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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Realism in England, France and America

Realism in England, France, and America

At the end of the Napoléonic wars, the French were able to take a good hard look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution, going full speed ahead in Britain. Appalled at the misery of the lower classes, the industrial smog of London, and the blighting effects of technology, the French made the decision to approach modernism with caution. Although the British worker was actually better off than the French worker, and English people were more educated and more productive than the French, the costs were too high.

In contrast to England, where the nation transformed itself from a rural to an urban society and from an agrarian to an industrial country, France slowed down industrialization. According to That Sweet Enemy. Britain and France: The History of a Love-Hate Relationship by Robert and Isabelle Tombs, by 1840 England’s industries had overtaken agriculture in prominence, but until 1950 the rural way of life predominated in France. As the result of its economic policies, France was spared the industrial pollution that made life in England a dark and shrouded nightmare. The contrasting economies of the two nations also explain the difference in artistic content between the English and French Realist artists.

Most artists and writers were middle class and were financially secure enough to criticize the prevailing establishment by depicting their own age. They wrote and painted from a position of protected privilege. The lower classes did not represent themselves; they were represented in terms of the attitudes and needs of the dominant class. For example, in France, Georges Sand, the novelist, and Jean-Françoise Millet, the painter, both from wealthy or well-to-do backgrounds, concentrated on peasant life.

Meanwhile, in England, John Millais and Ford Maddox Brown, turned their attention to “modern problems,” or life in an urban culture. The Pre-Raphaelites were certainly painting from a position of social privilege but their content was frequently urban, reflecting the realities of life in London at mid-century. The French artists concentrated to rural subjects for several reasons. First, peasants still existed in large numbers in that nation and rural life was a significant factor in French culture. Second, modernization, as moderate as it was in France, set off waves of nostalgia about the supposedly untouched agricultural sectors.

In France, however, depicting peasants, however benignly, was rife with risk for an artist. Outside of Paris, the lower classes were resistant to the new forms of government following the revolution, with the “White Terror” of the Vendée revolts in the countryside continuing into the Twentieth Century. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the “peasant” in France came to symbolize the lower classes in general. Peasant paintings tended to function in a socially reassuring fashion, by displacing middle-class anxiety away from the ever-troublesome proletariat to the more distant peasant, isolated in the countryside.

The idealization of the peasants and rural life calmed bourgeois fears, while a more realistic approach had effect of drawing bourgeois attention to those left behind by the Revolutions of 1789 and 1830 in pre-Industrial conditions. In France, artistic depiction of the lower classes was a political act that could easily be construed as a critique of bourgeois power. In England, the plight of the lower classes was conveyed in terms of an artistic narrative of reform that was a positive echo of the effort by the British government to bring about peaceful changes in society.

In America, “realism” was a more amorphous impulse. Not so much a movement as a choice of subject matter and the employment of a certain technique, realism in America often crossed paths with American Romanticism. Romanticism lingered much longer in America because it continued to serve cultural needs. Romanticism, from the very beginning, was allied to landscape painting, which was used to create a sense of nationhood. One of the tasks of the landscape painter was to reveal the wonders of American scenery. In the American northeast, these landscapes were tinged with a Romantic nostalgia as the mythic Wilderness was being ruthlessly carved away to make way for settlements.

As the frontier moved from East to West, Romantic landscape painting moved with it, but the paintings that resulted were highly realistic in their naturalistic details. Frederich Church and Albert Bierstadt competed to see whose work was the most accurate in the rendition of nature. Indigenous American art had a much older tradition of realism and genre painting that could be applied to the Romantic tradition. The audience for these paintings were the Easterners who had never seen and could not imagine the wonders of the scenery. On one level, these paintings, often large and expansive, were educations in and or themselves. On the other hand, the landscapes barely concealed a subtext of imperialism and colonial conquest.

George Caleb Bingham’s scenes of everyday life on the frontier were sometimes reflective of Romanticism, especially its close American relative, Luminism, in his scenes on the Mississippi. On the other hand, he paintings could be completely anecdotal and full of a nationalistic narrative. In contrast to French Realism, American realism was more akin to the English Pre-Raphaelites with their preference for storytelling conveyed through a multitude of details. Realism, in America, was coincidence with realistic rendering, often a specific technique learned in Düsseldorf and imported to America. After the 1850s when the frontier moved West of the Mississippi, realism became more urban and romanticism continued to be aligned to landscape painting. Like Romanticism, Realism lingered in America, long after its European counterparts had become exhausted.

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Hegel and His Impact on Art and Aesthetics

GEORG WILHELM FRIEDRICH HEGEL (1779-1831)

Hegel and his Impact on Art and Aesthetics

Like any aesthetician, G. W. F. Hegel does not get involved in any particular movement or style or work of art, but, that said, he was very definite about the kind of art where Beauty could be found. Like Emmanuel Kant, Hegel brings art and freedom together and anticipates the idea of art-for-art’s sake. For Hegel, the Idea is always opposed to Nature. The mind is contrasted to the mindlessness of matter or nature. The mind creates art, which gives an idea to nature. This idea is the unity of the externality or objectivity of nature and the subjectivity or personal vision of the artist. As with Kant, the spectator of the work of art is as important as the art maker for Hegel. Beauty in art is the emanation of the Absolute or Truth through an object. Beauty can be shown only in a sensuous form called the Ideal, which transcends the Idea to become a special form. Like all of Hegel’s triads, nothing is lost: nature and idea are the Other to one another but together they create an organism, the work of art.

