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Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Uncanny Double and Photography

We should picture the instrument which carries out our mental functions as resembling a compound microscope, or a photographic apparatus, or something of the kind. On that basis, psychical locality will correspond to a place inside the apparatus at which one of the preliminary stages of an image comes into being. 
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams 

In his essay on the uncanny, Freud famously analyses ‘The Sandman’, a tale by E. T. A. Hoffman named after a mythical figure who steals children’s eyes. In the story, the character who represents the Sandman has two identities: Coppola and Coppelius. In the former guise, he’s an optician, who also makes eyes for automata; in the latter, an alchemist. In Italian, coppo means ‘eye-socket’, while coppella means ‘assay-crucible’: a white-hot orifice, overflowing with molten light.

Self-knowledge is a prize I pursue through a labyrinth, towards its centre, where I wait for myself. I’m both Oedipus and the sphinx; Theseus and the minotaur. But who lays out the labyrinth? Who carries out the act of repression that banishes an idea to its underworld? In other words, who maps the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious? He’s a censor who controls access to consciousness. He’s an invisible homunculus who watches a screen inside my head at which one of the preliminary stages of an image comes into being. He’s my double, who, in the essay on the uncanny, troubles Freud in the form of mannequins and automata, and is initially identified as an avatar of the id: primordial narcissism, which seeks, in duplication, a defence against annihilation.

As is often the way with Freudian concepts, and the effect is especially appropriate here, the double also stands for its opposite (just as unheimlich may also mean heimlich): having once been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death. In this guise, it doesn’t affirm my existence; it usurps my place. And is thereby revealed as an avatar of the superego, which performs the function of self-observation and self-criticism, and which In the pathological case of delusions of observation becomes isolated, split off from the ego, and discernible to the clinician.

The double is the child of both Coppelius and Coppola: alchemy and optics. He’s my shadow, and my reflection. That is to say, the double is the child of photography, which uses alchemy and optics to combine shadows and reflections. I summon myself with my image.