I have been trying to get my head around abjection because it keeps coming up in my CRP research.  I first came across it last year in a Sotheby’s lecture on Julia Kristeva (b. 1941), the Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic and psychoanalyst who is most closely associated with the term.

One of my initial take-aways from the lecture was that it is not that helpful to start off by directly reading Kristeva (and her Powers of Horror), as her writing can be difficult and is full of ambiguity (which is appropriate for the concept).  This is like when I took a Thai cooking class and the teacher showed us how to make a homemade red curry paste, but said actually we were better off buying it premade in a jar.

Here are some of my notes from that lecture, from Art Since 1900 (Buchloh et. al.), and from Hal Foster’s essay Obscene, Abject, Traumatic:

  • Abjection literally means ‘the state of being cast off’.
  • Abjection stems from the ‘lived reality’ of the maternal loss which is not symbolic, nor linguistic, nor linear, but is rather simultaneous and dichotomous.
  • Abject is neither subject nor object, but somewhere in between.
  • Abject is what the subject must get rid of to be a subject.
  • Abject touches the fragility of our boundaries. It is both inside and outside and related to the maternal body and paternal law.
  • The Other is collapsed. Meaning is collapsed.  Symbolic order is in crisis; and there is a crisis in the Lacanian ‘image screen.’
  • The body tends to be a site of the Abject.
  • People tend to use the term Abject when they are thinking about art with blood, guts, damaged or dead bodies; and sexual and excretory body parts, but that is only one superficial way of thinking about it.

The Abject is rich in ambiguities and contradictions:

  • If it is ‘in between’, how do you represent it?
  • If it is ‘beyond culture’, how do you expose it in culture?
  • If it is ‘unconscious’, how do you make it conscious?

Hal Foster argues in the introduction to his 2015 book Bad New Days that current avant-garde art should not be considered in a linear or novel way, but rather should ‘trace the fractures and pressure them further.’  So exploring The Abject seems a good place to start.

Having said that, it’s about as clear as mud.

(image – detail from work in progress)

Amy Robson