Julia Kristeva on Disgust, Fear and the Self (Part One)

Nov 05, 2018, 03:42 PM

"On Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1980), chapters 1 and 2.

What is horror? Kristeva's book is about a process she calls "abjection" where we violently reject things like corpses, bodily wastes and other fluids, and the Lovecraftian unnameable that lurks at the edge of our awareness, hideously inhuman and indifferent to our suffering.

The book is also all about the self, suggesting modifications to Freud's Oedipal complex (in which we mature through the intervention of a father-figure or civilization in general breaking our bond with the mother) and Lacan's mirror-stage story (where we gain self-hood by contemplating a unified, external image of ourselves, which is also informed by language, or what Lacan calls the "Name of the Father").

For Kristeva, becoming a separate person from your mother begins earlier than either of these points, before the mother or the self has been identified as a distinct entity. In Freud's account, the mother is our first object of desire, and it's only after we've identified her as such that the influence of the father (or whoever is playing that role; really, the point is that we realize that mother has desires other than just for us) comes in to break up the party and thus (hopefully) elicit our independent self-hood.

Something parallel to this happens before any objects have been individuated at all. Imagine, she says, that you are a baby, and as far as you are concerned, you and your mother are one and the same creature. Your desires are her desires. But then she gives you some milk that has this skin on its surface, that's really pretty vile, so you spit it out. Well, this was a gift from the mother (from you!), a symbol of her desire (your desire!), yet you're rejecting it, and not just in a "no thanks, mom" way, but spitting it out, deeming it intolerable. Kristeva says that in doing so, you're splitting yourself in half. You're taking the part of you that was equivalent with mom and condemning it, while another part of you is the rejector, which is the first hint of an authentic, individual self here. Of course (as with the Oedipal complex), you still kind of love the mother-part, but you're denying it: denying that you love it, and denying that it's part of you.

Kristeva sees this infant dynamic as playing throughout life, sometimes for healthy purposes, sometimes in pathological ways. That primal unity with the mother is something that we at once long for and dread. It stands for a time when we were not yet a person, not differentiated from the rest of nature. It's the flip side of erotic ecstasy, where we yearn for and occasionally achieve the semblance of unity with another person and/or God and/or the universe. In abjection, we're basically fighting for our lives as individuals against being swallowed up by the rest of existence.

Abjection is a drive: an undirected, ambivalent feeling. We can't quite pick out what we're so scared of but also attracted to, because our strong feelings push that "thing" outside of the realm of individuated things. When we see a corpse, we viscerally feel our own mortality: We see ourselves in that corpse, imagine ourselves dead, which is of course to imagine ourselves as nothingness, which is very distressing. Bodily fluids and such also represent this part of us (or someone like us) that we're casting off. The whole horror genre, whether of the slasher, corpse-displaying variety or the Lovecraftian-unnamed-dread variety, is predicated on our being simultaneously attracted and repelled by this "beyond" that we have pushed out of consciousness. When someone acts purposefully perversely, they're comparably violating the moral order, so our disgust at that can produce the feeling of abjection too.

Mark, Wes, and Seth are joined by Kristeva fan and education/linguistics grad student Kelley Citrin to try to make sense of this text that is dense and difficult, but still fun and resonant.

#philosophy #horror #abjection #psychoanalysis #neurosis #subjectivity #individuation #freud #lacan