imomus (imomus) wrote,

Shklovsky and me v. Heidegger and J-Lo

What are you up to, Nick?

Well, I'm trying to reconcile ostranenie with the uncanny and anti-rockism with becoming.

Ostranenie is the term Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky gave to the way art deliberately makes things strange in order to make us see them afresh. (Read more about ostranenie here.) 'Perceptual experiences,' explains Rene Lezard, 'can be distinguished as congruent (and therefore unattended) or dissonant (and therefore challenging and requiring attention). Experience and expectation determine which is familiar and which not. The implicit role for the artist is to estrange the familiar, to challenge our expectations in such a way as to get us to pay attention, to see anew. One of the interesting corollaries of Shklovskii's idea is that of the invisibility of the commonplace: "they do not appear in cognition." Familiarity breeds a particular form of contempt in his mind. It is the contempt of not seeing. It is not even a process of ignoring, since that suggests some action on the part of the viewer. Common perception, it might be inferred, is a kind of blindness. It is the poet's or the artist's role to open eyes.'

Anyone who's read the Momus website over the last couple of years knows that ostranenie keeps popping up. Now, I haven't read much Heidegger, but it seems to me that there are clear parallels between what Shklovsky calls ostranenie and what Heidegger calls the uncanny, described by David Corker thus:

'From the work of Freud, Heidegger and Lacan we can put together a definition of the Uncanny as that state of mind which we experience when the unbroken and coherent appearance of the so-called 'common-sense' world is broken or disrupted by evidence of its 'made' quality, as a constructed world. This gives rise to feelings of being disturbed, disgusted or horrified, or to great levels of anxiety or vertigo as certainties are threatened and the very structure of everyday and normal life seems to give way. A classic instance of this would be the mingled fascination and disgust many people feel when confronted with a transsexual; that is someone whose sense of themselves is at odds in a very deep way with their apparent [to others] gender identity... Of course, the threat of anyone who transgresses the boundaries which we regard as fundamental to the nature of the world and of the 'Real' is that by transgressing them they bring to our attention the possibility that these bounds may be arbitrary, or that we too may exist in some deep way on both sides of any given divide.'

So far so good: both Shklovsky and Heidegger are saying what Samuel Beckett put into a single pithy phrase: 'Habit is a great deadener'. But this is where we have to choose between them. Because the question of authenticity comes up (bringing its young nephew, Rockism). Shklovsky, writing in the exciting early days of an experimental new state, the Soviet Union, saw no need to advocate 'keeping it real' or 'staying true to one's roots'. Ostranenie is very much about stepping into the unknown, seeing things in new ways, breaking with old habits. Heidegger, on the other hand, sees estrangement as a positive value only insofar as it reveals to us our bad estrangement from our authentic being.

Heidegger connects the uncanny with authentic becoming (the Unheimlich with Dasein, in his terms) by proposing our authentic selves as a 'secret home', one which we conceal from ourselves with habits and routines and alienated normality, and which we only reach, paradoxically, by the path of estrangement. In other words, it takes one form of alienation (the uncanny) to overcome another form of alienation (inauthenticity). I would call this 'diverging towards the one right answer' and I don't accept that it happens, except insofar as we tend to retrospectively construe random events as inevitable -- 'She was the woman I had been searching for all my life'. We call the thing we find at random 'the one right answer' to impose closure when we no longer want to be dizzied by the labyrinth of choices, the hall of mirrors, the maze of possibilities.

My idea of the uncanny is that estrangement is an end in itself, or a way to jumpstart perception. Closer to Shklovsky than to Heidegger. The uncanny is not a hidden passage to some 'secret home'.

(Read Deborah Lutz on Heidegger, the Erotics of Ontology, and the Mass-Market Romance .)

My problem with the idea of authenticity as it manifests itself in contemporary pop culture -- I call this Rockism for short -- is that it's a conservative and convergent value. The basic tenets of Rockism are that it's good 'to stay in touch with your roots', 'to keep things real', 'to look in your heart and write', 'to thine own self be true', and so on. The emphasis is on the past, on convergence, on origins, and on necessity rather than on the future, divergence, destinations, and freedom. Rockism doesn't go in much for estrangement, but when it does it follows the Heidegger route: estrangement is only legitimate if it helps people diverge towards the 'one right answer'. To my stereotypical Rockist, estrangement, if you do it at all, should be a bit like a scary hellfire sermon, designed to frighten the congregation towards God's 'one right answer'. It cannot be pure divergence -- bluesky brainstorming, experimentation for its own sake, joy in fakeness, fictiveness or possibilism, cross-dressing, ambivalent parody, nomadic goal-less travel, or anything like that.

It's interesting that one of the key elements of the American identity touches precisely on this problem: Americans tend to believe that there is no conflict between 'staying in touch with your roots' and 'becoming whoever you want to be'. Think of Jenny From The Block by Jennifer Lopez as a statement of this odd amalgam of Rockism and Possibilism:

Stayed grounded as the amounts roll in
I'm real, I thought I told you
I really been on Oprah
That's just me
Nothin phony, don't hate on me
What you get is what you see

Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got
I'm still, I'm still Jenny from the block
Used to have a little, now I have a lot
No matter where I go, I know where I came from (from the Bronx!)

I'm down to earth like this
Rockin this business
I've grown up so much
I'm in control and loving it
Rumors got me laughing, kid
Love my life and my public
Put God first
Then can't forget to stay real
To me it's like breathing

Like America itself, Jenny can be both poor and rich, credible and incredible, natural and constructed, local and international, normal and starry, in it for herself and in it for her homies, authentic and plastic, root and branch, home and away. Or so she tells us. Trouble is, if I don't buy it from Heidegger, why should I buy it from J-Lo?

You want to have your cake and eat it too
What, eating without having isn't good enough for you?

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