Julia Kristeva’s Abjection: a Lecture on the Powers of Horror
Every year around Halloween—near the first of October, really, as I like to have a whole month for this—I tend to re-read old ghost stories by the like of M.R. James, folk tales of British corpse ways, and historical non-fiction about vampires from the Balkans. Halloween makes for a grand excuse for becoming immersed in things gothic, the dark and gloomy for a whole month or better. This year, I decided to focus on a less common but equally apt work in the canon of horror: the linguist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s classic work on abjection, Pouvoirs de l’horreur (Powers of Horror). Kristeva’s objective in this book-length essay is to address the role of abjection as a psychosocial property and a literary device. Coming from her background as a practicing psychoanalyst and also a pioneering linguist who wrote her Dr. d’État dissertation on the semiotic development of the early European novel, no one appears better poised than Kristeva to address this topic and she does a magesterial job. To me, the concept of a nuanced essay that explains via both theory and example the mechanisms of abjection in literature is something not only quite useful to the scholar but something that has been missing from how general scholarship of gothic literature, film noir, and a variety of other genre have been commonly approached.
Kristeva defines the abject as “To each ego its object, to each superego its abject. It is not the white expanse or slack boredom of repression, not the translations and transformations of desire that wrench bodies, nights, and discourse; rather it is a brutish suffering . . .”. She continues on this motif further explicating in poetic terms her vision, but the core point has been made: within the Lacanian framework, the abject is a central waypoint on the definition of the relation of the personal ego with the greater world; it is not just the presence of disgust or horror, but that entire gamut of suffering we encounter.
Kristeva later notes that “The abject is, for Dostoyevsky, the ‘object’ of The Possessed: it is the aim, and motive of an existence whose meaning is lost in absolute degradation because it absolutely rejected the moral limit (a social, religious, familial, and individual one) as absolute—God.” Therefore the abject is the fulcrum, it is that which we use as our compass of moral regulation by default. It is knowing when you’ve had too much to drink, or when someone is not a person you wish to invite to your party. However, it does not end there: the abject is also the horrors that via their totality and catastrophic nature cause a sense of awful wonder. A rocket hitting a multi-floor apartment tower, a bridge that fails and falls—cars, people, and all—into a cold river below, these are all things that are abject. When human design and the intent of malice come into play, the situation is even more dire and often more horribly enchanting. There is a photo from a school video camera of Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris stalking through the school with weapons in hand that I have seen republished in multiple articles about their murderous rampage: why should we tolerate seeing this, much less wish to see it? What is the draw of the obscene? It represents the horror: it shows us the murderers beyond any question of their acts or their evil nature. When we hear a ship has sunk, we wish to see the abject act—a ship, verily sinking—not an empty ocean of its aftermath.
Kristeva opens Powers of Horror with a general overview of what she means by the term “abjection” and how the “abject” and the process of “abjection” differ, plus a slight introspection into the history of the abject as a sociocultural phenomenon—covering with strong insight such aspects as how early Christian mystics delighted in the abject and how the concept of self-abuse and piety evolved in part from their views of abjection. Kristeva is careful to clarify the differences between the grotesque and the abject and how the abject can share in the material corpus of things that cause disgust but also transcends such a base emotional reaction. Working from there, she approaches a variety of oftentimes surprising literary examples, such as the works of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and through these works places the apex of the literary interest in the abject to run alongside the same timeline as the romantic era focus on the sublime and further into the modern era focus on psychological realism. As in her dissertation years before, Kristeva is highly adept at capturing all the verve of the carnival and grotesque in a write such as Céline plus the depth and scope of the variform abject she locates in literature.
Kristeva further delineates her view of the abject as “that experience, which is nevertheless managed by the Other, “subject” and “object” push each other away, confront each other, collapse, and start again—inseparable, contaminated, condemned, at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable: abject. Great modern literature unfolds over that terrain: Dostoyevsky, Lautreamont, Proust, Artaud, Kafka, Celine.”
What Kristeva demonstrates in her overall approach to the modern period is that these writers belong to a trajectory of acceptance of vileness alongside virile aggression and accelerated lack of confidence in a faith-based, morality-regulated society. We perhaps easily forget now how even Spinoza and Kierkegaard, who are considered essential to secular philosophy today, wrote within the guise of religion. They lived, after all, in a world of feast days, fast days, civil accord revolving around things holy while all that was not holy remained in civil discord unseen. Kristeva points to the abject as not however the absence of something—not, in example, famine due to a lack of harvest—but the precise presence of a matter of disgust or a means of arriving at disgust.
