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.
A former grad student of mine, WD Prescott, is running an interesting website bluntly called The Non-Horror Reader Survey that is studying what today’s readers think about the modern horror genre. It features interviews with various readers, writers, and scholars, along with a research questionnaire you can fill out, if you want to participate. It’s an interesting idea.
Yesterday, NHRS kindly (and extensively) interviewed me — see “Winter Chills with Mike Arnzen” — and I thought readers of The Popular Uncanny might find it of interest. Here’s an excerpt related to the uncanny, from the top of the interview:
NHRS: You have a section of your website that is about the instances of the “uncanny,” or “unheimlich,” in popular culture. What are your thoughts on Freud’s theory of the “uncanny” and its relationship to Horror fiction?
MA: Since horror is the genre most associated with fear, it’s a natural that its authors and film directors would draw inspiration from the field of psychology. (There would be no Psycho without psychology!) Whether concerned with the twisted motives of gritty serial killers or the nightmare creatures of the supernatural, horror stories not only try to prick the “fight vs. flight” response of their readers, but also go exploring “the dark side” of the mind for material.
The “uncanny” is a part of that realm of fear. Only it’s less about abject dread and more about the frisson one feels when caught off-guard — it’s that surprising recognition we feel dawning on us, akin to déjà vu, that strange sense of “I have been here before” or that “life is but a dream.” Freud was the first to contemplate what it is that accounts for these disturbing feelings. In fiction, he suggests the “strangely familiar” is present not only in gothic tales of haunting, but also appears in the form of a whole series of icons that we find even in the present day in the horror genre: inanimate objects that move on their own accord, dolls that look back at you or speak with a human voice, dismembered limbs or possessed beings that seem to have minds of their own, the living dead, bizarre ominous symbols (666) that seem to be harbingers of doom, and so forth. He ultimately argues that these are all manifestations of secret childhood wishes we repressed, which shockingly “return” to us as adults with such intensity that we believe — if only for a moment — that our primitive instincts were right all along and that the reasonable, civilized world of adulthood has really been nothing more than a charade, a fiction.
Horror stories conjure those disturbing feelings and represent the “secret wishes” of characters in endlessly fascinating ways. One can study these stories for what they tell us not only about our animal or primitive beliefs, but also our social belief systems. This is what makes the uncanny a rich form of literary criticism, despite the way Freud’s work otherwise seems to serve some of the more problematic aspects of his psychoanalytical theories about castration anxiety and the Oedipal complex.
Nowadays, a possessed doll isn’t as scary as it used to be. Yet if told (or shown) right, it can still “getcha” when you least expect it. Or the doll has become something else: an android, an artificial intelligence, a computer. It’s all the same principle. That’s because we all still dream, we all still are a little uncertain about the universe, and we’re never as smart or in control as we think we are. In fact, that’s probably how I ultimately define horror literature: as the you’re not so smart as you thought you were, are you? genre. It bursts the bubbles of mankind, especially when it comes to our pretenses toward mastery over various domains. Perhaps this sounds like anti-intellectualism at work, but it’s the exact opposite. It questions and challenges what we take for granted. I love that edge of horror fiction, and I think the humorous audacity of it all has a lot to do with this.
Maybe I’m a little obsessed with it, but I see the same uncanny tropes from horror fiction evident everywhere in popular culture, particularly in advertising. To me, the Pillsbury Doughboy might as well be a Chucky doll. To me, the Doublemint Twins are doppelgangers. The Michelin Man is a monster. I am enthralled by the way the uncanny is used to fetishize commodities and sell us things we otherwise wouldn’t see a need to buy. I explored these ideas in my doctoral dissertation, which I’m currently revising into an academic book called The Popular Uncanny, which hopefully will be available from Guide Dog Books in 2011. For now, folks can visit my website to read my continuing notebook on the subject.
Read the entire interview, where I field questions on teaching horror in college, horror’s relationship with humor and poetry, and the cautionary tale.
I’ve started building a ‘Listmania’ of Uncanny-related books on amazon.com. Recommendations via comments are most welcome.
This is all part of my renewed interest in all things Amazon.com and ebooks. I just ordered the new, international version of the Kindle 2, and I’m very excited. Read all about it on my horror writing blog here. I am considering making this weblog — The Popular Uncanny — also available to Kindle readers….but I’m not sure, because I don’t post entries daily, like most blogs, and amazon charges a subscription fee for its many titles. Please leave a comment if you would like to see this, or whatever else you’d like to see more of on this blog.
[ Related Post: My Unheimlich LibraryThing Books ]
While doing a little holiday shopping last Fall (on the occult-sounding ritual known as “Black Friday”), I spotted a bargain and caved in, buying something for myself. I purchased a gigantic external hard drive — with a Terabyte of space — to archive my files: a Maxtor OneTouch 4. Imagine my surprise when I opened the box and discovered that every item in the box came in a baggie that was sealed with a sticker that read, simply, “Save your life.”
