The uncanny, dreams, and organizations


“It is exactly the flickering nature of the uncanny that poses a threat (followed by a great opportunity) to conceptual reasoning in organizational research and beyond.” 

(Salmela et al., 2020)

Moving away from post-colonialism and racial trauma, in this final reading of our spring reading series we explored the “uncolonized terrains which are not, and cannot be, managed” (p. 33). Here we revisit the power of the gaze of the other, the desire for that which is forbidden, and the trauma of (un)familiarity and (e)strange(ment).

In “Accessing uncolonized terrains of organizations: Uncanny force of sleep and dreaming,”  Tarja Salmela, Anu Valtonen, and Susan Meriläinen (2020) explore the uncanny as a powerful perspective for revealing blind spots in organizational subjectivity and organizing. Drawing from autoethnographic material, the authors show “how the uncanniness of dreams and sleeping is experienced in organizations” (p.33).  At the root of their exploration of uncolonized organizational terrains is an unsettling of the neat physical borders that bound organizations, a problematization of binary thinking, and a questioning of static categorizations – all of which are pervasive in rationalist thinking.  

The article is inspired by research into sleep and dreaming in organizations – at once drawing our attention to something critical to life, but ignored and suppressed in the organizing process. By its nature, sleep is an uncanny (borderline) provoking state. And, it calls up deeper organizational taboos: death, sex, “intimacy, vulnerability, and unproductivity” (p. 42).

Our attention is drawn to “borderline experiences” in organizational subjectivity – the places where our organizational fantasies are disrupted. That is, the conscious reality we construct to shield us from those things that we desire (e.g. the fantasy of work as a haven, a community, or a source of joy) and those things that haunt us, is disrupted by the uncanny.

The uncanny is “a feeling of unease that arises when (i) something familiar suddenly becomes strange, alienated, and unfamiliar…(ii) something familiar unexpectedly arises in a strange and unfamiliar context, or (iii) something strange and unfamiliar unexpectedly arises in a familiar context.” It “represents the gray zone” in the organizing process – maybe even the research process – and “it is the unconscious that triggers the uncanny effect” (p. 35).

Two strong themes emerged in the research and are described in the paper: threatening insecurity, and traumatic dreams, shocking becomings. Threatening insecurity involves emancipation, a brush with death, and “the vulnerability of the assumed ‘gazer’” to those being watched (bringing to mind the “perverse panopticon”). Traumatic dreams involve “traumatic becoming” (i.e. entering “reality”, p. 41), repetition of trauma, and the shock of seeing our selves as they are, rather than as we think they ought to be (p. 36)

The authors introduce us to a novel way of using dreams and dreaming, the “unconcept” of uncanniness, and stories in interpreting the experience of researching and working in organizations. Yet, the article does not provide solid answers about how to link dreams to interpreting organizational culture, how to “use” the uncanny, and the role of stories and photographs in seeing and telling uncolonized terrains. 

This thought-provoking article leaves many doors open for future research. For example, the authors invite us to consider an important question: “Where is the line between privacy and research?” (p.37).  Indeed, are we ever truly able to separate our researcher and personal lives?  Do these not, at times, overlap with one another, enabling us to process fieldwork action while sleeping, dreaming, and/or performing house tasks such as washing dishes?  Relatedly, are we ever able to quantify (hours, days, etc.) our research practices, as we so often disclose in published versions of our work?  As the authors highlight, and as we have experienced ourselves, sometimes it takes time (years, even) to make sense of events, be it because we need time to “connect the dots” or we may simply not be ready to process events, yet. Is the time that it may take us to theorize not as important as the amount of hours spent in the field and/or talking with research participants?

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