The contemplative mind strives to see the Absolute. In order to see Beauty, this detached mind must transcend nature. By freeing itself, the mind perceives the spiritual content of the work of art, which must also be free in order to be Beautiful. Kant insisted that the higher form of beauty had to be free and independent and Hegel followed suit. Hegel insisted that, to manifest Beauty, art must expel all that is external or contiguous or unnecessary. Remember, in Hegel’s system, each part of the triad must be “pure” and can contain only its dialectical opposite. For art to reveal Beauty is to reveal Truth, which can only be pure. This is why art can never imitate nature, which is, mindless and irrational. Nature must be reversed with its antithesis, the idea, which brings about the inner unity necessary for spiritual content: nature, idea, spirit = art.

If art must be free, then art should show, not just Beauty and Truth, but Freedom itself, which is the property of the free mind. Hegel, true to his age, is a child of Neoclassicism and, like many Germans, was looking back to a Golden Age when human beings were free. Part of being “modern” is being un-free. Society has demands, which are placed upon people who have lost their sense of wholeness and self-actualization. Thinking along the same lines as Friedrich Schiller’s “alienation,” Hegel felt that his own age was a diminished one. Therefore, the artist should take subject matter from the past, a heroic age populated by characters that were free of the social restrictions so prevalent of the industrial age.

Ancient peoples, Hegel assumed could determine their own destinies and could make their own lives on their own terms. While the current times were particular to the modern period, the primeval era could manifest life in its universal and essential form. By stripping the process of living down to its basics, one is nearing the first cause of life, the logic of existence in which one is in the process of becoming. One can “become” only if one is free, linking the rational with the free to the universal. Hegel explained art’s predilection for the depiction of the high-born because those individuals are free, assuming that the lower classes are unsuited to being represented because, being subservient to their masters, they can never be free and therefore, never universal. Stripping away the elitist assumptions that princes are preferential to peasants as subject matter in art, it is possible to note that Hegel was insisting that the artist attempt to reach the universal through art.

But Hegel was a also creature of history. The idea of “princes” should not be taken so literally in the modern era, an era badly suited to the classical art of the past. Hegel understood that the antique forms were indissolubly linked to their own time. Greek and Roman sculpture expressed the ideal in universal poses of repose, rather than with active poses linked to a particular action. But in the modern age, the new society did not lend itself to rest and repose, which could be found only in the spirit of the artist or in his personality. The modern age has come to realize that any hope of freedom or infinity is impossible and the human mind has no escape, except into itself. The new subjectivity of the spirit produces a new kind of art in which the artist imprints him or herself upon the art. the result is Romantic art which is the art of modern Europe. Unlike ancient art which needs the sensuous manifestation of the classical statue, Romantic art gives rise to an independent spirituality or mind which leaves behind its traces as sensuous remnants. It then logically follows that sculpture is not the appropriate receptacle for the spirit of the Romantic artist. Clearly, Hegel could not conceive of a form of sculpture that was allowed to transcend its traditional role of starting with and then transcending nature into idealism. Sculpture was, despite its attempt at perfection of form, too bound to the “real.”

Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831

Painting, in its two-dimensional flatness, is the most suitable manifestation for the spirit, mind, and personality of the artist. Painting is appearance, rather than actuality or matter and, as a mental process of the artist, is subjective. The external world is allowed to enter into the subjective world of art because concrete reality is transformed through art. Hegel allows for the ugly, the grotesque, suffering and evil in Romantic art as the other necessary element in his dialectic. Beauty must contain ugliness, just as Truth conceals Lie, and for reconciliation to take place beauty and ugliness must be reconciled into a concrete unity that is a higher form of Beauty, which is also Truth.

Although Hegel’s ideas on art and aesthetics were inspiration for those who believed in “art-for-art’s-sake” or the avant-garde, his deterministic philosophy was politically very retrograde and repressive. There is another way to view Hegel’s “princes.” As with his colleague at the University of Berlin, Johann Gottleib Fichte, Hegel believed that Germany’s destiny was to become the dominant power in Europe, due to the forces of history, which had passed England and France and had progressed to Germany. A snob and a social climber, the consummate academic ego, Hegel was enamored of power and, during the French occupation of Germany, was thrilled by Napoléon. Like Fichte, he believed that Germany was a chosen nation and that it had the moral right to pursue its hegemonic dominance ruthlessly with “absolute privileges over all others. It should behave as the spirit willed it and will be dominant in the world…” With Hegel, war and dominance as historical tools of historical progress entered into European thought. Because his philosophy was based in history, Hegelian aesthetics also impacted upon art history and art criticism. The basic structure of art history has followed his model of successive and contrasting movements.

The history of art has been told as a succession of conflicting styles by Heinrich Wölfflin and as a tale of successive and contrasting movements by history based upon formalist models. The ancient produced the modern, the universal produced the particular, the timeless produced the contingent and modern art is the synthesis of these conflicting forces. As a synthesis, Romantic art must be independent and begins to exist on its own. Hegel’s aesthetics inspire the theory of the avant-garde: thesis, antithesis, synthesis—Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, and so on. One avant-garde movement, assigned the positive position, opposed another avant-garde movement, the negative or counter position, resulted in a dialectic, which pushed art ever forward and towards an absolute of purity. The result of the influence of Hegel, art criticism, especially under the American art writer, Clement Greenberg, was model of artistic progression from representation towards abstraction. By using the avant-garde and its oppositional stance as the engine of change, art history in the Twentieth Century has been Hegelian in structure.

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