Shyaonti Talwar


"Another world is not only possible. She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
- Arundhati Roy

Articles > Julia Kristeva and the Abject

By Dr. Shyaonti Talwar

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Julia Kristeva and the Abject

Shit, sewage, slime, vomit, an infection, a corpse, rotten food: what do all these words mean to us? Do they provoke us in some way, do they disgust us? Definitely so. But why do we experience this natural sense of disgust when we encounter these words or the ideas they represent, let along encounter them actually? These are what the Bulgarian French philosopher Julia Kristeva calls the ‘abject’. At a very basic level, if we want to understand the abject, let us think of a hot class of milk that has been lying for a while and cooled down. The skin that appears on the top is something that most of us are repulsed by. Some of us wouldn’t want to even touch it, so we take a spoon and try to skim it and do away with it. The idea of my skin coming in contact with the skin of the milk is disgusting and creepy. This is the abject at a very basic level.

Lets us consider the other things that can be considered to be in the category of the abject, bodily fluids and waste for example which are expelled from our own body but the very moment they are let out of the body they become the abject. The abject in this case threatens to do away with boundaries and therefore becomes disgusting. It was inside our body, now it is outside our body. Being repulsed by the abject is our way of denying a part of us and project all our latent anxiety, loathing, disgust and other negative emotions on to it. And trying to tell ourselves, I am not that which has been expelled out of my system. Or rather, I am not that see, because I have managed to expel it. When bodily waste is expelled, it implies that we have acquired a purer state of being than we had been in previous to the expulsion. We are all familiar with the euphemism of ‘let me freshen up a little’ implying the expulsion of bodily waste and fluid many a times. Expulsion thus connotes the doing away with what was impure and the attaining of a pure state. A psychoanalytical reading will suggest that it is in fact our superego at work here which tells us what not to identify with and what we need to clearly separate ourselves from in order to create our identity.

Let us now extend this idea to our lived reality. Is it only our own waste that disgusts us? Sometimes it can be another person, a dear friend perhaps who inspires a similar emotion in us, say if we have been betrayed by someone we loved dearly, we immediately say: If I had been in her place, I would not have done this. We have such strong and well-defined standards to judge others. What is noteworthy here is not the hypothetical situation when we would have reacted similarly or differently from the person we are accusing, but our eagerness to separate ourself from that person’s act. This eagerness in us to distance ourselves from another person indicates that our anxiety results out of the unconscious understanding that we are perfectly capable of acting in the same manner as the other person. It is this understanding that prompts us to distance ourselves so vehemently from another. So much so that another becomes the other. Just as we separate ourselves from our excreta, vomit, urine, denying it as a part of us (we expel because it is undesirable for it to be present in our system and yet can we truly deny that it is not a part of us?) so also we deny an act, a person, or people, or groups or communities that do not seem agreeable to our moral and ethical standards. It is like the fear and horror that stems from seeing rotten food which is potentially nourishing and dangerous at the same time, which has the potential to be ingested and discarded at once.

This simultaneity constitutes the dialectic of the abject and prevents it from becoming an object since an object can inspire indifference unlike the abject which will always inevitably inspire very strong emotions in us. Film theorists like Barbara Creed have extended this theory of the abject by Kristeva to understand horror films which abound in scatological and other kinds of repulsive imagery. Such films which are full of blood and gore can be read as the projection of our unconscious anxiety on to a fictionalised piece. Feminist film theorists go on to observe that the popularity of films with female ghosts can be attributed to the latent patriarchal anxiety and misogyny dominating the collective unconscious of a community and its projection on women as ‘the other’.

Coming to lived material existence, there is so much and so many people around us that for us form the abject: the slum inside the city, the open sewage presenting itself to our gaze, the beggar at the traffic signal are some of the objects of the abject at a very external, physical level. But the idea of purity and separation go much beyond this and so, this projection can easily extend to a particular community. Homophobia, the fear of people who are sexually attracted to others of the same sex, Transphobia, the fear of transgenders and transvestites i.e. people who do not adhere to established gender norms, Racism, Religious fundamentalism, Casteism, all of these can then be seen as ideologies reflecting the strong recognition of the abject and a sense of denying its presence in the self or the subject.

It can be theoretically argued that the world over, conservative right-leaning people are more prone to experience and express the abject, because of having a very pronounced superego and rigid moral and ethical standards. Naturally, they are also ones who value the idea of purity, normative behaviour and a strong adherence to tradition. In psychoanalysis, this is termed as tribal instinct where one tends to identify and associate very strongly with one’s clan or tribe and upholds its values and customs above and over everything else, rejecting other tribes and clans. Tribes are conceptual and ideological groups that need not be formally founded but that individuals can associate with in terms of expressing their loyalties, leanings or solidarity through their views, principles and beliefs and value system. This can be done on the basis of establishing any common ground for affirming one’s identity through religion, caste, nationality, ethnicity, gender, class, race and sexual orientation.

It simply means that for instance if I am a cisgender heterosexual man, the homosexual man for me is deviant, or if I am white or upper caste, the black or the low caste person or community is the abject. Almost every kind of discrimination can be traced to this desire of alienation and loathing through expulsion from one’s identity and denial to identify the self of another.

Like liminal subjectivities which we want out of the boundary of the self and yet which have the potential to be a part of us, there are liminal spaces too that we inhabit and that inspire the abject in us. A railway station, a hospital lobby, a derelict old building, the staircase that leads to our flat are some of these liminal spaces that are at once a part and not a part of the space we are used to or inhabit. They result in a strange anxiety in us which is also one reason why horror films too abound in situating their abject subjects in such liminal spaces. The cemetery is one such space which we are repulsed by and anxious of because it is at once a reminder of the possibility of death in life. We live as if we are immortal and the finitude governing life which is death can manifest any moment. A cemetery is a reminder of the dialectic of existence, the death in life phenomenon which is why it is another place that makes us feel creepy.

Perhaps a realisation of the abject as an inevitable part of our existence and our very being might allow us to view things more empathetically, be more accommodating and boarder in our vision. An acceptance of the abject undoubtedly is whole process of unlearning so much that we have assimilated and accumulated throughout our lives.

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