Flesh World: On the New Uncanny

By Anneleen MasscheleinAugust 17, 2012

    Flesh World: On the New Uncanny

    The Memory of Place by Dylan Trigg. Ohio University Press. 386 pages.

    IN 1919, SIGMUND FREUD devoted a brief essay to “The Uncanny” (das Unheimliche). Pages of dictionary definitions were followed by a long literary analysis of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fantastic 1816 story “The Sandman,” in which a young medical student is threatened by various doubles of mad scientists and perfidious salesmen of glasses and optical instruments, falls in love with what turns out to be a mechanical doll, goes mad and finally kills himself. Examples of the uncanny, taken from Freud’s own experience as well from literature and superstition, included getting lost in the woods and always ending up in the same place, déjà vu, missing body parts, dead objects that turn out to be alive, the fear of being buried alive, meeting one’s double, the evil eye, and so on. From all this, Freud concluded that the uncanny is a mild shade of anxiety or unease that arises when the familiar suddenly appears strange. This occurs when something in the familiar experience or object triggers the return of repressed complexes (for example, castration anxiety), or when certain primitive ideas (for example, the belief that inanimate objects are animated) seem to be reconfirmed. “Among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs,” Freud wrote:

    This class of frightening things would then constitute the uncanny; […] if this is indeed the secret nature of the uncanny, we can understand why linguistic usage has extended das Heimliche [“homely”] into its opposite, das Unheimliche; for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.

    Before Freud’s essay, there had been very little in the way of philosophical contemplation of the uncanny apart from the few predecessors he names in his essay, like psychologist Ernst Jentsch and philosopher Friedrich Schelling, and for a long time afterwards this remained the case. “The Uncanny” occupied a relatively minor place in Freud’s oeuvre, in fact, until the 1970s, when numerous scholars, mainly in France, England and the US, began rereading, criticizing, and elaborating on its findings. At first, the trend was most visible in the fields of psychoanalysis, literary studies (in the States, deconstructionist critics like J. Hillis Miller and Jonathan Culler even adopted the term “Uncanny critics”), and philosophy, but it soon branched out to other domains like architecture theory, art history, film studies, and sociology, to name but a few. By the 1990s, neither Freud’s essay nor the concept of the uncanny were considered marginal or minor. Indeed, the uncanny had become so fashionable that the historian Martin Jay, with some apprehension, labeled the decade “The Uncanny Nineties.”

    Not only did the concept of the uncanny rapidly spread throughout the humanities in the 1990s, but it also took on a new resonance in literature and art. The melancholic, ruinous universe of W.G. Sebald, the disturbing surrealism of David Lynch, Mark Z. Danielewski’s experimental grad-school cult classic House of Leaves, and the abject dolls and the perverse infantile world of Mike Kelley: each of these artists explicitly refer to the uncanny, not just as an experience or mood, but as a concept that guides their aesthetic practice. Sebald’s collection of essays on Austrian literature, for instance, is entitled Unheimliche Heimat (Uncanny Home), and Danielewski not only consistently highlights the word home in his novel but also extensively glosses Heidegger’s use of the uncanny. The most consistent and profound theoretical-artistic exploration of the uncanny is the late Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelley’s ambitious exhibition project The Uncanny, which was staged first in The Netherlands (Sonsbeek 1993). A decade later, in 2004, it was expanded for the Tate Liverpool, from where it traveled to Austria and other places. Kelley took on the roles of artist, curator and critic: in the huge warehouse setting of the Tate Liverpool, he brought together a wide range of objects from contemporary and historical art, film props, fetishes and idols, mannequins, medical objects and his collections of junk objects. In two essays that he contributed to the show’s hefty catalogue, Kelley relates the uncanny in art to two great sources that allow him to connect ancient impulses and taboos to contemporary trends in the art world. “What had, on first inspection, appeared to be a sensible organization of objects organized thematically,” Kelley wrote, “could now be viewed simply as an another manifestation of the impulse to collect itself — an example of Freud’s principle of the ‘repetition compulsion’ in the unconscious mind.” What’s more, the trend of “mannequin art” that was en vogue at the end of the 1990s is put in the perspective of the deep-rooted taboo on “polychrome figurative sculpture” that pervades the history of Western art.

