Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Chapter 1 “Approaching Abjection”)
In horror films especially, though often showing up in psychological thrillers, is a moment on the screen that disrupts the rolling of the film—a growing crack in the wall, the movement of an inanimate object, the ominous glance of a distant character which up until now we thought nothing of. We have come to expect these moments now as cinematic and formulaic clichés, about how these kinds of films are to be made, but they are, no matter how well prepared we think we are, no less jarring and disruptive to the flow of our expectations. The abject is the moment in the film, when you come to realize that the flow of logic unrolling before you, is about to be halted by something other, or, when you come to realize that you were tricked into that logic, but in fact were on a very different trajectory from the beginning. The abject is that “twisted braid of affects and thoughts” which we call by such a name, but it skirts our need to define it as a definable object right there, in front of us (Kristeva, 1). “It lies there quite close, but cannot be assimilated”, as Kristeva writes, but it shares one important characteristic of the object, that is, it stands there before us, facing us and opposing us, the “I”. Here, this (non)object, which stands opposed to me and I still attend to as an object, settles me into a desire for meaning, but being a (non)object, it draws me toward the place where meaning collapses. The abject then, is the reaction of the “I” to a threat in the breakdown of meaning, which has been caused by a loss of the distinction between the subject and object, the self and other.
I’d like to take us in two directions in regards to the abject. First, I’d like to further discuss examples of the abject. Second, I’d like to put the abject into a much larger scheme in order to open up this text for our discussion today, that is, I’d like to look at it from the perspective of our conscience and the experience of the abject. I want to think about the necessity of the abject in ethics.
Kristeva opens with two most evident forms of abjection, the first being “food loathing. Here, is the case of the child who has yet to distinguish itself from the father or mother. Freud calls this “primary identification”, the first form of emotional attachment to something or someone, which comes before any defined and conscious distinction between subject and object. Thus, a baby cannot distinguish itself from the world and experiences the world as a part of itself, “The breast is a part of me, I am the breast” (Freud). The experience of the abject forces us into this liminal experience of infancy once again. We could even take it a step further into the past, when the baby becomes a baby. Abjection preserves the “immemorial violence with which the body becomes separated from another body in order to be” (Kristeva, 10). Kristeva blends this primary identification of the baby in the process of eating and the becoming “I” or becoming subject/object in birth, with the experience of the abject (for the adult, we might say). The whole experience of watching a child eat from the multitude of perspectives (whether we are the parent, an onlooker, the child) brings the abject into focus. She writes,
“I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasize, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death, During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit. Mute protest of the symptom, shattering violence of a convulsion that, to be sure, is inscribed in a symbolic system, but in which, without either wanting or being able to become integrated in order to answer to it, it reacts, it abreacts. It abjects. (Kristeva, 3)
In very simplified terms, the abject sits outside our symbolic order. The symbolic order determines the subject, it is the Other, in Lacanian parlance. This Other for Lacan is language in the broadest sense, it is the community we live in, of shared ideas and accepted ways of being that existed long we as subjects came into the world. By sitting outside that, the abject is territory-less, it wades in the unthinkable corners, not Other, not “I”. The abject then disturbs identity and order, it has no respect for borders or rules (Kristeva, 4). This brings us to the second example Kristeva writes about. The abject par excellence is the corpse, or more attractively, the cadaver*. Like the wound, or pus, the corpse does not signify death for if it did, we would understand it, react to it or accept it (ibid). Instead we are there again at the limit of our condition as living beings. Death infects life, it brings us to the border, and it is that very border that encroaches upon everything (Kristeva, 3). Always returning to a bodily understanding of these experiences of the abject, Kristeva later gives an example of the choking sensation, that is, how the feeling of being choked does not separate inside from outside so easily and the one is drawn into the other indefinitely (Kristeva, 25). The person in which the experience of the abject exists therefore is a deject who does not ask “Who am I”, but “Where am I” (Kristeva, 8). Artaud could then write, “[t]he dead little girl says, I am the one who guffaws in horror inside the lungs of the live one. Get me out of there at once” (Kristeva, 25). It is not so much that we are horrified of what the corpse signifies (death), but of what the corpse may make of us if we bring it inside, or meet it at its horizon. The corpse takes us to the border of the “I” as we have come to understand this “I” in the symbolic order. The Prince Gautama’s story as he left his palace, or Neo waking in the pods, or Cronenberg’s body horror, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis and so on are examples of this destabilization by the abject. We can think of many more. By contrast, Sade’s orgies, cartoon logic, as well as fantasy and adventure stories all miss the mark. They are “methodical, rhetorical and…regular”, they make everything nameable, and their scenes integrate, in other words, they “allow for no other, no unthinkable, nothing heterogeneous” (Kristeva, 21).
