"Note Upon the 'Mystic Writing Pad', A"

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In this "note" written in the fall of 1924 and published in 1925, Freud justified a hypothesis he had made "long had about the method by which the perceptual apparatus of our mind functions" (p. 231), but that had remained unformulated until then. He hypothesizes that "cathectic innervations are sent out and withdrawn in rapid periodic impulses from within into the completely pervious system Pcpt.-Cs. So long as that system is cathected in this manner, it receives perceptions (which are accompanied by consciousness) and passes the excitation on to the unconscious mnemic systems; but as soon as the cathexis is withdrawn, consciousness is extinguished and the functioning of the system comes to a standstill" (p. 231).

The operations of the memory apparatus are here the center of Freud's proposition. Human memory expresses or reveals the dual "magical" capacity of our mental apparatus for unlimited receptivity and the preservation of durable traces, though deformed or altered. While the writing instruments available at the time (sheets of paper or slate) had shown themselves incapable of representing these functions, the "mystic writing pad," which was marketed in the 1920s, could be used to illustrate the contradictory operation.

The pad was made of a piece of resin or wax, covered with a transparent sheet attached to its top edge, containing two layers that could be separated except along their top and bottom edges. The upper layer was a transparent sheet of celluloid and the bottom layer was made of thin, waxed paper. Whatever was written on the pad could be erased by separating the wax pad and the cover sheet without losing the initial writing. The analogy between this device and the mnemonic apparatus can be then be understood: celluloid/stimulus shield of the mental perceptual apparatus, waxed paper/Pcpt.-Cs., wax pad/unconscious, memory traces that cannot be reactivated except with "appropriate illumination." The mystic writing pad satisfies the impossibility of combining two opposite functions. The sheet of paper will never be a slate, but the mystic writing pad is both, while it is never only one or only the other, but something quite different. By temporally combining what is spatially separate and by separating through spatial distribution what is temporally bound, the mystic writing pad offers the example of a paradoxical technique of writing. The psychic systembetter than the mystic writing pad, which is unable to reproduce from within the writing that has been eraseddoes so, according to Freud, "as if the unconscious, by means of the Pcpt.-Cs. system, extended in the direction of the outside world antennas that, after they have sampled the excitations, are quickly withdrawn." The discontinuous work of the Pcpt. Cs. system, cathexis and de-excitation, would explain the appearance of time.

In his "note" Freud confirms that there is no reason to have confidence in our memory. Not because it is supposedly a limited method for recording experiences (the content of the Pcpt-Cs system) as a momentary and continuous recording involving a continuous spatial dislocation, or, in contrast, as a durable but limited recording, which it is not. Rather, it is because it procures durable traces at the same time as it receives new imprints, and that it is imperfect whenever it is no longer limited.

The Freudian defiance of memory is contrasted with an attitude of denigration that legitimates forgetting and ignorance and would, conversely, require a strengthening of his position. This attitude is not established on the basis of the functional imperfection of memory, assumed to be lasting if it is compared to the durable imprints provided by paper or the renewable imprints afforded by slate. To overcome the challenge, the functionality of the mnemonic apparatus must be accurately represented. The "mystic writing pad" helps illuminate its operation.

The value of this note implicitly touches upon the goal for psychoanalysis that Freud had indicated as being like "draining the Zuider Zee": bringing to light the ego rather than the id (see "The Decomposition of the Psychic Personality" in 1933a [1932]) and working through the unconscious repressed. The mystic writing pad offers the example of a dualistic and opposed mnemotechnical function that is carried out without disturbance, allowing the metapsychological representation of the mnemonic psychic apparatus and illustrating its operation.

Since Freud, the suggested connection between the history of representation and theoretical models, and the future of technique would, according to some authors, relativize the relevance of Freudian topological subsystems. The computer and the virtual image have come to require us to present a different model, for our referent is no longer the "mystic writing pad." This has led Jacques Derrida to claim that the Freudian topographical subsystems of the psychic apparatus were part of a model that is no longer relevant. Freud, however, did not see his topographical representation as a model that was subordinate to technology.

Dominique Auffret

See also: Mnemic trace/memory trace; Protective shield; Time; Unconscious, the.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1925a [1924]). Notiz über den "Wunderblok." Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse, 11, 1-5; A note upon the mystic writing pad. SE, 19: 227-232.

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"Note Upon the 'Mystic Writing Pad', A"