Anthropologist/writer Antropologė/rašytoja
Anthropologist/writer Antropologė/rašytoja

Solveiga Zibaite

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‘The Uncanny’ as manifestation of the denial of death

The uncanny valley is a theory, developed by robot designer Masahiro Mori, suggesting that the viewer’s affinity towards a humanoid object, such as an android, a manipulated 3D rendering of a human, etc., steadily increases as its resemblance to a human being grows, until it dips significantly when the entity begins to appear eerily, but not quite human. This uncanniness elicits fear, distrust and repulsion. It cannot be fully explained by cognitive psychology. One of the hypothesis is that it is rooted in fear of death and several authors have engaged with this idea (MacDorman 2005, Philips and Mendoza 2014, Tondu 2015 to name just a few). Partially dismantled human-like androids engender fear of dismemberment, as well as the uncertainty if we are not soulless machine just as them, or maybe everyone else is an android, except you. One only climbs out of the uncanny valley when he is fooled by the android’s likeness, when he is convinced the other is human – which is even more horrifying. I wish to consider the ‘uncanny’ outside the problem of human likeness in robotics, rather as a trope of unpredictable moments when one, as if peeking through half-closed blinders, momentarily sees the truth of things – the perversion, weirdness and non-sense of the world.

In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker is largely a critic of Freud. Freud’s basic thesis was that the sex drive was the definitive drive in human nature, and therefore the cornerstone of man’s anxiety. Becker applauds Freud’s grandiose attempts, however he considers that Freud misunderstood the basic human motivation. Becker argues that death drive – the encroaching fear of death – is the main unconscious stimulus for human beings. On other note, Freud believed compulsion and addiction to be a struggle between lebenstreib (life instinct) and todestrieb (death drive). In his late writings Freud arrived at the new idea of death instinct, but mainly as a device that enabled him to keep intact the earlier instinct theory. He now held that there was a built-in urge toward death as well as toward life. A brilliant example of this compulsion is an edition of Junji Ito’s eldritch horror manga– The Enigma of Amigara Fault. In this manga, a fissure in a mountain opens up after a usual earthquake in a small Japanese prefecture. Carved into the face of this new fault, thousands of human shaped holes appear, penetrating deep into the mountain, seemingly of ancient origin. After seeing reports on television, people begin to feel a certain compulsion, an overwhelming urge to visit Amigara fault because among the uncountable amount of silhouettes they felt there was one identical to their silhouette, even beyond that, it was their silhouette. Having located their holes, people start taking off their clothes and sliding into them. 

The onlookers feel extreme horror in realisation that the mountain will consume them all and they are totally helpless. The two main protagonists, having met during this pilgrimage end up embracing, kissing, spending the night together as an attempt to overcome their death drive, to embrace life and love, but it is futile. They slide into nothingness one after the other. Some time later, the exits for these holes are found and inside them the discoverers witness misshapen grotesque figures that have lost their resemblance to humans as they were crushed by the twisting shape of their hole. The Enigma of Amigara Fault plays wonderfully with the perception of unique human lot despite the unavoidable spiralling into demise. The holes in the mountain are ‘uncanny’ because they are unique for each one of us, but simultaneously frighteningly alien in their origin and purpose, thus destabilizing the sense of rationality of one’s own existence.

Junji Ito is a master of ‘the uncanny’, he transforms mundane things into repulsive, horrifying and threatening. Consider Uzumaki, in which a small town is possessed by the ancient curse of the spiral, which is indifferent to humans, thus negating their hero-systems and annihilating their meaning. Some villagers turn into grotesque snails, some seek ways to contort their body into spiral shapes, being slowly consumed by the curse of the spiral, but otherwise eerily continuing their normal lives.  

 This indifference of the Universe to the human lot (cosmic horror) was intrinsic to the oeuvre of the legendary H.P. Lovecraft, who is, in his supernatural pessimism, according to Thomas Ligotti, ‘a contemporary to everyone’. The horror trope and the aesthetic ‘uncanny’ represent the proximal threat of death – lurking behind the corner, grinning as it jumps out surprising you – heart attack! covering all pavements with its slime waiting for you to slip on it like on a comical banana peel. We would be paralysed with abject terror if it was on our minds all the time. The denial of death is challenged by the intimately powerful ‘uncanny’ and the repressed returns once more. As a tease, as absurdity, senselessness, robbing all meaning from the world, which appeared so logical and secure a moment ago.

 

References:

Tndu, Bertrand (2015). Fear of the death and uncanny valley. A Freudian perspective. Interaction Studies. Vol 16:2, pp. 200-205

MacDorman, Karl. (2005). Mortality salience and the uncanny valley. 399 – 405. Conference: Humanoid Robots, 2005 5th IEEE-RAS International

Phillips, Bill and Mendoza, Marlene (2014) The Dead Walk. Coolabah, No.13. Centre d’Estudis Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona

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Published on February 23, 2018