Look the Doll in the Eyes: the Uncanny in Contemporary Art

by Ruth Ronen

January 1, 2004


This paper contributes to a formulation of an aesthetics of psychoanalysis by juxtaposing the fundamental concepts of philosophical aesthetics (like pleasure, beauty, sublime, etc.) to the psychoanalytic thought about art. This paper looks into the place of pleasure in philosophical aesthetics and its relation to the notion of anxiety within the psychoanalytic conception of art. To investigate this question it concentrates on the use of doll-images in art, as this image, that suggests on face value the pleasing beauty and innocence of childhood, carries with it effects of displeasing anxiety. The anxiety associated with dolls is both exemplified in 20th century art (from surrealism to postmodernism) and fully explored theoretically in the writings of Freud and of Lacan.


April 2004 
1. Aesthetics beyond beauty and pleasure

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain marks a point of radical change in what had been considered, until this artistic event, the necessary association of art with beauty. After Duchamp, art and art criticism has appeared for a while to run a fierce battle against beauty to the extent that saying about an artwork that it was beautiful, was taken to be a way of downgrading it, of diagnosing the piece of art as anachronistic. The relevance of beauty to aesthetic and artistic discussion is concerns also the relevance of pleasure to aesthetic experience, since alongside the view that beauty is irrelevant to art, there has emerged the possibility of an aesthetic experience tied with sensations like disgust, revolt, and displeasure. In other words, modernism presents itself in the name of ugliness, pleasing or displeasing, and in the name of disgust (elicited by the beautiful or the ugly) so that these are marked as the constitutive signs of the artistic revolution brought about by modernist art in general and by Duchamp’s art in particular.

These general demarcations of modernism are all well-known, yet it is curious to note that they are sustained at the same time that modernist and post-modernist art continues to produce objects regarding which the question of beauty or ugliness is far from abated, but is rather raised, in many senses, with special intensity. The uncompromising presence of beauty in art objects is something constantly taken into account in the contemporary production of art.1

This general ambivalence regarding the status of beauty in contemporary art is raised here to point at the fact that avoiding the question of beauty in the context of art is not a simple matter. In fact, this paper will suggest that producing ugly objects tends to be acted out along the same axis as the practice of producing beauty, and similarly, that the effect of disgust is produced along the same axis where pleasure appears to characterize aesthetic experience. Ugly and displeasing art objects do not necessarily suggest a different aesthetics than beautiful and pleasing ones.

It should be noted though, that the intimate relations between the beautiful and the ugly, between pleasure and disgust, have been noticed already in traditional aesthetics, and should not be attributed to a newly invented modernist move. This diffuseness of limits is already suggested by Kant who claims that fine art is capable of describing things beautifully even if in nature we would dislike or find these things ugly (48). The ugly does not undermine the possibility of drawing aesthetic pleasure from it in the context of art, or of judging the thing beautiful. It is only the ugly arousing disgust (“that cannot be presented in conformity with nature without obliterating all aesthetic liking and hence artistic beauty”) that is incompatible with aesthetic experience. Kant thus attests to the intimate relations holding between the beautiful and the ugly in the context of art, and to the real affinity between pleasure and displeasure in our reaction to art (to which the case of the sublime in Kantian aesthetics most emphatically contributes).

Yet, these are precisely the intimate relations between beauty and ugliness, between pleasure and displeasure that create a difficulty in attempting to formulate an aesthetic apt to the spirit of contemporary art. True, evidence to the intimacy between the beautiful and the ugly is ample even before modernism; furthermore beauty has not been an objective, well-defined property of aesthetic objects even back in the 18th century Å| yet still modernism appears to suggest a different approach to beauty. Modernism appears to actively practice against beauty thus striving to maintain a clear territory for art outside the beautiful, an art that does not recoil before ugly or revolting objects. Does the possibility of an aesthetic experience specific to modernist art depend on such a distinction as much as classical art was dependent on a distinct territory of beauty (even if, as Kant indicates, beauty in the eyes of the observer, can be the result of beautifying something given as ugly outside art)?

I will further claim in this paper that, as suggested above, the distinction between beauty and ugliness, between pleasure and displeasure cannot suffice to outline the distinctness of modernist art since these fuse in art in general and specifically in modernist art. It is only within an aesthetics that transcends these categories and does not rely on their segregating effect that the possibility of delineating the distinctness of modernism will become feasible. Indeed, aesthetic approaches that wish to go beyond traditional aesthetic categories (of beauty and pleasure, ugliness and displeasure) without obliterating the cardinality of these very categories to aesthetic experience and to philosophizing about art,2 are of the most radical and significant attempts to deal with the problem of art and to reconsider the status of aesthetics regarding contemporary art.

