:: Article

The Return of the Uncanny

By Dylan Trigg.

The Unconcept: The Freudian Uncanny in Late-Twentieth-Century Theory
Anneleen Masschelein, SUNY Press, 2011.

Anneleen Masschelein’s The Unconcept is a lively and unique inquiry into the genealogical appearance of the uncanny. From its theoretical birth in Freud to its materialization in the Derridean notion of hauntology, for a comparatively new invention, the history of the uncanny is complex and rich. Masschelein’s book thus treads a varied path, which at all times is anchored by the unwavering significance of Freud’s 1919 text on the uncanny. For this reason, a central thesis of the book is that “the Freudian uncanny is a late-twentieth century theoretical concept”. True to its thematic nature, Masschelein locates a latency period in the uncanny, which reaches a first stage of fruition in the mid-1960s before then becoming explicit in the 1980s and 1990s, the latter being a “phase of canonization and dissemination”.

The term “unconcept” captures the strange logic of the uncanny, as being “marked by the unconscious that does not know negation of contradiction … denying something at the same time conjures it up”. This duplicity inherent in the term mirrors the instability of the uncanny, as it slides between appearance and disappearance, coherence and incoherence. At all times, the uncanny is a concept that resists understanding and conceptualization. Above all, it announces a “nonthinking” whereupon “every successful conceptualization of the uncanny is doubled and also determined by failing conceptualizations”.

Structurally, The Unconcept is divided into six chapters. The first, an introduction to the genealogical method employed; the second, a study of the uncanny as it figures in Freud’s work; the third, a close look at the uncanny’s relation to anxiety and the aesthetics; the forth, a reading of the uncanny via Cixous and Todorov. The final chapters present a more general development of the uncanny as a late twentieth-century concept. The book’s themes are diverse and rich. Beyond the usual suspects, Masschelein takes us on a journey that incorporates psychoanalysis, phenomenology, bringing us to the latest developments in artificial intelligence and architecture.

To begin with Freud. Masschelein’s treatment of the master’s account of the uncanny carefully unpacks the usage of this term, not only in the principle text itself, but in his work as a whole. The ambiguity of the term in Freud means that a topographical analysis of the uncanny, employing the index as a guide, will be insufficient for an understanding of its place. In its place, Masschelein recommends a “discursive analysis” instead. The advantage of this approach is that it situates the uncanny as a thread that runs through Freud’s thinking rather than an abstracted idea employed autonomously. Far from an incidental aspect of his thought—as he himself admits with faux modesty “the present writer must please guilt to exceptional obtuseness [to this kind of feeling]”—the uncanny reveals itself to be a motif that runs through his work.

This is evident in Masschelein’s nuanced readings of his work from the earlier The Psycho-Pathology of Daily Life to the late essay “An Experience on the Acropolis.” In each work, the uncanny emerges as a hinge upon which Freud’s thinking is anchored, thus rupturing the sense that Freud’s work can be understood in a chronological style alone. In the former work, the uncanny emerges as a variant of déjà vu; that is, of having a memory of being in some place that we cannot identify as being tied down a specific locality.

In the essay on the Acropolis, on the other hand, these themes coalesce into a sort of orbiting sense of unreality. In it, Freud gives us an autobiographical account of visiting the ruins of Greece with his younger brother. When Freud arrives at the Acropolis, he makes a striking confession to himself: “So this all really does exist, just as we learned in school!” This unexpected disbelief that there is such a place as the Acropolis at all takes the place of joy. In its place, Freud experiences something like dejection or better rejection. For what Freud contends with in the face of this ruin is an experience that cannot be ingested but is instead “an attempt to reject a piece of reality”.

This disorientation of space and time is uncanny precisely because it leaves the world intact. Doubt intervenes in the reality of the Acropolis and overpowering sense that the same place is bathed in total unfamiliarity overwhelms him. In the tension, unreality protrudes into the world. Ultimately, Freud reduces this experience of ruin alienation to an intra-psychic conflict involving the defence of the ego. In particular, he rationalizes the experience in terms of an oedipal conflict involving the sense of having travelled “further than one’s father, as though wishing to outdo one’s father”. The guilt that accompanies this thought is held responsible for the disturbance of memory.

