The unbearable monstrosity
Review of Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence, eds. Maggie Hennefeld and Nicholas Sammond (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).
I would like to begin with an autobiographical note. I was very eager to read this book since it seemed to apply directly to my own work. As both a researcher and an artist myself, the book indeed spoke to me personally in term of my own creative work which strongly focus on horror and sexuality. My current research examines representations of the male body in online pornographic audiovisual production, and I wrote a book on gore, pornography, and bodily fluids. In addition, the concept of abjection has helped me as a filmmaker to find aesthetic ways to express myself and create affect. In my first feature Thanatomorphose (2012) I have relied on our western perception of the body and its productions (fluids, etc.) to create a feeling of unease and disgust by insisting on textures (visual, sounds). Thinking about the abject helped me find original ways to depict horrific or sexual situations.
The concept of abjection has a profound impact and influence on Western thought. According to Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva, it is
“not the lack of cleanliness or health that makes abject, but what disrupts an identity, a system, an order. What does not respect the limits, places, rules” (1980, pp. 11-12).
It is the absence of definition, this erasing of border, this flaw in the common “language” which constitute for Kristeva the core of abjection,
“an outside like the inside, made of pleasure and pain. Unnamable would therefore be the indistinctiveness of inside and outside, a limit that can be crossed in both directions by pleasure and pain” (p. 76).
This uncertain space between the Self and the Other can cause a variety of affective responses, from disgust to pain, enjoyment to fascination. The fluidity of limits allows for one’s participation in the abject. The borders between inside and outside, subjective and objective, matter and spirit, cease to exist.
Therefore, how can abjection help us understand our past and current mediatic landscape? Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence gathers essays from scholars to give insights on this complex topic from a political viewpoint rather than the usual psychoanalysis or modernist stances inherited from post-structuralist theorists. That is, the authors aim to look at the concept not only as a process that separates one from what “is not him or her,” but more as social critical theory where this idea is applied to study marginalized groups, either economically, sexually, or racially.
In an unique way, Abjection Incorporated makes a compelling argument about the concept of abjection as a useful tool to understand our peculiar existences in a sensory and irrational way. The book is divided into three sections—performances, bodies, and aesthetics—since its goal
“points to a multivalent understanding of abjection as a social, political, and aesthetic operation designed to separate those who are or should be from those who are not or should never be, and more recently to provide perverse cover of those who feel their own sovereign subjectivity suddenly threatened by the mere acknowledgment of the Other” (p. 27).
The essays explore this idea of abjection by conjuring seemingly eclectic subjects like EC Comics’ horror stories, Amy Schumer, South Korean Film Comedy, Japanese’s manga, Louis C.K., and talking dolls.
Being “cast out,” either symbolically or literally, enables empowerment and criticism. Rebecca Wanzo’s chapter “Precarious-Girl Comedy: Issa Rae, Lena Dunham, and Abjection Aesthetics” perfectly synthesizes this idea about the power of abjection. The paradoxes that arise in the complex relations uniting identification and alienation when confronted to the “other” also enable social and political criticism. The author proves her point by looking at how both actors use black humor and discomforting situations to laugh at African American women and white women’s limited horizons. Despite sharing a common identity as “women,” by producing laughter in peculiar contexts, often sexualized, they also reveal the racial issues inherited from the past. In her analysis of Girls (Dunham) and Awkward Black Girl (Rae), Wanzo notes:
“The precarious-girl comedy makes endless alienation a source of humor and evolves from comedic traditions that use abjection and what Kathleen Rowe calls the ‘unruly woman’ to disavow the possibility of solidarity with people of similar historical identities and social locations, embracing the otherness found in abjection as a desired end and expression of an authentic self” (p. 56-66).
These marks obviously overflow into more delicate fields of representations. Yiman Wang’s chapter “The Animal and the Animalistic: China’s Late 1950s Socialist Satirical Comedy” and Rijuta Mehta’s essay “Anticolonial Folly and the Reversals of Repatriation” about colonialism in South Asia delve into these complex issues. Both explore the notion of “otherness” by looking at how artists object to their peculiar country’s power dynamics by “abjectifying” specific bodies, species, races, social classes, or minorities. They find that this tactic can be a powerful tool for questioning, change, and freedom. For Wang, slapstick and bodily humor in films like the notorious The Unfinished Comedy (Lü Ban, 1957), where two comedians play sketches for Communist Party officials and censors. These sketches expose
“the purist ideologues [that] equated bodily humor with an abject animalism ineligible for socialist hospitality – only to end up making it constitutive of the very foundation of the socialist body politic” (p. 121).
