“Since nothing is also a paradox, both outside
Being and as an opening for Being, one could
only approach it through a set of allegories.”
– Calvin L. Warren (Ontological Terror 20)
“This is as good a definition of the uncanny as one will find: the experience of encountering one’s own origins.”
– Joan Copjec (104)
Jordan Peele litters his 2019 horror film Us with enough recycled material from the entire gamut of 1980s horror cinema to satisfy even the most retro of enthusiasts. Through references to C.H.U.D., The Lost Boys, The Goonies, Something Wicked This Way Comes, I Spit on Your Grave, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Stanley Kubrick’s classic adaptation of The Shining, Peele’s film self-knowingly draws its origin story from a generic cinematic past, making his film reek of nostalgic pastiche. However, these various allusions to a Reagan era that many might feel better left behind (Peele’s horrific compulsion to repeat) also invoke a less comforting feeling than the one usually associated with nostalgia. Because many of these references to 1980s horror cinema skillfully duplicate aspects of the internal subject matter of Peele’s film itself, they actually invoke the uncanny by alluding to a return of the repressed rather than a return to the past, a return to that which ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light, to quote Freud quoting Schelling (Freud 224).1
By restoring life to these fading images, Peele re-invests them with desire and alludes to the presence of an intertext in his horror films, an intertext that uncannily doubles the text of these films onto what Julia Kristeva would call the “social text,” a larger discursive text embedded within the texts themselves (Desire 37). Intertextuality, in this sense, is not restricted to sources of influence or elliptical allusions but, rather, refers to a larger social textuality out of which texts emerge and with which they engage, intentionally or not. So, while the 1980s references scattered throughout Us are intended allusions to the horror genre and are welcomed guests for the horror film enthusiast, the social text in Peele’s films, I will argue, houses what Nietzsche would refer to as that “uncanniest of all guests” (7): black nihilism, a guest lurking in the shallows in Get Out and hiding in the subterranean depths in Us. The black nihilist social text uncannily prowling around as the shadowy double of Peele’s films is not the passive, week nihilism lamented by Cornell West in his famous essay “Nihilism in Black America.” Peele’s horror films do not dip into the nihilism that leads to a “disease of the soul,” that is housed in the “murky waters of despair and dread,” that haunts the African American community, and that poses a “threat to its very existence” (19). This is the type of nihilism against which West levels his complaint (19). Peele’s films, rather, dip into the strong critical form of black nihilism that is articulated by Calvin Warren, Devon Johnson, Ray Delva, and others. This latter type of nihilism functions as a demythifying critique of the “world of absurdity” that characterizes black existential existence within an antiblack racist metaphysics (Warren, “Black Nihilism” 226).
According to Johnson, nihilism, in the philosophic tradition, can either be weak and incomplete or it can be strong and complete. “Incomplete nihilism,” he claims, “admits the devaluation of traditional values but does not attempt to replace them” (77). It is passive in nature. Whereas, complete, strong nihilism attempts something like the Nietzschean transvaluation of existing values; it “not only rejects decadent values with pessimistic truth, it also positively seeks to create newer and healthier ways of valuing” (78). “Antiblack racism,” according to Johnson, “could be interpreted as a weak form of nihilism because it attempts to arrest human development by destroying the possibility of producing values beyond the imagined metaphysically normative value [of] whiteness” (98). “Strong black nihilism,” on the other hand, “not only rejects white nihilistic values, it trans-values human values by rejecting all metaphysically conceived values” (137). It essentially rejects the antiblack racist metaphysical realm that creates black existential invisibility and black non-being. Throughout Peele’s two horror films, this social text of black nihilism lurks in their extimate dimension, extimité being Jacques Lacan’s portmanteau neologistic translation of das Unheimlich. Connecting Peele’s films to Lacan’s concept of extimacy and to the social text of black nihilism can help account for why the horror genre in general (and Peele’s rebooting of the genre specifically) is a particularly penetrating mode of cultural critique. A healthy dose of black nihilism exposes the uncanny absurdity lying within antiblack metaphysiscs. Through transposition of black nihilism, Get Out can be seen as more than just horror entertainment because its underlying social text exposes the root cause of racial tension in contemporary American culture, while Us can be seen as signifying the traumatic “nothing” at the heart of black ontological existence under antiblack racist metaphysics.
In Seminar VII, Jacques Lacan introduces his portmanteau concept of extimacy, what he calls an “intimate exteriority” (Seminar VII 139). As mentioned above, Lacan coined this term as a better translation of das Unheimliche than the standard French l’inquietante étrangeté (disturbing strangeness) or the less familiar insolite (unusual). Lacan’s neologism references the psychoanalytic tendency to render problematic the tidy distinction between the inside and the outside, the container and the contained, as in the unconscious is out there, registered in the symbolic order even while containing what is most intimate to the subject. This is where he claims that the Thing is the extimate object because it demarcates the most intimate center of the subject but only in the sense that it is excluded from symbolization: “das Ding has to be posited as exterior, as the prehistoric Other that it is impossible to forget […], something strange to me, although it is at the heart of me, something on the level of the unconscious only a representation can represent” (Seminar VII 71). His reference to the “prehistoric Other” that is “impossible to forget” in turn references the “site” of the two causes of the uncanny in Freud: supposedly repressed infantile complexes and purportedly surmounted primitive fears (238-41). Horror cinema, with its outlandish configurations, functions as an aesthetic means of representing, or, more accurately, misrepresenting what cannot be represented, the Thing.
