Julia Kristeva and 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 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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Julia Kristeva: Transgression and the Féminine


Transgression and the Feminine

The philosophy and theories generated by Julia Kristeva bear traces of her own personal marginality: a woman in a man’s world, an east European from Bulgaria in the heart of Parisian intellectual culture, and a philosopher trying to write her way out of the patriarchy while still maintaining a relationship with that power structure. When Kristeva slipped through a crack in the Iron Curtain, she arrived in Paris in 1965, the high point of Existentialism and of Lacanian theory. Years would pass before the intellectuals of Paris would rethink their politics and practice and a decade would go by before ideas on feminism would be articulated. Like all women caught in the liminal zone between the last of masculine domination and the first gestures of female defiance, Kristeva reflected the transition into feminism through a critique of the texts of male precursors.

Keeping in mind that Kristeva was an Eastern-European exile, who came to Paris before May 1968, it is clear that her intent is to involve art in politics through the avant-garde in art. When Kristeva arrived in France, the Hegelian lectures of Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968) had been the cutting edge of philosophy in Paris, setting an example for a way to rethink traditional philosophy as inherited from the late 18th and early 19th century. The real crises that forced theory towards a more modern position was the evident failure of yet another uprising of the working class by early June 1968 and the 1973 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which exposed the fraud of Communism. As a result of these disillusioning events, there was a return to a Kantian morality of disinterest and a sense of moral commitment to the public good, fueled by the Paris events. For Kristeva and her colleagues, French theory should be political: intellectuals were engagé, involved and took political stances, and opposed the establishment through their texts. Kristeva would propose the use of poetic language becomes a ethical function for art. Poetry (art) is the “carnival” to society, a subversive practice which is destructive and conducive to madness, becoming a refusal of the “flight into madness.”

Kristeva was part of the newly formed Tel quel group, organized around the famous journal of the same name, established in 1960. Her group was engaged but opposed to writing/speaking in a “transparent” fashion, inherited from Sartre. These intellectuals become materialist writers who followed the non-academic work of Philippe Sollers (1936-), her husband, who legitimated flamboyance, intensity, and excessiveness. After the events of 1968, Tel quel (“as is”) issued a manifesto and declared the new stance for the French intellectual. Along with her colleagues, Jean-Louis Bardry, Hubert Damish, Denis Hollier, Julia Kristeva gave her support to the following points, which read in part:

it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages; consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state; in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science); any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.

Although Tel quel remained Marxist, its authors shifted towards the theory of language and Post-structuralism, Kristeva analyzed linguistic theory from the standpoint of psychoanalysis. As one of Jacques Lacan’s (1901-1981) students, Kristeva took up the issue of symbolic language and its hidden other side, as unspoken element to language that she developed and named semanalysis. Through “semanalysis” (the analysis of the semoitic as opposed to the Symbolic) Kristeva reasserted the buried and repressed theoretical Mother upon whose abjected body, the consciousness of the subject is formed. Her theory of semiotics investigated poetic language as a productivity of the text through which it is possible to speak about what used to be unspeakable: the prohibited language of the maternal material body. It is important to understand that Kristeva, much like Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would later do with difference and différance, commandeers a familiar word: “semiotics” and alters it slightly to “the semiotic.”


Julia Kristeva (1941-)

As Mary Ann Caws in her 1973 discussion of the Tel quel group noted, the editors used the neutral term “text” in order to separate writing from a system of capitalist ownership and valorization of the individual. In “Tel quel: Text and Revolution,” Caws marked off some of the key words for the translingualistic take on language: “Materiality, Refusal, Transgression/The sign, whether painted or written, has become opaque and therefore visible, so that the interest formerly attaching to content now attaches to the language and the structure of the text or canvas.” Caws continued, “An activity disruptive and self-aware, a development of semiotic consciousness: this general description of the deliberate and unreadable action of the “revolutionary avant-garde” displays the recurring themes of protest, distance, cutting off, refusal and political commitment, visible behind the proliferation of technical vocabulary.” By “translinguistic,” Caws means that the study of language has moved beyond Saussure and is now “a productive process, operating within another space at once self-constituting and self-exhausting, an inscription traversing language..rather than enclosed within it.”

