On Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1980), chapters 1 and 2.
What is horror? Kristeva’s book is about a process she calls “abjection,” where we violently reject things like corpses, bodily wastes and other fluids, and the Lovecraftian unnameable that lurks at the edge of our awareness, hideously inhuman and indifferent to our suffering.
The book is also all about the self, suggesting modifications to Freud’s Oedipal complex (in which we mature through the intervention of a father figure or civilization in general, breaking our bond with the mother) and Lacan’s mirror-stage story (where we gain selfhood by contemplating a unified, external image of ourselves, which is also informed by language, or what Lacan calls the “Name of the Father”).
For Kristeva, becoming a separate person from your mother begins earlier than either of these points, before the mother or the self has been identified as a distinct entity. In Freud’s account, the mother is our first object of desire, and it’s only after we’ve identified her as such that the influence of the father (or whoever is playing that role; really, the point is that we realize that mother has desires other than just for us) comes in to break up the party and thus (hopefully) elicit our independent selfhood.
For Kristeva, something parallel to this happens before any objects have been individuated at all. Imagine, she says, that you are a baby, and as far as you are concerned, you and your mother are one and the same creature. Your desires are her desires. But then she gives you some milk that has this skin on its surface, that’s really pretty vile, so you spit it out. Well, this was a gift from the mother (from you!), a symbol of her desire (your desire!), yet you’re rejecting it, and not just in a “no thanks, mom” way, but spitting it out, deeming it intolerable. Kristeva says that in doing so, you’re splitting yourself in half. You’re taking the part of you that was equivalent with mom and condemning it, while another part of you is the rejector, which is the first hint of an authentic, individual self here. Of course (as with the Oedipal complex), you still kind of love the mother-part, but you’re denying it: denying that you love it, and denying that it’s part of you.
Kristeva sees this infant dynamic as playing throughout life, sometimes for healthy purposes, sometimes in pathological ways. That primal unity with the mother is something that we at once long for and dread. It stands for a time when we were not yet a person, not differentiated from the rest of nature. It’s the flip side of erotic ecstasy, where we yearn for and occasionally achieve the semblance of unity with another person and/or God and/or the universe. In abjection, we’re basically fighting for our lives as individuals against being swallowed up by the rest of existence.
Now, if you remember your Lacan, you’ll recall how language (the “Name of the Father”) picks out individual things, yet leaves the vast, unnamed mass of the world out there as what he calls the “real.” You’ve got the world of order established through language on the one hand, with a finite number of objects governed by definable scientific laws. This is the realm of civilization, in which we (try to) rest with comfort. But the Lacanian real—this vast unknown landscape underneath what reason can pick out—that’s something that beckons to us with the idea that there are more things in heaven and earth than are contained in our philosophy. It pulls at us emotionally, but yet from the point of view of reason, it’s intolerable; we’d rather deny it exists. So abjection is a drive: an undirected, ambivalent feeling. We can’t quite pick out what we’re so scared of but also attracted to, because our strong feelings push that “thing” outside of the realm of individuated things.
You may have heard about Jordan Peterson describing femininity as the essence of chaos and the masculine as representing order. Well, that’s a variation off of this psychoanalytic trope: It was our unity with the mother that amounted to our submersion in chaos, and it was the intercession of the father figure (language, civilization) that brought order into our lives.
According to this view, misogyny is not a historical accident but is rooted in human nature, in this experience that we all (boys and girls alike) had in having to split from the mother. But it rests on a fundamental mistake: We’re really, in the experience of abjection, trying to cut off a piece of ourselves, which of course you can never really do, so it’s always going to be out there, denied, nagging at you.
When we see a corpse, we viscerally feel our own mortality: We see ourselves in that corpse, imagine ourselves dead, which is of course to imagine ourselves as nothingness, which is very distressing. Bodily fluids and such also represent this part of us (or someone like us) that we’re casting off. The whole horror genre, whether of the slasher, corpse-displaying variety or the Lovecraftian-unnamed-dread variety, is predicated on our being simultaneously attracted and repelled by this “beyond” that we have pushed out of consciousness. When someone acts purposefully perversely, they’re comparably violating the moral order, so our disgust at that can produce the feeling of abjection too.
Kristeva sees abjection as manifest in both religion and art. Many religions enact strict purity requirements, attempting to permanently block off the abjected world from worshippers both physically and mentally. Many adventurous types of art, on the other hand, play with the breakdown of language into mere noise (think James Joyce), or allow us to flirt with the fantastical, unknown, and/or perverse. Even the act of writing itself, with its pretense at immortality (my words remain even if I die), allows one to safely explore these borders to ordered existence, perhaps providing a way of channeling this inevitable fascination as an alternative to self-tyranny or lashing out.
Though Kristeva herself doesn’t draw this comparison, commentators also use the notion of abjection to elucidate anti-immigrant and other xenophobic sentiment: pretty much any time you’re asserting your identity as a member of a known, supposedly rational in-group as against a sea of barbarians, then there’s a similar logic going on to what happens in abjection.
Mark, Wes, and Seth are joined by Kristeva fan and education/linguistics grad student Kelley Citrin to try to make sense of this text, which is dense and difficult but still fun and resonant.
For more background, we recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on psychoanalytic feminism.
Mark felt challenged enough by this text to feel compelled to record a Close Reading of p. 1–4 as a follow-up to this discussion; you can get this by being a PEL Citizen or a Patreon supporter at the $1 level.
We (well, Mark, Seth, and Dylan, who had done the reading but ended up not being able to make this recording) then continue discussing this text for ep. 203, partially in an attempt to relate this more to horror, using H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” as an example. So go read that!
Image by Charles Valsechi.