Archive for January, 2010

The Uncanny Monkey

Posted in Uncategorized on January 31, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

The story ‘The Monkey’ by Stephen King centers on a cymbal-banging monkey toy that is possessed by an evil spirit. Every time the monkey claps its little cymbals together, a nearby living thing dies. The monkey is found in a family’s attic in an old toy chest by a group of children, unknowing that their father was tormented by the monkey years ago, when it worked its lethal magic on his family and friends. The father takes the monkey and throws it in the lake in his backyard. At the end of the story is an excerpt of a newspaper article, which talks about hundreds of dead fish floating in the lake.

I find this to be a very uncanny story  as it has strong associations with childhood and gives a time when we project consciousness into toys, giving them personality, character and life a more sinister tone. Freud makes a clear connection between the uncanny impression and childhood fears. The monkey is equally as uncanny as it plays upon hidden fears of death we may subtly feel looking at the lifelike quality of  the moving toy and its skeletal grimace (assuming the toy monkey is similar to this image). We may vaguely feel an uncertainty about the presence of a consciousness that animates its movement, it is not alive but appears to be brought to life by movement. The blurred distinctions between life and death and the dead we may sense create an uncanny impression. Death is abjected; we do not want to confront it and it represents a threat to our order and wellbeing, and anything that may lead us to address it either consciously or subconsciously causes us to react with fear or repulsion. The monkey toy is therefore a strong character for a horror story.

Hans Bellmer

Posted in Uncategorized on January 31, 2010 by pauljohnwhite
Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (The doll)

Artist   Hans Bellmer
Title   La Poupée (The doll) 1935

Hans Bellmer was a German artist, best known for the life-sized female dolls he produced in the mid-1930s. Historians of art and photography also consider him a Surrealist photographer. He initiated his doll project to oppose the fascism of the Nazi Party by declaring that he would make no work that would support the new German state. Represented by mutated forms and unconventional poses, his dolls were directed specifically at the cult of the perfect body then prominent in Germany. Bellmer was influenced in his choice of art form by reading the published letters of Oskar Kokoschka (Der Fetisch, 1925).

Bellmer’s doll project is also said to have been catalysed by a series of events in his personal life, including meeting a beautiful teenage cousin in 1932 – and perhaps other unattainable beauties; and attending a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (in which a man falls tragically in love with an automaton); and receiving a box of his old toys. After these events he began to actually construct his first doll. In his works, Bellmer explicitly sexualized the doll as a young girl. On the other hand, the doll incorporated the principle of “ball joint” , which was inspired by a pair of sixteenth-century articulated wooden dolls in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum

Bellmer’s 1934 anonymous book The Doll (Die Puppe), produced and published privately in Germany, contains 10 black-and-white photographs of Bellmer’s first doll arranged in a series of “tableaux vivants” (living pictures). The book was not credited to him, he worked in isolation, and his photographs remained almost unknown in Germany. Yet Bellmer’s work was eventually declared “degenerate” by the Nazi Party, and he was forced to flee Germany to France in 1938.

His work was welcomed in the Parisian art culture of the time, especially the Surrealists under André Breton, because of the references to female beauty and the sexualization of the youthful form. His photographs were published in the Surrealist journal Minotaure.

He aided the resistance during the war, making fake passports; and was imprisoned in the Camp des Milles prison at Aix-en-Provence for most of World War II. After the war, Bellmer lived the rest of his life in Paris. He continued making work into the 1960s.

Hans Bellmer, La poupée

Artist   Hans Bellmer
Title   La poupée 1936-1938

Information found at: Wikipedia, and images at:

Abject Art

Posted in Uncategorized on January 31, 2010 by pauljohnwhite
The abject is a complex psychological, philosophical and linguistic concept developed by Julia Kristeva in her 1980 book Powers of Horror. She was partly influenced by the earlier ideas of the French writer, thinker and dissident Surrealist, Georges Bataille. It can be said very simply that the abject consists of those elements, particularly of the body, that transgress and threaten our sense of cleanliness and propriety. Kristeva herself commented ‘refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’. In practice the abject covers all the bodily functions, or aspects of the body, that are deemed impure or inappropriate for public display or discussion. The abject has a strong feminist context, in that female bodily functions in particular are ‘abjected’ by a patriarchal social order. In the 1980s and 1990s many artists became aware of this theory and reflected it in their work. In 1993 the Whitney Museum, New York, staged an exhibition titled Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art, which gave the term a wider currency in art. Cindy Sherman is seen as a key contributor to the abject in art, as well as many others including Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick, Paul McCarthy, Gilbert & George, Robert Gober, Carolee Schneemann, Kiki Smith and Jake and Dinos Chapman.Cindy Sherman Untitled #263 1992  

Cindy Sherman Untitled #263

This work belongs to a series known as the ‘Sex Pictures’, which feature mannequins and body parts obtained from medical catalogues. Sherman has often addressed themes of sexual objectification and the depiction of women in art. However, the focus on male and female genitalia, sexual display and coupling in this series is far more ambiguous. They can be seen as theatrical representations of pornography. Although voyeuristic and dysfunctional, their erotic content is deliberately undermined.

Found at:

The Uncanny: my research proposal

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2010 by pauljohnwhite


In choosing an object as a starting point for investigation, I was in no doubt that a set of false teeth would be ideal. I was fascinated by the object, I was then fascinated by the way I responded to it, then in turn curious to know if my feelings were similar to how other people respond and relate to an object of this kind.