Although Kristeva, possibly due to her association with the French feminists, is often severed by later explicators of her work from Tel quel, the genesis and the development of her break into Poststructuralist intertextuality remained part of the development of a very small but very influential group of thinkers. Clearly, as a member of the Tel quel group, Julia Kristeva was part of a group that was rethinking the role of language in society, post revolution. In La Révolution du langue poétique, 1974/1984, her doctoral thesis, Kristeva introduced the concept of le sémiotique, which would articulate the realm of the pre-Symbolic, which is the basis of poetic language. Although “the semoiotic” can be located within the signifying process, one should image the pre-Symbolic as the Feminine coming back to live and erupting back into consciousness to disrupt the Name of the Father.

This feminine element is the chora or receptacle for poetic language. The chora is a place, a theoretical site for activity that underlies the Symbolic. The chora, a term borrowed from Plato, is unbridled energy and instinctive drives that are part of a dialectic of the positive and the negative, the creative and the destructive. The chora, defined by Kristeva as “the place where the subject is both generated and negated,” is therefore part of the Mother’s Body, which is the unrepresentable and belonging to the semiotic as the pre-Symbolic, meaning the materiality–the energy and the drive–that precedes the Symbolic. The semiotic is the Voice and the Body, compared to the immaterial Father who is Symbolic. In a dialectic with the Mother who is the chora or Non-Place or the Semiotic, the destination of the child, which is society belongs to the realm of the Symbolic or signification. As Kristeva wrote, ‘What we call significancethen, is precisely this unlimited and unbounded generating process, this unceasing operation of the drives toward, in, and through language.” Kristeva, using Hegelian dialectical thinking, opposes the semiotic to the symbolic, which are resolved in the “thetic,” which is the “threshold or the resolution between the two. But the thetic not only the place where the human being constitutes herself, it is also a crossing over between boundaries.

But Kristeva re-places that non-place and makes the chora into a Place that provides the materiality for the symbolic. If the Chora precedes the division between subject and object, then the “feminine” is located at language’s unrepresentable materiality, which is indeterminate and ephemeral. Kristeva questions all forms of formalism and Structuralism, which is based upon reason and rationality, which is inherently male, and in doing so opened the way to Post-Structuralism. In opposing the concept of the poetic to the rational in language and in gendering this “poetic” as female, Kristeva places the poetic on the side of the political in that it disrupts official (male) (establishment) language. Like many women of her generation, Kristeva takes the ideas of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Jacques Lacan and holds them up to the light of criticality, not with the intent of dismantling their ideas from the outside but from the standpoint of appropriating their theories from the inside.

In the writings of Sigmund Freud, the woman is the “dark continent,” for Jacques Lacan, she does not exist, and it is the self-imposed task for Kristeva to recover the long lost body of the Mother and to reinstate the “feminine” in language. In Totem and Taboo, Freud’s version of the origin of Law in the Killing of the Father by the sons in order to possess the wives of the father is one the many grim tales of male-made violence. Freud places this act of fratricide at the heart of the incest taboo. The sons suffer remorse and melancholia (the refusal or inability to mourn) and renounce their claims on the father’s women (The Mother) in the name of the father. The primal Oedipal drama was the struggle between father and sons over the body of the murder, resulting in the shame of murder, which is the name for the repressed memory of the time before imposition of the Law. The original transgression, the murder of the Father in order to possess the Mother, becomes the foundation of the Law. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) would point out that the beginning of organized society and the advent of the symbolic was based, in Freudian and Marxist terms, upon the exchange of women. Lacan’s version of this primal trauma is somewhat different. The Sacrifice (of the Mother), made by all children who must be ushered into the social, is a re-enactment of this Founding Death, initiates the Symbolic at the moment in which the pre-Symbolic is divided from the Symbolic.

