ICI Projects  

Techniques of the Uncanny



ICI Berlin
6-8 April 2009

The concept of the ‘uncanny’ is one of the most floating in contemporary aesthetics. The ‘uncanny’ delineates a strange proximity between the known and the unknown, either as something familiar presenting itself under an extraneous shape, or as something extraneous revealing an element of familiarity in its features. Structurally close to other experiences of ‘defamiliarization’ theorized between the 19th and the early 20th centuries (e.g., the Marxist notion of 'alienation', Russian formalists’ definition of ostranenie [Sklovskij], Heidegger’s Unheimlichkeit, Brecht’s ‘A-effect’), it reverberates in 20th century debate, from psychoanalysis (Lacan) to deconstruction (Derrida, Royle), from literary theory (Todorov, Cixous, Kristeva) to philosophy of history (de Certeau), and eventually to architecture (Vidler). In our perspective, the tension individuated by Freud between familiarity/un-familiarity (homely/unhomely, Heimlichkeit/Unheimlichkeit) can still be used as an approximate framework in which to place the manifold aspects of uncanniness. Specifically, the semantic area of the ‘house’ (Heim, intended as the perimeter of familiarity) can be interpreted as a ‘semiotic code’, namely as a constellation of sign relationships defining a horizon of expectation in which interactions, causes, and effects, seem to follow a series of rules. From this point of view, the uncanny is related to scientific paradigms and epistemological practices, insofar as these define what a given cultural context interprets as natural or un-natural, or rather super-natural.
The two keywords of our proposal, ‘techniques’ and ‘uncanny’, are interconnected, since they both refer to a common cultural background, that of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment western culture.
The epistemological model of critique produces a number of techniques in the sense of both structured thought and scientific practices. In the ‘culture of critique’, the subject is split, as reflected in the double genitive in the expression ‘subject of observation’. This causes a constant abstraction from individual experience to a common and collective level.
We therefore propose to interpret the uncanny as a model for understanding the interrelation between possible and impossible, norm and deviation.

This conference is organized within the frame of the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry’s current core project Tension/Spannung, in collaboration with the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. It aims to gather scholars and artists from different disciplines and backgrounds to engage in a three-day interdisciplinary workshop, where participants are expected to present their papers (15 minutes). Texts will circulate among attendants before the beginning of the workshop, in order to build up a basis for discussion. The workshop will be complemented by two public keynote addresses and the screening of The Dangers, a movie by Siouxzi L Mernagh, followed by a discussion.

Evening events are public. We kindly ask those interested in attending the workshops to register in advance by e-mail: uncanny@ici-berlin.org.

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