The Impossible Seduction of the Uncanny

I vaguely remember the first time I tried to watch Cassavetes' Faces. I was younger but not that young — maybe 24. I had an ill constituted cinematic appetite and couldn't stomach it at all. It was pure chaos to me, at best, harassment at worst. Years later, I'd try again. The results were some variation of the first.

And then, one time, I saw the film. I actually saw it. I saw what it wanted, what it was doing, its terms of operation, its promises and threats. And, suddenly, it was the greatest film I'd ever seen, changing the very definition of film for me, the very mode of what an encounter with art constituted, recasting the limits of what film could do — and, of course, what I could be, film as a mutual becoming.

The question that intrigues me is a rhetorical one: Why did I watch it again? What compelled me to review something that I'd repeatedly rejected?

Often, I encounter something and dismiss it with hardly a moment's recognition. Flipping through TV channels, I can safely and swiftly say No to nearly everything on screen. Walking through a museum, I glance at, then summarily dismiss, nearly everything in the collection. Same goes with the radio. Often, my boy will play me some rappy anthemic pop diddy and, within seconds, I know it's of no interest to me (think: the Fast & Furious 7 soundtrack — mind you, I like the film, not the music).

But note how I dismiss things so readily: they fit neatly into a bucket whose contents I know — "rappy anthemic pop diddy." I size it up too quickly; I already know it. There's nothing new there. Or at least I think there isn't (I could be wrong). Needless to say, everything has a way of bleeding, of undoing categorical boundaries. But they don't do so with much vigor or interest. Deleuze would call this cliché. They are stillborn, dead from the get go.

And then there are things that I engage — that I watch, read, or listen to — that are odd, new, creative and yet which I immediately love. These are special things that operate along similar frequencies as I do. And so, when I engage them, there is a certain harmonic convergence: it hits my wavelength and, just like that, I'm flowing with it as if I'd always always known it — as if were part of me. I get its moves, even its most strange ones. I felt this way about the painter, Matthew Ritchie; about Broken Social Scene's album, Bee Hives; about Borges.

This is extraordinary: to always have known something that is itself emergent, alien, odd. I don't know them because they're cliché; I don't know hem because they're culturally familiar. I know them because, impossibly, I've always known them. They are new, creative acts, fresh trajectories within the cosmos. But operating along a frequency I occupy so it feels like home, as if we were made of the same stuff.

But then there are those things, like Cassavetes' Faces, that don't immediately resonate with me. I don't recognize them as either cliché or harmonic convergence. They are alien, other, almost repulsive. And yet, despite my initial distaste, I return to them. Why?

It's an exceedingly odd rhetorical juncture. I know that thing and yet I don't. It's eerie. And what's even stranger is that, despite that initial rejection, I am drawn on. If I were to eat a chicken salad sandwich that made me feel bad, I would not continue eating. That would obviously be insane. And yet I watched Cassavetes' Faces, which nauseated me, again — and again. What's the difference? What draws me on? Draws me in? Why do we engage with things again, things we've rejected?

Just as the thing rejects us, denies us, eludes, something else draws us on — some alien seduction. This is the uncanny, at once familiar and unfamiliar, known and unknown and seemingly unknowable.

The uncanny is an odd and complex temporal fold. The future state of my enjoyment and knowledge presents itself now. Here is this thing that I don't know, I can't recognize, but which I always already will have known. It is not a now or a later. It is a later which, once reached, will become an always have known.

This is different than harmonic convergence which is an impossible now — an emergent now that has always already been, an unknowable that I've always already known. The experience of harmonic convergence is the experience of a brother from another mother or, for that matter, from the same Mother, from the same source: we are made of the same stuff.

But the uncanny is not made of the same stuff. It is alien. But it is an alien which will become part of my source, will become my Mother. At this stage of my life, I can't imagine Faces not being born of the same stuff that I am. It has become constitutive of me, of who and what I am, of how I go. In this sense, the uncanny inaugurates a repetition, the end state becoming the opening state.  The uncanny is the ultimate gift, taking me astray of myself in order to become myself.

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