Here in this primal repression: the renunciation of the Mother, and this interdiction against incest, is an end to jouissance. Jouissance is a word that translates, badly, into the English word, “pleasure,” which in inadequate for the full meaning intended by French writers. The most succinct definition comes from Jane Gallop in Thinking Through the Body. As Gallop explained that “..Barthes distinguishes between plaisir, which is comfortable, ego-assuring, recognized, and legitimated by culture, and jouissance which is shocking, ego-disruptive, an d in conflict with the canons of culture..” Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Julia Kristeva were close colleagues and there were several topics in which both were interested, including intertextuality. The act of writing or the performativity of the text was the other side of (traditional) writing and Kristeva examined jouissance, the disruptive act of forbidden or unacknowledged “pleasure,” as the subject of serious philosophical attention. Joy is unnameable, the other side of reality, which taps into the unthinkable or the female, beyond tradition and history, drives thought beyond itself, to its own limits. Here new thought is possible or to put it another way “thought is again possible.” Writing becomes experience and engenders jouissance and pleasure and perversion. She echoes Luce Irigaray (1930-) in pointing out that the Law of the Father is predicated on the Murder of the Mother.

But for later generations of feminists, such as Judith Butler, Kristeva’s revision of phallic theory was too cautious and too wrapped up in language. Indeed, Butler called for a greater emphasis on the “materiality” of the female body, rather than allowing the woman to vanish into the theoretical materiality of language. Although Kristeva never broke with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, in her 1993 article, “Trans-Positions and Difference: Kristeva and Difference,” Tilottama Rajan argues that it is important for her to remain within the precincts of Lacan in order to retrieve “the materiality” that Freud left behind, even if it means staying in the patriarchal family. But Rajan suggests that Kristeva took an intertextual position in order to attack male theory from within as an act of a “transgression of the symbolic.” Indeed, Kristeva’s writings build upon the ideas of others and these ideas are not explained, leaving the texts opaque to the uninitiated reader and drawing the reader in the know into an extended conversation among generational writers.

By the eighties, Kristeva could be linked to key terms–all linked to the feminine: the semiotic, jouissance, abjection and transgression. “Transgression,” as described by Suzanne Guerlac in her 1996 article (later part of her book), “Bataille in Theory: Afterimages (Lascaux)” “If there is a single term poststructuralism could not live without-at least within the intellectual circles associated with the review Tel quel-it is “transgression,”inherited from Bataille” and transmitted from the Surrealist writer to the Tel quel group via Michel Foucault (1926-1984). As Guerlac explained,

Foucault defined transgression as”a gesture concerning the limit.” He presented it as a flash of lightning, an image that not only figures transgression but also emblematizes the move into what will become the philosophical register of poststructuralism. It traces a line, a line that figures the Heideggerian ontology of limitation, the coming into being (or appearance)of beings on the horizon of Being; it suggests the limit of the ontological difference between Being and beings.

Within French theory, “transgression” would be meaningless without “interdiction,” or that which is prohibited, that which is taboo: the limits that can be transgressed. In her 1997 book, Literary Polemics, Guerlac continued her discussion of transgression which is linked to art through Breton and revolution through Sartre and to language through Mallarmé, all of which became reconciled, as she put it, through Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Thinking once again of intertextuality working through Kristeva, it can be seen that she takes over these disjointed but joined ideas and re-pieces them together for her own purposes: to make a case for avant-garde (poetry) as a form of artistic revolution. Poetic language, rather than the logical language of exposition and knowledge, is the language of transgression, through the process of rejection and negation.

In returning to the semiotic and the material, art is both a revolution in that it is subversive of the received order and is also transgressive in the Surrealist sense. As Kristeva stated, “It is in the so-called art practices that the semiotic condition of the symbolic, also reveals it self to be its destroyer.” However, in linking art and revolution, Kristeva marks the text with both its contradiction and the formation of the contradiction, or rejection which can also contain discourse. Thus jouissance and its opposite returns under the guise of transgression and its opposite, meaning. Transgression or the defiance of a “sacred” law is bound up in both art and religion. Religion ritualizes and enshrines prohibition and taboo and enmeshes the sacred with its opposite the profane. Art is the expression of transgression which, as was noted, part of the feminine, the suppressed, the murdered. As Ceceila Sjoholm stated in her 2005 book, Kristeva and the Political,

The conflict between the semiotic and the symbolic is not just to be interpreted in terms of poetic versus normative language. It is intertwined with the processes of history, ideology and religious where woman introjected as the threatening fantasmatic inside is recast and projected as a fearful and contaminating outside.

The next post will discuss abjection, the contamination of the repressed Mother, and the alter ego of transgression.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]