Issue #140 Who Pierced the Eyes of Assum Preto?

Who Pierced the Eyes of Assum Preto?


Mario Cravo Neto, Man with Bird Tears, 1982.

Issue #140
November 2023

My eyes (I said then to defend me)
If this beauty I will see kills me,
Rather, eyes, go blind, than I lose myself.

—Gregório de Matos (1636–96)

When chalk writes on the blackboard, no one can see the years of mineral calcite that accumulated in the depths of the sea to make the chalk. There is nothing of the countless plankton that took decades to become the mineral on the ocean floor. When the chalk gives up all of its sedimented time, all the work of its natural demiurges, miners and buyers sculpt their signs and letters in the chalkboard’s black rectangle, and nothing of its previous life is tangible. Of all the appalling concepts I saw this chalk carve into the vast and impenetrable blackboard, whether the names of sexual diseases from biology lessons or the acrobatic negative algorithms of algebra, none is as enduring in its ontological aching, its metaphysical wound, than that of Portuguese grammar. For middle school students, amid their slumber of tutelage and childhood panopticons, when it is revealed that language can engender action without any subject, without any agency—that things can be done, undone, changed, and put forward without any engine, merely by flexing the verb to the plural—the world of parents suddenly collapses into a sneak preview of the death of God as an exercise in form.

Make no mistake, Portuguese is far from the only language providing this magic trick of making the subject disappear into the indeterminate (in English, a mere pronoun runs the scam); nonetheless, the manner by which it does so matters. Taken from the mystifying canon of traditional Brazilian songs and Luiz Gonzaga’s accordion, the chalk rashly and hastily writes to turn silence into actuality: “They pierced the eyes of Assum Preto.” The hands holding the chalk will rush to silence the buzz of voices: Assum Preto, who? Assum Preto, why? Assum Preto, where? A bittersweet satisfaction sets in for having piqued interest from the dictatorship of kids, only to incite more havoc with the details of the horror: a blackbird of the Brazilian northeast is captured and then blinded to sing better.

Is it only a song, teacher? Is it true?

The teacher will answer all the questions, even if it causes nightmares and complaints to the school principal the next day for her morbid choice of example. But the question remains: Who is the criminal? Who pierced the eyes of the bird Assum Preto? This, in its howling violence, remains as invisible as the depth of the sea and its plankton, which shall become chalk and question, without background or figure, regardless of what is written on the blackboard.

Who pierced the eyes of Assum Preto? How can such violence remain without image and perpetrator? The childhood mystery of this riddle was recently reawakened as an obsession when I saw the image of two climate-change activists from the group Futuro Vegetal pouring Coke over the clear showcase displaying mummies in the Egyptian Museum of Barcelona last year. In that dark liquid consuming the fragile transparency of glass, in the closing aperture between the living and the dead, I could sense the chalk rewriting on the walls of time: Who pierced the eyes of Assum Preto? There were bodies this time, far closer to the opening of darkness and the foundation of blindness than the teacher’s hands and her examples. Far closer to the crime scene than her explanation about the miserable men in Brazil’s distant northeast who blind the bird to make it sing better before they sell it. Did they pierce the eyes of Assum Preto as they now pierced the showcase with soda? Would the pharaoh’s mummy now rise and sing, blind to how he looked to museum visitors, sending the price of museum tickets skyrocketing with his concert? The protest and its performers, the vandalized mummies’ showcase, and all the security in the museum spoke as much about the crime bosses and their intentions as that line on the blackboard or the teacher’s stories. No one there had pierced Assum Preto’s eyes; no one there had extinguished the window between the living and the dead—calcite was already chalk when the Coke bottle opened, and nothing remained of the original plankton in the soda dripping over the pharaoh who would not sing a single word, but merely whisper: too late. All the images consumed have this mystifying delay.

Calcite Quarry, Michigan. Image: NASA, 2005. License: Public Domain.


The bubbles of soda dissolved in thin air like blinking eyes, and I remembered the maxim from old pulp detective novels that it is necessary to reconstruct the crime from its beginning. One must imagine the crime scene untouched to retrace the wrongdoers’ arrival and their footsteps into violence. To find this original scene that can redeem lateness, I climbed to the third floor of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, hoping to find, in a dimly lit room with reconstructions of many extinct animals, the lost vision of Assum Preto. The vision that hides the enigma of being constantly forsaken. But even though there are dioramas with lions, turtles, and marsupials already condemned centuries ago—bones so old that they seem to be made from the stardust of the first Big Bang—the curators and workers of the Galerie de l’Évolution have not yet started exhibiting the extinct sight of abused Third World animals.

