The Uncanny Makes a ComebackExtract from an article first published in the Five Years Periodical, Volume 1, number 3 2008
A man left his house to go and visit his lover. He’d been in bed all day with flu and wasn’t sure it was wise to go out. Maybe he ought to be spending the evening alone with his Lemsip and his DVDs. Against habit, he double-locked the front door, wondering why he was being more security conscious than usual. When he got to the corner of the street he realised he’d forgotten his phone. He’d have to go home and fetch it. He turned and approached his house with a surprising feeling of dread — he didn’t want to go back inside. It was as if, by double-locking, he’d let the house know that he wouldn’t be around for a while. It wasn’t expecting him.
The hallway was dark and upstairs seemed far too silent. He felt unwelcome; his house didn’t seem to like him very much. He’d been quite happy in there only moments earlier, but now it wasn’t the same. Or it was. It was exactly the same. The stairs were still covered in dust and hairs, and the woodchip clung there gloomily. The only thing that was different was him; he wasn’t supposed to be there. He was the ghost, the intruder. A little phrase forced its way into his mind, ‘Once you’re gone, you can’t come back.’ It chilled him. He ran over to the linen basket, picked up his handset and rushed out into the street.
The Freudian uncanny is all about things coming back — infantile modes of thought, repressed phantasies. The things you thought you’d left behind take on new forms and sneak up on you. You think you’re afraid of being buried alive, but actually you want to crawl back into your mother’s vagina. It’s frightening. But what about the uncanny itself? What’s it doing back so suddenly? Wasn’t it packed off on indefinite leave sometime in the early nineties? Too many people had talked about it. Especially in relation to art. It wasn’t scary any more; it was boring. It was another word like ‘intriguing’ or ‘playful’ — what people said when they didn’t have a clue or couldn’t be bothered. Other words seemed better, more potent: univocity, metapolitics, even beauty. We thought we’d locked the door. So what’s it doing back in here?
You could say it’s been invited. People keep making sinister stuff. You can’t go out and consume a bit of culture these days without encountering pale-faced dangling dolls, worm-eaten skulls and record players that spring to life all by themselves. But is it different this time? Or are we seeing a kind of retro-uncanny, just like the old one we used to like so much? Something comfortably discomfiting, like a late night episode of Tales of the Unexpected on ITV2?
Perhaps the uncanny can only ever be a repeat. That’s what it is — something we’ve seen before. Freud devotes the first eight or so pages of his essay to honing some kind of definition. He starts with the blindingly obvious: das unheimlich is the opposite of heimlich. The problem, he soon realises, is that heimlich is a word that includes its own opposite. While it starts off meaning ‘homely’ or ‘familiar’, it can also mean ‘secret’ or even ‘occult’. Freud explains: “From the idea of ‘homelike’, ‘belonging to the house’, the further idea is developed of something withdrawn from the eyes of strangers, something concealed”. Familiarity itself becomes unnerving. Like a thought or a wish that that feels too intimate ever to own up to, the uncanny is built out of what we know far too well, but want to hide.
So how will that affect its comeback? Can you even refer to the comeback of something that is, in itself, a coming back? Is it in the very nature of the uncanny never to go away? In which case, why does it seem strange that it’s suddenly so much in evidence? Did it really disappear in between? If so, where was it? And what did it forget last time that it had to burst in and haunt us again?
The uncanny is back. It never went away. It might like to but it can't. It's a non-idea. A too-much idea. The opposite of a word which needs no opposite, the revival of something that never disappeared.