False teeth arouse an almost disorientating ambivalence of emotions. They evoke a sense of loss, a reminder of the absence of the body part they replace. They may also make us more aware of our mortality, yet they restore the appearance and function of the body. They are alien to the body but a convincing replica of a lost body part that becomes assimilated back into the body. False teeth may be seen as humorous if used to play a joke, yet we may sense something sinister and unsettling about them. I was struck by the difficulty to isolate my response to the object as I sensed positive and negative associations towards it at the same time, experiencing a sort of cognitive dissonance. Through considering my own response to the object and thorough research, I have come to understand that I experienced an ‘uncanny’ impression caused by it. False teeth can be described as an ‘uncanny’ object or an object that is open to be interpreted by the individual as ‘uncanny’. I hope to justify this presumption through this proposal as the first aim. Accepting that the false teeth can be ‘uncanny’ I propose to investigate individual responses and relationships with the ‘uncanny’ object. Through this I aim to understand more fully my own emotional responses through examining the experiences of others, to generate ideas and to develop a deeper understanding of the ‘uncanny’ impression. I also intend to draw together existing theories and make them contemporary and personal to my own experience.

Literature Review

‘The Uncanny’ by Sigmund Freud is an essay central to understanding the ‘uncanny’ and the feelings associated with it. Freud states that the ‘uncanny’ relates to what is frightening and arouses a sense of repulsion and horror. Art is directly connected to Psychology in his study as he associates the subject of the ‘uncanny’ with aesthetics, which he understands to mean “not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feeling” (Freud 1919: 219). Freud states that most studies on aesthetics concern themselves with that which is beautiful and attractive rather the opposite, an exception being an essay by Ernest Jentsch.

Freud’s essay places significant emphasis on attempting to define the ‘uncanny’. He examines the linguistics of the ‘unheimlich’ the German word which translates literally as ‘un-homely’ in English and is known as ‘uncanny’. He provides examples of the ‘heimlich’ which all have positive associations; the homely, familiar, friendly and comfortable, “arousing a sense of agreeable restfulness and security as in one within the four walls of his house” (Freud 1919: 222). The ‘unheimlich’ has negative connotations, meaning “eerie, weird, arousing gruesome fear” and “is the name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden but has come to light” (Freud 1919: 224). Freud also identifies a second meaning of ‘heimlich’; that which is concealed and hidden, and in a different sense; withdrawn from knowledge and “something hidden and dangerous” (Freud 1919: 226). This has a clear connection to the meaning of the ‘unheimlich’.

Freud argues that “the uncanny is that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (Freud 1919: 220). He claims that all ‘uncanny’ experiences are based on infantile fears and anxieties that have been repressed or animistic beliefs that have been surmounted. These emotions surface to challenge what has become accepted as logical and real and the ‘uncanny’ sensation is experienced. Superstitions regarding fate can create an ‘uncanny’ impression as even if someone has developed certainties about the world around them, a sequence of repeated circumstances can trigger latent superstitious beliefs about fate. On a ghost tour, I was amongst a group who were shown around supposedly haunted ruins. We were told we were free to walk through a particular area but it was very unlucky to do so. Even though I was certain there would be no negative consequences, I was unwilling to walk through the area and no one in the group would either. A conflict between certainties in the reality I accept to be true and long familiar superstition had taken place, and I allowed superstition and imagination to influence my behaviour in reality even though it made no sense to do so. Freud states the ‘uncanny’ is often found when the distinction between reality and imagination are blurred. Similarly, a primitive fear of the dead or something that resembles an image of the self, or double, may lead to an ‘uncanny’ impression. In folklore, a double or look-alike of a person is known as a “doppelgänger” and is believed to bring death and misfortune. Therefore an ‘uncanny’ impression may arise when confronted with a likeness of the self, a body or representation of it, or part of the body. Freud stresses however that the ‘uncanny’ impression will only be sensed if there is a significant degree of reality present to be tested by long familiar fears. To apply Freud’s theory to a relevant example, a pair of chattering teeth may not create an ‘uncanny’ impression as they may be less realistic or more stylised than false teeth which are cast and modelled to be a convincing representation of part of the owner’s body. As false teeth have a convincing realism and duplicate part of the body, hidden fear of the ‘double’, a sinister form of bilocation may occur. In the same way that a corpse or lifeless part of the body may stir hidden fears of it becoming animated again, the false teeth may also create a fear of the dead as they are a convincing body part. The hidden but long familiar fears stirred by false teeth would also apply to mannequins, robots and prosthetic limbs. I think it is important to recognise that it is not these fears themselves that are ‘uncanny’. I understand from Freud’s theory that the ‘uncanny’ sensation is felt in the moment fears hidden in the psyche are vaguely sensed and confuse accepted reality. I believe the cognitive dissonance that occurs may feel disorientating and unsettling, therefore unpleasant to some people.

