The Surrealist image: a cognitive semiotics approach

By Paul Bouissac (University of Toronto)

Introduction: the epistemological context

The emerging paradigm of cognitive semiotics in the mid-1990s signaled the recognition that the theoretical models that had been developed during the 20th century in order to account for the forms and functions of communication and signification processes necessarily interfaced with other disciplines such as psychology, neurology, anthropology, and sociology. Semiotics could not fulfill its ambitious project of becoming an overarching disciplines without operational interactions with the empirical and social sciences. This epistemological turn had also given rise to cognitive linguistics and cognitive poetics in the preceding decade. The first quarter of the 21st century is witnessing the merging of these various streams into a more integrative approach to the deep and inclusive understanding of meaning-making as embodied processes.
This paper explores the relevance of cognitive semiotics to multimodal poetic creativity, more specifically, Surrealism, the artistic movement that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and upset the aesthetic cannons of its time. Surrealism started in France after World War I. The poets and artists who identified with, and promoted this cultural revolution produced an abundance of texts and visual arts, including films. It also inspired an elaborate theoretical discourse in the form of manifestoes and philosophical essays that endeavored to unleash freedom and redefine the human condition. The central notion of surrealist poetics is the “image”, a term that should not be understood in its usual strictly visual sense but rather as a trope endowed with great creative power and generality. The first part of this paper will explain and document the surrealist notion of the “image”. The second part will show the relevance of cognitive semiotics to the understanding of surrealist works through examining a few examples. The third part will attempt to frame the cognitive processes involved in the production and reception of surrealist “images” within the neuro-cognitive framework of reward and addiction. In conclusion, the possibility of extending this perspective beyond Surrealism to other artistic domains will be examined.

The surrealist “image”

The “image” is a crucial notion of Surrealism. It is closely related to all the other concepts that define the poetics of this movement such as automatism and objective chance. Louis Aragon, one of the main exponents of Surrealism writes in Paris Peasant (1926): “ The vice called Surrealism is the unruly and passionate use of the addictive drug ‘image’“. In his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), Andre Breton provided a technical definition which was inspired by a contemporary, older poet, Pierre Reverdy: “The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born out of a mere comparison but only through the bringing together, the juxtaposition, of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be – the greater its emotional power and poetic reality”. This definition was restated in Rising Sign (1947): “It should be remembered that thirty years ago Pierre Reverdy was led to formulate this capital law: the greater and truer the distance between two juxtaposed realities, the stronger will be the image and the greater its emotive power and poetic reality”. This process is trans-modal. Breton offers examples of strong such images in a poem by Reverdy, in which “dream” is equated with “ham”, and in one of his own texts in which “dew” is equated with “cat”. The equation in those cases are expressed through the copula or other functionally similar syntactic means. The “image” in this sense also pertains to the visual medium. Max Ernst, who always claimed that his collages were dealing with meaning – that is, cognition – rather than mere forms, produced hundreds of them. For instance, In La femme 100 tetes (1929) we find a waiter with the head of a fish or, in La mariee du vent (1938), a painting that evokes a woman-horse hybrid, a theme that is recurrent in Salvador Dali’s works . Obviously, whether they are lexical or pictorial units, the “realities” thus conjoined represent cognitive categories belonging to different cultural paradigms. Before discussing the specific cognitive processes involved in the creation of these “images”, some general considerations are in order.

