Saturday, March 15, 2014

A space between the uncanny and the abject

Walking along the sidewalk on the edge of campus, I had a unique opportunity to experience the fuzzy boundary between two related, yet distinct aesthetic categories: the uncanny and the abject.

The object prompting this experience was a detached weave, which initially appeared to be a dead bird. At first, my aesthetic response was horrified repulsion at the abjection of such a thing, as is to be expected. The abjection was worse than that which typically emanates from a dead bird as this appeared to be a larger bird, on the order of a crow. But as I realized it was not a bird, but rather a fringy strip of hair and adhesive, the horror shifted into a gray territory between the abject and the uncanny.

Dead organisms (or hyperrealist sculptures, wax museum replicas, taxidermied animals, certain cyborgs, etc) are very often sources of the feeling of the uncanny: the uncanny is the aesthetic category that occurs when confronted with something that is familiar and yet, in some profoundly wrong way, simultaneously unfamiliar. In a word, we might describe it as the antifamiliar. Imagine the revulsion you feel when a celebrity gets a bad face-lift – that feeling, where Kenny Rogers looks like a bad wax museum replica of himself, is what we call the uncanny. The uncanny in nonliving objects seems to attune the viewing subject to a feeling of anxiety, essentially grounded in the question “what if this thing moves?” It can be a very strong feeling; I could not even enter the Marc Sijan exhibition at the museum because I heard a noise as I approached the first figure at the entrance and it made me too anxious to do anything but cautiously sidle my way back out of the gallery. (A further question I have considered is whether there might be a metaform of the uncanny if we compare Sijan’s work to Duane Hanson’s.)

The uncanny dimension, however, can be outweighed in various cases when a lifeless body confronts us. Abjection is the aesthetic category of debasement and disgust – dead bodies are of course potentially both uncanny and abject, but abjection assumes more wretched states and materials: hair or fingernail sweepings, excrement, blood, rotting foods… abjection is more emphatically disgusting than disquieting, and I feel it can easily overshadow the uncanny. Roadkill, for instance, is usually too abject for the uncanny to register very much. The dead deer on the roadside is abject on one hand for the blood and the guts spilling out of it, but on the other hand, the context of the open world I believe makes it abject. This becomes more apparent when we consider if you were to discover a dead body in a trash receptacle (which is a phobic anxiety I have any time I have to open a trash container.) The immediate experience I would imagine would be a sort of abject trauma beyond uncanniness; it would be very different from seeing a body in calling hours with an open-casket.

The detached weave was unique in that it was almost equally abject and uncanny. That is, it literally could move about in a gust of wind – in fact, it could fly right into you, and perhaps it did fly into someone, given the wind over the weekend. The horror of this being flown into would potentially operate at two levels – an abject horror at the mere fact of detached hair, and at the same time, the uncanny horror of a realization of the fear at the heart of the uncanny – the thing flapping about as if it actually were a dead bird come to life.