According to Kristeva, Jorge Luis Borges before her has already defined the abject and abjection—though not in those express words—as key to the crucial drive of all literature. Kristeva describes Borge’s declared objective of literature as “vertiginous and hallucinatory”, all tales told are after all “narratives of the infamous” and with Borges leitmotif of noir and reliance on the detective story’s tropes, abjection is rife in his works. Yet abjection does not negate hope: abjection, Kristeva explains, is the realization of disgust and the ability to process something from the point of being disgusting, repulsive, to the complexity of horror. While animals can be repulsed by something—a decaying corpse, in example—their response to such an incident is predicated on disgust more than horror. For the human, horror quickly pushes simple disgust out of the picture: a corpse unexpectedly encountered may be disgusting, but soon the primary raw emotion is one of horror and fear: why is there a dead body here, where it is unexpected? Is this a murder? Is the killer still on the loose? Could I be the next victim?
Kristeva further remarks that abjection “becomes a substitute for the role formerly played by the sacred, at the limits of social and subjective identity. But we are dealing here with a sublimation without consecration. Forfeited.”
In this, we find possibly the most direct aspect of the abject as a literary device rather than a trajectory or catalyst for literary furtherance: where in pre-modern times literature would seek the supplication of tragedy via God, via prayer, via faith, we find that the modern writer is divorced from religion. As Kristeva says, that option is forfeited—even if faith is central in the story, even if the author actually speaks with conviction of the power of God, there is still the modern angle of society and social ills being more real, more present, than the relationship of the protagonist with God. It is not a question of God being present, being extant, or not: it is a question of death and how society deals with death. When even the most pitiful death occurs in a pre-modern text, unless it is of someone evil and unredeemed, the death is predicated on the repair of supplication, of consecration, of burial even in holy ground. I mentioned in the introduction to this essay how I like to read vampire stories—supposedly true ones—from the Balkans: often, in historical, native, vampire lore from this region the curse of the vampire is itself broken and the undead goes back to being normal, nice, docile, dead once the corpse is buried in a proper manner in a consecrated churchyard. In much of modern literature, there is no curse but neither is there consecration. Both are removed. In any case, the abject is localized in the horror of what has happened: a murder, an unexplained death, a body thrown out without proper burial. These are all things that understandably repulse us and likewise horrify us in their ability to occur in the first place.
Kristeva also considers, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, the role of “a pharmakos, a scapegoat who, having been ejected, allows the city to be freed from defilement”. This is akin to the situation of the vampire of folklore, another case where actual removal of the offending party and placing him either in exile or else somewhere where he “should” be will remedy the status of abjection. Since abjection is a process, the removal of its catalyst will bring the process, understandably, to a close. While the classical pharmakos is a chosen representative designed to be expelled from the community and free it from some manner of crisis, the Slavic vampire is an unexpected cause of evil and is more directly tied to such in a cause and effect manner: if the vampire is haunting your community and causing problems—disease, murders, poor harvests or whatever you wish to blame it for—it makes sense to rid yourself of the offending creature. The pharmakos is most often a criminal or slave, a person who serves little purpose to the community and is looked down upon, but may not be directly at fault for whatever disaster is being responded to via casting him out in exile. In both cases though, the person blamed, the person decided upon as the scapegoat is abject: a rotten corpse suspected of reanimating itself and terrorizing the community, or a person who has somehow proven himself unworthy of the typical courtesies of a society.
Though the abject is the matter of disgust while abjection is the process of repulsion, Kristeva finds the sublime inspired by the abject—forged from it in fact—even when she discerns little jouissance in the abject realm. She is far from the first to make this discovery, though she articulates it better than anyone else I’ve read on the topic. The sublime arises from the abject just as the sublime was found in the early ruins so beloved by the British Victorians: they loved such ruins so much, tempered by the centuries and eroded by rain and snow, as to go forth and build follies that imitated ruins where no ruins existed. They built useless, expensive, monuments to decay and that—the creation of a thing of decay and loss in the wake of no such real loss, or false loss to replace real loss,—is truly abject. The horror of something grand fallen into nothingness, dissolved beyond usefulness, decayed to its primeval corpse-self, is the territory of literature where Kristeva finds the greatness of abjection. Through her Biblical examples, her classical examples, her in-depth study of Céline’s writing, Kristeva takes her reader away from the simple point of the abject being simply that which is disgusting or foul, and into the complex arena of the abject being that which pushes margins. The contemporary term “trainwreck” well comes to mind, as the abject is that which can inspire both our collective sense of horror and acknowledgement that something awful has transpired but also that very special fulcrum that balances between mystical surprise and very organic repulsion. In such, in the truly abject despite its multiple and varied forms, we locate the powers of horror.