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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Écriture Féminine: Historical Context



…It still remains politically essential for feminists to defend women as women in order to contrast the patriarchal oppression that precisely defines women as women…Toril Moi, 1995

One is not born a woman, one becomes one…Simone de Beauvoir, 1954

These two opening quotes expose a rift within post-war French feminism. One one said is Simone de Beauvoir, who was historically caught in the uncomfortable position of being a pioneer. It is possible to image Beauvoir, surrounded by men talking about their works and the works by other men, in a chic café in Montparnasse. Buffeted by the male ego, she began to rewrite history and retold the received wisdom of the Western world through the experiences of women. The Second Sex, published in 1949, is both a statement that women exist and signals a possible closure to a patriarchal system that is oppressing half the sky. But beginnings are just that beginnings and the magnitude of Beauvoir’s achievement loomed over the next generation of feminists, especially in France who felt that they had to wrestle with her as a precursor. It is rare that woman have to challenge a predecessor, but as Toril Moi stated in 1986, speaking for many French feminists, “Now that Beauvoir is dead, feminism is finally free to move into the twenty-first century.”

Feminist theory, or a critique of society from the standpoint of gender, borrowed from the only possible preexisting model: Marxism. Although Marxist theory was concerned only with class differences, its theoretical position of a critique of a (capitalist) society through a particular lens, such as class, did lend itself to a concentration on the issue of gender. Feminism altered the Marxist position that the economy or the economic system is the engine of society. True, the economic system produced a class division, but women were folded into those classes. Whether upper, middle or lower, the Marxist take on the classes rendered the female a mere counterpart of the male and did not allow gender to be considered as a reason for social ordering. For the feminists of the Second Wave, a Marxist critique of society was very appealing as was the message of social reform and revolution, but, for them, Marxism, a theory that critiqued dominance, hid from itself a dominance–the assumption that females were (should be) dominated by the males.

As was pointed out in earlier posts on the history of feminism, First and Second waves, one of the ironies of so-called reformist (abolitionist) or revolutionary (war protest) movements is the continuation of female subjugation into the proposed more just future. It is no accident that the Suffragettes emerged out of the anti-slavery movement and that the Women’s Movement followed the uprisings and Civil Rights protests of the 1960s—each historic event specifically left women out of the equation. The feminist position would be that Othering in terms of gender pre-dated class hierarchies and that gender was as much, if not more, a determining factor of one’s role in society, than class. In fact, one could make an argument that discrimination against women was the Primal Prejudice and that until sexism is eradicated, all other bigotries remain in place.

One of the most basic tenets of Marxism was that the lower classes must be re-educated to understand that they were being exploited by those who owned the means of production. Dependent and frightened for their livelihoods and grateful for any kind of job, the laborers were reluctant to rebel against their masters. The task of the revolutionaries was to remove the veil of false consciousness and allow the working class to see that what they considered “nature” was indeed “culture.” Nothing could be more entrapped in the idea of “nature” than women, who were held down by the socially imposed doxa that women were nature. Men, of course, believed that women were, by nature, naturally, inferior to the ale and many women, especially middle class women, benefited (or so they thought) from their subservience. As was pointed out earlier, the feminist movement was essentially middle class and priority was given to those well-positioned womne who could make a difference. Late 20th century feminists borrowed the Marxist technique of “consciousness raising” to illuminate the gendered bases of society and to reveal the ideological constructions of relations between men and women.

Throughout the centuries of the Enlightenment, the voices of women were virtually unheard and their existence hardly factored into male-made philosophy. To merely interject women into philosophy, into critical theory was to call into question the legitimacy of the entire enterprise of objectivity and scientific progress. All claims to universality ring hollow when philosophy is confronted with the actual lived reality of women and people of color and those who did not conform to the heterosexual “norm.” One of the more interesting aspect of feminism is that, unlike Marxist revolutionaries, the movement did not directly attack government but developed a theoretical interrogation of knowledge itself. The goal was to undermine, not the epistemology or philosophy, but the practical way in which knowledge was produced. If half the human race is systematically eradicated from history, eliminated from scientific discourse, denied access to the political system, and prevented from having equal access to social opportunity,then knowledge and the discourses it produced was suspect. The question was how and what to attack.

