Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Abjection and Transgression: Policing the Margins

The relationship between social or 'political' movements and the grotesque, and metaphorical link between the (abject) body and the body politic require careful consideration, following on from my previous blog post discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Kristeva’s psychoanalytic notion of the abject. The relationship between the body politic and the grotesque was explored in Stallybrass and White’s influential book, The Politics and Poetic of Transgression (1986):

‘The low-Other is despised and denied at the level of political organization and social being whilst it is instrumentally constitutive of the shared imaginary repertoires of the dominant culture.’ (Stallybrass and White 1986: 5-6)

Transgression and the related categories of Containment or Normalization are commonly deployed in relation to ‘Resistance’ or ‘Occupation.’ (One thinks of the much admired Resistance undertaken by the French and others to their 'occupation' by the Nazi forces of Germany). In our own times, the ‘Occupy’ movement has contested the spaces allocated to the Stock Markets (Wall St), and even the Church (St Paul's) within the City of London.

In the context of the 9/11 attacks, Chris Jenks (2003: 2) has written that

To transgress is to go beyond the bounds or limits set by a commandment or law or convention, it is to violate or infringe. But to transgress is also more than this, it is to announce and even laudate the commandment, the law or convention. Transgression is a deeply reflexive act of denial and affirmation. Analytically, then, transgression serves as an extremely sensitive vector in assessing the scope, direction and compass of any social theory, as we shall see.

As metaphors of the social came to be seen as exhausted Jenks notes the transition to an academic discourse of limits:

Though diffuse and ill define, the limits, the margins, now took on a most important role in describing and defining the centre. Beyond the limits – be they classificatory, theoretical or even moral – there remained asociality or chaos, but ever more vivid and in greater proximity. Thus our new topic became the transgression that transcends the limits or forces through the boundaries. (4)

Indeed, I recall conceiving the idea of an interdisciplinary postgraduate conference on this topic, while I was pursuing my doctoral thesis on the monstrous and the grotesque in the early eighteenth century. (This led to Policing the Margins, The University of Leeds, 6-7 January 1993; from which several academic careers were launched, including my own.) Transgression was radical, and it had a career path, assimilating our subversive energy within the academic machine. We released our energies in the form of articles, chapter and books. We attended conferences. Some of us took part in protest movement. We adopted and adapted different lifestyles.

In their recent book on the grotesque, Justin D. Edwards and Rune Graulund have noted the ‘irony, potentially even laughter, in the fact that Warner Brothers, a multinational media syndicate, owns the licensing rights to the masks worn by the Occupy protestors.’ (141) This returns us to the key Bakhtinian notion that carnival both uncrowns and renews. That carnival acts as a useful safety valve for dissent and for pent-up resistance within the authoritarian totality of the medieval catholic Church (or the Soviet Empire).  This can be adapted to the model of late capitalism, as Edwards and Graulund suggest:
Even the potentially carnivalesque-grotesque scenes of an Occupy street protest or the anarchic voices of internet news reports can be branded, packaged and sold, ‘infecting’ everything in its vicinity and pre-empting any robust challenge to the hegemony of global capitalism. (141)

But this book also explores effectively the queering of the grotesque body, and the writing back of the former colonial centre (see Chapter 8 and 9). Nonetheless, against the laughter and the carnival fun of mass protest they also remind us of distinctions between the grotesque and fantasy:

In a world of new media interconnectivity, it is possible that we are becoming desensitized to digitalized broadcasts of grotesque atrocities involving human degradation, violent carnage and bodily mutilation. (137)

But Jacques Ranciere disputes this position in his chapter ‘The Intolerable Image’ published in The Emancipated Spectator:

We do not see too many suffering bodies on the screen. But we do see to many nameless bodies, too many bodies incapable of returning the gaze that we direct at them, too many bodies that are an object of speech without themselves having a chance to speak. (96)

While the grotesque may have been considered in the past to be destabilizing and alienating (in Kayser’s romantic model), what happens in the hyper-reality of the post-grotesque. This notion leads Justin D. Edwards and Rune Graulund to question, ‘But what happens when there is no coherence to shatter, no harmony to disrupt?’ (138)

While Jenks laments the momentary mourning, the collective pathos of the Diana funeral as a vestigial media-driven communality, it is clear that new forms of Absolute Centre are being constantly reconstituted as the neo-liberal Market, for instance. And new forms of ‘waste product’ are still being produced by the System, as well as new forms of contestation and resistance to the global status quo.

One strategy explored by William Ian Miller was to ‘focus more closely on disgust’s close cousin contempt and its role in the production and maintenance of social hierarchy and political order’ (206). Having perhaps relinquished the historic sense of the sweaty workers, the foul stench of toil …

‘Contempt, it turns out, was assimilable to democracy. In fact, rather than subverting democracy, it assisted it by making generally available to the low as well as the high a strategy of indifference in the treatment of others.’ (206)

While contempt might lead to tolerance is some form,

‘Disgust […] is a much more powerful anti-democratic force, subverting the minimal demands of tolerance.’ (206)

More recently there has been a call for a social and political model of abjection to be better developed. Building on the work of Frantz Fanon, Judith Butler and Spivak, Imogen Tyler has explained that

Social abjection is a revolting concept which names, but also has the capacity to trouble, the symbolic and material forms of violence it describes. It is by employing revolts against abjection as a map or guide that Revolting Subjects attempts to ‘kick over’ the dustbin of history. For it is the insurgencies of those designated as abject which enable us to unravel histories of violence and lay them to waste. (47)

While Jenks' book opened in timely (and untimely) fashion with 9/11 opens with a discussion of the Gypsy and Traveller site at Dale Farm in Essex, which was infamously subject to eviction by an estimated 150 riot police on 19 October 2011. For Tyler, however, this was not so much an absolute defeat as symptomatic of new faultlines, challenges and struggles taking place locally and globally:

The voices of resistance against the abjectifying logics of neoliberal governmentality are growing louder. (2)

This would certainly tally with my own sense of the grotesque category. While it must always be understood in relation to complexity, paradox, and contradiction, and in the context of specific times and spaces, there is a component that is fundamentally irrepressible, uncontainable and indissoluble. As a category, the grotesque refuses to either to be eradicated or to be cleansed.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences  (Quibble Academic, 2013)
Further Reading

Edwards, Justin D.  and Rune Graulund, Grotesque (Routledge, 2013)

Jennks, Chris, Transgression (Routledge, 2003)

Miller, William Ian, The Anatomy of Disgust (Harvard University Press, 1997)

Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator (Verso, 2011)

Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White, The Politics and Poetic of Transgression (Cornell University Press, 1986)

Tyler, Imogen, Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain  (Zed Books Ltd, 2013)