The Violence of FashionFirst published in Savoirs et Clinique: le corps à la mode ou les images du corps dans la psychanalyse (Editions Érès, 2009)
In The Devil Wears Prada, Lauren Weisberger gives a fictionalised account of her time spent working as assistant to Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue. The book has been described as ‘revenge lit’ — a genre that began with The Nanny Diaries (a novel detailing the unfortunate foibles of wealthy Manhattan families) and continued with Fashionistas (another fashion world exposé). In these books a wealthy, autocratic female boss is treated to a vicious character assassination by a younger female employee. The Devil Wears Prada is largely made up of a series of vignettes showing what a cruel, heartless monster the magazine editor is as she ritually humiliates everyone fatter, uglier, poorer or worse dressed than herself. The boss’s incessant attempts at making everyone around her look foolish end up making her look like the biggest idiot of all, closely followed by everyone else in the fashion industry for buying into such a mindless system. The counterpoint to all of this is, of course, our heroine, a sensible young lady who eats burgers and chips, goes out with a schoolteacher and buys her clothes on the high street.
But if the book is intended as an attack on the inhabitants of the world of fashion, it’s curious that it begins with a series of ‘accidents’ befalling an array of luxury garments. Within the first few pages our heroine manages to snap the heel of a Manolo Blahnik stiletto, sweat all over a pair of suede Gucci trousers and burn a hole in a pair of Jimmy Choo boots. So why is she so angry with clothes? Are they simply the objects of exchange in an economy she despises? Or is there more to it than that?
What does psychoanalytic literature have to tell us about fashion? Freud made a brief reference to women’s clothing at a meeting of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Like all of Freud's pronouncements on women, it needs to be approached with a certain degree of skepticism. He claimed that: ‘All women are clothes fetishists…’ He supported this by saying that women were characterised by a kind of passive exhibitionism; they enjoy allowing themselves to be seen. This tendency was ‘repressed’ by the wearing of clothes, which in turn were ‘raised to a fetish.’ He says: ‘Only now can we understand why even the most intelligent women behave defencelessly against the demands of fashion. For them, clothes take the place of parts of the body, and to wear the same clothes means only to show what the others can show, […] that one can find in her everything that one can expect from women.’ So, for Freud, clothes were important because they simultaneously hid and drew attention to the bodies that women wanted to show off. And, more particularly, that fashion, i.e. wearing the same clothes as other women, was important as a way of accentuating one’s femininity and identifying oneself with the feminine ideal.
While it might be offensively generalizing and paternalistic, certain aspects of Freud’s definition might nonetheless be worth bearing in mind. Here, fashion doesn’t simply mean an array of more or less appealing, more or less expensive clothes. The element of ‘sameness’ is vital. Nothing can become fashionable without a certain degree of consensus around the idea that this style of garment is a good thing to wear right now. The wish to have what the other people have is clearly one of the driving forces behind fashion. And while this is often understood in terms of wealth or social status, it’s important not to lose sight of fashion’s intimate relation to the body, and therefore to the question of what bodies do or do not have.
A more sustained psychoanalytic account of fashion is provided by J.C. Flügel in his book, The Psychology of Clothes, published in 1930. The first part of the book deals mainly with our attitudes towards clothes in general and he agrees with Freud in saying that clothes mediate the contradictory demands of showing off and covering up. He uses the example of the sombre suit guarding against phallic exhibitionism while the top hat provides an outlet for the repressed urge.
Further into the book Flügel talks more specifically about fashion, and its emergence during the Renaissance out of the collapse of the European feudal system. He tells us that as slaves bought their freedom from impoverished aristocrats and moved to cities to set up their own businesses, the aristocracy became very worried about losing its power. As the newly-formed bourgeoisie grew richer, the nobility had to invent the means by which to establish a distinction between themselves and the rest of society. One of their more desperate strategies was to introduce laws forbidding the middle classes from wearing the same clothes as them. Apart from being hard to enforce — how different was different enough? — legislation failed because the cunning masses opted instead for a perpetually transforming style of dress, which they apparently supposed would be a good visible sign of their newfound social mobility.