Jentsch agrees in his essay ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny’ that the ‘uncanny’ occurs when something is not quite “at ease” and a “lack of orientation is bound up with the impression” (Jentsch 1906: 8). Jentsch’s approach is more postmodern in the fact that he recognises that experiences of the ‘uncanny’ are subjective and will be interpreted to varying degree by different people in different circumstances. He states the ‘uncanny’ impression does not affect everyone or create an ‘uncanny’ impression every time, or it is not felt every time in the same way, and to get closer to the essence of the subject it is “better not to ask what it is, but rather to investigate how the affective excitement of the uncanny arises in psychological terms, how the psychical conditions must be constituted so that the uncanny sensation emerges” (Jentsch 1906: 8). Jentsch identifies that age can affect the impression of the ‘uncanny’ as a child may be more sensitive to ‘uncanny’ sensations due to less experience in life and even simple things may seem more “inexplicable” and “represent dark secrets” (Jentsch 1906: 9). He suggests the time of day may also influence whether the ‘uncanny’ is interpreted and how great the impression is. At night “there are thus many more and much larger chicken-hearted people than in the light of day” (Jentsch 1906: 10), therefore a person may be in a higher state of “psychical uncertainty” and more likely to question what they understand to be real and familiar at night. Similarly, the psychological nature of the individual may affect the ‘uncanny’ impression, Jentsch states “there are sensitive natures who do not like to attend masked balls, since the masks and disguises produce in them an exceedingly awkward impression to which they are incapable of becoming accustomed” (Jentsch 1906: 10).

Jentsch explains what may cause the ‘uncanny’ a little differently to Freud. Jentsch states that the “traditional, the usual and the hereditary is dear and familiar to most people, and they incorporate the new and the unusual with mistrust, unease and even hostility (misoneism)”(Jentsch 1906: 8). He goes on to say the “new/foreign/hostile” correlates to the “old/known/familiar” (Jentsch 1906: 10). The former gives rise to sensations of uncertainty and the resulting lack of orientation can be ‘uncanny’. The disorientation affects the mind of the individual only for as long as the old/known/familiar is confused, but remains concealed altogether if it is not confused at all. The stable element that Jentsch describes as traditional, hereditary and known may be equated to a safe and accepted reality. The “new/foreign/hostile” may also be related to the emotion that Freud describes as hidden fears. If the fears are repressed and only vaguely sensed they may feel new and foreign even though Freud believes they are long familiar. Although the terms Jentsch and Freud use to describe the emotions involved vary to the point of contradiction in meaning, the essence of them and the effect they cause when balanced in conflict with each other is very similar. However, Freud asserts that all fears that can cause the ‘uncanny’ are always long familiar, which I have to question. If confronted with a robot that has a realistic likeness to a person then repressed fears of the double based upon folklore may be stirred, but in an age where the boundaries between human and non-human become blurred (body modification, genetic engineering, the ‘trans-human’), more contemporary fears of being replaced by technology or loss or fragmentation of the self may be sensed. In ‘The Human/Not Human in the Works of Orlan and Stelarc’ Julie Clarke argues that “both Frankenstein’s monster and the cyborg solicit the uncanniness associated with body mutation and fragmentation” (Clarke 2002: 39). Similarly, if we create coping mechanisms that we are unique either as a person or species, to then see a convincing replica of a person may generate fears to the contrary, and this emotion could potentially challenge the impression of reality leading to intellectual uncertainty. Jentsch’s argument is that the ‘uncanny’ arises when an intellectual uncertainty is experienced. He describes the uncertainty being caused by fears that test the stability of reality. The impression is strongest when the fears are only vaguely sensed. To create an ‘uncanny’ experience does the sense of fear need to be long familiar or is any fear that is capable of confusing the sense of real and familiar enough? In order to understand for myself I agree with Jentsch that I need to examine individual experiences where the ‘uncanny’ may occur, as this research is designed to do. However, I think it is possible that all fears may have a basis in existing, long familiar fears that are reinterpreted and attached to more contemporary situations.

Jentsch argues the ‘uncanny’ is only overcome when intellectual uncertainty is mastered. However, the ‘uncanny’ may still be felt after a decision has been made whether a lifelike body or part is animate or not. Further doubts may occur on looking again and noticing finer detail, or the recollection of the first ‘uncanny’ impression may linger in the mind until eventually all intellectual doubts are resolved.

Jentsch states the sense of the ‘uncanny’ is particularly strong when there are “doubts as to whether an apparently living being is animate”, or if a “lifeless object may not in fact be animate” and this is felt obscurely (Jentsch 1906: 11). ‘Joey: A “Mechanical Boy”‘ is a study of a young boy who created a persona of a machine as a response to emotional neglect. The article describes Joey’s behaviour under treatment and how he is gradually drawn away from his powerfully created fantasy. When his ‘machinery’ was idle, Joey would sit quietly and still for long periods so he would disappear from the attention of people in the room. The author Bettelheim states that,

“Often we had to force ourselves by a conscious act of will to realise that Joey was a child. Again and again his acting out of his delusions froze our own ability to respond as human beings” (Bettelheim 1959: 117).

The fantasy is so convincing it feels extremely ‘uncanny’. We may vaguely sense doubts that Joey is a living being and this example demonstrates the ‘uncanny’ may be sensed in not only lifelike representations of the human, but humans that create a vague impression they may be a machine or a corpse that may become animated. The article also identifies the negative associations of machines as emotionally void and lifeless. People may therefore directly link a machine that is convincingly human to the dead; it challenges accepted reality to move and uncertainty of the consciousness that controls it may cause fear. It is soulless but movement gives the impression of life and challenges our sense of mortality as it functions without a soul. Jentsch also describes a feeling of “latent animatedness” that lies close to a dead body, forcing its way into the consciousness, giving lie to the appearance, and setting the conditions for intellectual uncertainty. Images of false teeth being used to eat, tell stories, and laugh are never far from the surface when looking at the object.