How the authorities reacted badly, to say the least, to these films is a key to understanding Chinese socialist cinema and politics.
Taking another perspective on political oppression, Mehta stresses out that “abjection is comedy’s difference from itself rather than its opposite” (p. 143). Thus, it can be an important tool for anticolonialism discourses. By looking at the aftermath of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 through Saadat Hasan Manto’s shorts stories and archival photographs of incapacitated women in camps, she makes an argument
“for the ever-renewed and incalculable mediation between irony and abjection, such that abjection might lead to some sort of freedom or it might misfire, but it has no more certain purchase on a new and true freedom than mastery does” (p. 161).
Horror and violence also other ways to challenge the established order by taking pleasure in indulging in disgusting imagery and attitudes. Writing about the explicit drawings published from 1940s through the mid-950s by American EC Comics, known for their infamous series, notably Tales from The Crypt and The Vault of Horror, Nicholas Sammond’s “A Matter of Fluids: EC Comics and the Vernacular Abject” follows Kristeva. Objecting to conscious and unconscious, private and social control mechanisms, he reminds us that
“by naming the self in relation to hat which it casts off—shit, piss, snot, menses, and so on—then dwelling on the abject (rather than disavowing it) provided an avenue toward rejecting an ideal self-produced by a seemingly corrupt symbolic order” (p. 228).
Inside and outside are impossible to distinguish one from another in the abject. And it is this uncertainty, this inability to distinguish, that elicits a feeling of anguish and horror, disgusting or pleasurable, brought forth by the rotting corpses founds in EC’s colorful panels.
In a more socially oriented analysis of abjection as a part of visual imagery, Eugenie Brinkema analyzes photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark’s oeuvre (Kids, Bully, The Smell of Us). In “Spit * Light * Spunk: Larry Clark, an Aesthetic of Frankness,” Brinkema argues
“for abjection’s notion of downcasting, lowering, and casting off to describe a formal language of uncluttered openness, sincerity simplification and clarification, a brutalizing of visual language by paring down to a radical program of exclusion” (p. 248).
Following the author, we might add that by insisting in a quasi-documentary manner on actors’ bodies, often photographed or filmed together during sexual acts, Clark appeals to the haptic function of the gaze, namely this property that allows identification with bodies and sensations projected on screen. The result is what Brinkema calls an aesthetic of frankness, a positive space where the body bears the “risk of truth” (p. 263) rather than simply being an undetermined territory, and in this way Clark up new spaces for performance and agency.
Our relation to representations is also informed by the processes leading us to incorporate—literally to “form into a body,” to embody—abjection. In an essay in this anthology entitled “Why, an Abject Art,” visual artist Mark Mulroney recalls his childhood and traumatic sexual education, provided by his passage in a Catholic schooland his reading of What’s Happening to Me?, an illustrated guide to puberty given to him by his parents. How does a kid or a teenager going through puberty escape sexual shamefulness when nothing is said but everything is bad? Mulroney mixes text and drawings to reveal the inherent tension between curiosity, desire, and prohibited acts within our Western culture, characterized by its Judeo-Christian imagination imbued with Cartesian philosophy and body-mind dualism. Corporality is seemingly ignored while being condemned as the source of all sins. This fact in many people’s lives contributes their internalizing more or less consciously the affective results of abjection.
An extract from Mark Mulroney’s visual essay in which he recalls his traumatic sexual education in a Catholic school.
Thus, sexuality is another territory to be deconstructed. The abject nature associated with it by the institutions of power, whether political or religious, must be fully embraced. This positive transgression of moral, ethical, and legal rules is the core of eroticism, for example, for thinkers such as Georges Bataille (1957), who also theorized abjection and whom the editors cite extensively in their introduction.
Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence strongly advocates for a more nuanced perspective than the usual post-structuralist binary opposition of pleasure and violence depending on the subject or object position. As Hennefeld and Sammond summarize,
“The effects of this abjection are very really, though they often unfold in images and events that seem altogether unreal. Laugh, cry, gawk, quake, shudder, or freeze in terror—these encroaching imperatives of abjection can and should continue to produce renewed energies for collective refusal and resistance: for saying ‘no’ instead of always insisting ‘not I.’ The abject objection demands more of us than quietude, acquiescence, and incorporation. It is a challenge, asking us who the hell we think we are” (p. 27).
