The ego, the ocular, and the uncanny: Why are metaphors of vision central in accounts of the uncanny?



I am my own twin,

Always with me, same as me,

and always watching me!

From interview with a psychotic patient

Every man carries with him through life a mirror,

as unique and impossible to get rid of as his shadow

W.H. Auden, 1989, p.93

I cannot urge you too strongly

to a meditation on optics.

Jacques Lacan, 1991, p.76

This paper outlines the basic arguments for a reading of the notion of the uncanny that draws on direct and metaphorical significances of the ocular in the development of human ego. It is argued that a specular-oriented reading of the uncanny as made possible through Lacan’s model for ego development introduces a significant analytic device capable of explaining diverse features of the uncanny experience that escaped the traditional phallic/castration-based reading. To examine this claim, evidence is presented from a number of contexts to demonstrate how uncanny experiences are typically constructed through and associated with themes and metaphors of vision, blindness, mirrors and other optical tropes. Evidence is also presented from a historical point of view to demonstrate the strong presence of ocular and specular themes, devices and associations in a tradition of literary and psychological writing out of which the notion of ‘the uncanny’ (including Freud’s own formulation) emerged. It is demonstrated that the main instances of the uncanny, such as doppelgangers, ghosts, déjà vu, alter egos, self-alienations and split personhoods, phantoms, twins, living dolls and many more in the list of ‘things of terror’ typically share two important features: they are closely tied with visual tropes, and they are variations on the theme of doubling. It is then argued that both of these features are integrally associated with the developmental processes of ego formation and self-identity, thus explaining the strong association of the uncanny accounts and experiences with ocular and specular motifs and metaphors.