On ‘The Uncanny’

In his 1919 essay titled ‘The Uncanny’, Freud describes the notion as a ‘hidden yet a familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it’. It is a confrontation of the subject and the unconscious, and the repressed impulses which reflect as an irreducible anxiety back at the real world. Freud was one of the first few to discuss the concept of the uncanny – here, he starts by analyzing the word itself and the various meanings it might carry. Both the German words, unheimlich and heimlich could be considered to be the two faces of the same coin wherein their meanings almost blur over each other. The essay further delves into the myths and fables with themes that are known to cause this feeling of uncanniness. But as it could be easy to make vast generalizations from a handful of examples, Freud also draws very clear lines through careful explanations for different situations where the same situation might not be uncanny. He also states that the uncanniness is what pushes the set reality of that experience or story towards what it shouldn’t be – the formative elements which pull the observer in through the details which reinforce a reality can only then be broken down by the dissonance that results in uncanniness. In ‘Playing with Dead Things’, Mike Kelley adds more color to Freud’s ideas by putting it in the context of the realist figurative sculpture and how it has been perceived and what it has stood for. He refines the concept by studying the representation of the human form in sculpture, and our interaction with the inanimate through lenses that cover religion, death, aesthetics, fetishes and culture. Each one of the causes given by Freud for this uncanniness, is demonstrated by Kelley through examples from human history spanning cultures. While Freud looks at this uncanniness caused by us being reminded of our mortality & a challenge to our expectations, it could be said that Kelley directs the dialogue ahead, beyond mortality and to the building of such expectations.

Kelley’s assertion encapsulates both the characterizations of the uncanny presented by Freud, where they arise either from what our ancestors have experienced or what one has experienced in the childhood. The ‘uncanny’ is supposed to remind us of our own Id, our forbidden and thus repressed impulses which when placed in uncertain situations remind us of infantile beliefs in the omnipotence of thought. The super-ego, ridden with Oedipal guilt, feels threatened by this as it fears symbolic castration via punishment. Also, the example given by Kelley about the Church trying to discourage the use of sculpture was in a way this very uncanny feeling it had towards the pagan relics of one’s mortality. Though, the Church in itself would also thrive on the fear of one’s own mortality, it could not comprehend in the same way how pre-Abrahamic cultures had used sculpture. Thus, a super ego at a cultural level was now trying to check whatever remained from the early stages of this ego’s development. Though, it eventually had to come to terms with the use of sculpture for religious purposes, one could safely say that its attention might have shifted on another such pagan issue. I think Kelley’s examples include much more than what Freud was trying to demonstrate through the folklore. The mention of ‘unfamiliar familiarity’ and ‘familiar unfamiliarity’ also ignites countless examples in one’s mind that must be mentioned in brief. This goes beyond the arts and into the sciences where discoveries of ancient artefacts are still met with speculation and fears regarding their origin and working – an uncanny feeling wraps such findings. Another example would be of the uncanniness that is felt usually by newer cultures towards the traditions and customs of the older cultures – there might have been remnants of it within these newer societies that give rise to fear. One could even attribute this to be one of the reasons for the Oedipal Complex, where the child experiences what his father did, through him, and ends up in conflict with him.

The infantile narcissism, which still holds ground in the mind of the adult, projects itself onto other objects as it tries to form doubles that give it the assurance of immortality. It mutates, with age, into a recessed space where its own assurance turns into constant reminders of its mortality. This struggle of the self, to stay alive, question reality while also constantly being aware of its own fragility, keeps it torn between inevitable death and the constant desire to create its doubles. These doubles can range subjectively for people, some may wish to live through their artistic work while others would strive to get statues of themselves made. Others might wish to be immortalized (or at least preserved) through their collections, which for them, capture the time and the intangible aspect of their lives. Society in itself pushes this conflict further, especially when it pertains to the aspect of death and birth. We still follow certain rites, across cultures, that hold some primitive ground in them. Thus, there arises usually a feeling of uncanniness related to these topics. The desire to get an expensive coffin or a well crafted tombstone is just another manifestation of what the Pharaohs thought when they witnessed the pyramids being erected. Only the expectation of an afterlife has turned into a wait for resurrection, but there is always this will to still live, somewhere after and in between. And while we are struggling in between this conflict, I feel, we end up creating something.