“Living In The Land of The Lost”

The illusion of the freedom of the ego can be better understood by reviewing to the notion of the automaton. Remember that Descartes was able to gain mastery over the res extensa by declaring it to be purely passive and separating it entirely from the active res cogitans. The body, though mobile, has no inner source of motivation, but rather is simply the passive recipient of a certain quantity of motion transferred to it by a previously moving body. Thus the body, or the automaton, is considered dead.

Now, Derrida’s essay “Freud and The Scene of Writing” is a highly complicated essay whose main topic is Freud’s attempt to work through the difficulty of needing two separate, and seemingly incompatible, models to describe the functioning of consciousness. The first is a semiotic model, one evidenced by the way the displacements and condensations involved in dream work produce images which take the form of rebuses or hieroglyphic inscriptions. The second is an optical, or mechanical model, in which the objects experienced in consciousness must be understood to exist neither outside the apparatus nor in any particular component of it, but rather they emerge in an ideal space created by the various apertures, mirror and lenses of the machine. This latter model is able to explain the possibility of consciousness as pure perception; however, there is nothing in it which will allow for the possibility of cumulative experience. Meanwhile, the former model is able to explain the possibility of memory, but there is nothing in it to allow for the possibility of of immediate experience. Freud, almost twenty years after first encountering this problem, locates a potential solution to it in his “Note On The Mystic Writing Pad”.

Note though that Freud places great emphasis on how the device, if used to its best effect, requires the use of not just one but both hands. One hand draws lines and the other hand draws back the celluloid laminate from the underlying wax block in order to erase the inscription. Technically, the inscription exists on neither of the surfaces but its existence is possible only through their coincidental conjunction. This childish device meets, at least provisionally, Freud’s earlier demand for a model which would allow both for the accumulation of experience and the ongoing sense of newness presented by the constant opening of the future. The model which Freud conceives – if you read him as Derrida does – is quite remarkable. Not at all childish but rather completely serious, the writing pad’s operation is literally a matter of life and death. For Freud envisions the operator of this mechanism employing it not in any desultory manner, but rather frantically drawing and erasing images in quick succession, each new image being separated from the previous one by a decisive break. Such a rapid sequence of figurations and erasures would produce an effect of temporal pixilation.


Here, the persistence of vision would cause the dead figures inscribed on the pad – provided they differed from one another just slightly enough – to leap to life, just as a series of drawings creates the illusion of a single animated figure, when projected onto a screen in quick sequence through a whirring machine. For Freud the phenomenon of life will be nothing other than the experience of watching a (compelling) film which one generates oneself through a set of constant and unconscious bodily process. Here, we enter into the realm of Derrida’s famous mise-en-abyme: cinema is generated through cinema, contains within itself the condition of its own possibility.


Remark that in Freud’s text not only objects but also Time itself (as we experience it) do not exist outside this apparatus. Rather, they are generated entirely within a mechanical process. Time is not a metaphysical reality which contains bodily processes; it is a mere subjective effect produced by them. The automaton, properly understood, does not exist within the neutral continuum, or grid, of Cartesian time and space at all. Continuous Cartesian space, instead, is rather constituted in terms of an absolute break within consciousness. Thus, what Descartes said of the body in space, as automaton, applies, in Derrida’s reading of Freud, to all of space itself. The unified and consistent vessel of Time and Space, the scene in which everyday life and vision are experienced in an ongoing fashion, is really just an illusion contained within an “other scene,” a waking dream generated by of the perpetual repetitions of a writing and editing machine, itself an apparatus driven by death and blindness. Waking reality is grounded in this fundamental fantasy.

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