The uncanny is that sense of real, yet unreal, unfamiliar yet known, supernatural, and inconsistent with the common experience. First described by the German psychiatrist, Ernst Jentsch (1906), the phenomenon is said to be familiar in the works of writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, most notably in his story The Sandman. The Sandman was celebrated in Jacques Offenbach's 1851 opera Les Contes d'Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffmann). Recently the uncanny has resurfaced in psychological research (now referred to as the uncanny valley). The concept seems to have reentered psychological discourse through AI robotics, as well as the fascination with the zombie, the doppelgänger, and the automaton.
Sigmund Freud took up his own thinking on the uncanny in a essay from 1919 entitled The Uncanny. It is from the essay that most psychologists are familiar with Das Unheimliche. Freud makes a distinction between the heimliche (concealed) and the unheimliche (unconcealed). Freud described the phenomenon of the uncanny as a projection of the repressed id onto the figure which brings forth the discomforting experience. Perhaps this is the phenomenon encountered in Lars Von Trier's film Antichrist.
WHY DO PEOPLE REPRESS THE AWARENESS OF WHAT THEY WOULD OTHERWISE BE AWARE OF?
Each time an author begins to write there is a reader in mind. That reader might be an individual, a group, or an ideology that is imagined by the author to be the recipient of the message. The author is oftentimes completely unaware of the intended recipient of their words. This target is somehow kept hidden from the writer; and since it is the writer who is both the hider and the hidden, we can assume that the author has repressed his intended audience –he has somehow kept his audience hidden from himself while sustaining and preserving the intention and desire to address that audience. We have a circumstance in which intention, desire, motivation, and will is retained while the source of that desire remains concealed from the very person who is concealing it. This is to say that the writer’s product is a result of communicating something to someone, the someone of which he has hidden from himself.
But what is the function of this disruption between knowledge and concealed knowledge; knowledge that we know but has been, somehow, removed from the equation through a systematic protocol of actions that, in themselves, are seemingly intentional but go largely unacknowledged and undetected by the agent themselves? How is this function of repression vital to the catharsis that we call literature? To put it more directly, how does the automatic act of hiding information from ourselves actually come to accomplish our desire to come into contact with the very information that remains hidden from ourselves through the act of writing? The author as, at once, both the one who resists and conceals whatever the information is and the one who is acting to uncover that information. He is like a thief who, as soon as he has covered over his buried treasure with a great deal of dirt, desires to again begin shoveling his way back to the treasure in an attempt to come into contact with what it is. In this way the act of the writer can be seen as a type of compulsive behavior in which doing & undoing comes in the form of text.
Clearly, something is accomplished in this compulsive act of covering and uncovering. In the very act of covering the author is concealing from himself the thing that he desires to uncover. Through this act the desire for the knowledge itself –we can call this the primary cathexis- is somehow redirected onto the act of repressing and uncovering. The very desire of wanting to uncover what has been covered is a sort of secondary cathexis. The secondary cathexis serves to fuel the act of writing in which the individual, not unlike the obsessive-compulsive who continuously “undoes” his anxiety through ritual, “uncovers” that which he has hidden form himself –through the act of writing. But here we have a second situation. We not only have the knowledge which is being covered and uncovered, but also, the complete absence of that knowledge in the act of covering and uncovering. To put this simply, not only does the individual remain in the dark over what has been concealed, he also remains in the dark as to whom or what he is unconcealing it for. It is almost as if the desire to unconceal is an attempt to reincorporate the thing that one has concealed back into one’s conscious awareness. But what purpose does it serve, not only to conceal and then unconceal, but also to conceal to begin with? In other words: Why do people repress the awareness of what they would otherwise be aware of?
