Archive for the ‘uncanny’ Category
There’s an audience participation opportunity to come at the end of this post, so don’t skip the end if you want to play along at home and win great prizes! But to start, here’s a fantastic moment from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, not long after Marlow has reached the Outer Station:
“I had no idea why he wanted to be sociable, but as we chatted in there it suddenly occurred to me the fellow was trying to get at something — in fact, pumping me. He alluded constantly to Europe, to the people I was supposed to know there — putting leading questions as to my acquaintances in the sepulchral city, and so on. His little eyes glittered like mica discs — with curiosity — though he tried to keep up a bit of superciliousness. At first I was astonished, but very soon I became awfully curious to see what he would find out from me. I couldn’t possibly imagine what I had in me to make it worth his while. It was very pretty to see how he baffled himself, for in truth my body was full only of chills, and my head had nothing in it but that wretched steamboat business. It was evident he took me for a perfectly shameless prevaricator. At last he got angry, and, to conceal a movement of furious annoyance, he yawned. I rose. Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre — almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister.
“It arrested me, and he stood by civilly, holding an empty half-pint champagne bottle (medical comforts) with the candle stuck in it. To my question he said Mr. Kurtz had painted this — in this very station more than a year ago — while waiting for means to go to his trading post. ‘Tell me, pray,’ said I, ‘who is this Mr. Kurtz?’
That painting! It’s the very definition of the grotesque, and mirror of the grotesqueness of the world of the novella, to condense two incompatable (but why should they be incompatable, justice and enlightenment, fairness and truth?) allegorical females into a single weird image. It’s moments like these where
When I teach, I explain to my students that best I can guess what we mean when we say the “Kafkaeseque” or “the uncanny in Kafka” (after of course going through “heimlich” and “unheimlich” and the rest of the Freud stuff) is that is not just the weird thing, the thing out of place, but the weird thing inserted into a context that takes it as normal, everyday, that ignores it. It becomes compulsory, in a deep and strange sense: something’s out of place, everyone acts as if it isn’t, and then, as in a nightmare, you feel yourself pulled along by both by not wanting to make a scene and the fact that there’s time to stop and really think about all of this. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness works in much the same way. The compulsion of the unremarked grotesque is all over the place in the Outer Station section – you see things that are illogical, absurd, stupid, or that make you sick… But still: “I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life.” Or with this picture, this painting that doesn’t make any fucking sense, but which is left hanging there, a year after Kurtz painted it, a year after Kurtz, whom everyone in the station absolutely hates, left, never to return.
So, as far as ekphrastic moments go in modernist novels, I rate this one quite highly, as you can see. And I’d like to have something similar in something that I’m working on at the moment. Here’s what I’m looking for: I’d like to describe not one but two paintings (or photographs – or images that you can’t tell whether they are photographs or paintings) hanging on the wall of let’s say for simplicity’s sake a hotel room or nicely furnished apartment from the era of the bubble – the era in which we’re still lingering, at least in terms of hotel design. (Thinks can’t turn 1983 Bucharest fast enough for me, in terms of hotel aesthetics… But that’s another story…) I’d like them to be something like the one that Marlow sees at the Outer Station, though not nearly so obviously fucked up. I.e. if they are emblems of some sort of socio-individual brain damage, I’d like it to be the ambient brain-damage of the world in which we’ve lived or live. And their subject matter should be relatively upbeat, as the world in which they hang doesn’t have lots of time or really need for social critique, bad-conscience-bourgie-art, and the like.
I don’t care whether they form a clear diptych, an subtle diptych, or bear no clear relationship the one to the other. I’d love to hear a lot of them – first thought tries, or considered responses – as I might actually feature quite a few of these things in the thing that I’m doing.
If I’m not being clear, ask me questions. This is a little hard to describe. Not sure whether I should do this, as it primes the pump, but I’ll paste some notes that I’ve written and that I’m not at all satisfied with, so feel free to ignore the models.
On the left side is a photograph (it looks like a photograph, though it may well be a painting, there’s a certain subtle smudge and line to it that hints that it was made by human hands rather than a lens) that features four naked adolescents, late adolescents perhaps eighteen or nineteen years old hugging each other in a circle. Two males and two females, two whites and two blacks, and all four are fit and beautiful. Additionally, the genital area of each one is clearly visible. The models had to turn in a slightly awkward way in order for this to be so, which renders this image, which otherwise would seem to be more fine art than pornography, more erotically provocative than it might have been.
