The Uncanny

Indestructible Object (1964 replica of 1923 original), Man Ray

The “Uncanny” (Das Unheimliche), which is the focus of the current issue, is a term that signifies a sentiment based in the familiar and the already-known, in what used to be ordinary, friendly, intimate, and homey, and has become the source of a burdensome, frightening and terrorizing strangeness. This strangeness evokes anxiety not because it is strange, but because it has a familiar side.

Sigmund Freud’s Uncanny was published in 1919, shortly after the end of the First World War and a year before the publication of his radical essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle that examines the death drive. These two texts complete and support each other in terms of their theory, and describe together in a somewhat somber manner the mental biography of the modern man and his inability to rescue himself from what is traumatic and horrific. In the Uncanny Freud explores a feeling that is completely immersed in the German word unheimlich (as an adjective, and as a noun: Das Unheimliche). The German language communicates this feeling so intimately to its speakers – no foreigner could comprehend it. It is the strangeness within the intimate, a sense of uneasiness in the encounter with the homey (Heimlich) that is at once mysterious and concealed.


The duality of the term “Uncanny” – suggesting both temptation and intimidation – is strongly connected to the term “homey” (Heimlich). It reflects the changes that the bourgeois home has gone through in the course of history and the strong connections of this home to the emergence of the institution of the nuclear family in the threshold of modern times. The term “homey” was structured in Europe in the 17th century and peaked in the 19th century. It served as an alternative and as an answer to the speeding growth of European cities, and to the distinction between the internal home and the external public domain. The change in the perception of the home reflected social, cultural and economic values that expressed the rise of concepts such as privacy, intimacy and the cozy or comfortable domestication.

Until the 17th century large families lived together in crowded homes and shared single spaces that were used for work, cooking, eating and sleeping. During this period, private rooms were extremely rare and entire families crowded with their children, grandmothers and grandfathers, servants, guests and animals in one packed, multi-purposed space. The change in the design of the home occurred gradually with the establishment of the bourgeois Dutch Republic in the beginning of the 17th century, after thirty years of revolt against Spain. It was there that the concept of domestication was born and that the nuclear family became an important institution. The change in the relationship between parents and children was expressed in the separation of sleeping and living spaces, as well as in the separation of work – that was gradually established as a practice done outside of home – from domestic life. These characteristics grew stronger also in France during the 18th century, as a result of a concern about the size of the local population.

Alongside the aspiration to domestic peacefulness in an age of capitalism and competition, the attitude towards marriage, childhood and family has gone through changes. The growing importance of the family and the individual was expressed in changes in the structure of the home, which became the fortress of privacy. Around the same period the term “comfort”, which originates in the Latin word conforate (to comfort, support and reassure), was coined. This new expression conveys a sense of peacefulness and pleasure that is connected to domestic space (see still today the obsession in TV shows with home cooking and its “comforting” qualities, such as warm soup).

The enrooting of this novel idea was strongly apparent in the design of bourgeois homes in France and in England. In these homes the distinction between intimate and private spaces and between hosting and display spaces, which were meant to house the entire family, was strengthened considerably. This distinction also reflected prevailing gender perceptions: the domestic space became the space of the housewife with her children and servants, whereas the public, economic and political sphere belonged exclusively to men. Domestication was perceived as a feminine accomplishment, tied directly to the idea of comfort: the house became a tranquil and intimate shelter, a kind of residence that allows rest for both body and soul .

However, as the status of the home as a social institution grew stronger during the 19th century – the century of the nuclear family and of parental and conjugal love – a darker side of this institution revealed itself. This dark side was expressed, inter alia, in the creation of suspense and horror fiction by writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle, who described the home as a crime scene. Their stories shed dark light on the home-space and emphasize the horror and insecurity that are tied to it . These ideas of romance, primal instincts and chaos negated the concept of home yet embodied it at the same time. They indicated the uneasiness that the home invokes: familiar yet strange, at once homey and Uncanny.

