You think that drawing is gross? It could have been so much worse.
The Abject, Literary Studies:
Well, this one is notoriously difficult to explain, because Kristeva is a notoriously challenging writer. I would argue that she’s a tremendously good one though.
When I am beset by abjection, the twisted braid of affects and thoughts I call by such a name does not have, properly speaking, a definable object. The abject is not an ob-ject facing me, which I name or imagine. Nor is it an ob-jest, an otherness ceaselessly fleeing in a systematic quest of desire. What is abject is not my correlative, which, providing me with someone or something else as support, would allow me to be more or less detached and autonomous. The abject has only one quality of the object – that of being opposed to “I.”
Long story short: the abject is a theoretical term coined by Julia Kristeva in An Essay on Horror: The Powers of Abjection. Honestly it is super hard to understand if you aren’t pretty well versed in literary theory and psychoanalysis. But here goes my attempt at an explanation.
The abject is super gross and threatens your status as a member of the symbolic order, vs, say, being a gooey duck or a bloody – also gooey – embryo still connected to your mother. And whether you are a gooey duck or a tiny gooey human thing that is a part of another human’s body (GROSS) the sad truth is that you will die someday either way. And then you will be a gooey corpse (GROSSER):
A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.
In other words, the abject doesn’t make you think about death. It makes you feel death and feel that you are just a worthless pile of mush – and so intensely that you might puke or at least gag.
This is one of my favorite theories, because I think Kristeva is just totally right about everything. We cannot handle what we really are: big, gross, walking, talking corpses signifying nothing. It is totally understandable that we would repress all that. No judgement, humans. Also there is an important feminist stance in “An Essay on Abjection” – women are, cultural construct-wise, perceived as WAY more abject than men. It sucks. Arguably this is why we women have to work so damned hard to remove all abjection from our bodies and behavior. No smells, no burping, no hair, no spitting, and do not mention your period. Because God forbid anyone be reminded that they were once inside a uterus and that someday we are all going to die.
(A quick pause to note an important distinction. The abject is not, essentially, abject. We signifying humans have coded certain things as “abject” – “that which is not I” – in order to protect ourselves from the annihilation of meaninglessness. This process is “abjection,” which would have been a more complicated drawing.)
Another quote, just to show that Kristeva is an awesome writer of very difficult sentences on deeply unpleasant subjects, and I love her so much:
Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit – cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, ‘I’ is expelled.
If anyone else has ever written more thoughtfully and beautifully about shit, I’d like to know about it.
Kristeva’s theory of jouissance is in here too, which is super cool to dorks like me who are interested in human beings’ more strange and inexplicable behaviors. In that section she explains why there might be something like joy in losing yourself in the abject. (Hence the existence of the horror genre, gross-out comedy, etc.) But I will save jouissance for another day.
Back when I was teaching the abject, I used to talk about mayonnaise. “Show of hands! Who hates mayonnaise?” <Nearly everyone raises their hand, because it is not cool to like mayonnaise>
I think mayonnaise is the mildest example of the abject. You know how some people are so totally disgusted by mayonnaise? Like they just can’t even freaking stand even to see it? I think those people are really NOT okay with the abject. So in other words, your feelings on mayonnaise are a pretty good measure of how comfortable you are with death, illness, your gross body, etc. Just a theory.
Personally I love mayonnaise.
Are you highly learn-ed in specialized knowledge? Are you now, or have you ever been, a graduate student or professor? Do you read dense theoretical texts for fun? Send your favorite theories to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will draw them. Esoteric terminology also accepted but will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Oh, and follow me on Instagram while you’re at it – @devon_isadevon.