Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Uncanny: The Return of a Definition

In Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay, “Das Unheimliche,” he describes the un-canny (Unheimliche) as that which was to remain hidden but has come to light. For Freud, this definition allowed him to talk about the uneasy feeling one gets when a repressed memory (usually related to childhood) returns to the conscious mind. His interpretation of the un-canny, not surprisingly, revolves around a fear of castration. Instead of this definition, a definition that we shouldn’t entirely do away with or repress, we might fare better in our understanding of just how wide of a concept the un-canny is if we re-examine the un-canny as it relates to Being. And what better way to do just this than by bringing back a definition of the un-canny that has seemingly been repressed from our memories.

Initially, Freud finds that any discussion of the un-canny is at the same time a discussion of the canny. Or, as he puts it after examining a lengthy list of definitions, “What interests us most in this long extract is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word Heimlich [or canny] exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, Unheimlich. What is Heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich” (132 - Penguin Edition). As Freud finds, the two words have a unique relation, for anything canny seemingly comes to be un-canny, and anything defined as un-canny must originally have been canny. Therefore, in order not to make the same repressive move, we will use the term “un-canny”, with an emphasis on the “-” in order to remind ourselves of the word’s dual function. Un-canny is both “uncanny” and “canny”, as we have just defined it.

Roughly translated from the German word, Unheimliche means “unhomely,” or not belonging or familiar. It is often associated with something supernatural, or at odds with our reality. Moved into English, Unheimliche has no better translation than our word, un-canny. However, this English word is a misnomer of sorts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the word “canny” comes from a Scottish word, "can," meaning to know. But, as the OED points out, this usage is somewhat archaic, while other dictionaries list this usage as obsolete altogether. This means, then, that the un-canny would be defined as an un-knowing, or to un-know something. Which leads us to question not only how such an act of un-knowing is at all possible, but also (and more importantly), how can we keep this definition buried? The un-canny requires us to move things into the light, especially that which has been repressed, forgotten, or become strange to us. So we need to make sure that any understanding, discussion, or use of the word, un-canny, has with it a sense of both knowing and at the same time an un-knowing. And specifically “un”-known, for the un-canny is never a “not knowing” or a “never knowing”. Instead it is a movement away from knowing, a movement akin to forgetting but with less chance of remembrance.

The un-canny as will be used in later posts, then, is similar to how Derrida defined pharmakon - as being both itself and its opposite, being both familiar and unfamiliar. But, it should be noted that unlike the contradiction that Derrida found, the un-canny is not essentially a contradiction. True, it maintains itself around a contradiction in terms of its definition; however, the term itself - the un-canny - is noncontradictory. To be un-canny is simply to possess both a known and unknown, a familiarity and unfamiliarity. It is a word that, as we will see in later posts, best expresses contingency.