Arts & Writing Essays & Opinion

Into the uncanny valley

"Perhaps the uncanny’s ability to evade definition is the secret to our simultaneous fascination and unease with it", writes Dr Pippa Goldschmidt, editor of the 'Uncanny Bodies' anthology'.
In Freud’s words, the uncanny is ‘not the strange, but the familiar become strange’. Photo credit: Jonas Verstuyft.

One hundred years ago Sigmund Freud wrote an essay about the phenomenon of the uncanny, in which he said that the uncanny (‘unheimlich’ in the original German) is not the straightforwardly macabre or gruesome. Rather, it’s the sense of discomfort or unease that emerges when something that should be known to us turns hostile. In Freud’s words, the uncanny is ‘not the strange, but the familiar become  strange’.

The uncanny might be a doppelgänger or a puppet, it might be your childhood home when you visit it as an adult, it might even be your own body alienated from you through illness. Although the uncanny has been around for a long time, it’s doing a good job of keeping up to date; when we observe real or virtual robots displaying a human-like degree of realistic behaviour we often react with revulsion, perhaps because this ‘uncanny valley’ phenomenon challenges our assumption that humans are unique.

A few years ago, I started a project to consider the uncanny, with two social scientists based in the Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS) unit at the University of Edinburgh. Dr Gill Haddow and Dr Fadhila Mazanderani are particularly interested in how medical machinery and scientific understanding impact our understanding of our own bodies and how we can become estranged from ourselves during periods of illness and medical treatment. As unofficial writer-in-residence at STIS, I’ve long been interested in how we can use fiction to examine these issues. It seems particularly appropriate because Freud’s own essay draws extensively upon fiction to illustrate the concept; he discusses the desires and emotions of the characters in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s famous (and deeply uncanny) short story ‘The Sandman’ as if they were his patients, apparently forgetting that they’re fictional.

At the start of the project we held a workshop for writers and academics to discuss whether medical and social advances have made us uncanny creatures. How do the use of prosthetic limbs change our view of our bodies? How do gene therapies change our view of who we are? And how do advances in robotics and AI challenge our assumption that humans are unique?

The workshop took place in Edinburgh, which felt apt in many ways. The English word ‘uncanny’ is derived from the Scots ‘canny’, c.f. the Scots phrase ‘ca canny’, meaning ‘proceed cautiously’. But ‘canny’ is a slippery term that can mean ‘shrewd’, ‘safe’, ‘prudent’ and even ‘having supernatural knowledge’ which is also a meaning of ‘uncanny’; the two words are not always antonyms.

Edinburgh itself sometimes feels like an uncanny city. It is a city of two halves, the Old Town and New Town facing each other across the seam – or scar – of the railway lines. The lower levels in the medieval Old Town (such as St Mary’s Close) are now not always inhabited (they were abandoned after outbreaks of the plague) and can be thought of as architectural analogies of the hidden subconscious. The resulting deep city canyons, such as Cowgate and Grassmarket, have become physical renderings of ‘uncanny valleys’. The eighteenth century New Town is an urban manifestation of order and enlightenment, the elegant streets laid out according to geometrical relationships. But many of the houses in this part of the city were built with the proceeds of slave-ownership, and given that so many tourists visiting the New Town also spend money here, it’s arguable that the city itself still benefits from the long-gone slave trade.

We spent part of the workshop discussing aspects of the uncanny, in a conventional academic manner, and part of the workshop defacing Freud’s essay using pencils and Typpex. Afterwards, the writers created pieces of literature and the academics responded to those pieces. These aren’t all conventionally written academic pieces; many of them draw upon personal experiences, particularly of illness, pain and medicine. As is fitting with this subject, some contributors cross boundaries themselves; Ruth Aylett is a professor of robotics at Heriot Watt and also a poet, drawing upon her expertise to produce a finely considered poem about the similarities and differences between humans and robots. Aoife S. McKenna is a social scientist interested in reproduction, her essay includes a poem she constructed using words found in Freud’s essay. The poet nicky melville specialises in found poems, his ‘familiars’ in this anthology takes all the phrases using the word ‘familiar’ in Freud’s essay. The fact that the poem consists of two parallel columns of text, one for each of two English language versions of the essay, only goes to highlight the mutability that translations introduce.

I started this project interested in how adept the uncanny is at evading any sort of exhaustive definition. Freud attempts to define it, then he gives examples, then he discusses his personal experiences of the uncanny; albeit in a remarkably unconvincing manner, he claims his getting repeatedly lost in the red light district of an Italian city is just an accident over which he has no control.

Perhaps the uncanny’s ability to evade definition is the secret to our simultaneous fascination and unease with it, it endures because it undermines simple categorisation. It shifts and changes, always recognisable, yet always altering. Something that appears to be secure starts to slip away. When boundaries can’t be trusted, what can we cling onto?

This is why the uncanny is useful, because it can tell us more about ourselves and how our assumptions of what is fixed and coherent is in fact mutable and subject to influence, both internally and externally. It is the usefulness of the uncanny that leads us here, to this anthology.

When you work on the uncanny it creeps out into other aspects of your life. You start to see everything as uncanny, and you become less uneasy about it, and more intrigued by it. It becomes representative of a sort of freedom, an ability to break away from rules and margins. For example, I’m English and yet I’ve lived in Scotland for most of my adult life, which means that sometimes I’m classified as a Scottish writer, other times not. I’m currently living in Frankfurt and I recently acquired German citizenship because of my family background. I’m legally German, but do I feel German? Do other people here consider me to be German? I have to stay with the awkwardness, learn to live with it to really understand where it comes from and what it tells me about my understanding of boundaries and identity.

Uncanny Bodies, edited by Pippa Goldschmidt, Gill Haddow and Fadhila Mazanderani, is published by Luna Press

About the author of this post

Pippa Goldschmidt lives in Frankfurt and Edinburgh. She used to be an astronomer, and she’s the author of the novel The Falling Sky, the short story collection The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space, and co-editor (with Tania Hershman) of the anthology of literature inspired by Einstein’s theory of relativity I Am Because You Are. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in a variety of places including most recently Mslexia, Litro and the Times Literary Supplement. Pippa enjoys collaborating with scientists on inter-disciplinary projects, the current one involves sheep. Please come visit at www.pippagoldschmidt.co.uk and @goldipipschmidt

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