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Preface
There is nothing like the abjection of the self
to show that all abjection is in fact recognition
of the want on which any being, meaning,
language, or desire is founded.
Julia Kristeva (1984, p.
5)
The abject is opposed to I. Like writing, it renders I
irrelevant, empty, unspeakable. The abject defies structure, upsets
order, forms the chaotic the dark realms of the unknown. The
abject does not respect borders, it beseeches me, it pulverizes me:
Everything comes back to that first loss. The abject finds the
impossible within. I am torn away from the first language I knew. I
spend my life mourning this inaugural loss mourning the time
when bodies were not singular Is but one, and also many. Endless.
This dialogue between the language of he and she, this tenuous,
tender dialectic makes me live.
The abject performs, punctuates, precedes the border. It
brings me there, reminding me of what I would maybe rather forget.
And yet I need it, for its existence reminds me of the order that
surrounds, governs, consumes me. I am preoccupied with the
negotiation with, the recognition of, the surrender to.
Art (at its best) gives voice to that which has no words.
Performance asks, begs, demands that I bear witness to the fragility,
the horror, the limit. And writing, perhaps only writing, moves
through the symbolic to the unbound words of the first moments and
breaths. It structures and shatters all at once.
Abjection is queer, female, maternal, ugly, anorexic. It is black,
not white. It is the impossible that haunts the fragile boundaries of
meaning. Abjection disrespects rules, undermines Law, it subsumes
capital (to the extend that anything can), it defies structure.
2

And in those brief, rare moments when we come face to face


with abjection and dont fight but fall victim to it, fall under the
weight of it, perhaps we come back different perhaps we reemerge
new. Recovered.

Acknowledgements
Thanks to Kris for lending me her ears and her books, for calming
and encouraging me in moments of panic to find my voice;
Heather, for reading my drafts with care and curiosity and for her
supportive, loving, and shrewd comments; and Michael, for his
tireless

support

and

love,

and

for

both

exemplifying

and

encouraging the rigor, passion, and invention that urges me, in


turn, to keep on writing.

Table of Contents
Abstract....................................................................................................................ii
Preface....................................................................................................................iii
Acknowledgements.................................................................................................iv
List of Images..........................................................................................................vi
Introduction.............................................................................................................1

PART I - WHAT LIFE WITHSTANDS: Defining the Abject..........................................6


Chapter One Powers of Horror.............................................................................7
The Maternal........................................................................................................9
The Corpse.........................................................................................................12
Borderline: Feel Like Im Going to Lose My Mind............................................13
So, Whats the Problem?....................................................................................15
Chapter Two...........................................................................................................18
The Misrables...................................................................................................18
Transgression and Abjection.............................................................................22
Chapter Three Uninhabitable Zones: Judith Butler and Abjection...................25

PART II - THOSE FEMALES CAN WRECK THE INFINITE: Abjection in Feminist


Visual and Performance Art......................................................................................28
Chapter Four The Way out of Exile.....................................................................29
Lifting the Veil: The Abject Fetish.....................................................................31
The Persistence of Feelings...............................................................................34
Our Bodies That Are Never Really Ours...........................................................38
Always Excess....................................................................................................42

PART III - KEEP ON WRITING: The Abject Universe of Chris Kraus......................44


Chapter Five Coming To Writing........................................................................45
Hlne Cixous....................................................................................................45
Language of Desire: Julia Kristeva....................................................................46
Reconfigurations of Time: Writing as Capitalist Critique.................................48
Performative Writing..........................................................................................51
New Narrative: Our Exploding Identities.........................................................53
The Case for Chris Kraus...................................................................................56
A Shattered Reality............................................................................................57
Chapter Six I Love Dick......................................................................................61
Dick the Fetish...................................................................................................65
Other Peoples Stories are My Stories..............................................................68
Ugly....................................................................................................................69
Bad Sex...............................................................................................................71
A New Feminism?..............................................................................................73
Vomiting Prose: Dicks Response and the Response to Dick........................77
A Schizophrenic Love Story...............................................................................82
Chapter Seven Aliens and Anorexia...................................................................87
The Emotions Outline of a Woman....................................................................87
Food and Feminist Subversion..........................................................................88
The Case for the Anorexic.................................................................................89
Chapter Eight At the Border Between Life and Death......................................94
Chris Kraus Narratives of Sadomasochistic Sex.............................................94
Mourning and Fascism: Rage against the Symbolic.........................................99
Conclusion............................................................................................................106
Bibliography.........................................................................................................108

List of Images
Figure 1: Cindy Sherman Untitled #175, 1987........................................................33
Figure 2: Carolee Schneeman Interior Scroll, 1975................................................36
Figure 3: Gina Pane, L'Escalade non anesthsie, 1971..........................................40

Introduction
In a lecture given at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry last fall
in Berlin, the Deleuzian theorist Rosi Braidotti made what some
would

consider

psychoanalytic

surprising

theory

in

endorsement

contemporary

for

the

philosophy.

use
It

of
was

psychoanalysis, she argued, that proved to be the first field of study


that allowed us to understand the inhumanity that inhabits us
(2014). Thus, says Braidotti, the first attack on the identity begins
with the psychoanalytic split subject. It was the discovery of the
Freudian unconscious that allowed the post-structuralists such as
Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida to attack
hierarchical structures that do not recognize humans as pluralities.
Language, too, affirms that we are not one, but multifaceted
beings that express ourselves in a system of signs that predates us
and,

as

Braidotti

notes,

will

outlive

us

(2014).

Of

course,

simultaneous to the strides made by the post-structuralist men


working in France through the 60s and 70s, several women
working in the trans-disciplinary fields of semiotics, linguistics,
philosophy, and psychoanalysis were mapping out new terrains
within the Freudian unconscious as a means of analyzing, among
other things, the place of women and the feminine in the psyche,
language, and society. These women included but are by no means
limited to Hlne Cixous, Luc Irigaray, Monique Witting, and Julia
Kristeva, who saw the escape from patriarchy as hidden within the
depths of subconscious, and ventured boldly into new, progressive
readings of psychoanalytic theory.
Despite the Oedipal structure masquerading as a rhetorical
operation that advocates for the exclusion of women, one could and
should see it rather as a metaphor for the way social systems are
ordered.

In

Kristevas

work,

for

example,

the

feminine

in

psychoanalysis is not a cypher for women as such, but a narrative in


which the female body acts as metaphor for the rich and fluid

territory where language begins. To discuss women as a social


category that is excluded from the structures that dictate our social,
political, and linguistic systems is not to say that women are
excluded from the possibility of agency. In fact, it is quite the
contrary: because women are, after the descent into symbolic Law,
conceived of as wounded, lacking or embodying lack, castrated,
horrific, they are the population most able to access what I will here
argue is one of the most powerful mediums or states of self
articulation and experience: that of the abject.
Abjection made its mark on contemporary discourse with
Georges Batailles 1934 essay Abjection and Miserable Forms
(1999). Though informed by psychoanalysis, which was popular with
the surrealists at the time, it differs to a large degree from what Julia
Kristeva in Powers of Horror (1982) would later define as the abject:
a pre-narcissistic borderline state with which the speaking subject is
always in combat. Judith Butler (1993) would later expound upon the
two theories, discussing it as a Foucaultian rhetorical practice
whereby certain racial groups, sex acts, and gender identifications
are exiled to the peripheries of society. Batailles abject, which is
rooted in the fascist practice of mass-extermination wherein the
refuse of society (the misrables) are cast out as waste by the
masters, is perhaps the only one in which a subversive rearticularion is not possible, however his transgressive approach to
the dialectics of eroticism as a situated between the sublime and the
profane allows us to envision alternate economies of revolt, and
thereby to examine his abject as more nuanced. Kristeva and
Butler are clear in their stance that they see abjection as situated in
the realm of unbound possibility. It is this possibility that I want to
discuss in this text.
I argue, through the use of various psychoanalytic and
philosophical texts, that the use of the abject as a discursive strategy
in art and literature is a powerful and necessary tool for self-

articulation and subversion of symbolic Law1. To demonstrate my


point, I will embark on a theoretical investigation of several theories
of the abject with the aim of exploring the ways in which a detailed
examination of the psychoanalytic abject can give way to a more
comprehensive reading of the performance of abjection and its uses.
In order to do this I will give a careful analysis of various theorists
take on the topic. I affirm that the nuanced and multifacetous realm
of the abject is inherently tied to language, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, religion, capitalism, art, and literature. Thus, I will
devote time to all of these themes in order to approach my topic with
the mindfulness that honors the theories I am referencing as
dialectically

engaged

pieces

of

the

puzzle

that

constitutes

contemporary theory.
I will begin, in Chapter One, with Kristevas elaborate
psychoanalytic interpretation of the abject, focusing specifically on
the horror of the maternal body, the corpse, and the borderline
patient. Kristevas theory acts as my sounding board. It is in her
reading of the abject that I ground my analysis of the other theories
I employ. I use Kristevas abject as a springboard propelling me
into reflections on Georges Bataille in Chapter Two and Judith Butler
in Chapter Three, each of whose work I see as, if not in complete
accordance with, certainly in conversation with the theory mapped
out by Kristeva.
In Chapter Four I will examine what I consider to be
performances of abjection in the field of contemporary art by
reflecting upon the work of several visual and performance artists
whose practices I believe speak to this in-between space where
abjection is activated. I see a particular engagement with the abject
as having been made manifest in feminist art, both performative and
visual, of the 1960s-90s by artists such as Carloee Schneeman,
Gina Pane, Karen Finley, and Cindy Sherman, and will proceed by
1 Kristevas symbolic Law of the Father. See Kristeva, Desire in Language, 1980.

exploring what I perceive to be instances or activations of the abject.


Here I preoccupy myself with the themes of fetishism, the maternal,
death and defilement, and bodily borders. For this part of my paper I
rely heavily on the writings of Amelia Jones and Laura Mulvey for
their careful and concise readings of visual and performance art. I
will consider the abject as both a visual and temporal strategy,
highlighting the ways in which its activation was particularly
necessary in America at the time due to both the disintegration of
the Cartesian body and the political struggles gripping the country
throughout this 30-year span.
This will lead me to the practice of writing, which Kristeva
sees as the most powerful and necessary vehicle of the abjection. I
will begin Chapter Five with an analysis of Hlne Cixous seminal
essay Sorties (1975) before moving on to Kristevas theories
concerning writing. I then transition into a more polemical
discussion of contemporary writing by considering Della Pollocks
account of what she has termed performative writing, conceiving of
this as a modern-day correlative to the work of Cixous and Kristeva.
This leads me to the lesser-known literary genre of New Narrative, a
movement spawned several decades ago in the United States Pacific
Northwest that sought to combine personal narrative with critical
theory and political activism.
The writer Chris Kraus emerged out of this New Narrative
movement, and it is her work that I concern myself with for the
remainder of the text, for it is her writing that I see as being
particularly engaged in and preoccupied with the abject. I assert
that the work of Chris Kraus both embodies and employs the abject
as a way of accessing and articulating the complexity of female-ness
and self-expression. I begin Chapter Six by discussing her bestknown novel I Love Dick, addressing questions about narrative,
beauty, fetishism, and womens writing. I propose Kraus abjectionas-writing as aligned with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattaris

schizophrenia

in

order

to

advocate

for

the

disordered,

multiplicitous body in feminist fiction.


I move to Kraus second book Aliens and Anorexia in Chapter
Seven, where I discuss the possibility of anorexia as a subversive
strategy to combat the incursion of symbolic Law. Chapter Eight
attempts to elucidate abjection in relation to the themes of death
and jouissance in Kraus novels. Herein, I explore the themes S/m
play in Kraus books, and, finally, abjection, anti-Semitism, and
melancholia in her novel Torpor. Abjection is woven into all of these
chapters: an intransitive through-line serving as a link between
seemingly disparate themes.
It is central to my argument that women are, as Kristeva has
argued, best situated to access the abject because of their social and
psychological marginalization. Desire, lack, seepages and flows (both
the corporeal and the metaphorical), are intrinsically linked to the
feminine, and are the themes upon which I aim to center my study of
the abject. I actively reject the pejorative nature of antagonistic
writing that wags an accusatory finger at patriarchy (although I find
that this method has its important place in history) and instead aim
to direct readers towards a more multifaceted and hopefully, more
contemporary mode of conceiving of the female body and female
writing.
I want to suggest the kind of literature and art I am discussing
here is engaged in what Julia Kristeva terms borderline-practices of
meaning and signification which she describes as having a passion
for ventures with meaning and its materials while simultaneously
carry(ing) a theoretical experience to that point where apparent
abstraction is revealed as the apex of archaic, oneiric, nocturnal, or
corporeal concreteness, to that point where meaning has not yet
appeared () no longer is () or else functions as resurrection
(Kristeva 1982 p. 5). Chris Kraus writing, for example, functions as
a kind of sublimation to language and formlessness, saying no to the
Law of others discourse and saying yes to the black thrusts of

() desire (1982, p. 3). Like Antonin Artaud who rejects the surface
of things and returns to the body, a body that flows in all directions,
a fluid stream of language, Kraus proposes a cultural meaningsystem that is fluid like abjection, working both within structures
and outside of them:
If it be true that the abject simultaneously
beseeches and pulverizes the subject, one can
understand that it is experienced at the peak of
its strength when that subject, weary of
fruitless attempts to identify with something on
the outside, finds the impossible within; when
it finds that the impossible constitutes its very
being, that it is none other than abject. The
abjection of self would be the culminating form
of that experience of the subject to which it is
revealed that all its objects are based merely
on the inaugural loss that laid the foundations
of its own being. (Kristeva 1982, p. 5)
What does it mean, I ask, to mount an attack on identity today?
What do theories of the abject and its transgressive possibility have
to offer us? I want to advocate for the possibilities that art, that
writing, and in particular performative writing, can offer the everchanging, fluid, formless, streaming, unbound, is central to the
articulation and furthering of feminist discourse today.
And what is feminist discourse today? Feminism, as I see it, is
an idea (one that is perhaps already lost) that woman is a category
that exists outside, one with the possibility, the privilege of writing
her own being. Already exiled, she is a political, psychoanalytic,
social subject whose experience (which many have tried to construct
for her) is in fact malleable, grounded in the evocative sensuality of
the language of the senses, that time before the Father. Rosi

Braidotti defines feminism as: the () affirmation of possible


alternative; feminism is joyful insurrection, it is the putting of
desire as an obstacle in the well functioning system of capitalism.
Feminism is love in the most absurd forms, and feminism is eternal,
it always returns, it is the eternal return of a roar of rebellion that
puts wings on your feet (2014). It is my belief that the abject opens
up the arena for such a joyful insurrection to be not only possible,
but unassailable.

