Humanizing the Avatar (Part 10: “Old and Long Familiar” Avatars and the Freudian Uncanny)

The Tenth part in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars.

In “The Uncanny”, Sigmund Freud explains that the “uncanny” constitutes a specific kind of disquieting or frightening thing. Similar to the seemingly paradoxical claim, made by theorists of performativity, that the avatar allows us to behold new aspects of our true self, the uncanny designates something that is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. Freud considers the semantic context of the German word “unheimlich” (in English “eerie” or “uncanny”) whose etymology derives from “un-homely” (Freud, “Uncanny” 124). The word “unheimlich” describes a “species of the frightening” comprising “persons, things, sense impressions, experiences and situations” that go back to what was “once well known and had long been familiar”. But why should something well known and once familiar appear frighteningly “unhomely” or uncanny?

The antonym of “unheimlich”, “heimlich” designates what is “local, native, domestic, at-home, or familiar” (Freud, “Uncanny” 124). Freud finds that “heimlich” can be defined as (1) what is “belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, dear, intimate, homely, etc…, (2) something kept concealed or hidden, or (3)
designating its antonym “unheimlich”, that is, everything that was “meant to remain secret and hidden and has come out into the open” (Freud, “Uncanny” 132). This third definition of “heimlich” joins the term with its antonym, “unheimlich”. One can, in other words, speak of the “homely” as “unhomely”. Note: Schelling describes “unheimlich” as applying to “everything that was intended to remain secret and hidden and has come out into the open” (Freud, “Uncanny” 134) “Unheimlich”, Freud explains, is a species of the “heimlich”, a species of the familiar.

Recall that for Freud, during a male child’s formative years he invests his mother with libidinal desire and comes to sexually desire her. The child then worries that he has provoked the jealousy of his father and that the father will punish him for desiring his wife by castrating him. As a result, the child comes to accept, and identify with, the father’s authority, or law, and represses his libidinal desires for his mother. This is clearly evocative of the Oedipal drama, where Oedipus does not receive the law from his father Laius, but slays him instead. As a result, he sleeps with his mother, and afterwards inflicts the father’s law on himself. Thus, for Freud, the uncanny elements of ETA Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman” (See Freud’s Synopsis of Hoffman’s “The Sandman”) bring us back to the Oedipal “infantile castration complex”, the return of something old and long familiar. Freud outlines a few instances of the uncanny in Hoffman’s story.

1. First, the story explores the threat of enucleation, or the loss of eyesight; this is exemplified in its motif of a Sandman who threatens to tear out the protagonist, Nathaniel’s, eyes. According to Freud, this threat is associated with the fear of castration. Nathaniel’s fear of blindness is explicitly Oedipal; Oedipus blinds himself at the end of Sophocles’ myth, a self-inflicted “mitigated form of the penalty of castration” that “befits him” (Freud, “Uncanny” 139). Indeed, Freud notes that in dreams the eye and the male member are “substitutive” and related.

Digression: In “the Uncanny”, Freud suggests that the fear of damaging one’s eyes is symbolic of the fear of castration. This insight is quite apt given the tremendous body of work and literature, such as Bataille’s The Story of the Eye or Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes, conducted on the “occularcentric” regime of vision and its association not only with the Cartesian subject but masculinity in general. Consider the “circle of fire” in Hoffman’s story (i.e. “Upon the enucleation of the automaton Olympia, Nathaniel lapses into madness and utters the incantation: “Ha, ha, ha. Circle of fire, circle of fire! Spin, spin, circle of fire! Merrily, merrily! Puppet ha, lovely puppet, spin, spin!”) that Nathaniel raves about during the onset of his maniacal episodes. What is the “circle of fire” and what does it have to do with the damaging of eyes and the threat of castration?

The terrifying Sandman is described by a maid as “a wicked man who comes after children when they won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody”. (Hoffman 87) But it is what she says about the Sandman after this introduction that is truly of interest to us. The maid describes the Sandman carrying his child victims to “the crescent moon as food for his little children, who have their nest up there and have crooked beaks like owls and peck up the eyes of the naughty children” (Hoffman 87).