Flügel’s idea that, ‘in a rigid hierarchy fashion is impossible’ is obviously deeply appealing to fashion’s apologists. This myth of the birth of fashion has been repeated endlessly by clothing historians keen to represent fashion as a benign force. But Flügel himself wasn’t interested in arguing a case in favour of fashion. In fact, by the end of the book we see he has quite a different agenda. Flügel was an advocate of clothing reform. He believed that much could and should be done to make clothing more comfortable, attractive and affordable. He came up with the idea that ‘the aim of clothes should be to secure the maximum of satisfaction in accordance with the reality principle’. Having said this he was forced to admit that there’s no real way of measuring precisely how much showing off, covering up and protection from the external world would be permitted by the reality principle. The fact that clothing itself is a compromise formation and, as such, is always likely to arouse anxiety, ultimately leads him to argue that in the more enlightened societies of the future clothing will no longer be necessary at all. Once we have begun to understand the complex mechanisms at work in the obligatory wearing of clothes — the inhibitory impulses, the desperate management of desire and disgust, the displaced exhibitionism, the masochistic subjection of the body to various forms of discomfort — we will walk around stark naked and be much happier.
Flügel’s conclusion prefigures the ending of Robert Altman’s film, Pret-a-Porter, with it’s catwalk show of nude models proclaiming the death of fashion. Altman also appears to be in agreement with Flügel in that the only characters in his film who achieve any kind of happiness are a man and a woman whose clothes have been lost in transit and who therefore have nothing to wear. It seems that while clothes may promise to make our own and other people’s bodies more bearable, they also bring a special misery of their own. And perhaps nowhere is this idea better illustrated than in the story of Adam and Eve. Here, clothes are a punishment.
Flügel may have been sad to see that seventy six years later we are showing no signs of being cured — in fact fashion is one of the most profitable consumer industries, with every high street in every city crammed full of clothing shops. However, at least part of Flügel’s vision of the future has been fully realised in the form of Gap, a shop whose entire raison d’etre consists of granting sartorial satisfaction in accordance with the reality principle.
At least in Edmund Bergler’s 1953 book, Fashion and the Unconscious, everyone gets to keep their clothes on — although he would agree that fashion is the source of much misery. Bergler begins by saying that the material he has gathered during years of analytic work with numerous gay fashion designers will form the basis of his theories. It ought to be mentioned here that his theories are liable to be extremely offensive to the contemporary reader due to his thoughtless heteronormativity. His key idea is that clothes are a means of taming the castration complex, the castration complex being the culmination of a series of pre-genital anxieties, the ‘septet of baby fears’, i.e. being starved, devoured, poisoned, choked, chopped to pieces, drained and, finally, castrated. Men need women to be clothed because, naked, women’s bodies are just too frightening. On the one hand they’re too powerful, and on the other they have bits missing and they bleed. Because in gay men — according to Bergler —this fear amounts to something more like panic, homosexuals are particularly inclined to want to ‘dress’ women, especially if the clothes they provide make the women look stupid, feel uncomfortable and cause them to give up all their money. Bergler refers to this situation as the ‘fantastic fashion hoax’: in his eyes fashion is a cruel trick played by gay men on unsuspecting women. But while he is confident that he can cure his patients’ homosexuality, he insists that he can’t, and won’t, cure them of being fashion designers. No wonder his books are so rarely read these days.
Although Bergler has a great deal to say about the men’s investment in all of this, he has remarkably little to say about why women would so willingly go along with it. Indeed, instead of focussing on the female masochism necessary to keep the scheme ticking over, he seems to see stylish women as some sort of healthy ideal, portraying ‘sartorial anti-talents’, or dowdy dressers, as unfortunate neurotics in desperate need of help. For instance, women may dress badly in order to punish their mothers, or themselves. So analytic cure, for Bergler, may involve becoming better dressed.
Today it seems that we are confronted with two options if we want to understand something about fashion. We can either look at the various ways in which different individuals use fashion, or we can look at fashion as a system, in the manner of Roland Barthes in his book, The Fashion System, published in 1967.