PART I
___
WHAT LIFE WITHSTANDS
Definitions of the Abject

Chapter One Powers of Horror


In Powers of Horror (1982) Julia Kristeva defines the abject as
a breakdown in our concept of meaning caused by the dissolution of
a distinction between subject and object; between the self and the
other; between inside and outside (p. 8). When I am beset by
abjection, she says, the twisted braid of affects and thoughts I call
by such a name does not have, properly speaking, a definable object
(p. 2). She conceives of abjection, the space buffered by black
sounds (p. 207), as that which religion and state systems exists to
mask with their rituals of purification. Contrary to Georges Batailles
formulation, where the abject operates as a systemic system of
production and expulsion, abjection for Kristeva occurs when the
barrier between, indeed the very possibility of recognition of the
object by the subject, breaks down.
Abjection is that which confronts the limits, the borders
between self and other upon which subjectivity is founded. Kristeva
began the project as an exploration of unclean states, both
enticing and horrifying, that she had observed in the writing of the
French novelist Celine, whose writing both pained and appealed to
her, in part due to the horrific imagery he employs, and partly due to
what she considers his compromises () with all the horrors we
know, namely fascism (Kristeva 1999, pp. 16-17). This lead her to a
project at once anthropologic and psychoanalytic, exploring a myriad
of forms the abject inhabits, and that which seeks to combat it:
religion, for example. She notes that religion is in a certain way
aim(ed) at abjection because of the filth it organized itself around
opposing through purification (p. 17), which, given the degree to
which society is organized around religion, compels her to call the
abject and abjection the primers of my culture, that which
threatens the clean and proper body (p. 2). Religions, notably,
attempt to neutralize and purify the unclean. Abjection is, like the
feminine, something to be afraid of, something against which to

purify oneself. The bible performs the tremendous forcing that


consists in subordinating maternal power (whether historical or
phantasmatic, natural or reproductive) to symbolic order as pure
logical order regulating social performance, as divine Law attended
to in the Temple (p. 91).
Tracing the work of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, Kristeva
notes that although religion and anthropology perform opposing
cultural roles, each is in turn aimed at combating the abject: The
historian of religions stops soon: the cultically impure is that which
is based on a natural loathing. The anthropologist goes further:
there is nothing loathsome in itself; the loathsome is that which
disobeys classification rules peculiar to the given symbolic system
(p. 92). Kristeva, herself, however, problematizes the very naming
and valorization of these structures: I keep asking questions, she
writes: Why that system of classification and not another? What
social, subjective, and socio-subjectively interacting needs does it
fulfill?

Are

there

no

subjective

structures

that,

within

the

organization of each speaking being, correspond to this or that


symbolic-social system and represent, if not stages, at least types of
subjectivity and society? (p. 92).
This socio-cultural approach is coupled with an examination of
the psychoanalytic aspect of abjection. This reaches its apex in
adults as a borderline state which is classified as somewhere
between neurosis and psychosis because the patients inhabit a
psychic in-between space. Borderline patients are characterized by
the extreme fragility of their boundaries, both corporeal (skin,
organs, orifices of all kinds), but also the boundary between self and
other, like a child in a pre-narcissistic state (Kristeva 1999, p. 18).
Their sensitivity to all the body parts that signify/perform the
boundary between self and Other, intensifying their desire to be one
with the world.
According to Kristeva, the semiotic and the symbolic are
the two forms of signifying processes. The semiotic relates to the

chora (receptacle), which is anterior to any space, an economy of


primary processes articulated by Freuds instinctual drives (Trieb)
through condensation and displacement, and where social and
family structures make their imprint through the meditation of the
maternal body (Kristeva 1980, p. 6). Kristeva seeks to conceive of
this uncertain boundlessness as ripe with possibility, and directly
counter to the symbolic, which is governed by signs, syntax,
regulations, law. Abjection is an articulation of the semiotic, it
represents that part of us which is limitless and multiple, moving
and flowing.
Kristeva posits two principal instances of abjection, which in
turn incite states of abjection in the subject that is beholden to
either. The first occurs in infancy, where the child has no awareness
of its own subjecthood, and thus no awareness that a separation
from the mother is possible. The second is after death, when the
body returns an objectal state.

The Maternal
The inaugural loss, for Kristeva, is made manifest through
the loss of the mother and the descent into the symbolic order.
"Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal
relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes
separated from another body in order to be (1982 p. 10). This state
is pre-linguistic, and occurs prior to narcissism, the point at which
the child conceives of itself as a part of a grander social order, or
paternal Law. Abjection is central to Kristevas theory of psychosexual development precisely because it resides in the maternal
semiotic, without the rigid structures that order the patriarchal
symbolic. As Deborah Caslav Covino explains The sensual and
maternal semiotic world is largely supplanted by the symbolic world,
which involves turning towards rules of language, expression, of
codified behaviors, of rules and regulations, of conventions (Covino

2004, p. 21). Because narcissism/the entry into the symbolic is the


stage at which the child conceives of itself in relation to a grander
social structure, abjection becomes the ultimate threat.
The semiotic is Kristevas conception of another kind of
language that does not find its roots in symbols, structures, words,
which is to say, a defined Other, or object, but in movements,
seepages, and excesses. Indeed, it exceeds the field of the
symbolic which is limited by linguistic structures (1982, p. 25). The
infant is thrust into the realm of the semiotic when it begins to
perceive signs, and images; when its body is comingled with the
body of its mother, when limbs and fluids and organs are, or seem
still to be, intertwined. The semiotic is not pre-linguistic, but rather
precedes language as sign and syntax that also serve to distance
the subject from other and produce a collective idea of meaning.
Abjection, of course, constitutes the horrifying process when the
child is forced to reconcile its separation from its mother, directly
after which, upon its entry into the mirror stage, it encounters its
own image and the images of others as separate beings, and
develops its own narcissism. The mirror stage, introduced by Lacan
(Kristeva 1980), is the stage at which the child conceives of itself as
an entire being as opposed to a series of fragments where the body
of itself and its mother (mainly the breast) are completely
dissociable from their owners. Kristeva insists that the semiotic, like
abjection,

does

not

disappear,

but

is

constantly

negotiated

throughout the subjects life, serving as the foundational instance of


language acquisition (Margaroni 2004, p. 13). In contrast to Lacans
formulation of the Real (a fundamentally unknowable void
which is irrevocably lost), the semiotic offers us a possibility to
speak from the darkness that it represents. Kristeva, in her
departure here from Lacan, stipulates that drives and energy flows
are surplus. She disputes the notion that drives are empty or absent,
that they have a minor place (see Lechte 2004, p. 145) and insists
that they can be traced back to the semiotic (2004 p. 14). It is this

excess

that

traverses

the

assumedly

rigid

structures

of

signification that constitute the semiotic. The chora, on the other


hand,

is:

an

essentially

mobile

and

extremely

provisional

articulation formed at the crossroads of language and biology


through the playful transfer between two bodies: the infants
confused mass of body parts and the mothers always already
socialized body (Kristeva 1980, p. 25). It is an organizational
structure that is not based on Law: The semiotic chora is not more
than the place where the subject is both generated and negated
(1984, p. 26).
It is abjection that destabilizes the structures which hold both
the psyche and the grander social order in place: That order, that
glance, that voice, that gesture, which enact the law for my
frightened body, constitute and bring about an effect and not yet a
sign (Kristeva 1982, p. 10). That which has not yet descended into
the symbolic order of patriarchal Law can naturally not be seen as
operating within the Law of the Father, which reveals the threat
abjection poses to the social subject who is by default embedded
within this structure. The childs body, which produces sounds,
sensations, fluids, is not yet involved in a symbolic or patriarchal
language, but a matriarchal, poetic one, that is almost entirely
dependent on the mother (Covino 2004, p. 18). It is not until later,
when the child enters the narcissistic or mirror phase, that her
image and that of the world is suddenly reflected back on her
through objects representations, inciting the descent into social or
patriarchal language, from which the mother is erased. In the
symbolic order, meaning becomes public, meaning that it is
governed by Law, which, in psychoanalytic theory, is symbolized by
the father. This process constitutes the formation of the ego.
The ego, according to Freud, is a corporeal projection that
allows the subject to obtain a kind of unity and sense of cohesion as
an act of differentiation from both the mother and the formlessness,
the heterogeneous sensations that comprise its experiences as a

result of an intervention into nature (Grosz 1995, p. 184). Prior to


this, in what Kristeva would call abjection, the child is a (passive)
conglomerate of fleeting experiences at the mercy of organic and
social expectations to which it may respond but over which it has no
agency or control (Kristeva 1982, p.185). This identification with an
ego orders these experiences, giving them a perpetual surface
(Grosz 1995, p. 185). Primary Narcissism is a stage that allows the
fission between subject and object (even the subjects capacity to
take itself as an object) to be come to fruition and to be thusly
internalized by the subject (186). Its a relationship we build with
what Lacan calls the imaginary relationships with other subjects
and our own reflection. Precisely because the ego is additionally
formed as a result of a blockage or rechanneling of libidinal
impulses in the subjects own body in the form of narcissistic
attachment to a part or the whole of its body, it can, according to
Elizabeth Grosz, be conceived of as a meeting point between the
body and the social (p. 185). Our love or hatred of our own body
requires of us an investment which creates meaning, which
differentiates us from animals in its libidinal value (pp. 185-86).
This

point

is

central

to

understanding

the

value

of

psychoanalysis and the production of meaning. It is the ego, Grosz


argues, that separates us from other creatures. (Ironically, the
animality in us also constitutes that which we try to escape.) It is the
recognition of the multiplicity of selves and relationships that govern
our

psyche

which

are

made

manifest

in

our

bodies

and,

subsequently, our societies. The human subject is capable of


suicide, anorexia, because the body is meaningful, has significance,
because it is in part constituted both for the subject and for others in
terms of meanings and significances (p. 186). Freud says the ego
is first and foremost a bodily ego: it is not merely a surface entity,
but is itself the projection of a surface (p. 186). As Rosi Braidotti
has argued elsewhere, this, this production of meaning, is the
importance of psychoanalysis: the supposition that we are not

singular beings, but split, varied, and multiplied. It is from this point
that theorists such as Deleuze, Guattari, Kristeva, and Cixous can
proceed

to

attack

understanding

that

psychoanalysis,
the

attack

but

on

not

identity

without
begins

a
with

keen
the

psychoanalytic split self () we cannot do without it (Braidotti


2014).
Furthermore, it is the boundary that the symbolic Other
represents that which constitutes the border that saves us from
abjection. As Kristeva explains, the barrier between man, animals
and animalism is a fragile one which cultures have sought to purify
themselves of so as to avoid the dangerous territories that they
represent, namely murder and sex (1999, p. 12-13). The abject
appears in order to uphold I within the Other. The abject is the
mourning for the I that has already been lost (1982, p. 15). It
destroys the order of signs and propels us back to the point from
which the ego has broken away in order to be and ascribes its
source in what Kristeva terms the non ego as well as drive
(desire) and death (p. 15).

The Corpse
The second instance of abjection, according to Kristeva, is
death, or rather the subjects reaction to death, wherein the body
once again becomes material, detritus. This is also tied to the threat
that abjection poses to the symbolic, exposing that awful truth from
which religion tries to save us. The corpse, Kristeva says, seen
without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection
(1982, p. 4). It is the image of the corpse (that which I am not which
permits me to be) that forces us to reconcile our own objecthood, as
well as the fragility of our own bodily borders (p. 3). The substances
that seep both from the body of the corpse and the bodies of living
beings (shit, piss, blood, vomit) remind us of our own fragility,

indeed our close proximity with/to death, while simultaneously


evoking in us a reaction that can only be described as utterly alive.
The corpse is that from which religion defends itself through
purification and even burial. Its decomposition solidifies the need for
the spiritual cleanliness that religion provides. It acts as a pollutant
to the soul:
The corpse takes on the abjection of waste in
the biblical text. A decaying body, lifeless,
completely turned into dejection, blurred
between the inanimate and the inorganic, a
transitional swarming, inseparable lining of a
human nature whose life is undistinguishable
from the symbolic the corpse represents
fundamental pollution. A body without a soul,
a non-body, disquieting matter, it is to be
excluded from Gods territory as from his
speech. () If the corpse is waste, transitional
matter, mixture, it is above all the opposite of
spiritual, of the symbolic, and of divine law.
(Kristeva 1982, 109)
To bear witness to death separate from God and science is to
recognize the arbitrarity of the social order upon which Law is
founded. Kristeva sees the subjects reaction to the corpse as a
rejection of our greatest fear- the body becoming object once again,
and in order to live, we must deny the abject state that reminds us of
or allows us to descend into our own objecthood. It is a rejection of
deaths materiality. Corpses show me what I permanently thrust
aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are
what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death.
There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body
extricates itself, as being alive, from that border (p. 2). Abjection is

conceived of here as a return to the state that the ego has left in
order to be, that is, in order to enter into the symbolic world. It is
a kind of death and rebirth, wherein the ego dies and the death drive
is transformed into a new life of new significance (p. 15). The abject
rests on the border between life and death, and is driven by, ignited
by both. It is rooted in the psyche and made manifest in the body. It
is on the border between the two.

Borderline: Feel Like Im Going to Lose My Mind


Neither

the

formation

of

the

narcissistic

ego

nor

the

purification rites that aim to absolve the subject of their experience


of the corpse succeed in riding him or her of the experience of the
abject. It is a constant threat to the unified subject that negotiated
throughout its life. (S)he is haunted by it, and yet seduced, and in
the end the subject never quite succeeds in differentiating the self
from this abjected other (Ross 1995, p. 149). The abject thus
positions the subject at the border of itself. Kristeva examines
borderline states as a kind of fragility of boundaries symbolized
particularly by the corporeal: skin, organs, orifices (1982, p. 18). The
abject character is sensitive to her integrity in relation to the othershe feels herself unworthy (p. 18). She is therefore a particular state
of subject where the frontier between the self and other isnt
radically opposed (made manifest as an in-between state the subject
faces when it is not psychologically separate from its mother) and
the subject is in the midst of constituting himself (p. 17). The
abject body, as Deborah Caslav Covino suggests, repeatedly violates
its own borders in a kind of revolt against a standardized mode of
subjectivity (2004, p. 17). Abjection hovers at the border of our
existence, threatening the apparently settled unity of the subject
with disruption and possible dissolution (Grosz 1989, p. 71).
Although we try to purify ourselves from the disorderly impure, we
never succeed in absolving ourselves of the abject. It is upon our

recognition that this battle is unwinnable that we develop the


sensation of borderline abjection.
This borderline state, to which Kristeva is particularly drawn,
takes us once again back to the maternal. Rosalind Krauss defines
abjection as a form of explanation for a condition understood as the
inability of a child to separate itself from its mother, so that, caught
up within a suffocating, clinging maternal lining, the battle for
autonomy is performed as a kind of mimicry of the impassibility of
the bodys own frontier, with freedom coming only delusively as the
convulsive, retching, evacuation of ones own insides, and thus an
abjection of oneself (1996, pp. 91-92).
However, the state can also occur upon the verge of death. The
death of Madame Bovary, for example, marks an instance of the
transfixing power of this in-between state as her desperate body
writhes in agony as a crowd stands by in horror. In this scene, we
witness the body of the novels heroine evolving progressively into
something between woman and object. The response of Emma
Bovary to the arsenic is not shielded behind/within her body, but
seeps out, pushing what is on the inside to the outside. The body,
caught between life and death, is made abject, and we (those who
bear witness) are abjected in turn. Kristeva suggests that all bodily
fluids, or those substances which disrupt the boundary between
inside and outside are what life withstands () on the part of
death (1982, p. 2). She considers this act of bearing witness to
these substances (which incite terror due to their uncleanliness) as
being at the border of living and dying. This borderline state that
Kristeva describes has similarities to Batailles notion of inform
wherein

significant

form

dissolves

because

the

fundamental

distinction between figure/ground, self/other is lost (Foster 1996, p.


116).
This unclean substance is both a physical object and
metaphysical construct. Jean-Paul Sartre, the phenomenologist who
toward the end of his life became Flauberts reluctant biographer,

discusses the term visqueux (slimy), as a condition of matter ()


that is neither liquid nor solid, but somewhere midway between the
two (quoted in Krauss 1996, p. 92). As opposed to solid objects
which, by their very nature are separate, definable as bordered,
boundaried things, the slimy is like a leech, which contains its own
form of possessiveness (p. 92). Krauss highlights the fact that for
Sartre, the slimy represents the way in which the autonomous
subject is compromised (p. 92). His description of the substance is,
according to Krauss, relentlessly feminine, given his use of terms
such as yielding, clinging, sweet, passive, possessive (p. 92).
Sartres theory, grounded as it is in psychoanalytic theory, points
back to the horror of the maternal, grounded as it is in the
indefinable. It is the revenge of the In-itself which Kristeva later
turns into a subversive, rhetorical gesture, calling slime the
revenge of the In-itself and a sickly-sweet, feminine revenge
(Krauss 1996, p. 92).

So, Whats the Problem?


