Poetry and Abjection
Julia Kristeva’s concept of ‘abjection’ introduces the idea of that which must be excluded towards the constitution of an authentic self or, social order; authentic, that is, in the sense in which the human being is understood to be a normative subject and, social systems are seen to represent the proper order. Abjection is a rather symbolic idea, which she nevertheless explains through a series of examples. Faeces, the menstrual flow, pus and bile, for example, signify defilement and corruption; just as crime is a defilement of the social order. In order for the self or system to constitute itself as self, it must eject these away from it/self.
“It is not the lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, systems, order. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless, the rapist, the killer who claims he is a saviour” (Powers of Horror, 4). In the preceding quote Kristeva already encompasses subjectivity and social systems within abjection’s areas of encroachment. Abjection is as such all defilement – of the body, of social systems, or of the Law or authority. This threat is ejected from the body, through purificatory rituals or ablutions, and from the social system through the instrument of the law. That initial (as in pot-training) and continuous excretion of faeces, urine, of pus and all superfluous bodily fluids is thus important for the constitution of the self as authentic being, for the formation of the ego. In the same manner all threatening objects within the symbolic order is ejected by the Law – first of the mother (who pot-trains the child towards its self-constitution), then of the Father – through ablutions, religious dogma, rites and rituals or statues. Abjection is also instrumental in maintaining hierarchies within society – especially those deriving from taboos and, gender – and by implication, racial – discrimination. One of Kristeva’s central points is the feminist concern with the way a woman’s body (her menstrual flow and sexuality) is seen by a Christian patriarchal order as the epitome of abjection, thus confining woman to a lesser subject position in the order of normative humanity. Interestingly, this same apportioning of degrees of defilement or impurity within Judeo-Christian ideology has greatly aided racist discourse if we are to believe Frantz Fanon’s assertion that in the Judeo-Christian tradition the colour black is the equivalent of sin, of impurity or un-cleanliness. However Kristeva’s feminist critique and their implications are not the focus of this short essay.
The most threatening form of abjection for subjectivity or being is the corpse. Why? Without life all other forms of abjection disappears, along with the body that is now a corpse; society or Law becomes irrelevant. From the foregoing one can then begin to understand a sense in which abjection is not only that threat on the other side of the border of subjectivity or systems but also the feeling of being abject that wells up, of repulsion, dread, fear, and so on, in confrontation with the abject. Although according to Kristeva, such feelings cannot be presumed to have been called up because of the ‘uncanniness’ of abjection. Unlike Freud’s idea of the ‘uncanny’, that is, the unfamiliar and therefore frightful (i.e. extra-terrestrials, ghosts, haunted houses), abjection is rather familiar, always hovering on the border of subjectivity or systems, threatening to erase or dissolve it. Death is around us all the time, for example. But being confronted by a corpse brings to the foreground that which is very familiar but which has been in the background of life, not really repressed in the Freudian sense; it is always just out of the eye’s line of sight but still within peripheral vision. Its foregrounding would then lead to what Jean-Paul Sartre calls nausea; existence becomes nauseating. Man or system is confronted by his or its mortality or dysfunction and is nauseated. Perhaps, this is one reason people throw up at the sight of corpses or blood, refuse to discuss death or the possible manner of their own certain death.
Deriving from that last point, one would like to reconstitute the abject as that which makes life or systems possible (through its exclusion) but which also threatens it from the outside and results in a feeling of dejection or nausea. It is that, which very presence presages annihilation of all existence or civilisation. Poetry is a recuperative measure against this threatening possibility.
Kristeva buttresses her idea of the abject through a recourse to the Judaeo-Christian tradition of sin and defilement or uncleanness, quoting extensively from the bible, referring to the Vedic tradition as counter-point, and ultimately to literature. She takes examples from Joyce, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Borges or Artaud, showing characterisation or plots, which highlight evidence of abjection. It is the self-constituting uses to which the artefact or aesthetics is put by society that is of interests here. Poetry is chief in this application of art – especially because of its ideological value-ladenness. That value-ladenness suggests why every writer wants to be a poet as well, and why all manner of ‘performance’ is now qualified as poetry. Nevertheless such intrusions simply introduce abjection into poetry in itself; it corrupts it, nauseates it, and turns it to vomit; unless of course there should be a different development in the future within such art forms.
