Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rhetoric of the Uncanny in OOO

Okay, so it’s been kind of hectic around here with the newborn and all (so excuse the messiness and rambling of this post), but I’ve been working through the chapter of my dissertation on OOO, and in my writing came up with this fourfold.

Let me explain. Originally, I was planning on writing my dissertation over the uncanny as a rhetorical structure and device. So I ran across my notes on Mladen Dolar’s article “‘I Shall Be with You on Your Wedding Night’: Lacan and the Uncanny,” and decided to reread the entire article. What struck me was Dolar’s reading of ETA Hoffmann’s story, "The Sandman"—the same one that appears in Freud’s famous 1919 essay over the uncanny. Dolar, however, develops a fourfold out of the characters, arguing that the four poles represent two pairs of uncanny doubles in the story. But what I saw was a way of discussing the difference between Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology and Levi Bryant’s Onticology.

I’m still working through the specifics, but this is the basic argument:

It’s been argued that OOO deals with that which is uncanny. So, when I started trying to differentiate between these two philosophers, I decided to see in what way their respective object-oriented ontologies dealt with the uncanny.

When we look at Nathaniel (a human) and Olimpia* (an automaton) in Hoffmann's tale (and our first pole), there is a moment when the two blur the boundary between human and nonhuman. Dolar argues:
There is a strange reversal in this situation: the problem is not simply that Olympia turns out to be an automaton (contrived by the Sand-Man figure Coppola, who contributed the eyes, and Spalanzani, who took care of the mechanism) and is thus in the uncanny area between the living and the dead; it is that Nathaniel strangely reacts in a mechanical way. His love for an automaton is itself automatic; his fiery feelings are mechanically produced… (9)
In this way, there is a tension between Nathaniel and Olimpia whereby what was meant to remain hidden or withdrawn (i.e., the automatic response of human emotions or Olimpia’s true nature as an automaton) has come into the open (or appeared), and in doing so become uncanny.

The Freudian uncanny comes close, then, to Harman's ontology. Harman’s OOO, developed out of Heidegger’s tool analysis, says that all objects oscillate between a tool-state and a broken-tool state; or in Quadruple Object terms, between their apparent sensual side and their subterranean real side. This polarization, then, functions much in the same way Freud saw the uncanny working. For in the first part of his essay, Freud finds that there is a moment when what was defined as homely suddenly becomes unhomely—where the familiar and the strange oscillate much like the tool and broken tool. In this way, Harman's ontology is seemingly wrapped up in the rhetoric of the Freudian uncanny.

The poles of the Father and the Sandman, however, are slightly more complicated. If we read the father as external (perhaps as a Lacanian “name-of-the-father,” and thus as the symbolic legislative and limiting function over Nathaniel), the Sandman can be read as a frightening bit of the real in this symbolic function. For not only is Nathaniel mentally (or intimately) haunted by the Sandman, but the Sandman is also responsible for the father’s death and seemingly defies being signified—he is at times called the Sandman, at others Coppelius, and still at others Coppola. In this way, these two poles point to the blurring of the exterior/interior.

Similarly, Bryant’s Onticology favors a split object in which an object is seen as both a retreating virtual proper being and its local manifestations. Instead of reading either sides of this split as specifically internal or external, Bryant seems to favor the extimate—Lacan’s formulation of the uncanny—by which a thing is intimately exterior. As Dolar argues:
[The extimate] points neither to the interior nor to the exterior, but is located there where the most intimate interiority coincides with the exterior and becomes threatening, provoking horror and anxiety. The extimate is simultaneously the intimate kernel and the foreign body… (6)
Here the uncanny does not point to a level of access but to a level of proximity. What becomes frightening is the closeness or intimacy of this foreign object. Or, as Lacan states, the Other is “something strange to me, although it is at the heart of me” (The Ethics 71). For Bryant, the object is precisely a moment of extimacy—caught up not in relations between sensual and real objects or qualities; but, instead between endo- and exo-relations. Even the split in Bryant’s object seems to point to the way in which the object is extimate or uncanny unto itself.

Therefore, what’s important to see is that although both Harman and Bryant at times seem to share a view of objects, rhetorically they each approach the object in different terms of the uncanny—Freud for Harman and Lacan for Bryant.

*I've chosen to go with the Olimpia spelling here, although it appears in different translations as Olympia.


  1. Nathan, very interesting explanation. As one who is relatively new to OOO and Harman could you clarify what, if any, connection concepts like uncanny and extimacy have to the absurd, paradox, and mystery. Extimate sounds like a descriptor that would be very appropriate for Kierkegaard in his religious moments.

  2. Hello Blake,

    These are all good questions, and to be honest I'm not sure if I could answer them in a short comment. I've been looking at the uncanny for a while now, and usually my go-to source for questions like these is Nicholas Royle's _The Uncanny: An Introduction_ . Royle's does an excellent job comparing the Freudian unheimliche to Derrida (and possibly Kierkegaard, but I might be mistaken). As for the extimate, I'd suggest Dolar's article and this one by Jacques Miller:

  3. would the same object be uncanny for all who see/encounter it or does it bear some particular relationship of identity to the viewer to become uncanny?

  4. dmf,

    I can't speak for Harman or Bryant, but what I was attempting to point out here is the reliance of each on two specific forms of the uncanny (Freudian and Lacanian, respectively). Whether or not their objects really are uncanny, that seems to be an ontological question that they would be best suited to answer. Check out Bryant's post:

    But from a purely rhetorical standpoint, I see the difference between the two philosophies as part of this uncanny fourfold structure.

  5. And I was just writing about Olympia today, when I came across this. Now that's uncanny!

  6. That is strange, Tim, because apparently this post also spoke to work Levi was struggling through.

  7. I see, when you talk about OORhetoric is this something different than, in addition to, an analysis of the rhetorical stylings of OOO'ers?

  8. dmf,

    OOR is different than what I'm doing here. It's the difference between a rhetoric of objects (or OOR) and the rhetoric of OOO (what I'm doing in this post).