The abject is a condition of symbolic subjectivity; and it is also
its unpredictable accompaniment (Grosz 1989, p. 72). Kristevas
abjection notably exists simultaneously as embodiment of as well as
the human reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused
by the loss of the distinction between subject and object. However,
as Hal Foster points out, A crucial ambiguity in Kristeva is the
slippage between the operation to abject and the condition to be
abject. For her, the operation to abject is fundamental to the
maintenance of subjectivity and society, while the condition to be
abject is subversive of both forms (1996, p. 119). Foster challenges,
as others have, her idea that the two are inherently connected, that
upsetting one form upsets the other, stating that it does not offer
much guidance as to how we should conceive of the abject as a

social and political strategy, or indeed what the relationship between


the social and the psychological is (p. 119).
I would counter that Kristevas true interests lie in uncovering
and analyzing the ways in which deep analyses of the unconscious
can direct us toward a better understanding of what it means to be
human, rather than strategizing the use of her theory to mobilize
change. So, the ambiguity is what makes the work that much more
interesting, because the states of abjection are, as she explains, far
from being simply pathological or exceptional, are perhaps endemic
(p. 19). She continues: It is perhaps against this sort of structural
uncertainty that inhabits us that religions are set in motion, at once
in order to recognize them and to defend ourselves against them
(1999, p. 19, my emphasis). This statement asserts that Kristeva
sees no boundaries between the abjection of the body and the
psyche and the powers that recognize these states and, in turn,
either attempt to avoid by purification or, as Bataille would have it,
abject others or organize in such a way that people see themselves
as abject. My point here is that the abjection of the self, indeed the
descent into abjection, as performance of the self incites a reaction
and perhaps a conversation that, in turn, pushes boundaries.
Another problem in Kristevas theory, according to Barbara
Creed, is that she does not differentiate between a male and female
child as subjects in formation, nor to the abject maternal objects
relation to one or the other (2000, p. 53). For a mother is already
constituted as a gendered subject living within a patriarchal order
and thus aware of the differences between the masculine and the
feminine in relation to questions of desire. Thus, the mother might
relate to a male child with a more acute sense of pride and pleasure.
It is also possible that the child, depending on its gender, might find
it more or less difficult to reject the mother for the father (p. 53).
Creed further problematizes the Kristevas reading of the abject by
highlighting that she offers no possibility for subversion of the female
in society and their label as abject(ed), leading her to the conclusion

that Kristevas theory could be interpreted as an apology for the


establishment of sociality at the cost of womens equality (p. 53).
Kristeva is not one to admit any debts or accountability to the
feminist movement, despite having been long since regarded as a
pillar in feminist thought. She even goes so far as to suggest that her
work is not freighted with any political or feminist intention
(quoted in Maragoni 2004, p. 24). Given her emphasis on the
maternal chora as the foundation of experience, this summation
might at first prove hard to swallow. However, Kristeva sees the
maternal and paternal, the male and female emblems of the Oedipus
complex as operating in the subjectivities of both men and women.
This is not a valorization of the female per se, but of a linguistic
system that is rooted in the feminine. She also considers, like Hlne
Cixous, a kind of psychic bisexuality within the Oedipal framework,
an experience of meaning and its gestation, of language and its
erosion, of being and its reserve (2000, p. 105). The subject, as we
have learned, floats between the two, negotiates its abjection,
battles against it until it finally, perhaps, submits itself to its dark
recesses.
The problem, of course, as Judith Butler has argued, Kristevas
theory engenders the female body

as maternal, rooting the

experience of the self in a biological essentialism negating the


possibility of queer subjectivities. I do find this to be a problematic
aspect of Kristevas work. However, I want to insist here on
psychoanalytic thought as primarily a narrative, allegorical tool that
employs a kind of historicity as a mode of unlocking keys to the
operations of the unconscious, and not a paradigm for sexual, social,
and identity politics. Furthermore, I believe that the instance of
abjection and the entire semiotic experience of language, one that is
bound up in fluids, images, scents and sounds, bodies comingled
with other bodies, that this experience, while named maternal and
even horrific can, of course, also be conceived of as queer. If, as
Butler explains in Bodies that Matter (1993), the process of abjection

is the result of linguistic and social barriers operating as exclusion,


perhaps it is only the process of naming the thing as maternal that
proves problematic. After all, as Kristeva is careful to remind us, the
chora is unrepresentable, it acts as an indefinable structure that is
both attentive to semiotic traces and a mediator of social-linguistic
forms (2004, p. 25). The female body serves as a vehicle for the
metaphor. While I am sensitive to the idea that it is a tired trick to
allow the female body to serve as a metaphor for anything, having
such an exhaustingly long and epic history performing this role, I see
this particular analogy as positive and subversive. As Kristeva
herself states in Powers of Horror:
If something maternal happens to bear
upon the uncertainty that I call abjection, it
illuminates

the

literary

scription

of

the

essential struggle that a writer (man or


woman) has to engage in with what he calls
demonic only to call attention to it as the
inseparable obverse of his very being, of the
other (sex) that torments and possesses him.
Does one writer under any other condition
than being possessed by abjection, in an
indefinite catharsis? Leaving aside adherents
of a feminism that is jealous of conserving its
power

the

last

of

the

power-seeking

ideologies none will accuse of being a


usurper the artist who, even if he does not
know it, is an undoer of narcissism and of all
imaginary identity as well, sexual included.
(p. 208)
Concerning Creeds take on Kristevas work, Kristevas preoccupation
in this particular text is the process of abjection and its negotiation in

the adult subject. The response of a mother to the sex of a child is


detailed in other texts, such as her study of the French novelist
Colette (2001).

Chapter Two
The Misrables
Abjection and Miserable Forms (1999) is a brief but seminal
text that gave birth to the term abjection. The popular reading of
the text sees it as precisely the contrary to Kristevas psychoanalytic,
post-structuralist elucidation of the abject in Powers of Horror. This
is because Batailles abjection is rooted in the social and political
regulatory, exterminatory practices carried out by the Nazis that had
overtaken Europe in the

mid-twentieth century. In

Batailles

formulation, this process is not fixed, but rather operates as the


movement of energies within a force field, energies that, for
example, operate on the very words that mark the poles of that field
in such a way as to make them incapable of holding fast the terms of
any opposition (Krauss 1996, p. 99). Rosalind Krauss explains that
Batailles texts identify social abjection with a violent exclusionary
force operating within modern State systems, one that strips the
laboring masses of their human dignity and reproduces them as
dehumanized social waste (its dregs, its refuse), they map the
activity of abjection onto that of heterogeneity (Krauss 1996, p. 90).
This is, necessarily, a direct reaction to the horrors of Nazism, but is
rhetorically organized around Batailles own transgressive approach
to writing and his supposition that, in fact, all processes of
assimilation in any meaning-system, be they social, philosophical,
or intellectual, produce a kind of excrement, which is liberated
from

the

homogenized

process

that

supports

the

orderly

fabrication, consumption, and conservation of products (Krauss,


99). I want to push back against the reading of Kristevas abjection
as working against Batailles, for although the two concepts are at
odds, I see the two theories rather as heterogeneous counterparts.
Sylvre Lotringer (1999) explains that Batailles writing in the
1930s is directly engaged with the dominant issues facing the

European populous at the time, namely the increased polarization


of French society, the dehumanization of labor, class struggle, mass
fanaticism, imminent revolution (p. 3). He sees Bataille as a fascist
by default, citing his distaste for the prevalent interest in Marxism
that had preoccupied his surrealist colleagues, as well as his
loathing for bourgeois capitalism (p. 6). Expecting nothing else
from the revolution than revolution itself, he remained this strange
political hybrid-an ultra-leftist mystic; a fanatic without a cause (p.
6). Like Flaubert, he detested the bourgeoisie and yearned for them
to be punished for their hypocrisy. Those who he termed the
industrial masters were operating, Bataille suggests, not with the
goal of profit, but rather profiting from the cruelty they were
inflicting (p. 5). While Kristevas elucidation of the abject is, as we
know, decidedly matriarchal, Batailles (as articulated by Lotringer),
is patriarchy at its fullest. It is a kind of machine of sovereignty, of
the state which, in order to constitute itself needs to reject,
exclude, expel some defenseless segments of the population from the
human condition in order to create the abject as such (p. 24).
The abject, for Bataille, is all the waste that is produced from a
meaning-system that is no longer recyclable. It is the throw-aways of
these meaning-systems (or homogenized social or conceptual space)
with which it could just as well do without, were it not for the fact
that it profits, sadomasochistically, from the experience of defiling
these misrables, embodied by the Nazi movement in the Jews.
Rosalind Krauss explains that for Bataille, the misrables had
become untouchable (1996, p. 99). The very summit she
continues of that same society is also separated out as untouchable,
as kings and popes are precipitated out of the top of the
homogeneous structure to form that very exception of which the rule
is the product, but from which the sovereign himself is exempt.
Sovereignty and the sacred are thus also the unassimilable forms
that

the

homogenous

forces

of

law-like

equivalence

and

representation must create (p. 99). However, the sovereign also

needs the refuse to function, as they are part of the structure of the
mechanism of abjection that Bataille examines. The process,
mirroring the battle the ego faces against the abject perverse in
Kristevas text, is cyclical and regulatory.
As Lotringer sees it, the question of where abjection exists
within this structure is contrary to that which Kristeva articulates.
Here, he explains, abjection is, rather than a substance (blood,
vomit, decay2) or a psychological structure, it is a construction. The
abject, he explains, is, for Bataille, defined by the rejection, the
exclusion that is made of it () because not only in the context was
Bataille referring to this Lumpenproletariat 3 which in fact does not
even get to the state of organization into a party, a working class,
and therefore cannot be integrated into the phenomena of struggle
and subversion, but also this will define the very gesture of the
fascists or Nazis through which they defined classes, races, etc., as
abject, and thus produced them as [made them?] abject (p. 26).
Bataille defined abjection by its own performativity. People dont
become abject because theyre treated like a thing, but because they
become things to themselves (p. 7). But isnt this battle, this
struggle between thing and object, between the bordered and
ordered life, and the psychological breakdown that constitutes the
abject, a kind of return to an objectal state? Is it not true that signs
and symbols, in Kristevas realm of the abject, become confused and
conflicted?
Bataille, whose principal interests lay in the unearthed and
often animalistic dialogue that humans negotiate between the sacred
and

the

profane,

was

particularly

drawn

to

the

erotics

of

debasement. In terms of sadomasochism, says Lotringer, Bataille


postulated that the two agencies could remain exclusive of each
other (p. 4). He continues:
2 Lotringer, like Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster, assert that Kristeva reduces the
abject to a substance. As I believe my analysis shows, although substances can
incite feelings of abjection, the abject is not a substance itself.
3 The Marxian term for a group too ragged to even form a class, organize, or act
as a social agent.

The sadist attitude can be manifested by an


imperative person to the exclusion of any
corresponding masochistic attitude. In this case,
the exclusion of the filthy forms that serve as
the object of the cruel act is not accompanied by
the positioning of these forms as value. In the
psychotic universe of fascism, each position
kept looping upon itself at a distance from the
other.

Both

masters

and

slaves

were

heterogeneous to the rest of society, but their


respective

heterogeneity

remained

heterogeneous to each other. The two simply did


not communicate. The masters sadism could
exert its cruelty at the expense of the slaves
without ever touching them or acknowledging
their humanity. (p. 4)
In fact, by labeling the universe of fascism psychotic, both Bataille
and Lotringer point to the ways in which this regulatory system can
be linked back to the libidinal drives that Kristeva discusses which
are then played out on an external level, albeit with higher stakes.
What separates the two is that within the egoic universe, the battle
between the symbolic and the semiotic, between the abject and the
ordered, is constantly at play within the subject. The abject
misrables, for Bataille on the other hand, while necessary for the
production of the master, are by definition something less than
human, and subsequently do not pose the threat that Kristeva
articulates. That being said, the two need one another for the system
to reproduce itself. Just as capitalism cannot function without a rich
and a poor social class, the sovereign masters cannot exist without
the abject misrables.

Although the master and the abject both need one another to
exist, the relationship does not involve pleasure for both, particularly
because one is considered human while the other is not. Lotringer
cites Batailles The Psychological Structure of Fascism (1979),
stating: fascism is a sadism. Pure sadism. There is no identification
with the victim. There is no experience of fear or horror or terror in
the Nazi kind of sacrifice, but complete rejection of the victims. The
victims are repugnant but not fascinating (p. 26). Kristeva counters
that, contrary to Bataille, her vision: probably implies a certain
consent of the abject subject, and that this abject subject enters into
a jouissive dialectic with his tyrantthe ambiguity of the victims
jouissance (in abjection) (p. 27). Those who see abjection as a way
to, as Lotringer asserts, deflect patriarchal sublimation perhaps
ignore this dialectic of jouissance here defined as the pleasure of
being mastered. Kristeva surmises that the question of master and
slave is not related specifically to a social class, but to the
Master/Slave dialectic. This can play out in a society, but also within
interpersonal relationships. Any individual she says, in one sexual
partnership or another () puts himself in the position of being the
mastered or the non-mastered (Kristeva 1999, p. 28). This brings us
to Hlne Cixous discussion of binaries, but also points us to
Deleuze and Guattaris notion of the fascist within, which I will come
to later.
There

is

another

link

between

Bataille

and

Kristevas

formulations of the abject, which is the method by which certain


populations are excluded from the domain of representation.
Kristeva, as we have learned, discusses the process in terms of
womens marginalization as that which is excluded from the
symbolic order, while Bataille sees this process as a homogeneous
societys forcible exclusion from the process of representation
(Krauss 1996, p. 100). When a group is abject(ed) to the point where
it can no longer think of itself as a class, it becomes impossible to
identify as a productive unit. There is no organizing, no rebellion,

because it is impossible for the abject to see themselves as


anything else but the lower-than-low (Krauss 1996, p. 100).
However, the misrables do have the option of subversion from
beneath, which is to say that when one is lower-than-low,
everything that is done is under the surface, they exist in a state of
indeterminacy (Krauss 1996, p. 103). When a population is not
part of the realm of what is visible, it resides within the
heterological position of nonlogical difference, which, operating
outside of a projected norm, can, as Judith Butler explains, serve as
a discursive form of power.

