Living in the uncanny (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 19)

This is the nineteenth instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH



Living in the uncanny

By Lana Lin (text) and H. Lan Thao Lam(photo)


Sometimes it snows in April, as Prince sings, but you know it’s uncanny when it hails in May, like it did a few days ago. I live in the epicenter of the pandemic, in the zip code with the third highest reported cases of COVID-19 in Manhattan as of May 5. I have not taken the subway since March 11 nor scarcely left my apartment. The trains now seem like the stuff of urban legend, practically gothic, housing the homeless who like ghosts haunt the subway cars. Two corpses were found before the governor finally decided it was time to shut them down for the wee hours of the morning, for the first time in over a century.

Freud describes riding a train and being startled by an old man whose appearance he very much disliked. Jumping up he immediately realizes that the intruder is merely his own reflection in the mirror on the washing-cabinet door, which had swung back when the train jolted. What happens when misrecognition becomes uncanny recognition? How to return to “normal” when the unconscious has been made conscious and refuses to be repressed? Freud can only recall his disgruntlement.

It takes but a moment’s reflection to notice that viruses are by definition uncanny, situated as they are in the “gray area between living and nonliving.” A virus takes up its home in your body, unhoming you. The effect of the foreign invasion is that we become, in Julia Kristeva’s words, strangers to ourselves.

The uncanny is here before it makes its appearance known. The conditions for the uncanny are latent, and then something occurs that reveals it in all its horror. Or is it the rupture itself that is uncanny? Is the event or the effect or the conditions for the event or effect uncanny? And what exactly is the uncanny – is it a noun or an adjective, an object or a method? Do we simply bracket those questions and ask what it does, and whether what it does might be put to use?

SARS-CoV-2 has spikes that stick to our cells, and in order to infect us, they need to be cleaved, which can be done by Furin, an enzyme ubiquitous in the human body. In the case of an infection, an invisible invader enters and attaches to us. Our own cells split the foreign intruder, allowing it to contaminate our body, turning ourselves into our own evil twins. Do we host our own double within us? But it is not the infection that kills us. Like cancer or other immune disorders, it is our own immune system, attempting to protect us, that wreaks havoc on our body. Isn’t the body always already uncanny? Does the virus only make it more so?

I think of being a “yellow woman” in the time of coronavirus. I think of coughing while Asian. As someone who grew up being called a “nigger” by white suburban middle-class boys unable to distinguish the subtleties of racial color lines, I escaped to New York City in order to be spared such racial violences. Now I contemplate whether it is worth stepping outside and potentially being assaulted unintentionally or intentionally, whether as a result of the virus, or being spat on, stabbed with scissors, attacked with acid while taking out the garbage, or kicked in the head while waiting at a railway station.

We face our doubles in masked others and our own masked mirror image, and this uncanny encounter must force a reckoning with what has been normalized—a familiarity with inequities that needs to become unfamiliar and intolerable. If the pandemic has made everyday life uncanny, let the portal that has opened not lead to further devastation but to a defamiliarized world ripe for re-invention. Perhaps the virus is or does the uncanny by alerting us to the ghosts that inhabit our living. We need to travel through the portal with our ghosts, with our dead (Munoz) as uncanny allies.

Simon Critchley says that we, meaning “thinkers in self-isolation,” should shut the fuck up and talk to our plants. I mourn my abandoned plants, stuck in my office downtown at The New School where Critchley coincidentally also teaches, although we have both been presumably teaching on Zoom.

My office is in a public building a couple floors above Hulu, which might now be considered an essential business. I know I’ve been streaming constantly since the pandemic began, and as I have learned from Laura U. Marks, I now owe the planet at least a modest forest of trees. The orchids were in bloom when I last watered them on March 10. I am sad to think of them withered. The snake plants and cactus are heartier, but surely won’t have survived before I return, or will they? Some forms of life (and nonlife) surpass expectations in their tenacity.



Lana Lin is a writer, filmmaker and Associate Professor of Media Studies at The New School, NY. H. Lan Thao Lamis an artist and Assistant Professor of Fine Arts, Parsons, The New School. They often collaborate as ‘Lin + Lam.’
May 15th, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

A  word on “post-truth” by postcolonial and photography scholar Zahid R. Chauhary (from his 2020 essay “The Politics of Exposure: Truth after Post-Facts”):So perhaps it is not simply that truth acts (such as whistleblowing) expose what we already know, but that the place of knowledge in an atmosphere of fetishistic disavowal lends such disavowal a libidinal frisson. In cynical reasoning, truth actually matters a great deal because acting in spite of it is what endows the action with its distinctive fetishistic pleasure.”

October 26th, 2021

Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020
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