    By focusing on mannequins and the historical taboos against the perfect reproduction of the human figure, Kelley comes very close to another twist in the tale of the postmodern conceptualization of the uncanny: namely, the experimental research that is currently being done in the fields of robotics and cognitive science. "The uncanny valley" refers to a hypothesis, first put forward by Japanese robot designer Masahiro Mori in 1970 but widely popularized in the nineties. Mori pointed out that robots tend to be more easily accepted by humans when they appear human-like. However, when the resemblance becomes too great, the effect reverses and the humanoid objects are perceived as eerie, uncanny. As Mori puts it, the robot will fall into the uncanny valley, which is in fact a dip in the graph that charts the relation between familiarity and likeability. The “uncanny valley” hypothesis has since become something like a standard for design, not only within the field of robotics but also in the photorealistic computer animation so common in the contemporary film industry.

    One could conclude from all of this — as I did in my book The Unconcept — that, despite its roots in the nineteenth century Gothic, the uncanny is a quintessential late-twentieth century concept. In the twenty-first century, however, the events of 9/11 and other catastrophes have reinforced the call for a stronger, more fully developed notion of the uncanny as it relates to trauma. After all, the uncanny in Freud’s conception is a “subdued” form of anxiety that is pleasurable, even thrilling, when encountered in art and literature. There was nothing pleasurable about the anxiety induced by the threat of global terror. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that recent writing on the uncanny has moved away from dealing with representations of the uncanny and begun to deal with the experience of an uncanny world. Therefore, phenomenologists, such as Dylan Trigg, are turning their attention to the uncanny.


    Phenomenology — an approach to philosophy developed in the early 20th century by Edmund Husserl, in a context not far removed from the one in which Freud himself wrote — sets out to examine the uncanny as a lived experience that fundamentally shapes and affects human identity and our relation to the world around us. Unlike Freud, who claimed to be not particularly sensitive to the uncanny, Trigg, in his new book The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, cultivates his receptivity to it, as well as to related sensations, like nostalgia and melancholia. (He has already had some practice; his previous book, 2006’s The Aesthetics of Decay, was about the aesthetics of ruins.)

    The Memory of Place has a double focus. On the one hand, Trigg examines how “the memory of place” — the surge of spatial memories we experience upon encountering various places: an empty house, a supermarket, an airport, a highway service station — fundamentally affects our sense of our own identity. On the other, he looks at the “place of memory”: at how collective memories that are preserved in specific places, such as monuments, cities, and sites of trauma like the Nazi camps or the crater of the Twin Towers at Ground Zero, profoundly affect us in their materiality. The keyword so far is “affect”: For Trigg, space and time are affective categories and not transcendental categories of knowledge. They take their meaning from the lived experience of the embodied subject.

    To distinguish the lived experience of space from objective space, Trigg consistently uses the term "place." Through the operations of memory and imagination, space and time not only fundamentally shape our identity as a cognitive construct, but they also leave their traces in the body itself. The memory of the body is different from cognitive memory and supplements it in orienting us in the world and forming our sense of identity and unity. However, this is not the whole story. When memory of place reveals place as uncanny, we get in touch with a fundamental tendency towards disunity, fragmentation, or as Trigg puts it, with something inhuman engrained in the core of our being and a fundamental unhomeliness that characterizes our being-in-the-world.

    As the above description may indicate, The Memory of Place will not be an easy read for anyone unfamiliar with the terms of phenomenology. But Trigg displays an impressive knowledge of the recent literature on place, memory and the uncanny, and the book is worth the effort for those with an interest in where the concept is currently headed. Descriptions of lived experiences, examples from film and literature (uncanny stuff like Paul Auster, J.G. Ballard, David Cronenberg, Charlotte Delbo, H.P. Lovecraft and Georges Rodenbach) and the photographs by the author and his friends anchor the reading process in the concreteness of everyday life experience. The carefully composed structure of the book builds up an argument — this is a real book, not a collection of articles — and envelops the reader in an experience that is fluid, dynamic and ambivalent.