Transgression and Abjection


In

eroticism,

as

in

any

transgressive

experience, the limits of the self become


unstable, sliding
Susan Suleiman (1989,
p. 75).
As Teresa de Lauretis explores in her writing on Freud, the
negotiation of normal sexual behavior that serves as a cornerstone
for reproduction and divorces man from its counterpart: the
perverse abnormal sexual behavior is a process that the subject
continually confronts throughout his/her life (2015). The abject is
the negotiation of those tenuous bodily boundaries (Grosz 1989, p.
70). The boundaries that the writer Susan Suleiman speaks of, the
pleasure of their breakdown and the horror at discovering their
rigidity is quite aligned with my articulation here of the abject.
Insofar as Kristeva positions the abject as a borderline state, she
sees it as a slippage of the signifier into the non-signifier, a
symbolic transgression (Grosz 1989, p. 70).
Batailles formulation of transgression takes place within the
subject because the Law is internalized. Susan Rubin Suleiman

cites Roland Barthes essay on Bataille wherein he suggests that


the transgression of rules of discourse implies the transgression of
law in general, since discourse exists only by positioning the norm
and value of meaning, and meaning in turn is the founding element
of legality (p. 75). Kristevas abjection, on the other hand, comes
from within and is ever-present: An essential trait of those
evangelical attitudes or narratives is that abjection is no longer
exterior. It is permanent and comes from within. Threatening, it is
not cut off but is reabsorbed into speech. Unacceptable, it endures
through the subjection to God of a speaking being who is inertly
divided and, precisely through speech, does not cease purging
himself of it (Kristeva 1982, p. 113).
The transgressive in Bataille and the abject in Kristeva is made
manifest in the female body. Why is it a woman who embodies most
fully the paradoxical combination of pleasure and anguish that
characterizes transgression in whose body, in other words, the
contradictory impulses toward excess on the one hand and respect
of the boundary on the other hand are played out? asks Suleiman
(p. 82-83). Precisely, she asserts, because the female body is both
seductive (feminine) and nurturing (maternal), it serves as the very
emblem of the contradictory coexistence of transgression and
prohibition, purity and defilement, that characterizes both the inner
experience of eroticism (p. 85). As we have learned, Julia Kristeva
would agree. She contends that poetic language is the language of
transgression. Residing in the chora, the receptacle maternal body
where abjection finds its home.
Transgression, as Suleiman notes, offers both the intense
pleasure (at the exceeding of boundaries while simultaneously
inciting intense anguish (at the full realization of the force of those
boundaries) (p. 75). She concludes, following suit with Bataille, that
nowhere is this combination of pleasure and anguish more acutely
present than in the inner experience of eroticism, insofar as this
experience involves the practice of sexual perversions as opposed

to normal reproductive sexual activity (p. 75). The perverse and


the proper are constantly at odds in the egoic universe, which, in
the psychotic realm of the abject, amounts to a kind of death, as
articulated by Kristeva here:

There looms, within abjection, one of those


violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a
threat

that

seems

to

emanate

from

an

exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the


scope

of

the

possible,

the

tolerable,

the

thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it


cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries,
and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless,
does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive,
desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A
certainty protects it from the shamefula
certainty of which it is proud holdson to it.
But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus,
that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an
elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned.
Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a
vortex of summons and repulsion places the
one

haunted

by

it

literally

beside

himself. (1982, p. 1)

Transgression, like abjection, exceeds the boundaries of


meaning, unity, and representation and according to Bataille it was
indissociable from a consciousness of the boundaries it violated (p.
76).

Chapter Three Uninhabitable Zones: Judith


Butler and Abjection
Evoking Foucaults study of the discursive practices that
structure the ways in which social and sexual bodies are produced,
Judith Butler points to sex as a regulatory ideal, or rather a
regulatory practice that produces governable bodies and is defined
by its power to demarcate, circulate, differentiate those bodies
over whom it has control (Butler 1993, p. 1). This process reiterates
and regulates bodily norms, exiling those who do not comply with
these standards to the peripheries of society, to the realm of the
abject (p. 2-3). Sex is therefore not only what one has, but a means
by which one becomes visible in culture (p. 2). She continues:
This exclusionary matrix by which subjects are
formed

thus

requires

the

simultaneous

production of a domain of abject beings, those


who are not yet subjects, but who form the
constitutive outside of the domain of the subject.
The abject designates

here precisely those

unlivable and uninhabitable zones of social life


which are nevertheless densely populated by
those who do not enjoy the status of the subject.
This zone of uninhabitability will constitute the
defining limit of the subjects domain; it will
constitute that site of dreaded identification
against which and by virtue of which the
domain of the subject will circumscribe its own
claim to autonomy and to life. (p. 3)
The abject, as articulated here, is not what we thrust aside in order
to live, as Kristeva suggests, but rather what we need in order to
consider ourselves subjects at all. It is through the exclusion of the

abject that the subject perceives itself as a unified, autonomous


being, free of the horror of the abjected outside (p. 3). Elizabeth
Grosz expounds upon this in her discussion on the ego, stating that
what psychoanalytic theory makes clear is that the body is literally
written on, inscribed by desire and signification, at the anatomical,
physiological and neurological levels (1995, p. 195). This act of
inscribing the body operates for Butler as a mechanism of naming
and categorizing not only bodies, but the relationship between these
bodies in order to constitute a normal subject, who then serves as
a model against which all others are measured. In effect, this
process that identifies what Foucault calls a regulatory ideal
actively produces governable bodies. Thus, sex, as well as
madness, perversion, and certainly gender is an ideal construct,
materialized (forcibly) through time (Butler 1993, p. 2). It is the
incompliance of certain bodies with this regulatory ideal that
produces the realm of the abject.
Hlne Cixous (1983) proposes societies as being founded
upon populations made invisible (p. 65), or by what Butler calls
radical erasures of those who are refused the possibility of
articulation (Butler 1993, p. 8). Acknowledging that this process of
the

construction

and

subsequent

marginalization

of

bodies

constitute the binary of human and less human, Butler explains


that these sites that exist on the periphery haunt the boundaries of
the normative as the persistent possibility of their disruption and
rearticluation (p. 8). This model of the abject social body and the
borders that reinforce the legitimacy of its binary opposite takes us
back to Kristeva, with the maternal representing that which is
refused the possibility of articulation (1982, p. 8).
Butler acknowledges the need for laws and borders, and
instead of attacking the patriarchal symbolic in an attempt to
overthrow it, she suggests that perhaps the symbolic ought to be
rethought as a series of normativizing injunctions that secures the
borders of sex through the threat of psychosis, abjection, psychic

unlivablity. And further, this law can only remain a law to the extent
that it compels the differentiated citations and approximations called
feminine and masculine (p. 15). This process of citation that
seeks to delegate subjects into binary categories actively produces
the abject by naming that which does not fit into the categories that
constitute the normative. As Cixous elucidates in Sorties, The body
of what is strange must not disappear, but its force must be
conquered and returned to the master. Both the appropriate and the
inappropriate must exist: the clean, hence the dirty, the rich, hence
the poor, etc. (1983, p. 57). In a hierarchical relationship the
same rules by the exclusion of the other. As Christina Ross
explains, Butler notes specifically that although the abject is
produced by bodies who fail to perform the ideal construct necessary
to ensure their subjectivity, that in fact one never quite succeeds in
complying with the norm he or she is supposed to reiterate making
the abject a performance of that failure (Ross 1997, p. 154).
Butler, like Christina Ross, sees the abject as a space ripe with
possibility. She suggests that agency is feasible in the possibilities
opened up in and by that constrained appropriation of the regulatory
law, by the materialization of that law, the compulsory appropriation
and identification with those normative demands (Butler 1993, p.
12). This process can be arrived at by cit(ing) the law in order to
dismantle it (p. 15). She asks us to consider how repression can
operate as as productive power insofar as we can conceive of the
symbolic as the temporalized regulation of signification, and not as
a quasi-permanent structure (p. 22). This approach does not
attempt to overwrite the symbolic law, nor the law that governs our
social and personal politics, but rather to point to its possibility of
being subverted in a practice that draws attention to both the
feebleness of its borders and also the pleasure of living on its edge.
Bataille, Kristeva, and Butler all point to the duplicitous ways in
which the abject is based on the exclusion of the other in a desiring
dialogue, negotiating its repression. The process of constituting the

self depends completely on the repression of the other. It is, in fact,


what constitutes the other that differs in the writers work. For
Kristeva, it is the other that is made manifest in the self, the return
to the pre-Oedipal, that which bring the subject to confront the
fragile borders that comprise her sense of selfhood. For Bataille,
abjection serves as a mechanism of waste disposal, a practice that
actively expels the wastes of society to the service of those in power.
For Butler it is about the ways in which the production of certain sex
acts or sexual identifications are normalized and materialized
historically, creating an abject outside, and it is though the exclusion
of this abject outside that the hetero-normative social body
conceives of itself. I want to argue that it is in both the naming of
these boundaries and the slippage between them that the abject
serves as a means of discursive revolt. It is not through the mere
degradation of the self, but the articulation, the performance, the
transcription of the subject as she enters into the realm of the
abject, is positioned there due to her marginalized status, or
discovers the ways in which the abject is actually that which she and
all other speaking subjects are constantly fighting against and
surrendering to.
What I have highlighted here are several theories of abjection
and fluidity as performative states, operations, and experiences
throughout the past 100 years. My aim is to draw connections
between those theories which might seem disparate and ground
them in practice so as to reformulate some new questions about
what the abject as a desiring form of production and criticism has to
offer.

PART II
___
THOSE FEMALES CAN WRECK THE
INFINITE Abjection in Feminist Visual
and Performance Art

Chapter Four The Way out of Exile


The body is the inscribed surface of events
(traced by language and dissolved by ideas),
the locus of a disassociated Self (adopting the
illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in
perpetual disintegration.
Michel Foucault (Quoted in Phelan
1996, p. 81)
Because abjection by its very nature is centered around a kind
of systematic crisis of either the self or society, it is no wonder that it
is a state explored by artists and writers as a mode of critique and
transcendence. Artistic practice, to my mind, acts as one of the most
fundamentally subversive modes of critique and self-enunciation,
and I want to argue that the most powerful forms of art permeate
the borders of logic and language and seep into the realm of the
abject. In her interview with Sylvre Lotringer, Kristeva evokes
Aristotle, who stated that art is a kind of purification which, she
explains, is intrinsically bound up with the order of the abject
(Kristeva 1999, p. 17). In Powers of Horror, she highlights the ways
in which modernist poetry and literature have explored this terrain
(p. 18). Dostoyevsky, for example, abjects the sexual, moral, and
religious to invoke a collapse of paternal law (p. 20), while Proust
attests that desire, real desire, can only rest upon the abject due to
the impossibility of its Objects attainment (p. 21). Georges Bataille
doubtlessly explored its possibilities in his own fictional works,
namely Story of the Eye (1928), eroticizing defilement, substance,
and death. Artaud, according to Kristeva, was an inescapable
witness of that torture that of truth (p. 25). Truth here is defined
by the battle between inside and outside that the abject embodies.
Death in the world of Artaud represents the state of the nonsubject who has lost his non-objects (p. 25).

In Kristevas account of modernism and its lack of form (what


Bataille famously termed informe), the inability to associate a sign,
assign a narrative, or comply with a prescribed order, touches upon
the abject because it is neither subject or object (1998, p. 20).
Amelia Jones (1998), on the other hand, accuses modernism in visual
art, a movement organized primarily by and for white, straight men,
as being entirely wrapped up in identity and individualism,
performing the Cartesian mind-body split in order to convene with
the divine. Regardless, it is certain that, as both Hlne Cixous and
Judith Butler have argued, it is the artists who are either exiled from
or have sought their way out of the confines of both the symbolic
order and the socio-political order, who are most equipped to engage
with the abject, to inhabit it, and to whose work the term is most
appropriately assigned.
Though we can trace the implementation and influence of
abjection in art much further back, contemporary performance
practices employing abjection as an aesthetic and, often, as a
political strategy began with Antonin Artaud. In Amelia Jones
comprehensive study of performance art Body Art/Performing the
Subject (1998) she compares body art practices to Artauds Theater
of Cruelty, stating that the subjects in each exacerbate, perform,
and/or negotiate the dislocating effects of social and private
experience in the late capitalist, postcolonial Western world (p. 1).
Many individuals and collectives in the decades following, both
visual (Robert Mapplethorpe) and performative (the Viennese
Actionists), actively engaged Artauds methods of inciting disgust in
the viewer in order to illicit a reaction from their audience, either to
engage political action, encourage individual artistic reflection, or
both. Christina Ross calls this employment of the abject as a return
to the body that produces an excessivity that problematizes the
absence/presence duality and opens up new cybernetic notions of
subjectivity (1997, p. 149). It is this practice that I want to
emphasize in the following pages.

The abject-as-intermediary, says Rosalind Krauss, is () a


matter

of

both

uncrossable

boundaries

and

undifferentiable

substances, which is to say a subject position that seems to cancel


the very subject it is operating to locate, and an object relation from
which the definability of the object (and thus its objecthood)
disappears (1996, p. 92). With this discursive operation in mind,
1970s and 1980s saw a shift in the play with the body and the use
of an abject aesthetics employed by feminist and queer artists. The
abject body as a dialectical tool provided a format within which to
engage with the psychic trauma of the body (particularly feminine)
as wounded and a methodology through which to critique the
systems complicit with this narrative.

Lifting the Veil: The Abject Fetish


Julia Kristeva, by placing the maternal at the center of
psychoanalytic theory, was positioned at the forefront of French
feminist psychoanalysis, along with her contemporaries, Luce
Irigaray, Monique Witting, and Hlne Cixous. The body of woman is
a central theme in regards to abjection, in particular, as Kristeva
explains, because the maternal is hidden [hides] behind this nonrespect of a structure. She continues: When a social link is
established, when a symbolic understanding [agreement] is made
[arrived at], it is often to the detriment of those who are excluded
(1999, p. 17). As one of the excluded social categories, women are
ostracized precisely because they represent natural or ideological
forces considered threatening (p. 17). This argument could and has
been

extended

to

countless

other

marginalized

groups:

homosexuals, transgendered persons, disabled persons, people of


color, each of which include women but whose particular struggles
are augmented by the amalgamation of attributes which, through
the discursive and exclusionary practice of naming them as such,
push them further to the peripheries of what western society deems

normal, and thereby complicates the naming an entire category as


woman. I will not explore this further as it is not the focus of my
research, but not to mention it would, I feel, be to assume a binary
of sexuality, race, and gender, which is not my intention.
This threat posed by woman that Kristeva identifies,
manifests itself in two forms, the first being the threat of castration
or the wound, the second, of the fluidity between inside and
outside that the bodies of women represent, most notably menstrual
blood, breast milk, secretions of all kinds, but also as the initial
shock of the separation of the child from its mother, occupying
Kristevas borderline state, as here described by Rosalind Krauss:
The abject, understood as this undifferentiable
maternal lining- a kind of feminine sublime,
albeit composed of the infinite unspeakableness
of bodily disgust: of blood, of excreta, of mucous
membranes-

is

ultimately

cast,

within

the

theorization of abject art, as multiple forms of


the wound. Because whether or not the feminine
subject is actually at stake in a given work, it is
the character of being wounded, victimized,
traumatized, marginalized, that is seen as what
is in play within this domain. (1996, p. 93)
It is, in part, upon this image of the wounded horrific that the
oppression of women is founded, insofar as the symbolic depends on
the repression of the maternal body. The symbolic relies on borders,
abjection points to their fragility.
The feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey suggests that although
the state of being abject is not an exclusively female phenomenon,
the female subject is better equipped to analyze the state. It is the
female body, she explains, that has come, not exclusively but
predominantly, to represent the shudder aroused by liquidity and

decay (1991, p. 148). Mulvey has spent the better part of her career
employing the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and
Jacques Lacan as a methodological platform through which to
analyze cinematic work. She made waves in postmodern theory with
her study of scopophilia or the pleasure of looking in post-World
War II cinema, insisting that the subject in cinema is necessarily
conceived of through a phallocentric practice of looking, which is to
say that we consume the images on screen through male eyes. In an
essay published for the artist Cindy Shermans retrospective at the
Whitechapel Gallery in London (1991), she interprets the trajectory
of the artists work as critique of the scopophilic, patriarchal male
gaze by way of a kind of descent from a constructed fetishistic
reality that morphed into horrifying formlessness.
The trajectory of Shermans work can be viewed as a kind of
unveiling, a descent into the abject. Sherman is best known for her
Untitled Film Stills series (1991) wherein she embodied the glossy
fetish object in 1950s Hollywood cinema, producing impressively
staged photographs wherein her body was the source/site of
meaning. By enacting what Krauss calls a fetishistic monument to
Lack, Sherman employed the mechanics of the camera as a
dialectical tool, drawing attention to the meticulous fashion by which
women are produced as fetish objects in popular culture. The hard
outside

of

these

photographic

documents

of

the

feminine

masquerade see their counter part in the late 1980s, where the
figure is completely absent, leaving only blood, piss, vomit, and fecal
matter in its wake. This has a double effect, as Barbra Creed
illustrates:
Images of blood, vomit, pus, shit, etc., are
central to our culturally/socially constructed
notions of the horrific. They signify a split
between two orders: the maternal authority
and the law of the father. On the one hand,

these images of bodily wastes threaten a


subject that is already constituted, in relation
to

the

symbolic,

as

whole

and

proper.

