Sunday, 1 April 2012

Taking an Urban Walk With Freud (part 2): The Red Light District

This is the second part of my Freud-as-psychogeographer-blog. For the first part, please click here: Gradiva's Gait

Before I introduce Freud's urban wanderings in a "small Italian town", I would like to say a little about the complex term 'uncanny' as it appears in Freud's essay The Uncanny. Freud takes the word from the German unheimlich which means the opposite of what one might find familiar (heimlich meaning familiar - homely, but be careful here, because for Freud the two terms become conflated in what he means by 'uncanny'). So, the uncanny has the qualities of both the familiar and the unfamiliar at the same time. I would describe it as producing a strange kind of affective dissonance, which is disturbing. It throws you into this spaceless space in between the two binary oppositions (recognisable/unrecognisable, understandable/incomprehensible). Sometimes, the thing recognised is known, but is out of place and this decontextualisation can create the feeling of the uncanny.

Freud uses a super example in E.T.A Hoffman's story The Sandman to tease out what uncanny means. Although the term can appear somewhat contradictory, mysterious and hard to pin down, this is not because Freud does not do a good job in explaining it, but rather because of its unconscious origins in the person feeling this subjective reaction. Once you have started to explore the uncanny, you will understand it by comparing it to some experiences you will have likely had yourself.

Freud spends many pages analysing the term from a number of sources. Here is a definition he provides which I particularly like, and I include it here because it is a useful springboard for me to take you into Freud's walk in Italy:
"Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open."

So...Freud uses a moment when he accidentally walks into the red light district of this town in Italy, to provide his own example of the uncanny. Basically it goes thus (quotation marks are when I am using his own terms):

Freud strolls through "unfamiliar" streets in the town and stumbles upon the red light district. He quickly attempts to move out of this area and walks for a while down a few different streets. After a while he suddenly finds himself back in the same district and realises people were looking at him. He then attempts to leave again, but ends up there for the third time. At this point he gets the uncanny feeling. Freud describes this as "the unintentional return", which then enables him to talk about one of his well-known, and most fascinating theories, the "compulsion to repeat".

What I find interesting about Freud's example here is his lack of analysis (of himself) of why he might have ended up there three times. Freud would not have let his own analysand 'off the hook' if this story had been regaled to him, so I am sure he has his own theory about how his unconscious took him there three times, (well at least twice, let's say). So, in regards to the quote above: is what was meant to "remain secret and hidden" the overt buying/selling of sex by men/women on the streets of Italy, or is it some desire Freud had to witness this - what would be for him as an analyst - fascinating transaction?

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