[My discussion below is partially excerpted from Chapter 5 of my book Urban Gothic of the Second World War]
Many people have observed that Freud’s essay on the uncanny is itself a kind of uncanny short story, as well as itself a form of literary criticism on E. T. A. Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman” (1817). I want to talk about how the uncanny is not only introduced to us in narrative, but is arguably fundamentally a concept about narrative. Then I will quickly look beyond Freud a little to see how, which that narrative dimension in mind, some critics have explored social dimensions to the uncanny rather than approaching it wholly as intrapsychic and personal.
Writing before Freud, Ernst Jentsch argued that the defining feature of the unheimlich is uncertainty between life or lifelessness, the “tendency … to infer … that things in the external world are also animate” (13). He illustrates his point by imagining a child’s everyday experience of a domestic interior as diabolically animated, ‘populat[ed] … with demons”, in which the child might “speak in all seriousness to a chair, to their spoon, to an old rag” (13). In his famous 1919 reply to Jentsch, Freud echoes Jentsch’s interest in the ambiguous vitality of “uncanny” objects but rejects Jentsch’s analysis overall on the grounds that not all intellectual uncertainty is accompanied by the sense of dread that characterizes the uncanny. Freud is interested in that dread, and famously argued that it emerges from a familiar site made strange, ‘heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich” (14: 347). Anthony Vidler observes that for Freud, “‘unhomeliness’ was more than a simple sense of not belonging; it was the fundamental propensity of the familiar to turn on its owners, suddenly to become defamiliarized, derealized, as if in a dream” (7). Freud’s specific psychoanalytic rationales for the uncanny (including castration anxiety and the ‘surmounted beliefs’ of childhood) are perhaps less persuasive today. Yet I suggest that what is interesting for us still, I think, is the way that his model is really about foregrounding the dread attendant on imagining one’s consciousness being usurped, hijacked, by more powerful forces.
Freud illustrates this effect for us when he recalls an experience he had while walking through an Italian town.
I found myself in a quarter of whose character I could not long remain in doubt. Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses, and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. …After having wandered about for a time without enquiring my way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, only to arrive by another detour at the same place yet a third time. Now, however, a feeling overcame me which I can only describe as uncanny… helplessness and …. uncanniness. (14: 359).
In this example from Freud, we learn that the uncanny involves feeling helpless in the grip of a narrative we cannot recognize or shape. We sense a malevolent design behind events/an encounter/an object, but we are shut off from knowing that meaning. The uncanny can thus be defined as a crisis of narrative, in that it is fundamentally about feeling in the grip of a narrative governed by an alien intelligence. That intelligence may be internal or external, but either way, it is outside the subject’s conscious control – even if, as Freud’s intrapsychic model suggests, that alien intelligence is one’s own unconscious desire. In other words, when we are in an uncanny state , we don’t know the story we are in, but we sense there is a secret script, one both beyond our control and perhaps beyond our comprehension.
So that is my first point, that the uncanny can be approached as about a crisis of narrative. My second point concerns the uncanny as a socially-inflected phenomenon. Since Freud himself tends to explain the uncanny as emerging from the repressed material of the individual subject, critics tend to read the uncanny the same way, essentially performing the same analysis as Freud performs on Hoffman’s story. Yet even Freud never saw repression as purely a matter of an individual’s interior world. He argues, after all, that the self-censoring superego is in part an internalization of caregiver interdictions, so repression is partly a function of that which a particular community deems unthinkable. In addition, Freud formulated his concept of the uncanny in the aftermath of World War I, when shellshock, war neuroses, and collective bereavement had taken him into dark meditations on humankind’s tendency towards despair and complex psychological self-injury. Vidler suggests that Freud’s theorization of the “unhomely” is “particularly appropriate to a moment when, as Freud notes in 1915, the entire ‘homeland’ of Europe, cradle and apparently secure house of western civilization, was in the process of barbaric regression” (7). The uncanny, in other words, may be useful in describing an affect somehow emerging from and operating across a collective, rather than merely a function of an individual psyche. So the phenomenon does invite connections with emerging work on affective economies.
For Jacques Lacan the uncanny “marks the decomposition of the fantasy underpinning imaginary subjective integrity”, in Fred Botting’s phrase. Homi Bhabha has found Lacan’s understanding of the uncanny useful in talking about fantasies of nationhood, for a nation, too, can have an imaginary, in the sense of a deceptive image of itself as single, whole and powerful – and those imaginaries, too, can decompose. Bhabha suggests that uncanny phenomena mark moments when private world of experience is torn by the inequities of its time: “the intimate recesses of the domestic space become sites for history’s most intricate invasions”. …. The unhomely moment relates the traumatic ambivalences of a personal, psychic history to the wider disjunctions of political existence”. As such, the uncanny can marks moments where inequities of race, gender, sexuality, class and more can break into serene domestic tableaux. I discuss this at length in Urban Gothic, with regard to the domestic interiors of the British home front.
With such broadening of our understanding of the uncanny in mind, I’d like to close by mentioning some recent moves away from the psychoanalytic framework for the uncanny. There are other ways of thinking about the uneasy that build on that story from early twentieth century Vienna, but enrich it with explanatory paradigms elsewhere. Mark Fisher, for example, contrasts the strange domesticity of the heimlich, with the weird and the eerie. He suggests that criticism drawing on the unheimlich traditionally tends to deploy:
a certain kind of critique, which operates by always processing the outside through the gaps and impasses of the inside. The weird and the eerie make the opposite move: they allow us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside. As we shall see, the weird is that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely” (even as its negation). The form that is perhaps most appropriate to the weird is montage – the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together. ……[L]ike the weird, the eerie is also fundamentally to do with the outside …[W]e find the eerie more readily in landscapes partially emptied of the human. What happened to produce these ruins, this disappearance? What kind of entity was involved? … Is there an agent at all? (10-11)
Like the uncanny, both of these have a core narrative component, a sense of an agency with a script, one we may not know or be able to know, but which may not have our welfare at heart – or even notice our welfare. They overlap with the uncanny, but are far less personal, and as such they are useful additions to our language for the strange. Biomedical advances, ecological crisis, and numerous other arenas increasingly demand such language – a language sensitive to secret script and unknowable, non-human agency.
Bhabha, Homi. “The World and the Home.” Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. Eds. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti and Ella Shohat. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 445-55.
Botting, Fred. “The Gothic Production of the Unconscious.” Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography. Ed. David Punter and Glennis Byron. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999. 11-36.
Fisher, Mark, The Weird and the Eerie (London: repeater, 2016)
Freud, Sigmund. The Penguin Freud Library. Trans. James Strachey. Eds. James Strachey, Angela Richards and Albert Dickson. 15 vols. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975-1986.
Jentsch, Ernst. “On the Psychology of the Uncanny.” 1906. Trans. Roy Sellars. Angelaki 2.1 (1996): 7-17.
Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966.
Vidler, Anthony. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT, 1992
Wasson, Sara, ‘Olalla’s Legacy: Twentieth Century Vampire Fiction and Genetic Previvorship’, The Journal of Stevenson Studies 7 (2010), 55-81.
Wasson, Sara, Urban Gothic of the Second World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010)