American Studies | Topics in Interdisciplinary American Studies / Topic: American Rationalism and the Uncanny
A350 | 28481 | Susan Lepselter

3 credit hours
Tuesday & Thursday 11:15 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.

There is an eerie feeling we often describe by its symptoms: the
hair rising on the back of your neck or goose bumps sprouting up on
your arm.  Some call it getting the “willies.” But the uncanny is
more than an eerie feeling.  According to Sigmund Freud, the uncanny
emerges at those moments when something hidden has leaked partly
into view.  It points us towards something that is both strange and
familiar at once.  In all its unnatural weirdness, the uncanny
reminds us of something we already know.

This course examines various theories and incarnations of the
uncanny in America, asking at each point how social facts are both
hidden and revealed. If the uncanny is in part familiar to us, what
is the connection between it and ordinary experience? How do people
imagine the natural, the unnatural and the supernatural in American
life?  If modernity is supposedly marked by the rational and the
scientific, what do we make of the uncanny’s power in various forms
of modern life?

Drawing on ideas from psychoanalysis, folklore, anthropology and
literary theory, we will explore the politics and poetics of the
uncanny in a range of American worlds, from 19th century New
England, to 20th century Hmong-American and Mexican-American
neighborhoods, to 21st century UFO abductee groups.  There will be
some comparative exploration of topics including a Japanese cult and
contemporary African rumors of sorcery.  The syllabus will also
include films and novels. We will explore the many meanings of
the “alien” in UFO abduction and the ways in which history can haunt
through ghosts.  Other topics will include: séances and
spiritualism, fatal nightmares, the politics of memory and false
memory, conspiracy theory, near-death and out-of-body experiences,
apocalyptic desire, accusations of witchcraft and demon possession,
and the concept of soul fright.  By studying the uncanny we will
attempt to understand a fuller range of human experience in
modernity, including the experience of everyday life.