Julia Kristeva and Abjection

JULIA KRISTEVA (1941-)

Abjection

Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror (1980/1982) was a turning point in her career and in postmodern theory because she re-located the origin of psychoanalysis in the notion of abjection. Following in the footsteps of Luce Irigaray, this book was written expressively, in a “lightning style” and explores the psychoanalytic status of the Mother in terms of “horror,” “love,” melancholy.” There are things that are repulsive and horrible in life, things that are grotesque and formless, but what is their status? Stabbing with her pen, Kristeva replicates the powers of horror itself in her essay, “Approaching Abjection,”

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark re-volts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful—a certainty of which it is proud holds—on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.

Kristeva decided to write about that which is been repressed, of that at which one does not want to look or smell or experience–the skim on milk, fingernail parings, waste, cadavers and so on. She contrasts the ob-ject to the ab-ject, which is connected to the Freudian mechanism or process of repression, denial and repudiation that are part of the formation of the human subject. She explained,

The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates (himself), situates (himself), and therefore strays instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing..Instead of sounding himself as to his “being,” he does so concerning his place: “Where am I?” instead of “Who am I?” For the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, fold- able, and catastrophic. A deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating his universe whose fluid confines—for they are constituted of a non-object, the abject—constantly question his solidity and impel him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray.

For Kristeva, the abject is part of one’s personal archaeology or buried consciousness. Abjection is part of the earliest and forgotten struggle to separate from the mother who is reluctant to recognize the realm of the symbolic or the law of the Phallus. Before the intervention of the Symbolic, there is a prior impulse compelled to expel the Mother and the mother becomes the Abject. But the symbolic (intervention of the Father between the mother and child) alone is not enough to ensure the separation. In order for the child to become detached from the mother, the Mother must be abjected: “The abject would thus be the object of primal repression.” The Mother is gradually rejected through rituals of cleanliness, toilet training, eating habits and so on. Although through these lessons in “horror,” the Mother is abjected, in signifying horror, reconciliation with the maternal body is possible.

julia

Julia Kristeva (1941-)

The human subject is founded upon the imposition of the Symbolic Law of the Father and the abjection of the mother to prevent incest. Inspired by the rejection of the maternal body, the (unstable) prohibition of incest includes autoeroticism and is located in what Kristeva, borrowing a term from Plato, called the chora. Imagine the chora as a receptacle, a place where the repressed is pent up. The chora will, of course, return, but it is held in tenuous check by the sign or the image the subject has formed narcissistically of itself. As a result the abject is a “crisis of narcissism.” Kristeva asserted,

The abject shatters the wall of repression and its judgments. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away—it assigns it a source in the non-ego, drive, and death. Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new signifiance. The abject is related to perversion.

Kristeva asserts that sex and violence form the primal intersection for humanity, and women are the victims of the symbolic order. The Murder of the Mother and the Prohibition of Incest is the precondition of the emergence of human subjectivity and the formation of society. The division or separation of mother and child makes up the two sides of the sacred. There would be no sacred if it were not for the ritual murder performed symbolically to prevent incest. For the Mother to not be the object of desire, she must be abjected and associated with menstrual blood, hair, and bodily wastes. Maternal milk binds the child to the mother and becomes the sign for incest. Because pollution outside the body threatens the identity of the body, these extrusions of the body render the body indistinct and ambiguous and the body must be subjected to ritual acts to ward off defilement.

Kristeva’s theories on the Maternal are ambiguous. First, as a theorist, she was deeply implicated in the male-based intellectual discourse of post-war Paris and her “feminist” credentials are unclear, and second, if, like Irigaray and other women of that era, she is entangled in Freudian-Lacanian theory to what extent can she ever theorized an independent existence for the female? Is Kristeva explaining, in theoretical language, the very real ways in which women are abjected in society: the prohibition of the advertising of “female” products on television until after ten in the evening, male demands that all female body hair be exfoliated, and the collective horror over menstruation, and so on? Or is she simply discussing the psychology of language in a way that in elaborating Lacan foregrounds the abject, an unwritten but necessary element in the formation of the subject?

As John Lechte pointed out in his book on Julia Kristeva, Kristeva privileges menstrual blood and excrement, which stem from the Maternal or the Pre-Symbolic. This abject is not controlled by the Symbolic but by energy drives. Abjection becomes internalized through language and spoken through the symbolic order. Lechte stressed the liminal condition of the abject: it is neither inside nor outside–human waste, properly not seen, is suddenly expelled. But excrement, like mother’s milk is privileged for it is part of the inside/outside which marks off the boundaries of the human body. Over time, there is a steady repression of the maternal element in favor of a political and social rationality of the subject and of the society. The abject becomes the dark side of narcissism: the ambiguous, the in-between, the unassailable, in other words, all that has had to be repressed for the subject to separate from the mother and to enter into society. But even though it is deposited in the chora, the abject defies boundaries, is resistant to unity, and disturbs the identity, order, and system that is necessary to create the subject. To maintain these tenuous boundaries, the abject is objectified or projected forward and away onto, as Kristeva said, the corpse, waste, filth, the traitor, the liar, the criminal, the rapist, the hypocrite, the amoralist and other social undesirables.

