The familiar become strange…
Clare: The project stems from the 100th anniversary of Freud’s essay on the uncanny. What do we understand by ‘the uncanny’, and why did you decide to revisit it?
Gill: Pippa and I had been talking about how technology such as implantable heart devices in the body had this weird effect of ‘othering’ the body. Pippa started to bring up the idea of the uncanny – making things that were once familiar strange.
Pippa: I remembered an essay that I’d read by the German author Kleist from the beginning of the 19th century, called On the Marionette Theatre. It’s about this idea that puppets are more graceful than humans can ever be because they’re mechanised, they don’t have this self-conscious sense of who they are. In that sense they are more completely who they are. We started talking about the uncanny, Freud’s idea that the uncanny is ‘not the strange, but the familiar become strange’. It can be the sense that you are slightly out of kilter within your own body, you’re estranged from your own body, whether that’s through illness or through the treatment of illness through medical interventions. Both of these can cause a feeling of uncanny.
The uncanny is large – it’s impossible to define and pin down. We realised there was quite a lot to explore, and it would be more fruitful to explore it in a genuinely uncanny way, by getting people from different backgrounds, academics and writers, to explore it together – not by trying to define it, but through their own experiences and their own arts. The whole idea was to get together people from very different backgrounds and just see what would happen if we put everyone together in a room.
Clare: These changes in technology and medicine are leaving us with a really different understanding of our bodies, our relationships with our bodies, and actually of what humanity is. From a psychological perspective, I think about it in terms of how we make sense of what human is, and how the uncanny fits in with this everchanging world. It’s quite interesting to think about Freud’s uncanny, and the uncanny as it is developing within this everchanging world.
Pippa: Freud tries and fails to define what the uncanny means for him. The essay is very uncanny itself, as it circles round and round, but he never pins down what the uncanny is. It is always a failure, but it’s a very interesting prospect to try and do it. The uncanny is inherently the idea that we are always trying and failing to categorise the world and ourselves within the world. The fact that we always try and put boundaries where we think humanity is and where it isn’t obviously tells us about ourselves. I think that’s why it’s a useful thing to do and why it’s always updating itself.
I like the idea that Freud started with language, trying to define it using dictionary definitions and fiction. He draws upon a variety of sources, and that’s why we wanted to draw together the fiction writers and poets with academics who work in the ‘real world’. I’ve thought for a long time now that fiction writing has a lot to tell us about navigating the real world.
Clare: And what’s really interesting is that when you try to find dictionary definitions of these things, you can’t, because there are emotional, intangible parts. You can’t write a definition of how it makes you feel because you can’t put your finger on it – the whole point of the uncanny is that you can’t put your finger on it. The use of fictional writings in combination allows more of a breadth to that understanding, and that exploration of the uncanny that academic work alone wouldn’t be able to do. That real depth of exploration is quite unique here.
Pippa: I really like to see what happens when you hash together different disciplines. It has its problems too, but it’s always fascinating. You always get people who are very nervous to start with and very uncomfortable about leaving their own expertise. They don’t want to make a fool of themselves, they don’t know what they’re going to be able to do in this different area, but they trust the process and trust their own innate creative sense. Then people always produce wonderful fascinating work.
Clare: When we got in that room, I did feel very out of my comfort zone. I felt like I might not be able to produce the work, but what was nice was I felt I might inspire some work. Just sharing knowledge and world understandings allowed us to take a little bit of knowledge from each other and use that to build on. We’re all quite guilty of only talking to people who already have our own worldview, and so this sort of project is really good for taking inspiration from the views of others. It really did push contributors to think beyond their own comfort zones.
Pippa: The academics really rose to the challenge. They were quite prepared to leave their comfort zone behind and work in quite different styles, in different modes of writing. I think all the academics really produced work that’s not only interested in its content, but also in its style, and I think that was probably the most interesting aspect of the book. It might be an encouragement to academics who are keen to explore how they can break out of the conventions of their discipline.
Gill: The writers were really open as well. They showed real patience in giving the academics a little bit of space to find their comfort zone. I think we were a wee bit naive in thinking that we would team one academic and one artist and just get them to work to and fro together in their unit to produce something amazing – it wasn’t like that at all really, which was just how it should be. There are quite a lot of textbooks on how to work with other disciplines, but this is a book that just does that and shows it.
Clare: It was a little bit like creative writing speed dating. I went on three creative writer dates, and Jane took the bait for the stuff that I was talking about, and she’s produced a phenomenal short story. I was hit by the way she had taken all the discussions I’d had with her about the experiences of individuals living with amputation, and formed something situated not just within the individual, but in the environment – the city, the street, the weather and everything. It just all merged. It’s really phenomenal that she managed to work with what I see as being quite an academic, almost bland or boring narrative that I don’t know what to do with.
All the way through the book, you can really see the relationships that have developed. It really deals with so many different elements of embodiment and identity and how we fit in the world and make sense of it all… and what happens when we can’t quite make sense of it. The uncanny just flows like a big, golden thread all the way through this book. It’s in the process and in the output.
Gill: It started very much focusing on the human body and how alterations to the body could have some quite far-reaching identity implications. But the more we got into the uncanny, the more we began to realise that this wasn’t just an issue around embodiment and identity. It encompasses so much more than that, and so the Freudian idea of uncanny, of the familiar being strange, could stretch out to relationships with the environment or other people, or even with other things.
Clare: There’s the whole section of the book looking at situating bodies – the uncanny of the city and the forest, and taking it beyond your own individual world and into all these other places that are uncanny.
Gill: For me, the uncanny is still endemic, and it’s possibly going to become even more relevant. We’re muddling our bodies up with so many different interventions, whether it’s something that we put inside the body, or on the body, or the way we mediate our body and its relationship to the environment. As we follow on with this human desire to use technology to progress the human condition, then Freud’s uncanny is just going to be all over us.
Pippa: So much of our culture today is about trying to find a neat identity for ourselves. The uncanny teaches us that that’s always doomed to failure because we have this porous relationship with our wider environments. Identity is complex. I’m living in Germany and I am legally German, but I’m not German… I’m uncanny here because I’m not a local, but I’m not a foreigner either, so I’m very difficult to categorise. So I think a lot about how to identify who you are in a place, and how that identity varies from place to place. I think the uncanny can be very useful in reminding us to stay with the unease. To stay with the current difficulty of the uncanny, and exploit that, is probably my most important take home message.
Clare: Sometimes we need to embrace the uncanny and enter into it to explore it. We can learn from it rather than rejecting it because it feels unknown.
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