Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Uncanny Valley 5: Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

Over the course of the last year or so, I've written several posts about the "uncanny valley" on this blog. The theory of the uncanny valley is loosely based on Freud's account of Das Unheimliche (the "uncanny"), a major trope of psychoanalytic theory and a favorite play-thing of literary, film and cultural theorists who borrow heavily from psychoanalysis. If you don't know what the uncanny is and don't feel like doing the homework, take a look at the picture on the left of Dexter (played by Michael C. Hall), the fictional serial killer star of a Showtime series by the same name. Dexter himself is not uncanny in the image, but that arm is. The picture looks familiar and normal at first glance, but upon closer inspection you'll see that it's not Dexter's hand upon which he's resting his chin. It's a corpse's hand. The image gives us the creeps, or so it is speculated, not simply because the idea of touching a dead body is creepy, but more so because the image is composed in such a way to make the arm look almost right, almost normal, almost alive. Uncannily so. As Freud explains at some length in his essay, our experience of the uncanny involves a coincidence of the familiar and the unfamiliar. That is, we find ourselves in the rather unique, cognitively-dissonant situation of being both attracted to and repulsed by the same object.

The uncanny "valley", as I've explained here before, is a theory of robotics that attempts to map the precise places in our experience where the psychic discomfort of Freud's "uncanny" is activated. I won't rehearse the whole story here again, but the basic premise is that we find robots "uncanny" when they too-closely approximate "real" human beings. For example, in the video below, the theory of the uncanny valley would explain that the coincidental "creepiness" and "fascination" the we feel toward the robot-performer in the front is a product of our apprehension of her/it as both familiar (very much like a human being) and unfamiliar (not a human being):

Let's just put aside for the moment that the trippy-techno-pop song itself is also a little bit uncanny, confusing as it does our familiar sensibility about "real" music as opposed to computer-generated and synthetically auto-tuned "music." (I'm really not trying to be a music snob here-- I like catchy, hooky tunes as much as the next person-- but I do think that there is something different about our experience of these sorts of tunes that sound almost "real.") The point is that robots are the perfect test-cases for delving into the psychic operations of Das Unheimliche because they operate as almost-perfect "doubles" for the very thing that is the most familiar to us, namely, ourselves.

The German word for the uncanny, Das Unheimliche, contains within it adjectives for what we find familiar, what we find homely (heimeliche) or belonging to the house (heimelig), even what we perceive as being autochthonous or native (heimisch). So, the uncanny or unheimliche often gets described as the "unfamiliar," but it's important to note that the uncanny involves a very special kind of unfamiliarity, because the "familiar" that is being negated is the most familiar to us. Like the things in our home, which are "familiar" in a very special sense-- a private, intimate, personal, almost secret kind of familiarity. If I were to encounter something radically unfamiliar-- say, an object or species entirely unknown to me-- I might be frightened by it, but my fright would be qualitatively different than if I were to encounter slightly strange variant of something intimately familiar to me-- say, a robotic double of myself, or an almost-perfect replication of my living room, or my best friend's doppelgänger.

The opening sequence of the television series Dexter provides a excellent rendering of this phenomenon. In it, the everyday routines of the literal "home"-- getting dressed, shaving, making breakfast, tying one's shoes-- are depicted in such a way as to make them seem somehow sinister and foreboding. There's nothing "really" sinister or foreboding depicted in these images, of course, but a palpable malevolence is instead conveyed entirely by exploiting the uncanny. Here it is:

Not only in the opening sequence, but in the content of the show, Dexter makes extensive use of uncanny, doubling juxtapositions of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Theory Teacher posted an excellent essay on just this topic recently, titled "Dexter, Psychoanalysis, or Something", where he does a fine job of explaining how our invention of, confrontation with, and sometimes violent dispensation of (real and symbolic) doubles is a fundamental operation of both the individual psyche and the communal one. In the Dexter series, the complicated machinations of uncanny doubles is hyperbolic and hypostasized, as it is in much literature and film as well. What is fiction, after all, if not the sine qua non human activity of fabricating doubles? But what has really piqued my interest of late is the widespread depiction of non-fictional doubles, "real" doubles, and the collective fascination/repulsion we feel toward them.