Jacques-Alain Miller has extended Lacan’s concept of extimacy by positing a distinction between two dimensions of extimacy. One is schematized as A → $: the Other is paradoxically located at the most intimate core of the lacking subject. The Other is precisely what leaves the subject lacking. This dimension of extimacy is derived from Lacan’s “The Agency of the Letter” essay where he claims that “this other to whom I am more attached than to myself, since, at the heart of my assent to my identity to myself, it is he who stirs me” (Ecrits 172). Miller claims that extimacy “is not the contrary of intimacy. Extimacy says that the intimate is Other—like a foreign body, a parasite” (76). This is the dimension of extimacy that reveals a nihilistic critique of black existentialism uncannily submerged in Us. The other dimension of extimacy locates the object a, the object cause of desire, at the heart of the Other itself: a ◊ A, the object as embedded in the Other. This dimension of extimacy is derived from Lacan’s well-known pronouncement that there is no Other of the Other, meaning that the alterity of the Other cannot be grounded in a signifier or cannot be symbolized. This is the dimension of extimacy that Peele effectively deploys in Get Out, transposing the horror film into a nihilistically-inflected reflection on contemporary American society.
Get Out – “He has the a”
Connecting Peele’s film to Lacan’s concept can help account for why speculative fiction in general and the horror genre in particular provide a fairly penetrating mode for dramatizing the root cause of racism in contemporary American culture. Get Out’s allegorical appeal, its doubling of the narrative beyond horror into a nihilistic social commentary, begins during the opening sequence of the film, the prologue, which takes place six months before the action of the story proper. The character we later learn is Dre finds himself lost in an idyllic suburban neighborhood, a neighborhood that is truly horrifying for an outsider. Not only is Peele pointing to the horrifying aspect of suburbia that any urbanite takes for granted, but he also deftly illustrates white society’s anti-black outlawing practices as the scene progresses. The near panic look on Dre’s face as he wanders through the idyllic quiet neighborhood indicates his feelings of alienation in this unhomey, unheimliche environ. He is eventually cudgeled from behind and abducted by, who we later find out is, Jeremy Armitage. Peele here demonstrates the terrifying position of the free black. As articulated by Calvin Warren, the free black “exposes a double terror: the loss of ontological ground that secures law’s freedom and ethics for the human and the lack of protection for black being against the mechanizations of antiblack outlawing practices – this is the twin axis of this devastating terror” (Ontological Terror 76). Peele uncannily twists this typical opening horror-film scenario by allegorically positioning Dre in the terrifying position of the free black, freely roaming the streets of white suburbia. Historically, according to Warren, the free black has always created a problem for ontology. The emancipated black, according to Warren, possesses existence but without being (Ontological Terror 13).2 The free or emancipated black is seen as a threat to the law, while, at the same time, the law is a constant threat to the emancipated black since he or she is not given an ontological place within a system that originally considered black people as property. Even after Emancipation, according to Warren, the emancipated black may have been emancipated but was hardly free. This distinction between emancipation and freedom is a constant terror, a terror that Peele dramatizes in the beginning of his film. It puts black beings into an uncanny position, never quite existentially at home in the world. The kidnapping of emancipated blacks before and after the Emancipation Proclamation, according to Warren, “is one form of this terror” (Ontological Terror 107). Therefore, at a certain level, Peele utilizes this prologue as a means of reinforcing the terrifying tone existentially haunting black being, stemming from an origin as the rightful property of wealthy white landowners. This tone will get amplified to hyperbolic sci-fi lengths within the main narrative of the film.
Later in the film, when Chris, the film’s protagonist, encounters Walter, the groundskeeper, Georgina, the housekeeper, and Andre, Philomena’s young husband, during his weekend visit to the Armitage plantation party, for instance, he recognizes something uncanny about these three fellow African-American characters. From Chris’s perception, these three characters’ “Being-in-the-world” appears as “not-at-home,” to use Heidegger’s words (321). There is something odd about the three of them that Chris cannot seem to pinpoint. Chris even seems to recognize Philomena’s new husband, or, at least, he sees something uncannily familiar in his outward appearance. The character, whom we later learn is Andre King from Brooklyn, appears at the upstate plantation party as a fish out of water. In Peeles’s comic-horror cosmos, assimilation to white-wealthy society, as envisioned through these three characters, circulates around preserving the appearance of blackness but only as a shell protecting and preserving an uncanny white core. It is this disjunction between the outer shell and the inner kernel that makes these three African-American characters take on an uncanny appearance from Chris’ perspective. The film spectator only finds out later through Chris’ misadventures that these African American characters never voluntarily made the sacrifice of their essential blackness; they never volunteered for the assimilation procedure in some twisted desire to assimilate into their newly found, and primarily WASP, environment. Rather, they had to be abducted and whitewashed against their wishes. It is, on the contrary, the white characters who want to become black on the outside; they are the characters who want to preserve themselves by assuming the bodies of those specimens they see as physically superior. They want what they see as the enjoyment of the Other for themselves. This is what makes Chris, unbeknownst to himself, the uncanniest of all guests at the Armitage garden party (See Figure 1).
