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Incorporating the Uncanny.

Das Unheimliche as a Cultural

Zuzanna Dziuban
Although the category of the uncanny, das Unheimliche (the
uncanny return of which, in contemporary cultural reality and humanistic
thought1, is to be analyzed here2) climbed to the heights of its discursive
career only in the 19th century, it had began to stimulate philosophical
imagination earlier, together with the emergence of the aesthetics of the
sublime. The sublime aesthetic anticipated, at least to certain extent, literary
descriptions of the uncanny which invaded the realm of literature above all
thanks to E.T.A. Hoffmans and Edgar Allan Poes short stories. The
dominant motif of their stories presence of a foreign and unintelligible
force in privacy of ones home, a familiar interior is, as Anthony Vidler
assumes, a domesticated version of absolute terror3 which is closer in
meaning to Edmund Burkes4 concept of the sublime than to its
conceptualization proposed by Immanuel Kant.
Yet, the uncanniness embodied in the figure of a haunted house,
which generates fear and anxiety and has been an object of Poes and
Hoffmans thorough (and uncanny) depictions, cannot be simply and naively
reduced to an experience articulated in terms of the sublime. After all, the
fundamental uncertainty evoked by the experience of das Unheimliche is
strictly connected not only with the impossibility of proper or satisfactory
representation5, or resistance encountered by imagination upon confronting
something that exceeds its expectations, but also, or perhaps most
importantly, with the fact that what is foreign, unintelligible uncanny
appears and makes itself present in the realm of what is known and homely.
The uncanny was, in this first incarnation, a sensation best experienced in
the privacy of the interior6 posits Vidler.
Hence, it is the problematic bond between das Heimliche and das
Unheimliche, between home and something that haunts it and threatens its
canniness and thus its integrity, that seems to be of primary importance to
two most profound theoreticians or philosophers of das Unheimliche, that is
Martin Heidegger and Sigmund Freud. Although the philosophers theoretical
perspectives derive from completely different sources hermeneutic
philosophy has never been able to establish friendly relationships with
psychoanalytic tradition in the case of Heideggers and Freuds reflections
on the uncanny one can discover many paradoxical and even uncanny
similarities7. Both of them view das Unheimliche not only as the other of
interpretation (or even the other of psychoanalysis, as Freud reminds us
when he states that the uncanny is not a psychoanalytical but an aesthetic
category)8 something that is foreign and threatening to the accepted
discursive strategy and therefore demands an unambiguous definition or

2Incorporating the Uncanny

Das Unheimliche as a Cultural Experience
classification (even as, at the same time, it always falls outside any
classification) but also as something basic or primordial for the prevalent
discourse, something that might be the very condition for the existence of
that discourse.
This paradoxical status of das Unheimliche came to the fore in 1919
thanks to Freuds text The Uncanny in which the author proposed a
conception of the uncanny that to a greater extent than its counterparts in
other aesthetic theories centered precisely around the problem of its
mysterious canniness. Freuds effort to theoretically elaborate on this
primary aesthetic category was directed mainly at enabling its
operationalization by psychoanalytical discourse. Still, Freuds starting point
was the general aesthetic definition of das Unheimliche as that which (...)
belongs to all that is terrible to all that arouses dread and creeping horror9.
The gradual problematization and narrowing down of the semantic field of
the category of the uncanny which was the main objective of Freuds
investigation was based on two complementary interpretive strategies:
etymological (Heideggers favourite) and comparative. Freud concentrates
on the factors and conditions which transform normal fear or anxiety into an
uncanny one on such characteristics of frightening objects, events, and states
as allow to distinguish those things and situations from other dreadful
phenomena, and to describe them in terms of the uncanny. That focus is
enhanced by the analysis of the term itself, i.e. of the origins and usage of the
word das Unheimliche.
Because of his unwillingness to identify the uncanny exclusively
with intellectual uncertainty as Ernst Jentsch did in his definition10 Freud
searched for inspiration in literature (including Hoffmans and Poes works)
and various dictionaries. One quote by Friedrich Schelling, discovered in
Daniel Sanderss Wrterbuch der deutschen Sprache, proved to be especially
influential for Freuds theory. The quote stated that: Unheimlich is the
name for everything that ought to have remained hidden and secret and has
become visible11 and Freud claims that the un-canny as a privation
(privativum) is etymologically grounded in the canny (heimlich). Therefore,
das Unheimliche can be understood as the opposite of all that that is homely,
known, familiar, belonging to the household, cosy. Interestingly, in his
thorough analysis Freud also points to the fact that the word heimlich itself
evokes two seemingly contradictory sets of ideas or modes of usage: on the
one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other that
which is concealed and kept out of sight.12 Das Unheimliche is the opposite
of only one of those meanings. The ambivalence inscribed in the category of
the uncanny, which allows it to smoothly turn into its opposition where the
homely turns out to be unhomely is, according to Freud, the key to the
conundrum of the analyzed concept.

