Night of the unexpected: a critique of the 'uncanny' and its apotheosis within cultural and social theory

Winter 2011

This essay attempts a critical analysis of the boom in ‘uncanny’ theory. As the ‘uncanny’ has carved its image in cultural, political, sociological and aesthetic theory, there has been little attempt to challenge the notion that all critical work is or should be uncanny. Introductions to the concept, such as those by Nicholas Royle and more recently Anna Masschelein, have tended to promote its ubiquity and irreducibility, even while acknowledging a dramatic shift in its fortunes since the 1990s. Opening with a brief genealogy of uncanny theory in the late twentieth century (looking to work on Freud, the influence of Derrida and American deconstruction) the article pays particular attention to the watershed of the late 1980s when the uncanny is increasingly assimilated to the ‘spectral’ and begins to take shape as an autonomous theory. It probes the influence of Heidegger, who inflected Derrida’s own turn to spectres, and the way the uncanny is mobilised on cultural and sociological terrain as a specifically ethical tool: a site of historical mourning or sociological resistance. The article proposes that the anti-conceptualism of the uncanny is a transcendant gesture which needs to be read in the context of a crisis in the theorisation of Marxism at the end of the 1980s. In all the clamour over the disturbing and in-coercible logic of the uncanny, there has been little analysis of its potentially reactionary function on the contemporary scene.

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NF 75 Love, Loss and Revolution