The Post-Soviet Uncanny (Unstuck in Time)


This post is final installment of the Introduction to Unstuck in Time: On the Post-Soviet Uncanny, a summer feature on All the Russias.  It can also be found on Eliot Borenstein’s website. To get email announcements about new posts, please write to eb7@nyu.edu

 

The subtitle of this book is “On the Post-Soviet Uncanny.”  Where, you might ask, does the Uncanny fit in?  The vast literature on the subject follows from Freud’s classic essay, “The Uncanny,” which establishes a compelling argument about the nature of the phenomenon, albeit through a less than  convincing etymological sleight of hand. Noting that the German term “unheimlich” (uncanny) contains within it the word “heimlich” (“homey”), Freud uses examples from literature and case studies to assert that the uncanny is that which was once familiar, subsequently repressed, and then brought back to create the “uncanny” effect. Never mind that this etymology doesn’t work in most other languages–if it’s in German, it must be true.

If Freud’s approach is persuasive, however, it is not because of his shaky linguistics.  If anything, un/heimlich serves as a useful mnemonic for the dynamic he identifies, rather than as evidence.  The tension between the familiar and its frightening, distorted counterpart explains the eeriness associated with statues and dolls (which don’t move–but what if they could?), or animated human representations that try their best to be realistic rather than cartoony (and end up trapped in the “uncanny valley” to which hyperreal animation is prone).

Alternate Soviet Unions, trips to the national past, and representations of a medieval Russian future are also prone to an uncanny effect, but not the one that might be expected.   A 21st-century USSR is both familiar and strange, but the uncanniness lies elsewhere. It is the uncanny effect that immersive fantasy can have on our perceptions of the world in which we live.

When I was around eight years old, one of my older brothers and my future sister-in-law took me and another brother to a marathon showing of all five of the original Planet of the Apes movies. According to IMDB, that comes to a total, back-to-back runtime of eight hours and six minutes; with breaks, it must have amounted to about nine hours.  It was morning when the marathon started, and night when we came out. But the biggest shock came when we looked around at all the people on the street: where were all the apes?  Seeing nothing but human faces should have been the most ordinary thing in the world, but at that moment, it seemed thoroughly bizarre.  The familiar human form became briefly uncanny.

Though simians are underrepresented in modern Russian entertainment, the result of immersion in post-Soviet alt-Russia fantasies is not that different. These stories start out as side trips into a conditional-subjunctive existence, but their overall effect is to create estrangement from the real post-Soviet existence. The uncanny lies not in the strange familiarity of the fantastic scenario, but in the revelation of  the uncanny strangeness in the reader’s or viewer’s everyday reality.

 

Postscript

That’s the end of the Introduction (at least, this iteration of it), which also signals the end of the serialization of Unstuck in Time on All the Russias.  If you want to keep reading, I’m continuing to post installments to my website (https://www.eliotborenstein.net/unstuck-in-time) every Tuesday and Thursday, with announcements on Facebook and Twitter.  If you want to receive email notifications of new posts, please write to me at eb7@nyu.edu