Its counterpart on the right side takes up an entirely different subject matter, yet somehow subtly seems to correspond with its partner across the wall. It is an aerial view of a section of some city – perhaps this one, you’re not familiar with it enough to say yet. Within the boundaries of the picture are perhaps thirty houses, of modern design and painted in bright colors, each one exactly identical to the next. Uncannily identical, same lift of the eaves, same blue shutters, same windowboxes planted with the same flowers. There are approximately ten or twelve human beings visible in the picture, and they are the only mark of distinction in what is otherwise a grid pattern of sameness. A man toward the bottom waters the flowers in his front garden, several are walking up or down the streets, and barely visible, half-cut off by the limits of the image, two naked people, a male and a female, lie on top of each other, naked, on the grass in the backyard of the house that fills the bottom left corner. The crop of the thing renders it unclear what they are doing – no faces are visible, all you see are two torsos, with the breasts and hair to indicate that they are the genders that they are.
Please, please, do me one – or twenty – better. IT always says she’ll send you something for your trouble at this point. If you provide something really helpful I’ll send you hmm, how about an autographed picture of a smiling American narcissist abroad? (You should see the ebay resale market for that shit!) What could be better than that? Or I’ll name a happy person after you in this thing that I’m doing. Or I’ll say the rosary for you, backward, and in esperanto or any other artificial language.
Got a ride to work today in a removal van that I hired to transport all but ten or so of my books that remained at my house to my office at the university. (Long story short: my wife’s office in our house has become, through the magic of paint, a nursery. Half of our bedroom, through the magic of desk moving, has become her new office. The bookshelf in our bedroom that held my books now holds her books. I have no office at home; I have no bookshelf at home. Thus the removal men….)
Halfway there, I started thinking about the fact that GPS units have female voices. They may have both male and female voices, you may be able to choose, but I’ve never heard one with a male voice. This is interesting.
But what is more interesting is what I noticed just after I had this first thought. The removal men who were driving me in incessantly referred to the GPS unit, despite it’s very obviously female voice, as a He not a She. Aye mate, he says that we should turn right at Holloway Road and then make the second left onto Parkhurst Road. I woulda thought he’d send us through Highbury Corner, but he must be thinking, yeah thasit, that you can’t turn right off of Camden Road onto….
I guess the obvious explanation is that, you know, gnomically, men are better with directions than women, therefore, if anthropomorphised, the GPS is male in the minds of my removal guys, even despite the gendering of it’s speech. But one wonders, since perhaps the path of least resistance would be just to call it it, whether at the back of their minds there’s a tiny fictional equation being done, a dim scene half-imagined, in which there’s a little man with a map in the box, a man who knows just where to go, who figures it all out and then whispers it, turn by turn to his little female assistant to deliver verbally with her silkily halting almost real voice….
Was just now talking to a student about inverted, negative ways of making meaning. Actually two students in a row – Victorian nonsense verse, Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. And now I’m listening to the ATC communications from the flight that crashed near Buffalo. Technical chatter, formalized language of the professional and the breaking of form. That’s not a sentence, I know. The ghoulishness of proximity – how are we hearing this already?
Another guy, pinned against the wall of the “reception center” that they set up for the “relatives of the victims,” narrates in front of cameras and reporters with notebooks what it was like to call his mother in Florida and tell her that his sister and her daughter was likely dead. “To tell you the truth I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I have never heard before.” It is a convention of the genre, to say it like this, but we also know what he means and we believe him. The tag on the video, woven into an article on CNN.com, reads: “Watch victim’s brother discuss delivering the tragic news to his mother.” The imperative verb at the start, which is just stylebook stuff, how they make the links, nonetheless disturbs, grates. Feels pimpish, toutish. Watch a woman with no arms tie her corset with her teeth! Watch the epic battle of an Egyptian crocodile and a Russian Black Bear! Watch these scenes of tragedy and pathos, all in one act!
It feels a bit belated now to watch an airplane crash and think about the presentation of it, the language and images. Feels obsoletely pomo, mid-DeLillo, past due. Especially since we’ve apparently outlived the period of jolting catastrophe and have moved on to ecological pacings, the slow impact, the incremental collapse. We are back in a period of slowly sinking ships rather than the slip and burst; our thoughts and dreams are scored in the slow time of the lifeboat without food and fresh water rather than the uncanny break of the tailwing speared into the suburban backyard. But still, apparently, the planes will keep crashing, whatever our hopes and nightmares have to say about it.