The only non-static thing in that room of impossible statues not condemned to the insufficient and superficial mimesis of broken hourglasses is Marie Antoinette’s immense horologe. Measuring in its astonishing dimensions all the time in the world, it simultaneously reminds one that even the accumulation of time has its price in blood and matter. Since the eighteenth century, the chimes of the horologe have marked time—all the trains that left from Paris to Versailles without carrying the woman who gave it name and purpose, all the trains back that she and history could never take. Now with all the extinct animals, it does not even whimper a lament. Its chimes do not advance with the winds of progress that never enter a room like that—a room without windows. Marie Antoniette’s horloge has found, like the replicas of extinct animals glowing in the few lights of their dioramas, a careless standstill, and its measurement of time has become an autonomous aesthetic. Like my childhood question concerning Assum Preto’s blindness, the clock merely borrows time from spaces indeterminately. A loan made knowing that soon there may be no words left to ask for anything, as darkness increasingly becomes the glow of disappearance. Chalk fading over a blackboard.

Photograph of Marie Antoinette’s horloge, 1956. National Museum of Natural History, Paris, France. 

Amid the Galerie de l’Évolution’s doomed times, dim lights, and taxidermied animals, the clock can only repeat its chimes. Language has not yet been invented. It is merely a time of stammering. It is often forgotten that along with the changeable and unstable relationship between signified and signifier, Ferdinand de Saussure established the linear nature of language:

In contrast to visual signifiers (nautical signals, etc.), which can offer simultaneous groupings in several dimensions, auditory signifiers have at their command only the dimension of time. Their elements are presented in succession; they form a chain. This feature becomes readily apparent when they are represented in writing, and the spatial line of graphic marks is substituted for succession in time.1

Without time, without a chain of meaning and succession that links one to the outside of the room, to history and language, what remains are mute animal figures, artificial furs, and bones dancing peacefully in a weak form of eternity in a circular space of oblivion.

For Alexander Kojève, the end of history is oblivion. He affirmed in a footnote to his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel that at the end of history, humans would return to mere animals: “Man remains alive as animal in harmony with Nature or given Being. What disappears is Man properly so-called—that is, Action negating the given, and Error, or in general, the Subject opposed to the Object.”2 When the dialectics of master and slave reaches its conclusion, when history as a process of self-consciousness reaches its end in revolution, all that remains will be the integration of subject and object amidst a return to the animal in harmonic copulation with the womb of nature. But Kojève stresses that this comes at a price:

“The definitive annihilation of Man properly so-called” also means the definitive disappearance of human Discourse (Logos) in the strict sense. Animals of the species Homo sapiens would react by conditioned reflexes to vocal signals or sign “language,” and thus their so-called “discourses” would be like what is supposed to be the “language” of bees. What would disappear, then, is not only Philosophy or the search for discursive Wisdom, but also that Wisdom itself. For in these post-historical animals, there would no longer be any “[discursive] understanding of the World and of self.”3

Looking around the room of artificial animals with its dim lights, its static images jammed together under the breath of annihilation, I wonder if this is the nest that men would build as birds. Like the language of bees that can only articulate the production and consumption of honey in an autophagy of any further flight, this speechless Noah’s ark harmonizes with the mercilessness of fading into the radical simultaneity of timeless images without chain or history. In that room, merely a tender solidarity with the passing that foresees no horizon mingles in the waves of carpe diem in every death icon made to live a kidnapped afterlife. It is important to note that the room dedicated to extinct animals is far more abundant in animals close to extinction than those already vanished. In its circularity of extinction as consumed destiny, it cannot propose any different space or time—no negation or heterotopy—but merely a stuttering, as the clock chimes, between the present as myth and the myth as presence.