It is a striking essay for its lived account of the uncanny, a point that disputes Freud’s claim to have seldom been receptive to the mood. By combing the dynamism of psychoanalysis with the descriptive sensibility of phenomenology, the essay is especially effective in articulating the ambivalence where reality intersects with unreality, as Masschelein writes: “In the experience on the Acropolis, Freud attributes the feeling of unreality to ambivalence: his satisfaction of having made it there is mixed with guilt of having surpassed the father”.

Alongside this textual work, Masschelein’s engagement with Freud locates the uncanny as central in the structure of anxiety, a structure she will return to via Lacan later in the book. For Freud, the uncanny marks a “specific type of anxiety” which, paradoxically, is not without some degree of “aesthetic pleasure”. To situate this affective aspect of the uncanny in Freud’s account of anxiety, we need to remind ourselves that his account of anxiety falls into two stages. The earlier stage regarded anxiety as deriving from repressed libidinous drives, whereupon the unconscious act of repression serves to transform pleasure into anxiety. This largely physiological account of anxiety leaves us with little sense of the intrapsychic dynamism at work in the production of the anxious subject.

His latter theory situates anxiety in the ego rather than in the unconscious. Shifting from the view that anxiety is a side-effect of repression, he now regards anxiety as the basis of repression. This reversal means that the ego experiences anxiety as a signal of impending danger, invoking each time the trauma that comes with birth, as Masschelein has it: “[Trauma] forms the basis for the reactivation of anxiety in a later similar situation as well as for the continuous repetition of the trauma in dreams and the concomitant mortal anxiety in traumatic neurosis which serves a double purpose”. Anxiety is the manifestation of an attempt to come to terms with this primary trauma in order to also prepare for the prospect of future trauma.

Seen in this context, anxiety relates to the uncanny insofar a represents a “minor danger,” or a gesturing toward this anxious affectivity without being exposed to the full weight of anxiety. For Masschelein, this gesture “could be seen as a defence mechanism against the production of anxiety” by replacing actual anxiety with its aestheticized counterpart. The aesthetic element here suggests a distance afforded by the subject from his or her genuine anxiety, “this results,” so she suggests, “in an overall pleasurable mixture of fear and delight”.

If Freud’s account of the uncanny admits to a certain anxious delight, then in Lacan’s treatment of anxiety and the uncanny, this aesthetic element is nowhere to be seen. Lacan’s discussion of the uncanny features heavily in his tenth seminar on anxiety, where the uncanny becomes the motif marking the onset of anxiety. Against the Freudian and Heideggerian reading of anxiety, Lacan argues that anxiety is “not without an object”. This object is not one that the subject is intentionality directed to (in the manner of phenomenology) but instead is an object which constitutes the subject in the first place. He names this the “object a.” The object can be understood as that which fails to be incorporated into our imaginary identification with the specular self. For Lacan, this is designated by the phallus, or its absence. It lies outside the imaginary, outside representation, and thus marks a point of absence for the subject. Thus, in contrast to Freud’s understanding of anxiety as being grounded in castration anxiety—of being separated from the primal place—Lacan already incorporates that absence into the subject. The anxiety is not of a lack of centre, but a “lack of lack” in his cumbersome formulation.

This unknowable, untouchable substrate of human existence is where anxiety and the uncanny coincide, as Masschelein writes: “The specular image that we perceive in the place of the Other, which renders our perception of ourselves as subject foreign or uncanny to us, is precisely the phallus that appears where it should be lacking, undoing the castration that is necessary to constitute us as divided subjects”. Lacan thus presents us as constitutionally strangers to ourselves—that is, as ill-at-home in the homeworld of our bodies. In agreement with Freud, Lacan regards anxiety as a signal. Only for Lacan, it is a signal bearing the impending dissolution of our subjectivity. This confrontation with the unhomely absence lurking at the core of the subject is affectively experienced as anxiety. Masschelein’s treatment of Lacan is exemplary. This is a notoriously difficult text, even by Lacanian standards, and Masschelein is to be commended on bringing much needed clarity to this difficult task.

