Reflections on the Uncanny
“The uncanny” is a bemusing, unsettling, strangely familiar phenomenon characterised by a feeling of disruptive eeriness and unreality piercing through the fabric of the mundane; it generates a particular type of response in one’s psyche and evokes an ineffable feeling. The uncanny generally teeters on the blurred lines between reality and illusion, self and other, life and death, the natural and the unnatural. It is a subjective experience, to which some people are more susceptible than others; and ultimately, it’s an elusive feeling, which varies from person to person, both in the source that stimulates it and in the particularities of the response it elicits. There is a notable distinction to be made between the cultural view of the uncanny – as represented through pieces of art, film, or other media, and the psychoanalytic one, as introduced by Freud in his influential essay on aesthetics, Das Unheimliche.
In fiction, the uncanny has often been associated with recurrent themes such as the double/doppelgänger figure, reflections, mirroring, strangely familiar apparitions, haunted homes, horror, & the symbolic return of the repressed in the form of ghosts, monsters, or other Gothic figures. In art, objects such as wax masks, automata, and lifelike dolls tend to be described as uncanny. This refers to what is known as the Uncanny Valley, emphasising the unsettling, repulsive effect of things of an ambiguous lifelike nature, objects that appear to be human and alive, but upon closer examination reveal themselves to be flawed human replicas. However, in psychoanalytic terms used to describe real-life phenomena, the uncanny diverges from the cultural perspective.
“[…]According to theological principles, these seemingly natural, living, moving figures are spectral, mere images, uncanny because illusory. Such images or effigies consequently appear to supplant reality or take over from it when no prior referent remains in existence (the Seven Deadly Sins are allegories, Helen is long gone). The uncanny is an effect of reflection without referent, or of creation ex nihilo. In other words, it rises from a false impression that soul, in all its imprecision and mystery, is breathing into something; but these intimations of soul presence begin to stir only to be withheld. Living likenesses strive to guarantee and perpetuate presence, but ultimately underline the vanished and absent subject; creepily, they resemble someone or something who is not there, as in a mirror reflection with no subject.” -Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century
Psychoanalytic discourse emphasises the subjectivity of the phenomenon, shifting the focus from the objects themselves (which are not inherently endowed with uncanniness) to how we, the observers, experience certain objects, settings, situations, and, as I would suggest, also art shows and artworks, in a way that perceptually challenges or disrupts our sense of reality, making us aware of the unfamiliar present in the familiar, and resurrecting phantom elements or modes of perception from our past, particularly from early childhood. Within these intimate moments, our being has an inner dialogue whilst a haunting sense of unreality temporarily permeates the fibres of our existence. In this light, the uncanny encompasses experiences such as a human subject unconsciously or seemingly accidentally returning to the same spot several times (as if compelled or pushed by an external force), the feeling of deja-vu, a peculiar sense of being watched, potentially by something supernatural, finding objects that you thought were lost forever, or stepping into an empty place that is normally filled with people. When it comes to the aesthetic experience, Derrida’s concept of hauntology applied to art (the extended definition of art) refers to how hauntological aesthetics can induce an otherworldly nostalgia by invoking phantoms of the past that are neither present nor absent, as well as a sense of a lost future. These can induce perceptions and aesthetic impressions that resurface from the unconscious mind after having been absent, long forgotten.
The uncanny response is sometimes linked with elements of anxiety, fear, and shock. It can also be experienced as a dream state, a combination of weightlessness, derealisation, lightheadedness, a sense of a distant, diffuse past merging with the present, of time being suspended or dissipated, of another world permeating current reality. I would describe it as a spiritual occurrence which can be resurrected by a scent, a melody, a film, an atmosphere, or an object, making me see the world through another lens, belonging to a much younger version of myself, who used to process the world in a more mystical way. This impression, this world pouring through another world, this repetition of a way of seeing is ambiguous, as it’s filtered through memories, which can morph as time goes by and “re-shape” the past. Such memories can summon echoes of seemingly insignificant, disjointed aspects and sensory moments that our minds may have considered fascinating. They are often distorted, or disguised. Unlocking the meaning behind a childhood memory is like drawing the latent image from the manifest dream. The uncanny response is sensory, emotional, and intellectual at the same time. British psychoanalyst Darian Leader mentioned how a change in the subject’s self-image can appear in such moments, a self-perception as an object of the gaze of a higher external force, a perception of the self as ‘the other’, a fleeting sense of alienation from one’s own constructed identity, desires, sense of the world, or from reality. Darian Leader also emphasised the dimension of conscious or unconscious desire that is relevant in this context, and how the cancellation of the gap of that desire, so the moment of its fulfilment (i.e. the desire to find something or to recreate an old narrative or scenario) stimulates an uncanny response.
Freud’s essay starts with an in-depth semantic analysis of the ambiguous meanings behind ‘heimlich’ and ‘unheimlich’, exemplifying the multiple uses of the German words. Link to Freud’s essay on the uncanny: Das Unheimliche