This brings us to Get Out and the latter dimension of extimacy (a<>A) discussed above. Miller argues that the Other that we experience through the religious concept of neighbor, for instance, is a means of nullifying extimacy and alterity, since it grounds alterity in what is common, in conformity. It is enjoyment (jouissance) that grounds the alterity of the Other. He argues that “Racism, for example, is precisely a question of the relation to an other as such, conceived in its difference” (79). He further agues that the love-thy-neighbor attitude never works “because racism calls into play a hatred that is directed precisely toward what grounds the other’s alterity, in other words, its jouissance. If no decision, no will, no amount of reasoning is sufficient to wipe out racism, this is indeed because it is founded on the point of extimacy of the Other” (79). Racism is rooted in an imaginary understanding of the real: “Racism is founded on what one imagines about the other’s jouissance; it is hatred of the particular way, of the Other’s own way, of experiencing jouissance. We may,” according to Miller, “well think that racism exists because our Islamic neighbor is too noisy when he has parties. However, what is really at stake is that he takes his jouissance in a way different from ours (79). “Racist stories,” Miller concludes, “are always about the way in which the Other obtains a plus-de-jouir: either he does not work or he does not work enough, or he is useless or a little too useful, but whatever the case may be, he is always endowed with a part of jouissance that he does not deserve. Thus true intolerance is intolerance of the Other’s jouissance” (80).
It is this dimension of contemporary racism that Peele exposes through an outlandish dramatization in his comical horror-film. Peele’s film dramatizes this characteristic of racism through its hyperbolic depiction of the white-washing desire on the part of the privileged white characters (the Armitage family and their wealthy white clientele, complete with bingo games masquerading as pseudo slave auctions) to take back the jouissance of the Other that they imagine is no longer accessible to them in a so-called post-racial society. By dramatizing the abduction of a young African American and the attempted replacing of his self with a white one, Peele critiques the contemporary social desire to ban, segregate, police, imprison, and, ultimately, appropriate the jouissance of the Other. This jouissance of the Other, the surplus jouissance to which only African American’s seem privy, “always emerges within a certain phantasmic field” (Žižek, 48). Based on a myth that African Americans are somehow privy to a mode of jouissance that not only eludes the Armitage family and their wealthy clientele but that exists at their very expense, this extimate jouissance, this radical strangeness that has “taken the place” of traditional Anglo-Saxon jouissance is precisely what the horrifying Armitage family and their upper-class friends hope to accumulate by getting their African-American abductees’ subjectivities out of their bodies. With the rise in equality, the Anglo-Saxon characters belief that African-American rights have arisen in the very place of their own castration. Because the WASP characters believe other modes of jouissance have emerged to replace their own, they attempt the “castration” of the African American by forcing him into giving up of his own body to whiteness. In this manner, Get Out takes on an alternative meaning, as in the proverbial “get out” of our society because you keep stealing our resources and enjoyment. But even more so, the film’s title articulates “get out” of your body so we Anglo-Saxons can retake back our stolen jouissance. (Think of all of the complaints about Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid taking a knee during the National Anthem – “How dare they diminish my enjoyment of watching football every Sunday!”). As Slavoj Žižek points out, “the automatic reaction of every proper racist is that the stranger […] steals from us the substance of our identity” (70). Or, of course, there is always the nihilistic reverse side of this meaning of “get out” – get out of my body you crazed modern day slave owner. The slave auction scene at the center of the film satirically illustrates the terrifying fact that the emancipated black is not really that free existentially, especially when out of his or her proper place. The metaphysical system of antiblack racism, therefore, delimits black ontology.
Connected to this, there is dramatized in Peele’s film an obvious envy of enjoyment. An envy that is, like all envy, rooted in a neurotic projection that blames the Other for one’s own shortcomings, that perceives, through resentment, the other as a hindrance or obstacle to one’s own enjoyment. In the eerie bingo game/slave auction scene while Chris is busy taking a walk by the lake with Rose, Peele reveals the fact that, unbeknownst to Chris himself, he functions as a walking-talking synecdoche; he possesses the objet a, the object that could make the subject whole. Peele crosscuts between Chris and Rose’s intimate conversation by the lake and the Armitage guests bidding on Chris’s body. Because the object that the bidders are actually bidding on remains, at least, temporally unmarked by the film’s narration, the spectator is led to believe they are merely bidding on something else, perhaps, even bidding on the use of Chris’s talents as a photographer. What, it turns out, the guests are bidding on is, in the words of Kalpana Seshadi-Crooks, “the extimate object that provides the fantasy of overcoming castration and maintaining one’s subject status in the symbolic” (77). These wealthy white guests and customers of the Armitage Coagula experimental process pathologically suffer from a form of envy that Lacan would refer to as jealouissance: “the notion of jealous hatred, the hatred that springs forth from jealouissance, the hatred that springs forth from the gaze of the little guy observed by St. Augustine” (Seminar XX 100). The reference to Augustine refers to the young child seeing his younger sibling at the breast, getting all of his mother’s attention (See Figure 2).
