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Abject

Source:
Encyclopedia of Aesthetics
Author(s):
Barbara CreedBarbara Creed

Abject. 

The conventional meaning of abjection signifies “a state of being cast off” or of feeling in a low or debased condition. The abject has also long been associated with degradation of the body, bodily wastes, transgression, and the violation of boundaries. An early artist of the abject was Hieronymus Bosch, the fifteenth-century Dutch painter, who drew upon fantastically abject imagery in order to illustrate religious and ethical ideas. Bosch created a nightmarish world of strange fantasies involving monstrous creatures, bodily torture, dismemberment, and grotesque unions of human and animal. In The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art, Arthur C. Danto discusses the emergence in the early 1990s of abject art as a genre, which had become established enough to warrant its own dedicated exhibitions. Danto correctly points out that abjection in art is not a new phenomenon. He cites Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who famously said that what was new about Christian and Romantic art was that both privileged the abject in representations of Christ crucified on the cross—“the tortured and crucified Christ, that ugliest of creatures in whom divine beauty became, through human evil, basest abjection” (2003). In Danto’s view: “What Abject art has done is to seize upon the emblems of degradation as a way of crying out in the name of humanity” (2003). Danto argues that avant-garde artists such as the Dadaists set out to undermine the “supposedly internal relationship between art and beauty” in order “for art more directly to address the inhumanities that so revolted the generation of artists after World War I” (2003). A crucial consequence of the avant-garde’s focus on the exploration of abjection was the attempt by that art to shock the spectator into a new and more radical awareness of the dark side of human nature and to displace aesthetics as central to the meaning of art.

Surrealist artists and filmmakers, who, in the early 1920s, first set out to explore the relationship between dream and reality and the role of the unconscious in everyday life, were drawn to things abject. In particular, they were interested in the power of unexpected juxtapositions in a work of art to unsettle the spectator and encourage a questioning of the restrictive norms and conventions of everyday life. Considered a renegade surrealist, Georges Bataille explored themes of eroticism, transgression, and the taboo. Fascinated by the ancient practice of human sacrifice and the abject body, Bataille set out to examine the importance of transgression and the blurring of boundaries particularly through the undermining of categories. His famous novel Histoire de l’oeil (1928; English trans., Story of the Eye, 1977), which he published under the pseudonym Lord Auch (meaning, Lord “to the shithouse”), was initially regarded as pornography. In it, Bataille plays on a series of related symbols, such as the eye, egg, and testicle, that he then relates to intellectual constructs. Other famous novels include Ma Mère (1966; English trans., My Mother, 1972), which explores incest, and Le Bleu du ciel (1957; English trans., Blue of Noon, 1978), which explores abjection through a female character called “Dirty” and her association with sex, excrement, and decay. Méret Oppenheim’s Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure, 1936), known in English as Fur Breakfast, offers a startling image of abjection. It consists of a saucer, teacup, and spoon covered in gazelle fur. It is difficult not to look at Object without imagining the sensation of animal fur in one’s mouth. In situating the domestic in a context of animality, Oppenheim draws attention to the abject undercurrent of the everyday. Luis Buñuel’s and Salvadore Dalí’s surreal film Un Chien Andalou (1929) deliberately eschews all narrative logic in order to present the viewer with a series of abject images: a razor slicing through a woman’s eye; ants crawling from the wound in the palm of a man’s hand; two decomposing donkeys on a grand piano; a man who wipes away his mouth with his hand. The surrealists and other avant-garde groups, such as the Viennese Actionists of the 1960s, were central to the history of the relationship between art and the abject.

AbjectClick to view larger

Oxidation Painting, 1978 (nine canvases, copper metallic pigment and urine on canvas), Andy Warhol.

private collection / photo © christie’s images / the bridgeman art library

Kristeva and Abjection.

In poststructuralist theory abjection is associated with that which disturbs identity and order. With reference to the influential writings of Bataille and anthropologist Mary Douglas, the philosopher Julia Kristeva developed a new concept of abjection in her book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982). Based in part on psychoanalytic theory, Kristeva’s concept of the abject, particularly in relation to bodily abjection, has been taken up by a range of theorists, including cultural critics, artists, feminist writers, filmmakers, and art historians. The concept of the abject entered mainstream art circles in 1993 when the Whitney Museum of American Art held an exhibition titled Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art. The exhibition catalogue stated that the concept of abjection as developed by Kristeva had manifested itself as a major theoretical development of art in the 1990s. Exhibited artworks drew attention to the abject through their titles, many of which related to different forms of bodily abjection and its relationship to the self. Examples of such works include Claes Oldenburg’s Soft Toilet (1966), Judy Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom (1971), Carolee Schneeman’s performance piece Meat Joy (1964), and Mary Kelly’s prototype for Post-Partum Document, Documentation 1: Analysed Faecal Stains and Feeding Charts (1974). Abjection remains a much-debated and important concept in poststructuralist theory and aesthetics. It also has connections with Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny, Georges Bataille’s informe, and Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque. In my view, when abjection intersects with any one of these concepts it expresses itself with a different aesthetic focus, one relevant to the specific idea that the artist is exploring, such as the uncanny or the carnivalesque.