    Trigg’s main contribution to the debate on the uncanny, to my mind, is his focus on “spatial memory.” When we remember a place, Trigg insists, there is not an objective preservation of our sense impression of it stored in our mind. Rather, memory works together with the imagination and transforms the place. The clash between an actual place and the memory of that place results in a layering of different images of space that never entirely overlap. The result, Trigg argues, is a sense of fundamental strangeness, or an experience of the uncanny, which occurs constantly in our daily lives. This occurs not only when we enter a space we have actually been before, such as an empty house that we used to inhabit, but also when we are suddenly confronted with a monument in the midst of a landscape. Monuments affect us not so much through what they represent: indeed, the commemorated event or person is usually an experience that we have not personally lived and have no connection with. However, the particular place and materiality of a monument can bring us in touch with a collective past that it embodies not as a familiar element but as something fundamentally foreign. When memory inscribes this past in our own body, we become part of a larger collective experience, not in the sense of a heritage or belonging, but in a truly ethical encounter with the past without appropriating it.

    In what is perhaps the most compelling chapter of the book, "Memories of the Flesh," Trigg meticulously analyzes how transitional places or "non-places" (a term he borrows from anthropologist Marc Augé) like airports, supermarkets, chain stores, or, his main example, a service station, are not merely alienating because they are the anonymous, interchangeable sites of hyper-capitalism or super-modernity. The experience actually goes much deeper: the transitional place enters our body and the spatial memory that is formed fundamentally alters our identity. For instance, when we leave our car to enter the service station, we are subjected to a strong contrast between the sense of safety and unity that we enveloped us in the car and the destabilizing open space of the service station. The foreign environment with its glaring light and anonymous design seems to violently pierce through our body and makes us feel vulnerable. We become acutely self-conscious, almost disembodied, as if we are observing ourselves walking, while at the same time relying on our body to automatically perform its tasks. The sense of disembodiment fundamentally affects us and it takes a while before we regain composure. When we re-enter the car after our passage in the service station, we are no longer the same person that we were before. Our identity has somehow been changed. The uncanniness of the service station has nestled itself inside our bodily memory and forms an “un-place”:

    In particular, the involuntary absorption of liminal and transitional places saturates the self with the otherness of place. As a result, the memory of having been in a leveled-out zone disrupts the radical duality between place and non-place through bringing both realms into a third space; namely the strange space of the body, the receiver of both foreign and native places simultaneously, and thus, fundamentally, a mutation, which we can now term “un-place”.

    What we discover in this experience is our “alien flesh,” Trigg’s adaptation of the great midcentury phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s famous notion of "the flesh." With this term Merleau-Ponty referred not just to the embodied subject, he also emphasized, much more strongly, how our bodies are actually touched by the world. In a complex movement of overlapping and folding that exceeds all binary oppositions (body and mind, self and other, subject and object world), we simultaneously touch and shape the world and vice versa. This fundamental bodily interaction of subject and world supplements perception and negotiates the distance and closeness that we feel in relation to the world.

    Trigg’s notion of “alien flesh,” however, brings out a much more disturbing experience of the world than Merleau-Ponty’s; for him, daily life, particularly in our postmodern world, forces us into a continual confrontation with anonymity, fragmentation, and alienness. When we are colonized by an “un-place” that enters our body as a foreign element, we no longer experience our subjectivity as our own: “if un-place is the overlapping of places within the same body, then alien flesh is the recognition of the body as the host for that overlapping. Together the result is an uncanny effect.” Thus we become aware of the co-existence of a “prepersonal,” anonymous, enigmatic body and a personal body that normally overlap. Through the memory of place inscribed as un-place, these two bodies are temporally disconnected, opening up what Trigg calls "a primal experience of uncanniness."