Both Jentsch and Freud refer to E.T.A. Hoffman as a writer who repeatedly makes use of the ‘uncanny’ to increase emotional effects in his stories. ‘The Sandman’ by Hoffman is a story of Nathaniel, a man who falls in love with Olympia, a lifelike automaton. The ‘uncanny’ is evoked by the doll which appears to be a living human being, but descriptions of subtle imperfections in movement and behaviour play upon intellectual uncertainties whether the object is living or inanimate, evoking the ‘uncanny’. This is felt by other characters in the story who feel repulsion towards Olympia despite her beautiful appearance. The other ‘uncanny’ effect surrounds the figure of the Sandman. As a child, Nathaniel is told that the Sandman takes the eyes of children who won’t go to bed, and one night Nathaniel encounters a repulsive lawyer who tries to put burning coals in his eyes. The protagonist identifies the lawyer as the dreaded Sandman which leads us to question the same. Later in the story we wonder whether the lawyer/Sandman is encountered again as a strange optician or if this is just the imagination of Nathaniel. Intellectual uncertainty is evoked for ‘uncanny’ effect as we are frequently led to question what is real and imagination in the world of the protagonist. The figure of the Sandman plays upon childhood fears and the suggestion of his multiple guises may stir fears of the double.

Freud states that it is more difficult to create an ‘uncanny’ impression in a fictional story because reality is left behind at the start. Ira Levin is a writer who emphasises the sense of real before introducing hidden fears to conflict with it. In ‘The Stepford Wives’ a wife moves to a town where a strong impression of reality is created in the everyday culture of suburbia. This feels safe and familiar to the reader. The protagonist becomes increasingly unsettled by the other wives in the town who seem to lack identity. Circumstances lead the protagonist to conclude that the other wives have been replaced by robots and her husband plans to replace her too. These fears are developed subtly and we do not discover whether they are justified or the product of paranoia until the close of the story. The conflict between what is real and imaginary is felt throughout and creates intellectual uncertainty, and typical ‘uncanny’ influences are used. I feel the story creates a strong sense of the ‘uncanny’ which is used as a device to create a powerful impression, emphasising the message to question traditional women’s roles and identity. This example demonstrates that the ‘uncanny’ can be used as a valid and potent vehicle to convey meaning, despite ‘uncanny’ experiences arising from fears that cause a sense of disturbance and may lead to rejection.

When the ‘uncanny’ impression occurs in the field of robotics, it is identified as a negative phenomenon to be avoided. In ‘The Uncanny Valley’, the most significant study on the ‘uncanny’ since Freud and Jentsch, Japanese robotict Mashiro Mori creates a hypothesis based upon the emotional responses of humans to robots and other human likenesses. An industrial robot designed purely for functionality has no resemblance to humans in movement or appearance and creates no emotional response. With a toy robot, appearance is more important than function and the design allows children to enjoy a sense of familiarity due to its more humanlike appearance. As robots become more humanlike a positive emotion of familiarity increases accordingly. However, a point is reached when likeness becomes almost too human, causing the positive feelings of familiarity to be replaced with a negative emotional response. To illustrate, Mori uses the example of a prosthetic arm which can simulate details such as fingernails, veins, even fingerprints and cannot be distinguished from a real arm at a glance,

“The prosthetic arm has achieved a degree of human verisimilitude on par with false teeth. But this kind of prosthetic hand is too real and when we notice it is prosthetic, we have a sense of strangeness. So if we shake the hand, we are surprised by the lack of soft tissue and cold temperature. In this case there is no longer a sense of familiarity. It is uncanny. In mathematical terms, strangeness can be represented by negative familiarity, so the prosthetic hand is at the bottom of the valley. So in this case, the appearance is quite human like, but the familiarity is negative. This is the uncanny valley” (Mori 1970: 33).

Fig 1: Simplified version of the figure appearing in ‘The Uncanny Valley’ article. Copyright 2005 Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato. Found at Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under terms of the GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2

Mori argues that as human likeness becomes 100% the response becomes positive again, as there is no sensation that the robot is anything other than a healthy person. I think that prior to the uncanny valley the familiarity to humans creates only positive emotions as we can clearly identify the robot as being nothing other than a robot, and this does not challenge our sense of what is real, but the region known as the uncanny valley represents all stages where an intellectual uncertainty is sensed as to whether the robot is a robot, human or corpse. Mori also explains that “for creatures, including robots, movement is generally a sign of life” (Mori 1070: 34). The emotional response to movement is also dependant on human realism. Movement also amplifies the emotional response. A robot that causes uncertainty whether it may be a corpse will be even stranger if it moves, so a zombie is at the bottom of the valley. Both Jentsch and Freud refer to epilepsy creating an ‘uncanny’ effect. The spasms of movement during a seizure may look unnatural and cause uncertainty whether they are generated by human consciousness. Epilepsy has historically been associated with demonic possession before scientific understanding. I think this may owe something to fears of the dead we have now repressed that are stirred by witnessing movement that is human but not completely lifelike.