Among others, one can mention in this context the psychoanalytic orientation and its ongoing interest in the question of art since Freud’s early writings. Psychoanalysis is one frame of thought that can suggest a view of art that does not orient itself according to the fossilized prism of beauty and pleasure as the fixated Archemedian points for every instance of aesthetic judgement, both regarding classical art and regarding products of modernism. To examine what such an approach amounts to, I will concentrate in what follows on the case of doll-images that have loomed in various practices of painting, photography and three-dimensional art ever since the Surrealist wide drawing on this image. In tracing the way psychoanalysis tackles or could lead us to tackle this intricate image, I will attempt to outline the different view on the nature of aesthetic experience and of the aesthetic object as it emerges from a psychoanalytic-oriented approach to doll-images.

The doll, as perceived in the symbolic order of our culture, is tied with beauty and infantile innocence, and as such elicits pleasure (this is claimed here grosso modo although historically the doll is not only a prop in children’s games but also a device in various rituals and ceremonies of a malignant nature). Dolls, representing themes that are officially rejected by modernism yet touching ambiguously on the limits of these themes thus indicate at the outset the intricacy involved in presenting this image in contemporary art.

  1. The Uncanny in Freud;

Turning to psychoanalysis in the context of doll images is not motivated just by the fact that Freud used the example of the doll as central case to illustrate the idea of the uncanny 3(and specifically the doll Olympia from A.T.Hoffman’s “The Sandman”) but from the fact that psychoanalysis opens up the possibility of thinking about dolls as constituting an image in which pleasure and displeasure, living beauty and uncanny inanimation, are conflated. This very idea that the doll represents the impossible encounter between innocent beauty and uncanny effects (the uncanny being, according to Freud, one type of anxiety that the encounter with art can elicit) may provide a preliminary explanation to my interest in the doll image and account for the choice of such images in order to consider the possibility of an aesthetics that exceeds the distinction between beauty and its opposites, between the pleasing and the anxiety-provoking object.

Psychoanalysis, as is well known, runs against the common view of childhood as a time of innocence. Whether we address the early Freud who saw neurosis as the result of a traumatic encounter in childhood with mature sexuality, or whether it is the later Freud who treated psychic reality as a series of formations (like fantasy, symptom or the dream) fixated at a moment of early repression, in any case psychic reality cannot be characterized as innocent even when its external products may appear to be so. The young infant sucking with angelic innocence his mother’s breast, implements an infinite demand that can never be satiated by satisfying the physical instinct. This state of insatiability continues to hold now during its early life even when no hunger is felt, and will hold true also later, in its adult life.

Examining the doll-image from this point of view clarifies at the outset that the doll cannot be perceived as a reflection of infantile innocence, nor of a-sexual beauty, but is, by necessity, an impossible materialization of these features together with their opposites. From a psychoanalytic point of view the doll, in its artistic imagining, can indeed be seen as the place where beauty and the shattering of innocence coalesce, where pleasure (associated with childhood games, for instance) is tied with an uncanny feeling (possibly associated with an air of sexuality or of secretiveness effectuated by the doll). It is along these lines that an alternative to the idea of modernism as overstepping the aesthetic values of pleasure and beauty can be suggested.

In 1919, when Freud published “The Uncanny” he referred with this concept to occurrences where the subject comes across an object or event, habitually familiar to the point of utter automatism of perception, and feels this object or event to be strange and intimidating. One phenomenon that is responsible for turning the familiar and habitual into the strange and uncanny is that of repetitive occurrence that imposes itself on the subject time and again. This is the case of the dreamer walking in a small town in Italy, and finding himself, as if against his will, return to a morbid narrow street, empty of people and with figures of women drawn on its window panes. The dreamer is stricken by the anxiety Freud names uncanny when finding himself for the third time in the same street, which he has been striving desperately to detour. This involuntary return, says Freud, is imposed by what attracts and draws the dreamer beyond his conscious displeasure in this frightening and strange street. It is this “other will” that turns the automatic mechanics of walking into something that is neither innocent, nor really against the subject’s will. It is therefore the type of occurrence subjects tend to interpret as meaningful, as carrying secret significance for them. Repetition can thus be said to be of a paradoxical nature as it transcends life itself, so to speak; that is, the uncanny feeling elicited by repetition signifies the presence of another drive, beyond the drive to pleasure or the drive to life - the death drive. At the same time it is repetition that gives presence to the repressed drives of the subject, drives which turn out to be the driving force behind the imposition of this recurrence.

