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Abjection

Abjection

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The term abjection literally means "the state of being cast off". In usage it has connotations of degradation
Degradation
Degradation may refer to;* Biodegradation, the processes by which organic substances are broken down by living organisms* Cashiering or degradation ceremony, a ritual performed when cleric is deprived of office or a knight is stripped of the honour...

, baseness and meanness of spirit.

In critical theory


In contemporary critical theory
Critical theory
Critical theory is an examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two different meanings with different origins and histories: one originating in sociology and the other in literary criticism...

, "abjection" is often used to describe the state of often-marginalized groups, such as women, unwed mothers, people of religious faith, people of color, prostitutes, convicts, poor people
Poverty
Poverty is the lack of a certain amount of material possessions or money. Absolute poverty or destitution is inability to afford basic human needs, which commonly includes clean and fresh water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter. About 1.7 billion people are estimated to live...

, disabled people
Disability
A disability may be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental or some combination of these.Many people would rather be referred to as a person with a disability instead of handicapped...

, and queer
Queer
Queer is an umbrella term for sexual minorities that are not heterosexual, heteronormative, or gender-binary. In the context of Western identity politics the term also acts as a label setting queer-identifying people apart from discourse, ideologies, and lifestyles that typify mainstream LGBT ...

 or LGBT
LGBT
LGBT is an initialism that collectively refers to "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender" people. In use since the 1990s, the term "LGBT" is an adaptation of the initialism "LGB", which itself started replacing the phrase "gay community" beginning in the mid-to-late 1980s, which many within the...

 people. In this context, the concept of abject exists in between the concept of an object
Object (philosophy)
An object in philosophy is a technical term often used in contrast to the term subject. Consciousness is a state of cognition that includes the subject, which can never be doubted as only it can be the one who doubts, and some object or objects that may or may not have real existence without...

 and the concept of the subject
Subject (philosophy)
In philosophy, a subject is a being that has subjective experiences, subjective consciousness or a relationship with another entity . A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed...

, something alive yet not. This term is used in the works of Julia Kristeva
Julia Kristeva
Julia Kristeva is a Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst, sociologist, feminist, and, most recently, novelist, who has lived in France since the mid-1960s. She is now a Professor at the University Paris Diderot...

. Often, the term space of abjection is also used, referring to a space that abjected things or beings inhabit. William Apess
William Apess
thumb|250px|William Apess' autobiographyWilliam Apess was a Native American writer, preacher, and politician of the Pequot tribe.-Early life:...

 used the term in the early 19th century in "An Indian's Looking-Glass For The White Man" to describe the plight of the Native Americans.

According to Kristeva, since the abject is situated outside the symbolic order, being forced to face it is an inherently traumatic experience. For example, upon being faced with a corpse, a person would be most likely be repulsed because he or she is forced to face an object which is violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject. We encounter living beings daily. To confront a corpse of one that we recognize as human, something that should be alive but isn't, is to confront the reality that we are capable of dying ourselves. This repulsion from death, excrement and rot constitutes the subject as a living being in the symbolic order.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, abjection is done to the part of ourselves that we exclude: the mother. We must abject the maternal, the object which has created us, in order to construct an identity. Abjection occurs on the micro level of the speaking being, through her subjective dynamics, as well as on the macro level of society, through "language as a common and universal law". We use rituals, specifically those of defilement, in order to maintain clear boundaries between nature and society, the semiotic and the symbolic. This line of thought begins with Mary Douglas
Mary Douglas
Dame Mary Douglas, DBE, FBA was a British anthropologist, known for her writings on human culture and symbolism....

' important book, Purity and Danger
Purity and Danger
Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo is the best known book by the influential anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas. In 1991 the Times Literary Supplement listed it as one of the hundred most influential non-fiction books published since 1945...

, as well as in Kristeva's own Black Sun.

The concept of abjection is often coupled (and sometimes confused with) the idea of the uncanny, the concept of something being "un-home-like", or foreign, yet familiar. The abject can be uncanny in the sense that we can recognize aspects in it, despite its being "foreign". An example, continuing on the one used above, is that of a corpse, namely the corpse of a loved one. We recognize that person as close to us, but the fact that the person is dead, and "no longer" the familiar loved one, creates a cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying,...

, leading to abjection of the corpse.

In art


The roots of Abject art go back a long way. Painters express a fascination for blood long before the Renaissance but it wasn't until the Dada movement that the fascination with transgression and taboo made it possible for Abject Art, as a movement, to exist. It owes a considerable debt to Antonin Artaud
Antonin Artaud
Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, more well-known as Antonin Artaud was a French playwright, poet, actor and theatre director...

