The uncanny and work on the self
Joonas is a 33-year-old family man who self-identifies as a ‘seeker'. He recounts that his childhood was spent in a religious home environment (his father was a priest), which he says provided him with a ‘framework for interpretation of the world’. Later in life he has conducted university-level studies in theology and cultural studies of religion, and has had a long-standing interest in esoteric literature and mysticism. Joonas, like many other writers, reflects on his uncanny experiences as something that may and often do seem frightening or ‘crazy’, even to himself, and he ponders whether these experiences have been distorted or altered by his memory. Yet he assures the reader that the experiences have had significant effects on his life.
I regard myself as a seeker and I try to find some kind of meaning in everything that I have experienced over the years. I think of myself as a relatively normal and sane person and I have an aversion towards New Age thinking, but at the same time I cannot disregard my experiences as just some kind of underlying insanity; I rather see them as one of the most significant building blocks of my identity.
In shaping the identity of a seeker, Joonas refers to something that is common across many of the writings on uncanny experiences: that one is ‘attuned’ towards experiencing the uncanny or that it is a trait that has always been a part of oneself. The adoption of the identity of a seeker also seems to function as a narrative way to balance - or overcome - the evident tension between experience-based and science-based modes of knowing, for example, the labels of ‘sanity’ and ‘insanity’ that Joonas struggles with. Joonas' time in his childhood home seems to have been a crucial, temporally unspecific and longitudinal event in his becoming a seeker. In addition to living with his family, he says that he also shared his childhood home with two ‘beings' that he alone was able to sense. In his letter, he describes how the presence of the ‘veil-being’ - a veil-like figure that communicated telepathically - was always a source of comfort. For example, Joonas describes an incident in which he was hiding under the living room table because his parents were having an argument. There, the veil-being lingered beside him and spoke to him, telling him that his parents would not be divorcing but are ‘learning each other'. However, in contrast to the comforting presence of the veilbeing, there was also another being that appeared to him regularly, the ‘spoolman’, whose figure was that of a man with the head of a hammerhead shark and a torso of spools. Joonas mentions that one of these encounters with the spool-man happened while he was sitting on a potty in a room he shared with his brother. For him, the spool-man’s presence was always a source of nervousness and anxiety. Here, the uncanny beings, as both comforting and distressing, surface as actantsthat affect the way Joonas perceives himself and produce knowledge on the world in particular situations.
However, Joonas’ identity as a seeker is not only about receiving the uncanny, but also about actively seeking a connection with extrapersonal forces. For Joonas, such active (identity) work of a seeker has been evident in the form of the ‘prayer’. Joonas’ praying practice reflects his way of drawing from different knowledge and belief systems such as religion and mysticism. He has been engaged in such active work since he started seeing frightening visions in his early adolescence after reading the Book of Revelations in his childhood home. He describes the development of the practice as follows:
Ar ound when I was about ten years old, I developed a recurring habit of praying. My relation to the church was sceptical and even hostile, but especially when I was walking in nature, I used to constantly talk to myself, as in my own prayer.
I vividly remember how I sat on a swing in the neighbouring yard on a summer day, feeling strong anxiety, and I prayed in a mantra-like fashion for tens of minutes that the things I dream about would not come true. I then felt a voice somewhere inside of me - not in my head but more like somewhere between my spine and the back of my head - and the voice said that everything that I’ve seen will come true in my lifetime but that I would be safe. It is now hard for me to define how much of that answer was the product of my own imagination and how the years that have since passed have affected my experience. However, the truth is that at that moment I felt the answer as real, and most of all comforting.
So for Joonas, praying is a practice that invokes answers that establish truths about the world and the future. This is reminiscent of how Mauss (1909/2003) understood prayer as a social practice, a rite that has efficacy in world making. Notably, for Joonas, the prayer connects to self-preservation not only through the reception of comforting knowledge about the future but also because the reception of answers to his prayers seems to have required active care for the self. For example, in Joonas’ narrative, it gradually becomes evident that he has struggled with the consumption of substances such as alcohol, particularly during student years. After one of the worst months of almost non-stop binge drinking - all the while suffering from what would later be diagnosed as an ulcer - he tried praying after having not done so for several months, but could not get any answers. He writes that it was ‘as if the world was sulking at me’. In his narrative, these times are characterised by frightening ‘visions’; he writes that he constantly saw visions of rough and rugged ‘interiors of houses’, which he interpreted as places he would end up. He also writes about an incident involving a mysterious character when he was in a possibly life-threatening situation:
I was walking home from a bar, very drunk. I stopped at the corner of a closed-down store and I felt a need to lay down into the snow just for a while.
