The Uncanny Landscape
In what ways do our environments reflect and link to ourselves and our health – and vice versa? In what ways is selfhood mirrored and submerged within our various internal and external landscapes? Stemming from revelations, how does the uncanny operate as a space for questioning and negotiation?
Before answering these questions, it is probably best to delineate what Freud meant by ‘uncanny’. I read Freud’s discourse on ‘heimlich’ as not merely being in opposition to ‘unheimlich’ but also holding within its own definition a dichotomous, paradoxical image of duality. This reading is based on five basic premises: #1 – ‘heimlich’ relates to what is “familiar and congenial” (Freud 4); #2 – ‘heimlich’ relates to what is concealed (2, 4); #3 – ‘unheimlich’ (oppositional to ‘heimlich’ #1) relates to the unfamiliar and dangerous (3-4); #4 – uncanny is the result of the revelation of the Hidden, according to Schelling (4); #5 – uncanny is the repressed familiar (4). I would add that the repressed Hidden varies depending on time, culture and place. Upon (forcible) revelation, with Time having rendered it forgotten, the ensuing revelation of the unfamiliar familiar renews the memory (or is in threat of doing so), creating the aura of Uncanny in the process.
For the Victorians, much about selfhood, class, dysphoria, or even the spiritual was repressed and became Hidden, allowing for greater gaps in which the Uncanny could thrive. In Oliver Twist, uncanny landscapes proliferate from descriptions of macro-scapes (the urban gothic city or the rural countryside) to descriptions of micro-scapes (the street, the home, the rooms). Landscapes, both macro and micro, become metaphorical mirrors for the condition of various people groups within England, specifically London, at the time. Today, the Uncanny proliferates within and without the bounds of technology, which has provided us a simulacrum of a secure, known world, hiding insecurities, complexities, and monstrosities which abound within and from technology itself.
THE LABYRINTHINE CITY and THE BROKEN HOME
We are introduced to London initially in Chapter 8, which comprises of Oliver’s escape from the Sowerberrys to the city. The first description of the area to which Oliver is introduced does not present itself well. “A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy; and the air was impregnated with filthy odours” (47). It continues on to describe not only the environment but the people who dwell therein, equally foul and unwanted. Although Brownlow walks these same streets (in Chapter 10), there are places the gentleman either is not acquainted with or does not recognize, such as Fagin’s contact on Field Lane (153). This portrayal links to a later representation of the city as a labyrinth (92), a maze of darkness which is only one step, one corner, away from respectability. On a more immediate level, homes and houses within this precarious world are also represented as corrupt or uncertain. The first deathbed Oliver visits with Mr. Sowerberry shows the architectural disintegration of the city (and social welfare), as the houses are described as “insecure from age and decay”, “crazy dens”, “stagnant and filthy”, and “putrefying in its rottenness” (30). Fagin’s house likewise portrays a darkness that is both physical and metaphorical, highlighting how Fagin’s deeds, ambitions, and machinations are cloaked in shadow. Fagin’s house is repeatedly described as being dark or not being well lit (48, 160). Oliver notes that “that a long time ago, before the old Jew was born, it had belonged to better people, and had perhaps been quite gay and handsome: dismal and dreary as it looked now” (108). Dickens appears to be noting how the desperate living of the lower classes were physically exemplified in the city in the form of abysmal street and housing conditions.
THE DESIRABLE COUNTRYSIDE and THE PARADISIACAL HEARTH
This comparison is made more obvious by the descriptions surrounding the countryside, the rural, and the suburban middle-class life. Although the countryside through the atmospheric conditions of weather and the emotional conditions of particular scenes render the familiar unfamiliar (and thereby invoking the uncanny) on occasion (171-172); in general, the suburban life of the middle-class is painted in very good terms. Brownlow’s study is quite homey – “a little back room, quite full of books: with a window, looking into some pleasant little gardens” (80). Dickens rhapsodizes about middle-class life when describing Oliver’s stay at the Maylies’ house: “Who can describe the pleasure and delight: the peace of mind and soft tranquility: the sickly boy felt in the balmy air, and among the green hills and rich woods, of an inland village!” (198). Chapter 32 through 33 describes a kind of paradisiacal home, where Oliver has his own small room and a study nook as well. His study nook is described as “quite a cottage-room, with a lattice-window: around which were clusters of jessamine and honeysuckle, that crept over the casement, and filled the place with their delicious perfume. […] the prospect it commanded was very extensive” (213). This extensiveness of view combined with the natural, sweet perfumes of flowers is a direct contrast to the repeated “narrowness” of streets and houses in London which are odorous as well. It is no surprise then that Oliver flourishes emotionally and mentally as well as physically (199-200, 212-213).
