In this chapter I want to lay down the foundations for a study of abjection which will involve examining its psychoanalytical basis as a theory of the subject in Kristeva’s writing. Subsequent chapters move away from abjection’s roots in psychoanalysis to look at other features of its phenomenology, but it is important to begin by addressing the trajectory that Kristeva developed for her theory.
The 1970s marked a period of transition in Kristeva’s intellectual history. From 1974 onwards her work moved away from concentrat-ing solely on linguistics to encompassing a more psychoanalytical approach that questioned the stability of the subject and developed the ensuing relationship that this subject has with language. This coincided with the completion of her psychoanalytical training in 1979 and is seen in her writing in the 1980s and 1990s, which ‘reflect[ed] her training and practice as a psychoanalyst’ (Oliver, 2002, p. viii). Her writing in the 1970s, including Revolution in Poetic Language1
(1984), which was developed from her doctoral thesis, is preoccupied with similar concerns, such as the role of the maternal body in the theory of psychic development and the synergy between bodily drives and language. Building on Lacanian research that articulated not only how language is distinctive to humans but also explored its inextricable relationship with the psyche, Kristeva further developed the idea of the speaking subject in relation to two different modalities (and polarities) of language: the semiotic and the symbolic. Kristeva ‘maintain[ed] that the logic of signification is already present in the material of the body’ and one of the ultimate goals of her writing was to bring the ‘speaking body’ with its bodily
drives back into philosophical discourse (Oliver, 1999). The ‘subject’s complex and contradictory relation to and in signification’ remains Kristeva’s overriding preoccupation where she explores the parallels between the psychoanalytical and the textual and where the speaking subject is positioned in a range of discourses (Grosz, 1990, p. 80).
In Kristeva’s corpus, Powers of Horror
has been grouped together with two other works and is identified as the first study in what Sara Beardsworth described as ‘the trilogy of the 1980s’ (Beardsworth, 2004, p. 2), the others being Tales of Love
(1983; English translation, 1987) and Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia
(1987; English translation, 1989). Collectively these works discuss three separate but related aspects of subjectivity: horror, love and melancholy in relation to psychoanalysis. More commonly though, Powers of Horror
is treated as a standalone work and is the urtext
for the study of abjection.2
It is also her best known work, although Kristeva disagreed with this assessment in an interview, conducted over two sessions, with John Lechte in 2002/3 where she stated that different texts appeal to different readers according to their interests and that Powers of Horror
was ‘very much the focus – at least in the press and the correspondence that I received – of artists’ (Lechte and Margaroni, 2004, p. 154). What is indisputable though is the impact that Powers of Horror
has had on scholarship in a number of fields. Its concerns reflected a trend in the humanities and social sciences, known as the ‘affective turn’, which employed theory as a way of understanding bodily experience, affectivity and the emotions. It was interested in psychoanalytically informed theories of subjectivity and reintroduced areas of experience that had previously been overlooked in theory.
The primal moment of abjection
According to Kristeva, the most ‘primitive’ expression of abjection occurs in the pre-Oedipal relationship between the infant and the (figure of the) mother, where the former experiences the latter’s body as abject.3
The process of feeding is simultaneously a process of moving towards the breast and suckling, and rejecting and withdrawing when satiated. This movement of identification and rejection, which symbolizes a switch between being one with the mother and then asserting difference, splits the figure of the mother and constitutes
the ambivalence that the mother’s breast and body signifies. This attitude was discussed in the theory of ambivalence, which was devised by the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, in which feelings of love and destruction were displayed towards the primary object, the mother. The mother is both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and this duality is represented by the breasts; ‘[t]he good breast – external and internal – becomes the prototype of all helpful and gratifying objects, the bad breast the prototype of all external and internal persecutory objects’ (Klein, 1952, p. 200). Kristeva picks up on these two conflicting qualities and uses them to formulate the basis of her theory.