In developing the abject as I have here, I want to ask much more broadly if the abject is necessary. Kristeva’s abject is fuzzy to be certain yet we might consider what is there that can take us away from her mythologizing and aestheticizing to the more emancipatory (a question Spivak* poses). Is the abject necessary? Must we be destabilized by it, and if so, what do we do when we are, how do we retread back from this destabilization or how do we proceed from that destabilization? This distinction of course is one of the fundamental differences in politics—the difference between conservatives and progressives. But more fundamentally the distinction pushes us further inwards toward questions of ethics that I’d like to try to uncover in this first chapter. Kristeva hints at a number of ways in which the abject might be necessary.
The “jettisoned object”, the abject that draws me toward the place where meaning collapses is banished yet, it never ceases to challenge its master* (Kristeva, 2). The abject, which is without a sign, is to the superego what the object is to the ego. The ego is where our perceptions, and cognitive functions remain and from where we act, our conscious state in the world. The superego is the overrider, our conscience, it is where we maintain our sense of morality and from where we decide not to*. For the superego, our conscience then, our object is the abject. Kristeva puts it in the following way:
“[I}ts a brutish suffering that “I” puts up with, sublime and devastated, for “I” deposits it to the father’s account [verse au pere pere-uersion]: I endure it, for I imagine that such is the desire of the other. A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture. (Kristeva, 2)
Taking from this quote alone, it is clear that in the work of the conscience, the abject, or better the experience of the abject*, is key. It is the “primer”, the “safeguard”. Of what? Cadere. The fall. The abject in its most socialized appearance is the corrupter, yet so as far as we do not fall into it fully, religion, morality and law have always been there to thrust it aside. More recently is the work of contemporary literature, always fascinated with the abject, yet not necessarily taking the place of religion, morality or law. In fact, according to Kristeva, it realizes the absurdity and impossibility of this trifecta. Literature dabbles in the abject, the writing and reading of it is a crossing over into the abject, a perversion to be certain. But the activities of contemporary literature are more. Pushing it further, Kristeva tells us that there are various means to purifying the abject, religion being one of them, but art, including literature, is by far the best example. What we are left with then is perversion and sublimation. Again, we are at the liminal, with Kristeva. Speaking towards the value of literature, she writes:
“In a world in which the Other has collapsed, the aesthetic task—is a descent into the foundations of the symbolic construct—amounts to retracing the fragile limits of the speaking being, closest to its dawn, to the bottomless ‘primacy’ constituted by primal repression” (Kristeva, 18). This experience itself is of course still managed by the Other, yet here the subject and object push each other away, confront each other, collapse and start again in that boundary of what is thinkable: the abject (ibid).
Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (Chapter 1 “Psychoanalysis—A Counter Depressant”)
We start right at the heart of Kristeva’s second text, a veiled critique of psychoanalysis, or, perhaps a soft push into a different direction. This direction was perhaps embedded in her text on the abject and the bond that both psychoanalysis and the literary or artistic share in their sensitivity to it. In the chapter we read at least, psychoanalysis and the literary/artistic are not so much as opposed, but measured up to one another. Starting at the crux of the two texts when they are read side by side its hard not to see similarities between the abject and depression/melancholia. Both take us to a space of breakdown, a schism. Through depression or melancholia, we witness the collapse of the symbolic, the Other, culture in an all encompassing sense, with all its meanings and representations, the order of things as we have come to know it and as we can know it, the limits of which are our own. The line of questioning Kristeva wants to pursue here is that literary creations and religious discourse are very good at creating a semiological representation of the subject as it battles with this collapse of the symbolic (Kristeva, 24). But such representations are not “elaborations”, they are not a “becoming aware” of what causes inter and intra-psychic moral suffering. This is the function of psychoanalysis, which aims at dissolving the symptom. But, the work of such literary representations and their religious counterparts do have a real and imaginary effectiveness, which borders more toward the cathartic than the elaborative (ibid). All societies however have used these therapeutic techniques for ages. Psychoanalysis, according to Kristeva, always imagines itself as being more efficacious mainly because it directly attends to the strengthening of the subject’s cognitive abilities (ibid). But Kristeva continues, psychoanalysis would do itself good if it paid greater attention to the sublimatory solutions of literary representations and in doing so it could provide “lucid counterdepressants rather than neutralizing antidepressants” (Kristeva, 25). This turn of phrase here is somewhat typical of Kristeva, for it implies confrontation, or the necessity of confrontation rather than annihilation. “Counter” as “against”, “in opposition to”, towards reciprocation, towards a dialectic. “Anti”, similarly implies that “against”, that “opposition”, but more commonly there is the implication of a movement toward the “not”, “no more”, we might say, the erased and wanting to be forgotten.