In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva explores the meaning of abjection and the crucial role that it plays in the formation of human subjectivity and society. Kristeva argues that abjection offers a means of separating out the human from the nonhuman and the fully constituted subject from the partially developed subject. It also offers a means of separating out, or drawing an imaginary line between, civilized society and those things that threaten its proper functioning, such as acts of murder, cannibalism, and incest. According to Julia Kristeva, abjection is that which “does not respect borders, positions, rules” and that which “disturbs identity, system, order” (1982).

The abject must be expelled from the place of the properly constituted subject and located on the other side of an imaginary border in order to guarantee the integrity of the self. The individual can expel the abject but ironically can never feel free of the abject as it is constantly present, calling upon the subject who is fascinated by what it signifies—the forbidden, perverse, taboo. Thus, the abject is deeply ambiguous, which is one of its most important characteristics. In the past, societies developed ritual as a means by which individuals could renew their contact with the abject prior to its expulsion. Although the abject threatens the subject, it must be tolerated because that which threatens to undermine meaning also helps to define meaning. It is the activity that brings about exclusion of the abject, which also assists the subject in taking up his/her proper place in relation to the symbolic order.

The abject can be experienced in a variety of ways: through the body, by means of relationships with others, and in the context of law and language. According to Kristeva, the body, in particular, offers a key site wherein abjection holds sway. The ideal civilized subject should maintain a “clean and proper” body (1984). Normally the subject is able to expel and/or clean away bodily wastes such as feces, urine, saliva, vomit, pus, and blood. The outside skin offers protection from the insides of the body, which threaten to spill out through cuts and wounds. The abject works to maintain a tension between inside and outside, but this tension can be undermined. The ultimate in abjection is the corpse in that the latter is no longer able to protect itself from its own wastes. Kristeva writes: “If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel. ‘I’ is expelled” (1984).

Theorists, such as Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, argue that Kristeva binds abjection too closely to the body and its wastes; they criticize the project of much abject art, which, they affirm, focuses on the perverse—even seeming to revel in it (Krauss et al., 1994). They also object to Kristeva’s reference to Bataille’s early writings to justify her concept of abjection. They claim that Kristeva’s theory relies too heavily on meaning; rather, they draw on Bataille’s concept of informe, which utilizes the “formless” to attack meaning. Krauss states: “The notion of the informe, as Bataille enunciates it, is about attacking the very imposition of categories…. But Kristeva’s project is all about recuperating certain objects as abject [which] is contrary to Bataille” (1994). Despite their reservations, it is the idea of bodily abjection that has powerfully influenced those engaged in the production of aesthetic works, such as painters, poets, filmmakers, and performance artists. The abject is also experienced through forms of behavior that represent an affront to accepted morality as evident in the activities of the rapist and murderer.

Historically, concepts of abjection can be traced back to ancient religious abominations, including human sacrifice, cannibalism, decay and death, murder, menstrual blood, and incest. It was once the function of religion to purify the abject. Kristeva argues that, with the decline of religion and ritual, art has taken on this role. Through a journey into “the foundations of the symbolic construct,” purification now resides with “that catharsis par excellence called art” (1982). In the second half of Powers of Horror, Kristeva analyzes the writings of the anti-Semite author Louis-Ferdinand Céline in relation to abjection.

Abjection and the Female Body.

One aspect of abjection of particular importance to contemporary artists is its close association with the reproductive female body. Kristeva argues that individuals experience abjection in their infancy at that time, prior to language, when they are attempting to break from the mother in order to assert themselves as separate entities. The child attempts to separate from the maternal body, but the mother is hesitant about releasing the infant—partly because of her protective role and partly because her control over the child (particularly if male) helps to authenticate her agency in a patriarchal world in which she herself has been historically marginalized. Social prohibitions, such as the taboo on incest and the maternal body, assist the child. As the child attempts to break away, the mother becomes an “abject” figure; her abjection is intensified if she, unconsciously or otherwise, attempts to (s)mother the child, to awaken in the child a fear of loss of its own identity. If the child sinks back into the familial bosom and becomes reluctant to establish a separate identity, it is in danger of losing its identity.

