Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Critical analysis of Kristeva's use of the Abject


Definitions of the Abject

  • The cast off; the taboo; the unclean; filth
  • The excrescence: mucus, blood (especially menstrual), nails, urine, excrement, vomit
  • The uncanny; the corpse
  • The monstrous mother; the alien
  • A psychoanalytic and aesthetic theory expounded by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.
  • “On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.” (Kristeva)
  •  "To each ego its object, to each superego its abject". (Kristeva)

Cultural Applications:

Louis-Ferdinand CĂ©line; Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty

Whitney Museum of Abject Art (1993).

Outline of the Strengths and weaknesses 

of the Kristeva's model of the Abject



Appeals to universal sense of disgust when faced with body fluids and waste products

Explains popular cultural narrative of horror and misogyny

Builds on a tradition of psychoanalysis derived from Freud and Lacan

Appeals to the reality of violence against women and links with its psychosocial dimensions.

Relates to common patterns of encoding based on distinctions between clean and unclean

Creates an ambiguous and richly poetic metaphor for the sense limit and liminality

Outlines a conflict in gender between patriarchal signification and the female imaginary

Explains female oppression as an inability to cast off the internalization of the mother

Maps out an aesthetic and political category derived from both from psychoanalytic reading and corporeal differences

Establishes a widely- deployed key term to describe and organize an abject art movement

The Weaknesses

A fuzzy, confused and contradictory category is loosely sketched.

The psycho-analytic foundations have been superseded and discredited.

The psycho-analytic models appeal to an academic and professional cult rather than open enquiry

Tends to re-enforce horror and disgust rather than celebration of the open body (Bakhtin)

The abject category relies on a questionable notion of primary matricide

The explanatory model is grounded primarily in  its application to avant-garde art

Rather than being actually or potentially emancipatory, the abject school of enquiry reproduces the script of exclusion and exploitation.‘Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you?’ (Spivak 1992: 62)

The mythological or aestheticizing approach displaces the actuality and singularity of lived bodily experience

It is unclear how affirmative or redemptive forms of the abject upstage and displace negative and destructive modes of abjection

As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asks: ‘What are the cultural politics of application of the diagnostic taxonomy of the abject?’ (Spivak 1992: 55)

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of

 The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences

(Quibble Academic, 2013)


Further reading

Betterton, R. (2006) ‘Promising Monsters: Pregnant Bodies, Artistic Subjectivity, and Maternal Imagination’, Hypatia 21(1): 80–100.

Braidotti, R. (1994) Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. London and New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Constable, C. (1999) ‘Becoming the Monster’s Mother’, pp.173–202 in A.Kutin (ed.)
Alien Zone II. London: Verso.

Covino, D. C. (2004) Amending the Abject Body: Aesthetic Makeovers in Medicine and Culture. New York: The State University of New York Press.

Creed, B. (1993) The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Frueh, J. (2001) Monster/Beauty: Building the Body of Love. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gear, R. (2001) ‘All Those Nasty Womanly Things: Women Artists,Technology and the Monstrous-Feminine’, Women’s Studies International Forum 24(3): 321–33.

Halberstam, J. (1995) Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

Haraway, D. (1992) ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, 295–337 in L. Grossberg, C. Nelson and P.A.Treichler (eds) Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge.

Harrington, T. (1998) ‘Speaking Abject in Kristeva’s Power of Horror’, Hypatia
13(1): 138–57.

Jacobs, A. (2007) On Matricide: Myth, Psychoanalysis and the Law of the Mother. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. L.S.Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

Menninghaus, W. (2003) Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation, trans. H. Pickford. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mulvey, L. (1991) “A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body: The Work of Cindy Sherman.”  New Left Review 188 137-150.

Oliver, K. (1993) Reading Kristeva: Unravelling the Double Bind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Russo, M. (1994) The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity. NewYork: Routledge.

Shildrick, M. (2002) Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. New York and London: Routledge.

Spivak, G. (1990) ‘Questions of Multiculturalism’, 54–60, in Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. Sarah Harasym.London: Routledge.

Spivak, G. (1992) ‘Extreme Eurocentrism’, Lusitania 1(4) (Special Issue ‘TheAbject America’): 55–60.

Ussher, J. (2006)  Managing the Monstrous Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body. London: Routledge.

Yaeger, P. (1992) ‘The “Language of Blood”: Toward a Maternal Sublime’,
Genre 25 (Spring): 5–24.

Young, I. M. (2005) On Female Body Experience: ‘Throwing Like a Girl’ and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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