The oscillation to and from the mother facilitates the process by which the borders between the infant and mother are established. Abjection is the process by which the infant separates from the mother. The feelings of revulsion and horror, and the action of expelling the mother, shatter the narcissism and result in feelings of insurmountable horror. But ‘the child must abject the maternal body so that the child itself does not become abject by identifying with the maternal body’ and its pollutants (Oliver, 2003, p. 47). Making the mother’s body abject is a necessary step for the infant to be able to establish its own subjectivity, that is, have its own autonomous identity in the form of proper boundaries ‘in order to be’ (Kristeva, 1982, p. 10).4
It is important to remember that ‘abjection is not a stage “passed through” but a perpetual process that plays a central role within the project of subjectivity’: ‘abjection is thus always a reminder (and the irreducible remainder) of this primary repudiation of the maternal’ (Tyler, 2009, p. 80). In later life, experiences of abjection can be traced back to this elemental scene of maternal abjection – this founding moment of being – where ‘[t]he abject is the violence of mourning for an “object” that has always already been lost’ and is thus the object of primal repression (Kristeva, 1982, p. 15). Kristeva asks:
But what is primal repression? Let us call it the ability of the speaking being, always already haunted by the Other, to divide, reject, repeat. Without one
subject/object having been constituted (not yet, or no longer yet) …
The abject confronts us …
with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal
entity even before ex-isting outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language. It is a violent, clumsy breaking away, with
the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling.
(Kristeva, 1982, pp. 12–13)
One of the defining features of abjection is its inability to be eliminated. The experience of abjection is formative, primal and represents an essential part of subjecthood. Abjection is therefore integral to our ontological reality and epistemological awareness of what it means to be human. But paradoxically, although fundamental to an understanding of human nature, the abject is also hugely disruptive to the normality of everyday life, which explains why it is disavowed. It ‘can never be fully obliterated but hovers at the border of the subject’s identity, threatening apparent unities and stabili-ties with disruption and possible dissolution’ (Grosz, 1990, p. 87). As a result, our sense of self is never entirely stable and is under the threat of invasion. In many respects the ambivalent relationship that humans have with abjection mirrors the position taken by Freud in Totem and Taboo (1912–13) and Civilization and its Discontents (1930), where it is claimed that civilization is founded on the repression of certain libidinal desires and behaviours, such as incest. Advancing certain aspects of human behaviour requires the suppression of certain aspects of being and, for Freud, this necessitated the regulation of perversity. Freud’s claim that society needs to repress particular libidinal impulses as a prerequisite for the stability of the civilized ego is, prima facie, similar to Kristeva’s belief in the repression of the abject maternal body as essential for the formation and maintenance of the subject. But, as observed by Elizabeth Grosz (1990, p. 87), while Freud argues for a complete banishment of the identified practices from society, Kristeva does not want to push abjection completely out of consciousness and recognizes the importance of the allure of abjection, which seduces the subject and heightens our sensory awareness. Facing the abject is a part of daily life in the confrontation of our bodily selves and in other areas such as in (making decisions about) food consumption, sexuality, and so on. In day-to-day life then ‘[t]he subject must have a certain, if incomplete, mastery of the abject’ (Grosz, 1990, p. 87). Not only are our feelings about the abject ambivalent in the dual emotions that the abject elicits but also in the extent of the grip the abject has over us, where we need to be alert to it without letting it overwhelm us.
The semiotic and the symbolic
In Revolution in Poetic Language
, Kristeva puts forward a theory of the processes of signification that comprises two components: the semiotic and the symbolic. The normal psychical trajectory in infant development charts the development from pre-verbalization to the formation of the speaking subject, a process that is determined by the interrelationship between the semiotic and symbolic. The semiotic, which has a very specific meaning for Kristeva,5
is ‘articulated by flow and marks’ (Kristeva, 1984, p. 40) associated with ‘rhythms or tones’ that are meaningful parts of language but that do not signify anything in a referential sense but are the result of bodily drives (Oliver, 2002, p. xiv). In this initial phase of psychic development the infant expresses itself through a series of non-verbal (and pre-symbolic) cues. Sounds such as babbles, cries and coos are familiar noises that are used to attract attention, often to bodily drives. This type of signification exists anterior to speech (it is pre-linguistic) and exists in the ‘semiotic chora’.