The automatism of repetition is linked with pleasure, the principle of pleasure being the fundamental navigator of psychic life through a stimulation that causes suffering until a point of discharge that brings about relief and pleasure. Yet the psychic dynamic involved goes beyond stimulation and discharge of energy, since the subject senses anxiety where the demands of pleasure have been transcended. Beyond the pleasure principle the subject orients itself toward a state of inertia, the fundamental mode to which all existing beings strive to return.

Repetition compulsion thus has a complicated relation to pleasure. Repetition in its association with the uncanny, on the one hand marks the vivacious power of the drive since repetition, in its very automatism, touches the living substance, the vibrating factor in every subject (the unfamiliar, strange effect of repetition, is the signifier of this very factor). On the other hand, repetition marks the death drive inherent in every living substance, since it represents in the real what returns to the intert, immobile state of being, without pleasure or suffering. The repeated element therefore transcends the distinction between pleasure and displeasure: while finding oneself time and again in the same morbid street stimulates the dreamer’s displeasure (as he feels a repulsion that drives him away from this street), the recurrent encounter also signifies the unconscious desire to get close to what he consciously rejects and aims to push outside his field of vision (which is indicated in the effect of the uncanny, an effect elicited when the subject comes close to the thing he is driven to yet has been suppressed). The recurrent encounter must therefore involve also pleasure, although not a pleasure that can be neatly distinguished from displeasure.

How can repetition belong to two orders at the same time? Freud solves this ambiguity of repetition and anxiety, by claiming that these refer to a primary phase when the ego has not yet been differentiated from the external world. It is in this manner that the anxiety that accompanies repetition is linked both with the source of life itself and with the place where movement has absolutely become absent, where death resides. Beyond the pleasure principle, Lacan would later claim1, nothing is lacking, the image of lack is unsignifiable. It is for this reason that what brings us closer to the possibility of non-lacking pleasure elicits anxiety, since we, castrated as we are, recoil before such a possibility.

Coming back to Freud, the experience of the uncanny brings back something familiar that has been repressed, just as the uncanny emerges where primitive beliefs that have been superseded gain a sudden affirmation (for instance, when a wished-for death of a hated person is actualized soon afterwards, taken as a proof that a wish of the heart can gain power in actual life as part of a primitive animistic view of the world surrounding the subject), or where infantile complexes that have been repressed return with vivid and real force (as is the case with the sandman of Nathanel’s childhood who returns in the later figure of Dr. Copelius to reactivate the torturing fear from blindness harassing the hero of Hoffman’s story). These examples illustrate the impossible point of view that the anxiety of the uncanny materializes; it is a point of view that combines the primary perspective of the infant with that of the adult who has already repressed his primary desire.

It should be noted that at this stage in Freud’s thought when “The Uncanny” is published, it is still difficult to say whether the anxiety accompanying the uncanny is the cause or the result of repression. That is, is anxiety to be understood as displeasure caused by the encounter with an event or object that have been repressed, or is anxiety the effect of a memory-trace of what precedes repression? A year later, in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,”4 Freud already points decisively at repetition compulsion, or return of the repressed, as having its source in the inanimate, inert occurance that precedes the endless process of charge and discharge of psychic energy imposed by the principle of pleasure. There is thus a certainty in anxiety, the certainty that has to do with the encounter with the real that necessitates repression, and that will elicit anxiety in the future whenever the subject will come across formations that will represent what is infinitely unrepresentable: the registered yet unrepresentable memory of undifferentiated inertia preceding repression.

If anxiety is not the product of repression, it must itself be an unconscious formation, a formation that imposes its presence through the blocking effect of repression. From “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” it is clear that anxiety is unique among unconscious formations since its object is not the repressed but is beyond/before repression. In a later article “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety” from 19365 Freud explains why anxiety is related to what transcends life itself. Here Freud points at the fact that has anxiety been the result of repression, has it been subject to the control of the pleasure principle, we would have faced here a paradox: repression works in order to relieve the subject of tension; repression thus satisfies. Anxiety, on the other hand, within the economics of pleasure/displeasure, should be taken as dissatisfying, as having to do with energetic charge, and thus as distinct from repression. An overcharge of energy but not a discharge of energy can cause anxiety. Thus within the economics of psychic energies, anxiety is opposed to repression.