Think of the homology between the crescent shape of the beak and the crescent moon. We now relate these to the geometrical properties of the crescent shape and its likeness to a blade. As well, the crescent, as in an eclipse, is symbolic of the obscuring of the sun’s rays. It is an obscuring of this solar principle that is symbolized by the crescent blade which threatens the loss of virility in the human body. This is particularly revealing in the context of the Sandman as the ‘bad father’, intent on castrating his son Nathaniel. In this context, where, as we have noted, eyes and genitalia can be used interchangeably, this seemingly innocuous aspect of the maid’s description of the Sandman takes on another dimension of interpretation. In this reading the ‘bad father’, who lives on a moon symbolized by a blade, is bent on severing his son’s penis and taking it back to the moon where it is to be further mutilated by crescent shaped beaks. The son is left with a circular bloody and hot wound where his penis once was.

Even more revealing and enigmatic is the incident early on where young Nathaniel watches Coppelius and his father’s alchemical dealings. He describes the incident: “I seemed to see human faces appearing all around, but without eyes – instead of eyes there were hideous black cavities”. Reading this with the eye-penis symbolism in mind one might conclude that Nathaniel’s fear is less of being caught then it is castration by Coppelius (i.e. the ‘bad father’). He is terrified of the castrated body, of having a hideous black cavity where his penis once was. He is afraid of the Sandman’s enucleating dust, or the will of the ‘bad father’, whose own ‘dust’ will leave him with the wounds of castration. The fear of castration, stemming from the Oedipal struggle, runs behind Hoffman’s text.

We find a whole number of phallic shaped objects associated with madness and death. In the story Nathaniel and Clara ascend a tower where they are alone and for the first time in a long while at ease with one another. Nathaniel catches a glimpse of something moving down below. He uses his telescope to have a better look. Upon doing so he goes mad and, after a short yet wild dance, jumps to his death. We might be inclined to understand the story as follows: Nathaniel and Clara are, indeed, finally alone and at ease. So much at ease that Nathaniel has been able to escape his fear of the dreaded Oedipal father who has barred his every attempt at sexual gratification. Alas, we have the tower (Nathaniel’s erect penis).  Upon ascending the tower (achieving erection) Nathaniel is reminded of the threat of enucleation (castration). As such, his attention is diverted to something (-repressed) moving below. He uses the telescope (the erect penis) and diverts his gaze through it (ejaculation) toward the Sandman rather than his beloved Clara. Once again Nathaniel’s promise of sexual gratification has been thwarted and his fear of bloody castration (the ring of fire) has been activated. Hoffman writes that “a spasm shuddered through him” before he jumps to his death.

Likewise, there have been many associations discerned between blindness/light and castration/virility. Light, sight and virility are deeply interrelated. Light has long been regarded as the “essence of the father’s phallus, or ‘masculine substance’”. For example, darkness, as evidenced in the Hebraic God’s penultimate plague (Exodus 8-14) represents a threat to the unyielding virility of the Egyptian sun God Ra. Darkness is associated with the imperfect corporeal world in contrast to the perfect and incorporeal Platonic Good or Neo-Platonic One. One interesting story evocative of the linkage between masculinity and sight tells of Isaac Newton’s turning a solid beam of light into the “beautiful (feminine?) colors of the rainbow completing his own Oedipal triumph” of splitting the phallus into pieces. Thus, Newton’s anti-trinity based turn to alchemy and Unitarianism aimed to re-interpret God as an indivisible entity (Ward 59).