Introduced in Plato’s Timaeus
, the ‘chora’ is initially referred to as the ‘receptacle of all becoming’ and is subsequently called space, where it is conceived of as a field in which the universe may exist (Zeyl, 2013). In her appropriation of the term, Kristeva exploits the fluidity of the space that cannot be fixed. In Revolution in Poetic Language
she argues that ‘[a]lthough the chora
can be designated and regulated, it can never be definitively posited: as a result, one can situ-ate the chora
and, if necessary, lend it to a topology, but one can never give it axiomatic form’ (Kristeva, 1984, p. 26). In addition, she specifically aligns the space to the maternal where it is used to denote a psychic space that preceded the formation of subjectivity or personal identity and reason. It is a receptacle that contains a shared space of the mother–child dyad and is ‘unnameable, improbable, hybrid, anterior to naming, to the One, to the father, and consequently, maternally connoted’ (Kristeva, 1980, p. 133). The chora is the place where the subject is made and negated. ‘In the mother–child dyad, there are no clear distinctions of subject and object, inner and outer, “I” and others, but only fluid heterogeneities, rhythmic streamings of libidinal drives and matter’ (Menninghaus, 2003, p. 370). The infant experiences the world in rhythms and movements, and registers vocalizations and tones in its environment which correlate with
bodily drives. Through the various stages of development, the infant begins to develop borders through the process of rejection and expulsion, and wrestles against the ‘mother’s engulfing embrace’ (McAfee, 2004, p. 46). This enables a sense of growing autonomy where distinctions can be made as to what lies outside the self (such as the waste products of the mother) and the maintenance of a clean and proper body. This prompts the question: how can the infant reject and expel something unless it already recognizes boundaries and unless the thing in question is distinct from the infant’s self? In response to this, perhaps there are different levels of consciousness. At a very fundamental level the infant might reject and expel something, and that action might thereby bring about a realization, at a higher level of consciousness, that what is rejected and expelled lies on the other side of a boundary to the self.
Although we start to reject the mother’s body because we are still in the semiotic realm, we cannot define this in terms of a subject–abject relationship because we are not a subject yet: ‘the not-yet-subject with its not-yet, or no-longer, object maintains “itself” as the abject’ (Oliver, 1993, p. 60). Since ‘the structure of separation is bodily, these bodily operations prepare us for our entrance into language’ (Oliver, 2002, p. xxi). Kristeva explains that ‘before being like, “I” am not but do separate, reject, ab-ject’ (Kristeva, 1982, p. 13).
The next phase of development involves the ‘becoming of the subject’, which occurs through the acquisition of the symbolic, which refers to signification systems that constitute linguistic language. It is a different mode of communication from the semiotic and is constituted by verbal language. It designates the structured use of language in its use of syntax and grammar. With symbolic language the infant is able to build up subjectivity and mark out its difference, in a subject–object relationship, from its mother and other things in the world. This ‘positing’ or positioning is known as the ‘thetic phase’ (Kristeva, 1984, p. 43). Language is the tool that enables things to be inscribed within a referential system and gives the infant the means to be able to communicate this sense of loss.
In spite of the linear progression charting the passage from the semiotic to the symbolic, Kristeva discusses the integral need for both signifying systems in communication. Without the symbolic we would only have incomprehensible babble, while without the semiotic we would not have the need for utterance, and the content
of what is uttered would be meaningless. The combination of the two modalities emphasizes the different motivations of communication as well as stressing the idea that ‘[w]e have a bodily need to communicate’ (Oliver, 2002, p. xv). Kristeva argues that the co-existence of the two phases is necessary to maintain not only psychic development and fulfilment but also the functioning of social institutions and, in the aesthetic realm, the functioning of discourses and texts.