The America feminists of the late 20th century were university educated intellectuals, well positioned to question the methodologies of the male enterprises, from literature to philosophy to science to language itself. Over the course of forty years of continuing challenges to received wisdom, traditional male scholarship was shown to be sterile and narcissistic, women learned to be suspicious of monolithic systems, such as science and religion, that not only excluded them but also devalued women. There were several distinct modes of feminist critique, carried out in the arts and in the sciences and in the humanities. One could conduct a feminist reading of any kind of text, from a newspaper article to a scientific journal, in other words, to posit the feminist (not a woman who was not a feminist) as a reader/viewer of something that had been produced by a man for men. This type of reading would reveal how male authors have used women as a sign in their semiotic systems and how women have been led by male culture to imagine themselves in male terms.

In 1973 Robin Lackoff wrote “Language and Woman’s Place” which convincingly demonstrated that the very language we speak services the empowerment of men and works hard to keep women in a powerless position. Language has trapped women, which are represented only as objects, images, and stereotypes in a culture that is marked by omissions and misconceptions about women. As Lackoff concluded,

Linguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-worldimbalancesand inequities. They are clues that some external situation needs changing, rather than items that one should seek to change directly. A competent doctor tries to eliminate the germs that cause measles, rather than trying to bleach the red out with peroxide. I emphasizethis point because it seems to be currently fashionable to try, first, to attack the disease by attempting to obliterate the external symptoms; and, secondly, to attack every instance of linguistic sexual inequity, rather than selecting those that reflecta realdisparityin social treatment,not meregrammaticalnonparallelism; we should be attemptingto single out those linguistic uses that, by implication and innuendo, demean the members of one group or another, and should be seeking to make speakers of English aware of the psychological damage such forms do. The problem, of course, lies in deciding which forms are really damagingto the ego, and then in determiningwhat to put in their stead.

If naming is a man’s prerogative, given to Adam by God, then it is the task of the feminist to use critique as interpretation, insisting on the perspective of the female, leading to pluralism of reading and demanded interpretation or a counter-interpretation and hermeneutics as a critical stance. Another feminist position was to attack male critical theories, such as that of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, which was based entirely on male experience. These androcentric models needed to be de-coded and de-mystified, a task undertaken by many women over the course of decades. The feminists analysis of male discourses and male texts would reveal the connection between textuality and sexuality, art and gender, and psychosexual identity and power. But, as always, in examining the male-based knowledge and discourse, there was the problem of reinforcing its power by acknowledging its power.


Sandra Gilbert (left) and Susan Gubar (right), 1980

At the peak of the Second Wave of feminism, the key question was whether or not to acknowledge the male or to ignore the male. Ignoring the male meant raising yet another question: what did art by women look like through the feminist eyes of women as viewers and as readers? One of the best-known books of this type was published in the year 1979 was The Madwoman in the Attic by the writing team, Susan Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The remarkable year also introduced a feminist critique of literature, termed “Gynocritics” by Elaine Showalter. Like other early feminist scholars, Showalter focused on the essential issue of difference and explained how “difference” between men and women was used by men to disadvantage women. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar who concentrated on literature by women writing in a repressive society, Showalter examined the female literature from the perspective of the female reader. Gilbert and Gubar accepted the essential psychoanalytic definition of women artists as displaced, disinherited, and excluded. Women as artists have a troubled and tormented relationship to female identity. For women, gender is a painful obstacle and a dehabilitating inadequacy, making the self-assertion that is writing an agony.

Showalter pointed out that embedded in the feminist critique of both the female and male writer was a concentration on the male–either as a writer a fictional protagonist or as an “authority” who authorized certain established interpretations—all of which served only to reinforce the power of the male. What feminism needed was to study the literature of women from the perspective of women in order to unearth the buried female culture. Another hope of these feminist theory was that the narrow male-oriented studies of the (male) arts would be expanded to include newly discovered and recovered artists and writers who were women and people of color and to read their images and texts, not from the male perspective as taught in the university, but from a feminist perspective. The results of the attempts to reform academia from the inside have been mixed. Certainly feminist theory became part of the very institution it attacked but, in many cases, was either marginalized as “women’s studies” or incorporated as a “token.”