Following a treatment of the uncanny as it figures in Todorov and Cixous, Masschelein ends by looking at the uncanny as a specifically late twentieth-century concept. Plotting the historical development of the uncanny in the mid 1990s, Masschelein’s coverage serves to remind us of the canonization of the uncanny in the humanities. But this is more than a literature review of the research on the uncanny. Masschelein’s genealogy is as much a historical retracing of the emergence of the uncanny as it is a critical inquiry of the strange placement of the uncanny.

Part of the uncanny’s appeal is its ability to morph into new forms, infecting the host discipline with a strange horizon of uncertainties. This pollination of the uncanny is discussed in Masschelein’s book under the term “disseminations”. She locates two principles modes of dissemination. First, a post-romantic or aesthetic tradition, which accents the supernatural or occult dimensions of the occult. Second, the existential or Marxist route lays emphasis on the socio-political aspects of the term.

The first of these traditions tends to take the uncanny as an instance of the sublime, an aesthetic gesture where the repressed content of the uncanny is maintained at a distance to the viewer. The second underplays aesthetics in favour of ethics. Thus, the uncanny becomes a site of critical history, a divergent point in which intersubjectivity and community is pushed to the foreground, as Masschelein has it: “The experience of uncanniness teaches us that the stranger is not someone who threatens us from outside; rather the stranger is inside us and our identity is always already contaminated from the beginning”. Inherited in large from Kristeva, this dimension to the uncanny pushes the topic in a direction, simultaneously recalling Nietzsche’s writings on the need for a critical history while also looking ahead to trauma studies, especially in the wake of 9/11.

Yet of all the modes of appropriation, it is surely Derrida’s concept of “hauntology” that has been the most significant in bearing the mark of the uncanny for ongoing research in the field. Coined in his Spectres of Marx book, Derrida’s pun on ontology, begins its life in the refusal of Marx to remain buried, as Masschelein writes: “This new philosophy wants to examine the intermediate or suspended state of the ghostly and of fiction…as exemplary for the omnipresence of the immaterial, the virtual, and the unspeakable in our society”. Be it in musicology, cultural studies, or in philosophy, Derrida’s concept has become a flashpoint for thinking on the topic of the uncanny. In part, this may be because it is a porous concept and has lent itself especially well to our culture, which is defined in large by an glorified relationship with the past, an uneasy relation with the present, and a failure to envision a future different from the present. Hauntology fits neatly into this confused temporality, blending anxiety and nostalgia in one term.

Masschelein’s book is a welcome and much needed treatment of an elusive concept. In her sensitivity to the cryptic nature of the uncanny, The Unconcept is a brave book for its refusal to tie the uncanny down to a defined or definable concept. Instead, Masschelein gives voice to the polymorphous aspect of the term, articulating the rhythm of the concept as doubling and folding back on itself. In this reading of the concept, therefore, the uncanny floats freely through a series of lucid expositions without ever becoming overly at home in these varying contexts. The result is a revitalised account of the uncanny which brings a vertiginous light to a dizzying concept.

Dylan Trigg is a postdoctoral researcher at UCD, Dublin. He is also a visiting researcher at Les Archives Husserl, École Normale Supérieure, Paris working on the intersection of phenomenology and psychoanalysis. He earned his PhD at the University of Sussex. Trigg is the author of three books: Body Parts (Paris: 3AM Press, 2012); The Memory of Place: a Phenomenology of the Uncanny (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012); and The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia and the Absence of Reason (New York: Peter Lang, 2006). He is working on two more books, one on agoraphobia and another on the origins of life. The images of Paris in this piece were captured by Dylan; for more of his photos, see dylantrigg.tumblr.com

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 13th, 2012.