The relationship between the uncanny, the narrative of “The Sandman”, the Oedipal myth, and castration is quite explicit. To Freud, “The Sandman” is a story whose uncanniness results from it’s reminding the reader of the castration complex. For example, in the story Nathaniel’s father appears as the “disruptor of love” (Freud, “Uncanny” 205); every time Nathaniel is about to find sexual fulfillment he is reminded of his father, and the Sandman, whether in the guise of Coppelius or Coppola, arrives to enucleate him. Within Second Life (SL), the user is robbed of his or her own eyes in a sense, and must depend instead on either the virtual eyes of the avatar or (in mouselook mode) the “eye” of the in-world camera. Specifically, I wonder about the possible links between the Freudian idea of “ocular anxiety” and the forms of avatarial vision in virtual worlds such as SL. In SL we encounter new types of vision: the user can, via something like mouselook mode, experience a set of binocular eyes befitting the inhuman Terminator. In doing so the importance of the user’s own eyes is negated: they become akin to hollowed out tunnels for the transmission of avatarial vision. The virtual world is not created to be seen by the physiological eye, but the physiological eye hollowed out and acting as a tunnel for a machinic, avatarial, one.

2. Second, Freud emphasizes the uncanny is often associated with the “double” or the “doppelganger”. Doubles and lookalikes are uncanny because they cause a person to “identify with another and so become unsure of his true self. Th[is] self may be duplicated, divided and interchanged” (Freud, “Uncanny” 142). Freud notes that doubles are evocative of both castration anxiety and the desire for immortality. But what is the relationship between the uncanniness of doubling, castration, and immortality? Freud claims that in dreams a doubling or multiplying of the genital symbol expresses the idea of castration. He also claims that doubling “belongs to a primitive phase in our mental development [where the double was considered an insurance against death or dissolution], a phase [we have since] surmounted” (Freud, “Uncanny” 143). The doubling that occurs in Hoffman’s story is uncanny because it harkens back to “phases in the evolution of the sense of self, a regression to times when the ego had not set itself off from the world outside and others”. Note: It also “…has ambivalent, narcissistic significance. A portent of death once the second self is no longer protected by primary narcissism: duplication, the multiplication of selves, becomes the splitting of the self, no longer overcoming but rather confirming its non identity and mortality” (Weber, Legend 216) The avatar is generally understood as a double or doppelganger, a representative of that self, which also works to challenge the user’s “true self” as fixed, indivisible, and non-duplicative. In this manner, the avatar represents a self that remains identical each and every time the user logs in to SL. In other words, the user can repeatedly interact with a double that retains the same age, facial features, bodily qualities, et cetera “throughout successive generations”.

While the uncanniness provoked by “duplication, ego splitting, revenant, or the recurrence of traits, characters and destinies” (Weber, Legend, 10) returns us to an earlier phase of either personal or cultural development, the uncanniness provoked by doubling or multiplying of the genital symbol is more difficult to understand. The doubling, or multiplication, of the genital symbol recalls the Oedipal situation: that is, the threat of castration initiated by the father in order to quell his sons’ desire for his mother. A response to the fear of losing something is to fracture it, duplicate it, or multiply it. For example, in the Harry Potter series the villain Voldemort splits and preserves his self in shards of glass or “horcruxes” in order to achieve immortality (Freud, “Uncanny” 143).

Note: Many technophilic writers appear radically thanatophobic; that is, they express a fear of death. Many ideas I have encountered (i.e. human reproductive cloning, the uploading of human consciousness espoused by Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravec, the Singularity promised by Ray Kurzweil), appear to express a profound fear of death and advocate the desire to live-on at any cost. These writers seem to be driven by the desire to collapse the self into something like the villain Voldemort’s “Horcruxes” in order to either await a time when the self can be “resurrected” or else become rendered informatic and capable of living on in some modified virtual form. These scientists could be read as searching for some insurance against “castration”. They can be read as suffering from a fear of the impotency associated with castration; they are afraid to grow old and infirm. They are afraid of not being able to reproduce. So, they work on doubling themselves, creating hi-tech doppelgangers of themselves in order to never lose their “youth”, that is, the ability to ejaculate (and reproduce). Here, in a different (more biological) guise, castration anxiety and the desire for immortality serve to explain the doubling of the self (and the genital symbol). Kurzweil, Minsky and Moravec: technophiles whose quest to create hi-tech doubles capable of immortality masks (and externalizes) their fear of loosing “it”.