We can begin to answer this question through an analogy. A man is fishing when he feels that he has hooked what is a rather heavy “catch.” Eagerly he positions himself by carefully reeling-in the fish, slowly, and deliberately. It is only when, to his astonishment and terror, he looks into the water to see his anticipated fish, that he experiences someone looking back at him –a carcass which he inadvertently “snagged.” The action is immediate: an automatic release of the line, allowing the man to free himself of the knowledge which has come to terrorize him. But in the act of turning away, the knowledge becomes lodged behind his back. This hintergedanken has now been repressed, or as Freud intended it: verdrängen: displaced. Displacement, which has been translated as repression, depicts the existing of two things in twain (dwis- is thus related to Latin. bis "twice" (originally *dvis) and to duo; whereas Place- O.Fr. place, from M.L. placea "place, spot," from L. platea "courtyard.”). We have, through displacement, two things existing at once: knowledge and unknowledge. In releasing the line, the fisherman has attempted to conceal from himself that which was threatening and causing unpleasure. But traces of the human face still remains before and behind him in twain. Not unlike the obsessional thoughts of the neurotic, the eyes continue to watch the fisherman from behind, and he feels the gaze of those eyes. His attempt to bury the very thing that has disturbed him has resulted in the overwhelming presence of that thing he wished to release. And now the compulsion to undo the haunting becomes a reintegration with the thing itself, a compulsive desire to come, once again into contact with the very thing that haunts him. But the real catharsis that will come from a re-experiencing of the carcass is not for the benefit of “proving to oneself that it actually exists” it is, more accurately, a proving to an audience or an addressee that, in fact, this thing is present. The desire to unconceal, when taken in this way, becomes less about the object concealed, and more about the imaginary addressee to which the addressor is unconcealing. We can come to see then, the act of writing as a mechanism of unconcealing what one has concealed from an imaginary self, which Lacan called the Ego Ideal. In other words, it is not what we are writing, but rather, whom we are writing for.
Repression now becomes an act of integration. An integration between I know, I know that I know, and I don’t know -or to put it more concisely: I know that I know something that I don’t know. We have explored the function of repression, the purpose that it seems to serve, but what serves as the catalyst for the initial act of repression? What is the purpose of this act of repression, which results in the actions we have imagined? In other words: for what reason does the fisherman react in horror to the human face that returns his gaze, and for what reason is our reaction to release the line (repression)?
What Has Been Said of Repression
For Freud the act of secondary repression (as opposed to primary repression which is the primordial pre-structuring of the unconscious) serves one in the capacity of providing a safe distance between one’s Ego and one’s Id (forbidden sexual desires). The fear reduces to threat of castration by the father. If one reads Freud in the context of today, this explanation is quite potent. In other words, in Freud’s time “forbidden” sexual acts could be the stuff of repression in context of the larger societal and cultural taboos. However, taken in the context of modern American culture, it is not the forbidden sexual act that is the unacceptable wish of the Id, but, the forbidden act of love and authentic emotional contact with oneself and others that has become the stuff of repression. "Genital combat” (Erikson) is today much less threatening than “making love.” One need not repress that which is not a threat to the Ego.
There was a challenge to Freud’s way of thinking by Alfred Adler who asked the question of repression: “Is the driving factor in the neurosis the repression, or is it… the deviating, irritated psyche, in the examination of which repression can also be found?” Adler argued “All neurotic patients exclude every part of life in which they do not feel strong enough to be ht e conqueror.” In this way repression was not the cause of neurotic Being, it was neurotic Being itself! Still, we find it difficult to accept that this is the whole story, that repression is merely a safeguard against information that would threaten our sense of self-worth. As Fritz Heider described the mechanisms of attribution Adler regarded repression as something one does for self-preservation. Is this satisfying in itself as an explanation for the neurotic symptoms resulting from avoidance of information that itself serves as more of a threat for self-worth and perfection?
Carl Jung regarded repression not only as a mechanism to keep “incompatible” contents from consciousness, but also as a major factor in personality formation. “In the course of development following puberty,” Jung describes, “consciousness is confronted with affective tendencies, impulses, and fantasies which for a variety of reasons it is not willing or not able to assimilate. It then reacts with repression in various forms, in the effort to get rid of the troublesome intruders. The general rule is that the more negative the conscious attitude is, and the more it resists, devalues, and is afraid, the more repulsive, aggressive, and frightening is the face which the dissociated content assumes.” This repressed information forms the contents of the shadow, which influences much of our character unconsciously. Yet a real explanation of the risk of not repressing is not given beyond the standard “for the very good reason that it would be painful or disagreeable.” Jung’s concept of a denial and avoidance of the authentic conception that one day we will cease to exist seems to be a fertile area to proceed answering the question of the why or repression.
Erich Fromm, asks the very question of repression in the context of Marx. “The most powerful motive for repression,” he states, “[is] the fear of isolation and ostracism.” Fromm disagrees with Freud’s castration fear as the fundamental motive of repression. He also stumbles upon what I argue is the most significant statement on repression that he makes in his writings. “Man as man is afraid of insanity, just as man as animal is afraid of death.” Fromm is understanding insanity as the result of isolation and ostracism of and by others. Unfortunately Fromm stumbles upon this bar of gold, gets up and keeps walking –seemingly not noticing what he has stumbled upon.