Zuzanna Dziuban

That assumption, decisive for Freuds interpretation, is supported by
the outcomes of the authors analysis of case studies of das Unheimliche.
Concentrating on a variety of incarnations of the uncanny, such as
compulsion neurosis, involuntary return, male castration anxiety, the figure of
the double, a haunted house, telepathy, cannibalism, or being buried alive,
Freud looks for a feature they would have in common and to which the
appearance of the feeling of uncanniness could be attributed. The described
cases do share one structural characteristic: they are grounded in the fear of
the return of what we would rather not remember, what we did not expect,
and what we do not wish to encounter at all.
Yet, it is exactly the encounter with the forgotten phenomenon
(event, situation, thought) that even if it did not provoke any kind of fear
before is the source of the experience of uncanniness. Freud describes that
characteristic of the uncanny as follows: the uncanny is in reality nothing
new or foreign, but something familiar and old established in the mind that
has been estranged only by the process of repression13 something that,
according to Schellings definition quoted above, ought to have remained...
hidden and secret and has become visible. Thus, in Freuds understanding,
the paradoxical character of the feeling of uncanniness is due to the fact that
the foreignness which is supposed to generate the uncanny feeling is feigned.
The uncanny is in fact something homely, close, and well known which was
deprived of its Heimlichkeit because of repression, being forgotten, or
denied. In Freuds words: This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to
the former heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where everyone
dwelt once upon a time in the beginning.14
That mysterious feature of the uncanny also comes to the fore in
interpretations proposed by Heidegger. The ambivalence of the category in
Heideggers discourse called Unheimlichkeit seems to be crucial for all
modes of its interpretation which were operationalized in the philosophers
papers before and after Kehre. For Heidegger, the paradoxical status of
uncanniness is essential not only with respect to the uncanny (unsettlement)
interpreted in Being and Time as Bestimmung, attunement, a mode (mood) by
which Dasein is disclosed to itself, and to the uncanny understood as deinon,
Wesen of human being (reinterpreted, naturally, in Heideggerian manner)15,
but also to Unheimlichkeit defined in terms of the principle of historicity,
the principle of becoming heimlich.16 For the purposes of this paper I would
like to concentrate exclusively on the interpretation presented in Being and
In all the abovementioned meanings or contexts the uncanny is,
according to Heidegger, the opposite of homely, familiar, understood, and
assimilated. In Being and Time where Unheimlichkeit functions as a tool
which allows structural description of existence, as Daseins being-in-theworld (understood above all in terms of dwelling with..., being familiar

4Incorporating the Uncanny

Das Unheimliche as a Cultural Experience
with...,17 care) Heidegger defines the uncanny as
rootlessness, nothing and nowhere, being not-at-home. Unheimlichkeit is,
therefore, a specific attunement of Dasein, encountered in anxiety which is a
kind of a fear that does not have a particular point of reference, and which
shatters the very fundaments of existence. Everyday familiarity collapses
states Heidegger: Being-in enters the existence of not-being-at-home. To
talk about uncanniness' means nothing other than this.18
Thus, the uncanny is being-in-the-world as un-familiarity, which
means that this world so far familiar and domesticated starts to appear
incomprehensible, foreign. Experienced in anxiety, uncanniness suddenly
exposes to Dasein the fact that that the organized and meaningful world
which used to be Daseins home is not a home anymore. (...) Our heedful
awaiting finds nothing in terms of which it could understand itself, it grasps
at the nothingness of the world19 describes Heidegger. Therefore, all that is
experienced by Dasein every thing and every thought presents itself as
empty or meaningless, since it does not have any meaning for or any relation
to Daseins existence. Hence, in uncanniness one cannot find anything that
would help one to understand oneself and the surrounding word. All
conventionalized and common (shared) meanings Heideggerian the they
which enable to organize the reality of everyday experience become
invalid. From the perspective of the experience of uncanniness, every action
and effort to communicate seems to be doomed to failure. The world is thus
radically unfamiliar.
According to Heidegger, the task of dispelling uncanniness belongs
to the already mentioned they, the publicness: a stable and firm set of
ideas about reality (the world and Dasein) which allows to unproblematically,
routinely, and sometimes even habitually grasp the meaning of the
surrounding reality. It is exactly this publicness that calms the unsettled
Dasein down, offers the feeling of security and belonging, familiarity and
obviousness constitutive for being-at-home tranquillized self-assurance,
as Heidegger would put it. Yet, as the author of Being and Time claims,
publicness has also (or maybe primarily) a dark side, since, while providing
Dasein with handy interpretations of the reality, at the same time it obscures
everything and then claims that what has been thus covered is what is
familiar and accessible to everybody20. Publicness (or culture) understood
in terms of general and mythologized world view, and culturally determined
daily routine functions as a tool for hiding from ones sight the fact that the
world is not as homely and familiar as it might seem.
Thus, tranquillized self-assurance, being-at-home or simply
canniness, which is supposed to be granted by publicness, appears to be
built on the top of something else, something that is more primordial: the
irreducible uncanniness of Daseins very existence. Entangled flight into the