One can always come up with plenty of cases where the first approach would seem appropriate. The young woman who spends twenty thousand pounds on designer clothes in the few days before she slashes her wrists. The successful woman who still borrows money from her parents to buy extravagant clothes. The new mother who incessantly buys clothes only to return them to the shop the next day. Or the girl who suffers from obsessive thoughts about self-harming and who regularly stays up all night cutting, reshaping and dyeing second-hand garments. All four are doing something quite different with fashion and it would surely be worthwhile to try to understand exactly what. (Having said this, while there might be as many modes of relating to fashion as there are people, an idea that one often hears is that fashion somehow promises to give consistency to the body — or at least to its reflection.)
In contrast to this approach Roland Barthes’ study of fashion all but ignores the wearer, focussing exclusively on the grammar and syntax of fashion. Fashion is a chain of interchangeable signifiers that temporarily take on the meaning ‘fashion’. He is particularly interested in the various ways in which fashion journalism links ‘the written garment’ with the world. It is always important in the reporting of fashion to give the new look a tangible space or reason for existing. The three main ways fashion magazines provide rationalisation, via the means of text and photography, are:
Appropriate settings. The world forms a theatrical backdrop for the dress. A stark, alien landscape exists in order to give the woman a reason to dress like a Martian.
Recognisable types or personae. The femme fatale, the puritan, the businesswoman or heiress. They exist and you too could dress like them.
A response or reaction to the fashion immediately before.
Using any or all of these strategies one can make sense of any new fashion. But perhaps their multiform nature attempts to exclude or gloss over the aberrant or irrational. It seems that this network of logical explanations, constructed in such a way as to come prepared for any eventuality, conceals something arbitrary intrinsic to the workings of fashion. As Barthes says: ‘Clothing and the world can enter into any sort of relation […] relation being constant, its content varied.’ Looking particularly at the third strategy, it’s easy to see how any change can be validated when the relation to the previous style can take any form. An improvement, a continuation, an inversion or a rejection would all be seen as equally valid links between consecutive modes of dress. So not only do clothes smooth over the horror of the body, but the fashion system itself smoothes over the horror of its own semantic inconsistency.
This view of fashion differs dramatically from most historical accounts, whose aim is generally to show that each fashion is a natural and inevitable product of its own era. But these sorts of connections can only ever be made retroactively. Short skirts have been associated with women’s liberation both in the 1920s and the 1960s, but at other times the wearing of miniskirts has been linked with the objectification of women by men. Fashion designers may spot an opportunity for a new style of dress (i.e. at the moment, due to recent shifts in the political climate, women won’t be lynched for wearing this) but external events can never be said to have dictated the shape of the garment, which might always have been anything.
So, is fashion really all just arbitrary? In his 1948 paper ‘Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis’ Lacan refers to the ‘arbitrariness of fashion’. This might easily seem to chime with the idea that what’s interesting about fashion is its language-like structure rather than its role in the drama of the individual wearer. But his mention of fashion immediately follows an indexing of the ‘imagos of the fragmented body’ — a list that pre-empts Bergler’s ‘septet of baby fears’. Lacan cites ‘the images of castration mutilation, dismemberment, dislocation, evisceration, devouring [and] bursting open of the body.’ And he doesn’t just mention the arbitrariness of fashion, but the Procrustean arbitrariness. He says:
There is a specific relation here between man and his own body that is manifested in a series of social practices — from rites involving tattooing, incision and circumcision in primitive societies to what, in advanced societies, might be called the Procrustean arbitrariness of fashion, a relatively recent cultural innovation, in that it denies respect for the natural forms of the human body.
So what can we make of this? Procrustes, whose name means ‘he who stretches’, was the last of Theseus’s challenges. He was a robber who kept a house by the side of the road, where he would invite travellers to eat and rest. Over a nice dinner he would tell his guests about his magic bed. The bed was exactly the same length as whoever slept on it. What Procrustes omitted to mention was that this was because he would either stretch the person or amputate their heads or legs in order to ensure a good fit. And not only that, he would first secretly adjust the bed to make it as different as possible to the person’s natural height in order to ensure the maximum amount of mutilation.
