, the wall, the borderline, the boundary, the edge do not exist prior to the act that breaks through them. The diversions created in and through language set the limits of what language can do to one, and what One can do with language, to language, to the world, to oneself. One becomes an act of contemplation in the process of opening up new passages through which language can flow through and fill one. Full with and surrounded by language, one as language, contemplates itself and fills itself with what it contemplates. Words flow through the passages opened up by the movements of thought and time created by and creating new contents of expression. The new contents of expression are at the same time new forms of thought. The forms of thought are at the same time the contents of thought. Language practices what it preaches. The expression and the expressed are one. Language is a sea the shores of which are the edges of language. This, however, does not mean that there is nothing conceivable beyond the shore. The shores and their extensions are the homes of others’ ways of being in relation. And neither in nor through language can One reach that which is beyond for there is no going beyond of language as such but as much. Language perpetually dissolves into not nothingness but into something inconceivable. That inconceivable is the void that one attempts to render conceivable as it goes along the way in and through language and yet does the reverse of what it is aiming at.


[1] Roger Caillois, The Edge of Surrealism, ed. Caludine Frank, trans. Claudine Frank and Camille Naish (London: Duke University Press, 2003), 102-3

[2] René Descartes,  “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes vol. II, eds. and trans. Cottingham, Stoothoff, and Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984)

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