I passed out and then woke up frightened as a tall figure in front of me shouted, ‘Get up! You were not born just to die there!’ I was freezing and walked home, laid down on my bed, and cried through the whole night.
We may then theorise uncanny experiences and practices as social forms or instantiations of care for - and cultivation of - the self. Uncanny experiences, such as visions of places, mysterious beings that provide comfort or traumatic experiences, and concrete, embodied ‘answers' to one's prayers, are often made sense of through the effects that they impose on one's self-understanding and relation to one’s actions or situations. In Joonas’ narrative, uncanny experiences are therapeutic ‘events’ that actualise self-understanding and self-care, and by writing about himself as a ‘seeker', Joonas establishes a difference to religious self-under-standing (a religious person) or scientific self-understanding (a disturbed mind).
Joonas' narrative hints that uncanny experiences may be understood as a way to handle emotionally and psychologically taxing situations, to deal with fractures and turning points in one's life. In terms of comfort, what seems typical in these experiences is that they provide security in the face of the fragility of human life and insecurity about the future; for example in addition to the aforementioned examples of domestic arguments and substance abuse, Joonas’ narrative of experiences connected with the uncanny involve a near-drowning incident, a decision to pursue a new line of university studies, his mother falling seriously ill and his own looming divorce, among other things. However, these experiences are not only about insecurity and uncertainty in relation to the everyday lifeworld of the individual. Uncanny experiences may also connect with wider social, political and technological frameworks and dis/continuities which induce uncertainty and chaos in relation to the future(s) of local communities, nations and even mankind as a whole. In relation to visions, Joonas writes of having seen ‘chaotic nightmares’ about global thr eats, in his words ‘everything from clouds of pollution to exploding nuclear facilities’. In addition, these visions - and the accompanying anxiety - have always been partly tied to globally significant political events and ruptures such as the fall of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, and more recently, the events in Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, which he says he followed almost obsessively through the media. In hindsight, Joonas writes about dreams and premonitions that have haunted him before these events actually took place. As typical in a Latourian (1999) conception of events, there is no evident causal relation between the experiences of such premonitions and actual political events (after all, it is perhaps impossible to say which comes first, the political event or the idea of related premonitions); in any case, such political upheavals are crucially connected to the sense of dis/continuity of the world as it is.
In summary, we argue that Joonas’ uncanny experiences are about self-care and self-work in the face of uncertain futures and a chaotic existence. They are a social practice of coming to grips with experiences of uncertainty, powerlessness and negative states such as fear or anxiety. They may also help to handle overwhelming positive feelings and excitement. However, what sets our account of uncanny experiences apart from the basic functionalist idea of the uncanny happening in a time of crisis is the idea that the uncanny is not only a ‘therapeutic tool’ that serves a predetermined function but it is a ‘real’ actant in people’s therapeutic assemblages, which include various actants from traditional beliefs to holy texts and from mysterious beings to political decisions and national armies. This is to say that uncanny actants are part of a complex network of actants which have established Joonas' identity. They are also a part of a self-care assemblage; as Joonas says, undefined forces - ‘the other’ - have been and will now always be present in his life, helping him to navigate the complexities of personal and political life although also at times invoking anxiety and other negative feelings. Thus, such experiences may well even become actively sought after. Furthermore, experiences of such ‘guidance’ may also detach one from self-centred ways of understanding social reality.
In Joonas' narrative, active work with the uncanny focuses on the self as he keeps these experiences mostly to himself. We will now move on to exemplify how such work can also focus on other people as uncanny experiences become a ‘skill’ that can be put to use for the good of others and the community.