The Uncanny: Cognitive Dissidence

When we think of psychology, we often think of Sigmund Freud, the glorified conspiracy theorist whose widely popularized concepts of wish fulfillment, dream interpretation, and the systems of the psyche have left their stain on the modern science as we know it today. Despite some of his rather absurdist notions, particularly on the subject of natural incestuous inclinations in what he refers to as the Oedipus complex, Freud’s interpretations on the subject of the Uncanny may still have some merit in a social setting.

Freud differentiates the vernacular adjective “uncanny” from his noun, referred to as “the uncanny.” Uncanny in its form as an adjective is defined as “partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar”, and although Freud’s Uncanny is more of an applied form of the term, it has its roots in the same concept of feeling. The Uncanny is most commonly triggered by the fear of castration, intellectual uncertainty, and primary narcissism.

As you may have noticed above, I personally am of the opinion that Freud’s theories on the fear of castration and repressed desires redirected toward our primary caretakers in our infancy are absolutely preposterous. Perhaps Freud may have promoted these concepts because he himself was often the victim of incestuous impulses and felt the need to ease his own conscious by tarnishing the reputation of psychology in its entirety within the world of science because he couldn’t keep it in his pants. However, I believe the concept of primary narcissism in particular as it pertains to the Uncanny is not as bizarre as it may seem.

In lecture today, Professor Lieblang’s presentation on primary narcissism as an expression of the fear of death in children particularly fascinated me. In order to live in the natural world (throwback to Darwin’s natural selection), wouldn’t an inherent fear of death be a reasonable primal fear to ensure the survival of our offspring? If children are naturally afraid of danger or dying, they would most likely stay away from activities that could prove injurious or fatal, thus passing down the optimal trait of survival to their own offspring thereafter. Freud’s idea of the splitting of the self as most apparent in children who have not yet been conditioned to repress that fear, and its return as triggered by situations in adult life, such as doppelgängers or passing glances in mirrors, is no where near as crazy as Freud himself may have been.

One comment

  1. I find several aspects of Freud’s “The Uncanny” to be more believable than some of his other arguments/claims, and your discussion here shows a good example. There certainly are other reasons besides Freud’s own views to think that a fear of death could be common, and even possibly among children. I only know my own son started really being afraid of death once he was old enough to grasp something of the concept (can’t remember what age, exactly…but certainly late enough that he had a good grasp of language!). Once he did understand it he was very afraid for quite some time, though fortunately that has gotten better (he’s 9 now). And the whole idea of having some kind of doubling of the self, in numerous ways as we talked about in seminar today, makes sense to me too. I also find that many of his other examples of things that are uncanny make sense to me, such as unexplained repetitions, or things that make it seem like we can affect happenings in the world with just our thoughts or wishes. What I’m not certain of is whether he has a good enough argument to show that the uncanny has to do with what was once familiar (in childhood) and then got repressed, and is coming back. Maybe in some cases, but I’m not sure about all of the ones he lists (eyes and castration being one of the most prominent ones that I don’t think there’s enough evidence to support!). Still, the whole topic of why some things give us a particular feeling called “uncanny” is really interesting to me: what leads some events, or stories, to evoke that feeling and not others? To me that’s just kind of fascinating in its own right!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *