The Unconcept
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The Unconcept

The Freudian Uncanny in Late-Twentieth-Century Theory

Anneleen Masschelein

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eBook - ePub

The Unconcept

The Freudian Uncanny in Late-Twentieth-Century Theory

Anneleen Masschelein

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About This Book

The Unconcept is the first genealogy of the concept of the Freudian uncanny, tracing the development, paradoxes and movements of this negative concept through various fields and disciplines from psychoanalysis, literary theory and philosophy to film studies, genre studies, sociology, religion, architecture theory, and contemporary art. Anneleen Masschelein explores the vagaries of this 'unconcept' in the twentieth century, beginning with Freud's seminal essay 'The Uncanny, ' through a period of conceptual latency, leading to the first real conceptualizations in the 1970s and then on to the present dissemination of the uncanny to exotic fields such as hauntology, the study of ghosts, robotics and artificial intelligence. She unearths new material on the uncanny from the English, French and German traditions, and sheds light on the specific status of the concept in contemporary theory and practice in the humanities. This essential reference book for researchers and students of the uncanny is written in an accessible style. Through the lens of the uncanny, the familiar contours of the intellectual history of the twentieth century appear in a new and exciting light.

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SUNY Press
Imperfection is, paradoxically, a guarantee for survival.
(Todorov 1980, 23)

