Since I’ve been reviewing or including online videos so often in this weblog, I decided to create a YouTube Playlist on The Popular Uncanny that features many of the vids mentioned either here, or that are analyzed in the book (still pending publication — the delays are all mine). Right now there are about 21 videos of the weird you can peruse. I’ve also been posting book trailers and adaptations of my fiction/poetry. Please click the button to subscribe to my YouTube channel while you’re there.
“…the uncanny return of the body in all its messy “bodiness” against the ineffective mediation of words, of culture, of technology, of all idealizations that try to move us toward abstraction and away from our smelly, gurgling selves, is characteristic of Arnzen’s work. Not new in horror, of course, it may nonetheless be the kind of horror those in the grip of the promise of new technology and its seeming power and mastery over the world needs to hear.”
I recommend the hardcover edition, which includes several additional articles and bonus poetry, as well as a “horror poetry writing workshop”. If you’re curious, investigate this book at amazon.com or directly from the publisher at Raw Dog Screaming Press.
“Eyebombing” is the art of sticking “googly eyes” (a.k.a. “wiggly eyes” — the glue-on sort of craft store kind) onto an inanimate object in the public sphere in a way that cleverly lends the object the appearance of a living creature.
The purpose? According to eyebombing.com, it’s “humanizing the world, one googly eye at a time.” A wee bit subversive in nature, like drawing a mustache on a billboard celebrity. Take a snapshot of this public (de-?)facement, post it to eyebombing.com, link to it on a facebook group or flickr group or some other social network, and you have a mounting trend that — while nothing new, really — is emerging as a cute internet “meme.” We could possibly also call this meme an instance of the popular uncanny. But maybe not in the way you might, at first, suspect.
Sure, it’s just anthropomorphizing. Such gestures — which give the attributes of life to an inorganic object — often are “uncanny” because they confuse the assumed boundary between what makes something an object and what makes something — anything — a subject, capable of “returning the gaze.” We might feel an aura of weirdness for just the first moment we look at the object and see that it is “looking back” when it’s not supposed to. This reaction harkens back to what Freud once termed the “surmounted” childhood beliefs in an animistic world, in this case rendering everyday urban life as fantastic as the trees that talk in fairy tales or the Muppets of television childhood. Only now Oscar the Grouch doesn’t live a trashcan — he IS the trashcan. From guard rails to postal boxes, as the result of eyebombing, the objects of everyday life become doll-like with those cheap stick-on “googly” eyes so familiar to us from craft stores.
But googly eyes are plastic simulacra to begin with. They do not “move of their own accord” per se — in fact, it would probably be far more uncanny and disturbing to see human beings with plastic eyes like these on their faces instead. In other words, this is a representation of the gaze, a plastic staging of the uncanny, rather than a genuinely haunting act of defamiliarization.
Yet it is still — at least at first glance — a little uncanny. Indeed, it is the eyes themselves, far more than the objects they transform, which I would say are the harbingers of the popular uncanny. Is it not the familiarity of the googly eyes — not of the defamiliarized postal box, but the plastic eyes themselves — used in such a strange way, that makes them seem so odd, if not haunting? The googly eyes themselves are displaced from the faces of dolls and other crafts and are now potentially looking at us from anywhere, especially places where we would not expect to encounter them. The “bombed” site — a guard rail, a trash can, a light switch — is surprisingly looking at us when we turn around, precisely like those eyes on the GEICO dollar bill stack from advertising (“I always feel like somebody’s watching me.”)
Of course, this is not really scaring anyone. Disturbing a few, momentarily, perhaps. But we remain “surmounted” because we are not fooled by the eyes — they are not realistic the way that, say, fantastically customized contact lenses or the eyeballs from a “reborn doll” are. No — these “craft” items are virtually two-dimensional in all their clitter-clatter spinning disc glory, and are located more in the realm of concepts than animals. Indeed, they seem to make a statement more than talk for themselves. The subversive act of rendering a public, hard object as a personalized and personified object is still potent; it can defamiliarize in a very palpable manner, like all good art — but it does so in a way that is not felt as threatening. Its unreality is domesticated — which, while seemingly lacking in the haunting power of the uncanny is nonetheless a a defining element of many items of the “popular” uncanny, which sublimates but never entirely buries repressed desire in its attempt to make the unfamiliar more familiar — often by employing the tactics of childhood fantasy.
Eyebombing is the Fozzie-Bearification of the community property — the Jim Hensoning of the public square. There is a return of the repressed invoked here, but it very well may a repressed belief in the power of folk art, which has been increasingly “surmounted” by technology — or even just a psychological reawakening of some relationship to a children’s puppet from days gone by — which here returns with a twinge of uncanny recognition.
Wired magazine recently posted a clever infographic: “Where Celebrities Fall in the Uncanny Valley.”
I don’t want to take this one too seriously, and really just wanted to share it. It’s pretty funny…and also accurate. I think it’s really just an inside-joke at the expense of the Wired editor who is included on the chart. But in the larger view, the conceit, of course, is that actors are non-human constructs — and that their plastic surgery makes Joan Rivers and Mickey Roarke akin to zombies. The chart is really flawed, however, because it mixes up the idea of a “character” and an “actor.” These are two very different things, and I believe only “actors” really constitute celebrities.
Perhaps this ambiguity is related to their uncanny affect. How often do we confuse the symbol (actor) for what it symbolizes (character)? This comes right out Freud’s essay on the Uncanny.
I have to admit, I found the names listed on the OTHER SIDE of the valley more interesting than those dumped into the valley itself. They are examples of actors who are approaching the transhuman, I suppose.
Moreover, I had to note that the use of Star*Wars figures made the Wired chart feel a little too much like the chart Tracy Jordan crafted in an episode of 30 Rock (discussed in depth here back in Oct 2008). The whole chart is an uncanny echo in a way, of both Mori’s theory and that episode of 30 Rock.
Stephanie Lay is researching the uncanny valley and is looking for participants to take a survey that rates the eerieness and humanness of an array of faces. The survey takes less than 20 minutes and will likely get you thinking about your own perceptions of what is and is not uncanny.
Sign up at http://bit.ly/FaceExperiment.