's "Theatre of Cruelty". Well before the Abject Art movement was given a name by the Whitney Museum, New York
New York
New York is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation's third most populous state. New York is bordered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the south, and by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont to the east...

 in 1993, the movement towards Abject Art had long been in existence.

It was preceded by the films and performances of the Viennese Actionists
Viennese Actionism
The term Viennese Actionism describes a short and violent movement in 20th century art that can be regarded as part of the many independent efforts of the 1960s to develop "action art" . Its main participants were Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. As "actionists",...

, in particular, Hermann Nitsch
Hermann Nitsch
Hermann Nitsch is an Austrian artist who works in experimental and multimedia modes.Born in Vienna, Nitsch received training in painting during the time he studied at the Wiener Graphische Lehr-und Versuchanstalt. He is called an "actionist" or a performance artist...

, whose interest in Schwitter's idea of a gesamtkunstwerk
Gesamtkunstwerk
A Gesamtkunstwerk is a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms or strives to do so...

 led to his setting up the radical theatre group, known as the Orgien-Mysterien-Theater which involved the use of animal carcasses and blood shed in a ritualistic way. Nitsch served time in jail for blasphemy before being invited to New York in 1968 by Jonas Mekas where he organised a series of performances which greatly influenced the radical New York art scene.

Other members of the Viennese Actionists
Viennese Actionism
The term Viennese Actionism describes a short and violent movement in 20th century art that can be regarded as part of the many independent efforts of the 1960s to develop "action art" . Its main participants were Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. As "actionists",...

, Gunter Brus, who began as a painter, and Otto Muehl
Otto Muehl
Otto Muehl is an Austrian artist, who is best known as one of the co-founders as well as a main participant of Viennese Actionism. In 1972 he founded the Friedrichshof Commune that existed for several years before falling apart in the 1990s...

 collaborated on performances. The performances of Gunter Brus involved publicly urinating, defecating and cutting himself with a razor blade which had a powerful influence on later Abject Art from the 1980s and 1990s. Rudolf Schwarzkogler
Rudolf Schwarzkogler
Rudolf Schwarzkogler was an Austrian performance artist closely associated with the Viennese Actionism group that included artists Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, and Hermann Nitsch....

 who committed suicide by jumping from a window in 1969 is better known for his photos dealing with the Abject. The growth of extreme performance art coincided with the radicalisation of politics in the late 1960s.

In the late 1960s Performance Art
Performance art
In art, performance art is a performance presented to an audience, traditionally interdisciplinary. Performance may be either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated; spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. The performance can be live or...

 took off in New York. For a short period, Carolee Schneeman made performances that led to her inclusion in the 1993 show at the Whitney Museum of Abject Art. In the early 1970s Mary Kelly caused a scandal in 1976 when she exhibited dirty nappies at the Institute of Contemporary Arts
Institute of Contemporary Arts
The Institute of Contemporary Arts is an artistic and cultural centre on The Mall in London, just off Trafalgar Square. It is located within Nash House, part of Carlton House Terrace, near the Duke of York Steps and Admiralty Arch...

 in London. This was followed by the concentration on the abject which is implicit in punk rock and, in particular, the performances of Genesis P. Orridge and GG Allin
GG Allin
Kevin Michael "GG" Allin was an American punk rock singer-songwriter, who performed and recorded with many groups during his career. GG Allin is perhaps best remembered for his notorious live performances, which often featured transgressive acts, including coprophagia, self-mutilation, and...

 which involved spit, urine, blood, semen and feces.

In the 1980s and 1990s, fascination with the Powers of Horror
Powers of Horror
Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection is a 1982 book by Julia Kristeva. The book is an extensive treatise on the subject of abjection and all it entails...

, the title of a book by Julia Kristeva
Julia Kristeva
Julia Kristeva is a Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst, sociologist, feminist, and, most recently, novelist, who has lived in France since the mid-1960s. She is now a Professor at the University Paris Diderot...

, led to a second wave of radical performance artists working with bodily fluids including Ron Athey
Ron Athey
Ron Athey is an American performance artist associated with body art and with extreme performance art. He has performed in the U.S. and internationally . Athey's work explores challenging subjects like the relationships between desire, sexuality, and traumatic experience...

, Franko B
Franko B
Franko B is a London-based performance artist. He studied fine art in London at Camberwell College of Arts and Chelsea College of Art . His work was originally based on the bloody and ritualised violation of his own body...

, Lennie Lee
Lennie Lee
Lennie Lee is a South African conceptual artist who lives and works in London.-Life and career:Lennie Lee is a British artist born in Johannesburg, South Africa. He moved to the UK in 1960. He was educated at Dulwich college in London before winning a scholarship to study philosophy at Christ...

 and Kira O' Reilly.

