A public service announcement: The Addams Family is now streaming for FREE on YouTube, from MGM. A pastiche of horror fiction iconography — and also an indictment of the 50’s nuclear family, the conventions of the sitcom, and all things domestic — this show is perhaps one of the most interesting and clear-cut manifestations of the uncanny in popular culture. And it is still a riot.
Neat find: Professor Heard’s Magic Latern Shows is a traveling act that nostalgically recreates the “phantasmagoria” of the 18th & 19th centuries for contemporary audiences. (I learned about Heard’s show via his article, “The Lantern of Fear” published by Grand Illusions, a fun online shop for offbeat science toys, uncanny gizmos, and illusionary devices.) As I further pursued this, I found that magic lantern shows and phantasmagoria are still very much a living art. The question I have is whether these are quaint celebrations of our domestication of their uncanny spectacle, or does the nostalgia for these “dead” technologies make their apparitions all the more uncanny?
I thank my colleagues at Seton Hill University, Laura Patterson and Maureen Vissat, for recently passing along a YouTube link to “Doll Face” by Andrew Huang. It’s a brilliant treatment of the relationship between media technology and gender identity, using uncanny structures like automatism and the compulsion to repeat to deliver its message.
The video sent me to Huang’s website, which features many stunningly uncanny animations worth sharing, analyzing, and potentially using in a college classroom. Huang’s art is more than “pop” but it appeals to the popular imagination through iconic treatements of domesticity-made-strange. His excellent short film, The Gloaming, features deja vu in a disturbingly ominous way, reminiscent of the work of Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay. Even his advertisements for Moo Studios use fantastic transformations of ordinary furniture and objects, giving them an unexpected life all their own. But his music video for Eric Avery’s “All Remote and No Control” is perhaps the most horrifying and uncanny of them all, as it represents the boundaries between the urban and the domestic under transgression by an almost Lovecraftian representation of nature — with chilling results. Here’s the version from YouTube
but a higher quality version is on Andrew Huang’s excellent website itself.
I love dismembered hand jokes as much as anyone else, but this creepy image grabbed my attention as the featured image of the day on Uncyclopedia – a mock Wikipedia wiki that I stumbled upon when searching the web for material on the surrealist, Rene Magritte. At first I didn’t even realize I was ON the Uncyclopedia, and as I read the parodic material on the surrealist master I thought to myself, “How clever…some cheeky monkey had fun “culture jamming” with the open source editing of the wikipedia and pulled a surrealist technique on the very surrealist himself.” But then I figured it out and realized — they “got me.”
A site like Uncyclopedia lures the unwary google searcher into its trap. Caught off guard, I fell into the hall of mirrors of parody — the doubling of the double — and experienced a twinge of the uncanny. Somehow I felt on safer ground when I subsequently found the “actual” wikipedia — not on its “correct” page dedicated to Magritte, but its page on the Uncyclopedia itself. The wikipedia’s Magritte page no longer feels stable to me…it all seems to suggest something parodic waiting to be discovered.
Everything “un-” is uncanny (“the prefix -un,” Freud tells us, “is the token of repression”). There is a degree to which my destabilizing experience of the Uncyclopedia reflects the power of das Unheimlich to redefine assumptions about boundary lines, categories, and reason itself. Unreason, if only for a moment, goes “all in,” and gets the upper hand.
Magritte’s own description of his work bears repeating, since there is the notion of the “hidden secret” inherent behind not only vision, but also every truth claim:
It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.
My wife, Renate, recently submitted the entry above to Wired magazine‘s latest “Found: Artifacts from the Future” contest, which asks readers to predict the future of chewing gum with photoshopped gumpacks.
Also on the site is Octuplemint — a parody of the most popular of uncanny of gums, Doublemint.