This idea can be traced back to Freud’s comment in The Interpretation of Dreams, that as “an insurance against castration, the dream uses one of the common symbols of the penis in double, or multiple form; and the appearance in the dream of a lizard – an animal whose tail, if pulled off, is regenerated by a new growth has the same meaning” (Freud, “Uncanny” 236).  In SL, users can design or purchase genitals, an activity that often involves a manipulation, duplication or multiplication of the genital symbol. This activity in SL could be read as the subversion of anxiety associated with the Oedipus complex.

3. The third uncanny aspect present in Hoffman’s story concerns dolls and automatons, such as the automaton Olympia. Freud claims Olympia is not uncanny because she puts the reader (and Nathaniel) in a position of “intellectual uncertainty”, but because Olympia, a automaton created by her father, Professor Spalzanni, takes the reader (and Nathaniel) “back to the world of childhood”; this involves a return to the infantile association of dolls with living animate beings, a time where there was “no sharp distinction between the animate and inanimate” (Freud, “Uncanny” 141).

Lifeless objects such as “waxwork figurines, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata” can inspire uncanny disquiet. Likewise, “[E]pileptic seizures” and “manifestations of insanity” are uncanny because they “arouse in the onlooker various notions of automatic – mechanical – processes that lie behind the familiar image of a living person”. The avatar can be thought of or described as a doll or puppet that the user animates and controls.

4. Finally, something that “unintentionally returns” can be regarded as uncanny (Freud, “Uncanny” 144). One such “unintentional return” can be a return to the “old animistic view of the universe…a narcissistic overrating of one’s own mental processes by the omnipotence of thoughts” (Freud, “Uncanny” 144-145). By this Freud refers to a time in the prehistory of human culture where not only inanimate objects but our own thoughts were believed to have agency and could effect the physical world. Although humanity has developed from this pre-modern animate universe, Freud believes that we retain residual traces of it and that these traces can make themselves felt in uncanny ways. The entire SL environment, where your dreams can become reality is reminiscent of the return to this superannuated, animistic view of the universe, when human thoughts were taken to be omnipotent. The anthropocentric will of the user has agency in virtual worlds that it does not have in the physical world. A user can lift objects without physically lifting them, and create anything that can be sculpted with SL prims. Furthermore, SL is the space, par excellence, of what Freud calls the uncanny effect of a “blurring of fantasy and reality” (Freud, “Uncanny” 150). This in-betweenness is evident in the difficulty of describing SL: it is not like the space of a fictional novel, nor is it wholly located in the realm of real life.

The fear or disquiet associated with the pre-modern attribution of omnipotence to human thoughts, the doppelganger or double who reminds us of castration, enucleation which reminds us of the father’s castrating “no”, and the attribution of childlike agency to dolls or automata are to be regarded as “nothing new or strange, but …long familiar to the psyche and …estranged from it only by being repressed” (Freud, “Uncanny” 148). These themes and sentiments are all old, hidden, or repressed, and become uncanny only by coming out into the open. Witnessing an epileptic seizure or a bout of madness, are examples of the manifestation of forces we do not suspect in “a fellow human being, but whose stirrings…[can be]…dimly perceived in remote corners of [our] own personality. Note: Also, in moments where reality and fantasy break down, we verge close to when we were infants and our thoughts had an omnipotence whereby a “symbol [could] take on full function and significance of what it symbolizes” (Freud, “Uncanny” 150). In the next post SL avatarization will be further considered as a technique that returns the user to something old, but without negating its novel aspects.

+Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny” The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books, 2003
+Hoffman, ETA. Tales of Hoffman. Trans. RJ Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books, 1982
+Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes: Denigration of Vision in 20th Century French Thought. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993
+Ward, Ivan. Castration. Cambridge, UK: Icon Books, 2003
+Weber, Samuel. The Legend of Freud. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000


~ by dccohen on April 6, 2011.

One Response to “Humanizing the Avatar (Part 10: “Old and Long Familiar” Avatars and the Freudian Uncanny)”

  1. Thank you for simplifying Freud’s ‘The uncanny’ with such apt analogies. I finally understand the castration complex and its relation to the loss of eyesight!

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