Friday, 17 August 2012

"Phenomenology’s bad trip"

A couple more reviews of "The Memory of Place" have appeared. One is a short review in the latest issue of Choice, where it is summed up with a "recommended" seal of approval. The other review is a far more substantial piece by Anneleen Masschelein (whose own book on the uncanny I'm in the process of reviewing), which features in the LA Review of Books.

It's a gratifying read, not only because Masschelein is appreciative of the book - "this is a real book, not a collection of articles" - but also because she unpacks the ideas in a very sensitive fashion, grasping that a phenomenological account of memory is an invitation to a world beyond human experience. I like this passage in particular:
Trigg skillfully deploys Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy to transcend the rigid dichotomy between subject and object and thus manages to reveal uncanniness as both a subjective experience (as it was for Freud) and an objective quality of the world (as it was for Heidegger). In the process, he convincingly analyzes concrete manifestations of spatial memory as “immaterial material” presences in the subject and in the world. The uncanny, as it is conceptualized here, is phenomenology’s bad trip. It is what happens when the harmonious interrelation of subject and world comes undone.
This formulation of the uncanny as phenomenology's bad trip is spot on. As I see it, the uncanny is the mark of phenomenology inadvertently becoming the site of its own inhumanity, a rupture that could only begin from the perspective of human experience in the first place. A point I'm continuing to develop elsewhere in various other forms.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The Uncanny Womb

In his early (1894) account of the difference between obsessions and phobias, Freud regards the development of phobias as evolving from a sexual origin (Freud 2001, 81). Consistent with the physiological nature of his work at the time, the onset of phobia becomes nothing more than a side effect of a repressed or impeded libido. Although he will revise this theory radically (1925), placing the ego in the seat of anxiety, the relationship between sexuality and phobia will remain intact. For example, in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, Freud maintains that agoraphobia is fundamentally structured by desire, as he writes:
The agoraphobic patient imposes a restriction on his ego so as to escape a certain instinctual danger—namely, the danger of giving way to his erotic desires. For if he did so the danger of being castrated, or some similar danger, would once more be conjured up as it was in his childhood (Freud 127)
What is at stake in succumbing to erotic desire? For Freud, it is the anxiety over disempowerment, abandonment, desubjectification through a loss of vitality—in a word, the fundamental separation of self and other that points back to the trauma of infancy. Granted he will acknowledge that “a number of cases exhibit a more complicated structure,” in the final analysis, the neurosis retains the psychosexual dynamic of the earlier work.

Only now, the aspect of regression rather than impediment and frustration plays a larger role. Thus, in the case of agoraphobia a regression to infancy—to the point when the “subject was in his mother’s womb and protected against the dangers which threaten him in the present”—can be witnessed in the agoraphobic patient’s need to be accompanied at all times by a “trusted other.” Of course, the infantile attachment to familiar objects extends to more than other people and in turn can include the encompassing world of the home itself (127). In each case, the patient employs phobia as the means to control—or in the case of agoraphobia, localise—the anxiety lurking within the symptom.

But this infantile regression is not without ambivalence. After all, what it involves is the partial or total dissolution of the ego in its imaginary fusion with the maternal womb. Here, Freud points the way to Kristeva in linking the compulsion to return home with the advent of the uncanny, he writes:
A jocular saying has it that ‘love is a longing for home,’ and if someone dreams of a certain place or a certain landscape and, while dreaming, thinks to himself, ‘I know this place, I’ve been here before,’ this place can be interpreted as representing his mother’s genitals or her womb (Freud 2003, 151).
This formulation of the womb as the unhomely site of unregistered desires finds a violent expression in Kristeva’s notion of the abject. Prior to the identification with oneself in the mirror (as in Lacan), the experience of abjecting the mother’s body is the primal drive of the pre-symbolic infant. Kristeva’s opulent language belies the banality of the event:
The abject, has only one quality of the object-that of being opposed to I … A massive, and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not I nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture (Kristeva 1982, 1-2).
Throughout this essay, Kristeva places the self on the border of extinction, she writes: “The border has become an object. How can I be without border? … Deprived of world, therefore, I fall in a faint” (4). Abjection involves the dissolution of borders, thus leading to the engulfment of the subject in the contingency of its existence, a contingency, moreover, that no law can prohibit.

Abjection thus involves an uncanny logic, whereby the birth of the subject simultaneously involves a tearing away of the very fabric of its creation. Castration anxiety is replaced with an anxiety of claustrophobia, a repulsion that is directed at the womb, the place where primal repression is located. It is in the womb that the animal before the subject is conceived, she writes: “The abject confronts us, on the other hand, and this time within our personal archaeology, with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her…” (13). Abjection is the primal movement of the subject, the first response to the suffocation of being an interiority within another interiority, as much a living womb and as a living tomb.