Consequently, they fill the subject () with


disgust and loathing. On the other hand, they
also point back to a time when a fusion
between mother and nature existed; when
bodily wastes, while set apart from the body,
were not seen as objects of embarrassment or
shame. (2000, p. 51)

Figure 1: Cindy Sherman Untitled #175, 1987.


Image courtesy of Walkerart.com

These photos showcase the horror of the abject, especially if


viewed within the trajectory of Shermans oeuvre. The scopophilic
gaze pointed at the cosmetic faade which soon divulges into
chaotic formlessness. In the concept of the informe, that which lacks
a center, images work against another avatar of verticality and
phallic wholeness says Rosalind Krauss of the work (1996, p. 96).
She sees the photos functioning as a lifting of the veil which serves

as a substitute for or a marker of the place of Truth, the truth


which, in the system of the fetish, is that the woman is castrated (p.
96). This is why the dropping of the veil is named abject- precisely
because it refuses to retain the barrier (veil) that separates insides
and outsides and hides the image of the castrated woman. This
descent into what Krauss calls the unspeakable Truth dates back
to the Freudian construction of women as wounded, constituting a
system by which women are always the fetishized, unspeakable
other. For it is a return, in the place of the unspeakable, of a Truth
that is spoken again and again, the Truth that is the master signifier
of a system of meaning for which the wound is feminine and Truth is
that the woman is wounded. Thus when this interpretive structure of
abjection finally has us lifting the veil to strip away the system of
the fetish, what is shows us beneath is another veil, another
signified: the woman as wound (p. 98). Sherman, by erasing the
body completely, disallows for any fetishization at all to take place,
thus disavowing us of any possibility of meaning as such (p. 93).
This is not to suggest that the work is devoid of meaning, but
rather that feminist art supplants a crisis of meaning into a fixed,
structural order. Certain female performance artists, for example,
employ abjection as an aesthetic and reactionary device. Amelia
Jones argues that what she calls body art does is to exacerbate,
perform, and/or negotiate the dislocating effects of social and
private experience in the late capitalist, postcolonial Western world
(1998, p. 1). She calls the practice dislocating and decentering
which, I would hazard, takes into the realm of the abject.

The Persistence of Feelings


Carolee

Schneeman

performed

herself

in

an

erotically

charged narrative of pleasure that challenges the fetishistic and


scopophilic male gaze (Jones 1998, p. 3) in her seminal 1975 piece
Interior Scroll, wherein famously covered her naked body in streaks

of paint, stood in front of an audience, and proceeded to remove a


thin roll of paper from her vagina and recited the following text:
I

met

happy

man/

structuralist

filmmaker/ He said we are fond of you/ You


are charming/ But dont ask us/ To look at your
films/ we cannot look at/ the personal clutter/
the persistence of feelings/ the hand-touch
sensibility/the

diaristic

indulgence/

the

painterly mess/ the dense gestalt/ the primitive


technique/ (I dont take the advice of men who
only talk to themselves)/ even if you are older
than I/ you are a monster I spawned/ you have
slithered out/ of the excesses and vitality of/
the sixties/ he said you can do as I do/ take
one

clear

process/

follow

its

strictest/

implications intellectually/ establish a system


of/ permutations establish/ their visual set/ I
said my film is concerned/ with DIET AND
DIGESTION/ very well he said then/ why the
train?/ the train is DEATH as there/ is/ die in
diet and di in/ digestion/ then you are back to
metaphors/ and meanings/ my work has no
meaning/ beyond/ the logic of systems/ I have
done

away

with/

emotion

institution/

inspiration -/ those aggrandized habits/ which


set artists apart from/ ordinary people those/
unclean tendencies which/ are inflicted upon
viewers/ its true when I said when I watch/
your films my mind wanders/ freely/ during
the half hour of pulsing dots I/ compose letters/
dream of my lover/ write a grocery list/
rummage in the trunk/ for a missing sweater/

plan the drainage of pipes for/ the root


cellar./ it is pleasant not to be/ manipulated/
he protested/ you are unable to appreciate/ the
system

the

grid/

the

numerical

rational/

procedures - /the Pythagorean cues - / I saw my


failings were worthy of/ dismissal Id be buried/
alive my works lost/ he said we can be
friends/ equally though we are not artists/
equally I said we cannot/ be friends equally/ he
told me he had lived with/ a sculptress I asked
does/ that make me a film-maketress?/ Oh
no, he said we think of you as a dancer.
(Quoted in Jones 1998, p. 3)
In Interior Scroll, Schneemans body, which would normally, as I
have discussed previously, represent the abject horror of castration,
is mobilized as a subversive tool. The woman who historically
represents or embodies meaning for the (male) artist, or acts as a
container for meaning, here performs both producer and material;
both subject and object. She is also disturbing what Laura Mulvey
refers to as the topography of the feminine masquerade that
shields the patriarchal order from being exposed to sexual difference
(1991, p. 146). Here, the politics of inside and outside are disrupted.
Language emanates

from the space of absence, that which

represents the psychoanalytic void becomes the sight of meaning,


and a body once whole becomes abject: disordered, disorderly.
Furthermore, she evokes the maternal by essentially birthing the
text, thus re-evoking the abject state of separation from her
(mothers) already abject body. The evocation of the maternal body,
particularly in the birthing of the text in Interior Scroll, subsumes
the viewer with the sense of the abject by induc(ing) the image of
birth as a violent act of expulsion through which the nascent body
tears itself away from the matter of maternal insides (Kristeva

1982, p. 101). The horror of being plunged into the darkness of the
semiotic

is

heightened

by

the

exuberant,

poetic

language

Schneeman uses.

Figure 2: Carolee Schneeman Interior Scroll, 1975.


Image courtesy of Cornel Museums online archives

Schneemans words point specifically to the abject as that


which does not respect the borders of inside and outside, or borders
in general. The diaristic indulgence, primitive technique the
personal clutter the persistence of feelings these phrases point
the reader to the dark and unbound territory that the abject signifies
and the terror of the subject proper upon its confrontation. By
removing her clothes and exposing her wounded body, Schneeman
exacerbates that formlessness as a confrontational means of revolt.

She also evokes digestion and death, two other key facets of the
abject which serve to separate the clean subject from the defiled
one.
The text speaks directly to the socio-political milieu of the time
period, a post-World War II era that coped with the crisis of
masculinity by abstracting the self, ridding their work of personal
narrative or representational content that could be traced back to
the body. Unlike Cindy Sherman, whose work still distances the
audience from the subject by necessity constructive nature of imagemaking, Schneeman is directly in front of her audience, as a deeply
constituted (and never fully coherent) subject () dialectically
articulated in relation to others in a continually negotiated exchange
of desires and identifications (Jones 1998, p. 3). The falling of the
fetish/wall makes it impossible for the viewer to fetishize the artists
body. As Schneeman herself explains: my work has to do with
cutting through the idealized (mostly male) mythology of the
abstracted self or the invented self (Jones, p. 5). In cutting down
and cutting through, her body becomes discontinuous, boundless,
abject.
In the performance work of Karen Finley, we see again an
aggressive, activated implementation of a body that renders itself
abject, by disrobing and covering itself with food and holiday tinsel.
Citing an interview Finley did with Re/Search in 1991, Lynn Beavis
(2003) describes Finleys use of materials in one of her famous
performances We Keep Our Victims Ready. Finley strips down to her
underwear, covering herself in chocolate I cover myself up in ways
that I feel society covers up a woman - as in the ritual where I put
chocolate all over myselfbecause its a visual symbol that involves
eating as well as basically being treated like shit, candy hearts
because after weve been treated like shit, then were loved.
Alphalpha Sprouts come next, which symbolize sperm, and finally
Finley covers herself with tinsel because after going through all
that, a woman still gets dressed up for dinner (p. 82). Women who

are traditionally meant to prepare and serve food, and thus the
performance of Finleys outrageous employment of food as what
some might call body painting upsets the status-quo and ignites in us
a disgust and simultaneous intrigue.
What is it in the work of Schneeman and Finley about the
abject body that makes us drawn to it? In a certain sense, we are
both repelled and entranced by it, like a horrific car accident, the
gruesome remnants of which we find ourselves appalled by, and are
yet unable to avert our gaze. The disruption of our traditional
systems of meaning coalesce into a perverse urge to look at what we
do not want to see. Food meant to be put inside is instead put
outside, words that are supposed to be spoken are pulled from the
vagina, the body which is supposed to be clothed is naked and on
display.
The

tactics

of

the

female

artists

rendering

themselves

object/abject speaks not only to the personal questions the individual


artists work prompts and a reference to Kristeva, but to Batailles
notion of the social body exiled to the margins of society and
language. As I will explain in detail later on, I see Chris Kraus work
as performative in the same way that Finleys and Schneemans is
putting her body into the public sphere, unwilling to sit passively
and be objectified, they choose to abject and let us/force us to bear
witness so that we might experience our own confrontation with the
desiring horrific self/other. Jones makes the convincing argument
that the work on Schneeman and Finley eroticizes the interpretive
relation to radical ends by employing their (maternal) bodies as
fully embodied subjects, thus disrupting the status quo of
patriarchy both in modernism and in society at large (1999, p. 4).

Our Bodies That Are Never Really Ours


The abject in performance art was also employed as a reaction
to the events of the 1960s and 70s, wherein artists inflicted

violence upon their own bodies as both political activism and as a


rebellion against the disembodied modernist cannon. Chris Burdens
iconic Shoot comes to mind, wherein the artist videotaped himself
being shot in the arm by a friend. This mode of performance employ
the artists body as both subject and object, which serves to embed
the personal, interior experience of pain into the realm of the social,
bringing the psychological abject into conversation with that of the
collective. However, Jones argues that insofar as Burden's bodyharming performances shock and horror, they actually act as tests
to ensure and reinforce the ultimate impermeability of his masculine
subjectivity (1998, p. 15). It is actually, according to Jones, the
French artist Gina Pane's whose work collapse(s) the flesh of the
self into the flesh of the world. Panes sobering acts of self-mutilation
are, counter to Burdens, not choreographed or aestheticized, and
serve to (test) the integrity of the embodied self by literally slicing
through its boundaries (p. 15). Alone in her Paris studio with only a
photographer friend, Pane staged Escalade non-anesthsie (1971),
wherein she climbed repeatedly up and down a latter with razor
blade-laden rungs until she reached exhaustion (Phelan 2007, p.
354). As the viewer bears witness to a self-inflicted act of harm, she
is confronted again with the boundaries of her own body and the
egoic negotiations that keep that body compliant with a structured
norm. The blood that flows from her body, rather than reverting us
back to the maternal, pushes us up against the fragile border of
that which I push away in order to be death (Kristeva 1982, p.
53). The bodys inside, writes Kristeva, show up in order to
compensate for the collapse of the border between inside and
outside. It is as if the skin, a fragile container, no longer guaranteed
the integrity of ones own and clean self but, scraped or
transparent, invisible or taut, gave way before the dejection of its
contents. Urine, blood, sperm, excrement then show up in order to
reassure a subject that is lacking its own and clean self (p. 53).

Panes enactments challenge the viewer not only to question


the bodily and psychological borders that govern our existence, but
to look at the ways in which our own bodily pain and abjection is
often spared at the expense of others. Refusing to allow pain to be
private demands a kind of re-articulation of the self for both artist
and viewer in a collective production of meaning. For as Jean-Luc
Nancy reminds us, 'we know, we conceive, we even imagine only the
signifying body ...The body can belong to the community only by
being itself meaningful (Quoted in Jones 2000, p. 1).

Figure 3: Gina Pane, L'Escalade non anesthsie,, 1971.


Image Courtesy of critiquedart.org

Mona Hatoums Corps tranger (Strange body/Foreign body)


was originally shown at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1994 in the
exhibition Rites of Passage (Ross 1997, p. 150). In it, the viewer, in
the enclosed privacy of a dark room, discovers videos of various
close-up explorations of the artist body, both internal and external,
under a circular piece of glass. Already, hierarchical orders are upset
as the erect corpus is flattened out and the eyes, ears, and mouth
emerge under the viewers feet: flat, democratized, deconstructed,
dispersed, no longer an erect, whole being but abject, endless,
multiple. Two notable videos are recordings of an endoscopy and
colonoscopy, reverberated by various tenors of the artists heartbeat.
Here the viewer is confronted with images of the bodys interior that
produce horror and revulsion due to their associations with
digestion, anality, feces, and organs. Contrary to what enters the
mouth and nourishes, Kristeva explains, what goes out of the body,
out of its pores and openings, points to the infinitude of the body
proper and gives rise to abjection. Fecal matter signifies, as it were,
what never ceases to separate from a body in a state of permanent
loss in order to become autonomous, distinct from the mixtures,
alterations, and decay that run through it (1982, p. 108).
Like psychoanalysis, the piece begs us to, instead of looking
outward and ahead, to revert to the dark recesses of our own bodies
and psyches (Ross 1997, p. 150). As a Palestinian living in London,
Hatoum also employs the notion of the strange body in her title,
pointing to the arbitrarity of the racial, social and class-based
structures that separate us, particularly given the fact that, upon
close examination, regardless of our social status, our orifices are
essentially indecipherable. Ross calls this strategy a desire to break
with resolution and categorization through the paradoxical use of
categories of the abject (p. 152). She continues, explaining that the
strategys subversion is evident in and of that it manifests the
failing of a subject to correspond to the predictable, disciplined,
coherent body of contemporary discursive formations such as

medicine, law, and psychology (p. 152). Hatoum, by examining and


exposing her corps as an object of horror, forces us to confront our
own bodily horrors and the boundaries that our identity is built
upon.

Always Excess
I dont see how anyone engaged in selfrepresentation can fail to recognize in the
autobiographical self, constructed as it is in
language, all the others whom the writing self
shelters. The not-me dwells here in me. We
are one, and more-than-one. Our stories utter
one another.
Nancy Mairs (Quoted in Phelan
1996, p.88)
Concurrent with the revolt against the Cartesian body in
feminist visual and performance art in the 1960s and 70s, French
philosophers were mounting an attack on the Freudian subconscious
and the Saussurian structuralist meaning-system. Post-Structuralism
evolved as a kind of rebellion against the hierarchical, structuralist
approach to knowledge and meaning systems, which asserted that
the two were based on binary positions, which require that one be
subservient

to

the

other.

Structuralism

proposes

universe

contingent on binary oppositions that are hierarchical by default;


one cannot exist without the other. As Hlne Cixous explains: In a
hierarchical relationship the same rules by the exclusion of the
other. The other? There is no master without a slave, no
economic-political power without exploitation, no dominant class
without cattle under the yoke, no Frenchmen without wogs, no
Nazis without Jews, no property without exclusion and exclusion
that has its limits and is part of the dialectic. If there were no other,
one would invent it (1983, p. 70). Kristeva herself recognizes that
structuralism is, in fact, about the desire to seduce, to plan ahead,
promise a recovery, or esthetize, all of which allow us to avoid a
face to face confrontation with the abject (1982, p. 210).

Post-Structuralism

disputes

this

dualistic

mode

of

interpretation, bringing into question not only a linear, binary order


of things, but also the very mechanism of the production of
knowledge itself. In literature as in art, the reader/viewer takes
precedence over the author as the producer of meaning. Amelia
Jones

enthusiastically

argues

that

the

(abject)

splitting,

decentering, dislocation, or fragmentation of the self which,


through art,4 gives way to potentially radically progressive and
inevitably political effects (1998, p. 18). Michel Foucault famously
developed a practice of uncovering and exposing a kind of
genealogy which divides our emotions, dramatizes our instincts,
multiplies our body and sets it against itself () deprives us of life
and nature, and will not permit itself to be transported by a voiceless
obstinacy toward a millennial ending (Pollock 1996, p. 91) I have
attempted to map out a formulation of the abject that celebrates
Kristevas interest in fluid states of structures (p. 16). Cline
speaks of the Opera of the flood in which Kristeva finds there is at
once the sublime and extreme threat that the word abjection
encompasses (p. 17).
If the abject is a borderless state, if it is a state the rests on the
precipice between the flowing state of not-yet-subject or the
trickling bleeding state of the not-yet-dead, then can we not conceive
of it as a state of fluid, multiplicities? Can we not imagine Lack as
that which through and perhaps because of abjection has the
possibility to become excess? How best to do this then? Through
writing?