Yes, I'm talking about reality television. I've always thought that explaining the reality television boom by directing a "J'accuse! Voyeur!" at the unsophisticated masses was a bit too simple. Part of our fascination with reality television is a voyeuristic fascination, to be sure, but we're repulsed (even frightened) as much and as often by what is depicted there as we are fascinated. That repulsion can sometimes be transformed into pleasure in its own schadenfreude kind of way, but quite often it's not pleasurable. Quite often, it's uncanny. Not only are the people and places and conflicts and dramas of reality television uncanny, inasmuch as they seem very much like "real" people and places and conflicts and drama, but the very world in which all of this takes place is uncanny. It's a "real world" that is not real. It's simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. It's populated by doubles of ourselves and people we really know, animated by doubles of the competitions and romances and conflicts and resolutions of conflicts that we really engage in, governed by doubles of the laws and moral codes and superegos that order our real world. Reality television is, at its base, a variant on the age-old philosopher's meta-doubling thought experiement: the compossible world. And, like literature and film, like all of our fictional creations, it can also be instructive.

In his Poetics, Aristotle speculated that in order for tragedy to inspire pity and fear, in order for the peripeteia and hamartia and anagnorisis depicted therein to be believable, in order for it to accomplish catharsis, it must proceed by mimesis. That is to say, it must present to its audience a double of their world, with characters that serve as recognizably familiar-- but not exactly identical-- doubles of themselves, so that the moral education accomplished in the drama can be doubled in the minds and souls of its witnesses. In order to be instructive, Aristotle seems to suggest (though he could not have availed himself of this vocabulary), it must be uncanny.

It's not just Dexter and robots and Jean Valjean that upset us, that trouble our understandings of ourselves and our world by doubling us and it (with an uncanny difference). Reality television does the same. It present us the real as if it were fictional, or the fictional as if it were real. Everytime we find ourselves captivated by those doubles, we are simultaneously and unconsciously replulsed by their fabrication, their pretension as "doubles." But every time we rejct them for being contrived, we are secretly forced to concede the ultimately contrived nature of our "real" world and our "real" selves. Dispensing with the double keeps our world in order, makes it sensible, but it is a complicated pyschological operation that insists upon and accomplishes that dispensation.


Emma B. said...

I'm not sure that mimesis in Aristotle is close to uncanniness - it functions as a more general term in antiquity to signify the more commonplace notion that the arts indeed imitate life (which of course for Plato shows the drift away from the form).

I really do think that's a girl in a robot costume though. :)

DOCTOR J said...

I didn't mean to suggest that mimemis and uncanny were synonyms, precisely. But you don't think that the imitation that happens in, say, Oedipus Rex or Antigone is uncanny? I mean, isn't the point of tragedy that we (the audience) are able to imagine ourselves in the place of the protangonist close enough to inspire pity and fear, but not so close as to "really" suffer their trauma? (That's a real question. I'm not being rhetorical.)

And NO WAY that's a girl in a robot costume. It's got steel bars for arms.

Emma B. said...

I'm not sure if there's more going on there than in the notion of representation in general. But then there's the strange role of mimesis in education in Plato, and for Aristotle there is certainly pleasure, so the signification is a bit different from representation.

Well I think my desire for it to be a girl in a robot costume is about a desire to not want robots to be that good, because that aspect of techne always seems to me appropriative of nature and also specifically appropriative of the opaque and mysterious powers of the 'feminine'... the latest incarnation of Pygmalion. Of course, this may be the form my own rationalization of the uncanny takes...

I forgot to say, btw, I really like this post!

YoungWilliam said...

I was reading a thing not too long ago, concerning the Uncanny Valley, where it seems to often "level out" with relative proximity.

Let's say you have three folks, all viewing Creepybot -- Person A is seeing video footage, Person B is seeing it on stage, Person C is up close enough to touch it. It's not unusual for Person A to find Creepybot to be 100% weapons-grade nightmare-fuel, while Person B just finds it a little disturbing, and Person C finds it rather keen. In a way, it's like the reverse of a lot of phobias (IE: Seeing pictures of spiders is generally better than seeing a spider from afar, which is generally better than having one next to you on the pillow).

This could help to explain why folks seeing online footage often exclaim, "What were the designers thinking? Can't they see it's creepy?!", while the designers exclaim, "What are these viewers thinking? Can't they see it's not creepy?!"