In normal functioning adult communication, the semiotic is relegated in importance but we are always prone to post-thetic communication in our lives; for instance in moments of abjection, indescribable pain, rage, sheer ecstasy, fear and mental disintegration (e.g., psychosis). The semiotic is also exercised in creativity. These states are so intense and in extremis
that they often momentarily obliterate consciousness and take us to a place that is anterior to linguistic language where we operate ‘below the surface’ of rational communication. Elaine Scarry comments on the annihilating effect of physical pain which ‘does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned’ (Scarry, 1985, p. 4). Kristeva maintains that the two modes are not static and discontinuous entities, but are processes that are integral to the full range of human communication. They should be viewed as two elements or components of signification that interact throughout the course of life: the semiotic provides the impetus to communicate, and the symbolic structures the utterance. The range of interrelational possibilities that exists between these two modes is explored further in Chapter 7
In her theory of abjection Kristeva builds on and modifies established models of psychoanalysis, particularly Lacanian psychoanalytical theory.6
Her account in particular is a corrective of Lacan’s claims about the point at which separation occurs in the formation of the subject, and of the juncture at which language is recognized as operating, which in Lacan’s development theory is at the Mirror Stage (and in Freud’s theory, the pre-Oedipal stage ). In Chapter 3
of Powers of Horror
, ‘From Filth to Defilement’, Kristeva challenges Freud’s perspective in Moses and Monotheism
(1939) where he argues that
the murder of the father is integral to the formation of the social. Kristeva shifts the focus to the maternal and its significance in the development of the social, where identity is constructed by the exclusion of the abject maternal body. During the time in which Kristeva was writing, Lacanian theory was widely accepted as a model of subjectivity in psychoanalysis.
Lacan presents three distinct realms, or orders, of the psyche (a schema that he came up with in 1953): Real, Symbolic and Imaginary, which collectively present a way of understanding the functioning of the human psyche. They are often described as different stages, but it is more accurate to see them as realms of experience that interrelate and interlock. The Imaginary is the visual realm of images and sense perceptions that are issued from the body’s image.7
In this pre-Oedipal stage the infant’s experience of the world is undifferentiated and the infant exists in oneness with the mother. The Mirror Stage occurs in the Imaginary realm where the infant (aged between 6–18 months) catches a glimpse of itself in a mirror, is able to identify with an image outside
of itself and perceives itself in a unified way, which is based on a misconception because the mirror presents an ideal ego which does not correspond with the infant’s actual experience of its body. This is the first time that the infant has conceived of itself as a unitary entity or subject (as an ‘I’) that is separate from others (the world of objects), and this momentous revelation is shared with an adult (often a parent) who is present during this revelation. This marks an important step in the formation of the ego and the development of the subject. Prior to this, the infant perceives itself as fragmented and interior. The Mirror Stage is a critical stage in the process of identification, where the image(s) of oneself becomes translated into the idea of the self, and in particular ‘me’, thus enabling the transition to the Symbolic realm (which is represented by the father) of language, law and the order of society. The infant’s cognitive sense of identification with an image outside of itself is concomitant with other perceptions: the infant begins to recognize what it lacks and expresses the trauma of the loss of maternal oneness, as well as desire, using the newly acquired gift of linguistic language.
Kristeva transforms Lacan’s model, so that instead of the transition from the Imaginary to the Symbolic order being the sole method of structuring thought, we have the distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic, where the semiotic is equivalent to the pre-Oedipal
and the symbolic is less of an order and more part of an ongoing process of linguistic signification. She also reconfigures the significance of the maternal body that has been sidelined in patriarchal models of psychoanalysis.
A word about the differences between the relative uses of the term ‘symbolic’ is needed here. Oliver explains how Kristeva is using ‘the symbolic’ as a ‘technical term that delimits one element of language associated with syntax’ (Oliver, 2002, p. xv) rather than in the broader Lacanian sense where it constitutes the entire realm of signification, not just language but discourse and culture in general.8
The result of the realization in the Mirror Stage, from the ‘warmth and oneness’ in the Imaginary into ‘separation and loss’, is constitutive of language, which underpins desire. We speak in order to address the loss of union that is encountered at this early stage of development. Throughout human life, language enables us to convey a sense of loss (often understood as lack) that we have from being separated from our primal state of oneness. In Lacan, ‘language is the basis of the alienation between the self and the world, and this alienation involves a division between the infinity of our desires, which are denied by social conventions, and the finitude of our demands which are allowed by society’ (Turner, 1996, p. 51; see also Lacan, 2001 ).
Another point of difference needs to be noted with respect to the moment of separation. For Lacan this occurs at the Mirror Stage where the infant moves from a sense of body-image(s) to a position outside of itself, where it can experience ‘a...