Translated to Get Out, the aging white folks visiting the Armitage plantation think that African Americans, especially after the election of the first African-American President, are nowadays enjoying more freedom and more symbolic recognition than whites themselves. Chris is almost constantly bombarded with comments filled with jealouissance while a guest at the Armitage property. Rose’s own brother Jeremy criticizes Chris for not formally training in martial arts: “Your frame, your genetic make-up. If you really trained, you’d be a freaking beast.” The suggestion Jeremy conveys is one based on envy and resentment, one that accuses Chris of squandering his capabilities by giving all of his attention to his artistic passion for photography. This is the type of envy that is a subset of jealouissance, a form of envy that only the Latin term invidia captures: “the envy that makes the subject pale before the image of a completeness closed upon itself, before the idea that the petit a, the separated a from which he is hanging, may be for another the possession that gives satisfaction” (Lacan, Four Funds 116). When Lisa Deets, one of the Armitage friends, asks Rose if it is true that sex is better with a black man; when Hiroki, another guest, asks Chris if he thinks African Americans have more of an advantage in the modern world; or when a third guest comments, “Fairer skin has been in favor for the past, what, couple of hundred years? But now the pendulum has swung back; black is in fashion,” they all point to that something Chris supposedly possesses, something in his being, which generates a resentful invidia in the Armitage guests, an invidia rooted in their imaginary jealouissance. Jim Hudson wants to become Chris, because, as a failed artist, he wants to possess what it is that this up-and-coming young artist possesses without the proper know how. In Jim’s mind, Chris simply does not have the right to his own talents. These talents belong properly to the wealthy white art dealer. In Lacan’s words, Chris “has the a.”3 Jim, like all of the guests, wants access to that extimate object in the Other that will put him back at the center of the symbolic order where he believes he truly belongs. If these guests could only get a hold of this object that Chris, and, by extension, all African Americans possess, then they too could be complete, uncastrated, and able to enjoy all of the fruits that used to belong to them and only them. According to Seshadi-Crooks, “in relation to the system of race, extimacy refers to the illegal desire of Whiteness to overcome difference and to play the lack” (68). It is supposed to be the whites who are complete, whole, and non-lacking, while everyone else lacks in comparison. One of the reasons for treating blacks as three-fifths of a person, including in the US Constitution, is to codify lack as something only the other possesses, as a form of dispossession. That black is now in fashion means that whites have had something taken away from them. Therefore, the Armitage family has devised a terrifying means of taking back the object that they feel has been stolen by the progress of the civil rights movement.
Ultimately, the idea that the free black could at anytime become the property of wealthy white landowners is extended even further by Peele. Near the climax when Chris is hypnotized by Rose’s mother Missy, he is taken to the “sunken place.” This sunken place literally references the basement of the Armitage mansion where Chris is imprisoned and prepped for the surgical procedure and figuratively references the place he will occupy as a “passenger” within his own body once it is commandeered by Jim Hudson. Upon conclusion of the Coagula procedure, he will be present within Jim’s psyche within his own body, but he will have no will; his being will be completely owned and controlled by a wealthy white property owner. This procedure falls in line with what Anthony Paul Farley would consider existential sadism: “the process by which one man tries to transform another into a mere object of his will” (461). The Armitage family and their wealthy clients essentially reinvest in their white supremacy “through humiliation of the Other” (464). Allegorically, the script’s reference to the “sunken place” also indirectly highlights the film’s extended allusion to slavery, especially when Chris later is shown shackled in the Armitage basement as though he is traveling in the bottom of a slave ship during the Middle Passage. Chris literally sinks to this sunken place every time Missy stirs her tea, the hypnotic trigger. While sunken, he is shown floating in wide-open space, only able to watch his own life go by as if watching television, a reference to missing his mother’s tragic death when he was a child. His floating in open space, watching his life from below puts Chris into what Abdul Jan-Mohamed would call a “death-bound subjectivity” (qtd. in Gordon 11) and what Lewis Gordon, working off of Franz Fanon, would call the “the disaster of black existence […] the Zone of Nonbeing” (11). Floating in infinite space, Chris’ being becomes the property of another. He existentially becomes, what Warren refers to as “nothing”: “As equipment in human form, black being broaches infinity, nothing encased in a body” (Ontological Terror 116). In the end, the Armitage family and their friends cooperate to make people like Chris an instrument of their destructive will to power. They see their essential object, their extimate object, as located at the heart of the Other, as a thing that needs to be recuperated by turning the Thing, a Thing that reflects their own constitutive lack, into nothing.