It is for this reason, says Freud, that anxiety should be understood as being there “from the beginning”, as involving what precedes the energetic cycle of charge and discharge, of pleasure and displeasure. Anxiety hence cannot be integrated into the movement of the energies of life but is rather to be grasped as a real state of being, registered in the subject’s body from the moment of birth when the danger of being separated from the mother’s body produced the first moment of anxiety. This psychic real state of anxiety recurs later at various moments (facing the threat of castration, the danger of an object loss, or the imposition of the super-ego imperatives), when a similar danger for the subject, that of losing its imaginary unity, is marked by anxiety. The anxiety effectuated by repetition hence does not signify the return of the repressed as Freud claimed in “The Uncanny”, but the real thing prior to repression, which cannot be represented yet whose presence can be indicated through the very occurrence of anxiety itself.

Lacan will instruct at a later stage that “the metaphor of return to the inanimate (which Freud attaches to every living body) that margin beyond life that language gives to the human being by virtue of the fact that he speaksÅcis precisely that in which such a being places in the position of a signifierÅc this body itself” 6. In other words, the Freudian idea of “beyond the pleasure principle” is nothing but a way to point at the dialectic in which language is seized. The repetition of signs/formations is not just a mechanism of language: it appears as that through which the subject “gets a glimpse” so to speak of what lies beyond language/life, and thus incurs anxiety. The return to the inanimate is, so to speak, the return to the pre-language state of the real, to the limit where language stops, yet this is a place of non-being which language can suggest only from the point where the subject is already a speaking subject. Anxiety thus signifies the paradoxical existence of the intimidating and the pleasing in one and the same formation of language, thereby indicating something about the possible function of art, and its modes of _expression and figuration.

The intricate relations Freud describes between anxiety in face of the power of the drive in the living being, and the return to the inanimate, clarify the set of examples he employs to illustrate the causes of the uncanny, examples around which a hesitation appears as to whether the object concerned is inanimate or animate, a dead object or a living body, a moving substance or a mechanically moved thing. These intricate relations are also linked to the role Freud assigns to art in connexion with anxiety: in art, as the product of imagination and creativity, one cannot distinguish between the uncanny produced by what has been repressed and the uncanny produced by an infantile belief that has been superseded. Art as an imaginative, creative act, does not obey the reality test; it transcends it. The art of fiction can produce an intensified effect of the uncanny, even though, paradoxically, many things that may have been perceived as uncanny in reality, are not seen as such in art. In other words, for Freud art has the ability to create, by the power of the imagination, an intensified effect of the uncanny that is not subjected to the modes of its production in reality. The effect of the uncanny refers to a psychic event that precedes the distinction between reality and imaginative reality. It is this undistinguishability that exceeds the breaking test of reality, for which Lacan will coin the concept of “the Real”.

Freud explicitly indicates that the uncanny is an effect produced where the distinction between inanimation and animation collapses. Indeed, the horror in face of what was perceived as a living being and turned out to be a machination, as much as the anxiety felt when an object perceived as inanimate (a house, a wall, a cave) turns out to be animated, are both produced when we face entities that are neither alive nor dead, and as such transcend the differentation of objects. The speaking cave, the inanimate animated, materializes the power of the life drive inside the dead body, that is, it signifies the presence of the material of life as if distinct from the inanimate body. Alternatively, the machinated doll, the animated object inanimated, materializes the imposition of the death drive on the living body. That is, what activates the inanimate body that looks alive is not life but only an imposing, automatic movement, the movement characteristic of the body carrying itself on as if without vivid volition, but in fact, just like the movement of language, it is a movement beyond life itself, in the striving to reach the state of ultimate inertia.  

  1. The doll, Surrealism

In a catalogue published on the occasion of an exhibit in the Tate Modern in London in the winter of 2001-2002, under the heading: “Surrealism: Desire Unlimited”,7 Hal Foster refers to the image of the woman as fetish and as an object shattered by surrealist aesthetics.8 Foster argues that the doll photographed by Man Ray or the doll manufactured from different materials by Hans Bellmer, cannot be easily subsumed under the distinction feminine/masculine. True, the surrealists were mostly men who created images of women from a masculine point of view, but a perspective that subjects the woman image in surrealist art to the distinction feminine/ masculine is too schematic to grasp the surrealist main dilemma. Foster in fact adopts a psychoanalytic viewpoint to argue that it is difficult, or even misleading to interpret Hans Bellmer’s dolls simply as a way of turning the woman into an object of masculine violence. Bellmer’s dolls (see Figure 1) undergo a series of mutilations, dislocations, distortions of form and are subject to sadistic treatment under the hands of the artist who assemble their parts into artistic objects.

Foster rather argues, in the spirit of Freud, that through the sadistic scenes that Bellmer creates for his dolls, a masochistic sexuality appears: “in his erotic manipultation of the dolls he explores a destructive impulse that is also self-destructive. In this way the dolls may go inside sadistic mastery to the point where the subject confronts its greatest fear: its own fragmentation and disintegration. And yet this may also be the greatest desire” (Foster in Mundy 2001: 208).