As a result, all patriarchal societies have erected prohibitions against excessive contact with the maternal body, which has been represented as abject through its role in reproduction. In contrast to the ideal male body, which is muscular, impenetrable, and erect, the female body is represented as soft and penetrable. In addition, the female body is associated with abject substances, such as hymenal blood, menstrual blood, and afterbirth. It also changes shape, swelling during pregnancy and subsiding after birth. In his description of the carnivalesque body, Mikhail Bakhtin refers to the act of birth as signifying a powerful instance of the grotesque body, which has much in comment with Kristeva’s abject body. According to Bakhtin, the female body in labor represents the opposite of the closed, impenetrable, proper body. He affirms that the female body is characterized by a “gaping mouth, the protruding eyes, sweat, trembling, suffocation, the swollen face…” (1984). Historically, human societies have enacted prohibitions against the woman who is menstruating, pregnant, and in the process of giving birth. Because the mother presides over the infant’s toilet training, she further is aligned with the realm of unclean bodily substances, such as urine and feces.

References to bodily fluids and wastes in works of art and popular culture invariably invoke not only the abject, but also public outrage. Controversy broke out in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp attempted to exhibit a porcelain urinal, with the title Fountain, in an exhibition organized by the Society of Independent Artists. It was signed “R. Mutt.” After the society rejected Fountain, Alfred Stieglitz photographed Duchamp’s exhibit, and the photograph was published in the magazine The Blind Man. In the 1960s Duchamp was commissioned to create replicas, which are held in various museums. By the 1980s, artists such as Mary Kelly, Cindy Sherman, and Judy Chicago had begun to explore the idea of an abject aesthetic in relation to the female body and its reproductive fluids. Andres Serrano caused a controversy when he exhibited a work titled Piss Christ (1987) in which he submerged a plastic crucifix in a container of his own urine. One of the most popular films of all times, The Exorcist (William Friedkin, director, 1973) represents the abject body of the possessed heroine, a pubescent girl, awash with bodily fluids—blood, pus, urine, mucus, and vomit. It is important to note, as does Hal Foster, that the body under question must be contextualized and that the meaning of certain abject bodily substances can change and become more charged over time and in different circumstances. For instance, according to Helen Molesworth: “The fact that blood, sperm, and anality are the most charged terms of abjection now has to be understood in relation to HIV” (Krauss et al., 1994).

Abjection and the Uncanny.

Not everything that is abject is uncanny; however, abjection is closely related to the uncanny in those instances in which the subject has a powerful reaction to that which the symbolic order has expelled. Drawing upon previous accounts of the uncanny, Sigmund Freud defined the uncanny as something that is both familiar and yet unfamiliar. According to Freud, it is related to “what is frightening—to what arouses dread and horror” (1975). The uncanny, like the abject, also evokes unease and fear. The key to the uncanny is repression. Freud argued that the uncanny constituted those things that ought to have remained hidden but which have come to light. When the subject becomes aware of what it was within the abject that caused it to be cast out from the symbolic order of law and language, then abjection can become uncanny. In other words, the subject is repulsed by what was familiar yet also by what is now altered and unfamiliar. The abject is uncanny when we are able to recognize it in relation to what it was before. For instance, a corpse, which signifies the utmost in abjection, also gives rise to a sense of uncanniness in that we recognize it as having once been alive, as another living subject, but as now creating a sense of abjection through its uncanniness. Kristeva associates the subject’s experience of the abject, in certain situations, with a “massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness” that once was familiar but now is “loathsome” (1982). Abjection in relation to murder and incest has the properties of the taboo. She refers to Freud’s description of the taboo as having opposite qualities; it is both sacred and uncanny because it is “dangerous, forbidden and unclean.” The uncanny, like the abject, also disturbs borders. According to Nicholas Royle, the uncanny “disturbs any straightforward sense of what is inside and what is outside” (2003). Freud noted a series of uncanny objects and states that are also potentially abject: the corpse, severed limbs, a severed head, a double or doppelgänger, automata, demons, ghosts, the evil eye, the blurring of dream and reality, the so-called castrated female genital organs, the fantasy of being buried alive, the blurring of human and animal. The abject/uncanny has exerted a powerful influence on avant-garde art forms in which an abject aesthetic is based on the familiar rendered unfamiliar.