4 Jones here argues that it is body art in particular that can harness this kind of
power. Because my argument adds both visual art and literature to this category,
Ive structured the argument as such.

PART III
___
KEEP ON WRITING
The Abject Universe of Chris Kraus

Chapter Five Coming To Writing


Hlne Cixous
We are all in a position of ravishment call
it lack, if you must; our only hope of survival
call it love being, against all odds and
through all divisions, to keep on writing.
Susan Suleiman
(1989, p. 118)
I am spacious singing Flesh: onto which is
grafted no one knows which I which
masculine or feminine, more or less human
but because all living, because changing I.
Hlne Cixous (1983,
p. 45)
When Hlne Cixous wrote Sorties in 1975, she was actively
contesting the narrative of psychoanalysis, whose structural basis
served as a metaphor for the ways in which those who were not
white, women, homosexual, or who suffered from physical or mental
illness were ostracized by society. Her explanation (taking after
Hegel) of the master/slave binaries that govern our experience of
both ourselves and the outside world as mandated by language and
political organizations highlights the means by which he who is
powerful only arrives at that power through the oppression of she
who is subservient (Cixous 1983, p. 65). She argues, however, that it
is the fluidity between self and Other that real creation is possible:
There is no invention possible, whether it be philosophical or
poetic, without there being in the inventing subject and abundance
of the Other (p. 70). Cixous is here arguing for a kind of bisexuality,
an inhabiting of both the self and the other simultaneously, which

she sees as especially possible for women due to their experience of


being both inside and outside discourse. She affirms that writing is
the passageway, the entrance, the exit, the dwelling place of the
other in me the other that I am and am not, that I dont know how
to be, but that I feel passing, that makes me live that tears me
apart, disturbs me, changes me. (p. 73). She continues:
She doesnt create a monarchy of her body or
her desire. () She alone dares and wants to
know from within where she, the one excluded,
has never ceased to hear what-comes-beforelanguage-reverberating. (p. 74)
The what-comes-before-language is of course the maternal body,
the abject state boundary-less experience of the infant. Although
Cixous acknowledges, as do many of her psychoanalytically-inclined,
post-structuralist contemporaries, that language (central to the
symbolic order) is patriarchal, she does not let that deter her from
writing. Writing is a place reserved for her and through the
Symbolic (p. 76). She recognizes that structures are inevitable, and
thus seeks to employ writing as a method from which women can
subversively reconceive of their bodies and selves as unified beings
who speak both through, with, from their bodies and also through,
with, from the bodies of others because they (she) represent(s) the
other. She is not complete, but that incompleteness is a gift:
If she is a whole, it is a whole made up of
parts that are wholes, not simple, partial
objects

but

varied

entirety,

moving

and

boundless change, a cosmos where Eros never


stops traveling, vast astral space. () She lets
the other tongue of a thousand tongues speak

the tongue, sound without barrier or death.


She refuses nothing. (p. 74)

Language of Desire: Julia Kristeva


Kristeva insists that literature is the most powerful engine of
the abject experience, indeed the most capable of igniting the
jouissance of that void. Any fictional theme is, she explains, by
definition, a challenge to the single signified since it is a polyvalent
signified, a blasting of selfhood (Georges Bataille) (p. 138).
Narrative in fiction writing upsets the symbolic signifier, crushing
and obscuring it:
A narrative is, all in all, the most elaborate
attempt, next to syntactic competence, to
situate a speaking being between his desires
and their prohibitions, in short, within the
Oedipal triangle. For when narrated identity is
shaken, and when even the limit between inside
and outside becomes uncertain, the narrative is
what

is

challenged

first.

If

it

continues

nevertheless, its makeup changes, its linearity


is shattered, it proceeds by flashes, enigmas,
short cuts, incompletion, tangles, and cuts. At a
later stage, the unbearable identity of the
narrator and of the surroundings that are
supposed to sustain him can no longer be
narrated but cries out or is described with
maximal

stylistic

intensity

(language

of

violence, of obscenity, or of a rhetoric that


relates the text to poetry) () a crying out
theme of suffering horror. (Beardsworth 2004,
pp. 140-141)

Literature

is

abjections

privileged

signifier

(p.

207)

and,

consequently, it may also involve not an ultimate resistance to but


an unveiling of the abject: an elaboration, a discharge, and a
hollowing out of abjection through the Crisis of the Word (p. 208).
Proust, for example, Kristeva explains in an interview, wished to
make readers understand that when they read A la recherch du
temps perdu they were not uniquely in the words, nut in the
narrators body. And Proust finds himself in such a bodily experience.
Just as he provokes the reverse experience: when he feels himself in
the body he realizes that he is also immediately in an experience of
meaning (sens) and language, since the body is always already
caught in the network of language (Kristeva and Lechte 2004, p.
150). It is this experience where signs become both comingled and
disassociated that the subject and the analyst teeter towards
psychosis and a loss of identity, a delusion of the self in an
ecstatic situation of jouissance, caught in the lost confines of a
limitless universe, or indeed the belief that I am the universe (p.
150). She calls this process, which is rooted in the experience of
abjection, transubstantiation, and which relates to Catholicism in its
implication of the transference from flesh to word, word to flesh (p.
150). This process creates what Kristeva calls supple borders
(reminding us of the chora, which, she believes, can create the
conditions of creativity) (p. 151). It is poetic language, she asserts,
that creates the possibility to revert back to the realm of the
semiotic. With Kristeva, explains Sarah Beardsworth, literature is
rhythm made intelligible by a symbolic barrier which is to say that
it is composed of parts, fragments, images, that coalesce then
detach, building parts that converge into a kind of totality that is not
quite a whole (2007, p. 47). This, for Kristeva, manifests itself in
poetic language.

Reconfigurations of Time: Writing as Capitalist Critique


As Maria Maragoni explains, unwilling as they were to envision
cultural production as an inferior counterpart to material production,
the

post-Sartre

generation

of

intellectuals

emphasized

the

revolutionary potential of cultural activities which, rather than being


dependent on traditional class politics, were seen as capable of
offering more radical alternatives to it (2004, p. 8). As Michel
Foucault has pointed, out new forms of subjectivity were beginning
to emerge based on differences regarding race, sexual orientation,
madness, and desire (Maragoni 2004, 8). The departure from
Marxism allowed subjects the possibility of re-articulation and
reinvention, and opened up space for transgression that superseded
cultural, social, and political boundaries. Kristeva saw this possibility
of transgression from a singular idea of historical materialism as
rooted in the discovery of the Freudian unconscious, and a
reformation of the subject as in process (Beardsworth 2004, p. 40).
According to Sara Beardsworth, Kristevas theory of social
order is bound up in the psychoanalytic and linguistic concept of
significance, which is to say, that which includes the production
(symbolically) of the subject.
In Kristevas view, the bourgeois social order
is particularly inflexible with respect to the
suppression of its dependence on signifiance,
for it dispenses with the social tensions and
dissatisfactions that express that dependence,
absorbing them into the unity of the subject or
the state. Psychoanalytic theory provides a
reconstruction of both the nature of the
signifying process, for which the theory of the
drives

is

the

key,

and

the

process

of

absorption, thanks to the theory of narcissism.

In the latter case, the process of narcissistic


fixation

stands

as

the

paradigm

for

the

attachment of the signifying process to the


unity of the subject (the bourgeois individual),
and for its attachment to a position masking as
mere legal neutrality (the bourgeois state). At
this point in Kristevas thought, psychoanalysis
stands apart from the problem it diagnoses,
the rigidity of the modern social order that is
needed if any subversion is to be possible:
poetic language. (Beardsworth 2004, p. 40)
It is only art that is organized outside of work that can be considered
significant and thus, the political meaning of Kristevas thesis on
revolution in poetic language is that the bourgeois social symbolic
system both divorces aesthetic practice from social relations and
may be subject to critique thanks to the autonomous signifying
practice of modern literature (Beardsworth 2004, p. 48). This is
what poses the problem of visual art in relation to the semiotic, and
why literature is privileged. It is also here where literature is
superior to psychoanalysis in its revolutionary potential. The talking
cure is normative, poetic language is not. Even performance art, the
very body of the artist demands that individuals submit their
bodies so they can function more efficiently under its obsessive,
rampant imperatives () Subjects become objects of the commodity
system () the emergence of the Artists body adheres to this
voracious commodification. (Jones 1999, p. 21). Beardsworth takes
this idea further, assuming that art, when unable to pit itself against
representational politics and political practices, becomes complicit
with the marginalization through which the bourgeois system
accommodates and avails itself of the negativity it abuts against. In
short, art becomes complicit with the systems capacity to use
dissent for its own continuation (2004, p. 49). This all goes back to

Kristevas critique of capitalism, whose hold on the post-modern


subject is, as we learn from Deleuze, a matter of repression that
comes both from outside and within:
Capitalism leaves the subject the right to
revolt,

preserving

for

itself

the

right

to

suppress that revolt. The ideological systems


capitalism proposes, however, subdue, unify,
and consolidate that revolt, bringing it back
within the field of unity (that of the subject
and

that

of

the

state).

When

objective

conditions were not such that this state of


tension could be resolved through revolution,
rejection became symbolized in the avantgarde texts of the nineteenth century where
the repressed truth of a shattered subject was
then confined. (1982, p. 210-211)
Kristevas adherence to Marxist theory and psychoanalytic theory is
additionally founded, as Maragoni explains, in her redefinition of
production:
Thinking of art and literature in terms of
production

might

help

us

reconceptualize

meaning as the contingent, unstable outcome


of a series of relations: i.e. the relations
between

(social,

economic,

political

or

aesthetic) structures forming the outside of


the work. In many ways, then, Kristeva is
inviting her readers to reimagine the space of
signification (language itself) as a factory
where the materiality of individual elements
(i.e. the sounds of a word or the rhythm of a

sentence)

cannot

be

excluded

from

the

production of meaning and where processes


are both systemic (i.e. pertaining to a distinct
system) and social. (2004, p. 9).
What Kristeva succeeded in doing in Desire in Language (1979) was
to perform an operation wherein psychoanalysis, Marxism, and
linguistics meet in a collective reconceptualization of contemporary
meaning-systems. New configurations of the use of time, particularly
time that is not spent in the service of capitalistic production, are
formulated here as revolutionary acts, that which Georges Bataille
termed the general economy of nonproductive expenditure which
manifests itself as a pleasurable loss and a superfluous waste
(Maragoni 2004, p. 9). For Kristeva, this Zeitlos (time-loss/time-less)
is, like the semiotic, a possibility of escape from symbolic order and
capitalist society. Literature in particular, she elucidates, offers up
this passage to (an) outer boundary that exceeds the subject and
his communicative structures (Quoted in Maragoni 2004, p. 10).
The theory of the unconscious seeks the very thing that poetic
language practices within and against the social order: the ultimate
means of its transformation or subversion, the precondition for its
survival and revolution (Kristeva 1974, p. 81).
As Elizabeth Grosz has discussed in detail, the ego is not
merely a phenomenological phenomenon, but a conflation that rests
at the crossroads of the biological, the psychological, and the social.
As Maragoni explains, this also has to do with various concepts of
time: the timelessness of the death drive and the timefulness of a
life open to the destabilization of the future as well as the past (p.
23). This, in addition to the ever-present negotiation between the
semiotic and symbolic, leads Kristeva to the concept of the sujet-enprocs (subject in process), not only because it is continually forced
to test its limits but also because it constantly finds itself accused in
the face of an Other who reaches out and claims it (Maragoni 2004,

p. 23). It is literature, above all else, that allows us that experience


of lost time. Like Proust, who can extend moments for pages, writing
allows a timeless dialogue between subject and object, writer and
reader:
Throughout

night

without

images

but

buffered by black sounds; amidst a throng of


forsaken bodies beset with not longing but to
last against all odds and for nothing, on a page
where I plotted out the convolutions of those
who, in transference, presented me with the
gift of their void I have spelled out abjection.
Passing through the memories of a thousand
years, a fiction without scientific objective but
attentive to religious imagination, it is within
literature that I finally saw it carrying, with its
horror, its full power into effect. (1982, p. 207)

Performative Writing
Indeed, writing has something to do with a
constitutive outside, an exteriority, and cannot
express but only invents and produces the
fiction, if necessary and if called for, of the
inside. You are outside yourself when it
happens; you are beside yourself; you are
pumped up as a different kind of beingor else
you are deflated and defeated. In any case, it's
not a constitutive thing but a performative act.
-Avital Ronnel (Laurence
1994)

Despite post-structuralism having profoundly impacted the


ways

in

which

multifaceted,

we

conceive

seemingly-endless

of

ourselves

network

that

as

subjects,

now

the

constitutes

interpretation leaves us spinning in textuality, which leads Della


Pollock (1996), in her essay Performative Writing, to ask what
words remain to the body made at once abject by history and
abstract by textuality? (p. 74). Does abjection, as Kristeva suggests,
have something to offer us that remains to be seen? Though slippery
and indefinite, does it give us the opportunity to speak from
somewhere new? Does it help us reverse and perhaps implode the
modes of rhetoric that seduce us to desire that which does not
oppresses us?
Pollock places what she calls performative writing poised
between abjection and regression as a mode of displacement and
material discontinuity (p. 75). What she criticizes in the inky
spillage of textuality, endlessly reflexive, even reproductive
seems to me to be in part a result of the narrative that produced for
us an entire universe within our own heads, which occurred with the
discovery of the psychoanalytic subconscious. Indeed what is
seductive about the abject that the infinite of deconstructionist
thought misses is the negotiation between structure and nonstructure. Limits, as Bataille famously elucidated, give us a means of
transgression (Suleiman 1989). When we do away with meaning, the
possibility of subversion escapes us also. Pollock ponders the
question: How then can we speak? How might performative writing
not only speak to the surrounding darkness but hail loss and lost
pleasure

in

the

place

of

rank

commodification?

(p.

75).

Alternatively, we might ask how we can negotiate the horror and the
pleasure of our own limits: bodily, psychosomatic, legislative, sexual,
or otherwise. Could abjection of the self be one method for doing so?
Like abjection, performative writing hail(s) loss and lost
pleasure in the place of rank commodification (p. 75). It makes
itself cognoscente of the extent to which both performance and

writing have failed, and have failed each other (p. 79). It seeks to
engage the unlocatable in writing, words of memory, pleasure,
sensation, imagination, affect, and in-sight with the end goal of
staging language encounters wherein reader and writer join in
the production of meaning (p. 80). It does not project a self but
rather, writes, enacts relationships between selves, cuts back and
forth among multiple divisions among selves, contexts, affiliations
(p. 86). It is this kind of writing, which offers a possible we (p. 87)
that I will discuss here.

New Narrative: Our Exploding Identities


The environment of the late 1980s and 1990s drew its artists
and writers to produce work that either engaged with or explicitly
enacted the theme of the abject. Indeed, as Hal Foster points out in
his 1996 essay Obscene, Abject, Traumatic, many forces in this
particular time period pointed to a state of the body in crisis, namely
the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, systemic poverty, a welfare
system destroyed by the Republican right, and a system wherein the
rich evade responsibility and the poor are left to suffer at the bottom
of the totem pole in immiseration (p. 123).
Foster makes another assertion in regard to the abject art
produced in the early 1990s There is a dissatisfaction with the
textual model of reality as if the real repressed in post-structuralist
postmodernism, had returned as traumatic (p. 123). Kristeva goes
even further, suggesting that perhaps the crisis is fundamentally
concerned with identity:
I think that this need to make ugliness and
horror evident in contemporary art resides
profoundly in the modern crisis of subjectivity
where we lose our limits: the difference
between man and woman, inside and outside,

pure and impure, etc. disappears and this


corresponds to a certain spread of a psychotic
tendency

in

human

beings

which

often

includes what is called the normal, and


which is in fact neurosis. We are all normal,
which is to say, neurotic, and we discover
ourselves

to

be

increasingly

gripped

by

psychotic anxieties paranoia, schizophrenia


which are precisely the anxieties that
confront us at the border, at the limits of our
identities. Our identities are in crisis. They
could

go

bad,

decompose,

or

explode

(Kristeva 2004, p. 155).


