Cite as: Fabio Camilletti, ‘Oblique Gazes: The Je Ne Sais Quoi and the Uncanny as Forms of Undecidability in Post-Enlightenment Aesthetics’, in Tension/​Spannung, ed. by Christoph F. E. Holzhey, Cultural Inquiry, 1 (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2010), pp. 71–91 <https://doi.org/10.25620/ci-01_04>

Oblique GazesThe Je Ne Sais Quoi and the Uncanny as Forms of Undecidability in Post-Enlightenment AestheticsFabio Camilletti

Abstract

The article compares the aesthetic notions of the je ne sais quoi (as it emerges in the Renaissance and is widely debated in the eighteenth century) and of the ‘uncanny’ as theorized by Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud in the early twentieth century. Its hypothesis is that both notions, in situating aesthetic experience in a liminal space between pleasure and trouble, can be considered after-images of non-aesthetical notions — notions that belong to the domain of the sacred and have metamorphosed as forms of aesthetic undecidability through the paradigmatic fracture of early modernity. The article focuses on depictions of female figures directing their gaze upward — in the iconography of Sade’s Justine, in popular imagery connected with Lourdes apparitions (1858), in medium photography, and in the images taken by Charcot of his hysterical patients at the Salpêtrière — and argues that they become a Warburgian Pathosformel indicating a space of undecidability and ‘non-sense’ between the subject and otherness.

uncanny, je-ne-sais-quoi, hysteria, aesthetics, post-enlightenment