In the late 1990s, the abject became an important theme of radical Chinese performance artists Zhu Yu
Zhu Yu
Zhu Yu is a performance artist living in Beijing, China. His work deals with subjects of contemporary art.Yu's most famous piece of conceptual art, titled "Eating People," was performed at a Shanghai arts festival in 2000. It consisted of a series of photographs of him cooking and eating what is...

 and Yang Zhichao
Yang Zhichao
Yang Zhichao Born in 1963 in Gansu province Northern Manchuria, is a performance artist living and working in Beijing....

.

The abject also began to influence the work of a number of mainstream artists including Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois
Louise Joséphine Bourgeois , was a renowned French-American artist and sculptor, best known for her contributions to both modern and contemporary art, and for her spider structures, titled Maman, which resulted in her being nicknamed the Spiderwoman...

, Helen Chadwick
Helen Chadwick
Helen Chadwick was a British conceptual artist.-Life and work:Chadwick studied at Croydon College of Art, The Faculty of Arts and Architecture Brighton Polytechnic and then at the Chelsea School of Art....

, Gilbert and George
Gilbert and George
Gilbert & George are two artists who work together as a collaborative duo. Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore have become famous for their distinctive, highly formal appearance and manner and their brightly coloured graphic-style photo-based artworks.-Early life:Gilbert Proesch was...

, Robert Gober
Robert Gober
Robert Gober is an American sculptor. His work is often related to domestic and familiar objects such as sinks, doors, and legs.-Life and work:...

, Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith is an American artist classified as a feminist artist, a movement with beginnings in the twentieth century...

 and Jake and Dinos Chapman
Jake and Dinos Chapman
Iakovos "Jake" Chapman and Konstantinos "Dinos" Chapman are English visual artists, often known as the Chapman Brothers, who work together as a collaborative sibling duo...

 who were all included in the 1993 Whitney show.

Other important artists working with abjection include New York photographers, Joel Peter Witkin, whose book Love and Redemption is made up entirely of photos of corpses and body parts, and Andres Serrano
Andres Serrano
Andres Serrano is an American photographer and artist who has become notorious through his photos of corpses and his use of feces and bodily fluids in his work, notably his controversial work "Piss Christ", a red-tinged photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass container of what was purported...

 whose piece entitled Piss Christ
Piss Christ
Piss Christ is a 1987 photograph by artist and photographer Andres Serrano. It depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine...

 caused a scandal in 1989 when it received $15,000 dollars of public funding.

Abjection in other works


According to Barbara Creed
Barbara Creed
Barbara Creed is a Professor of Cinema Studies in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne known for her cultural criticism....

 in Horror and the Monstrous Feminine a male's relationship with the mother and other females is complicated by the use of the feminine in horror
Horror fiction
Horror fiction also Horror fantasy is a philosophy of literature, which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten its readers, inducing feelings of horror and terror. It creates an eerie atmosphere. Horror can be either supernatural or non-supernatural...

 and science fiction
Science fiction
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...

 as we are forced to confront it as horrific and abject. Through an analysis of the film Alien
Alien (film)
Alien is a 1979 science fiction horror film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto. The film's title refers to its primary antagonist: a highly aggressive extraterrestrial creature which...

 (1979) and the female roles and representations, Creed explains how females are often related to the object of horror, be they as the object of horror or the object of the actual horrors' desire/hatred. The conclusion is that through monstrous representations of the female or the Mother, the audience is drawn into viewing them as abject rather than subject or object. The aliens themselves from the film in question are often described as having phallus
Phallus
A phallus is an erect penis, a penis-shaped object such as a dildo, or a mimetic image of an erect penis. Any object that symbolically resembles a penis may also be referred to as a phallus; however, such objects are more often referred to as being phallic...

-like appendages in the shape of their head and tongue, while maintaining an almost female form. Their interaction with the human crew takes on very abject roles as one crew member, a male, is forcibly impregnated (clearly as a product of rape) with an alien that eventually rips itself from the male 'womb' in a horrific scene of blood and gore. The process of a male being impregnated through the mouth with a creature that gestates—in a being that has no womb—and rips itself free in a shower of blood is one way in which this film abjectifies female roles.

Abjection is also a major theme of the 1949 work The Thief's Journal
The Thief's Journal
The Thief's Journal is perhaps Jean Genet's most famous work. It is a part- fact, part-fiction autobiography that charts the author's progress through Europe in a curiously depoliticized 1930s, wearing nothing but rags and enduring hunger, contempt, fatigue and vice. Spain, Italy, Austria,...

 (Journal du Voleur) by French author Jean Genet
Jean Genet
Jean Genet was a prominent and controversial French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist. Early in his life he was a vagabond and petty criminal, but later took to writing...

. As a criminal outcast from society, during a fictionalised account of his wanderings through Europe in the 1930s, he claims to actively seek abjections as an existentialist form of 'sainthood.'

External links