The London Overground is a very strange thing indeed. If you’ve only ever visited London, it’s likely that you’ve never used it. While the Underground generally plunges straight from the fringes into the center – the exception being the Circle line and those that share its tracks – the Overground remains content to wander around the northern and western extentions of the city. When it actually makes contact with the center, say at Euston, it almost seems accidental, the result of a wrong turn somewhere along the line.
The stations are the best part of the whole thing. Unlike on the one hand the Underground’s claustrophobic narrowness, constant busy-ness, and iconic look, or on the other hand, the National Rail stations with their trunkline hugeness, the Overground stations are uncannily quaint and often very quiet. Trains are rare on weekends, twice an hour at best. And the stations are rural looking! They have the look of some sort of regional rail system built for a not-too-densely populated place. (Another post to be written – what better topic for a proud New Jerseyan like me – about urban woods, roadside woods, the things that you imagine go on there and the things that really do…)
In fact, there is something about the Overground stations that makes me what to call them the sort of station that appears in one’s dreams. (Do I really mean my dreams or one’s dreams?) They look like scene settings for the softer sort of nightmare, the ones that feature maddening repetition and anxiety-inducing confusions, rather than the threat of violence, the threat of real injury. The sort of station where disturbing cinematic effects should be staged – the train with no driver or the train with faceless passengers, the passenger who is always there waiting for a train that never comes, the experience of waiting for a train but having them each one skip your stop, miss your platform, over and over and over and over and over.
It bears mentioning, too, that the Overground can have a disorienting effect on your psychogeographical gestalt. Since it cuts across rather than down, it bridges distances swiftly that ordinarily seem quite vast. Crouch Hill to West Hampstead seems like an impossible distance to travel by bus or underground, but passes in minutes on the train. As if the layout of the city has been compressed, folded – or even that the Hampstead Tunnel itself has opened a rent in the continuity of the city.
It is a bit like dreamwork, the work that the Overground does. Displacement, condensation – the spatialization of time (or is it the other way around?) And it is no wonder, given the contours of its route, its avoidance of the terminals. After all, Freud long ago spelled out the deal when it came to trains that never quite make it to the center city.
Perversions are sexual activities which either (a) extend, in an anatomical sense, beyond the regions of the body that are designed for sexual union, or (b) linger over the intermediate relations to the sexual object which should normally be traversed rapidly on the path towards the final sexual aim.
Both the dream and the perversion smear and blur fetishism, temporalize it, prolong it away from teleology and thus propriety. Wayward mass transit systems like the London Overground, weed-choked and slow, take us places but never anywhere near the goal. In doing so, they re-think for us the city, the psychological directionality that it dictates, the desires it desires us to hold and those we hold that it normally resists.
Kala might be thought of as an attempt to destroy the softimism of world music™. Hands up guns out — represent now world town. The album moves past the bubbly syncretism of Arular; goes looking for beat and a form and a hook for the enraged new world and finds a proliferation of each, which is its wonder. Listening to “Bird Flu,” one has to suspect Maya’s been reading (or reading about) Monster at Our Door, the Mike Davis conjecture about the eventual arrival of deadly H5N1 influenza at America’s doorstep. It’s the exact kind of thing that Brooklyn sharpies who are also expats twisted on geo-social hard times like to read on trans-oceanic flights. You listen to the nervous squawks and fearsome, irresistible clatter of the track and you think, that’s not a song, that’s a revenge fantasy. And quite brilliantly, it locates blowback not in the romantic figure of some lone terrorist, but in global structure itself: terror as an inevitable outcome of evil voodoo poured relentlessly into the world-system. In Davis’s account, bird flu when it arrives won’t be an exotic catastrophe we couldn’t predict, but America’s bad faith returned to it after a mutating tour of the planet of slums, the world-ghetto. Funny thing is, that describes Kala exactly.
Always just about ready to give up on the form, and then somebody (often enough jane dark) writes something like this.
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(I’ve been having trouble getting the videos to embed correctly in this one. They work for me if I push play. I wonder how they work for you. If you have trouble, leave a comment and I’ll keep working on it!)
