Notes on Authenticity and Uncanny discussions

We ran out of time the last couple of weeks before we really had a chance to sum up, so I wanted to give you a few notes to keep in mind regarding definitions of authenticity and the utility of the concept of the uncanny. Please add your thoughts in the comments or email me with questions you’d like to discuss more in class.


We’re firmly in the world of perception here, so there’s subjective experience to be taken into account. There is also the idea of a ‘working consensus’ in a group in terms of experiencing authenticity. We are also finding that experiences and triggers of authenticity are very context-specific, so in your own work, it’s going to matter a lot what context you’re in before you can establish what an authentic experience would be. That said, here are some of the questions and vectors to keep in mind.

What are the triggers and signifiers of an authentic experience or representation? What destroys the illusion? We’re trying investigate the things that trigger the experience of authenticity so that we can create or manipulate it. That’s a major theme to keep track of as the semester progresses.

About the Real
Distinguishing the question of authenticity from the question of objective reality or verifiability. So, one definition of authenticity is that which does not raise questions of objective reality or verifiability. It’s more encompassing than the simple suspension of disbelief. It’s the suspension of reality-testing.

About truth
Examining whether a statement, a fact, an identity, a place, or an object is what it purports to be. Can a lie/untruth/error/false appearance be authentic? Is authenticity in this case the definition of successful falseness?

We have a set of distinctions around authenticity, they can be binary or exist on a continuum:
Synthetic vs. natural
True vs. false/lie/error
Dream vs. awake/real
Imagined vs. real
Randomness and unpredictability as hallmarks of authenticity

We talked about a few different vectors of experience–physicality, emotionality, identity, perception—regarding places, persons, objects, relationships and systems.

There’s an interesting complexity here. Take for example the synthetic/natural distinction. If you think about synthetic plants, for example, that are convincing enough for you to think they are real, then they may be defined (in our terms) as authentic. However, you only encounter the question of their authenticity when you discover that they’re not actually living plants. I’m thinking of Roxy [last name]’s work.

We also want to understand authenticity as a kind of suspension of self-awareness or self-consciousness, as in Remainder. A fluid experience. The character’s drive to recreate and repeat his authentic moments is depicted (among other things) as a desire to experience himself in the complete present, without meta-cognition. In the novel, this comes to be linked to PTSD. For our purposes this is useful in that highly charged (though not necessarily traumatic) emotional or physical moments, with extremely heightened perceptions, may be experienced as ‘authentic’ or when a person ‘felt most real.’

A final question to keep in mind:

When does authenticity matter? I think in every situation it’s important to run the “does it matter” filter.


We’ve got the distinction between identifying the experience of the uncanny from the causes of that feeling.

The feeling of the uncanny is highly subjective.

Freud’s definition:
-A subset of frightening wherein the feeling leads back to what is recognized and long familiar
-What ought to have remained hidden or secret, but has come to light
-Uncertainty with respect to reality or animacy is not sufficient to produce uncanny feelings (“intellectual uncertainty”)
-Subset of frightening things in which something repressed recurs. For Freud, this means that what recurs is the thing that has been repressed, and that’s where the sense of familiarity comes from.
-Uncanny experience occurs specifically when infantile complexes which have been repressed are revived, or when ‘primitive beliefs’ (magic, coincidence) seem suddenly re-activated and are used to interpret the world. [We agreed with this the least]

Some useful ideas for our work:
“The better oriented in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it.”
Our uncertainty as to whether we are privy to delusions or the fantastic (in the story, the first two parts are letters to and from Lothario and Clara, and Clara explicitly asserts that it’s all in his head as result of the trauma of his father’s death). I also also talked about the realistic system/fiction with one fantastical element included in the “physics” of reality in the invented world as “uncanny fiction,” like Saramago or Murakami.
Doubling is a way of revealing the secrets, for example, in Sandman, the doubling not only of Coppelius/Coppola and that character with the father. Doubling is also a form of recurrence. Another form of doubling involves place rather than person. For Freud, it becomes uncanny when it is involuntary.

We discussed the question of whether fear needed to be involved, and proposed that the uncanny may be experienced in an anxious state, rather than a fearful one. I’ve got some more information for you on the difference between fear and anxiety, and I’ll fill you in at our next class meeting.

We discussed the idea that at some level the uncanny is experienced when there is a break in perception, a perceptual shift of some kind. We’ve got the idea that repetition and doubling are strong themes in both the sense of the authentic and of the uncanny (from Remainder and from Freud—and incidentally, McCarthy is a big Freud aficionado).

What’s useful about the uncanny is that it’s something we can play with, that it affects a person’s perception—at least momentarily—and causes reality questions to come into play.  The uncanny is a moment of familiarity and the revealing of something hidden (whether or not it’s repressed castration anxiety is not a question we need to resolve here). The hidden thing may not be the revelation of a fact, necessarily, but a pattern or a type of perception that makes us question something fundamental for a moment. So thinking about déjà vu: the feeling of repetition, which is itself a sort of repressed return, calls into question our grip on time and space, the physics of experience. That whole ‘glitch in the matrix’ explanation is so incredibly satisfying—because it’s a plausible explanation (within the logic of the film) for something we have no explanation for but is an authentic, uncanny experience. What do you think the ‘hidden’ thing is in our reaction to the uncanny valley dwelling robots? Might be something to do with our understanding of humanness.

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