Mori advocates taking the first peak of positive familiarity as the goal of robotic design so the uncanny valley will be avoided. He questions why we feel ‘uncanny’ and whether it is necessary, concluding “it may be important to our self-preservation” (Mori 1970: 35).

The ‘uncanny’ has similarities to Abjection, a concept explored by Julie Kristeva in ‘Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection’. The Abject is something that has been forcefully cast out of the symbolic order. According to Kristeva, since the abject is situated outside the symbolic order, being forced to face it is a traumatic experience causing us to feel horror and repulsion. For example, being faced with a corpse, a person would be most likely repulsed because he or she is forced to face an object which is violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject. Kristeva considers the corpse as the highest example of abjection, “it is death invading life” (Kristeva 1941: 4), yet we recognise the corpse, especially that of a loved one as being close to us. Abjection can therefore be ‘uncanny’ because we might recognise something within the abject that it was before it was cast out. The familiar and foreign may be experienced creating intellectual uncertainty before order is restored.

Kristeva’s essay suggests a sense of self-preservation may motivate feelings of abjection, as we reject the unclean, “loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me” (Kristeva 1941: 2). She states however, “It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order.” (Kristeva 1941: 4).

If false teeth are an ‘uncanny’ object in themselves, then with abjection in mind, a further emotional challenge may arise in accepting the object into the body. The Abject is all that is considered alien and foreign to the symbolic order of the individual; to place false teeth into the mouth is to willingly assimilate a foreign object into the body. The difference between the internal and external in relation to the body can be likened to the symbolic order and the Abject; the false teeth may be interpreted as a threat to the body and to the symbolic order creating a compulsion to reject it. Abjection to the object will be stronger still if the false teeth belong to someone else! To conflict with these negative emotions, the individual the false teeth belong to needs them to improve the function of their body. The teeth do not function without the person, so a mutual dependency is formed. My interview questions are designed to elicit the emotional response of the individual to the object but also to it becoming accepted as part of the body. False teeth can be identified as a ‘prosthesis’ and the etymology of this word does have relevance to hidden fears or a desire to abject that may be felt. Its meaning derives from a violent manifestation of power that is “exerted on weak but unsubmissive bodies which are then prothesized” and “reveals a lack in the corpus to which it is attached” (Zylinska 2002: pp 214-215). Fears of technology leading to the body being fragmented or dominated are subjective and not felt by everyone. Performance artists Stelarc and Orlan have willingly modified their bodies through technology. Stelarc considers moving away from the restrictions of the human body to another state through technology as a positive direction, willingly accepting the foreign into the symbolic order where others may be repulsed or fearful.

“Opening their bodies to the intrusion of technology and acquiring some forms of body extension, Stelarc and Orlan raise the issue of hospitality and welcome, of embracing incalculable difference, in a radical way.” (Zylinska 2002: 217)

Cyborgs are very closely connected to the ‘uncanny’ in literature and any robot or hybrid between man and manmade may give us a sense they are in a liminal state between life and death, creating a cognitive dissonance stirred by hidden fears of the dead.

Research Methodology

I propose to conduct ethnographic research into the ‘uncanny’ by interviewing participants who wear false teeth.

I aim to gain a fuller understanding of the emotional responses to the ‘uncanny’ through analysis of the resulting data. I also hope to gain a personal perspective on the subject by applying it to the individual experiences of participants. The questions are designed to consider the emotional response to an ‘uncanny’ object and also the ongoing emotional relationship with it. I do not believe the ‘uncanny’ has been studied in the same context so it is possible that analysis of the resulting data may add to existing knowledge on the subject. It is unlikely however that a study of such small scale would be recognised or influential to a wider field. However the most important outcome to me is the generation of ideas that are personal (therefore unique), contemporary and relevant in order to create informed artwork based upon the ‘uncanny’ or artwork that uses the ‘uncanny’ as a powerful device to convey meaning.

A quantitative study would be inappropriate as the area of interest involves emotional responses with a high degree of subjectivity. I wish to reveal emotions but also understand how and why they are felt. A qualitative approach is most appropriate.

Taking the argument that “subjectivity is inevitable” and affects the entire research process (Peshkin 1988: 17), I believe that my research into the subject so far may lead me to interpret the data from interviews to fit in with current theories or draw me towards some themes more strongly at the neglect of others. I will therefore use grounded theory to analyse the data. I believe that by coding the data from interviews, personal and common themes may emerge that I may not otherwise have imagined or recognised. Whilst I feel a degree of objectivity is required to allow themes to emerge naturally, my subjectivity is vital to turn emerging themes into ideas and to create meaning. This is an artistic study and my subjectivity is needed to develop what I want to express artistically. If I am aware of my own subjectivity I can take measures to prevent it neglecting important information but also use it to affect my decisions and inform my direction.

Through researching the most appropriate literature I have deducted that false teeth may be interpreted as ‘uncanny’, but my research further to this will be inductive. I have no preconceived agenda or hypothesis of what I expect to find and my interview questions are open ended. They are designed to give participants the opportunity to discuss the potentially ‘uncanny’ implications of the false teeth but not to lead them to say what I want or expect. Any conclusions or theories will only be drawn from analysis of the data gathered through the interviews.