1.1. A Genealogy of the Uncanny

In 1965, professor Siegbert S. Prawer concluded his inaugural lecture at Westfield College, London entitled “The ‘Uncanny’ in Literature. An Apology for its Investigation,” with the following words.
I hope to have demonstrated this evening that for all the dangers which attend a too exclusive preoccupation with it, for all the crude and melodramatic and morally questionable forms in which it so often confronts us, the uncanny in literature does speak of something true and important, and that its investigation, therefore is worth our while. (Prawer 1965, 25)
This cautious plea, uttered almost half a century ago, reminds us of how fast things change in a relatively brief period of time. Nowadays, the topic of the uncanny no longer begs for an apology. On the contrary, it is an accepted and popular concept in various disciplines of the humanities, ranging from literature and the arts, to philosophy, film studies, theory of architecture and sociology, and recently even crossing over to the “hard” field of robotics and artificial intelligence.
In the most basic definition, proposed by Sigmund Freud in 1919, the uncanny is the feeling of unease that arises when something familiar suddenly becomes strange and unfamiliar.1 However, by the time of the first monograph devoted to the subject, Nicholas Royle's The Uncanny (2003), the concept had expanded far beyond this concise definition. Perpetually postponing closure, Royle's uncanny is a general perspective, a style of thinking and writing, of teaching that is synonymous with “deconstruction.” The uncanny becomes an insidious, all-pervasive “passe-partout” word to address virtually any topic: politics, history, humanity, technology, psychoanalysis, religion, alongside more familiar aesthetic questions, related to genres, specific literary texts and motifs commonly associated with the uncanny. Because the uncanny affects and haunts everything, it is in constant transformation and cannot be pinned down: “[t]he unfamiliar […] is never fixed, but constantly altering. The uncanny is (the) unsettling (of itself)” (Royle 2003, 5). Royle's understanding of the term places him in a tradition of “uncanny thinking,” to paraphrase Samuel Weber, most commonly associated with the works of Jacques Derrida, Sarah Kofman, Hélène Cixous, Jean-Michel Rey, Weber, Neil Hertz, Anthony Vidler, Elizabeth Wright, and Julian Wolfreys, to name but a few authors who extensively wrote on the uncanny.
As we will see, this type of thinking fundamentally questions and destabilizes the status and possibility of concepts and the uncanny has become a concept that signals this questioning. However, the present study also shows that this is but one side of the coin. The consequence of Royle's conception of the uncanny as a strategy and attitude of perpetual defamiliarization, deconstruction or “hauntology” is that the teaching practice he envisions and practices is highly individualistic and creative.2 As a result The Uncanny consists of a horizontal collection of introductions to various subthemes of the uncanny, of different perspectives, of case studies, of essays, and of pieces of creative writings held or glued together by the signifier uncanny.3 The fact that Prawer's apology is not listed in Royle's impressive bibliography cannot be considered as a flaw: Royle's book does not want to offer a systematic history of the uncanny, even if it accumulates a wealth of information, especially about the development of the uncanny in the last decades of the twentieth century. Moreover, it is unlikely that the name Prawer will ring a bell among contemporary scholars working on or interested in the uncanny, even if his extensive work on the uncanny was in many ways ahead of its time. His words remind us that the rise of the concept in different disciplines of the humanities is not a tale of straightforward ascent to conceptual clarity and complexity.
Prawer's apology is part of the genealogy of the uncanny, which is the topic of the present study. In accordance with Michel Foucault's methodological conception of genealogy (1977 and 1979), a conceptual genealogy is not simply a historical account that describes the teleological development from origin to final concept, a history of ideas. Instead, it is a dynamic mapping of the processes of conceptualization—an oscillation between contingent and motivated transitions, based on material traces of conceptual awareness found in various types of discourse. A genealogical perspective also tries to understand why the uncanny's conceptual structure and content are not clear-cut. Thus, although it is by no means blind to the internal ambiguities of the uncanny as a concept, a conceptual genealogy nonetheless aims at a bigger, more distanced picture of the position and function of the concept as it travels between disciplines and decades.
Constructing or mapping a genealogy of the uncanny is not an easy task. One reason for this is that the uncanny is still a young concept compared to other aesthetic concepts, for instance, “the sublime.” Although many scholars—such as Prawer, Harold Bloom, Hans-Thies Lehmann, or David Ellison—have argued that the sublime and the uncanny are closely related, there is a huge difference between the two from a discursive point of view. Several theoretical treatises on the sublime are known from the eighteenth and nineteenth century and even earlier (e.g., Longinus, Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, etc.). By contrast, a theory of the uncanny before the twentieth century can only resort to the occurrence of the word or to descriptions of the phenomenon in literary texts and artistic sources. The term was not considered as an aesthetic category and there was no theoretical or philosophical discourse before the twentieth century. As Martin Jay puts it in “The Uncanny Nineties”: “by common consent, the theoretical explanation for the current fascination with the concept is Freud's 1919 essay, ‘The Uncanny’” (Jay 1998, 157).
Indeed, it was Freud who raised the phenomenon and the word “unheimlich” to the status of a concept in the foundational essay “The Uncanny” (“Das Unheimliche”) (Freud 1919h). At the end of the twentieth century, this rather short treatise had outgrown “its marginal position in the Freudian canon” (Ellison 2001, 52) and is now regarded as a central text for Freudian aesthetics.4 In recent years several scholars have tried to demonstrate that Freud's essay is not the actual origin of the conceptualization by drawing attention to earlier studies by the psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch, the philosopher Friedrich Schelling (both cited by Freud), or the theologian Rudolf Otto, to name a few. Yet, despite this, Freud's essay “The Uncanny” remains the primary focus of attraction in the continuing fascination with the uncanny in culture and theory alike.
In other words, Freud remains “the founder of discourse” in the Foucaldian sense of the term because subsequent theorists have not superseded his centrality in the debate. (See Masschelein 2002, 65–66 and Royle 2003, 14.) At the same time, however, the uncanny in contemporary discourse has exceeded the boundaries of a strict psychoanalytic framework. Even if the uncanny is the Freudian uncanny, it can no longer be considered a psychoanalytic concept and one may even wonder whether this was ever the case. A careful examination of the word uncanny in Freud's oeuvre reveals that while the essay appeared at a turning point in Freud's thinking, it by no means occupied a central position, and it is doubtful that the uncanny actually enjoyed a significant conceptual status in Freud's theory. To go even further, none of the “original” conceptual gestures—Freud's included—were strong enough to immediately set off the conceptualization process. In fact, the concept of the uncanny has only really been picked up in the last three decades of the twentieth century, when Freud's 1919 essay on the topic was widely discovered, primarily in French and in Anglo-Saxon theory and literary criticism. This brings us to the central thesis of this book, namely that the Freudian uncanny is a late-twentieth century theoretical concept.