I read a graduate student’s seminar paper today (finally – but hey, at least I read them!) where Freud’s definition of the uncanny was trotted out in just the way that I used to trot it out back in my graduate seminar papers. You remember the bit about the collapse of the heimlich and the unheimlich, the “something added” that makes the merely unfamiliar or familiar qualify for full uncanniness and the great stuff about fiction (“in the first place a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place that there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life”), and the disappointing “solution” presented at the end (“whenever a man dreams of a place or a country and says to himself, while he is still dreaming: ‘this place is familiar to me, I’ve been here before’, we may interpret the place as being his mother’s genitals or her body”)
It’s a great essay, and it’s understandable why we love to rehearse the description – even though everyone is already familiar with it – in our student papers… But the ending is too pat to really serve as a good explanation of anything at all. It is easy to deploy it, like so many canonical theoretical moments, as a surrogate or placeholder for analysis. (Which might be what I am doing here – we’ll see.) And thus we’re left with a feeling of “uncanniness” and an excellent formulation of the question from Freud, but we’re at a bit of a loss to describe the answer.
So I’ve been preoccupied tonight with what makes uncanny things uncanny – the special whatness that triggers the deep shiver.
For instance, for me any way, I find ambient television noise in the background of video recordings (whether my own or those that I find on-line) at once deeply disturbing and totally alluring. Please don’t laugh at the video that I’ve found it in tonight.
I remember when I was a kid – back in the having-a-bedtime portion of my life – I would fall asleep almost every night to the dull murmur of whatever baseball or hockey game my father was watching downstairs. The audio portion of these two sports – and not any others – still mesmerizes me a bit, gives me a great sense of comfort. But advertisements are far more disturbing when they register only ambiently. This is especially true (as in the video above, from what I can tell) when it comes to sleazy-local ads for strange products. (I find these disturbing even when they’re not only half-heard, only ambient. One of the recurrent episodes when I find myself most disturbed by the fact that I no longer live in NYC is at dinnertime, when the TV streams ad after ad for the local shit jewelry shop, some disgusting looking suburban Italian restaurant, the law offices of Pinchcash and Chasebody and so forth…)
There are even few cultural artifacts that come to mind when I start probing this topic. The infamous video game series Grand Theft Audio brilliantly, to my mind, features a very realistic “radio” function that plays while you drive around in your boosted ride, and one that trades heavily in inane talk radio noise and ridiculous but mimetically accurate local ads. This feature is demonically well-attuned to the foreground work that you’re doing in the game: crunching over bystanders, trolling for drugs and prostitutes, scanning the roads for another driver to rage on etc…
More distantly, there is Orwell’s 1984 and in particular the movie version of the book. This clip not only starts with a scene in which we hear the murmuring background from the TV and the foregrounded interior monologue of Winston Smith, offers at the 2 minute point an uncanny turn on the uncanny, where the screen addresses Smith directly (imagine the talk radio ad that mentions you by name), and, at four minutes, has an extended section where that metallically strident female voice, so influential to later dystopian flicks, rattles on and on about victories military, industrial, and ideological….
The easiest answer – and like most easy answers for nebulous questions of culture and aesthetics, an insufficient answer – to the key to the effect that this ambient auditory fill has on me is one that would be true to Freud’s findings in his essay. In this reading, the ossified vitality of the ads, just now obsolete as they appeared yesterday, the day before, in which we can hear the pitch-punch of a previous right-now, is a marker of finitude and death. It capsulizes the presentness of the past – the bath of this-after-that that fills our rooms even when we are not paying attention – and in doing so exposes its transitory nature, the fact that the machine just keeps talking, talking, talking the slip of the now under the curtain of just now away from our attention. There is, perhaps, nothing so everyday – and no everyday so touched with the absurd violence of the rapid passage of time – as the ad chatter preserved in the amber of digital video. Time seems to pass so quickly now that “amber” doesn’t seem at first the wrong word to use to describe the preservation via digital video of a moment that likely occurred within the last few months.
But this answer, the Freudian answer, is insufficient in the way that most hardline Freudian answers tend to be. It structuralizes that which is undeniably historical. A characteristic effect of the times emerges as a symptom of life in general, a universal of representation and the feelings that representation provokes. The avatars of Freud’s uncanny – the double, for instance – have always been and will always be avatars of the same effect. But when it comes to something like the background noise of the television in user-produced video clips, we can be sure that we’re dealing with something a bit more specific to our particular moment in time, in history, in the sweep of technological development. Another example will perhaps make this clear. Think of the redoubled strangeness and fascination of certain media moments that we keep replaying – the allure of watching and rewatching the CNN footage just before the news broke on 9/11. Check out this clip, which renders the whole effect as vividly as is perhaps possible, as we break, without transition, from a ditech.com ad, so familiar yet so dated now, into The End of the World.
