PHO704: The Weird and the Eerie

Mark Fisher’s book The Weird and the Eerie (Fisher 2016) is likely to become one of the key texts for my research project. I wish I had come across it before.

Fisher takes Freud’s ideas about the uncanny or unheimlich (Freud et al. 2003) and adapts and extends them much more widely into art, literature and the cinema than did Freud. This is not surprising. Freud was writing a short essay as a psychoanalyst and in keeping with that was content to rest his ideas on a hypothesis: that the uncanny derives its power from the anxiety of the castration complex and ultimately from a hidden fear of death. As Fisher demonstrates, however, this is only a small part of the whole story of these strange states of mind and, besides, resting them on a hypothesis is disappointing and incomplete.

Fisher’s basic premise is that the duality of all existence is an insoluble fact of the human condition: the duality between subject and object, inside and outside, known and unknown, part and whole, ‘reality’ as we understand it and dreams and fantasies. Uncanny, weird and eerie are states of mind and feelings that arise when the edges of these worlds rub against one another:

‘Freud’s unheimlich is about the strange within the familiar … Psychoanalysis itself is an umheimlich genre; it is haunted by an outside which it circles around but can never fully acknowledge or affirm. …The weird and the eerie make the opposite move: they allow us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside’ (Fisher 2016: 10).

The weird is the intrusion from outside our field of view of something which does not belong there. The outside breaks through into the inside, sometimes forcibly so:

‘The weird is that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely” (even as its negation). The form that is most appropriate to the weird is montage – the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together. Hence the predilection within surrealism for the weird …’ (Fisher 2016: 10-11).

‘ … the weird is a particular kind of perturbation. It involves a sensation of wrongness: a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here. Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid. The weird is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate’ (Fisher 2016: 15).

The eerie, in contrast, is about a failure or an incompleteness of presence or of absence, of outside or of inside.

‘As we have seen, the weird is constituted by a presence – the presence of that which does not belong. … The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present when there should be something’ (Fisher 2016: 61).

As Fisher goes on to explain, however, the most intriguing aspect of the eerie concerns agency: what is going on, and what or who is doing it? The point is that, as with the presumed motives of the builders of pre-historic ruins, we do not know and probably we will never know. All we are left with are traces of something unexplained apparently exerting an influence we do not fully understand. We are left with traces of the past in the present moment, but spookily this can be looked at from another angle, namely that what we think of as the present is only the traces of the past. There is no ‘real’, only traces of something that vanishes as soon as you try to grasp it. Reality can be experienced, but never contained.

‘Behind all of the manifestations of the eerie, the central enigma at is core is the problem of agency. In the case of the failure of absence, the question concerns the existence of agency as such. Is there a deliberate agent there at all? Are we being watched by an agent that has not yet revealed itself? In the case of the failure of presence, the question concerns the particular nature of the agent at work. … what we have to reckon with are the traces of a departed agent whose purposes are unknown’ (Fisher 2016: 63-4).

I think these ideas will have a strong and rich impact on my practice. Fisher looks at the work of great cinema directors like Kubrick, Lynch and Tarkovsky and in fact I have just watched Tarkovsky’s Solaris (Tarkovsky 1972) and Stalker (Tarkovsky 1979). Both are fascinating in their use of framing and angles, of time looping around itself, and of a soundscape that is equally as important as the visual landscape. In Stalker, in particular, so many scenes are framed through doors, windows, archways or holes, or along corridors or other thresholds.

These thresholds are all portals, the places where we sense another world or another reality. They are the edges where inner and outer meet, and so they are where all the tension is. All great images need tension and the tension derives from a photographer’s understanding of the symbolic power of these elements.

I have already incorporated some of these ideas into my practice without realizing it, in particular doors and curtains. But now that I have a good idea from Fisher’s research of what is really going on, I can return and concentrate my intent in a fresh way. I can also use these ideas to frame a narrative as we move between the inner and outer of different words. Exciting! I am looking forward to my next few photowalks.

References

FISHER, Mark. 2016. The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater.

FREUD, Sigmund, David MCLINTOCK and Hugh HAUGHTON. 2003. The Uncanny. New York : Penguin.

TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1972 Solaris. [Film].

TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1979. Stalker. [Film].