Academic journal article New Formations

Night of the Unexpected: A Critique of the 'Uncanny' and Its Apotheosis within Cultural and Social Theory

Academic journal article New Formations

Night of the Unexpected: A Critique of the 'Uncanny' and Its Apotheosis within Cultural and Social Theory

Article excerpt

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Since 1995, when Martin Jay cautioned against the rise of the uncanny as a 'supercharged' word, the unheimlich has not ceased to make itself at home across a range of disciplines including cultural studies, history, politics, ethics, aesthetics and sociology. (1) Works applying the concept have included The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (1994); The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects (1999); Sites of the Uncanny: Paul Celan, Specularity and the Visual Arts (2007); Uncanny Modernity: Cultural Theories, Modern Anxieties (2008); Monstrous Society: Reciprocity, Discipline and the Political Uncanny c. 1780-1848 (2009) and The Queer Uncanny (2012). There are of course different critical tendencies represented here and the uncanny is frequently linked to satellite terms ('spectre', 'ghost', 'haunting') which are in some cases used interchangeably (Bergland's The National Uncanny is concerned with American Indian 'ghosts', while Derrida suggested his Spectres of Marx could have been subtitled 'Marx--Das Unheimliche'). (2) However, the net effect has been to promote a new syntax of interpretation aimed at disturbing the boundaries of 'conventional' historical, cultural and sociological analysis.

It is hard not to note an imperialising aspect to this success. Uncanny theory tends to break down the boundaries between itself and other cultural theories, to absorb them into the uncanny. According to Nicholas Royle, the queer is uncanny, (3) psychoanalysis is uncanny (p24), while the uncanny is a way of 'beginning to think about culture, philosophy, religion, literature, science, politics in the present (p22). If all critique challenges boundaries, runs the underlying assumption, then all critique--all theories of alienation, repression, or 'otherness'--are or should be uncanny. But the researcher wanting not merely to extend this form of theorisation, but to challenge, or take stock of its implications, is poorly served. In the first place, the emphasis in uncanny criticism has been on its ubiquity and irreducibility. Royle's The Uncanny, which more than any other work put uncanny studies on the map, was an exercise in demonstrating the sheer uncontainability of the concept, while for Anneleen Masschelein, it 'affects and haunts everything, it is in constant transformation and cannot be pinned down'. (4)

Masschelein's work is the most comprehensive attempt at a genealogy of uncanny theory, and yet, though she acknowledges the concept underwent a fundamental transformation in the 1990s, she chooses 'not to focus on the heyday between 1980-2000', instead filling in its anterior life in criticism from the early-twentieth century up to the 1970s (p6). But this leaves us with something of a phantom genealogy. For Masschelein, the uncanny is throughout 'the Freudian uncanny' (this assumption is typical in the literature), yet she acknowledges, rightly, that it can no longer be considered a psychoanalytic concept and 'one may even wonder if this was ever the case' (p4). Despite an ever-growing corpus on the 'psychoanalytic uncanny', the 'uncanny' is not a theoretical concept within psychoanalysis itself. It has no entry in Laplanche and Pontalis' Language of Psychoanalysis, Charles Rycroft's A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis or Stephen Frosh's Key Concepts in Psychoanalysis. (5) A surer narrative might trace the impulse within contemporary theory back to Derrida's work and to deconstruction--this is particularly so for Royle, who gives Derrida a major presence within his overview of 2003. And yet, whatever emerges as a more autonomous uncanny or spectral theory in the 1990s is greatly shifted from that which went under the name of deconstruction in the 1970s-80s.

Rather than tracking the 'psychoanalytic uncanny', then, this article concentrates on that watershed in order to probe the nature of the shift and reflect on the influx of new elements which have given the uncanny its characteristic impetus within the contemporary scene. …

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