I anticipate that different people will have different interpretations of the ‘uncanny’ (as supported by Jentsch’s argument) and their relationships with the object will vary. I therefore plan to interview at least six participants, hopefully generating enough data to provide valuable insight into individual emotions and experiences, but also to cross reference with other perspectives.

My interviews will take place at a centre for blind and partially sighted people where I work as Information and Advocacy Officer. Between approximately 10am and 4pm every Monday to Thursday various blind and partially sighted people attend clubs that are run at the centre to socialise and take part in activities. Most of these people are elderly and wear false teeth. I propose to ask these people to take part in my research as participants. I intend to video record the interviews at the clubs. They may feel more relaxed in an environment they are familiar with and hopefully comfortable to talk freely. I feel it is important to have built some level of rapport in order for participants to relax and communicate openly, and to help neutralise the effect of recording equipment. I have been introduced to the groups at least once in my role of employment so an initial rapport exists. I plan to build on this by talking to the groups the week prior to interviews to fully explain the nature and purpose of my research and ask group members with false teeth to consider taking part in the interviews at the clubs the following week. I will use the day of interviews as a holiday and attend the clubs in the role of an artist researcher to avoid confusion with my role as employee at the centre. I have discussed the purpose of the study with the Chief Executive and manager of the centre, both of whom have verbally expressed their willingness for me to conduct the interviews. I will also provide an information letter and obtain written consent to conduct my research, making it clear any questions can be asked and participation can be withdrawn at any time.

I will ensure that my research is entirely ethical and that the interests of participants are considered throughout. My research questions are open ended and do not directly challenge participants to confront issues that may cause distress or discomfort, discussion of feelings such as mortality and the breaking down of the body may arise but only if the participant chooses to bring such themes up. I will explain in advance that participants are free to omit any questions they may not be comfortable answering. I will not deliberately mislead participants in any way and intend to explain the purpose of the study before participants give their consent. I will explain that I am studying the ‘uncanny’ and will be asking them questions which focus upon their feelings towards their false teeth. I do not feel that this information will have a negative effect on data gathered from the resulting interviews. I will obtain written consent from participants prior to conducting interviews, making it clear that their participation is voluntary, they may withdraw from the study at any time, they will not be identified and their confidentiality will be maintained at all times, and they are free to omit questions if they choose. I will also give participants the option of having their interview recorded by Dictaphone as an alternative to being video recorded if this makes them feel more comfortable. Either option will be dealing with verbal communication so there should be no added difficulties with communication due to sight loss. I will also ensure all information regarding consent is explained verbally and understood clearly before participants sign the consent form.

I will be completely overt in my approach; observations of participants will only be made with their consent. Should participants agree to be filmed, I feel body language and behaviour may be as important as verbal communication and will be included in my analysis of the data.

The interview questions I have devised are a guide to ensure I give participants the opportunity to cover all the points that I feel are important to my inquiry. I do not intend to interrupt participants as themes or ideas may come from elaboration or areas I have not anticipated in advance. I may not need to ask certain questions if all the points have been covered through a previous question. I do not want to dominate in the role of interviewer or guide participants’ answers. I want participants to speak freely whilst I act as a mediating presence and listener.

Gender, culture and age are likely to influence the data. Different cultures may respond differently to stimuli which can stir emotions associated with death or mortality due to different belief systems. It is often older people who have false teeth but younger people who need them could possibly feel a stronger response to the object. The importance between the object to maintain physical appearance and its function may also vary between sexes. As indicated I do not want to make any hypothesis or allow my subjectivity to influence findings prior to analysis of the data, but in considering the quality of data I will aim to use as diverse a selection of participants as possible. I am sure I will be able to choose a balance of male and female participants from the target group, however they are mostly elderly and of European background.

I will be reflexive; analysis of the data may lead to further interviews of other groups to compare emotional responses if I feel there is value in this direction. Similarly, if ideas or themes emerge from analysis of the data that warrant development I may conduct further interviews with the same group. I will make an informed response to the data and allow it to shape or change the direction I take if it is important to my artistic direction or in the interest of participants to do so. If a participant finds an interview question confusing or difficult to answer I will reassess how best to ask the question or change the question completely. If an unpredicted theme of interest to the study emerges during an interview, I may respond to this by asking an appropriate question to order to generate more detail.

Justification and Development of Research Proposal

My study is designed to consider the ‘uncanny’ using an ethnographic methodology. When I look at false teeth I feel an ‘uncanny’ sensation and they cause me to reflect on modification of the body and fears where technology may lead, also to the conflict between the false teeth signifying mortality and the breaking down of the body but maintaining and restoring its appearance and function. Whilst I am fascinated by my own emotional responses, I want to understand how others respond and relate to the object. To focus solely on my own emotions may become narcissistic and neglect a variety of perspectives and interpretations. To study different people and their emotions will not only be more interesting to me, I feel it will also help to also put my own emotional responses into perspective. As Gillian Wearing states “I’m always trying to find ways of discovering things about people, and in the process discover more about myself” (Ferguson et al 1999: 132).