    Finally, Trigg usefully distinguishes different stages of spatial memory — everyday memory, transitional memory, and traumatic memory — that correspond to different degrees or densities of what I would call “immaterial materiality”: alien flesh, dark entity and the black hole. The third may be the most important for conceiving the relevance of the concept of the uncanny to our post-traumatic cultural present. Trigg conceives trauma as a black hole within the subject. As a mass of negative matter, it is a strange agency inside the body and in the life-world. In nightmares, this traumatic place returns as an experience of complete disintegration and death. Within the subject that has survived the trauma, there is another subject that is “dead” and yet remains a part of the surviving subject. Spatial memory thus opens up a “middle ground between presence and absence” that is alive with a strange force that can be intuited by the body. Through spatial memory, both in the subject and the memories embodied in spaces, the subject is in varying degrees confronted with an anonymous, inhuman quality in the life-world. Spatial memories and experiences like the phantom limb (an example from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception that is very important for Trigg) incite in us an uncanny mood that is the manifestation of the fundamental uncanniness of our “being-in-the-world,” as Heidegger puts it. This uncanny mood is disturbing and threatening, but it is also a state of heightened sensitivity to the vivid presence of the non-human in the subject and in the world as well as a source of creativity.

    The Memory of Place is a balanced and mostly successful attempt to bring together the Freudian uncanny and the phenomenological tradition. There have been a few earlier attempts to think Freud’s notion of the uncanny together with Martin Heidegger’s, motivated by Heidegger’s use of the term "Unheimlichkeit" (usually translated into English as "unhomeliness") in his early work. This is no easy task, since for Freud the uncanny is a psychological condition rooted in the human subject, whereas for Heidegger "unhomeliness" is an existential condition that has nothing to do with the individual psyche. In this regard, Trigg’s emphasis on Merleau-Ponty rather than Heidegger for his phenomenology is a master-stroke: Trigg skillfully deploys Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy to transcend the rigid dichotomy between subject and object and thus manages to reveal uncanniness as both a subjective experience (as it was for Freud) and an objective quality of the world (as it was for Heidegger). In the process, he convincingly analyzes concrete manifestations of spatial memory as “immaterial material” presences in the subject and in the world. The uncanny, as it is conceptualized here, is phenomenology’s bad trip. It is what happens when the harmonious interrelation of subject and world comes undone.

    This is one way to bring the tradition of thinking about the uncanny forward. Perhaps in the coming years we will see Trigg and others align their phenomenological reflections on the uncanny with the renewed attention to animism in science and technology studies. For some years now sociologists like Bruno Latour, anthropologists like Michael Taussig, art historians like W.J.T. Mitchell and Hans Belting, and cultural theorists like Sherry Turkle have been examining how the “smart” technological objects that are a fundamental part of our everyday existence — computers, smart phones, telematic surgery or robotic pets and humanoids — are altering our subjectivity. Increasingly, these objects possess a kind of inhuman intelligence and intentionality of their own that throw into question the human and turn us into posthumans or "natural born cyborgs" (in philosopher Andy Clark’s phrase). Such “animated” objects should be understood as hybrids, according to Latour: they occupy the middle ground between human and inhuman, between presence and absence, and act as agents that determine our behavior. The (re)turn to the thing itself and to the materiality of the uncanny is a welcome supplement to a more discursive approach that prevailed in the nineties, which looks at the way the uncanny is constructed in texts. It will be exciting to see whether the phenomenological and discursive approaches will be able to establish common ground with the ongoing experimental research in the fields of robotics and cognitive science and how this will affect art and science. Whatever happens, it seems likely that the concept of the uncanny will continue to transform itself and aid us in our understanding of how the word, and the world, become (alien) flesh: both deeply familiar and totally strange — not quite present in our world, but at the same time already deeply engrained in our bodies.

    Recommended Reads:

    LARB Contributor

    Anneleen Masschelein is a postdoctoral research fellow and a lecturer in literary theory and cultural studies. Her book, The Unconcept, appeared in 2011 with SUNY Press. She has published on the uncanny, contemporary theory and culture, literature and other arts. Her current research projects are on creative writings by theorists and on normative poetics. 


    LARB Staff Recommendations

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!