Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Uncanny Desire

While reading Butler’s complicated analysis of desire and the Subject in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, I was struck by its possible relationship to the Freudian concept of the Uncanny, and how desire makes and unmakes us.

Hegel’s work is an unstable coming-of-age story about the formation of the Subject; that is, how we become self-conscious, and Butler’s major contribution is to illuminate the importance of desire within that process of Hegelian self-making. The articulation of difference and desire are necessary to self-consciousness, as “self-identity is only rendered actual to the extent that it is mediated through that which is different.” The Subject creates herself through implicit or explicit comparison to an Other. Desire is productive and reflexive at the same time: It forces the Subject to consider herself in relation to something external, thus producing a “self” that the Subject can articulate and explain to herself. “This is me. That which I desire is not me.”

In this scheme, desire and difference are not just necessary to self-consciousness, they are also necessary to each other. The Subject must desire something extrinsic as a condition of self-discovery. While reading Butler’s careful exegesis of Hegelian desire, I was reminded of the concept of the Uncanny, or unheimlich (literally, in German, the “un-homely” but meaning deeply strange and unsettling), set out by early-twentieth century German psychologists Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud. Jentsch first used the popular short stories of E. T. A. Hoffman to demonstrate his theory. Hoffman often included life-like dolls, strangely robotic people, and objects that switch between animate and inanimate in his stories (he’s the author of the short story that became the basis for The Nutcracker, which has toys and dolls that come to life and turn into humans).

According to Jentsch, focused on the life-like automata in Hoffman’s tales, especially “The Sandman,” the Uncanny is intellectual uncertainty that is primarily dependent on lack of familiarity (is a life-like doll a person or a doll?). Freud took this further, arguing that the Uncanny occurs when the Subject recognizes something—an automaton or a doppelganger—she is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by. The attraction can be from a sense of familiarity (“That man looks just like someone my father used to know”) or Hegelian desire (“That girl Olympia is so pretty—she has such cool, perfect skin, and she dances perfectly. I wonder what she’d see in a red-faced, bad dancer like me?”). But the repulsion comes right behind (“The man my father used to know died years ago, so who is that man? Am I looking at a dead man?” “That pretty girl is so pretty and dances so well, and she is not human, or even a living creature, but I was still so attracted to her. Ew.”).

Freud says a lot more about the Uncanny, and how our response to it has a lot to do with social taboos and the terrifying desires of the Id, but what I’m most interested in is how revulsion or disgust complicate or enhance the role of desire in creating the Subject. Reading Freud, it seems like the disgust can stem from difference, even as, reading Butler and Hegel, that difference is crucial to distinguishing and creating ourselves. Does that mean that disgust and desire are the same … or similar?

One Comment

  1. I think this is a really interesting line of questioning to pursue. Thinking through the desire that structures the Hegelian, and Butlerian, subject seems like one way to fold Butler’s argument back into the realm of lived experience.

    Kojeve is pretty clear on what kinds of desire make the Hegelian subject (and here I’m totally cribbing an old post by Sadeq Rahimi over at Somatosphere):

    The Animal attains only Selbst-gefühl, Sentiment of self, but not Selbst-bewusstsein, Self-Consciousness –that is, it cannot speak of itself, it cannot say “I…” And this is so because the Animal does not really transcend itself as given i.e. as body. It does not rise above itself in order to come back toward itself; it has no distance with respect to itself in order to contemplate itself. For Self-Consciousness to exist, for philosophy to exist, there must be transcendence of self with respect to self as given. And this is possible, according to Hegel, only if Desire is directed not toward a given being, but toward a nonbeing. To desire Being is to fill oneself with this given Being, to enslave oneself to it.. To desire non-Being is to liberate oneself from Being, to realized one’s autonomy, one’s Freedom. To be anthropogenetic, then, Desire must be directed toward a nonbeing –that is, toward another Desire, another greedy emptiness, another I . . . In other words, action that is destined to satisfy an animal Desire, which is directed toward a given, existing thing, never succeeds in realizing a human self-conscious I. Desire is human, or more exactly, “huamanizing,” “anthropogenetic,” only provided that it is directed toward another Desire and an other Desire.

    and even more clearly:

    The man who desires a thing humanly acts not so much to possess the thing, as to make another recognize his right to that thing, to make another recognize him as the owner of the thing. And he does this –in the final analysis—in order to make the other recognize his superiority over the other. It is only Desire of such a Recognition, it is only Action that flows from such a Desire, that creates, realizes, and reveals a human, nonbiological I.

    [Incidentally, this assertion/recognition of superiority over the other might be link that Steph is missing between Hegel and the legality/affordability of abortions. It’s easy enough to miss, buried as it is under Butler’s analysis of Hegel’s sentence structure].

    The line between desire and disgust or abjection is interesting because it seems to be the dividing line between that which can be “safely” integrated into the subject (even if such integration is sometimes or always illusory) and that which poses too great a threat to the concept of subjectivity as such. I cannot desire the abject because it defies the system that posits a desiring-I. There’s no potential for subject-formation in possessing an object, only in possessing another subject and thereby reducing it to the level of an object in the process of affirming one’s own subjectivity. Olympia (or, for that matter, The Woman in the Red Dress, or the avatar of Zoe Graystone on the TV show Caprica) is disturbing because she presents the promise of affirming the desiring-subject only to later deny such affirmation. There’s a great moment in the movie Metropolis when Freder finds his father embracing the robot-Maria and suffers a kind of breakdown that seems to be operating in similar terms: the self is disrupted by the refusal of the desired to exist as his object of desire. And Freder doesn’t even know that she’s a robot yet! (The fact that these desiring-I disrupting machines are all women is a topic too big to treat adequately).

    What’s interesting too is that Olympia isn’t really disgusting. The “ew” is not rooted in Olympia but in the recognition of one’s own failure to desire the “right” kind of subject/object (the only kind capable of affirming one’s own special status as subject). I think the uncanny is different from disgust or abjection in that it makes you question yourself and your experience of reality, whereas the space of abjection is sealed off as outside of the self, it is the not-self that must be ignored, exiled, or disavowed and it’s therefore unable to produce the kind of recognition from the other that founds the subject. At least, this would be the case following the logic of Hegel and by extension Butler. I’m not sure if disavowal can be just as important as possession in eliciting the type of recognition that founds subjectivity (or if it actually is under current political theory).

    The qualifications for such subject-producing objects of desire may also be culturally contingent. Land-ownership has at times been crucial to the concept of citizenship, but land-ownership also rests on the assumption that one can own land, which in turn depends on the recognition of this possibility by someone else who therefore must not claim to own the land. But such concepts are historically and culturally specific, so it would be interesting to tease out some of the kinds of difference (owner/owned, eater/eaten, killer/killed) that work at certain moments to found the subject but that completely fail to do so at other historical moments, and whether these differences can always be discussed in terms of desire or whether there are other frameworks better suited to untangling them.