As Kristeva explained in Revolution in Poetic Language,

The chora is not yet a position that represents something for someone (i.e., it is not a sign); nor is it aposition that represents someone for another position (i.e., it is not yet a signifier either); it is, however, generated in order to attain to this signifying position.

The chora is the maternal receptacle for that which has been repressed/abjected and is labeled the “Semiotic,” the primal language of the Mother as opposed to the “Symbolic,” the social language of the Father. In locating the semiotic with the body and specifically with the body of the mother, Kristeva, according to Judith Butler’s 1983 critique, “The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva,” lapses into essentialism and in retelling Freud’s “family romance,” Kristeva also leaves out the homosexual experience. Indeed as Evelien Geerts pointed out in 2011, in “Women’s Time,” Kristeva seems to agree with Lacan that “Woman does not exist.” On the other hand as Geerts added, there is a potential for subversion in the ideas of Kristeva: in locating the origins of language (the semiotic) in the Maternal might, as Slavoj Zizek, suggested work against the Phallocentric.

According to Kristeva, “Corruption is the socialized appearance of the abject.” Whether spiritual or social or political corruption implies a “cancer” or alien growth within the bounded object. As a social act and a rejection of the symbolic, Associated with the female or that which is unincorporated into Lawful society, abjection is always on the wrong side of the Law (of the Father. The question becomes how to reincorporate the female and the abject and separate the pre-Symbolic from the criminal? Kristeva unhinges the binary oppositions through semiotic language as a form of music, leading to an infinitization of meaning (the Semiotic). Disruptive laughter is a truly innovative practice; pleasure is the lifting of inhibitions and is invested in the production of the new and obeys laughter’s logic. Semiotic practice “pluralizes”, “pulverizes”, and “musicates” all ossified forms. According to Kristeva,

When practice is not laughter, there is nothing new; where there is nothing new, practice cannot be provoking: it is at best a repeated, empty act.

Art, for Kristeva, avant-garde practice can transform society. The work of art can explore aspects of the feminine and the masculine. Mimesis is not the woman or the feminine but the constitution and de-constitution of the subject. Kristeva posited a third way, following the failures of first and second-generation feminism, suggesting that aesthetic practices should explore and construct the singularity of every speaking being. Subjectivity can become an open system, and art can become an individuating experience of limits. Kristeva thought that a genuine dialectical materialism could be an artistic challenge—a transgression of the historical forms of the Symbolic. In other words, she is suggesting a transgression of or an inversion of a dialectic, based upon rejection and exclusion. As Kristeva stated,

This conception of the ethical function of art separates us, in a radical way, from one that would commit art to serving as the representation of a so-called progressive ideology or avant-garde socio-historical philosophy.

…no language can sing unless it confronts the Phallic Mother…

As Sarah Beardsworth pointed out in her 2009 article, “Love’s Lost Labors: Subjectivity, Art, and Politics,”

The subjective process that is the essence of art gains its significance only and through being a remedy for this blockage. While Kristeva’s diagnose of the crisis of meaning and values pertains to modernity, the blockage of subjective process has deep roots in Western culture The idea of artistic sublimation means that, in her view, art and literature have the capacity to work it through.

Because art comes from the repressed and primal loss of the Maternal, Kristeva proposes that the work of art is at the heart of the Mother. As John Lechte explained, “Art is the délire manqué that keeps social psychosis at bay.” Although the artist’s creation, as it is commonly known, has to do with the Phallic Mother, the male artist, according to Irigaray, produces works of art that reinforce the inferior status of women in patriarchy. Art is the mother castrated in the symbolic, but because the Maternal is on the side of the Material, the Mother can be alluded to through the materiality of the work of art. Kristeva seems to assert that the patriarchy and the capitalist system which is its manifestation seeks to repress the materiality of the semiotic and that art becomes a way to disrupt symbolically–through the Language of the Father–by using the texture of paint, or the smoothness of marble, or the intensity of a color, or the hand of a fabric to express the repressed primal tactility experienced through fusion with the body of the Mother.

The “dialectic” of Kristeva would place the thesis of reason and logic against that which has been suppressed, hidden away in the chora. In comparison to the fixity of Symbolic meaning, she stressed Process over Identification, heterogeneity over the signifier, and struggle over structure. By introducing the heterogeneous rupture of poetic language into a capitalist society, Kristeva is restating the arguments against totalization and “identity thinking.” The artistic creation would become “poetic language,” which is a signifying practice, and transgression defines the practice of the avant-garde artist. Indeed transgression becomes a “key moment in practice” through which poetic language is put in process.

 

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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