A Homeless Concept.
An essay about the uncanny.
Table of Contents
Freud’s point of view
The works of Emily Stainer
The works of Penny Siopis
This essay is an attempt to interpret the aesthetic phenomenon of uncanniness. Things, people, impressions, events and situations which are able to arouse in us a special variety of the fearful; the uncanny (Strachey, 1925). A mythological fiend skulking in our subconscious minds. Das Unheimliche is an Essay written by Sigmund Freud in 1919 in which he approaches the uncanny from various interesting angles.
But as this is an essay about uncanniness in art, I will only explore the theories that are applicable. I will firstly and thoroughly define the term “uncanny”, then review Freud’s point of view - a sort of a short history or definition of the occurrence - and lastly, but not least, I will apply my knowledge of the uncanny to the works of two very talented South African artists, Emily Stainer and Penny Siopis.
The uncanny is a part of human nature that I have always found intriguing. It is as if we do not have any idea as to what secrets our subconscious minds hold, and what secret fears will emerge as a result of that fact. We cannot remember our childhood complexes, and later in adult life they might surprise us at any moment: whether it is in real life or when viewing an art object.
The German word for “uncanny” is “unheimlich.” Unheimliche is the negation of the word Heimlich. What is interesting is that the word itself is of binary meaning (Strachey, 1925). To begin with “Heimlich 1” refers to all that is homely, tamed and comfortable. The following meaning of the word is “concealed, secret, what is not revealed.” As a result if “unheimliche” is unhomely, then it turns out to be the second meaning of “Heimlich.” Heimlich can mean familiar, intimate and cherished, but its other definitions shape into apparently contradictory meanings, such as obscured and clandestine (Brewster, 2002). Thus “Heimlich” is a word of ambivalence, just as the “unheimliche” is. For Freud this ambiguity is a constitutive element of the sentiment that portrays the uncanny. As a result the uncanny is the homely and the unhomely at the same moment in time. It is both good and bad at the same time (unhomely and revealed). This duality creates a bewildered and then alarmed effect in people. Freud was intrigued by the out of the ordinary semantics of the word. For Freud the circulatory semantics of the word meant that the uncanny was both “heimlich” and “unheimlich” at the same time (Amtower, 1925). It is what is supposed to be kept secret but is inadvertently revealed; it is what was not only kept hidden from others, but also from the self. He then defined the uncanny as the division of frightening things that escorts us back to what is known and familiar. He relates all the things, experiences etc. to the primary narcissism of early childhood and primitive cultures (Brewster, 2002).
The uncanny is thus in practice a concept which paradoxically thematises the impossibility of conceptualization in the traditional sense of a self-contained entity (Masschelein, 2003) . Like the concept of the unconscious, it is a negative concept and hence internally contradictory, for by virtue of its negativity, it points toward something which cannot be reasonably and knowingly thought. Which is why it is an aesthetic concept: it expresses a subjective sentiment which cannot be detained in words, for the oversimplification of language always in a way betray the eccentricity of experience (Borghart & Madelein, 2003).
Freud’s point of view
For Freud, as for Jentsch, the uncanny is a specific, mild form of anxiety, related to...
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