Repression As A Function Against “The Fall”
We have learned from Wilhelm Reich (and early Adler) that all “personality” follows from the body. Reich referred to this in the now controversial descriptive character –a term deemed offensive by modern, American, McPsychology. Character, in the Reichian sense, refers to the acknowledgment that one’s way of being is deeply enmeshed with ones sense of morality within the context of their civilization. Of course this is a line of thinking, established by Freud, which serves as the foundation of all depth psychologies. The term character has been deemed as not “politically correct” an ideology, I argue, that is in itself one of the most dangerous acts of repression in modern Western culture.
Reich showed us how body armor serves as a foundation for the development of one’s character. Which one of us, since childhood, has not experienced the classic and universal dream of falling, only to be startled awake in a panic of near-death? If one examines the timing of such dreams they usually occur, repeatedly, in a short period of a few weeks. Further analysis has shown a correlation between dreams of loss-of-control i.e. falling and corresponding life events in which the individual is facing a fear of the loss-of-control over one’s sense of self in relation to their civilization. This sense of a loss-of-control, as experienced in the falling dream, is the substratum of the Existentialist Movement. The sense of coming into contact with meaninglessness, which I argue to be the loss of control, is known as nausea or the existential crisis. One now can begin to feel a sense of relatedness between loss-of-control and a sense of self. For Heidegger fallenness refers to the very necessary enmeshment with the imaginary that one must find oneself in order to find one’s self. Heidegger writes: “Dasein has, in the first instance, fallen away [abgefallen] from itself as an authentic potentiality for Being its self, and has fallen into the ‘world’. ‘Fallenness’ into the world means an absorption in Being-with-one-another, in so far as the latter is guided by idle talk, curiosity and ambiguity. Through the Interpretation of falling, what we have called the ‘inauthenticity’ of Dasein may now be defined more precisely. On no account however do the terms ‘inauthentic’ and ‘non-authentic’ signify ‘really not’, as if in this mode of Being, Dasein were altogether to lose its Being. ‘Inauthenticity’ does not mean anything like Being-no-longer-in-the-world, but amounts rather to quite a distinctive kind of Being-in-the-world – the kind which is completely fascinated by the ‘world’ and by the Dasein-with of Others in the ‘they’. Not-Being-its-self [Das Nicht-es-selbst-sein] functions as a positive possibility of that entity which, in its essential concern, is absorbed in a world. This kind of not-Being has to be conceived as that kind of Being which is closest to Dasein and in which Dasein maintains itself for the most part.”
The fall of the dream and the fallenness of Heidegger is very much the sense in which one looses oneself within the sea of the Other, Das Man. Le mer: the mother, as one drowns and necessarily falls into the imaginary in order to once again resurface or drop to one’s authenticity, Dasein. The fall, although dreaded and spontaneously traumatic, is a necessary loss-of-control, possibly the most authentic experiencing of Daseine. Immediately we escape this direct contact with authentic Being and escape (as Lyotard would suggest) the white-hot libidinal band to a place of homeostasis. In other words, the dreaded fall of the dream is the moment in the trauma of Being in which we are freed from the role we assume in the structure of our society –a moment in which we come into full contact with our autonomous self. Contact with this authentic self is traumatic and we must be awakened from the fall precisely because it forces us into a position of confrontation with our self-fiction/Dasein simultaneously. This is what we refer to as repression: the refusal to acknowledge that which does not support our self-fiction. In this sense repression is a necessity in the function of the Ego in an attempt to repress Dasein –which proves to be too unbearable to withstand contact. Underlying all repression is not a fear of isolation from others, but rather, a fear of isolation form one’s self, Ego.
This can be likened to the experience of the schizophrenic, a sense of self that has been shattered from not awakening from the fall. This underlying fear of the loss of self, what we call schizophrenia, is the very fear that fuels the repression. It is not “illness” or “craziness” that we fear at the core, but rather, a traumatic sense that we might continue to exist in the fall of the disjunct proprium, a non-return form the white-hot, scattering of the Ego against the eternal fall of the bottomless real. Is this not our experience when floating in the deep sea, hovering in space, or confronting the fear of the deep places of the forest?