The spatial metalanguage

As it is the case in most metalanguages, spatial concepts are called upon to define the nature of the “image” in consistent terms. Relative distance and juxtaposition convey indeed an impression of self-evidence. This meaning effect is created by the obvious complementarity of the polar spatial concepts of “distant” and “close”, “separateness” and “juxtaposition”, “junction” and “disjunction”, “dislocation” and “collocation”, and so on. However, it is important to question this first intuitive understanding and to raise the following questions: What is the nature of the two “realities”? What is exactly meant by “distance”? What is the grammatical or logical tool that creates the juxtaposition in verbal discourse or in visual display? Before attempting to answer these questions, let us consider the specifications that Breton added to the core definition he borrowed from Reverdy.
The ‘realities’ are conceptual terms of the verbal or visual lexicon whose respective meanings are determined by the categories to which they are assigned according to the cosmology, or worldview, of their cultural context. These categories stand in various degrees of compatibility or incompatibility with each other. Some overlap or can fade into one another as a matter of scalar relationship. This is what happens when categories are analyzed in terms of radiality with respect to a prototype, or in terms of componential analysis according to the number of property features they may have in common. By contrast, some categories stand in a relation of strong cognitive incompatibility with each other to the point of being mutually exclusive or incommensurable. Examples abound: “human” versus “animal” in post-Cartesian western cultures; “food stuff” (e.g., ham) versus “mind stuff” (e.g., dream); “edible animals” versus “un-edible animals”, whose categories greatly vary depending on cultures (e.g., sheep versus pigs; beef versus dog). In the last century, structuralist anthropologists have mapped with great precision such cognitive disjunctions between terms that cannot be thought together except in relation of mutual exclusion for largely arbitrary reasons in spite of similarities whose even a mere mentioning is considered taboo in a particular culture or sub-culture.
Spatial metaphors provide a convenient way to manage and manipulate these cognitive categories visually in the form of tables which allow to organize conceptually the inventories of various paradigms, or discursively through the theoretical idiom of particular logical or semiotic modelling.

Confronting the unthinkable

The surrealist “image” fundamentally consists of re-categorizing some terms of the visual and verbal lexicon by foregrounding identical properties between two of these terms from a particular point of view that is at odds with the norms of the contextual culture to the point of forcing the unthinkable upon both the creator and the receiver since the “image” is not deliberately crafted but spontaneously produced by the untethered dynamic of the mind. Let us consider the poem by Pierre Reverdy that Andre Breton quotes as an enlightening example of the surrealist “image”. Its typographical presentation makes it both a visual and a verbal object with the iconic position of the word “heavy” corresponding to the suspension of the intonation which mimics the hanging ham:

Le reve est un jambon
qui pend au plafond

Literally: The dream is a ham
that hangs from the ceiling

The statement is not meant to convey the idea that a hungry individual is dreaming of some particular food. The definite article unambiguously indicates that this proposition is a definition of the nature of the dream in general. The romantic connotation of dreaming is knocked out by this unexpected attributive quality: the backside of a pig. The evoked representation is a common feature of Southern European traditional homes in which it was frequent to keep a cured leg of pork wrapped in white gauze that is hung from the ceiling so that it can dry while being safely protected from flies and rodents. In the contextual culture of the late 19th century and early 20th century, as it is still nowadays, pigs provide a range of loaded metaphors pointing to filth and sexual beastliness. “Cochonneries” [literally: piggeries in French] can designate both the processed meat coming from the pigs and uninhibited sexual behavior that can be qualified as being “naughty” or even “dirty”. A French saying claims that there is a pig sleeping in all men’s hearts. Dream and ham are the two distant realities brought in so close a connection by this “image” that the latter defines the nature of the former in spite of their apparent cultural disjunction. The contact between this polar opposition produces a “spark of truth” as Reverdy and Breton claimed. Had not Freud demonstrated indeed, around the same time, that the latent contents of dreams is ultimately sexual? It is a heavy weight in the form of a denied obsession that stands at the core of the self which is in modern times located in the mind or the brain where obsessive thoughts and urges ultimately reside. In many popular expressions the “ceiling” designates the top of the human body, the skull, a metonymy for the brain or the mind. The “image” produced by Reverdy’s poem is not a metaphor, as the Surrealists insisted, but rather a scandalous equation that forces us to confront the “unthinkable” through a radical re-categorizations. Beyond the Freudian zeitgeist that can be invoked to explain this take on the nature of the dream, a broader cognitive perspective can be called upon. The structuralist anthropologists, whose theories emerged almost contemporaneously with Surrealism, — Claude Levi-Strauss and Andre Breton significantly interacted in New York City during World War II — proposed a vision of cultures as systems of relations between categories that are the foundation of the cosmologies which are taken for granted in the production of meaning. These architectures of meaning are mostly unconscious or subconscious but members of these cultures can become aware of them when the norms are broken or when different cultures are compared (Rossi 1982). Thus, new possible cosmologies dawn upon the mind and challenge what we call reality.

