In the blog entries on postmortem photography so far, there have been a lot of comments about the eerie quality of the photographs. The photographs might be particularly unsettling because they seem so distant from present sentiment– they seem surprising, almost unfathomable and possibly blasphemous. There’s an uncertain quality about them that shocks the viewer, and a concern about the casual quality of this portrayal of death. At least, that’s been the case for me. However, beyond that, I would argue that postmortem photographs are inherently uncanny from a Freudian perspective.
We’ve discussed the photographs asmomentos. The Thantos Archive was introduced to me in another class and although the origin of the photographs are not always noted online (and are very possibly American), this selection seems equally relevant to the discussion of Victorian post-mortem photography. These photographs are full of sentiment and care. So then why do they seem in such poor taste?
Freud’s psychoanalytic standpoint explains the concept of the uncanny as something that is both home-like and un-home-like. Freud mentions that “To many people the acme of the uncanny is represented by anything to do with death” and, in connection with Lara’s entry below, Freud argues that “in hardly any other sphere has our thinking and feeling changed so little since primitive times or the old been so well preserved [ . . .] our unconscious is still as unreceptive as ever to the idea of our own mortality” (Freud 148). Rather than settle into the obvious ghastly qualities of someone dead, however, postmortem photography can be approached from the idea of the uncanny double. In this vein, a dead body is unsettling because it suggests a person but isn’t one. By “promising us everyday reality and then going beyond it” (Freud 157), the uncanny arises.
This idea can be understood through considering the concept of the automaton, or a very life-like robot. Dead but seemingly alive and vice versa. This concept seems perfectly designed for post-mortem photography.
Having defined the photographs as uncanny, however, one must wonder why the owners of the photographs wouldn’t have found them to be so. If we are to believe or even entertain Freud’s Uncanny, it would make sense to consider this reading definitive for all of humankind, in any generation. This is even logical in considering Victorian literature– it is very clear that this uncanny is used to inspire fright or sensation (Miss Havisham anyone?). Why wouldn’t these photographs be considered equally eerie during the Victorian era?
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. 123-161.