In the wake of 9/11 and all of the other terrorist attacks and sudden catastrophes of whatever sort that have occurred during the last few years, we have all become astute anticipators of “breaking news” – of what used to go by the phrase “We interrupt to bring you a special bulletin…” It is hard to pinpoint the extent to which our very faculties of perception and anticipation have changed. What is it that we are waiting for when we keep the television on in the background, and how will we react to it when it arrives? Is all programming, even the benignly banal stuff that comes in the form of advertisements that no one intentionally listens to, that everyone hears, even when staring the set dead in the face, indexed to its potential (or is it inevitable) interruption?
One last video clip, this time the final scene of the Sopranos.
Chase and his writers struggled throughout the portion of the series that appeared after 9/11 to somehow speak to the psychic (and televisual) significance of the attacks. Tony’s cash flow tightens as the nation slips into recession, the attention of the FBI agents who had been assigned to his case is drawn away into counter-terrorism, characters chatter nervously about what might be coming in through the ports, and there is even a subplot, never brought to a conclusion, about some Muslim guys who are in the market for a huge amount of guns. But nothing in the show so successfully incorporated the immense of effect of the event more vividly than the formal moves in the last scene. While much ink and html has been spilled in panicked interpretation the “message” hidden in the jarring fade to black – which had, one imagines, hundreds of thousands banging their set top boxes thinking that their cable had gone out at just the wrong time – fewer have discussed the relationship between this sudden fade to black and the progressively foregrounded volume of the background noise in the scene, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” played through a tabletop jukebox, which gradually comes to swallow almost the entirely of the audiospace of the program as it plunges towards its inconclusive end. The writers’ dramatic ploy here, which trades on the audience’s anticipation that when heavy ambient sound is encountered, it is almost inevitable that the sound will cancel itself out in a sudden interruption of violence, presents a tacit theory of our relation to recorded ambient sound today. The background song comes to foreground; someone, we are sure, is about to get whacked. It is no wonder that, in the comment boxes of Alan Sepinwall’s Soprano’s blog for the N.J. Star-Ledger, the second most often advanced reading of the final scene, after the basic “Tony was killed by the guy who went into the bathroom,” was that the gun-buying Muslims had set off a nuke that faded the entirely of Northern New Jersey, rather than simply the space of the show, to black.
The paranoid anxiety that suffuses the American everyday thus comes around to meet Freud’s uncanniness at the pass, as does indeed seem to be death that, at least in this case, is responsible for the strange effect of these deployments of ambient audio superfluities. We begin to detect a certain circularity to the arrangement, in which the form of something like the final scene of the Sopranos is intentionally touching a nerve exposed on September 11th, which in turn was exposed in the “unexpectedness” of the event against the backdrop of all the floating tech-bubble placidity and end of history-ness in the air the time, a sense in turn informed by a certain narrative sensibility, which in turn was informed by various historical events and so on right down the chain. But despite the fact that the effect – or our sensitivity to the effect – comes from somewhere, it nonetheless is clearly a symptom of our times and marks a subtle but important shift in our sensibilities. If Roland Barthes famously described the “reality effect” that makes the realist fiction of the nineteenth century realistic as the situation in which certain objects in a narrative hold no purpose other than to announce, via their very purposelessness in the story, “we are the real,” today, what feels uncannily real has come to say something else, something like “we are, being what we are, bound to come to an abrupt end.”
Imagine the scene. You are flipping through the channels and land on a movie that you have never before seen. It is a recent movie, from the look of the characters and the space they are inhabiting. It is a family – a mother and a father, and two kids of school age – and they are getting ready for their day, eating breakfast, and the like. A television is droning on in the background. It is tuned to a news channel, and alternates between silly reports on celebrities in prison, “health updates” on the latest treatments for anxiety, financial reports on market turbulence, and advertisements for the newest idiotic blockbuster and sexual performance enhancement pills. It is, perhaps, a scene from a life not altogether unlike your own. Gradually, the sound of the blathering television rises up to overtake the happy household noises, the voices of the children, the loving back and forth of the parents, until it is all you can hear. The camera focuses in on the television screen – the talking heads, ads with middle-aged people walking on the beach, live reports from the stock exchange. Everyone is happy, or trying their best to be – everyone is safe and secure in the sense that today will be a day like any other day. And then…
What happens next? What do you anticipate? Savy-viewers would always have anticipated that something was about to happen – it is a fundamental imperative of narrative development. But you, living when you do and living as you do, know down deep what genus of experience will come with the next frame, what it is that the television on your television will bring into everyone’s living room all at once.