Stigma and the Uncanny

“Stigma”[1] according to Goffman, is the deviation that results from the difference or non-harmonization to the dominant social data; acceptance (if it supposedly exists) is actually under dispute. It refers to deeply discrediting and humiliating characteristics, unwanted forms of diversity of the individual that are so crucial to the social identity, that the individual becomes “inhuman”. In addition to various traits involved in “Stigma”, whether they are acquired (physically, mentally, culturally) or congenital, it is itself a social construction and therefore neither natural nor inherent[2].

As a consequence, we comprehend that the whole issue of stigmatization revolves around the “Uncanny”[3] problematic. The uncanny, ο “xsenos”(ξένος, the one who frightens us) becomes the “double”[4] so that we project to the body of this other and to the group in which it belongs, our horrible, dark and unbearable side that has been repressed [5] or isolated.  It is the “kakon”(κακόν) of the subject, the extime object of the subject, das Ding, the most intimate and most external of the subject at the same time.[6] “People regard as uncanny everything related to death. The basic truth that all men are mortal, is not of general acceptance and our unconscious has indeed very little space for the idea of our own mortality,” as Freud[7] underlines.

A Generalized stigmatization

As F. Ansermet mentions on the Covid-19 pandemic “the same phenomenon is the same for everyone, but each one reacts differently, starting from each own’s singularity.”[8] The answer to the real of the pandemic, has to do therefore with each subject individually. We cannot however overlook, the fact that the pandemic has turned every subject into a potential carrier of death. It stigmatized, desecrated and contaminated each of us, as someone who can transmit death. One must avoid the other and all of us “we must stay at home”. Stigmatization, self-marginalization and self-exclusion are hence practices, that now concern the daily lives of all subjects. All are treated as potentially “miasmatic” or “contagious” carrying and transmitting death, disrupting the nature of death, which “normally” should be either unexpected or occurring in old age. It is as if the whole population is now on the borderline between unhealthy and untreated, abandoned to the irreversible.

In our daily lives, we witness a kind of conscious or unconscious (bio)politic racism towards “vulnerable groups” with “underlying diseases”. We could make a metaphor here to the analogy of “genotype – phenotype” and how the former acquires a potential transparency: how the genotype, or the real of the cell of each subject “comes to the surface,” being itself an evaluative superego criterion.[9]

And then what?

It is well known that regimes want to control the speech and jouissance of the subjects. Populations must be manageable. This imposition and management is the core of biopolitics. Cynicism and inhumanity that characterize neo-liberalism, are expressed and embodied in Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. For the first, the population is just a herd; for the second economy and numbers come first. But the most worrying about democracy, comes from Hungary and Victor Orban. The 56-year-old nationalist and far-right prime minister has taken emergency measures in disguise of treating the pandemic (which is the new “enemy” after immigrants). It imposes a state of emergency on the country, without consent of the parliament. Using the pretext of urgently ensuring health, as well as personal and material security for the citizens and the economy, the government will be able to suspend the validity of laws and take extraordinary measures through circulars. Orban’s policy raises reasonable concerns that the Hungarian prime minister will abuse power. The new law involves imprisonment for the journalists that spread untrue information on Covid-19.[10] A group of members of all political parties of the European Parliament, has written to European institutions during the pandemic, in order to defend democracy.[11] But in the end, Hungary is officially the first dictatorship of Covid–19 within the European Union, while the latter is reacting weakly.

It is clear that there is a huge uncertainty and concern for democracy, the economy, social cohesion and global stability. The real of the pandemic imposes the presence and circulation of death around the world. Life is limited to a long and anxious awaiting for most of the people. Under the circumstances given, it is also clear that everyone must construct ways to encircle the real that was triggered by the pandemic, in order to build a subjective future.




[1] Stigma is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a type of marking or the tattoo that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. These individuals were to be avoided particularly in public places.

[2] Goffman, E., (2009). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York : Simon and Schuster p. 1.

[3] Freud, S., (1919). The “Uncanny” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 15,  English Translation Strachey (1925), London, 2001, Vintage Books. pp. 219-256.

[4] As above. This phrase seems to be an echo from Nietzsche (e.g. from the last part of Also sprach Zarathustra). In Chapter III of Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920 g), Standard Edition, Vol. 18, 22, Freud writes a similar phrase “the perpetual recurrence of the same thing” between inverted commas.

[5] As above. [T]he uncanny [unheimlich] is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar [heimlich]. (..) [T]he unheimlich is what was once heimlisch, familiar, the prefix “un” is the token of repression”.

[6] Lacan, J “De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité, Paris, Seuil, 1975, p. 302 ; J. Lacan, “Presentation on Psychical Causality”, in Ecrits, Seuil, 1966, p. 123.

[7] Freud, S., (1919). Op. cit.

[8] Originally published in Lacan Quotidien, No. 876. Available online in English at TheLacanianReviews.

[9] The genotype is the set of genes (genome) of an organism, while the phenotype is their external imprint on the image of that organism.