Thursday, September 8, 2016

Uncanny Anthropology

(The Somerset onion, from the Pitt Rivers Museum)

In his lyrical essay, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982), Marshall Berman defines modernism broadly, as “a struggle to make ourselves at home in a constantly changing world” (6).  By that he includes art, poetry, but also political economy and philosophy; as an urban people, we are a moderns engaged in this daily struggle of sense-making and homeliness.  How we live in the world is a question that exercises artists, revolutionaries, cosplayers: in short, all of us suspended in a world not of our own choosing. 

But that modernist impulse is not without its push-back.  “Making ourselves at home” means finding the reality distinctly “un-homely,” or, as Freud defined it in his 1919 essay, as “uncanny” (unheimlich): that is, the hidden, mysterious and unexplained that invades the feeling of familiar, expected comfort.  The two ideas, as Freud explained, are related: “homeliness” has “unhomeliness” concealed within it like a family secret.  It is the unheimlich that is at the core of Benjamin’s bourgeois interior.  In his “The Exterior as Interieur,” Tom Gunning (2003: 107-108) goes back to an incident in Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” when the narrator, while bed-ridden and convalescing, is treated to a “magic lantern” show projected onto the walls of his bedroom:
"But my sorrows were only increased thereby, because the mere change of lighting was enough to destroy the familiar impression I had of my room, thanks to which, save for the torture of going to bed, it had become quite endurable.  Now I no longer recognized it, and felt uneasy in it, as in a room in some hotel or chalet, in a place where I had just arrived by train for the first time . . ." 
Of course, the “bourgeois interior” marks an uneasy truce with an outside world, one that continuously intrudes upon the “homeliness” of the inside, rendering the most familiar sights of bed and bedroom suddenly strange.

There can be no better synecdoche for the modern condition.  If we read Marx’s celebrated quote, “All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned,” as a process, then it is one where we again and again take refuge in comforting truths, solid relationships and familiar routines, only to have these shift beneath us through, of course, perturbations in political economy, but also through the emergence of new discourse, new identities and transforming (and transformative) relationships with things and the world.   In other words, our world constantly confronts us with the uncanny: the comforting familiar that betrays our trust and acts in ways contrary to our experiences.

Anthropology has not always been concerned with the uncanny.  During the twentieth century, much of the power and popularity of anthropology was generated in the frisson of the exotic and familiar—a trope that still recurs in popular media’s occasional re-deployment of “primitive” tropes.  Of course, as many critics have pointed out, each evocation of the exotic led to the reification of culture and to the spurious identification of culture and place: in other words, the very opposite of the uncanny itself.

As James Clifford (1988: 120) writes,

“The ‘primitive’ societies of the planet were increasingly available as aesthetic, cosmological, and scientific resources.  These possibilities drew on something that more than older Orientalism; they required modern ethnography.  The postwar context was structured by a basically ironic experience of culture.  For every local custom or truth there was always an exotic alternative, a possible juxtaposition or incongruity.”   

Despite the violence wielded against the Other through widespread deployment of the “savage slot,” this was still the heyday of cultural relativism and, with it, the power of a cultural critique that denied the universality of narrowly conceived Western rationalism.  Unfortunately, the exotic could also readily appropriated into colonial and racist scaffoldings, only now cultural difference could be part of a process of reification that derogated the Other to the peripheries of development. 

With the critique of this exoticization, and the turn towards public anthropology, an anthropology premised on the juxtaposition of the familiar and the exotic seems like a relic from the past—albeit one resurrected at key moments to justify this or that imperialist enterprise.  Instead, we look to powerful structures and practices that buttress global inequality—once the exotic Other, now the marginalized global. 

We might see this turn as the end of enchantment and the triumph of Weber’s iron cage of rationality: “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world’” (Weber 1946: 155).  If by “disenchantment,” we might include dismantling the various myths of savage and primitive that have been utilize to justify powerful inequality, then good riddance!  However, it hasn’t been that easy.  If some forms of enchantment have been “dispelled,” then others have rushed to take their place: mystifications of power wrought by media spectacles, by commodity fetishism, and by the systematically distorted discourse of the state. 

But there are other ways enchantment intrudes upon the anthropological consciousness.  To go back to one, well-known example.  In his work on behalf of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, and as proof of his theories of “survivals,” E.B. Tylor was continuously on the hunt for proof of magical superstition among England’s peasant classes.  Various magical implements (witch’s bottles, talismans, etc.) made their way to the museum through his network of ethnographers and folklorists.  In particular, one, old pub in Somerset yielded a rich trove of apotropaic artifacts that worked into Tylor’s typological schema perfectly, among them a bunch of dried onions with names written on the skins and pins stuck through.  Workmen found them concealed inside the chimney. 

Tylor then sent his dried onions to John Lubbock to examine, and then Lubbock claims to have sent them directly back.  But Tylor never received them.  After his inquiries at the post office yielded no onions, Tylor decided to consult with ghosts through a séance—a popular, middle-class pastime in England since the Fox sisters had introduced “spirit-rapping” to England in the 1850s.  Through the medium—one that he had come across during his anthropological researches into Spiritualism—Tylor contacted the spirit of a Native American, who told him that he would soon be reunited with the onions (Wingfield).  He never was.

It’s an extraordinary story, and an uncanny story.  Uncanny, of course, because of the séance, and the Native American spirit—Tylor may have believed what he’d witnessed.  But also uncanny because of the onions themselves.  Why did they disappear?  Where did they go?  Why was the post office unable to find them?  Things are, after all, uncanny when their familiarity shifts to strangeness: when the world’s regular workings open up to reveal a deep disquietude.  When the world, in other words, works in other ways than what we expect.

Even though there are many, many examples of the first sort of uncanny (that of the séance), it’s worth looking in more detail at the second.  When do things turn uncanny?  Freud suggested several scenarios: 1) inanimate objects animating; 2) the ‘doubling’ of objects; 3) the repetition of phenomena.  Each of these suggests uncanniness for a post-industrial age where biology becomes an engineered machine, and where the machine becomes fused in a cyborg assemblage.  In other words, the uncanny as a rooted experience of being modern. 

Systems of production, of power, of knowledge; structures of social life and education; discourses of identity, relatedness, nationality: all of these shift into uncanny topologies that reveal deep, contradictory strangeness.  E.B. Tylor’s experience was much the same: the same England that represented (for Tylor) the epitome of rationality and science could still kick up enough uncanny mystery to take him into a séance for answers. 

It is, therefore, anthropology that offers us a perspective on an uncanny world, one that acknowledges the inherent strangeness of our lives with reference to other peoples all over the world who are likewise at the mercy of uncanniness amidst their own home-making.  Similarly, the study of anthropology leads us inextricably to the uncanny; for example, following a commodity chain from its production under exploitative conditions in another country through to its incineration in a polluted neighborhood closer to home is doubly uncanny.  Just as Freud comes across a double of himself in a mirror reflection on a train and finds it instantly unlikeable, confrontations with the double of our commodity lives in their reflection through others turns even these familiar things into sinister reflections.


Berman, Marshall (1982).  All That is Solid Melts Into Air.  NY: Penguin.

Clifford, James (1988).  The Predicament of Culture.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Gunning, Tom (2003).  “The Exterior as Interieur.”  Boundary 2 30(1): 105-130.

Weber, Max (1946).  From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. 

Wingfield, Chris (n.d.). “Tylor’s Onion.” England: the Other Within [online]. Retrieved from on 12/9/2011