The doll, in other words, is not an object for the torturing acts of dominance by the creating, masculine subject; the doll rather represents this subject itself. The horror in face of the threat of disintegration which the doll embodies, is also the most desired state, a source of immense attraction, since it marks the return of the subject to the state that eludes the safe outlines of the self, where subject and external objects are undifferentiated.

Bellmer does not just desire his dolls as objects of his sadism, but treats them also as objects of identification, and it is this very identification full of desire that constitutes the shocking, horrific effect of the encounter with Bellmer’s art. The uncanny, one may say, or the anxiety effectuated by aesthetically experiencing Bellmer’s dolls, resides beyond pleasure and displeasure. Bellmer’s dolls, being on the verge of decomposing (Bellmer accentuates the tentative being of the doll as assembled of parts), thus refer to a state of inertia in the beginning of life (before the infant’s separation from maternal body, prior to the ego’s separation from the object) or to a state of non-existence that terminates life. The anxiety effectuated by the doll-image touches on a state prior to the economy of sexuality and of psychic energetic interchange. It is this very paradoxical nature of anxiety that is relevant to our understanding of Bellmer’s dolls as artistic objects. From Brancusi to the phallic photographs of the human body executed by Man Ray, the distinction between the feminine and masculine is totally blurred in these images. Foster in his book, has indeed characterized Surrealism in general and “dolls” in particular, as an artistic practice that surrounds the uncanny, signifying the indistinction between life and death, the confusion between repetition compulsion and the return to repressed desires, the collapse of the dualism inside/outside.

The psychoanalytic interpretation of Bellmer’s dolls that I have developed here after Foster, positions beyond the effects of misogyny so blatantly marked in these images, another effect of anxiety that makes the opposition feminine/masculine irrelevant. I will claim that the reincarnations of the doll image in contemporary art further expose this fact. That is, the presence of the doll as an instigator of anxiety, secures the place of contemporary art within, yet beyond, the interchange of beauty and ugliness, of pleasure and displeasure.

To illustrate this function of the doll-image I will examine three variations on the artistic use of the doll in contemporary art. It should be stressed at this point that from claiming that that the artistic image of the doll elicits anxiety and carries uncanny effects, it does not follow that all doll-images that are used in art are always to be regarded as uncanny. “Doll-image” is a particular structure, a particular use of the artistic signifier that bounds the image with anxiety, yet this structure does not hold whenever an image carrying the formal “doll-like” features appears but only when the doll appears as an image that is aesthetically experienced as eliciting what Freud termed anxiety. From a psychoanalytic viewpoint the artistic object given to one’s observation is not diagnosed according to an objective principle that maps its formal features. Similarly to the way Kantian aesthetics avoids giving signs to beauty but rather links the object of aesthetic judgement to the subject’s position vis-a`-vis that object (for which reason the beauty of the aesthetic object is dependent on the subject although beauty is never a private matter), psychoanalytic aesthetics does not provide signs to “dollity”, but instructs us to tie the doll-image to the effect of anxiety fundamentally linked to the particular position of the observer.

The particular position of the subject described as anxious is precisely not dictated by social considerations: the observer given to the uncanny effects of the doll oversteps the social patterns of the feminine/masculine position/attitude and observes the doll as an object that eludes the symbolic patterns of conventional mapping (according to patriarchal, political or other social-ideological criteria). For this very reason the doll cannot be regarded as exhibiting a universal structure of meaning; the doll disavows sexual difference, it is “a faltering at the threshold of the genital order in which such difference is established” (Foster in Mundy 2001: 215). It is because the doll refers to a stage prior to the danger of separation between mother and child, between subject and object, between man and woman, that its appearance as an image refers to danger and thus elicits anxiety in the observing subject. But what kind of aesthetic position is anxiety?

4. The doll: self-portrait of the split subject

From the staged photographs of Cindy Sherman as a Hollywood doll (Figure 2), photographs which stage her as the heroine of the scenes she herself directs, to the works of Mariko Mori and Toni Orsler, to those of Uri Katzenstein and Charles Ray’s “Self-Portrait” (Figure 3) (1990), the doll-image does not appear as an object given to the masculine externally-imposed gaze, but as an image split by the gaze observing it. What does this split amount to?

