Photography & The Uncanny

One : The Uncanny

The initial editorial footnote to the translation of Freud's essay Das Unheimliche, is as follows:"The German word, translated throughout this paper by the English 'uncanny' is 'unheimliche' literally 'unhomely'. The English term is not, of course, an exact equivalent of the German one".7 This is an important fact to consider in a reading of the essay: the subtle delicacies of meaning are easily distorted in translation, and in a work specifically about how a word can embody such an exact and definite emotion as Freud's Das Unheimliche, there is a danger of losing the sense of the subject. Fortunately, as Freud gives a brief notation of how 'unheimlich' is translated into other languages, it can be seen that the English word 'uncanny' is close to encompassing all the "shades of meaning" of 'unheimlich' (he states that, in comparison, "the Italian and Portuguese languages seem to content themselves with words which we would describe as circumlocutions"8 ). Therefore a potential difficulty of understanding is avoided, and as it is established that the English 'uncanny' does have an approximate similarity in meaning to 'unheimlich', it can be assumed that a translation of the text will function adequately without any need for recourse to the original text.9
Freud's own apologia at the introduction of the essay undermines its own importance,"It is only rarely that a psychoanalyst feels impelled to investigate the subject of aesthetics, even when aesthetics is understood to mean not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feeling",
10 suggesting that the 'uncanny' is only an incidental concern to psychoanalysis, whereas later approaches have implied a repositioning, emphasising greater importance to the subject, "the pivotal point around which psychoanalytic concepts revolve."11
By locating the 'uncanny' within the realm of aesthetics, as broadly defined, Freud appears consciously to remove it from the central concerns of psychoanalysis. Therefore it may be appropriate here to locate the 'uncanny', the return of the repressed in an unfamiliar guise, particularly with relation to death (as the other epitome of uncanniness, castration anxiety, does not easily fit within the subject here of photography), to the subsequent development of Freud's theories. Hal Foster's account of this in Compulsive Beauty is clearly articulated, in relating how the concept of the double as the uncanny harbinger of death, and of the gaze as a castrative threat "suggest why the uncanny produces anxiety"
12 :

For Freud the evocation of these two repressed states, castration and death, epitomises the uncanny. Yet for a long time (at least six years since Totem and Taboo[1913]) he could not grasp the principle at work in these strange returns of the repressed, the dynamic of these repetitions.
Obviously it was not that of pleasure (at least as heretofore conceived), to which the psyche appeared to be pledged.Whatever it was it held the key not only to the uncanny, but to a new conception of desire and sexuality, the unconscious and the drives.

Thus at the time of writing The 'Uncanny'(1919), Freud had yet to understand the dynamic of the unconscious that led it, apparently wilfully, to disrupt and threaten the stability of the conscious - which the anxiety of the uncanny demonstrates - as, previously conceived, it was pleasure that appeared to be the guiding principle governing the unconscious, and such disruptions seemed to be in opposition to this. Freud had to go 'beyond the pleasure principle', to create a new dialectic theory, introducing the Death Instinct, as the Thanatos to the Eros of the pleasure principle.14 Laplanche and Pontalis elucidate the reasoning behind Freud's theoretical creation of the Death Instinct, which has relevance to the uncanny:

...there is the need to give some consideration to the appearance, at very different levels, of repetition phenomena [...] which are difficult to account for in terms of the search for libidinal satisfaction, or as a simple attempt to overcome unpleasantness. Freud sees the mark [...] of an irrepressible force which is independent of the pleasure principle and apt to enter in opposition to it.15

In approaching the 'uncanny', Hal Foster's synopsis16 is particularly lucid and straightforward:

...the uncanny for Freud involves the return of a familiar phenomenon (image or object, person or event) made strange by repression. This return of the repressed renders the subject anxious and the phenomenon ambiguous and this ambiguous anxiety produces the primary effects of the uncanny: (1) an indistinction between the real and the imagined [...] (2) a confusion between the animate and inanimate, as exemplified in wax figures, dolls, mannequins and automatons [...] and (3) a usurpation of the referent by the sign or of physical reality by psychic reality...

As a reference point for his essay, Freud mentions the only precedent he knew of, a paper by Jentsch17. From the references in the text it can be concluded both that Jentsch took different points of emphasis on the production of the feeling of uncanniness, and that he, as far as Freud is concerned as a psychoanalyst, did not reach a convincing enough hypothesis which explained the reasons for certain situations creating the feeling known as 'unheimlich',

On the whole, Jentsch did not get beyond this relation of the uncanny to the novel and unfamiliar. He ascribes the essential factor in the production of the feeling of uncanniness to intellectual uncertainty... is not difficult to see that this definition is incomplete, and we will therefore try to proceed beyond the equation 'uncanny' = 'unfamiliar'.18

Following Freud's reasoning it can be seen that Jentsch's conclusions are not insightful enough: it is quite possible to be faced with a novel and unfamiliar situation, to be intellectually uncertain, and yet not to have the feeling that something is 'uncanny'; beyond the unfamiliarity there needs to be some obscured element of the once familiar. Freud's essay thus begins by surpassing the conclusions reached by Jentsch.

If Jentsch's hypothesis of that which creates the feeling of uncanniness is applied to the subject of photography,some inadequacies become apparent. It is perhaps quite true that photographs offer an 'unfamiliar' and 'novel' perspective of reality; however it is rather more debatable that there is an "intellectual uncertainty" surrounding photography. Given that photographs are so very capable of creating ambiguity in so many different forms, this still cannot be precisely equated with intellectual uncertainty (perhaps more accurately an aesthetic uncertainty). Therefore, as this is an unsatisfactory definition (there is a possibility that an individual photograph can give an implication of intellectual uncertainty, but whether photography as a medium can be said to do so is more difficult to discern), it is necessary and desirable to look beyond Jentsch for a definition which can be applied in a more lucid argument if photography is to be considered as 'uncanny'.

next: Two: Photography & The Uncanny

Footnotes;The Uncanny

7 Ibid,p339
8 Ibid,p342
9 Lacan had to invent a term 'extimite' for the 'uncanny' as the standard French translation, 'líinquietante etrangere', was not satisfactorily equivalent in meaning ( Dolar,op.cit. p6).
10 Freud, op. cit. p339
11 Mladen Dolar (op. cit. p5), with reference to Lacan, places the 'uncanny'"at the very centre of psychoanalysis", stating that "the uncanny provides a clue to the basic project of psychoanalysis. And yet Freud appears to be somewhat at a loss about how to make use of this clue."
Likewise, the Penguin Freud Library places Das Unheimliche in volume 14, entitled Art and Literature- due no doubt to the emphasis on Hoffman's story of the Sand-man, which is not however the subject of the essay, merely being an extended and exhaustive example, among others.
12 Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty, p8
13 Ibid.
14 The Eros being the instinctual drives previously described by Freud, the Sexual Instinct, the Instincts of Self- Preservation and the Ego Instinct, being subsumed into the 'Life Instincts', which is put in opposition to the Death Instinct (cf. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920).
15 Laplanche & Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis,1980, p98
16 Foster, op. cit. p7
17 E. Jentsch, Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen(1906), which unfortunately does not appear to have ever been translated into English, so a comparison for purposes of this essay is redundant, thus Freud's references to Jentsch must be taken at face value.
18 Freud, op. cit. p341


©copyright 2005 Nicholas Middleton