The 1980s and 90s, with the advent of grunge rock, heroinchic, and the internet age coming into full swing saw the
development of global culture become increasingly desperate for
finite modes of self-articulation, while simultaneously rebelling
against the Bush-era classist rhetoric that permeated the political
scene, the art market, and the American conception of identity. The
effects of this are perhaps most evident in the domain of American
fiction.
The New Narrative literary movement originated in San
Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Its trademark
employment of the diaristic confessional spliced with journalistic
political commentary spoke to a generation of activism that used
literature as means of contesting the catastrophic climate that
constituted the Regan era. One of the movements founders, Robert
Glck, partially roots the practice in Language Poetry, but because
this movement was so straight-male (not to mention white) that
the decidedly queer and feminist writers of the period (Glck, Bruce
Boone, Michael Amnasen, Dodie Bellamy, Kathy Acker, and Eileen
Myles among them) sought to embark on a new mode of writing that

was actively engaged in the present, problematizing idealistic


individualism and reveling in the discursive battle between self and
other, both on a personal level and a political one, as Glck explains:
I experienced the poetry of disjunction as a
luxurious

idealism

in

which

the

speaking

subject rejects the confines of representation


and disappears in the largest freedom, that of
language itself. My attraction to this freedom
and to the professionalism with which it was
purveyed made for a kind of class struggle
within myself. Whole areas of my experience,
especially gay experience, were not admitted to
this utopia, partly because the mainstream
reflected a resoundingly coherent image of
myself back to mean image so unjust that it
amounted to a tyranny that I could not turn my
back on. We had been disastrously described by
the

mainstreama

naming

whose

most

extreme (though not uncommon) expression


was physical violence. Political agency involved
at least a provisionally stable identity (Glck,
n.d.)
Batailles concept of transgression proved valuable for the
New Narrative writers, as Robert Glck explains: We wanted to
speak about subject/master and object/slave. Bataille showed us that
loss of self and attainment of nothingness is a group activity. He
supplied the essential negative, a zero planted in the midst of
community. His concept of transgression gave us lots of fuel, as did
his novels of philosophic pornography. He continues: transgressive
writing is not necessarily about sex or the bodyor about anything
one can predict () Transgressive writing shocks by articulating the

present, the one thing impossible to put into words, because a


language does not yet exist to describe the present (n.d.)
New Narratives goal was to use language and the personal
and subjective as a means of speaking toward the community, or
rather as a method of writing that permeates a community speaking
dissonantly to itself (Glck). New Narratives objectives were to
articulate

urgent

social

meanings

while

simultaneously

subverting the possibilities of meaning itself. Questioning a kind of


language that was overtly self-aware, it anchored itself in the
present, writing from the here and now. Rosi Braidotti advocates for
this as a feminist strategy of subversion: Speaking from where you
are, accounting for your situated position. Dont do the God
trick, she says. Dont speak from nowhere (2014). This, according
to Glck, is what makes writing and engagement authentic:
I wanted to write with a total continuity and
total disjunction since I experienced the world
(and

myself)

as

continuous

and

infinity

divided. That was my ambition for writing.


Why should a work of literature be organized
by one pattern of engagement? Why should a
"position" be maintained regarding the size of
the

gaps

between

units

of

meaning?

To

describe how the world is organized may be


the same as organizing the world. I wanted the
pleasures and politics of the fragment and the
pleasures and politics of story, gossip, fable
and case history; the randomness of chance
and a sense of inevitability; sincerity while
using appropriation and pastiche. (n.d.)

This compulsion to merge the realms of politics, critical theory and


personal history drew writers like Kathy Acker 5 to turn abjection on
its head again by bringing the physical instant of abjection to the
page with her blood, her guts, her skin-piercing sadomasochism as
well as her characteristic implementation of plagiarism and found
text, which, when mingled with her own words, points to a
breakdown of systemic borders. Eileen Myles, Ackers friend and
rival, brought philosophy, sex, queer theory and politics together in
her poetry and novels6. A decade later, the woman who was Acker
and Myles publisher at Semiotext(e)s Native Agents published her
own book, a one-sided romance about a middle-aged woman in
crisis, employing the discontinuous, fragmentary, diaristic writing
typical of the New Narrative genre, but with her own subversive
twist. This woman was Chris Kraus.

The Case for Chris Kraus


I want to argue here for the power of the dematerialized body,
for the disorderly written body as an actively powerful stance. Like
the performance artists I discussed earlier, Chris Kraus unleashes
abjection with wit and ardor, exposing herself and by doing so
exposing the conditions of her debasement. Im arguing here that
performative writing, as demonstrated in the work of Chris Kraus,
serves to engage with, employ, and inhabit abjection in a way that is
fundamental to the multiplicitous, decentered, engaged self.
I hope to highlight the ways in which Chris Kraus work deals
not only with the various forms of abasement, disease, psychic
sexual trauma, and sublimation, but also to envision the act of
writing as a performance which, as a deeply personal process of
looking inward, acts as a cypher for the process through which the
individual subject negotiates an entire set of systems in crisis;
5 See, for example, Ackers Blood and Guts in High School, 1978
6 Myles is mostly known for her poetry, but a reissuing of Chelsea Girls, her 1994
collection of short stories is certainly worth a read.

capitalism, the art market, academia, heterosexuality, and feminist


theory to name a few. I see her books as a contemplation on these
subjects wherein she offers herself up as a character, abject-ing
them (herself?) for the sake of her story. It is not just (or specifically)
images of debasement or filth that Kraus evokes (though she does do
this) but rather the notion of the subject in process, where, as
Kristeva states, the frontier between the self and the other (is) not
radically opposed (Kristeva 1982, p. 19).
What has always seduced me about Kraus writing is the
jettison between embodiment and disembodiment, between the act
of living and reporting directly on the operations of the body and the
heart, a full experience of the seepages and leakages that personify
what love, longing, loss, and lack feel like. Kraus work takes a
magnifying glass and holds it up to her traumatized psyche and
reports back on what she sees. However, we are not permitted to
linger there for two long, for just as we become completely
submerged in the psychic terrain of the characters mind, she pulls
back, far back, and reveals a bigger picture, often the bigger
picture, and shows us the world that partakes in the mediation of
her own experience; the way in which she has (and countless others
if not all others have) been made abject by their circumstances. And
it is then from this position on the periphery, spiraling into a
schizophrenic state of non-structure, that she comes to writing.
Spinoza says recognizing the conditions of our bondage is the
definition of freedom (Braidotti 2014). I would add that it is both the
recognition and the articulation those conditions that makes us free.

A Shattered Reality
Chris Kraus was born in New York, but grew up in New
Zealand after her parents fled the United States to divorce
themselves from America during the Vietnam War. In an interview,
she describes the process of moving as having saved her life

because in your childhood when reality as you know it is cut in half,


shattered, no longer exists because you go to a new place (you
realize) there can be an entirely other reality (Rumsby 2005). The
quote marks Kraus interest in the process of breakdown and
reformation that fascinates me in her writing. Arriving back in New
York at the age of 21 after having worked as a journalist for several
years in New Zealand, Kraus went about the business of trying to
become an actor. She fell in with some of the St. Marks poets and
made her living by working temp-jobs and topless dancing. She
discovered video art with Michael Snows Wavelength and began
making short narrative experimental films. It is upon meeting, falling
in love with, and eventually marrying the French intellectual Sylvre
Lotringer that Kraus begins to make a career for herself in the
literary field, founding the Native Agents series within his publishing
house Semiotext(e). Semiotext(e) was dedicated to the publication of
female authors, and gave Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, and Dodie
Bellamy a national audience. After years of work, she secured
funding to make her first full-length feature film Gravity and Grace,
based on the work and life philosophy of Simone Weil. The film, into
which she poured tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars, was
a disaster from start to finish and was later rejected by every festival
it entered. In a state of despair at her lack of success, one night, she
meets Dick ______, a colleague of Lotringers in Los Angeles.
The project that results is I Love Dick (1997), an epistolary
love letter to Dick. Originally conceived of as an experimental
performance art piece with Lotringer as the co-author, the project
and attraction eventually evolves into a deeply personal unleashing
of repressed feelings, playful theoretical analyses, histrionic tirades,
examinations of the hero-worshiping falsity and sexism rampant in
art and academia, and above all the desperation that comes with
desiring that which you arent permitted access to, which, for Kraus,
is life. Aliens and Anorexia (2000) is Kraus second book, focusing on
(among many things) bodily alien invasion and the philosopher

Simone Weil. It begins by recounting Chris unsuccessful trip to the


Berlin Film Festival, and moves on to discuss the work of the artist
Paul Thek, Marxism, sadomasochistic sex, and self-starvation.
Krauss work has intensely examined the relationship between
sex and death, indeed it could be said that it is one of the driving
themes in her writing. Video Green: Los Angeles and the Triumph of
Nothingness (2004) is a collection of essays that link the theatrics of
BDSM to the myopic and fetishistic culture of the Los Angeles art
community. Torpor (2006) follows a younger Kraus (called Sylvie in
the book) and her husband Jerome, a child survivor of the Holocaust.
Tracing the lives of the couple both during and leading up to their
marriage, Torpor delves deep into the abject horror and subsequent
trauma of both the personal and socio-political, zooming into the
intricate narratives of two lives and then pulling back to reveal
grander cultural narratives concerning war, power, and western
ideology.
Working in the tradition of artists and writers before her,
Kraus characters bear a painful resemblance to their real-life
counterparts, and often bear the same names. One might think it a
stretch to call the work fiction (it is clear from countless interviews,
articles, and even a law suit just before the publication of I Love
Dick, that the events detailed in the book more or less transpired as
they were documented) but this reading of Kraus work would fail to
understand the kind of epistolary project upon which the author has
embarked. The entire body of Kraus work balances on this slippery
border that separates fact and fiction. Kraus interests do not lie in
reporting the truth as it stands, but in documenting a subjective
viewpoint of a given situation that one cannot in good faith call
truth. As the artist Sophie Calle explains My truth in New York at
9am is not the truth in Paris at 3pm. (The Believer 2003),
acknowledging the way in which fiction impedes on and disrupts our
desire to dictate boundaries between genres. Kraus herself says of
her work:

Its all fiction. As soon as you write something


down, its fiction. I dont think fiction is
necessarily about inventing fake stories. The
process of fictionalization is selection why
this and not that? If we look at any moment,
whats in it is practically infinite. Why do I pick
up on your eyes and how they set on your face
instead of whats outside of the window? And
what do I think when I look at your eyes, what
does this moment make me remember? What
we select from all this all these digressions
thats the process of fictionalization, thats
what we create. As soon as something gets
written down, its no longer true, because
there are always 100 other things that are
equally true. And then everything changes as
soon

as

something

gets

written

down.

(Frimer 2006)
This is one of many ways in which, I would argue, Chris Kraus writes
at the border(line). For in a world where the author is dead, and the
body is multiple, flowing, abject, what purpose does the truth serve
in writing that fiction isnt better positioned to serve?
One can also see Kraus work as a documentation of the
breakdown of the borders that separate things. Even the stories in
the books fold in on each other, one citing stories from the other,
citing stories from a life, and making that life meaningful through its
articulation and reiteration. The 1989 dinner party at Flix
Guattaris house in Paris shows up in at least two books, as does her
S/m experience with Jeigh, her tale of her friend Dan Ashburys
box of treasures, the list goes on. This is not to put the stories into
the realm of truth per say, but to consider that narrative is rooted

in history. This does not mean that narrative is hierarchical, because


history is not, necessarily, Truth. It is different for everybody. Every
story Chris Kraus tells is fictional and being told for the first time.
As Della Pollock explains, performative writing is citational. It
exposes the fragility of identity, history and culture constituted in
rites of textual recurrence (1996 p. 92). Although identity is tied to
its discursive construction and iteration, perhaps through this
performative act it may make repetition into a heroic return as
something other. Pollock quotes Umberto Eco here, who asserts that
within its folds, love itself is prewritten, that it is impossible to say
I love you in a postmodern age. The best we can do is simulate its
expression by quoting the quote, double-quoting the romance (p.
92). Love, which we think we experience for the first time is, in fact,
a simulacra for what was previously real. But Pollock has this to
offer us:
At once caught in a web of quotations and
pulling at the fine threads in which it is
caught,

love

moves

through

writing

as

pleasure. It is the performance of writing,


pressing on through hyper-aesthetics and the
enclosure

of

writing

affective

alliance

within

with

writing,

writing

into

itself.

In

citational performativitism love comes home to


language

and

language

to

desire,

each

renewing itself in the other-texts and otherbodies without which it is nothing. (1996, p.
94)
Is it possible that perhaps the best way to really love is to write? Are
loving and writing the same? Chris Kraus thinks so.

Chapter Six I Love Dick

Let us call maternal the FLASH instant of


time or of dream without time; inordinately
swollen atoms of a bond, a vision, a shiver, a
yet formless, unnamable embryo. Epiphanies.
Photos of what is not yet visible and that
language necessarily skims over from afar,
allusively. Words that are always too distant,
too abstract for this underground swarming of
seconds,

folding

in

unimaginable

spaces.

Writing them down is an ordeal of discourse,


like love. What is loving, for a woman, the same
thing as writing.
Julia Kristeva (Quoted in Phelan
1996, p. 87)
In her introduction to I Love Dick, Eileen Myles writes that
Chris Kraus ultimate achievement is marching boldly into selfabasement and self-advertisement, not being uncannily drawn there,
sighing or kicking, but walking straight in (), turn(ing) female
abjection inside out and aiming it at a man (1997, p. 13-15, my
emphasis). If abjection is the equivalent of facing death (albeit death
of the ego) then writing allows one to recover, (it) is equal to
resurrection (Kristeva 1982, p. 26). Though managed by the Other,
the jettison between here and there, somewhere and nowhere,
walking straight into the unknowable, the unthinkable is where the
feminine text here finds its voice. To walk into abjection is to come
back to life to re-learn how to live.
Chris, our heroine, is at the brink of despair when she is
suddenly reborn through desire. The pursuit of this desire drives her
to a project that is redemptive in its abjection, indeed it is the
crossover into this borderline state, what Kristeva defines as
somewhere between neurosis and psychosis, that allows her to
write. Im a sucker for despair, she tells Dick, for faltering for

that moment when the act breaks down, ambition fails. I love it and
feel guilty for perceiving it and then the warmest indescribable
affection floods in to drown the guilt (p. 27).
According to Della Pollock, performative writing recognizes
the extend to which writing displaces, even effaces others and
other-worlds with its partial, opaque representations of them, not
only

revealing

truths,

meanings,

events,

objects,

but

often

obscuring them in the very act of writing, securing their absence


with the substitutional presence of words, effectively making absent
what the mimetic/metaphoric uses of language attempt to make
present (1996, p. 83). I Love Dick, in its performative play
dramatizes the limits of language, sometimes as an endgame,
sometimes as the pleasures of playing (jouissance) in an endlessly
open field of representation (Pollock 1996, p. 83), engaging in what
Joan Hawkins calls the self-cannibalizing, self-reproducing, viral
and ludic quality of language and text (1997, p. 243).
Lets begin with the story:
December 3, 1994
Chris Kraus, a 39-year-old experimental filmmaker and Sylvre
Lotringer, a 56-year-old college professor from New York, have
dinner with Dick ______, a friendly acquaintance of Sylvres, at a
sushi bar in Pasadena.
I Love Dick begins by introducing these three central actors in
Kraus novel. As the evening transpires at the sushi bar, Chris
notices that Dick is flirting with her. This awakens a sexual desire
that has been dormant for years in her marriage to Sylvre (her
husband in real life was, at the time, indeed the French intellectual
Sylvre Lotringer). Having experienced what she later terms a
Conceptual Fuck with Dick, Chris and Sylvre set about the
business of writing a letter to Dick so as to confess her feelings (p.

