Approaching the Eerie
by Mark Fisher
What is the eerie, exactly? And why is it important to think about it? As with the weird, the eerie is worth reckoning with in its own right as a particular kind of aesthetic experience. Although this experience is certainly triggered by particular cultural forms, it does not originate in them. You could say rather that certain tales, certain novels, certain films, evoke the feeling of the eerie, but this sensation is not a literary or a filmic invention. As with the weird, we can and often do encounter the sensation of the eerie “in the raw”, without the need for specific forms of cultural mediation. For instance, there is no doubt that the sensation of the eerie clings to certain kinds of physical spaces and landscapes.
The feeling of the eerie is very different from that of the weird. The simplest way to get to this difference is by thinking about the (highly metaphysically freighted) opposition — perhaps it is the most fundamental opposition of all — between presence and absence. As we have seen, the weird is constituted by a presence — the presence of that which does not belong. In some cases of the weird (those with which Lovecraft was obsessed) the weird is marked by an exorbitant presence, a teeming which exceeds our capacity to represent it. The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or is there is nothing present when there should be something.
We can grasp these two modes quickly by means of examples. The notion of an “eerie cry” — often cited in dictionary definitions of the eerie — is an example of the first mode of the eerie (the failure of absence). A bird’s cry is eerie if there is a feeling that there is something more in (or behind) the cry than a mere animal reflex or biological mechanism — that there is some kind of intent at work, a form of intent that we do not usually associate with a bird. Clearly, there is something in common between this and the feeling of “something which does not belong” that we have said constitutes the weird. But the eerie necessarily involves forms of speculation and suspense that are not an essential feature of the weird. Is there something anomalous about this bird’s cry? What exactly is strange about it? Is, perhaps, the bird possessed — and if it is, by what kind of entity? Such speculations are intrinsic to the eerie, and once the questions and enigmas are resolved, the eerie immediately dissipates. The eerie concerns the unknown; when knowledge is achieved, the eerie disappears. It must be stressed at this point that not all mysteries generate the eerie. There must be also be a sense of alterity, a feeling that the enigma might involve forms of knowledge, subjectivity and sensation that lie beyond common experience.
An example of the second mode of the eerie (the failure of presence) is the feeling of the eerie that pertains to ruins or to other abandoned structures. Post-apocalyptic science fiction, whilst not in itself necessarily an eerie genre, is nevertheless full of eerie scenes. Yet the sense of the eerie is limited in these cases, because we are an offered an explanation of why these cities have been depopulated. Compare this with the case of the abandoned ship the Marie Celeste. Because the mystery of the ship — what happened to the crew? What made them leave? Where did they go? — has never been resolved, nor is ever likely to be, the case of the Marie Celeste is saturated in a sense of the eerie. The enigma here, evidently, turns on two questions — what happened and why? But structures whose meaning and purpose we cannot parse pose a different kind of enigma. Faced with the stone circle at Stonehenge, or with the statues on Easter Island, we are confronted with a different set of questions. The problem here is not why the people who created these structures disappeared — there is no mystery here — but the nature of what disappeared. What kinds of being created these structures? How were they similar to us, and how were they different? What kind of symbolic order did these beings belong to, and what role did the monuments they constructed play in it? For the symbolic structures which made sense of the monuments have rotted away, and in a sense what we witness here is the unintelligibility and the inscrutability of the Real itself. Confronted with Easter Island or Stonehenge, it is hard not to speculate about what the relics of our culture will look like when the semiotic systems in which they are currently embedded have fallen away. We are compelled to imagine our own world as a set of eerie traces. Such speculations no doubt account for the eeriness that attaches to the justly famous final image of the original 1968 version of Planet of the Apes: the remains of the Statue of Liberty, which are as illegible from the perspective of the film’s postapocalyptic and indeed post-human far future as Stonehenge is to us now. The examples of Stonehenge and Easter Island make us realise that there is an irreducibly eerie dimension to certain archaeological and historical practices. Particularly when dealing with the remote past, archaeologists and historians form hypotheses, but the culture to which they refer and which would vindicate their speculations can never (again) be present.
Behind all of the manifestations of the eerie, the central enigma at its core is the problem of agency. In the case of the failure of absence, the question concerns the existence of agency as such. Is there a deliberative agent here at all? Are we being watched by an entity that has not yet revealed itself? In the case of the failure of presence, the question concerns the particular nature of the agent at work. We know that Stonehenge has been erected, so the questions of whether there was an agent behind its construction or not does not arise; what we have to reckon with are the traces of a departed agent whose purposes are unknown.
We are now in a position to answer the question of why it is important to think about the eerie. Since the eerie turns crucially on the problem of agency, it is about the forces that govern our lives and the world. It should be especially clear to those of us in a globally tele-connected capitalist world that those forces are not fully available to our sensory apprehension. A force like capital does not exist in any substantial sense, yet it is capable of producing practically any kind of effect. At another level, had not Freud long ago shown that the forces that govern our psyche can be conceived of as failures of presence — is not the unconscious itself not just such a failure of presence? — and failures of absence (the various drives or compulsions that intercede where our free will should be)?
excerpt from the book: The Weird And The Eerie by MARK FISHER
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