Critical analysis of this proposal may identify some pitfalls. As Jentsch has identified, the ‘uncanny’ may not be felt by everyone. If is not stirred or does not come to light through interview, I do not see this as a major problem as I am most concerned with understanding the emotional response and relationship with the object. The ‘uncanny’ impression is the result of complex conflicting emotional responses the object may stir. If a participant describes one series of emotions but not others this will be revealing of their own interpretation therefore just as valid to the study. Similarly, the ‘uncanny’ impression will only be felt during the time uncertainty is experienced due to a vague sense of hidden fears and persists only until they are resolved. Participants who have had false teeth for years may become more desensitised to any ‘uncanny’ sensation they may have previously felt. The interview is designed to focus on participants’ initial response to false teeth as well as the ongoing relationship. Jentsch also refers to the ‘uncanny’ being sensed repeatedly when an object is reconsidered due to the strength of the initial impression, or when it is looked at again and the object’s lifelike appearance stirs the impression again. If an ‘uncanny’ impression has been felt or if there was an emotional response to abject the object it will be interesting to find out how long this has taken to pass and whether this disturbance of emotions has been fully resolved or persists at times.

I perceive the associations that cause some to reject the ‘uncanny’ but the impression fascinates rather than repulses me. The interviews should reveal not only if others sense the ‘uncanny’, but how they respond to it too. Due to the paradoxical nature of being repulsed by, yet attracted to an ‘uncanny’ object at the same time, some people may reject rather than rationalise their emotions. Roboticists seek to avoid the Uncanny Valley due to the disturbing response it can create, yet the ‘uncanny’ can be used in a positive context. As Jentsch states,

“In life we do not like to expose ourselves to severe emotional blows, but in the theatre or while reading we gladly let ourselves be influenced in this way; we hereby experience certain powerful excitements which awake in us strong feelings for life…In physiological terms, the sensation of such excitements seems frequently to be bound up with artistic pleasure in a direct way” (Jentsch 1906: 12).

I feel that to represent life the darker aspects of it have to be considered too. The ‘uncanny’ is a valid subject for artistic inquiry, and is employed in many examples of art. The Abject is present in Paul McCarthy’s work as he uses tomato ketchup and mayonnaise to represent bodily fluids, creating a sense of repulsion. His work may also be described as ‘uncanny’ as he deals with characters and themes such as Pinocchio and Santa Claus which feel safe and familiar and are long known through shared childhood memories. This familiarity is subverted by deviant behaviour of some kind, causing us to not only respond dramatically to the work itself but also to vaguely doubt the original source that had felt so familiar, causing us to question the culture around us. Tony Oursler’s projections of human faces with moving expressions onto dolls made out of fabric and other materials are also very ‘uncanny’. The realism of these faces may cause vaguely sensed doubts that the dolls may in fact be animated by life. The impression is often amplified by the dolls being in peril; their head trapped in a box or under a mattress. An intellectual uncertainty may be experienced between the impulse to assist and the obscenities and insults the doll appears to yell to keep at a distance. Despite the work potentially evoking hidden fears and disturbance to intellectual certainty, there is a strong feeling of humour which does not detract from the impression but compliments the work.

It is not unusual for humour to be found or used where there are dark themes. Humour may be used as a means to deal or cope with difficult issues. Freud describes how humour and jokes give us pleasure by providing us with release from our inhibitions, allowing us to confront and express darker issues that would otherwise remain hidden. Humour is an emotion also connected with false teeth. They have similarities to wind up chattering teeth which are associated with comedy and laughter. They can be used to play jokes on grandchildren, but if they fall out there may be another sense of emotional conflict experienced between humour and the demonstration of vulnerability. I find the variety of emotional sensations that may be experienced through the object fascinating. My research seeks to explore these emotional responses in depth.


Through interview I aim to discover if, how, why and when the ‘uncanny’ impression may be felt in individual circumstances. This method is supported by Jentsch who states that a clearer understanding of the impression can only be gained by examining the emotional responses of individual experiences. The major theories and essays on the ‘uncanny’ would all support that false teeth can be interpreted as ‘uncanny’. The ‘uncanny’ will be measured by analysis of emotional responses in relation to the ‘uncanny’ object.

This research may further develop my understanding of the ‘uncanny’ but also put it into a contemporary and personal context. If we accept the object can be interpreted by some as ‘uncanny’, in this research we then go on to examine not only personal responses to the object but the ongoing emotional relationship with it too. This ethnographic study may lead to a transpersonal understanding of the ‘uncanny’. However, artwork that solely demonstrates a deep understanding of a subject may still lack depth in meaning. This study puts the ‘uncanny’ into a context that deals with the emotions and experiences of real people that are personal and unique. Ideas generated from within this data may also form meaning and emotional connection to bring potential artwork to life.

Although the ‘uncanny’ has negative emotions such as fear and uncertainty connected to it, the subject is a valid artistic inquiry and the ‘uncanny’ is present in a variety of storytelling and art and can be used as a powerful vehicle to convey meaning. Reading on the ‘uncanny’ shows that at the point the impression is experienced, hidden fears emerge to create a genuine disturbance in the symbolic order or sense of reality at that moment. This being the case, in these moments of liminality normal limits to thought and self understanding are relaxed, a state which could lead to new perspectives that may not otherwise be accepted by the individual.

Bettelheim, B (1959) Joey: A Mechanical Boy. In Grenville, B (ed.) (2001) The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, Vancouver. Arsenal Pulp Press.

Clarke, J (2002) The Human/Non Human in the Work of Orlan and Stelarc. In Zylinska. J (ed)(2002) The Cyborg Experiments: The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age. London. Continuum.