Primitive human societies and social organisation had a set of religious, moral and social structuring codes, which helped to exclude the abject. An anthropological study will exhume many more, depending on what culture we are dealing with. This limiting of the abject to the outside of subjectivity and the system is normative from the most primitive society to the most sophisticated one such as we have today. The art work was, and is, one of the objects- and social rituals- that was proffered to dam the abject. It existed, and still exits, not necessarily as a limiting factor but as a liberating influence from the abjectness of life generally; it exists as beauty, as a point upon wish the eye might fasten itself and further push the abject to the extremity of peripheral vision or even beyond it. The cave-man did have his wall drawings or paintings. The constant dangers of the hunt, and of a harsh insecure world around him, would have been blunted by his pleasing gaze on the wall painting or drawing. The physical act of drawing or painting, crude as it might have been in retrospect, must have been a therapeutic act. Art was catharsis and it kept the abject world beyond the borders of self-constitution, and of the structuring or domestication of nature.
It is little wonder then that anthropologists, in rating ‘civilisation’ or development and sophistication in a group of people, have always appraised the artwork produced across the time of their emergence as a group. This aspect of the anthropologist’s work considers a society civilised in so far as it has a rich stock of well developed artefacts, pointing to its ability to contain abjection. Since, from the beginning of time, the natural world is abject and threatening in as much as it is generally wild and untamed, one would presume that one of the abject objects, which the art object is supposed to replace as the Other of subjectivity, on the one hand, and of a structured world, on the other, is the natural chaotic environment itself. In other words the planet itself is abject and man’s life on earth is a series of nightmares interspersed by pleasurable objects like the artwork, which tries to repress that abjection. The more man can domesticate nature or turn it into a huge artist’s studio, that is, the more abjection-free and ‘homely’ he made it, the more mastery over self and environment he felt. Civilisation and abjection becomes then mutually exclusive. The fury with which we are now bombarded with art objects in the media and other avenues suggests an astronomical increase in the modern condition of abjection. There is war all over the globe, crisis of one sort of the other – the Middle East, Africa and Asia are examples. Strangely, murder series is a daily recipe on television. This can only be explained as a perverse obsession with the abject. Outside of TV, on the other hand, actual criminal murder has become vernacular. Serial killers abound – especially in the western hemisphere. The simple conclusion would be that man is not civilised. Mahatma Ghandi once responded to a journalist’s question, ‘what do you think of western civilisation’. His answer was, “I think it would be a good idea”, meaning it does not exist.
Modern man deceives himself that he is civilised, in as much as he has accumulated a considerable number of art objects for a distracting and pleasurable contemplation, away from the phenomenon and truth of his eternal condition of abjection. So we have, for example, poetry, architecture, painting or ceramics as art objects signifying the human being’s exclusion of abjection from his being and his world. Since the body’s is naturally subject to disease, bound to decay and die, the artwork – which does not die, being a ‘bodiless idea’, becomes the new body for modern man.
It should not be surprising then that the art object is raised to the position of a fetish or a god. Following Kristeva’s rhetorical gesture we could take a Biblical example – the Bible, that is, as a prism of the past, a document of how past ages lived, not as a religious or even a ‘spiritual text’ as such. When Moses comes down from the mountain to bring the tablets of commandments to the people, Aaron has built an object made of assorted pleasurable materials, to which the Israelites pay homage as a god. That object, that object d’art becomes the Object reflecting back the people’s subjectness, pleasurably securing self and world and excluding their feeling of abjection.
Poetry, as an object, is more desirable than most other art objects in eliminating the abject because, apart from its not having a physical body, that may be afflicted or may disintegrate, it is also doubly a desirable object for its not being visible in a tangible physical way. A mere idea of what it is convinces a culture of self-cultivation and the expulsion of abjection. All one needs are some representative great poets. Poetry’s permanence is retained in collective memory. Besides, the physical appearance of poetry as script is simply a representation of its sounds, of its oral roots and memorability. In the absence of books of poetry then, it is possible to recall what originally began as memorisation and is one with the nature of man – the primordial sound or utterance, the grunt. In the beginning was the word – to take another Biblical example. Strangely though, the act of defecation – of the ejection of abjection – is ultimately accompanied by the grunt at the moment of the child’s setting of the border of its subjectivity. And, everyday, the adult’s grunt is a re-enactment of the first grunt. Even death is mostly accompanied by a sigh. These sounds, words without scripts, are a pulsing towards words, towards poetry, which is the most sophisticated fashioning of words.