For me, gum is an interesting product to study, because it is a very cheap consumer good that is not exactly consumed: it is chewed, yes, but it is also (usually) spit out, and replaced by another one. Thus it is a potent icon of the essential “empty” value of a commodity. And because its benefits are really nothing more than flavored saliva, its appeal is almost solely a result of highly manipulative advertising, which promises so much more than the item can really deliver. “Eclipse” gum might promise to “hide” one’s bad breath — and perhaps it does so effectively — but its very name and “space age”-looking package taps into our cultural awe (and primitive fear, perhaps) of the sublime lunar eclipse.
Big Red’s catchy jingle ["Kiss a little longer, hold hands a little longer, hold tight a little longer. Longer with Big Red..."] seems to promise not only fresh breath but an enhanced level of intimacy (reminiscent of a product pitch like the one done by Viagra!). But even more fundamentally, what the jingle and package is really suggesting is that a stick of gum can magically extend time itself: “make it last a little longer.” This is not simply the employment of a “weasel word” (“longer” — longer than WHAT?). This supernatural promise of advertising (see Raymond Williams’ “The Magic System”) is also the sort of incantation that summons the uncanny in so many popular consumer goods that we no longer even see them critically; instead, we playfully sing along.
Thus, Renate’s “stem cell” enhanced cancer-fighting gum — which sounds like something out of a science-fiction novel — is right on the mark: “Live a little longer…with Big Med.” This is what “Big Pharma” incessantly promises, too, in its myriad campaigns for the latest pill or patch or implant. While it is true enough that medicine can indeed support a healthy, longer lasting body — and possibly one day even offer a cure for cancer like Big Med — the truth is that consumer goods always promise more than just long-lasting experience. They promise everlasting life, for a price. This is the heresy of the commodity fetish. Don’t swallow it.
The Sultan’s Elephant is a giant marionette parade that is so artfully done, it strikes one as uncanny. As I wrote in November, most parade floats have an uncanny appeal, but in this case the doll’s appearance seems much less mechanical (ergo, more organic) than all the visible equipment and support needed to operate it. The eyes are what do it for me: on the elephant, especially, who’s segmented metallic trunk is a monstrosity. There is a backstory here, about an elephant who travels in a time machine, and it is inspired by the work of Jules Verne.
The video below reveals just how scary-yet-magical this all is. It’s a great instance of the uncanny in popular culture — and also a beautiful example of social/collective art.
[Thanks to writer Steve Vernon for calling my attention to this.]
Rob Horning‘s recent essay in PopMatters — called “Doomed to Dilettantism” — performs an alarming and fantastic excoriation of the trend toward substituting “professionalism” in the arts with “amateurism” by consumers. Ingeniously, Horning connects the proliferation of faux-artisan strip mall stores like Michael’s (the chain craft store “Where Creativity Happens”) to the consumerist propensity for instant art without work found in such manufactured-but-ultimately-empty products for purchase like Paint-by-Numbers kits and Guitar Hero. These are simulacra that pre-package the artistic process, transforming it into a consumer item, slowly depreciating the cultural value of art in the process.
Horning’s essay is important, I think, especially in the way he ties all of this in to the economy. His article is not so much a snubbing of folk art or a call for a return to the great divide between high art and lowbrow, as it is a lament about the erasure of meaningful production altogether under capitalism. He’s captured what is so pathetic about games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band — whose karaoke appeal (as I discovered over the holidays personally) is really quite fun, but whose faux instruments are irrationally consumerist and whose existence would seem unfathomable a decade ago. As Horning points out: for the same price of the kit needed for Rock Band, you can buy real musical equipment! Instead of creating art what happens is that players are trained to play along, buying more and more accessories (available in an infinite shopping mall that opens up via online access, with its downloadable songs and pricey plastic “instruments” and much, much more). While a game like Rock Band does involve players in a team and there is a joissance to be experienced that is not unlike group dance, the truth is that even the relationships between players is a faux social relationship. The players’ attentions are mediated by the TV screen which must be studied and followed like a script, rather than performing as a harmonious ensemble, riffing off the sounds created by one another. Indeed, you often have to ignore your fellow players’ mistakes if you hope to survive, and the only impromptu action you can take is lifting your guitar into the air to pretend that you’re doing a solo. Yet the pleasure of the game comes when everyone is working in uncanny synchronicity, timed with the pulsing lights — we win when become the stars on the screen by rote repetition of the programmed score, keeping the machine streaming prefab sounds in a steady and uninterrupted stream. Mechanical reproduction is the objective. It is, ultimately, the very antithesis of artistic production.