Using and subverting Saussure’s semiology structure, Roland Barthes systematized the myth as that which “makes contingency appear eternal.”4 Contrary to forms of language by which signifier and signified have an arbitrary relation, myth signification is “motivated,” according to Barthes: “The signifier is already formed by the signs of the language.”5 If, in Saussure’s model, the signifier and signified “existed before forming this third object, which is the sign,” in the case of myth, the sign is already presumed beforehand, its context and arbitrary relationship trapped in a compulsory understanding.6 The myth works by using ready-made signs as signifiers, emptying them of their meanings and treating them as natural and necessary forms to build larger concepts. As Barthes explains, referring to a Latin grammar book and a magazine with the image of an African-French on the cover:

In a simple system like the language, the signified cannot distort anything at all because the signifier, being empty, arbitrary, offers no resistance to it. But here, everything is different: the signifier has, so to speak, two aspects: one full, which is the meaning (the history of the lion, of the Negro soldier), and one empty, which is the form (for my name is lion; Negro-French-soldier-saluting-the-tricolour). What the concept distorts is, of course, what is full, the meaning: the lion and the Negro are deprived of their history, changed into gestures. What Latin exemplarity distorts is the naming of the lion, in all its contingency, and what French imperiality obscures is also a primary language, a factual discourse that was telling me about the salute of a Negro in uniform. But this distortion is not an obliteration: the lion and the Negro remain here; the concept needs them; they are half-amputated; they are deprived of memory, not of existence: they are at once stubborn, silently rooted there, and garrulous, a speech wholly at the service of the concept. The concept, literally, deforms but does not abolish the meaning; a word can perfectly render this contradiction: it alienates it.7

What is central in Barthes’s analysis is that the myth ossifies and alienates the relationship between signifier and signified. It turns it into a necessary and nonarbitrary connection that needs to repeat itself exhaustively to prove its truth in a tautological form. This circularity and repetition, this alienation from the beginning of language, is the essence of the totalitarian regime of the image, of the gaze as the source of culture and control, of correspondence crystalized and taken to its final consequence in the contemporary technological image that consolidates signs in a compulsory appearance and context—a mumbling carved into every pupil. Even if images today are flexible and manipulated, and even if passive spectacle is over and we have all become producers of images, we are always reacting against already established image-myths, and suspicion, revolts, and fragmentations only actualize their exhausted bones. But rather than attempt a media theory, here I still write to merely answer the question: Who pierced the eyes of Assum Preto? The myth matters because, as Barthes puts it, the myth is a perpetual alibi:

The ubiquity of the signifier in myth exactly reproduces the physique of the alibi (which is, as one realizes, a spatial term): in the alibi too, there is a place which is full and one which is empty, linked by a relation of negative identity (“I am not where you think I am; I am where you think I am not”). But the ordinary alibi (for the police, for instance) has an end; reality stops the turnstile revolving at a certain point. Myth is a value; truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi: it is enough that its signifier has two sides for it always to have an “elsewhere” at its disposal. The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning. And there never is any contradiction, conflict, or split between the meaning and the form: they are never at the same place.8

This ubiquity of form and meaning, where the content and concept drip secretly, eternalizing their contingency as the eyes open and close in the impotence of their circles, brings things to a standstill. It is the end of history, when eternity is delivered not as the end of the march of humanity—its blood, waiting, turmoil, and revolutions, its infinite theological and political eschatology—but in the repetition of the same where humans make their nest. Where one tastes the bittersweet honey of sharing and producing the destiny of extinct artificial animals by reproducing their stasis. Through this same dream of stasis, men in the northeast of Brazil pierce the bird’s eyes so it cannot distinguish day and night, so it can sing all the time, since the buyers consume all the time. And all the time becomes very little time as the environmental activist shatters ties with past and future ages to dwell in the little time remaining. There is so little time left in the heart of every myth and its images in which all simultaneity is that of the same, but one cannot yet conclude the investigation; one cannot confirm that it was, in fact, this little or no time left that pierced the eyes of the bird, as its vision holds many layers of ghosts.

Walter Benjamin, while writing and archiving nineteenth-century Paris, understood how the iron clusters of the arcades, a world mediated by its showcases and mythical images, could at its core only hope to produce phantasmagorias—a word born from the shadows and figures found in the spectacles of Étienne-Gaspard Robert in the eighteenth century. The phantasmagoria is a magic lantern on wheels, the Phantoscope’s layers of moveable images in candlelit rooms, the gathering of ghosts in all the images of the present. The fantastical form of a relation between commodity-fetishist things is manufactured over tissues of history and tissues of people divested of their matter, yet still encoded in the promise of presence as tongue-tied, torn-apart apparitions. When the machine projects and produces specters, it forgets that it is itself produced by the same reproduced world that remains alive in its dream of transcendence. Phantasmagoria is the reminder that the present, in its enforced myth, in all its sold goods, is also produced.

Phantoscope/Vitoscope no. 1 35mm Projector. Photo: The Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

To Benjamin, the most drastic of all these phantasmagorias, these curses and hauntings, is that of history itself as formulated by the nineteenth-century revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui in his 1872 L’éternité par les astres (Eternity Through the Stars). Blanqui, held in a cell at Château du Taureau, dared to propose that the universe is made of astral systems and that nature has finite resources to produce the bodies of these astral systems, which leads to their infinite repetition in composing the universe. In the words of Blanqui, “Every human being is thus eternal at every second of his or her existence.”9 The universe infinitely redoubles patterns in the same astral systems that it keeps fabricating indefinitely, shattering any possibility of progress:

What we call “progress” is confined to each particular world, and vanishes with it. Always and everywhere in the terrestrial arena, the same drama, the same setting, on the same narrow stage—a noisy humanity infatuated with its own grandeur, believing itself to be the universe and living in its prison as though in some immense realm, only to founder at an early date along with its globe, which has borne with deepest disdain the burden of human arrogance. The same monotony, the same immobility, on other heavenly bodies. The universe repeats itself endlessly and paws the ground in place. In infinity, eternity performs—imperturbably—the same routines.10

Eternity as repetition formulated by Blanqui is, as Benjamin acknowledges, an anticipation of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence of the same, of Camus’s happy Sisyphus, and even of Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 novel The Invention of Morel, where the dead survive on a desert island in weeklong loops as sentient three-dimensional photographs. Eternity as repetition is the last consequence of progress, where famine and misery become the consolation of a permanent phantasmagoria of duplication. However, in The Invention of Morel, the whole repetition apparatus on the island is powered by the energy of the sea. When it stops, the photographs fade away, leaving the island deserted. Sisyphus cannot be happy when the stone he moves each day melts under the intensity of the sun. Zarathustra’s flock of sheep are dead, and there may be no snake to bite its own tail. The incapacity to imagine the island-world deserted means repetitively piercing Assum Preto’s eyes so its singing can become everlasting. In the grief of imagining the island without oneself, the mummies are splashed with Coke so one cannot see that they might come back, that life could be different without death in the forgotten promises of yesterday. Even dinosaur fossils are unremittingly marshaled as reminders that the myth of the present is fragile and already cursed by meteors. It is under peaceful skies that the frightened animals-turned-men have pierced the stars enclosing them in the repetition of a life that is nothing but a repetition of death, reinvested with earned interest in the future of sameness.

The famous 1963 documentary Dead Birds opens with the Dugum Dani myth of the origins of death in the dispute between snakes and birds. Humans can either be immortal like snakes changing their skins, or they can die like birds. Puzzlingly, the latter choice triumphed, and death has since been the final destiny of every human. The rivalry between immortal snakes and mortal birds is not uncommon in mythology, and we might understand human essence siding with the fertility of birds’ wings and the possibility of invention and danger evoked by flight. It is not a coincidence that creativity is the primary obsession of this time of repetitive eternity, as it could extend mortal flight, opening the wings a little more in their same serial movement. Nonetheless, it is not always necessary to separate the scales of immortality and the feathers of finite flying. We can imagine Quetzalcóatl, feathered serpent god of the Aztecs and Mayans, which descends into the underworld to craft humans by mixing the bones of the first creatures with its own divine blood. Quetzalcóatl is divine because its flight is towards immortality, the actualization and ecstasy of the entire cosmos through creation. The only repetition is resurrection and not just a resurrection of the same poverty of the world. Through this, Quetzalcóatl’s feathers can become like snakeskin. In multiple layers of coexistence between eternities, such a god is no animal; it doesn’t speak the language of bees; its nest is the openness of the entire universe; it is a bicho.

A page from The Codex Borgia (sixteenth century) depicts Mictlantecuhtli and Quetzalcóatl back to back. License: Public Domain.

Bicho is a delightful word shared throughout Latin America. Impossibly translated as “beast,” bicho defines an animality not enclosed by time, instinct, or language. To be a bicho is to be open to time as prescribed by spatial coexistence with the whole of the cosmos. “Each Bicho is an organic entity that fully reveals itself within its inner time of expression.”11 This inner time of expression, as defined by Lygia Clark’s famous metal plate sculptures, is a “body to body between two living entities. In fact, a dialogue happens in which the Bicho’s answers are properly defined by the beholder’s stimulus.”12 The bicho’s sight is that of permanent actualization and confluence between all times, encoded and in ruins on the edge of spatial possibilities.