Risk and resistance: the power of images

Let us consider now two visual hybrid representations: Max Ernst’s waiter with the head of a fish and his woman with the head of a horse. Among the operators or algorithms of images, that is the syntactic means of creating the juxtaposition of the two distant realities, are the copula (like in the above example “the dream is a ham”) or the switching of the heads as a means to equate two different identities, a move that can be achieved visually through a collage or verbally through the expression “x with the head of y” since it is by the perception of the face that we determine identities. It is, however, important to realize that the “image” is not an arbitrary juxtaposition but yields a “spark of truth” while maintaining at the same time “an unbreakable kernel of night” as Breton always claimed. This paradox of the “image” can be expected if indeed the mere possibility of an alien system of categorizations is presented to the mind. The maximal risk of the collapse of categories must be resisted lest it radically undermines the consistency of the whole cosmology of the culture that sustains our norms and values. The production of metaphors, in any modality, is governed by implicit rules of propriety. This is undoubtedly why the Surrealists kept insisting that “images” are not metaphors, a term that evoked a stock of conventional platitudes. Max Ernst’s cut and paste “image” of the fish-headed waiter is more akin to a radical metonymy if we consider that the nature of the object (the waiter) is defined by its most identifying part: the head.
In Western, post-Cartesian cultures, an ontological divide stands between humans and animals. Dominant religious ideologies dismiss the continuum that the scientific approach substantiates. Only in the guise of rituals, poetic license, or metaphors can such a continuum be temporarily admissible. Surrealism, though, does not play by the rules as its proponents were aiming at a deep cultural revolution. This is why they were adamant that the “image” was not a mere comparison or metaphor but a “flash of truth” necessarily countered by a desperate attempt at obfuscation in order to deny the intuitive knowledge that is thus forced upon the mind. Ultimately, our self is a house of cards, our identity a cultural artifact because our cosmology is a giant with feet of clay. Cosmologies are indeed only minimally adaptive semiotic engines that make more or less sense of our individual and social life experience.
In the domain of identities, nothing is more distant from a human face than the head of a fish. Other mammals, birds, even some batrachians may offer approximate equivalent to the primate face. What makes a face human is that we can read a range of emotions in its muscular fluidity. The head of a fish by contrast appears to be enigmatically frozen in spite of featuring a mouth and two eyes. As existentialist philosophy pointed out, social functions radically alienate the persons. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about the way in which the “waiter”, this staple of modern urban social life, implements a role that neutralizes all other qualities. The human disappears in the frozen image of the function. This is the “truth” conveyed by the fish identity in spite of the unthinkable equation thrusted in front of us by Max Ernst’s collage. Let us remember that the artist insisted that he was not dealing with mere forms but with meanings. His collages are not aiming at purely visual effects but are relevant to deep cognition.