In a world saturated with images and discourses, abjection might offer a sensory alternative to experience and apprehend our existence. It is perhaps one of the rare uncontrolled and disturbing—therefore powerful—emotion one can feel, allowing us maybe even just for a brief moment to fully inhabit ourselves and the world around us.
Coming back to what I’ve mention in the introduction to this review, as a filmmaker myself, I’ve been especially interested in how cinema uses the abject. The “politics of pleasure and violence” are particularly obvious in all the texts dealing with comedy, which constitute about a third of the essays in this anthology. A lot of artists working in this field like to infringe upon social conventions and use taboos to illicit laughter in their audience. Parody, satire, and irony, for example, involve a set of tropes to reverse, subvert, and criticize social institutions, situations or behaviors. Considering these tropes in filmmaking reminds me a lot about the proximity between abjection and the grotesque, an aesthetic that “we associate with the tragic and the anguish and at the same time with the farce and the laughter of the carnival” (Iehl, 1997, p. 3). Such a closeness reveals how abjection can be a positive force to reckon and reclaim. And there is a long history to this kind of narrative work. For example, the social critique and the role reversal specific to what French theorists name the “carnivalesque,” a term coined to describe some grotesque paintings like the iconic Le combat de Carnaval et Carême by Bruegel the Elder, are perceptible now in the work of contemporary comedians.
I’ve previously suggested in my book Le corps souillé: gore, pornographie et fluides corporels [which can be roughly translated as The Tainted Body: Gore, Pornography, and Bodily Fluids]that even if abjection is an affective state, it is also a particular way to “mettre en scene”: that is, to “frame” or “stage” bodies.
Visual arts—photography, painting, comics, literature, or film—try to identify, explore, and question the notion of “body.” To “stage” or ignore it is always risking revealing its monstrous and abject potential. For example, David Cronenberg's cinema, like a good part of gore cinema, has a troubled relation with the notion of abjection. Cronenberg’s mise en scene and narratives rely heavily on the idea of metamorphosis. The abject appears in a kind of metamorphosis that serves to expose the invisible. In his films, the body is no longer a barrier between the visible and the invisible; it conceals an off-screen space, that is, the interior of the body. Whether it is Rose in Rabid (1977), Seth Brundle in The Fly (1986), Max Renn in Videodrome (1983) or James Ballard in Crash (1996), the Cronenbergian characters all go through a physical transformation and then, as a consequence, a psychological one. The plots and the visuals set up an opposition between the visceral and the intellectual. The body becomes the Other and possesses the self. The mind gets enslaved by the body and its disturbances. The regular order disappears. As a character screams in Videodrome: “Long live the new flesh.”
Sexuality, like horror, raises unique problematics when thinking about abjection. Most obviously, film and photography allow for the spectacular exhibitionism of private parts and bodily fluids. Their exhibition, fetishized by the close-up, acts as a revealer of the ambiguous relation that viewers, spectators or their cinematographic doubles (the characters with whom they identify or not), maintain with their carnal envelope. Objects of disgust and fascination, they are the expression of an existential angst that sex insidiously forces us to confront. An emphasis on fluids with the help of close-up sound and visuals directly summons the viewer's touch due to the very texture of said fluids: half-liquid, half-solid, sticky, messy, tasty. Whether fluids are glorified in the act of sex (pornography) or disgusting and frightening in the horror of death (horror), they appeal to our own bodily experience.
By insisting with close-ups on bodies, reducing them to their simplest expression, reducing them to a banal malleable envelope made of fluids and flesh, creators expose consciously or not the monstrosity of our condition. The close-up offers a new perspective; it reveals details and intrinsic qualities previously ignored. It goes where the eye has never gone or lingered. Due to its emphasis on the object, it reveals what the eye has ignored. The object saturates the space and occupies all our attention. The close-up does more than just show an object, a substance, a part of the body, it also reveals its texture given the proximity of the camera. What is finally revealed through close-up is the monstrosity of the bodies: the skin, its movements and its roughness, but also its fluids. The shiny, wet and damp bodies take on an abstract dimension, their limits are indeterminate, they are hidden from view. Indeterminacy, both moral and physical, is the very nature of abjection.