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  • The Return of Negation:The Doppelgänger in Freud's “The ‘Uncanny’”
  • Dimitris Vardoulakis (bio)

The Doppelgänger as a motif arose within German Romanticism and became a canonical theme in "Gothic" literature. The term was coined by Jean Paul in his novel Siebenkäs, published in 1796. Authors such as E.T.A. Hoffmann and Edgar Alan Poe exemplify the originary narratives of the motif and theme of the Doppelgänger.1 Doppelgänger characters tend to be associated with evil and the demonic; thus one can infer that the Doppelgänger presents a notion of the subject/subjectivity that is defective, disjunct, split, threatening, spectral. With the rise of psycho-analysis, such epithets are taken to indicate a tendency toward a sense of failure or loss in the self. Thereafter, the Doppelgänger has been commonly viewed as an aberration, the stencil of a symptomatology of the self. In what follows I will challenge such a Doppelgänger as the construct of a content-based understanding of fictional motifs and themes, couched in psychoanalytic terminology. To this end, I will re-evaluate the history of the relation between the Doppelgänger and psychoanalysis.

Admittedly, psychological symptoms or forms of subjective failure can be inferred in the literary instances of the Doppelgänger. However, the Doppelgänger retains the potential to be articulated in positive terms. But this can only come to light by questioning the unproblematic equating of content – either as the plot of the story, or as the history of a self – with a stable and retrievable origin. When the notion of origin is no longer a simple "content," then the Doppelgänger can be allowed to make a contribution toward an ontology of the subject. The subjective ontology that the Doppelgänger introduces should not be seen as positing an originary substance or essence. On the contrary, its formal openness allows for its own interruption. At the same time, that openness is impossible without the interruption. The Doppelgänger, then, is a form of relationality that is not only a condition of possibility, but also a reflection of and on that condition. In this way, the Doppelgänger is aligned to a notion of modernity as interruption.2 [End Page 100]

This paper will concentrate on two pivotal moments in the history of the Doppelgänger: a presentation of the function of subjectivity in Jean Paul's conception of the Doppelgänger will be followed by an extrapolation of subjectivity in Freud's 1919 article "The 'Uncanny'." Jean Paul coined the word Doppelgänger, partly in response to transcendental philosophy. Freud's paper on the uncanny remains singularly influential in discussions of the Doppelgänger.3 The argument will unfold in two stages. First, it will be shown that the early Doppelgänger rejected a conception of the self that would lead to forms of absolutism. Rejecting absolutism leads to a subject conceived in terms of excess—an excess of limits that undoes any explication of subjectivity in terms of sharp demarcations. Second, this excess will be found in the margins of Freud's text, in a long footnote often noted in the secondary literature, but whose import for the conception of the subject has hardly been presented. Subjectivity will be shown to be a function of relationality that is chiasmic. And the chiasmus of the subject will be excessive, linking Jean Paul's and Freud's projects. The mediating term that will facilitate the link is negation, the nothing of subjectivity.

Negation and the Doppelgänger

When Freud confronts Dora with the supposition that she had been in love with her father from an early age, she replies that she has no such recollection. And she immediately embarks on the anecdote of a young cousin of hers whom she visited shortly after her parents had had a quarrel. The cousin whispered to Dora that she hated her mother and that when her mother died she would marry her father. Such an association, as Freud gleans the story, has no other function than to affirm his original supposition. "There is no such thing at all as an unconscious 'No'," contends Freud. And he elaborates a page...


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