Zuzanna Dziuban

being-at-home of publicness is flight from not-being-at-home, that is, from
the uncanniness which lies in Dasein (...). This uncanniness constantly
pursues Dasein and threatens its everyday lostness in the they.21 Therefore,
the Heideggerian falling prey, which, as an escape or flight into publicness,
guarantees a feeling of security, is at the same time a flight from what is the
most authentic and own for existence: its groundlessness, and thus atopic
character. Heimlichkeit, intelligibility of the world, is not something that one
can access without some kind of effort, or rather hard work, instead, it is an
effect of interpretive activity which constantly tries to hide from itself its
constructive and therefore contingent character. Hence, paradoxically:
Tranquillized, familiar being-in-the-world is a mode of the uncanniness of
Dasein, not the other way around. Not being-at-home must be conceived
existentially and ontologically as the more primordial phenomenon.22
That spectacular reversal of the order in which one thinks about the
uncanny (after all, what is uncanny if not the transformability of what is
uncanny, if not the ambivalence and instability of the very category which
sets Heideggers and Freuds discourse in motion) seems to be fundamental
for Heideggers interpretations of Dasein. For the experience of uncanniness,
as an experience of radical contingency of every interpretation and of every
meaning attributed to reality, actually points out to a radically conceived
hermeneutic phenomenon, namely, the fact that our access to the world and
ourselves is always mediated by unstable, contingent, temporary
interpretations, that there is no real reality that would allow us to legitimize
any of our interpretations, that the only sense and meaning to be found is the
one produced by man, and man exclusively is responsible for the shape of the
world that he inhabits.
Thus, Heideggers interpretation radicalizes Freuds position
according to which uncanny events, which come back to haunt us from time
to time, allow us to uncover something that we have forgotten or repressed,
and therefore they make us feel uncanny to ourselves. The author of Being
and Time pushes the uncanniness of the uncanny a little bit further, since, as
he assumes, it is not a temporary condition, or a moment of anxiety (even
though one experiences uncanniness in this way) in which unsettlement and
nothingness of Dasein is exposed and then momentarily covered under the
veil of familiarizing culture (publicness).
Thanks to Heideggers
interpretation we are forced to take a step backward or simply to go back (the
figure of return, of coming back plays a very important part in Heideggers
late works on the uncanny), to leave behind every specific interpretive order
culturally determined Umwelt and face the reality in which Dasein has to
be confronted with its own radical and constitutive contingency: the abyss,
Abgrund, physis. Hence, in a very Nietzschean manner, Heidegger forces us
to look into this abyss: to uncover the Dionysian upheaval that lies beneath

6Incorporating the Uncanny

Das Unheimliche as a Cultural Experience
and poses a threat to the endeavours of Apollo, the creator of culture, who
constantly tries to invest it with sense, make it meaningful, canny.

1 See, for instance: N. Royle, The Uncanny, Manchester University Press, Manchester 2003; Uncanny Modernity: Cultural
Theories, Modern Anxieties, J. Collins, J. Jerwis (eds.), Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

2 This draft paper serves only as an introduction to the ideas that I would like to present at the
conference, therefore the reference to contemporary cultural reality is not made here.
3 A. Vidler, The Architectural uncanny: Essays in Modern Unhomely, The MIT Press, London, 1992, p.
4 E. Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin and Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990.
5 See: I. Kant, Critique of Judgement, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007.
6 A. Vidler, op. cit., p. 4.
7 The double is one of many incarnations of the uncanny. See: N. Ryle, The Uncanny, op. cit., p. 87 nn.
8 S. Freud, The Uncanny, Penguin Books, London, 2003, p. 121.
9 S. Freud, The Uncanny, p. 121.
10 E. Jentsch, On the Psychology of The Uncanny, Angelaki 2/1996, p. 7-17.
11 S. Freud, The Uncanny, op. cit., p. 126-127.
12 S. Freud, op. cit., p. 127.
13 S. Freud, op.cit., p. 145-146.
14 S. Freud, op. cit., p. 150.
15 M. Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990.
16 M. Heidegger, Hlderlins Hymn The Ister, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1996.
17 M. Heidegger, op. cit., p. 188.
18 M. Heidegger, Being and Time, State University of New York Press, 1996, p. 189.

19 M. Heidegger, op. cit., p. 319.

20 M. Heidegger, op.cit., p. 119.
21 M. Heidegger, op. cit., p. 177.
22 M. Heidegger, op. cit., p. 177.