In Get Out, the Armitage family’s business enterprise of an updated slavery house capitalizes on contemporary jealouissance regarding Chris and other African Americans because of an imaginarily perceived dispossession. Chris functions, within the skewed logic of the Armitage family and their clients, as the horror plenitiudinus, as the horrifying figure who is not lacking. However, this makes him a bit of a menace; it makes him that extimate Thing that reminds whites of their own lack. Therefore, it is he, the uncanny guest, who is the object of terror throughout the film. The objet a, the object that causes desire and is always missing within the law of castration, is viewed as lying at the heart of the Other: a<>A. The Armitage family puts Chris in that hellish zone of nonbeing, to use Franz Fanon’s terms (8). With Us, on the other hand, extimacy reaches the real. With the use of the doppelgänger motif, Peele manages to present the real horror plenitudinus and the anxiety that emerges from the lack of lack, the terror that emerges when the lack returns as the externalization of what the subject is constitutively lacking. Peele’s second film fully relies on the uncanny for its horrifying effects. Here, the horror plenitudinus is not embodied in a splitting of the subject between itself and its desire but rather is embodied in a replication of the subject itself: A → $, the Other embodying the subject’s own intimate lack. In Us, the extimate Thing functions as a parasite, as a return of the subject’s lacking foundation in the form of the Tethered.
Us – “Queen of the game”
With his 2019 horror film follow-up Us, Peele takes the standard doppelgänger tale of terror and injects it with several uncanny features. In the usual doppelgänger narrative, only the protagonist can see his own double. The double usually remains a hallucinatory figure that exclusively terrorizes his own self. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster’s threat “I shall be with you on your wedding night” captures the intimate origin of the doppelgänger’s haunting. In Peele’s tale, however, everyone can see the doppelgänger figures, and the pretense of hallucination is ultimately eradicated. Also, with the exception of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and a couple other tales of the double, the doppelgänger figure is always the duplication of a male character. Even though every character living within the confines of Santa Cruz’ coastal community of Us appears to have a tethered doppelgänger, Peele chooses to focalize his tale of terror almost exclusively through his female protagonist Adelaide. Through a final twist in his narrative, Peele also reveals that his protagonist is a doppelgänger herself and not the customary protagonist who is merely haunted by her doppelgänger. Therefore, Adelaide is less haunted by her doppelgänger than she is haunted by the lurking fact that she is herself a doppelgänger and not a full subject; she is essentially the uncanniest of all guests in the real Adelaide’s existence.
However, as Sheldon George has pointed out, in opposition to the speaking subject of the ego, Lacan “‘identifies the subject with that which is originally subverted by the system of the signifier’” (18). In other words, the real subject is the leftover of the signifier’s disarticulation of one’s identity. The subject is that which is not full or complete. The signifier creates both the speaking subject and another thing that speaks through the subject without her knowledge. Accordingly, as George adds, “subjectivity not only restricts the subject to the Other’s preexistent universe of meaning; it also deprives the subject of access to those essential components of the self that cannot be circumscribed by signification” (19). Because something essential is stricken from the subject, George argues that this “enables an understanding of the effects of slavery upon both the slave and contemporary African Americans” (18), alluding here to the fact that Americans of African descent were originally only considered as partial people within the metaphysical value system of antiblack racism. He concludes that Lacan’s work is particularly helpful in understanding the “heightened aphanisic effect of the signifier upon the slave, a barring that often is again manifested for African Americans as an internal lack when accosted by acts of racism” (19). George’s claims here opens up an allegorical potential in Us that can be seen through Peele’s primary casting choice, a choice that reveals an uncanny intertextual reference. Casting Lupita Nyong’o as his protagonist evokes her award-winning role as Patsey, the slave in Steve McQueen’s academy-award winning 2013 film 12 Years a Slave. This intertextual twist reinvigorates Peele’s allegorical claim from Get Out that what primarily terrorizes black subjectivity is it incompleteness in relation to codified law and not just the paternal law. Adelaide, then, as a doppelgänger, as the thing that has been stricken from the speaking subject, figures in the film as “an agency beyond the Symbolic” (George 19). This, at least in part, explains Adelaide’s lack of comfort with the actual act of speaking. Adelaide’s confrontation with Red, or vice versa, is her confrontation with the noThing that lies at the heart of her origins, the very nothing that Chris was reduced to in the sunken place in Get Out.