So we might conclude that the arbitrariness Lacan is referring to here has less to do with the abritrariness of the signifier as with the radical disregard for the limits of the body. One might note the ways in which fashion has emphasised various zones of the body over the centuries. As Flügel tells us: ‘During the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance much interest was devoted to the abdominal region, which was made as conspicuous as possible. In the eighteenth century this abdominal emphasis was abandoned […] only to give place to an increasing emphasis on the bosom and hips.’ He goes on to mention the focus on the bottom provided by the bustle in the late nineteenth century, followed by the early twentieth century’s love affair with legs. Flügel attempts to make sense of each fashion in relation to its cultural context, the curving belly of the Middle Ages signifying the idealisation of pregnancy, the padded hips of the eighteenth century also being equated with childbearing, etc. But if this was so, why should the large hips be accompanied by painfully restrictive corsetry? And why would one’s propensity for motherhood one minute be signified by a round tummy, the next by a wasp waist and love-handles? (This shift may ring a bell with anyone who has read a fashion magazine recently, and will have had firmly impressed upon them the burning importance of emphasising one’s waist, not to mention urgent warnings against the crime of continuing to wear a belt on one’s hips.)
This leads us to a paradox operating at the heart of fashion. On the one hand clothes cover up our unfortunate biological features and promise us a more complete body-image, just like the one we saw in a magazine, a shop window or at a party. On the other hand fashionable clothes disregard our biological form, they pull us in at the middle, lever us up at the heel, flatten our breasts, pump them up again, accentuate curves, obliterate them, make us look like this woman, then that one, and generally treat our bodies like prime cuts of meat in an ever-changing butcher shop display.
Although shopping for fashion has been dubbed retail therapy, as if acquiring new clothes will have a tempering effect on the psyche, it can also be linked to a profound anxiety. Many of the commentaries on Lacan’s recently published seminar on anxiety explore the different relations of man and woman to anxiety. Colette Soler, for example, argues that men experience less anxiety than women at the sexual level since they have something to cede in the form of their phallic detumescence. This transitory giving up of a part of the body is seen as a barrier to the desire of the Other. But couldn’t we extend this notion to fashion itself? Could it be that part of the gravitational pull of fashion for women is less the acquisition of clothes — the famous retail therapy — than the giving up of clothes. Isn’t fashion, in part, all about the clothes we have to stop wearing and hate?
To conclude, we have the notion of fashion as a means of organising the body, but also as a means of disorganising it. If we return to Lacan’s phrase it might also be worthwhile pausing to consider the etymology of the word ‘arbitrary’, which comes from the Latin words ad (to) and baetere (come, or go). Arbiter literally means ‘one who goes somewhere (as a witness or judge)’, someone who settles disputes. In the fifteenth century arbitrament meant ‘deciding by one's own discretion,’ from the Latin arbitrarius. But by the seventeenth century the original meaning had gradually descended to ‘capricious’ and ‘despotic’, presumably due to anger at the various arbiters for their failure to make decisions that made everyone happy.
Perhaps this gives us a clue as to why someone might be pleased at the sight of a sweat stain on a pair of £3000 trousers, or a lump of smouldering tobacco on the toe of an exquisite boot. No matter how much clothes promise to arbitrate between men and women, between women and women, between different psychical agencies, between who we are and who we’d like to be, they can never fully placate all the warring factions. Maybe clothing could be said to have suffered a similar shift in meaning to the word ‘arbitrary’ itself. From its original promise as a friendly agency sent in to make everyone feel better, dress has evolved into something more like a wayward go-between, whimsically deciding this and then that with no concern at all for rectitude or fairness.
And doesn’t this point us towards the idea that there’s a violence in the signifier itself? Perhaps with clothing and fashion, just like other external powers — our parents, the law, language — we each have to invent our own ways of enjoying our acquiescence — or resistance. For some this will be nudism, for others an unquestioning obedience to the dictates of Vogue, and for others yet it will be little moments of revenge on the garments themselves.