We have skipped over what exactly melancholia/depression* is. It is “an abyss of sorrow, a noncommunicable grief” that infects us, long-term such that we “lose all interest in words, actions and even life itself (Kristeva, 3). For psychoanalysis of course, the questions always turns to the origin, “where does this black sun come from” (ibid)? Is it triggered by sorrow, loss, love life, unhappiness in our professional life? Does it matter, especially if the events that create our depression are out of proportion to the feeling that overwhelms us? Let us go further. At the existential level, what is happening? Might melancholia have in it a redeeming value? Kristeva writes, “I owe a supreme metaphysical lucidity to my depression…[h]ere on the frontiers of life and death, I have the arrogant feeling of being witness to the meaninglessness of Being, of revealing the absurdity of bonds and beings (Kristeva, 4). The depressed is the ultimate atheist, not only my being is lost, but being itself.
Philosophers have had an ongoing relationship with melancholia. Like a good continental philosopher, Kristeva returns us to the beginning, or the kind of beginning. She uncovers an attractive version of melancholia in Aristotle and from him she wants to build, perhaps toward the “counter” as opposed to the “anti”. Aristotle’s version of melancholia is alien to us today since it assumes a “properly balance diversity”, that is to say, he removed it from the pathological and located it nature, as a part of it and moreover as inherent in the nature of the philosopher—his ethos (Kristeva, 6). Melancholia ensued from heat as the regulator of the organism; it was the place of mestotes, the mechanism controlling the fluctuation between too much and too little. After the middle ages this perception of melancholia changed from this extreme state revealing the true nature of Being. Here melancholia was bound to Saturn, the planet of spirit and thought. Christian theology considered sadness a sin, though monks did see it as a paradoxical method to truth and [it] constituted the major touchstone of faith” (Kristeva, 8). Eventually, melancholia asserted itself into religious doubt. Kristeva cuts us off here in her conceptual history of melancholia where she wavers between depression-sadness-melancholia. She returns to a new definition worth taking a look at, she writes:
“I shall call melancholia the institutional symptomatology of inhibition and asymbolia* that becomes established now and then or chronically in a person, alternating more often than not with the so-called manic phase of exaltation.”
If this is meant to be the definition of melancholia, we are left trying to grasp a few things. “Asymbolia” is the loss of the ability to comprehend by touch the form and nature of an object. In Kristeva’s constant context such a definition is simple enough to understand but there is another, notably what exactly is meant by “institutional symptomatology”. “Symptomatology” can mean a symptom complex or a group of symptoms occurring together that characterize a disease. But it can also mean the branch of medicine concerned with symptoms of diseases. “Institutional” here is more problematic. What are we meant to assume the “institutional” is? Without extrapolating on the details of her definition, Kristeva complicates the matter further obfuscating the distinction between melancholia and depression. But, interested in examining matters from a Freudian point of view, it would seem not to matter much, since from this perspective, there is the common experience of object loss and the modification of signifying bonds. In melancholia, with an object loss, these bonds, notably language are “unable to insure the autostimulation that is required in order to initiate given responses” (Kristeva, 10). Language here, in the melancholic, instead slows down thinking and marks the individual as next to mute. This is why the melancholic struggles to name or voice the loss, and the object itself is often unclear. The aggregate of melancholia/depression is based off of the mechanism of identification. The other object, both love and hated is imbedded into me and becomes my “necessary, tyrannical judge”, which I want to rid myself of (Kristeva, 11). Melancholia then is cannibalistic. We hold within us the intolerable other, which we want so badly to destroy so that we can possess it alive. Kristeva writes, “Better fragmented, torn, cut up, swallowed digested…than lost” (Kristeva, 12). Kristeva returns us to the boundary of the subject and object in the abject, a threshold more than anything else, where the subject and object, pull at each other and collapse into one another, only to reestablish themselves again, independent wholes touching on each other’s beginnings and ends once again. With Black Sun, Kristeva develops this “object” further; the loss of the object for the melancholic is not an Object, but the Thing (Kristeva, 14). In her notes, she writes that the “Object” is the “space-time constant that is verified by a statement uttered by a subject in control of that statement” (Kristeva, 262). The “Thing” on the other hand is the “something” which is seen by the already constituted subject looking back and it appears as unseperated and elusive (ibid). The Thing is the sun in your dreams, the distant light, never seen but producing effects. The melancholic person therefore has the impression that something is lost, but no word could signify it. With the Thing, “the depressed person wanders in pursuit of continuously disappointing adventures and loves; or else retreats, disconsolate and aphasic, alone with the unnamed Thing (Kristeva, 13).