Horning argues that such an activity deifies consumption and that this sort of artistic paradigm transforms how we relate to artwork. We see it as a collectible, rather than an experience. The “aura” of the artist dissipates, replaced by the commodity fetish. We begin to value quantity over quality, in order to display and advertise our pop culture status, rather than genuinely appreciating what it is we’re collecting, or attempting to create anything of use or cultural value on our own. In the case of paint-by-numbers art, we have no time to develop the skills required to refine our talents; we have no desire to work for pleasure. In the process, the arts become a deskilled industry — just like the handcraft of furniture making is replaced by push-button factory labor — and we subsequently become bored and alienated by the arts, driven only to fill the void with more and more stuff as we throw away one thing (or momentarily give tribute to it in the collection) and move on to the next one. The result is ultimately ennui and a quest to stave it off with more consumer goods that ultimately leave us dissatisfied all over again.
In games like Rock Band and Guitar hero, we don’t create the music: the music creates us, and we recognize this in the uncanny avatars that refract back to us, screaming and pounding the skins on our TV screens.
A cheeky November 2008 webisode on TrendHunterTv.com reveals just how strange American’s fascination with such things has become in “Faux Rockstar”.
[Images below have been removed from site, 9/2014. The new website for totally looks like" is at http://memebase.cheezburger.com/totallylookslike ]
If you don’t already know, LOLcats are artfully captioned photographs of animals, as in the image above. They’re pretty funny, entirely created by the visitors to icanhascheezburger.com (whose domain name refers to one of the first LOLcat images that got widely distributed online and started this whole thing). Like many online “sharing” sites, I consider LOLcats a fantastic form of new media folk art that attests to the popular draw of the uncanny.
How can a cute little kitten be “uncanny”? The given framework for these captioned photos imbues the subject of the image (the cat) with a language it does not speak (a regressive, childlike “kitten” language of its own invention that gives the cat a distinctive “voice”), blurring the boundary between human and animal. Freud calls this “the omnipotence of thoughts” in his article on “The Uncanny” — a psychological projection inherent to animistic beliefs and anthropomorphic fantasies. Thus, it is quite normal that this unnatural and imaginary language of the LOLCAT is the equivalent of “baby speak”: the animals are really like children more than they are like cats. The language in the caption, moreover, matches the human-like expressions and gestures in the image so well that a spectator may be struck by the synchronicity at play, and perhaps feels the uncanny affect because reality (these are actual photos) and fantasy (the imagined/joke situation identified by the caption) become blurred, if only for a moment, springing us into laughter. Not all the LOLcat images are about danger and death (as the one above — “nositz!”), and rarely are they “dark” or “scary” in their affect, but the humor can be intellectually unsettling because there is often a “secret” desire that the cat seems to be expressing in its caption which also reminds us of Freud’s discussion of the Uncanny as an expression of that which was to remain a secret (for him, the Repressed), suddenly returned and revealed. Our childhood wishes (for a pet, like a doll, that can talk) seem actualized.
Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that the group responsible for “LOLCats” would build on their popularity by hosting a similar “photoshopping” site in the form of a “doppelganger” maker: totallylookslike.com.
The pictures that users upload speak for themselves, by displaying side by side graphic associations. Most users upload pictures of celebrities and film characters that look alike, as if they were unintentional “doubles” for one another by virture of their physical features and poses.