When young Adelaide skips off to the Vision Quest hall of mirrors at the Boardwalk in a quest to “find herself” during the film’s prologue, she, in a sense, returns to her own genesis through her encounter with the uncanny – her living breathing mirror reflection. In a horrifying play on Lacan’s famous mirror stage, Peele shows Adelaide’s mirror image shifting from the imaginary to the real, as Red is first shown from behind just like Adelaide at the beginning of the entire prologue sequence. In the Vision Quest exhibit, Adelaide encounters that unrecognized part of herself, an encounter with the fact that she is not fully included within the provisions of “full and equal personhood” (Ward 9). Following Fanon, Priscilla Ward argues that the black self’s confrontation with his or herself as mirrored in the white world “leaves ‘a Negro … forever in combat with his own image,’ excluded from full and equal personhood” (9). Accordingly, black subjects embody disjunction between the included and the excluded parts of their being: “That disjunction signals the return of a cultural repressed […]. This return transforms the memory of a forgetting that […] motivates a narrative of identity into a memory of what has been forgotten (the formulation of personhood)” through “the disturbance signaled by the uncanny” (9-10). As Mladen Dolar points out, “the uncanny emerges as a reality, but one which has its only substance in a positivization of a negativity, a negative existence” (10). Since the objet a is precisely that lacking part of the subject one cannot see in the mirror, that part of the subject that normally has no mirror reflection, the uncanny mirror image Adelaide encounters in the hall of mirrors is precisely “the mirror image in which the object a is included” (Dolar 13). The tethered subjects occupy the space of the horror plenitudinus in the film because they indicate that the subjects occupying the world above ground are lacking, lacking the full personhood that was never granted to the black subject at its genesis. Lewis Gordon asks what happens “when a human being falls below humanity? The result is to go below ground” (9). This is why, in Peele’s film, the Tethered are located below ground, tethered in the zone of nonbeing. They represent that part of the black subject (2/5, to be exact) that resulted from a denial of full personhood, tethered below deck, much like Chris shackled in the Armitage basement in Get Out.4
The Tethered represent a sort of pre-linguistic remainder of those worldly subjects who live above ground, those subjects not repressed underneath. That the Tethered represent that part of the untethered subjects that was split off with the inauguration of the signifier’s dominance is demonstrated throughout the film. This explains their primal nature, their lack of verbal language, their abnormal bodily movements, and their uncanny resemblance to those above ground. Lacan, of course, speaks of a “lexical ambivalence” and a “doubling” that are both tied to the uncanny (Masschelein 157). Red is the only one of the Tethered doppelgängers who appears to have spoken language, obviously because she was once-upon-a-time the real Adelaide. Her use of speech, however, is very labored, and her level of pronunciation is a bit hampered, indicating her lack of fellow interlocutors while growing up in the underground tunnel.5 The present Adelaide living above ground also suffers from residual linguistic barriers because she was a Tethered doppelgänger without linguistic capacity in her early formative years. While conversing with Kitty at the beach, for instance, she simply replies with one-word responses, not the best of interlocutors. Asked by Kitty if she is doing alright, she claims, “I have a hard time just talking,” signifying her uncanny relation to the symbolic order (See Figure 3). As Adam Bresnick points out, “the uncanny amounts to a disturbance in the everyday function of language, a making uncertain of the symbolic function” (119). The feeling of the uncanny emerges with a lifting of repression, when something that should remain hidden emerges as a disturbance to the ordinary, occurring with the terrifying emergence of the Tethered from below ground.
The unsettling uncanny effect of the home-invasion motif in Us further illustrates the loosening of the paternal law that allows for the emergence of the extimate, a mark of the “undoing of castration that is necessary to constitute us as divided subjects” (Masschelein 55). Due to its root in the German das unheimlich, the uncanny is often related to the home (heim), especially since the home is one of the most familiar of all settings. This is why haunted-house and especially home-invasion horror films are some of the most effective of the genre. When the home is invaded, when that place that is most intimate is invaded by something external, it can lead to terrifying effects. Heidegger notoriously links the uncanny to “not-being-at-home” (233). But when the home is invaded by one’s own doppelgänger, there is an indication that the home invasion comes from within, that the home is not as comforting as believed in the first place. When the Wilson family’s summer house is invaded by the most unwelcome and uncanny of guests – their own doppelgänger family – the situation is as much disorienting as it is terrifying. But as Adelaide attempts to call the police, she is told that they are twenty minutes out, too far away for her comfort. This indicates the floundering of the law’s ability to keep the extimate at bay, ultimately premising the deterioration of the existing metaphysical value system.
The conflation of the uncanny slippage of language and the breakdown with the law reaches comedic heights during the invasion of the Tyler vacation home by their doppelgänger family. As Kitty attempts to call the police through their POS Ophelia (Hollywood for Google’s “Alexa”), the robotic machine (already a sign of the uncanny) misinterprets the command as a request to hear the song “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A. (See Figure 4). The song then diegetically plays throughout the unfolding scene of carnage, without the police ever arriving to help. Seshadi-Crooks points out that “one of the meanings of ‘canny’ […] is sly humor” (83). Sly humor allows one to say something that should be forbidden given the circumstance. Making an apparently crude paronomastic joke during a home-invasion slaughter should appear in poor taste. But when this sly joke is made during an encounter with the uncanny, the joke takes on poetic significance. With the N.W.A. joke, Peele allows for the eruption of that which should have remained hidden and provides a place for “the excess of the uncanny object that is itself a joke” (Seshadi-Crooks 84). By having Ophelia mistranslate “call the police” as “Fuck Tha Police,” Peele not only provides a modicum of enjoyment derived in duping the Other, but he also illustrates what happens when the law does not work in your best interests, something that is much more traditionally common in the African-American community. As Warren indicates, “meaning itself is an aspect of anti-blackness, such that meaning is lost for the black; blacks live in a world of absurdity” (“Black Nihilism” 226). In the uncanny world that makes up the diegesis of Us, a diegesis where the extimate object that should have remained buried and hidden below ground returns to walk the world, this level of absurdity becomes the norm. What if things did not work the way they usually do, as is often the case for the African-American community? The anamorphotically distorted translation of Kitty’s desperate enunciation for the police belies the “entrance to another, ‘metaphysical’ dimension” (Gullatz). The noThing, personified in the Tethered doppelgängers, has invaded the community and threatens to undo the basis of its social tie.
