“In its secularized form, the uncanny becomes a matter of design. Artists employ its tricks. Audiences laugh and enjoy rather than tremble or cower. In the modern uncanny, optics and identity point us to issues of anamorphosis, psychological rivalry, and the variations on themes of the fantastic to play out an architecture that connects mythic thinking to modern conceptualism. The modern secular uncanny can in fact give us insight into the workings of the more mysterious pre-modern uncanny, which can be credited with architecture’s most potent forces. After all, the heimlich relates directly to the home and the unheimlich to homelessness. Alfred Hitchcock’s crafty application of these two features are invaluable for architectural discourse and critical theory.
“Sigmund Freud’s original essay begins with an etymological consideration of the words heimlich and unheimlich. Curiously, the word heimlich (homey) is itself “uncanny,” for it contains within its own philological past the seeds of the idea of the uncanny, in itself an important clue. The steps from the homely to the uncanny have to do with hiding things. In the sense that “hidden away” can be a part of coziness, it at first belongs to the security that can be offered by the home: concealment from the eyes of strangers. Later, however, the uncanny comes to specialize on this theme, emphasizing “something that ought to have remained a secret” but is nonetheless discovered; something that was “there all the time” but once brought to light becomes harmful or, at the very least, scary.
“In returning E. T. A. Hoffman’s short story, “The Sandman,” we find not only the two themes that Freud cites as key to the uncanny — optics and identity crisis — but the structure of the story pre-figures many Hitchcock themes and characterizations. Like Nathanael, Hitchcock heroes are often fugitives from justice who must find the “evil father” to avoid punishment of the “good father.” Like Olimpia/Claire, Hitchcock heroines often begin as “constructs” (Rear Window, The 39 Steps, Notorious) but end up by saving the day. And, like “The Sandman” in general, Hitchcock crams in references to looking, looking-like, and literal optics (Young and Innocent, Rear Window). The reversed physics of the “inside frame” (point of view of the wrongly accused) involves both the issue of identity dysfunction and the visual practices of disguise, concealment, and surveillance. The structural relationships that organize these themes force us to look at larger issues.
“Optics and identity taken together produce an “anamorphic” condition, where imagery directly challenges identity by destabilizing the point of view or demanding a circuitous path to find a special “angle” on the truth — a point from which everything will be made clear. This quest becomes a literal journey across a landscape. At the scale of logic we find a succinct miniaturization of this “truth-seeking movement,” what Jacques Lacan called the “master signifier.” Ordinarily, a signifier does not lead directly to meaning but, rather, to other signifiers, as in the example of a dictionary. So, what “locks in” meanings that gain ideological and imaginative force? Lacan argues that it cannot be any relationship to the facts of reality, which could be checked and found wanting. Rather, truly compelling meanings are formed when the signifier has a “structural” and “self-referential” relationship with itself — and forces reality to conform to it!”
Text: Kunze, “Reworking the Idea of the Architectural Uncanny: Hitchcock’s North by Northwest”, Reworking the Idea of the Architectural Uncanny.
Image: Inception, Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010.