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

By Ffytche, Matt | New Formations, October 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Ffytche, Matt, New Formations


Abstract This essay attempts a critical analysis of the boom in 'uncanny' theory. As the 'uncanny' has carved its image in cultural, political, sociological and aesthetic theory, there has been little attempt to challenge the notion that all critical work is or should be uncanny. Introductions to the concept, such as those by Nicholas Royle and more recently Anna Masschelein, have tended to promote its ubiquity and irreducibility, even while acknowledging a dramatic shift in its fortunes since the 1990s. Opening with a brief genealogy of uncanny theory in the late twentieth century (looking to work on Freud, the influence of Derrida and American deconstruction) the article pays particular attention to the watershed of the late 1980s when the uncanny is increasingly assimilated to the 'spectral' and begins to take shape as an autonomous theory. It probes the influence of Heidegger, who inflected Derrida's own turn to spectres, and the way the uncanny is mobilised on cultural and sociological terrain as a specifically ethical tool: a site of historical mourning or sociological resistance. The article proposes that the anti-conceptualism of the uncanny is a transcendant gesture which needs to be read in the context of a crisis in the theorisation of Marxism at the end of the 1980s. In all the clamour over the disturbing and in-coercible logic of the uncanny, there has been little analysis of its potentially reactionary function on the contemporary scene.

Keywords uncanny, Derrida, Heidegger, deconstruction, Royle, temporality, ethics

I

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, ediics, 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, Disapline 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 frequendy 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). …

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