Freud had shown us that the doll in Hoffman’s tale is a “materialization of Nathaniel’s feminine attitude towards his father in his infancyÅc Olympia is, as it were, a dissociated complex of Nathaniel’s which confronts him as a person, and Nathaniel’s enslavement to this complex is expressed in his senseless obsessive love for Olympia”. Contemporary art exhibits doll-images that, like Hoffman’s, refer to an aspect of the psychic position of the one (author, hero) who created them. Yet the anxiety that is effectuated by their presence point to the fact that the doll-image is not just a way to represent an inner world, but a split image that both materializes or is projected by the psyche of its creator and also constitutes a strange object that remains uncanny, that is, imposed from the outside by an unfamiliar world.

Self-representations implemented by artists by means of doll-images stress the mechanic, industrial, inanimate, artificial side that characterizes the doll (whose body is made of industrial stuffing, attired in a wide range of absurd costumes, or is petrified in an artificial pose) thereby indicating that the doll is alien, strange to the artist who created it. The doll as a self-image confounds the distinction between animate and animate, between natural and artificial, between feminine and masculine (“the doll” among a series that impersonates the artist Uri Katzenstein, can have the masculine face of the artist and a feminine or androgynous body carrying the well-individuated head, see Figure 4). The doll presents an image of the self through an alien body thereby indicating the fundamental splitting of the creative subject. “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau” says the Old Testament of the father confused between the familiar, loved aspect of one son and the foreign, unfamiliar trait of the other son. That is, the only way to represent the creative artist is not by being faithful to the personal, intimate, familiar parts that make him/her a unique individual, but through an object that carries some features of the artist, yet in a body that is petrified, foreign, imposed Å| that is, through the image of the doll.

Going further along this psychoanalytic reading, one can say that the doll serves as a self-portrait in this particular sense that it represents the artist in the most accurate manner: as a subject split between his/her ego (in terms of which the artist’s personality or uniqueness is presented, as materialized for instance in the familiar face or head of the artist placed on top of a doll body, typical of Mariko Mori’s self-presentations, as in Figure 5) and the artist unconscious existence where the artist is looked at as strange and uncanny, from the point of view of an Other. This Other is nothing but the function that possesses the solution to the enigma of “how am I being seen as an object of observation?” an enigma that remains eternally unsolved, yet critical for the artist self-image. In this respect the artist’s self-presentation is controlled by a gaze positioned at a point from which the artist cannot perceive himself. The artist “cannot see himself from the point from which he is seen” claims Lacan9 in seminar XI thereby pointing at the fundamental paradox of creation. The artist can represent himself from where this representation can never lead to self-knowledge or to self-awareness since the route to self-knowledge passes through an uncanny image which holds something of the creating subject without informing us about him/her. The self is, in other words, clouded by the anxiety caused by that part of the subject that is elicited as being beyond the artistic image of a self-familiar face, a part that cannot be represented, only signified through something which is absolutely unfamiliar and impersonal. It is what eludes representation, that is “beyond the texture of life”, that marks the real existence of the artist as body and as a living being. It is that which is beyond life, here materialized by the doll, that breathes life into the doll-image making it the paradoxical formation that represents the particularity of the artist as subject as other to itself. 

  1. The doll as prop

Every ideology invents its own past retrospectively, from the obscurities of the past, past that cannot be known as such unless within the framework of its reconstruction from an ideological point of view. In this procedure of constructing/ reconstructiong the past, the act of interpretation intervenes in the object of this procedure and constitutes it accordingly. Thus, for Marx, the truth about the past (constituted of class struggle, a growing antagonism that permeated and split the whole of human history) can be structured and examined only from the point of view of a subject engaged in revolutionary change. In other words, the past as split and antagonistic does not exist but as an invention of Marxist ideology. Objects like “Capital” or “class struggle” have no existence in the human past but are rather constituted by an ideology at the moment when this ideology aims to replace them by other objects. Without revolution the objects that were the objects of revolutionary change would never have been constituted as such.

The important aspect of this analysis as presented by Slavoj Zizek after Walter Benjamin, is that “this moment of futur ant érieur is not the moment when a past situation is ‘defrosted’, caught in a transformational dynamic, but, on the contrary, the moment of ‘deep freeze’... the present appears to a revolutionary as a frozen moment of repetition in which the evolutionary flow is immobilized, and past and present directly overlap in a crystalline way.”10

It is along these lines and in this spirit that Zizek analyzes the notion of the object fetish in which a similar fundamental paradox inheres. The materiality of the object fetish is given as undergoing a constant process of fragmentation and deconstruction. What we have here is an object whose positive materiality is constituted at the moment when two fundamental lacks intersect: a lack in the subject (whose birth as subject occurs at the moment of castration, when the possibility of ultimate pleasure is given up) and the lack in the other (a lack that originates in the mother who turns out to be lacking something that cannot be satisfied by the child: the eternal bliss of mother/child is thereby cut short). In other words, the object emerges in order to embody, in its materiality, a logic whose fundamentals cannot be embodied because it refers to what is lacking: the total satisfaction of the drive. It is a logic that positively defines a lack as constitutive of an object. In this sense what we are facing is a real object that is basically impossible, an object that, just like the capitalist past, cannot be materialized but only through its future anterior effects on the social and symbolic space in which it emerges as already superseded. In other words, the object can only be materialized as the embodiment of what is lacking and yet is constitutive of its kernel.