Academic skirmishes over who and what should be studied were called the “canon” wars, a reference to a canon of “great” books or “major” monuments—all by men, put in place on by males and consecrated by males on the vague basis of “quality,” a concept that appeared (due to the lack of representation by women) to be gendered. The (white and male) opposition to the inclusion of women and people of color in courses of university studies was based upon the assumption of a finite number of “slots” available for membership in the canon. The male argument went: if Jane Austen was included then Charles Dickens would have to be excluded and what would “literature” be without Dickens? If one were to contrast American feminists to the French feminists it would be the difference of perspectives between the experience of women on the two continents. American women had been politically enfranchised and socially empowered for more and far earlier than the women in France, who were not able to obtain the right to vote until 1944.

In France, feminist criticism paralleled certain separatist activities among American feminists during the seventies, especially in the area of visual arts in Los Angeles, and, as such, tended to be more intellectually edgy and politically radical. Écriture féminine is, simply defined, writing the female body. As Antoinette Fouque stated, “…our enemy isn’t man but phallocentry; that is, the imperialism of the phallus.” As was established in earlier posts on Freud and Lacan, the foundation of male theory on the social order was based on the male body, with the phallus as the signifier of domination. Although both groups–those in Paris and those in Los Angeles–would be accused of “essentialism” by returning to the female body as a source of meaning, Écriture féminine was a literary movement. Whether or not these feminists ventured onto to dangerous ground by replicating the tactics of their male counterparts, the idea of “writing women” was advocating the possibility of examining the role of the female body and female difference in language and text. Utopian in nature, écriture féminine reasserted the value of the “feminine” as a struggle to rescue the feminine from stereotypical associations created by males with the supposed “inferiority” of the feminine to the masculine. Rather than intellectual critique or attempts at reform, écriture féminine at its most extreme was an organic or biological criticism, asserting, “anatomy is textuality” and attacking the status quo from the radical outside.

As always, the question is how literal to take these or any assumptions over “anatomy.” This position was or could be a return to the crude anatomical essentialism that had oppressed women in the past or the implications were both Promethean and metaphorical. Gilbert and Gubar, for example, considered the association of the text with masculinity, of writing as being a patriarchal aesthetic. The pen was considered an extension of the penis, while women’s writing/art making is marked by anxiety about their lack of phallus/predecessors. Annie Leclerc’s “parole de femme” is language that is not oppressive to women and that loosens the tongue, i.e., makes it easier for women to make art. As the expert on Surrealism and sexuality, Xavière Gauthier noted,

As long as women remain silent, they will be outside the historical process. But if they begin to speak and write as men do, they will enter history subdued and alienated; it is a history, that, logically speaking, their speech should disrupt.

Women’s art needs to work within male discourse, and work ceaselessly in order to disrupt it and to deconstruct it. Women must write what cannot be written, and to do this they must reinvent language. They must speak outside and against all phallocentric structures which are based on the specular, that is of men looking at and investigating women in order to disempower them.

While women must pay homage to both their mothers and their fathers, men are able to ignore their female predecessors. Male writers will acknowledge Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson but they do not consider these women as “mothers” of literature, only as authors who are historical figures. Women artists are marked by feelings of loneliness and alienation. They need sisterly precursors and fear antagonism from male readers and suffer from anxiety over their own female intervention, uninvited, into a man’s or public world. Women have always been artists, but they have been willfully forgotten by men. The feminists in France and/or those associated with écriture féminine were very concerned with philosophy and philosophical systems that perpetuated male domination. The question was where to begin–with equality which might imply equality on male terms or with difference which might imply locating the distinctiveness of women first and pursuing parity on their own female terms.

L’écriture féminine is associated with the French group known as MLF, Mouvement de libération de femmes, and is led by four leading female writers, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and the recently deceased, Monique Wittig. They share a common opponent—masculinist thinking and believe that Western culture is fundamentally oppressive and phallocentric. The Symbolic Discourse of the West is dominated through verbal mastery–to write and speak from a particular position is to appropriate the world.Women must resist this will to master by asserting jouissance, a direct re-experience of physical pleasures of infancy which have been oppressed but not entirely obliterated by the Law of the Father. Women are prevented expression of their own sexuality and must speak of their sexuality in a new language that would establish their point of view–a site of difference from which the phallocentric controls can be taken apart in the exercise of the theory and practice of féminine/féminité. This new sight/site is focused on women, not on their divergence/difference from men or from men’s views of women, but upon what it would mean to re-think philosophy from the standpoint of the body of the female.

Another post of interest discusses the work of Luce Irigaray.

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

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

[email protected]