The fluidity of structures

It would be erroneous to consider Max Ernst’s image of a waiter with the head of a fish as an explicit visual rendering of Sartre’s celebrated example of what he labelled “bad faith” if only because the former was published in 1929 and the latter in 1943. The philosopher’s phenomenological intuition elaborated in his epochal Being and Nothingness just happened to converge with the artist’s creation through recognizing and expressing in their respective code the power of alienation of social roles. It is however important to emphasize that the surrealist image is not the result of a deliberate intention. The “image” is a spontaneous creation of the mind that both reveals a truth and resists an intuitive interpretation.
Cognitive semiotics may help account for this phenomenon. The way we make sense of things and events depends on systems of categories that are consubstantial with our accultured “mind” and the whole brain architecture that sustains it. Since these systems obviously transcend the power of the individuals who identify with a given culture, it is tempting to develop the notion of a cognitive structure, as some Structuralists were prone to do, that stands on its own, so to speak. Although such structures may be in part objectified in the form of stable buildings, texts, and rituals, they are ultimately embodied in the biological diversity of individuals who constantly process information and negotiate situations. Therefore, the ground of these meaning-making systems is fundamentally fluid although there are obviously neuronal and social inhibitory forces that enforce a relative stability. Strong cultural oppositions such as fish and humans, that are based on morphological, behavioral, and ecological properties overlook transitory stages and commonalities which are shared by these two kinds of organisms. Both are but packs of proteins for predators. Both have eyes, mouths, and anuses. Both are constantly on the outlook for food and fall for lures. All these features and many others are legitimate bases for different categorizations. However, whenever transgressive re-categorizations become salient, information is produced. When this happens, not only in the case of a surrealist “image” but also with counter-intuitive scientific theories, a tension arises between stubborn denial and the elation of discovery. Darwinism and quantum physics are good examples of unexpected truths which are resisted by many because they stand in opposition to deeply entrenched cosmologies, that is, systems of categories. “Surrealist” has become synonymous with outlandish, irrational, insane, shocking, and the like. However, for its practitioners, it amounted to a profound and unique inner experience, a novel way of perceiving the world through creative language and pictorial representations.
Hybrid images, either verbal or visual, are a powerful source of upsetting information. Breton’s poem that mentions a “cat with a head of dew” relates a particular domestic animal to a meteorological phenomenon, an unacceptable equation until we realize that both are equally paradoxical in their respective classes: on the one hand, a domestic animal that escapes the real control of humans to the point of being perceived as exploiting its owners; on the other hand, atmospheric water that appears to break the laws of gravity as it ascends from the ground instead of falling from the sky as does the fog. Symptomatically, the American poet Carl Sandburg wrote in one of his memorable poems: “The fog comes / on little cat feet”.
Max Ernst’s woman with the head of a horse ultimately pertains to the use of domestic animals to generate terms of abuse towards the various statuses of women in the Western patriarchal societies. The relation of the horse to other domestic animals is homologous to the relation of the chorus girl to the other statuses of women who are categorized according to a scale of availability. In circus performances, horses wear plumes similar to the ones adorning chorus girls in the contextual culture. Ethnographic comparison shows that in Japan, another culture in which the horse was traditionally prominent, circus horses are decorated with the same emblem as the geishas, a red silk belt with a bow (Bouissac 2010: 60-65).
The categorial systems in their totality and their relationships of equivalences or mutual exclusions remain elusive in spite of providing the ground for meaning-making. It is the taken- for-granted quality of the semiotic effects of the dynamics of these systems that drove some anthropologists to elaborate the notion of “cultural unconscious” Rossi 1982) or “tacit knowledge”(Douglas 1975). Only when information that is both unacceptable according to the norms and nevertheless relevant to the deeper levels of repressed categories, does a cognitive flash reach the threshold of awareness that mostly coincides with the span of working memory.

