Theory Shelf: Abjection

Connie Brown asks, is it abject, or is it just ugly?

To each ego its object, to each superego its abject is the axiom Julia Kristeva offers up in her seminal essay, ‘Approaching Abjection’.[01] The abject, addressing itself to the superego—the personality’s moral aspect, acquired by the individual through a process of affirmation and discipline, through which they learn cultural rights and wrongs—exists beyond the bounds of the self and beyond what is concrete, nameable and settled within meaning. This is what distinguishes the abject from what is simply gross. Gross describes something unpleasant; abject is something so heinous as to defeat description, so ‘radically separate’ from the culture’s image of itself as to be intolerable—“a weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant.”

Abjection is foremost a psycho-analytic concept. At the time of writing ‘Approaching Abjection’ in 1980, Kristeva, then a practising analyst and literary theorist, was immersed in a milieu of prominent Parisian intellectuals. In the late 80s and throughout the 90s, the concept was seized upon and popularised by contemporary artists making visceral and transgressive work, originating what is now recognised as ‘abject art’.

Though widely used and ex- changed in art vernaculars, abject art is a thorny designation—a category for the uncategorical; meaninglessness given meaning—and difficult to use with a full understanding of what we are saying when we do. Revisiting Kristeva’s text, what is crucial in her formulation and often missing from contemporary usage is the idea of de-objectification. The abject disrupts or disarticulates signification; it wrenches a hole in the symbolic order (which orders relationships between all subjects and objects), brings into proximity things conventionally kept apart, and exposes the frailty and fiction of that which does the parting. Kristeva is careful in her language to activate the abject. She is “beset by abjection”; “it draws [her] toward the place where meaning collapses”; corpses and human waste show her what she “permanently thrusts aside in order to live.” The abject is about what a thing does, not what it is, and what it does is combust the distinction between subject and object that is the basis of identity, undoing the self.

By contrast, writing about art is arguably a craft of objectification. Art- works are described, set in a language whose aim is to incorporate singular ob- jects, works and practices, into a tradition and lineage—into art’s personal symbolic order. Does this make the use of abject art as a descriptor fundamentally ill-fated? Kristeva clarifies in her text that experiences of abjection in the field of art (and likewise in religion) are limited to simulat- ing what it feels like to engage a primally disgusting object or thing. Through that simulated engagement, we experience a catharsis from or “purification” of the disgust. The implication is that the more a particular abjection is orchestrated through an artwork, the easier it is to establish around it a scaffold of meaning that weakens its abject force. The purification succeeds. The abject now has its place in—has been disciplined into respecting the ‘borders, positions, rules’ of—art history, to the extent that it is easily and narrowly signifyable—i.e., by anything that connotes the bodily trace—or viewable in aesthetic terms. No matter how many times I pull hair from the drain, any ‘scaffold’ I attempt to erect around it crumbles. I gag and convulse like a cat as I scurry to the bin, to return it to its proper place in the wastelands. Yet Eva Hesse’s Untitled (Rope Piece) (1970), an intestinal tangle of knotted rope dipped in liquid latex, starts to look formally interesting, graceful even, on a second viewing.

Kristeva subtly premised this mutability. To each ego its object, to each superego its abject, suggests the abject’s omniscience, but also that it is somewhat responsive to the superego, as the super- ego is hopelessly enthralled to it. The abject upends all sorts of taboos surround- ing morality, cleanliness and decency before it gets to identity, and those things are apt to change over time. So often, the abjection of abject art was a visceral kind related to embodiments ‘jettisoned’ within a heteropatriarchal, white supremacist symbolic order—female, queer, racialised embodiments that were considered taboo by governing social mores. Positioning these things as abject was often much more about the wrongness of the order than what disrupts it.

As this order and those mores shift, what occurs to us as abject shifts accordingly. Has what we mean by abject art shifted in turn? On one hand, the category has become a cliché—all too easy to attach to any work that connotes the body or filth, even if it lacks the essential liminality and intensity that Kristeva describes. On the other, this platitude has prompted new abject modes. Paul Yore’s Art is Death (2016) invokes the abject gesture in order to poke fun at just how easily this can be done, through a few penises, gay-coded religious imagery and spurt- ing spermatozoa-shaped beads. His is an ironic-abject stance; it questions the moral authority of those who indulge so freely in hate and censoriousness, but also refuses to indulge it further by refusing to put homosexuality on the table as a top- ic for moral debate. Gestures like Yore’s could be seen as restoring the “weight of meaninglessness” to abject art, but in ways unanticipated within Kristeva’s thinking. Influential as her essay was, it is also binary at times and quick to presume that the culture’s image of itself is coherent. Precision and fidelity to a concept’s meaning get us only halfway; the rest is made up by a sensitivity to its flaws and leakages. Nonetheless, on finding yourself repulsed by an artwork, but unsure if you are beset by that repulsion, it remains useful to ask: is this abject? Or is it just ugly?

Image: Paul Yore, Art is Death, 2016, mixed media textile, beads, sequins, buttons, marker, 100 × 79 cm. Courtesy of the artist and STATION

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