I suggest looking at the doll-image in similar terms. The doll as an artistic object is an object fetish par excellence, an object that emerges in order to draw the gaze to it, where in fact, the function of the doll is to represent a lack: the lack of what? Here we can insert whatever themes may articulate the nature of the satisfying bliss of infancy: it is the absence of childhood, of play, of fun. These are things that the doll materializes as absent; the doll is both the effect of what is lacking and constitutes this lack in its material presence. The doll is meaningless outside the context of game, of infantile fantasies, while these, games and fantasies of infancy, are only constituted by the presence of the doll. The meticulous materiality of the doll-image only emphasizes its position as substitute or harbinger of a lack, a lack that the doll partially fulfills but also marks.

To clarify this point, let me refer to a few examples where the doll-image appears as a prop in a game. One can think of the dolls of rags made by Mark Kelly of wool, threads and cloth, dolls that have the appearance of products from an art class, dolls for game or for childish simulation. Alternatively, take Lori Simons’s dolls engaged in human situations: a red-dressed doll sitting on a couch, or glaring on a TV screen. A similar spirit is represented by the work of two Israeli artists: Ruti & Zoya (Figure 6), whose dolls are posited in a private or domestic space, keeping, just like humans, a dialogue with the outside world through devices like books and other articles spread around the domestic surrounding of a “doll’s house”. In such instances the doll-image appears as a prop or an article in a game, that is as an object participating in a game of make-believe. Similarly to the ball of mud serving as dough to make a cake, or rubble serving as raisins that decorate the mud-cake, so are the dolls of Lori Simons or of Ruti & Zoya accessories for simulating familiar everyday situations. 

The doll serving as prop is recruited to suggest, by its positive presence, the possibility of thinking, in the context of art, of games of make-believe. But the doll does not really serve as a prop in a game, it rather suggests something else. The doll-like object appears as a split object, split between its realistic presence as a prop in a game and its material presence suggesting the real absence of the possibility of game. The meticulous materiality of the doll represents the possibility of game among infants which is precisely what is absent from art. The doll stands there representing the object of lack: the child that is absent. The doll, as an artistic image, is split between its material presence as a prop supposedly “filled up” by the content of a game or simulation, and the fact that this presence is emptied out. Game is absent from art, yet the presence of the doll as signifier produces its absence as effect. The real existence of infancy, of imagination games, is an existence only the doll can constitute as part of an empty reality. It is this fundamental split materialized by the doll that can explain the anxiety produced by doll-images.

  1. The doll as the effect of repetition compulsion

In 1994, the American artist Lorna Simpson, created a work called “Wigs” (Figure 7) that presents a series of wigs in various colors and shapes; a kind of catalogue cut off any concrete human context. This work appears to be a late incarnation of Andy Warhol works from the 60’s that stressed the mechanistic aspect of repretition, as in the work reproducing numerous times the lips of Marylin Monroe; or Warhol’s “Triple Elvis” (1963) which presents a multiple reproduction of Elvis’ figure, where the figures are finished as fading in color and contour. To this list one can add a work entitled “Mamelles” (Figure 8) by Louise Bourgeois (1991) that presents a series of breasts/udders inside a mold, body parts that are cut off human body but are repeated as products of a molding process. To this list, I suggest, belong Charles Ray’s dolls engaged in an orgy or in posing for a family snapshot (Figure 9) where all marks of individuality have been erased from them: in the family scene presented by Ray, the observer faces four figures of almost identical height and body shape, with schematic sexual organs marking the difference between father and mother, son and daughter.

In all these examples the doll or parts thereof, are presented in a series where the series is also what constitutes the doll-image. The doll-like character of these images embodies a standardized conception of objects, since the mechanistic repetition indicates the artificial, representative nature of the doll (as evidenced, for instance, in the use of many wigs rather than one; one would have created a different effect, without the present emphasis on the standardized nature of “personality” or “style”). Following this standardization, the very possibility of perceiving the doll as representing a particular object or person, collapses totally. The doll-image, articulated or detailed by the series, remains outside any particularity. The series precisely constitute a non-particular sign: the breast/udder does not belong to any particular subject, nor does the wig wrap any particular head, and Monroe’s lips are abstracted from any concrete human situation.

