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?

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