1.2. Different Stages in the Conceptualization of the Uncanny

After Freud's discovery and creation of the concept in 1919, there is a fairly long period of conceptual latency or preconceptualization until the mid-1960s. The interest in the uncanny in this period is limited to isolated and dispersed interventions, whose influence on the later conceptualization can be gauged only indirectly. This changes in the 1970–1980s, which is the actual conceptualization phase of the uncanny, marked by explicit conceptual awareness as well as by numerous indepth readings of Freud's essay from various perspectives. Several authors (re)discover Freud's text more or less simultaneously, often independently of each other, and as a rule, they reflect on this discovery explicitly, for instance by emphasizing the marginal position of the essay or by questioning the status of the concept.5 In this period, the concept of the uncanny undergoes significant changes. Theoretically, new meanings are introduced that thicken the conceptual tissue. Practically, the uncanny is lastingly associated with a specific kind of corpus, various types of narratives and motifs, and with a method of reading.
Factors contributing to the sudden attention to “The Uncanny” in this era are manifold. Within deconstruction, there is a preference for marginal texts. The rise of “Theory” in the wake of phenomenology, structuralism and poststructuralism, and hermeneutics calls for fresh concepts that function in a way that is different from “ordinary” theoretical concepts.6 Among the first to draw attention to the metaphorical nature of “scientific” concepts, using the uncanny and other psychoanalytic concepts as primary examples, are Rey, Claudine Normand, and Neil Hertz. According to the linguist Normand, psychoanalytic concepts can serve as models for a new science in which theory and practice are intertwined. The tension between subjectivity and objectivity can be settled neither in terms of the classical hierarchical opposition of proper/figurative, nor in terms of the traditional scientific ideal of univocal meaning for the opposition between conscious and unconscious allows for the simultaneous existence of ambivalent meanings. Freud's “theoretical fictions” are metaphors in the strongest sense.7 Not just descriptive, they guide the interpretation and perception of reality, and they produce effects in the psychoanalytic dialogue that exceed any conceptual definition.8
In this period, discursive shifts also lead to semantic exchanges of the Freudian uncanny with related aesthetic and philosophic notions such as the sublime, the fantastic, and alienation. Certain semantic kernels in Freud's elaboration of the uncanny—e.g., uncertainty, ambivalence, doubling, and the opposition between Eros and the death drives—are foregrounded to make it especially suitable for a contemporary theory and epistemology of fiction. Last but certainly not least, the concept of the uncanny is relevant in the emergent post- or neo-romantic cultural climate, both in the arts and in popular culture. After the upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s, a renewed focus fell on the intimate and subjective experience. Followed by the bleaker political climate and the economic crisis of the 1980s, this experience is tinged by a deep-rooted sense of estrangement, unrest and (paranoid) anxiety, and by the acute awareness of the challenges posed by a rapidly evolving, globalized, increasingly virtual late-capitalist society: the nuclear threat and the Cold War, terrorism, nationalism, immigration and xenophobia, individualism, and the omnipresence of image and simulacra, etc. The concept of the uncanny at the same time addresses abstract theoretical concerns, the postromantic and neo-Gothic aesthetics, and the sociopolitical climate of the mediatized postindustrial Western society.
In the 1990s the concept of the uncanny stabilizes and expands. This is the phase of canonization and dissemination. The concept of the uncanny is now generally acknowledged as a concept. Freud's essay moves to a central position in the Freudian canon, and the uncanny appears as a keyword in a number of specialized lexica and vocabularies. There is a consensus about the origin of the term (Freud) and about its primary semantic cores. At the same time, the concept branches out from its source domains—psychoanalysis, “Theory” (or continental, poststructuralist philosophy and literary theory), and genre studies—to a variety of other fields: art history, film studies, architecture theory, postcolonial studies, sociology, anthropology, and the study of religion. Each new use adds to the conceptual substance of the uncanny. Moreover, at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century, the Freudian uncanny leaps from the domain of criticism back into the domain of art, where it influences the visual arts as well as fiction. A crucial question arises here: how can the uncanny as a code, both for the artist and for the audience, still produce the unexpected, wild, undomesticated quality of the uncanny? At the onset of the twenty-first century, two publications with the same title demonstrate the entanglement between theory, criticism, and art: as already mentioned, Royle's The Uncanny (2003) and Mike Kelley's hefty catalogue The Uncanny (2004), published on the occasion of his exhibition in the Tate Gallery Liverpool. Both projects are devoted to the concept of the uncanny and provide a substantial introduction to its discourse. Moreover, they bring together significant widespread tendencies in the discourse on the uncanny including its links with a theoretical, critical, and creative practice—Royle predominantly in the field of literature, theory, and popular culture, Kelley for the visual arts.
The present study will not, however, focus on the heyday of the uncanny, roughly the period between 1980 and 2000, because this has been well documented. Instead, in order to study the conceptualization process as a whole, we will zoom in on the early preconceptual stages that lead up to the actual conceptualization. A close examination of the ways in which the uncanny developed in this early period, concentrating on semantic shifts and conceptual persona that were introduced in the process, including now forgotten and therefore unsuccessful ones, reveals how a breeding ground was established that allowed for the eventual conceptualization of the uncanny as we are familiar with it today. Because it is a young concept, the uncanny is still unstable and even sometimes flimsy as some critics have pointed out.9 Looking at the genealogy of the concept reveals on the one hand the actual richness and critical potential that exceeds its definitions. On the other hand, the concept's slips and oscillations, the in-betweens and dead-ends of its development in a living critical practice also become apparent. It is this trajectory that constitutes the interest of the uncanny as a concept because it reveals how an aesthetic concept always exceeds the boundaries that are established in its elaboration.