What makes this “uncanny” is not simply that they look like long-lost-twins, but they also provide the sort of “a-ha!” moment of recognition that Freud talks about in his essay on “Das Unheimliche” — the click of comprehending a “secret” correspondence, as if — with the image above, for instance — the unspoken inspiration behind Tim Burton’s artistic treatment of The Penguin was suddenly unveiled.
Of course, there are also “natural” lookalikes, or body doubles in the popular imagination. More common on totallylookslike.com are jokester post that bend the rules a bit to generate humor in ways that touch on uncanny similarities to make a point.
Here we have “New York” — a realiTV personality — matched up with Janice, a character from The Muppet Show. Yes, they both wear too much mascara and lip gloss. Is that a sufficient condition for them to be lookalikes? Or is this simply a photographic slur?
What makes this “uncanny” is not simply the unexpected correspondence between the appearances of these TV “celebrities,” but the momentary confusion that opens up between puppet and human being when first glancing at the images side-by-side. Consciously or not, there is a degree to which the person who is making this visual pun is calling “New York” no more than a media puppet. The aggression “revealed” by the uncanny logic of this joke could betray a racist or sexist hostility, as well. But beyond this hostility, perhaps there lurks a suggestion that this form of folk art has the ability to disempower the dominance of mass marketed artforms, such as the “manufactured” celebrities and characters of popular TV, through uncanny expressions of mockery and parody.
The site, at its most brilliant, can be revelatory of how forms of new media folk art perform populist expressions of resistance to (if not an outright subversion of) dominant discourses, by taking familiar images of power and status (often embodied by celebrities) and employing them in unintended ways to make a counterpoint. Above, the Vogue magazine cover is taken to task for not only suggesting something racist in its treatment of an African American basketball star as an animal (its “King Kong” reference — which is similar to the Muppet joke above), but also by lowering the ‘high fashion/high art’ status of Vogue down to the level of mere propaganda (the Army poster that originally intertextually borrowed from Kong).
Of course, the comparison attempted in the ‘totallylookslike’ image above is a bit of a stretch on behalf of the person who posted it, because they could have easily just paired the Vogue cover with an image from the King Kong film itself, which it clearly alludes to. Thus, we feel the critic, rather than the creator, at play, being highly selective, and the joke therefore doesn’t quite succeed on the level of the uncanny. Anything smacking of a critical human agency at play — a mediator — reduces the uncanny affect to a mere joke. The person who is making the comparison cannot be present for the uncanny response to “work” — it is like spotting the zipper on the monster’s back in a horror film: it betrays artifice and it’s “magic” is therefore disempowered.
In the above, a rock band’s album cover is equated to a familiar popular photograph that tabloid journalists famously proclaimed to be proof of an alien landscape or the “face of god” on Mars. The supernatural “face” is apparent in the accidental cast of shadow, itself an uncanny appearance. But anyone looking at the image of Queen next to it recognizes the latter as a carefully posed and purposely abstract work of photographic art, if not also a nostalgic memory of something they may have forgotten in their record collection. It is a clever comparison. And it’s quite funny. But it’s not quite uncanny. What we have, actually, is art referring to art — photos referring to other photos — and ultimately this is true of the entire site.
What the site really shows us is consumers of popular culture trying to make sense out of the infinite stream of messages and images that circulate in the media. That sense can only be an allusion or a visual pun — the associative logic of the dreamwork. What is the dream of icanhascheezburger.com? Perhaps it is about what its namesake reveals: an inner child crying for junk food. Only here we have the commodification of art into something resembling a cheesburger. The dream-wish expressed by the site depends on a withdrawal from reason and a repression of our awareness that popular art is a commodity, a manufactured experience that substitutes for the authentic. By pointing out the “doppelgangers” of mass culture through visual puns and pop culture allusions, the site is like a church of the popular uncanny, its posters bearing witness to “miracles” of fantastic correspondence.