PERFORMANCE OF THE UNCANNY CONTINUES?
What is important to remember, then, is that to Dickens’s readers, the uncanny is produced when what appears to be normative (or what has been ignored, forgotten, or unrecognized) is brought into a new light through the perceptions of Oliver. The middle-class audience of Oliver Twist may have been horrified or disturbed to consider England in such a way, but Dickens juxtaposes and links the health of England and the English people with the health of the city and the countryside, which, one could argue, continues its legacy to this day.
After years of urban development and technological advancement, can the uncanny be relived today? I wonder if – in a world bombarded with images and with the supposed offer of a multiplicity/plurality of identities and experiences through which to experience life – the uncanny can be discovered?
Perhaps it can. I consider how, despite our “advances” in knowledge and technology, we remain entranced with the magical, the mystical, and the unknown, particularly in mainstream cultural productions. Setting aside the messages within aforementioned works, it is worthwhile to note that wormholes, time dimension portals, mystical doors, zombies, A.Is, and robots still continue to play a part in engaging the unfamiliar. The uncanny, I believe, rears its head as people come to grips with the Hidden in our technological society, especially as technology mystifies, complicates, and renders unfamiliar both our environments and ourselves.
LANDSCAPES OF UNCERTAIN REALITIES:
WORMHOLES, PORTALs, and MYSTICAL DOORS
‘Rip Van Winkle’-type tales continue to proliferate. In this sense, I refer to stories where wormholes/portals bear the protagonist away from ‘reality’ to another world. These moments of “falling through spaces” creates a sense of the uncanny, particularly for the modern reader who is used to a certain modicum of certainty and security engendered through the purported securing of the known natural world through the processes of technology.
Novels like Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (Riggs), the Keys to the Kingdom series (Nix), and the Chronicles of Narnia (Lewis) may raise an uncanny feeling in readers as the protagonist(s) easily wander into other realities which appear to exist ‘just next door’. In these stories, Dickensian terminologies and devices, such as the uncanny home, are used to describe dangerous, mystical, or mysterious locations. In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Jacob describes the modern-day version of Miss Peregrine’s home: “What stood before me now was no refuge from monsters but a monster itself, staring down from its perch on the hill with vacant hunger” (Riggs, 83). Other forms of uncanny landscapes disrupted by portals can be seen in popular TV shows such as Netflix’s Dark and Stranger Things series; both shows contain thrilling moments attached to uncanniness as the landscape of modern security is disturbed by the unexplainable. I would argue that due to lack of explanation, Stranger Things’s uncanniness is strong because the other reality appears to exist outside of the agency of any character.
Forces of nature, I would argue, also contribute to the potential continuation of the uncanny. Fog, darkness, disasters, and illnesses continue to inhabit our planet and render our environment insecure. In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, fog obscures Jacob’s path (123-24). In both Dark and Stranger Things, children wandering in forests at night are lost to our reality. Furthermore, the threat of nature grows from a feeling of loneliness and emptiness, as exemplified in video games like No Man’s Sky and the Myst series. When I played Myst III: Exile as a teen, I experienced an overwhelming uneasiness despite the fact the game was puzzle-oriented and lacked any game mechanics for violence. I believe this uncanny feeling (recreated in No Man’s Sky) is due to nature’s threat over the single-player, creating a higher sense of insecurity and vulnerability which is usually buried in the everyday beneath our urban developments and advances within technology.
LANDSCAPES OF THE UNCERTAIN SELF:
ZOMBIES, A.Is, and ROBOTS
Technology, then, plays a dual role in guarding against and forming uncanniness in today’s culture, particularly disrupting boundaries of selfhood and human identity. As software programs (A.Is) and robotics increase in complexity, the gap between the likeness of human body and personality and that of the robot begins to close (Tangermann). The role of nature in disrupting the human body’s processes also remains as a source for the uncanny as well. Considering artificial intelligence (Blade Runner 2049, Neuromancer), transhuman experience (Ghost in the Shell), and illness (Tokyo Ghoul, World War Z, iZombie, Annihilation), we can see how technology operates as a source of familiar comfort and ongoing anxiety.