1.3. The Uncanny as Unconcept

Conceptualization is never just the work of one or more persons. It entails a kind of creative energy that circulates and momentarily converges and crystallizes over various decades and national traditions. The discourse on the uncanny, within psychoanalysis and in other disciplines, has been uniquely characterized by a meta- or self-reflexive concern with concepts. Elsewhere, I have discussed how different aspects of this concern coincide with different moments of conceptualization: an awareness of the act and necessity of creating concepts, a striving for consensus and conceptual stability, different forms of critique, and finally, the transmission or pedagogy of the concept (Masschelein 2002). Rather than mutually exclusive or successive phases, these aspects must be regarded as recurring moments of conceptualization that continue to interact throughout the process, keeping the concept vital and productive.
Like other Freudian concepts, the uncanny is a lexical concept, i.e., it is borrowed from natural language. Although Freud and numerous scholars after him have stressed that the German word “unheimlich” is untranslatable qua form and content, more or less the same feeling can be expressed by words such as “creepy,” “eerie,” “weird,” or the more common French term “insolite” instead of the wordy official translation inquiétante étrangeté. Affects are, as Freud points out, highly subjective, but they are also objective in the sense that they are recognizable across different cultures and ages, independent of the words used to categorize them. Likewise, the theoretical concept of “the uncanny” refers to a construct or compound of ideas that is not necessarily limited to the word. For instance, in the 1990s, when Marxist theory was in decline—partly due to political events like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989—the concept of the uncanny was used interchangeably with alienation, estrangement, and defamiliarization, concepts that played a crucial role in critical and aesthetic theory in the first half of the twentieth century. In other discourses, the uncanny becomes a synonym for the disruptive powers of fiction, especially in relation to knowledge and by extension, philosophy, or what is now called “Theory.” In other cases, the uncanny signifies the secularized or negative sublime. Still, the specific conceptualization of the uncanny is also very much anchored to the word; as we will see, it is the signifier that holds the diverging semantic trajectories together. Moreover, the specificity of the concept of the uncanny is linked to certain linguistic features. Freud was the first to draw attention to the lexical ambivalence of the word: “unheimlich” is the negation of “heimlich” in the sense of “familiar, homely,” but it also coincides with the second meaning of “heimlich,” “hidden, furtive.” From a psychoanalytic point of view, this ambivalence is not extraordinary. The prefix “un-” is not merely a linguistic negation, it is the “token of repression.” This entails that the uncanny is marked by the unconscious that does not know negation or contradiction; even when something is negated, it still remains present in the unconscious. According to this reasoning, the contradiction resulting from negation is not exclusive or binary: denying something at the same time conjures it up. Hence, it is perfectly possible that something can be familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
Like the concept of the unconscious itself, the uncanny as a negative concept can be regarded as a mise-en-abyme for the logic of Freudianism, which in the last decades of the twentieth century will be presented as a critique of scientific rationalism, the suppositions of the Enlightenment project, and an alternative to the exclusive binary logics of “either/or” that must be transformed in the open-ended deconstructive “neither/nor” or, more affirmatively, in the plurality of “and/and.” This new way of thinking is engrained both in the conceptual content of the uncanny and in the way in which the uncanny functions in discourse: often questioned and criticized, the uncanny has undeniably become a prominent concept in a wide variety of cultural discourses. For this movement to come about, however, shifts in the concept had to occur. For instance, it was necessary to split the conceptual persona of Freud into various roles: the old-fashioned male chauvinist scientist versus the visionary writer—as Bloom put it, the only twentieth-century poet of the sublime—who intuited, partly in spite of himself, a revolutionary new way of thinking that awaits disclosure and that has the possi...

Table of contents

  1. Series Page
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Dedication
  5. Preface
  6. CHAPTER 1 Introduction
  7. CHAPTER 2 The Position of the Uncanny in Freud's Oeuvre
  8. CHAPTER 3 Preliminaries to Concept Formation
  9. CHAPTER 4 Tying the Knot: The Conceptualization of the Uncanny
  10. CHAPTER 5 The Uncanny: A Late Twentieth-Century Concept
  11. CHAPTER 6 Concluding Remarks
  12. Notes
  13. Bibliography