How are we to understand the function of the doll in such artistic practices?

Hal Foster writes about repetition compulsion in Andy Warhol’s art: “think of all the Marilyns alone, of the cropping, coloring, crimping of these imagesÅc The Warhol repetitions not only reproduce traumatic effects; they also produce them. Somehow in these repetitions, then, several contradictory things occur at the same time: a warding away of traumatic significance and an opening out to it, a defending against traumatic affect and a producing of it.”11Foster refers to a notion of trauma that does not focus on the representation of the traumatic event itself, but on trauma as the missed encounter with the real thing. Trauma itself cannot be represented and the most that art can do is repeat the moment when the encounter with its unbearable real existence is missed. Repetition here does not reproduce an event that happened in reality, it is not a representation of anything at all. Repetition functions to screen out what cannot be represented and by that very screening it suggests the presence of trauma.

Freud, in his 1932’s article about anxiety, claims that anxiety signifies for the ego a possible danger facing it. In reaction to the danger of separation from the mother, or the danger of separating from a loved object, and so forth, the ego sensing anxiety defends itself by repressing the danger. Yet the effect of repression will be a fixation that will channel every new stimulation similar to the one that has been repressed, to repetition. That is, althought the situation of danger is no longer relevant, the repetitive reaction continues to hold forcing the subject to act according to the route fixated by the primary repression.

Freud’s words support the idea of trauma described above. Repetition compulsion and the repetition of trauma do not bring back the traumatic event but rather the impossibility of encountering this event. Anxiety produced in face of impulses analogous to those experienced at the moment of danger, does not have the danger itself as its object, but signifies, paradoxically enough, the absence of danger. Danger is real insofar as the presence of anxiety accompanying repetition, testifies to it; yet danger is absent since there is no way of coming across the object of danger in any real way. Repetition is hence accompanied by anxiety in face of danger although repetition represents no danger. This is the effect of the Marylins of Warhol, and this is the effect of doll-images in repetitive series. The doll as the effect of repetition is a doll by means of which no encounter can be implemented but the encounter with repetition itself. The series of breasts will not channel our way to fertility or sexuality since repetition has emptied this mold of all meaning or value; yet, repetition produces another value, that of emptiness itself, as its true referent. Through the family of dolls or the dolls engaged in an orgy, nothing can be known, by way of simulation, about preverse sexuality or sex in groups, or sex in the family. It is the imposed repetition of these doll-images that posit the dolls at the place of missed encounter with all these themes of great importance yet irrelevance to the place from which the anxiety caused by dolls emerges.  

1 In seminar X “Anxiety” (unpublished) lesson III, from 28/11/62.

1 See the introduction of the catalogue editors of a Hirshorn exhibit:

Benezra, N., Viso, O.M. 1999. Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth

Century. Hirshhorn Museum in association with Hatje Cantz Publishers. (Back to Main Text)

2 This is to dinstinguish the current agenda from attempts to assert the death of aesthetics in face of the possible ugliness of art and its potential disgusting effects ever since the avantgarde. (Back to Main Text)

    3 Freud, S. 1955 (1919). The Uncanny. The Standard Edition. J. Strachey. London, Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho Analysis. 17: 219-256. (Back to Main Text)

4 Freud, S. 1955 (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The Standard Edition. J.

Strachey (ed.). London, Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Back to Main Text)

    5 Freud, S. 1959 (1926). “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety”. The Standard Edition, 20: 75-156. (Back to Main Text)

6 Lacan, J. 1977. “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire”. EÅLcrits,

New York & London: W.W.Norton & Company. p. 301. (Back to Main Text)

7 Mundy. J. 2001. Surrealism: Desire Unlimited. Tate Publishing. (Back to Main Text)

8 Foster himself dedicated a book-length study of surrealist aesthetics:

Foster, H. 1993. Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge Ma.&London, England, MIT Press. (Back to Main Text)

    9 Lacan, J. 1977. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. New York & London: W.W.Norton & Company. (Back to Main Text)

10 Zizek, S. 1997. The Plague of Fantasies. London & New York: Verso. (Back to Main Text)

11 Foster, 1996. The Return of the Real. Cambridge, Ma, MIT Press, p. 132. (Back to Main Text)

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Ruth Ronen "Look the Doll in the Eyes: the Uncanny in Contemporary Art". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/ronen-look_the_doll_in_the_eyes_the_uncanny_in. January 1, 2004 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2004, Published: January 1, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Ruth Ronen