In many cases, A.Is create the uncanny through ‘doubling’ of the human identity. In Blade Runner 2049, as we follow Joe’s journey to self-identification, we undergo the fears and hopes he endures, and in those experiences, we may encounter the uncanny. Most uncanny moments within Blade Runner 2049 result from Replicant-holograph interactions (Joe’s “make out session” with Joi) or the “birthing” of Replicants. On the other hand, transhuman experimentation, as in Ghost in the Shell, may also trouble the viewer as ideas about the (value of) soul and consciousness are brought into question through the appropriation of the ‘ghost’ for corporate interests. Uncanny moments are brought to the fore when the Major fails to recognize injury to her mechanized body, when hijacking of cybernetically enhanced humans happens, or when her mother “recognizes” her daughter in a foreign body. Yet, most telling is how people harbor fears regarding the frailty of their own bodies. I would argue that antibiotic-resistant bacteria and technologically induced illnesses drive the narratives of World War Z and iZombie, where illness is placed within the framework of zombies. I found World War Z a source of uncanny due to its ‘nonfiction’ narratives, written as interviews and accounts. The first instance of zombification in China is recounted:
“The boy’s skin was cold and grey as the cement on which he lay. I could find neither his heartbeat nor his pulse. His eyes were wild, wide and sunken back in their sockets. They remained locked on me like a predatory beast” (Brooks 7).
The ensuing attempt at hiding the problem, managing information, and subsequent panic around the world gave me an uneasy feeling because it felt like this could be a reality. A step further down postmodernity’s subjective experience, in Annihilation, the unknown protagonist/narrator is set within an unknown territory for an undetermined amount of time to research an unknowable object. Throughout the narrative, objective reality is brought into question as the protagonist/narrator is infected with spores (Vandermeer 25). Affected by the spores, she relates, “…I believed I could have run a marathon. I did not trust that feeling. I felt, in so many ways, that I as being lied to” (93). In this declaration, I think, lies a root of the uncanny hidden within our identities – the ways in which our constructed identities and appearances of health hide the uncertainties of ourselves, the subjectivities of our experiences, and the nature of life which includes the ongoing processes of death, which is an integral feature of all biological creatures.
HIDDEN IN THE SPECTACLE
Human life is a combination of a familiar set of experiences involving negotiating identity, consciousness, and health, and of hidden awareness(es) of the unwanted: difference, mechanization, the supernatural, and death. That which is familiar and yet hidden or submerged holds the faculty of the uncanny and an opportunity for questioning, negotiation, and self-assessment. Yet, I would hold that the uncanny, as per Freud, is not only posed as comprehensible, but also conquerable. I would argue that these frameworks surrounding the uncanny – the mystical and the undead – are just further functions of the familiar to further submerge the hidden. Although many books and films continue to explore these worlds, the narratives within most of these productions and the technologically-driven spectacles bringing forth these worlds, obscure and smother the uncanny, removing any real threat to the psyche – and removing any real opportunity for constructive confrontation and growth.
Blade Runner 2049. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Alcon Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, and Sony Pictures Releasing, 2017.
Bo Odar, Baran and Jantje Friese, creators. Dark. Wiedemann & Berg Television and Netflix, 2017. Netflix, http://www.netflix.com/ca/title/80100172.
Brooks, Max. World War Z. Crown, 2016.
DeMarle, Mary and Phil Saunders, designers. Myst III: Exile. Windows PC version, Ubisoft, 2001.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Penguin Books, 2002.
Freud, Sigmund. The “Uncanny”. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2017, web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf. Date Accessed: February 4, 2018.
Ghost in the Shell. Directed by Rupert Sanders, Dreamworks Pictures and Paramount Pictures, 2017.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Ace, 1984.
Ishida, Sui. Tokyo Ghoul. Viz Media, 2014.
Lewis, C.S. Chronicles of Narnia. Collins Publishing Group, 1952.
Nix, Garth. Keys to the Kingdom. Scholastic Publishing, 2010.
No Man’s Sky. Playstation 4, Hello Games, 2016.
Riggs, Ransom. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Quirk Books, 2013.
Tangermann, Victor. “Six Life-Like Robots That Prove The Future of Human Evolution is Synthetic.” Futurism, August 9, 2017, futurism.com/the-most-life-life-robots-ever-created/. Date Accessed: February 4, 2018.
The Duffer Brothers, creators. Stranger Things. 21 Laps Entertainment and Monkey Massacre, 2017. Neflix, http://www.netflix.com/ca/title/80057281.
Thomas, Rob and Diane Ruggiero-Wright, developers. iZombie. Warner Bros Television, 2018. Netflix, http://www.netflix.com/ca/title/80027159.
Vandermeer, Jeff. Annihilation. Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
One response to “[literary] The Uncanny Landscape”
[…] The urban versus rural landscape and the metaphors they provide for sanity, purity, and progress is very clear in Oliver Twist, which you may read in detail in this blog post I wrote recently. I would say that Dickens stands on the cusp of Modern and Postmodern in that he definitely calls into question the progressivism of human culture as represented by the urban. Yet, I would also argue that Oliver’s salvation does not come from untamed Nature, but the domesticated Nature of the English countryside which has once again become inhabited by upper and middle classes. As I wrote in my blog, “The Uncanny Landscape”: […]