The Uncanny Valley is Heeeeeeeeeere


We can add Donald Trump to America’s beloved collection of monsters, a big data Frankenstein creation who we may hope doesn’t get too far away from his creator. What is it with America and their monsters?  Did monsters make America or did America make monsters? We’ve been through this before. At the height of the Cold War, nuclear terror generated a global alien hysteria. But it goes back further than that. Filmmakers in Germany’s Weimar Republic arguably created the world’s largest repository of horrific images and fear tropes: the vampire Nosferatu, the Frankenstein-like Golem, the creepy undead Sonambulist out of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are just a sample. As an escape from the first Great War and a prelude to the horrors of World War II, the German public gorged itself on the fantastic and grotesque. Perhaps steeping the national imagination in horror was a way for society to steel itself for the gruesome tasks ahead.

Today we are still mining this rich cache of silent, terrifying visuals. If the stuff of horror has gone from sublime to banal, it may tell us something yet about our own national psychology. From the Weimar’s Golem was born our own American Zombie, which has transfixed not just our own country but also the world’s imagination with it’s terrifying hunger and frightening capacity for mass action. As an antidote to these inarticulate but ever-hungry and prodigiously prolific masses, we have now the populist politician, created in the image of our deepest fears and most twisted desires. Now the monsters have escaped the celluloid and are purportedly running for office.

And yet there are those moments, even in our age of surfaces, of immaculate digital staging, when das ist mehr schein als sein (“it is more shine than substance”) is truly confounded and reality shatters illusion, if only for an instant. And this can happen even in the midst of the American presidential primary season.

In this moment, the suspense of the fantastic is suspended and we glimpse the forbidden, the hidden, what lies beyond our ken, what seems unfamiliar and strange but in a paradoxical shock returns us to the familiar, to our deepest home.

We know the unknown and in the same moment shrink shyly from a now strange familiar.

It is at this juncture, as an etymological unraveling in Freud’s classic 1919 essay illuminated, that Heimlich and Unheimlich converge, to reveal, in the words of German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, all “which ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.”

Schelling believed that the repression of the uncanny was absolutely necessary in building civilization’s essential cultural foundation. If this repression is essential to the formation of culture, then bringing these material to light can help us interrogate and deconstruct that culture, especially as it plays out across America’s post-apocalyptic political landscape.

What better time then in the midst of the collective horror of the current pre-election spectacle for diving into the dark matter of our collective mind and angling for a glimpse into an ever-present and yet ever-elusive reality?

Uncanny things

Anyone who has chanced upon an empty playground under the full moon or a child’s nursery at a certain hushed twilight hour knows that the inanimate world at times seems alive, full of intention and potency, and bristling with meaning.


Here, in the inanimate world of objects, the attentive may read the unspoken and unseen. For just as words and symbols retain the changing and polysemous intentions of human speakers and actors, so do material objects record these deposits.

This is perhaps why the children’s world of playthings and toys seems a richer source of energy and imagination—children themselves are more deeply connected to imagination and magic. And yet this experience—of the uncanny and sublime—is not limited to children and children’s things.

The essential “thinginess” of our culture is a basic fact of modern life. The smartphone has become our ubiquitous companion, while the human body itself is increasing augmented with plastics, robotics, and microscopic nanosensors that deliver information about our biological system across networks, turning our biological processes into terabytes.

Next to (both eerily behind and frustratingly beyond) this increasingly robotic human is its strange double, the robot, whose growing intelligence menaces and threatens the original in a classic doppelganger formulation, and threatens the self’s last retreat: the panacea of work and livelihood.

Our relationship to objects matter at least as much as, if not more than, our relationships to people. While this is obviously true on a physical plane, representations of of these objects in culture and media give them yet another life and a doubled nature.

While the natural world was formerly the depository of many human states and moods, we now look to built environments and material objects for our metaphors and meanings.

And now, with the Internet of Things bringing disembodied eyes and ears to the material plane, the weird world of things has never been weirder. And that includes the weird world of weird digital constructions, passing themselves off as actual people.

Life & Death confounded

At the crux of the tension between illusion and reality is the confounding of life and death, the leitmotif of the uncanny. It’s unsettling to think that these two states, so seemingly opposite, are not as disparate as we imagine.

A waking doll, the self-aware automaton, a nearly human robot and the unaware, robotic human all play on this primal uncertainty, probably hardwired into the predator brain. From this evolutionary leftover the uncanny emerges. Doubling, masking and unmasking create a hall of mirrors that threatens to obliterate the original.

The confounding of the original with its double produces an interesting inversion: the copy is threatened by the original, and seeks its complete annihilation, seemingly unaware that it is destroying the source of its own life.

It is a unique feature of our age that the uncanny valley as a measurement of aversion can also be encountered just as readily in a biological being as in its mechanical copy. Biological life itself often seems eerily robotic and unaware, lacking agency. The internet, with its proliferation of twitter bots, iterative algorithms and avatars, has increased this paradox exponentially, as these conglomerates of data points seem to take on flesh and walk about.

But if the search for life (reality) is fraught with unprecedented complexity and obstruction, we’re becoming more familiar with death, especially as it trends closely with economic and ecological uncertainty. The increasing fragility of our civilization together with the ubiquity of real-time media to capture and spread images of brutality and death has made a death-renaissance inevitable, even as cash-flush technology giants suit up to take it on in the biomedical field.

Death with Selfie

Death began to make his rounds openly
welcomed again in the ports and towns of the world.
Greeted with a cheer and a beer
everywhere he went.

And the people cried, “Selfie with Death!”

It’s macabre, perhaps, this fascination with death, but as Albert Camus’ ‘stranger’ mused while awaiting the death penalty (a sentence we ultimately all share), perhaps nothing else should interest us so much.

The political uncanny

The uncanny valley is not just the province of midnight flâneurs and astral wanderers. Produced across new media and found readily in propaganda and advertising, the repressed uncanny works to shape and nudge the body politic, and is evoked to forbid, prohibit and command, rendering the body politic a passive organ of the state.

Exploration of the uncanny is an act of will towards political determinism. A sense of humor and relish for the dark side with stand you in good stead when plumbing the uncanny depths that underpin both consensual reality and the 2016 election season.

A good flashlight, extra batteries and an ax won’t hurt, either.

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