striking lines to punching buttons: surrealist erasures and the mechanical writing method

Crosses and Commands - Surrealist Manifesto

– from Andre Breton’s The Automatic Message

To understand surrealist automatic writing, we might think of typing without backspace or undo. In the process of writing this first sentence, I performed countless of edits. The words are coming with difficulty. Something is here, but it needs to be conformed to a coherent structure. What compels me to write here at all, is a pressing difference. It has to do with the difference between Breton’s crossing-outs and today’s Command-Z. It has to do with the difference in the mechanisms of inscription and the shifting material of the page.

Breton’s crossings-out are vile, because he is sitting with a pen and paper at a table. Taking care to economically find the way between ink pot and paper, Breton brings thought to page. With the strike of a line, the trace of the mechanism’s messiness is revealed, but also of the breaks that occur in the process of writing. The correction of a screen text is different. The strikeout is now a deprecated function. Undo performs too well – restoring to screen an absence without apparent lines or gaps.

The “page” on screen is not afflicted by any changes. It handles all edits with valorous dexterity. No crumpled pages lie next to this desk. This, however, is a false difference. Electronically set words are not on a page, but are rather always set in fields. These fields, like the hollow of a grave in a cemetery, mean that words are realized in a labeled space on a coordinated grid. The “ancient house of correction” which Breton says makes impossible the escape from the structures of language and the present symbolic order, move with the digital text to the background, that is, into the page itself. The text on screen is a conceptual object -figured and configurable as if suspended in the mind. Even so called “page revisions” capture the text in its becoming. Page revisions record the ordering of texts and the subsequent edits. These revisions can be reviewed bringing a sense of the mind’s process and so now, perhaps quite unintentionally, all screen texts become an automatic message.

Where intentional automatic messages remove the rusting barriers to life, unintentional automatic messages remove the rusting barriers to death. The electronic text stays conceptual and here is the emerging problem: the electronic text is enfolded in the material in an order. It is this ordering that makes the automatic message either essential or impossible for electronic texts. Essential, because all electronic texts as entered in fields ensure continuity as a conceptual entity. Or impossible, because electronic texts are materially informed with a governing, calculating structure.

For the surrealist (or at least Breton) the strike is an unsatisfying erasure. With that strike goes the flame of inspiration – an anti-mediation of spirit, perhaps. So the inverse is the case today, positioned within the near-past electronic media milieu: the backspace button guards with a fluorescent glow the place of inspiration.

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