For a moment — just a moment — I was struck with a sense of the uncanny. It felt like a message from beyond, portending doom. Or just a really ominous fortune cookie. The syntax and rhetorical stance of the slogan didn’t help. The surprise of being directly addressed by the unexpected stickers was felt as commanding to me; the urgency of the claim sounded more like “Run for your life!” than “Save it.”
The feeling of being caught off-guard like this, of encountering presence where one expects absence, is entirely uncanny.
Usually when I buy a product, I’ve been so saturated by packaging and advertising slogans beforehand that things like this don’t catch me off-guard. This was more like a Jack-in-the-Box of advertising. I decided to look into this campaign a little bit.
In their brochure, Maxtor makes the pitch for their product in a language that feels like a thinly veiled death threat:
Save your life.
We are nothing more than the sum of our experiences. The pictures we take. The music we love. The work we do. This is how we are cataloging our existence. These are our lives. Everything we capture, share and create adds to us. And anything lost takes a piece of us with it.
And forever means forever.
If that doesn’t sound like a death threat to you, try reading it again, out loud, using the voice of one of the cast members from The Sopranos, and you’ll see what I mean.
“Save your life” is a brilliant marketing slogan for a manufacturer of hard drives who wants you to buy their “peripheral” so that it becomes “central” to your computing life. Obviously, backing up your work to a storage archive is a superlative idea, especially if you are creating documents that need to establish evidence of some kind. Since buying this drive, I have come to rely on it to archive my files (including the very document I am typing right now!), so I don’t mean to suggest that the product is not a life-saver. But in the bigger picture, one has to ask: do the trace recordings of your experience — embedded in such things as photos and audio files and to do lists — really constitute “your life”?
Of course we say things like this casually all the time. I know several people who call their cell phones their “lives” since it contains information and data crucial to their jobs and daily routines. A “life” — when used in a generalized context, like Maxtor’s slogan — could mean a “social” life. Or a “family” life. Or a “meaningful” life. Or a “spiritual” life.
But “Save your life”? Maxtor’s advertising campaign is a cautionary phrase; their substitution of a period for an exclamation mark at its terminus does not fool me. The company is saying that my life is at risk. The obsidian tombstone-like appearance of the product — a Kubrickean black obelisk — reminds me of the ticking clock. My data is going to die if I don’t act fast.
The implication, of course, is that you — the consumer — can “lose” your life if you don’t back it up. This is the threat of document-centered culture. But on a psychosocial level, the implication is also that you are always already dying (or perhaps your social/family/spiritual life is on the wane) — and that, if you’re willing to pay the right price, consumer goods can save you.
Indeed, we accumulate so much anymore that it is downright scary. We can end up “spending” our lives saving things so obsessively. The bloggers at A Wider Net noticed that, as part of their ad campaign, Maxtor set up displays in airports that strongly visualize how much of our files we put on our computers. Here’s the monstrous music display that concretely represents the number of CDs you can store on a typical laptop:
We answer the threat of death — or massive loss — with the uncanny, and often respond in irrational ways. Sometimes it is made manifest in the compulsion to repeat. At other times is felt in the urgency to hold on and collect objects in a shopping spree. With our data — our proof of life in postmodern culture — we “save” it by “backing up.” But with many of us, it goes beyond merely copying and archiving a secondary file. It is “saving” through “mirroring” a hard drive in its entirety. And subsequently cloning your life as it appears in data. It is the first step into obsessive “lifelogging.”
Black boxes indeed.
[NOTE: Those covers above go to amazon.com with an "associate" link -- this was necessary to include the widget with cover graphics. To just visit librarything, not amazon, click here!]
What you see above is not a complete bibliography by ANY means. But over the past few years, I have slowly been adding books from my collection to LibraryThing.com — a nerdy site for amateur librarians, bibliophiles, English major types and book fetishists. The site includes a widget for adding a link to books in one’s “library” elsewhere, so I am sharing it (image above) with links/covers to my books “tagged” as uncanny. It’s not complete and it still needs to be updated…but I wanted to include it here anyway.
The site is a pretty useful library for research, I think. If you click through to librarything.com, you can do a full search for all titles tagged as “uncanny” on their site, which might be helpful in research. Or you can read all the other books exhibited in my profile…it’s like snooping around on another person’s bookshelf.
Photoshop Disasters is a funny weblog that collects flawed design elements in advertisements and elsewhere (like the above image from a Sears Catalog).
The accidental amputations, bizarre hands, and other forms of freakish anatomical blunders strike a viewer as uncanny when you spot them in what would otherwise be a “picture perfect” advertisement. We always already understand that advertising is manipulative and fake, and yet when the flaw appears, the optical illusion is shattered — the collision of consumerist fantasy against marketing reality is sometimes felt as a return of a repressed desire.