Even though it appears that every American has a doppelgänger in the film, the film’s mode of narration is clearly focalized through Adelaide. In Lacan’s words, Adelaide/Red is clearly “queen of the game.”6 The film opens with a close-up shot of what is supposed to be a television from the mid 1980s. On the television screen during a commercial for Hands Across America is reflected the face of a young Adelaide. This scene takes place in the home in which Adelaide is reared and the house that figures in the present day of the film as the Wilson’s unheimliche vacation home. That Adelaide’s introduction in the film takes place via a reflection indicates that her existence lacks a certain amount of being. In addition, her doppelgänger Red’s very existence ratifies that Adelaide’s presence lies elsewhere. Nevertheless, during the following sequence at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk during Adelaide’s birthday celebration, the camera slowly dollies toward Adelaide from behind, signaling something deceptive or secretive about her being, something she may be concealing without herself even being aware. As she is subsequently shown wandering away from her father on the boardwalk, Peele cuts back and forth between medium close-up shots of Adelaide and reverse shots of her subjectively-inflected POV perspective of others on the boardwalk, demonstrating during this opening prologue sequence that the film’s narration will be largely focalized through Adelaide. After the film’s narration jumps to the present time and after the Wilson family has settled (as much as they can) into their unheimliche summer house, the spectator is again treated to several internally focalized flashbacks from Adelaide’s youth. After a close-up on adult Adelaide’s face that indicates the subjective nature of the following sequence, Peele cuts to a flashback scene at a therapist’s office sometime after the family trip to the Boardwalk scene with which the film opened. As the camera stays primarily with young Adelaide (who we later find out is actually Adelaide’s doppelgänger Red) in the waiting room, we, and she, are privy to Adelaide’s parents’ post-session discussion with the therapist. Her father can be heard pleading, “How do we get her to talk?” while the therapist can be overheard replying about PTSD and encouraging her parents to support alternative forms of communication for young Adelaide, implying that the doppelgänger is situated in some pre-Oedipal, pre-primary repression realm. Through Adelaide’s mother’s plea to get her daughter back, Peele subtly dissolves the border between the figurative and the literal, a confusion common with the introduction of the uncanny.
Basically, from Adelaide’s parents’ perspective, their child has become uncanny: she looks the same, but she doesn’t fit into her body the same way as before the incident at the Boardwalk. She is both familiar and strange; she is the familiar turned strange. What’s also odd is the fact that Adelaide herself, as an adult during the flashback, does not even seem to be aware of the fact that she is the doppelgänger and that she switched places with young Adelaide in the hall of mirrors back as a child. Of course, there are only three possible reasons for her ignorance. One, she is extra-diegetically playing along with Peele’s devious narrative twist. Two, her own devious maneuver in the hall of mirrors has been repressed; she has become “alienated from it only through the process of repression,” to use Freud’s words (241). Keeping in mind the pre-primary repressed existence of the doppelgänger, it is possible that as Red assumed Adelaide’s identity and as she became socialized, this foundational event in her life was psychically surmounted. Three, Red is not really another separate being from Adelaide but merely Adelaide’s most intimate kernel positivized into an external figure: the extimate noThing. These latter two possibilities seem confirmed when Adelaide tells her husband that they need to leave her recently-departed mother’s house and cut their vacation short. Initially, Gabe surmises that their pleasure trip is occurring too soon after Adelaide’s mother’s death. However, Adelaide explains to him that “there’s this black cloud hanging over me, and I don’t feel like myself,” as she stares at her reflection in the giant picture window of the house. Since this is the first time Adelaide has been back in the home in which she was reared after her parents’ death, the home has become uncanny precisely because the death of her parents signifies a lifting of repression and a return of that which should have remained concealed: the fact that Adelaide is really a doppelgänger. When a vengeful Red shows up for the home invasion, this could as easily be understood as a projection of Adelaide’s own evil repressed deed into an external threat, the spontaneous subjective creation of which Otto Rank introduces in his discussion of the doppelgänger (20). Ultimately, according to Ralph Tymns, the “double reveals the fascinating complexity within the personality” (69), indicating that the entire world of the Tethered doppelgängers, a world apparently under the total control of Red, is a projection of Adelaide’s growing awareness of her split, incomplete nature, of that part of her existence that lacks being, that is, essentially, noThing.