Kristeva argues that abjection causes the subject to experience disgust and nausea, to cry out, to wretch in order to eject the abject, to banish it to the other side of the border. What is the relationship between abjection and artistic practice? It is clear that abject art aims to disgust in order to unsettle the spectator as it takes the spectator on a journey into the abyss. It would be wrong, however, to argue that all forms of abject representation have the same objectives. Some expressions of abjection, particularly in horror films, draw on black humor to invoke laughter and disgust. Artistic explorations of abjection draw on a range of emotional responses to cause the viewer to think seriously about the material being presented and its wider implications for society and the individual.

Abjection and Wound Culture.

The literary critic Mark Seltzer’s description of twentieth-century culture as a “wound culture” (1998) offers a way of understanding why the concept of abjection has exerted such a powerful influence in modern culture. He argues that evidence clearly exists of a kind of “mass attraction to atrocity” in the public arena in the way in which people gather around scenes of violence and rush to the site of an accident—a happening explored by Buñuel and Dalí in Un Chien Andalou and more recently by David Cronenberg in his film Crash (1996). Seltzer says that “the public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and open persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound” is symptomatic of a wound culture. In analyzing the role of abject art in the modern world, Hal Foster argues that “truth resides in the traumatic or abject subject, in the diseased or damaged body” (1996). A wound signifies the essence of abjection in that the skin, which normally acts as a barrier between the inside and outside of the body, has been cut or torn open, thus allowing the abject inner bodily fluids, bone, flesh, and organs to fall through to the outside. A wound signifies the body’s frailty and mortality, its propensity to metamorphosis, decay, and decomposition—all signifiers of abjection. The effect of World War I was to create, for the first time, large numbers of wounded bodies that, through the invention of the moving camera, were put before the public gaze. The Dadaists responded directly to the abject nature of this war. The writings of Freud, particularly those on melancholia and hysteria, drew attention to psychological trauma and the wound within. The horrors unleashed by this war were rendered even more terrible by the atrocities of World War II. Kristeva refers directly to the crimes of the Nazis, to Auschwitz, and to the murder of children. She sees the destruction of childhood by the Nazis as particularly abject in that childhood is supposed to save the individual from death. She notes that it is the insidious disturbance of borders, “the immoral, sinister, scheming and shady face of abjection that is here so repulsive” (1982). The paintings of Otto Dix, the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the short documentary Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, director, 1955) all capture the abjection of war in aesthetic form. Public figures such as the novelist J. M. Coetzee, the artist Patricia Piccinini, and the filmmaker Frederick Wiseman have drawn attention over the years to the abjection of many species of animals in noting the abject breeding of animals in factory farms for human consumption, the abject treatment of animals in slaughterhouses and experimental laboratories, and the abject lives of animals bred for body parts.

Contemporary art abounds with images of abjection, but the use of images alone does not create an aesthetic. In accordance with Kristeva’s definition of abjection, it can be argued that an abject aesthetic emerges not simply through the presentation of abject things, but through a representation of these in relation to borderline states, a dissolving of boundaries, and a disturbance of identity and order. In those works in which abjection is aligned with the uncanny the familiar is rendered unfamiliar, as in doubling, metamorphosis, ocular disturbances, gender ambiguities, and a merging of human and animal. Hal Foster argues that the goals of abject art differ from those of an avant-garde that seeks both to expose the symbolic order as in crisis as well as to explore “the new possibilities that such a crisis opens up” (1996). The goals of abject art are “to identify with the abject, to approach it somehow—to probe the wound of trauma” and “to represent the condition of abjection” in order to make it “repellent” (1996). Foster argues that the problem with this latter approach is that it may reinforce the meaning of a specific form of abjection among the public—regardless of their political allegiances—and, hence, shore up the symbolic order. The challenge that confronts those who set out to explore the abject in their artistic practices is to represent the abject while maintaining a radical critique.

[See also Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich; Bataille, Georges; Danto, Arthur Coleman; Freud, Sigmund; Kristeva, Julia; and Surrealism.]

Bibliography

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.Find this resource:

    Bataille, Georges. “Formless.” In Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, edited by Allan Stoekl, p. 31. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.Find this resource:

      Danto, Arthur C. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago: Open Court, 2003.Find this resource:

        Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.Find this resource:

          Foster, Hal. “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic.” October 78 (1996): 106–124.Find this resource:

            Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” In Pelican Freud Library. Vol. 14, Art and Literature, edited by Albert Dickson, pp. 335–376. Ringwood, Australia: Penguin, 1975.Find this resource:

              Krauss, Rosalind, Yve-Alain Bois, Helen Molesworth, et al. “The Politics of the Signifier II: A Conversation on the Informe and the Abject.” October 67 (1994): 3–21.Find this resource:

                Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

                  Royle, Nicholas. The Uncanny. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                    Seltzer, Mark. Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1998.Find this resource:

                      Barbara Creed