The dark side of the of the "homey" is apparent in Feud’s interpretation of the term “Uncanny”, which presents a response to his reading of the short article On the Psychology of the Uncanny (1906) by the psychiatrist and neurologist Ernst Jentsch. Freud’s response concentrates particularly on Jentsch's main argument which states that the Uncanny results from an “intellectual uncertainty”. This feeling is most evident in encounters with similes or hybrids, which merge the living and the nonliving, the human and the bestial, the human and the technological etc. In his article, Jentsch argues that a prominent example can be found in the writings of one of the greatest late German romantic period writers, E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). Freud assumes that Jentsch referred particularly to Hoffmann's The Sandman because of Olimpia – the mechanic doll. Nathanael, the miserable protagonist, falls in love with Olimpia in a destructive and radical manner, as a modern anti-pygmalion. Freud, however, presents a different standpoint than Jentsch, even if he does not entirely detach himself from the Jentschian argument, which haunts him in an Uncanny manner. Thus, this literature piece reminds us the proximity of Freud’s work to its literary and cultural origins in the late German romanticism, with its preoccupation with the horrific in the sublime and the hidden dimension of human nature.

Indeed, the Uncanny is a peculiar, surprising, intimidating and maybe even chaotic text that represents – but at the same time also invokes – discomfort, as stated by the French thinker Hélène Cixous, who argues that the reading of this discontinuous text is a disturbing experience in itself . In this sense, one could claim that although the Uncanny is consistent with the characteristics of the end of the romantic period in Europe, it has also come ahead of its time. Freud’s text on the unheimlich was supposedly thrown into the world due to the writer’s distress following the tragic events of the war, as waste from earlier years of theoretical and clinical work, as a winding collection of words describing a distressing and strange experience. And thus even if Freud maintained the gloomy atmosphere of his essay about Tanatos' domination of human life in his later works, he did not continue to explore the concept. Yet it seems that this text has survived the decades that past and its role did not diminish but quite the contrary: it is now perceived as one of the most prominent and influential texts in the disciplines of art and culture criticism and continental philosophy.

The postmodern thinking of the last decades has aimed at exploring precisely these disturbing borderline experiences, which manifest themselves in the Uncanny. These are the borderline, hybrid situations that contain darkness and enlightenment at the same time. One example is Jacque Derrida’s concept of différance, which appears to translate the literary-Psychoanalytic term into the philosophical arena. This concept points at the instability of the linguistic unit and at the collapse of the binary 'system' into a borderline which includes both elements yet excludes them at the same time. Here can be mentioned, in the same manner, the writings of Jacque Lacan, the radical French psychoanalyst who calls for a return to Freud. Lacan wrote a great deal about what he described as 'real'; that which is beyond representation in the fields of images or words, and which an encounter with creates distress. In fact, Lacan picks up at the same point where Freud ended his essay on the Uncanny. The Uncanny, the 'real' and the différance are all concepts that try to describe our encounter with what cannot be given a stable meaning, what is hidden in the most explicit and comprehensible place, in our secure, intimate home.

At the same time one can witness the rising of the “Uncanny” in contemporary visual culture expressed in the repeated preoccupation with super-natural and mysterious beings such as vampires, alongside a liminal motive of the man-doll discussed in the famous article by the Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori about the Uncanny Valley, and alongside contemporary horrifying pieces that include hybrids of living creatures and still objects and of human and mechanical elements (as in the works of Cindy Sherman, Jake Chapman and Damien Hirst). The concept grew more important in the last decade through art exhibitions that focused on the issue in Israel and abroad. Among these exhibitions are the show "Home", curated by prof. Gannit Ankori and Jacque Perskein in Andale gallery, Jerusalem, July 1997; "The Uncanny", in Tate Liverpool, England, 2004 that was later exhibited also in the Modern Art Museum in Vienna; the show "Unsettling Freudian Art" in the Leeds Met gallery, 2008; or "The Grotesque Body in Contemporary Art", curated by Tami Manor-Friedman in the Haifa Museum of Art, 2009.