In the choice between artefacts, poetry might be more elevating because it has the potential of truth telling, of going beyond the glitter which the eye seeks to the unpleasant idea of abjection itself. A poem might talk frankly about any civilisation-threatening topic (war, murder or incest) – death inclusive, and in such a way remove the deception and false security of the object d’art. Even if the sigh escapes us at death, it is only for it to utter a truth, to come to terms with a life flashing past our eyes in the final moment. Poetry may be stained with abjection but it is the only art object that can identify that abjection for what it is without shrinking, and in this way it informs the subject of a permanent miserable condition, of the futile struggle against death or decay or its vain desire for comfort, the pursuit of happiness and painlessness in a material and abject world designed exactly for pain. A Nigerian social critic, Tai Solarin, once put it bluntly: “May your road be rough”! It was a prayer for the young and inexperienced, who expect a pain-free and pleasurable life. The roughness of life is smoothened by the catharsis of poetry while at the same time poetry says, by its very nature, ‘may your road be rough’. It prepares the individual for the ‘expected’, and cushions the shock of abjection when it does appear – even if its original purpose was to completely remove the abject and pretend it does not exist. It is, like any other art object, supposed to delude and give an illusion of grandeur. Poetry can, of course, approach the sublime or grandeur in execution but it has a truth-telling effect as well. Where the poet falls victim to the civilisational project, he or she loses credibility, since the feigned desire to be poet, to be seen as cultivated, without the necessary honesty (of craft, talent or of true calling), which poetry demands, exposes him in the resultant abjection from the poor and nauseating quality that results. Such abjections inflicted on the poem by the poetaster can be localised within the body of the poem in the ugliness of rash commas, lexical indelicacies, syntactical imprecision, and an overall nauseating rather than cathartic or pleasurable effect to the reader. All of these abjections should normally remain outside, excluded, ejected like faeces from the body of the fully achieved poem. Of course there is a time for the baby poet to have its pot-training, a time when the poet is learning the craft. And the mother of that training is the finished poet within tradition.
Poetry serves its purpose well – like most other art objects. It gives the illusion of sophistication, of civilisation, of progress and of mastery over sound, over words. If ‘in the beginning was the word’, it unites us, in a false way, with the cause of all things; in short it seems to align us with the cosmos and reassures our presumed mastery of nature. Once in a while, nature erupts out of the order we try to impose on it and shows it mastery over man, the hidden mastery of the abject over culture. We see this in situations of natural disasters – like the recent tsunami in Asia.
The true poem while serving as balm for the wound that is existence, nevertheless pulls at the scab on the wound and prepares us for the nauseous blood-letting that life confronts us with eventually, with the abjection that is our daily dose, or that is interwoven into an otherwise seeming control, order or self-mastery. Poetry can only stem the tide of the abject by being cathartic and by giving aesthetic pleasure, all of which immediately comforts us in our abjection. But if the poetry is bad, if it cannot provide catharsis or pleasure due to poor execution, if it cannot approach the sublime that is its goal, it merely increases the condition of abjection; it becomes a palliative that turns to poison once ingested.
It is remarkable that abjection (i.e. defecation or death- the corpse) is always intertwined with existence, always a shadow on the heels of the subject and of structures, that is, of civilisation. And this is the source of man’s nausea. Existence is invariably nauseous. That nausea can only be escaped in intervals, never permanently and it overwhelms finally at the moment of death. The life of man is truly miserable, abject; alienated from the self he seeks to project and the comforts he tries to surround himself with. The result is a desperate bombardment from pleasurable objects, even poorly executed ones – movies, architecture, ballet, music, novels, paintings, and, of course, poetry; in short, from all objects with an aesthetic quality, which can further repress the abjection that life is.
Kristeva, Julia. The Power of Horror: An essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #50. January 2007 ISSN 1479-425X
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