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EXPLORING THE UNCANNY

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According to Freud, “the uncanny is the class of frightening things that leads us back to what is known and familiar.” Often this is interpreted to mean that we only fear or react with fear to that which is, to some degree, familiar. I imagine this as a spectrum that runs from familiar to unfamiliar, at the furthest extremes, that would allow us, in theory, to appropriate perceptual ratios to given uncanny experiences when afforded the right data.

However, upon further speculation and investigation into Freud's work on the topic, as well as the interpretations of other minds from other areas of academia, there are many more facets to this near ineffable concept to consider. When we boil it down to its simplest parts, the uncanny is a means of describing the journey we all go through when trying to reconcile Cognitive Dissonance, or the duality of conflicting ideas we hold simultaneously.

There are instances in the spectrum of the familiar and unfamiliar that, rather than causing upset, can be quite pleasing to the senses. Take satire, for instance. The movie Anchorman starring Will Ferrell comes to mind. This is a story that contains elements of iconic familiarity in pop culture as well circumstances that are both absurd and unprecedented. This concoction of wild characters in a socially convivial post-progressive setting causes cognitive dissonance to be sure, but the resulting perception manifests as amusing rather than upsetting.

It was Jacque Lacan's reinterpretation of the uncanny that took a new angle in the psychoanalytic field, suggesting that whereas psychoanalysis is really "the constant effort to draw a clear line between the exterior and the interior," the uncanny, or as he called it in French 'extimite' is the gray area between those two points. Focusing on the blur between the two concepts was said by Lacan to "excite horror."

Usually when you hear the word uncanny in dialogue, the connotation is much different than its actual meaning. People tend to use it to describe things that are very alike, but this is wrong in several subtle ways. Take for instance the context of likeness, “the likeness is uncanny.” If we said this to mean what Freud meant when he described the uncanny then every time a man's son came out looking a lot like him, we'd be freaked out. But in reality this occurrence is not creepy at all. In fact, it can be rewarding and delightful. According to Webster, the uncanny is “seeming to have supernatural character or origin.” In fairness, many people default to this definition when using the word, but this doesn't quite peg the experience Freud was describing either.

A lot of you have probably heard of the Uncanny Valley. This was a term first used by Masahiro Mori, a roboticist, in the 70's. The idea was that the more human a robot looks, the more unsettling its appearance will be to humans, until it reaches the precipice of looking almost identical to a human.

Another example that is contrary to popular definition, and perhaps a little taboo, is the all too familiar Beauty and the Beast scenario, where a girl attempts to tame the heart of a wild bad-boy type. The thought processes in such women differ, as do the motivations, but I think it's fair to say that at the core of this ill-advised endeavor there is a fantasy going on wherein the beast shows the woman kindness. These two conversely paradoxical characteristics in a man make him irresistible to nearly all women. But, why? Should we not be upset by this amalgamation of disparate qualities?

It is almost universal among the psychoanalytic community that the term “uncanny” refers to that which excites fear. But I offer that this is not the case. It would seem that the mental discord gained from experiencing conflicting cognitions is not in itself disrupting to one's ability to enjoy the experience. So then what is the uncanny?

In defining the uncanny we have two options. Either the uncanny is that which incites fear, in which case it defines only part of the journey down the scale of familiar to unfamiliar. Or, it represents movement down that entire spectrum. I would like to propose the latter to be true and posit that there is a potential to express an experiential formula which describes the transcendence of our awareness from familiar to unfamiliar as a concise and accurate portrayal of the human experience.

It may seem a tacit concept, like trying to describe deja vu. It's something we all experience and all recognize when we see it, but to put it in words is nearly impossible. To perceive the uncanny is to recognize the components of awareness reacting to each other's presence exponentially, manifesting physical reactions, like in a fractal. Exponentially increasing the familiar and unfamiliar uniformly, passing from this dimension outward, in this respect the uncanny formula could be said to describe the perception of space/time, and, in some cases, further journeying down the rabbit hole would lead to enlightenment, increased reality, i.e. the moment where you see yourself seeing yourself. As Alan Watts put it in limerick:

There once was a man who said:
Though it seems that I know that I know,
What I'd like to see,
Is the 'I' that knows me,
When I know that I know that I know.

In this series we will continue to explore the uncanny as a mechanism for reconciling cognitive dissonance and furthering our understanding of reality.