The power of images: fascination and addiction

For the creators as well as for the receivers, the “image” produces a positive emotion that seems to involve deeper cognitive resources than a mere superficial, formal aesthetic satisfaction. The Surrealists were adamant that more was at stake in the emergence of “images” than skillful poetic conventions. Louis Aragon provocatively asserted in his epochal Paris Peasant that Surrealism was a “vice” that consisted of the “unruly and passionate use of the addictive drug ‘image’ “. Andre Breton emphasized in his successive manifestoes the “greater emotive power and poetic reality” of the “image”. Let us take these claims at face value and examine them in view of both the cognitive processes which have been explicated above and some current empirical research on reward and addiction. There is indeed no good reason for excluding the advances made in the cognitive neuro-sciences from the epistemological framework within which the impact of literary and pictorial works on their receivers can be understood. Actually, the cognitive perspective demands such an undertaking.
Research on addiction concerns the general notion of reward defined as an outcome that is experienced as positive and motivating to the point that the organism will tend to repeat the process that caused it or seek again the situation that delivered such a “high”. This can be achieved through ingesting substances which have neuro-chemical effects on the brain, but it can also be triggered by information inputs which cause cognitive events with similar consequences. It is well known that the addictive power of a psychotropic substance like cocaine comes from the fact that its molecular profile mimics the structure of a neuro-transmitter that is responsible for activating the reward centers of the brain. It highjacks, so to speak, the natural process that produces the experience of pleasure and signals satiation related for instance to food and sex.
Much is known now of the ways in which the experience of various emotions correlates with the production of specific neurotransmitters in the mid-brain of humans as well as other complex organisms. Particularly well researched is the dynamic and functions of the dopaminergic systems, a set of neurons that produce the neurochemical which stimulates the brain’s reward centers and cause euphoria. Being “hooked” by an image, a story, or a film is not a metaphor. Some cognitive events, such as those that create unexpected information, trigger the secretion of dopamine thus activating the reward centers and motivating the urge to experience again the same “high”. These processes have been extensively studied – and are still a frontier in the neurosciences – because they are relevant to the understanding and treatment of Parkinson disease for which dopamine deficit caused by degenerative progress in the brain is considered to be a crucial factor. The lack of a sufficient level of this neurotransmitter is responsible for the decline of motivation and mobility, and eventual indifference to the pleasures of life (anhedonia).
Back to the surrealist “image” and it’s addictive power, let us note that, through the activation of the dopaminergic pathways, the brain’s reward centers respond to anticipation of information and are sensitive to unexpected outcomes, let them be positive or negative. As noted by Tobler (2010: 317) “[…] reward activates dopamine neurons only when it is unpredicted”. Tragedies and horror stories, and their visual representations are consistently popular in most cultures. Indeed, there is evidence that a virtual outcome can stimulate the dopaminergic neurons as effectively as actual rewards. Hidden pattern recognition, unexpected discoveries of connections, understanding of an elusive meaning, and unexpected solution to a daunting problem equally cause an kind of elation or euphoria that may appear to be paradoxical. These brain events are all characterized by the release of dopamine in the mid-brain system, undoubtedly among many other processes. How these processes correlate with feelings that are often difficult to articulate linguistically, including meaning-making, deserves more attention. Cognitive semiotics stands in front of an horizon of challenging uncertainties which beg for being addressed in a comprehensive epistemological framework that would bridge C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” (2011 [1959]).
However, relying on information provided by the neurosciences in order to account for phenomenological and cultural insights must be done with caution. It is important to distinguish actual scientific results from generalizations that are popularized by scientific journalism (e.g., Parkin 2018) or from extrapolations that endeavor to offer wide ranging speculations on the nature of the human mind and the evolution of culture (e.g., Previc 2009). Research on dopamine is an on-going process which has successively focused over the years on a variety of human behaviors that can be observed in pathologies and through experimentations with primates and rodents. There is no doubt that this particular neurotransmitter is involved in facilitating movement control (e.g., Iversen et al. 2010, passim). There is robust evidence that it accounts for addiction through the stimulation of the reward centers of the brain (e.g., Ferenczi et al. 2016) and that it correlates in some cases with unexpected information (Tobler 2010). We should be mindful, though, that some of these conclusions are still debated in view of the complex dynamic of the interrelated dopaminergic neurons and their impact on human behavior such as their crucial role in sustaining motivation (e.g., Salamone et al. 2018). It is nevertheless obvious that these necessarily tentative results are relevant to the deep understanding of the reception of these “images’.
Admittedly, this paper has focused upon an extreme case of the image, the surrealist “image”. Instead of being irrelevant to the semiotics of what is commonly categorized as an image according to common sense, this approach aimed at opening a provocative opening that goes beyond the taken-for-granted semiotic doxa. It points to the fact that images are agencies that feed the appetite of the human brain for visual information, often evoked by words, and give rise to dynamic processes of irresistible replication. They are fueled by powerful neurotransmitters. It can explain the voracity of humans for images, their worship of icons, and the speed with which some images become viral like the promotional video staged in the 2017 Ruben Ostlund’s movie The Square.


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