Following this logic, Us reaches beyond mere horror to the allegorical depth of ontology. According to Warren, “the concept ‘nothing’ provides a paradigmatic frame for describing this black thing without ontology” (Ontological Terror 14). But, because there is a lack of intelligible language to describe the indescribable, allegorical presentation is necessary for representing that noThing which lacks ontology. The metaphysics of an anti-black world, according to Warren, dreads this nothing and projects it onto black being, making it the problem of the extimate Thing. This position of existence-without-being is personified throughout Us through the character Red, who is also a part of Adelaide, perhaps that two-fifths of her that has been denied an ontology from the origin of the nation. Being a being without ontology, according to Warren, is to exist as an intermediary between form and formlessness, to exist between nothing and something, to lack natality, to inhabit permanently the zone of nonbeing (Ontological Terror 37, 182, 42). The transpositional horror of Peele’s film stems from filling in this lack of being with a Thing, a thing that itself paradoxically exists but lacks being. The “black cloud” that hovers over Adelaide and frightens her is her lack of ontology in an anti-black world, a recognition that she is never to be considered a full being under current antiblack metaphysics. Rather than make her whole, her doppelgänger’s appearance highlights the persistent fact of her lack of being. Red illustrates Adelaide’s ontological truth: “existence for black being is ephemeral and tethered”; biological and visual resemblance does not necessarily render one a human being because, in Warren’s nihilistic estimation, “these are nothing more than ontic illusions” (Ontological Terror 74).
Peeking below the entertaining surface of Jordan Peele’s comic-horror cosmos reveals its extimate dimension: a critique of the absurdity of an anti-black metaphysics. Linking Peele’s films to Lacan’s concept of extimacy and to the social text of black nihilism demonstrates how Peele uses the horror genre to create a insightful mode of cultural critique. Through the story of an involuntary guest, Get Out displays precisely how contemporary racism capitalizes on a mode of jealouissance, a particular mode of racism rooted in an alleged post-racial society. Likewise, through a doppelgänger story, Us creatively illustrates the lack of ontology for black being within a metaphysical system that still considers blacks as incomplete beings. Through the horror genre, Peele manages to maintain his wit while providing a sometimes obvious and sometimes hidden dimension of contemporary racism and its legacy.
Since, as Katherine Wagner has pointed out, even though “dominant ideologies tether individual and cultural identities,” “the horror genre not only exposes these tethers, it often systematically destroys them as well” (33). This is what Red uncannily refers to during the heim invasion scene in Us as “The Untethering.” The nihilistic aesthetic untethering in Peele’s films takes place largely through their uncanny combination of horror and comedic elements, sometimes over-the-top (the Armitage’s guests in Get Out or the use of NWA in Us) and sometimes more subtle (Rose’s milk drinking in Get Out or some of the 1980s film references in Us). As John Marmysz points out, humor allows nihilist thought to entertain frustration while recognizing that nihilist frustration could be “instrumental in the collective progress for the overall enrichment of the individual soul” (162). The humorist nihilist, he concludes, “accomplishes a mighty and creative task, bringing into existence new viewpoints and aspects of understanding” (164-5). Rather than despair, Peele’s films exploit the absurd social and historical incongruities that are uncovered by black nihilism in order to untether us from these very same metaphysical absurdities. His films entertain while simultaneously and uncannily portraying felt social discontent.
1 The Friedrich Schelling quote comes from his Philosophy of Mythology. C.H.U.D., for instance, functions as a condensation of the Tethered, the underground inhabitants in Us, and The Shining’s infamous twins function as a displacement of the doppelgänger theme running through Us.
2 Warren writes “being” under erasure when referring specifically to black being. There is simply no ontology for blacks within an anti-black metaphysical system that considers blacks as less than a full human (3/5 a person, to be precise).
3 “The Child who is gazed at has it – he has the a” (Seminar XX, 100).
4 This also partially explains the existence of Tethered white beings in the film. The uncanny return of the nonbeing of black subjectivity, the invasion of the nothing into the community that occurs with the Red-led return of the repressed, threatens the undoing of the entire metaphysical system upon which the community is built. This includes the lifting of the repression of the lack of humanity inherent in white subjecthood under this metaphysics. Notice, for instance, how the white Tethereds, embodied in the doppelgängers of the Tyler clan (Dahlia, Tex, Io, and Nix), appear much more ruthless and bloodthirsty in their home invasion attack than the black Tethereds, embodied in the doppelgängers of the Wilson family (Red, Abraham, Umbrae, and Pluto). Their relative ruthlessness indicates the repressed seamy underbelly of the white liberal façade.
5 S.S. Prawer argues for a grammar of the uncanny in order “to examine the rhetorical devices – aposiopesis, anaphora, amphibology, seemingly impersonal constructions, dislocations of syntax, heaping up of exclamations and questions and so on – that authors have employed, a various times, in order to create a proper disposition, a feeling of and for the uncanny” (114).
6 “This place [heim] represents the absence where we stand. […] it shows itself for what it is – namely, the presence that lies elsewhere, which means that this place is tantamount to an absence – then it becomes queen of the game” (Lacan, Seminar X 47).
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