It is necessary to imagine Assum Preto with its eyes pierced as a bicho that blindly sings the topos of a different sight, one that could embrace all times from the perspective of these shattered pupils. It is necessary to imagine the museum—showcases splattered with Coke and paintings vandalized—as a bicho that, in the failing of heterotopias (“outside of all places,” as Foucault defined them),13 can propose not only a place for all times, but also something like an open wound. Through this wound a different form of eternity—based neither on process nor its counter-image of repetition, neither on the stations of the cross nor consumption—can bleed as the trance of a reencounter between the outside and inside. As a planetarium without distance between cosmic bodies—planets, stars, galaxies, and beings—such a bicho would not be a Nietzschean night or bourgeois deterritorialization, but the continuous actualization and production of ecstasy beyond myth and alienation. The blind cry of Assum Preto is a form of post-language, a culture after and before any culture, a communion with extinguished, resurrected, and to-be-invented skies. In “To the Planetarium,” the final chapter of Benjamin’s One-Way Street, he writes that

nothing distinguishes the ancient from the modem man so much as the former’s absorption in a cosmic experience scarcely known to later periods. Its waning is marked by the flowering of astronomy at the beginning of the modern age. Kepler, Copernicus, and Tycho Brahe were certainly not driven by scientific impulses alone. All the same, the exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the universe, to which astronomy very quickly led, contained a portent of what was to come. The ancients’ intercourse with the cosmos had been different: the ecstatic trance. For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest to us, and never of one without the other.14

Benjamin’s words outline the necessity for a different optics, an augmented conception of the senses and the body, replacing distance with an ecstatic trance capable of bringing forth all that is both present and lost in an eternal movement of absorption and becoming. Our understanding of optics belongs to René Descartes, who announced it to be “imitating the astronomers.”15 The first and most important image in Descartes’s treatise on optics is of a the blind man walking with a stick. To Descartes, “One might almost say that they see with their hands, or that their stick is the organ of some sixth sense given to them in place of sight.” He uses this comparison to illustrate what light is and how light operates in sight, asking that we “consider the light in bodies we call ‘luminous’ to be nothing other than a certain movement, or very rapid and lively action, which passes to our eyes through the medium of the air and other transparent bodies, just as the movement or resistance of the bodies encountered by a blind man passes to his hand by means of his stick.”16

Descartes’s comparison is valuable for daring one to see with shut eyes. The Enlightenment conception of light carries this remainder or ruin of the blind man walking with and seeing through his hand and stick, a different prosthesis in the relationship between an I and the world. It gives one hope that amid all our poor images, all the death and repetitive blindness of despair in the skies, it may be possible to transform the cry of Assum Preto into a prosthesis of its shattered vision, a trance through which the energy of all space that is always necessarily the accumulation of the fiction of different times may be reflected as surface of coexistence with what is gone. Within this trance, blind birds are plumed serpents. Within this trance, the question and investigation of who pierced the eyes of Assum Preto is the same as confronting and confounding the end and the beginning of a creature, a bicho. In all its sleeplessness and horror, in the depths of its quiet alienation and mythic extinction, such a bicho can still turn the chalk back not only into plankton or calcite but also into the brightness of dead stars and their lost sight in the blackboard’s ever-expanding cosmos.


Ferdinand De Saussure et al., Course in General Linguistics (Open Court, 2008), 70.


Alexandre Kojève and Raymond Queneau, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (Cornell University Press, 1980), 158. All emphasis in original.


Kojève and Queneau, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 160.


Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (Hill and Wang, 2022), 142.


Barthes, Mythologies, 115.


Barthes, Mythologies, 112.


Barthes, Mythologies, 121. All emphasis in original.


Barthes, Mythologies, 122.


Louis Auguste Blanqui quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland (Belknap Press, 2003). 114.


Blanqui quoted in Benjamin, Arcades Project, 114.


Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988, ed. Cornelia H. Butler and Pérez Luis Oramas, (Museum of Modern Art, 2014), 160. Exhibition catalog.


Lygia Clark, 160.


Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 22.


Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings (Penguin, 2009), 103.


René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 152.


Descartes, Philosophical Writings, 153.

Philosophy, Latin America, Colonialism & Imperialism
Return to Issue #140

Thotti is an artist from Rio de Janeiro, currently based in New York and producing independent films.


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