Ferguson, Russell, Donna De Salvo and John Slyce (1999) Gillian Wearing. London. Phaidon Press.

Freud, F (1919) The Uncanny. In Grenville, B (ed.) (2001) The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, Vancouver. Arsenal Pulp Press.

Hoffmann, E. T. A. (Translation first published 1982) (Reprinted with Further Reading 2004) The Sandman. London. Penguin Classics.

Jentsch, E (1906) On the Psychology of the Uncanny. Angelaki. 2: 1. pp. 7–16

Kristeva, J (1941) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York. Columbia University Press.

Levin, I (1972) The Stepford Wives. United States. Random House.

Mori, M (1970) (K. F. MacDorman and T. Minato, Trans ) Bukimi No Tani The Uncanny Valley. Energy. 7(4). pp. 33 – 35.

Peshkin, A (1988) In Search of Subjectivity-One’s Own. Educational Researcher. 17: 7. pp. 17-21

Zylinska, J (2002) ‘The Future is Monstrous’: Prosthetics as Ethics. In Zylinska, J (ed.) (2002) The Cyborg Experiments: The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age. London. Continuum.

 Interview Questions

When did you lose your teeth?

How did you feel about losing your teeth?

How did you feel about getting false teeth?

Can you describe how you felt looking at your false teeth when you first got them?

How do you feel looking at them now?

How did you feel when you first wore your false teeth?

Were your false teeth comfortable or uncomfortable when you first wore them, and has this changed over time?

What do you see as the good points of having false teeth?

Have you found any difficulties or problems associated with having false teeth?

Do your false teeth feel like part of your body or alien to your body, and has this changed over time?

At what times would you wear your false teeth on a typical day?

Are there any other circumstances when you would wear your false teeth?

Do you use your false teeth more for your appearance or for eating, and which is the more important function to you?

Do you wear your false teeth more or less often than when you first got them? If so, do you know why?

How do you feel when you are not wearing your false teeth?

Do you feel different when you are wearing your false teeth, if so how?

Do you think you act differently at all when you are wearing your false teeth in contrast to when you are not wearing them?

Do you think people would, or do act differently towards you when your false teeth are in or out?

Do you have any stories about your false teeth (if you have used them to play a trick, if they have fallen out, if you have left them somewhere)?


My Uncanny video experiment 1

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

Early origins for uncanny valley

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

Synthetic macaques, A Ghazanfar

Macaques find fake monkeys creepy

Human suspicion of realistic robots and avatars may have earlier origins than previously thought.

The phenomenon, called the uncanny valley, describes the disquiet caused by synthetic people which almost, but not quite, match human expressiveness. Experiments with macaque monkeys show they too are suspicious of replicas that fall short of the real thing. The research suggests a deep-seated evolutionary origin for the reactions such artificial entities evoke.

Evolution influence

The phrase the “uncanny valley” was coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori and shows that human disquiet increases as avatars and robots look more and more human. Many people who watched films such as Beowulf, Polar Express and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within reported that, despite the impressive 3D animated effects, the people portrayed were not entirely convincing. Many explanations have been put forward for such responses, said Princeton neuroscientist Dr Asif Ghazanfar who carried out the research on the monkeys. Some suggest the reactions are caused by a suspicion that those who look human but act oddly are ill and avoiding them makes good evolutionary sense. Others have advanced cultural reasons to explain the response. “The range of explanations for the uncanny valley in humans is large and by doing this experiment we can reduce it quite a bit,” said Dr Ghazanfar. The Princeton team was led to investigate whether monkeys show uncanny valley responses because of work they were doing on the best way to investigate macaque communication.

Synthetic macaque, A Ghazanfar
Despite the avatars being simple, monkey reactions were consistent

“What we wanted to do was make a monkey avatar to interact with real monkeys. That would allow us to have real time social interaction occurring where we monitor brain activity in a real monkey,” he said.

“Having an avatar gives us complete control over one side of the interaction which is unprecedented,” Dr Ghazanfar told the BBC.

The reactions of real macaques to the artificial monkeys were intriguing, he said. “We were not terribly surprised that they show an uncanny valley effect,” he said. “What I am surprised by is that we can evoke it using such a rudimentary procedure – measuring simply how long they look.”

“The animals were not trained or rewarded yet they were completely consistent in their reactions,” he added. The results were reported in the journal PNAS.

Macaque monkeys are a favourite among researchers because of their biological similarity to humans. Their social lives have enough in common with humans to make comparisons apt, said Dr Ghazanfar.

Macaques have a “despotic” social network that means monkeys that are physically frail, old or sick are excluded.

It also suggests, he said, that human reactions to almost human avatars do have an evolutionary origin.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in it because there’s an increasing number of folks who are pursuing human interaction with artificial agents,” he said.

“We can demonstrate that evolutionary hypotheses are tenable and that the uncanny valley has something to with social experience and neural processes across many primate species.”

The Princeton team plans to keep on using artificial macaques to investigate monkey vocal communication.

“The positive spin is that we have made an avatar realistic enough that it has produced expectations from our real monkey,” said Dr Ghazanfar. “The monkeys, like humans, quickly habituate to the creepiness of the avatar.”

Found at:

Tony Oursler

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

Keep Going, 1995
Projector, VCR, tripod, cloth dummy, videotape, 1995