The visual and cultural manifestations of the Uncanny are presented in the eight essays that open this issue of The Protocols. Bracha L. Ettinger, following her revolutionary essay the Matrixial Gaze, 1994, returns to "The Uncanny" and critically analyzes the connection between the Uncanny and the castration anxiety. She presents the feminine-maternal matrixial 'Uncanny', which she extracts from the Uncanny in its entirety, and to which she adds the affects of compassion and awe. Further on, in her essay The Heimliche, printed here in Hebrew for the first time, Ettinger suggests an aesthetic dimension of 'co/in-habit(u)ation', created through flares of differentiation and differenciation in the joints between self and non-self in recurrent events of intersection. In his essay, "The Manhood Anxiety", Itzhak Benyamini establishes an exploration of male psychology, following the psychoanalytical conceptions of the Uncanny in Freud, Lacan and Ettinger, and following feminist criticism of the Freudian field, including that of Ettinger's. According to Benyamini, his essay was written from a distinctly heterosexual masculine standpoint, and it therefore expresses longing and attraction to the feminine, together with repulsion and terror from it; the strangeness of the feminine cannot, even today, be effaced. In contrast to Benyamini, Meital Raz, in her essay God Has Created a Monster: The Representation of the Monstrous Feminine in Contemporary Art as Feminist Aesthetics, looks at contemporary art pieces that combine two supposedly contradicting perceptions: representation of the woman as a monster on the one hand, and the feminist discourse on the other. By discussing two separate perceptions – Julia Kristeva's Abjection and Rosi Braidotti's theory of the Nomadic Subject – Raz maintains that the representation of monstrous femininity in contemporary art expresses an espousal of a feminist aesthetic language which celebrates the otherness and differentness of the feminine. The relationship between the feminine and the Uncanny is discussed also in Liora Bing Heideker's essay, Unearthing the Spirit: The archaeological metaphor and the Uncanny pathology of romantic ballet. Heidecker's essay examines the rise of romantic ballet in the 19th century and its close connection to Freud's Uncanny and to the archeological metaphor in théophile gautier's writings. According to Heidecker, the archeological metaphor and the Uncanny space which surrounded it, created a unique romantic aesthetics which made its mark on the necrophile eroticisim with which the image of the ballerina is imbued to this day. Yonatan Ventura's essay, At your fingertips: The Threatening Body in Industrial Design, focuses on the paralyzing terror of the "Uncanny" which emerges in the meeting point between the designer and the user's body, when designing limbs and artificial body parts.

In "Good Jew", Yochai Ataria follows the roots of Jentsch's intellectual anxiety, by examining the inner-world of Larry, the protagonist in the film "A Serious Man". Larry is on the verge of receiving a permanent position in the Academia, yet under the surface the Jewish Dibbuk haunts him. Larry's state symbolizes the state of the natural scientist, which is also the state of Descartes, one of the founding fathers of modern philosophy. The natural scientist is driven by anxiety and cannot explain the most important phenomena: our mental existence [lives]. Emma Azriel Gashinskey's essay, A Split Identity – The Uncanny in Michael Sgan-Cohen’s Art, discusses the Uncanny in Michael Sgan-Cohen's complex identity, which shifts between anchoring in the Israeli place and between disorientation, exile and defamiliarization, and which discloses the ideological ruptures in the root of the Israeli-Jewish identity.

A Lacanian prism allows for the Uncanny to be understood in relation to cinema: in the final essay of this issue, “Home is Where I Want to Be, But I Guess I'm Already There”: an Essay on the Cinemanalytical Uncanny, Orna Castel observes the films "Looper" (2012) and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961), and sheds light on the Freudian "Uncanny" with its Lacanian development. Both films illustrate the way in which an Uncanny meeting allows for a breaking of the Loop of enforced repetition, and it is therefore an opening to transformation. For this purpose, claims Castel, one must be curious about one's uniqueness, and one must be interested in the truth.

This issue includes a translation of an essay by the renowned French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, which examines Bracha L. Ettinger's artistic creation, presented in this issue as well.