21). What ensues is an amorous, poetic outpouring of love letters,


telephone transcripts, and cultural criticism covering everything
from art, philosophy, capitalism, and desire. Dick is an unwitting
participant in this epistolary jeux of which he is simultaneously the
center and the empty vessel that symbolizes the myth of the
governing phallus.
The first half of the book sees Sylvre and Chris, a couple
whose sexual estrangement is symptomatic of the gap in their ages
and professional success, reunited in the collective project of
expounding upon her (their) feelings about/for/to Dick, a poetic
gesture that ignites their strongest connection to one another: that
of the written word. The boundary between them dissolves as man
and woman melt into one destabilized, desiring force. Chris is
desperately in love, and Sylvre, though feigning mild jealous, is
delighted at his wifes newfound sexual excitement. They waste days
in their hotels passing a laptop back and forth, editing one anothers
love letters, which become progressively more and more entrenched
in the fantasy of Dick. Sylvre, rooted as he is in the study of
literature and culture and suspicious of the overly emotional,
assumes the role of Charles Bovary:
At first Emmas crush on you was a blow to
what remained of my self-esteem (and its
thanks to you that I am willing to admit that
self-esteem exists and matters; can one be
American without it?). Our sexuality invested
itself in a new erotic activity: writing to you,
Dick. And isnt every letter a love letter? Since I
was writing to you, Dick, I was writing love
letters. What I didnt know was that by writing
love letters I was writing letters to love, and
timidly reawakening all the dormant powers in
my rather repressed emotions. (p. 111)

Here, Sylvre expresses one of the many issues at stake in the novel:
that of writing a love letter to love, evoking Kristevas famous text
Desire in Language where she proposes the written word as the
desired Object of love (1979).
What Dick, becomes, however, is not so much a man as a
metonymic symbol, a transitional object as Kraus once said in an
interview (Intra 1997). Through the process of writing, Chris begins
to detail the myriad of ways in which she has been made abject by
other Dicks (including her husband), in addition to the symbolic
and political structures that have made it their business of
undermining her gender. Her readers are confronted with a woman
in whom they could likely see themselves, one who has failed and
been failed so many times that she is driven to the point of
breakdown. And it is in this breakdown, this place from where she
begins to write, that the book emerges, Plumet(ing) back into the
psychosis of adolescence. Living so intensely in your head that
boundaries disappear. Its a warped omnipresence, a negative
psychic power, as if what happens in your head really drives the
world outside (p. 54).
Their project becomes progressively more intense, and they
eventually ask Dick to take part, suggesting they make a video art
piece about it together. Amused and baffled, he politely declines and
the couple returns to their home in rural upstate New York, where
Chris continues to write to Dick. She tells Dick about the poverty in
Thurman, NY and the sad lonely characters she meets, about the
snooty art-world socialites who can never seem to remember her
name, about the way shes treated as Sylvres wife.
The letter writing, which had begun as such a tender (if
invasive) project between Chris and Sylvre, eventually takes a
different turn. In writing to Dick, Chris realizes that she has a lot to
say. The writing she does shows her what she has always known
deep down, that their marriage had failed before it even started:

She remembered all the times theyd worked


together when her name had been omitted, how
equivocal Sylvred been, how reluctant to
offend anyone who paid them. She remembered
the abortions, all the holidays shed been told to
leave the house so Sylvre could be alone with
his daughter. In ten years, shed erased herself.
No matter how affectionate Sylvred been, hed
never been in love with her (.). Nothing is
irrevocable, Sylvred said. No, she screamed,
youre wrong! By this time she was crying.
History isnt dialectical, its essential! Some
things will never go away! And the next day,
Monday January, 30th, she left him. (p. 117)
Through writing, Chris realizes not only how she has been failed by
society and by herself, but by her husband. Writing has allowed her
to expose the conditions of her debasement (Kraus 1997) and has
thusly allowed her to recognize where structure and order operate
by exclusion. She has become invisible, abject, unwritten. Dick
allows her to write her way back into existence. The second part of
the book is written without Sylvre. Chris leaves and begins to
establish a life in Los Angeles. She keeps writing letter to Dick.
As I have suggested, in writing to the absent Dick, the phallus
serves as a metonymic symbol for man. Dicks absence is secured by
the substitutional presence of words which serve to make him
more present in his absence (Pollock 1996, p. 83). Dicks position
as subject of the book subverts the traditional dynamic of male-asauthor, woman-as-authored. Dick represents, for Chris, both the
oppressive power and seductive borders of the symbolic. By writing
love letters to Dick, indeed being in love with Dick, Chris is both
desiring her oppressor and turning Dick into an object. Dick is the

absences made present in desire and imagination (Pollock 1996, p.


6).
But it is not exclusively this subversive operation that I want to
discuss here, but rather how this operation is achieved through a
writing that conceives of borders and hierarchies as simultaneously
malleable and quasi-permanent, while at the same time using them
as a grounding theoretical framework. Like the dualistic and
multifaceted performances of art and writing of the self I have cited
here, I seek to examine and expose the ways in which the abject is
embodied and employed as a form which is rooted in the body. The
art critic Christina Ross proposes the abject as a return to the body
that

simultaneously

produces

and

problematizes

the

absence/presence duality of psychoanalytic thought (p. 149).


Instead of abjection simply reaffirming the definition of woman as
dematerialized body, abjection through its activation upsets the
subject/object dyad and questions its validity (p. 149). As exhibited
in the work of Carolee Schneeman, it is the exposure of (her)self,
(her) body through words that takes Kraus readers up to the border
of our own limits. It is here, in this state of borderline psychosis,
loving along with the lover, that we enter into the realm of the
abject.

Dick the Fetish


As Laura Mulvey says of the work of Cindy Sherman, There is
no stable subject in her work, no resting point that does not quickly
shift into something else (1991 p. 142). But unlike Sherman, whose
melodramatic depictions of fetishized heroines who meet their
demise (or the demise of the Object) throughout the course of
several decades, Chris Kraus work takes the abject as the starting
point. Sherman, who uses her own body as a fetish object in order to
lift the veil to critique the structure that produced it, while Chris
writes from the abject position of the veil having long since been

lifted. But like Sherman, Kraus points to the dualistic model of


womens bodies that represent both Truth and artifice, serving as
what Barbara Spackman calls the vehicle of metaphor (Quoted in
Mulvey 1991, p. 145). This brings us back to the veil and the
castrated woman, located in the subjects unconscious. It is the
masquerade of woman as veiled and flawless that protects the
wound that has traumatized the male psyche upon encountering the
castrated woman (p. 146). Thus, Chris Kraus hag with crooked
teeth writing about her perverse sexual desires disrupts the system
of the fetish that the symbolic order depends on. As such, it makes
perfect sense why Dick ______ was so horrified by Chris letters. Not
only does she reconfigure the fetish system by placing the man in
the idealized position of loved Object, but she writes from the place
of the wounded woman, exposing, lifting the veil, and thusly evoking
horror in his phallocentric universe. Ironically, the way in which
Chris expounds upon the abject horror of her own body suggests an
identification with Dicks attitude towards her, which is, though at
times one of intrigue, generally that of utter distaste. This can result,
as Mulvey suggests, in the woman attempting to erase signs that
mark her physically as feminine as specifically played out in the
body of the anorexic (1991, p. 146). However, this reading is too
simplistic, as I will explain later in more detail.
Fetishism is, as Freud would have it, a representation of both
the memory of castration (which is/can be represented by the female
body) and a denial of it (1991, p. 146). The practice of this
reconciliation manifests itself in the splitting of the ego into two, the
traumatic,

perverse

unconscious

and

the

neurotic

conscious.

According to Theresa DeLauretis, who elaborated upon this in


relation to Jean LaPlanches interpretation of Freud, this division is
what comprises sexual identity (not to be confused with gender,
which is an assignment within the social) (DeLauretis 2015). Freud
states that the fetish is dissimilar from repression in that it serves as
a replacement against traumatic memories, and simultaneously as a

signifier of loss (Mulvey, p. 147). Normally objects that serve as


fetishes objects (high heels, lingerie, non-genital body parts) are the
phallic replacement for the lost phallus of the castrated mother.
In I Love Dick, the entire structure is subverted by the
construction of an amalgamation of Objects and signs that serve as
the fetish. First, there is Dick the person, who represents the imagescreen of projection for Chris traumatic memory/memories (indeed,
Sylvre suggests to Dick that he is a blank screen onto which we
can project our fantasies (p. 29)); there is Dick the phallus, who
serves as a symbolic object of the symbolic order; and finally Dick
the written word, serving as a reminder of the discursive, rhetorical
system of language-meaning. From her female body, which has
historically served as the site of meaning, the fetish object, the
provoker of castration anxiety, Chris turns the tables, revealing
that even though language is patriarchal and the psyche is primarily
symbolic, this by no means reserves fetishization as process
exclusive to the male sex. Although fetishism shields (or attempts to
shield) the ego from trauma or traumatic memory, it can also act as a
sign of loss. The letters to Dick are interesting precisely because
they are written to the same person who serves as the embodiment
for the writers psychic wounds. Fetishism can only be counteracted
by its disavowal, by lifting its veil, as elaborated here by Laura
Mulvey:
The fetish necessarily wants history to be
overlooked. That is its function. The fetish is
also a symptom, and as such has a history which
may be deciphered, but only by refusing its
phantasmatic topography. Freud described the
structure

of

the

psyche

through

special

metaphor to convey the burying action of


repression, but he analyzed the language of the
unconscious,

its

formal

expression

in

condensation and displacement, in terms of


decipherment. In the last resort, decipherment
is dependent on language. (1991 p. 150)
Mulvey suggests that images, due to their semiotic position that
precedes language are better situated to unveil the fetishistic
imperative (p. 150). But this formation fails to recognize that
language, though it may be patriarchal, is reflexive, multi-facetious,
and can be endlessly interpreted in the same way images can. I Love
Dick uses language, in a certain sense, as a mode of disrupting the
ways in which language is used against women or at their expense.
What does this have to do with the abject? If the abject is a point of
subjective negotiation, a negotiation that is central to existence,
then

perhaps

it

is

through

the

exposure,

subversion,

and

undermining of the fetish that real transcendence can occur.


Christina Ross suggests that, like the system of the fetish, meaning
is always constituted by displacement and founded on absence
(p. 154). She continues:
In

this

presence/absence

dialectic,

the

abjected (the mother, bodily fluids, the female


body, etc.) represents what has been lost and
what has to remain lost to maintain ones
subjectivity. In the case of abject art, this law
of absence and lack has been somewhat
subverted in order to produce a form of
presence that is not founded on an absence,
but coexists with absence. The body is not
merely lacking. Its lack, failure or loss of
control is productive as it brings into play
unpredictable
reorganization

disorganizations
that

could

lead

and
to

its

deterioration

but

also

to

its

increase

in

complexity. (p. 154)

Other Peoples Stories are My Stories


Harkening back to the Cixousian concept that writing,
particularly female writing is bisexual, multiple, Chris mingles her
own love story with the stories of others. Here Kraus rework(s) the
self in its enunciation, () shifting the position of the self to
shaping the relationships between selves in an ongoing process of
self-production, turning me into we (Pollock 1996, p. 87). She
recounts with disturbing detail the career of the artist Hannah
Wilke, whose insistence upon baring her voluptuous body as a form
of feminist critique was considered nave by the postmodern males
(including her longtime lover Claus Oldenburg) and deemed bad
feminism by her female contemporaries. Her now-iconic chewing
gum vaginas that she would plaster all over her body for
photographs, which served as a stunningly original comment on
exactly what Kristeva discusses in her theory on the abject and its
inside/outside dialectic as related to the female body, were called
Narcissistic" and her vagina as familiar to us as an old shoe
(Kraus 1997, p. 215). An implicit correlation is undeniable between
the publics misreadings and misunderstandings of Wilkes work/life
and Chris work/life. Wilke died in 1993 of cancer and Claus
Oldenburg, who had been her partner for a decade and who had
locked her out of their apartment one day and married someone
else, took legal action against having his name or image in any of
the work she had made during the course of their relationship. As
Carolee

Schneeman

predicted

in

Interior

Scroll,

Oldenburg

succeeded in burying Wilkes work.


Hannah Wilke knew her own practice quite well. It consisted
of: Rearranging the touch of sensuality with a residual magic made
from laundry lint or latex loosely laid out like love vulnerability

exposedcontinually

exposing

(her)self

to

whatever

situation

occursGambling as well as gambolingTo exist instead of being an


existentialist, to make objects instead of being one (p. 215). What
Wilke was doing was the same thing as what Chris Kraus is trying to
do: to employ their position as bodies on the periphery in order to
critique that position, but without denying the pleasure of having a
desiring body.
Chris love story with Dick is also interwoven with the tragic
story of the journalist Jennifer Harbury, whose activist lover was
murdered in Guatemala by the CIA. Kraus sees their experiences as
connected: All acts of genocidal horror may be nauseatingly similar
but they arise through singularity (p. 155). The juxtaposition of the
macro and micro is both what characterizes Kraus books and what
saves them from being merely diary entries. They fuse the personal
with the political, and remind us, as Foucault and Butler do, that
bodies are, in certain ways, social constructs. Our singularity is
dependent on narrative. Does abjection then allow us to experience
our lives as connected? Cixous argues that writing can me the site of
what she calls alternative economies that are not obligated to
reproduce the system (Shiach 1991, p. 16). By letting the
characters pass through her, Kraus opens up a new universe in her
writing, creating what Peggy Phelan calls new democracies
(Phelan, p. 78). Trihn Minh-ha suggests that this mode of writing
does not translate a reality outside itself but, more precisely, allows
the emergence of a new reality (Quoted in Pollock 1996, p. 78). This
process reconstitutes the self as moving and multiplicitious,
harkening back to the structure-less chora a place where I is not
one.

Ugly
Chris the character describes herself as pale and anemic (p.
20), an anorexic open wound and a money-hustling hag (p. 28).

Chris self-perceived homeliness is a recurrent theme in her books.


In I Love Dick, she recounts how it was her body in a state of abject
illness that finally prompted her husband Sylvre to marry her. Her
body, she explains, didnt offer any pleasure. It wasnt blonde or
opulent; dark or voluptuous it was thin and nervous, bony (p.
109). Instead, Chris and Sylvres relationship is, in a certain way,
centered around her struggle with Crohns disease, a swelling of the
small intestine that causes vomiting and pain so overwhelming she
could only lie beneath it (p. 108).
Perhaps this is strategic. Amelia Jones argues that the more
particularized

the

body,

the

more

it

surfaces

and

even

exaggerates its non-universality in relation to its audience the more


capacity it has to challenge normative modes of evaluation (1998, p.
9). She explains that modernist models of critique and valorization
depended heavily on the artists body, which is embodied as male,
but aim to transcend the body by way of creative production (p. 9).
Jones is speaking here strictly in terms of artistic practice and
criticism, but I would suggest that her words speak to a grander
social structure and its treatment of women as sexual objects. By
describing Chris body and her experiences as aligned with the
abject, Kraus grounds her artistic project and her cultural critique
in the body, thus turning the critique back on the values that
produce the female subject as such.
Based on Judith Butlers formulation of the performative
construction of the body as materialization of a norm, a performance
of an ideal construct with which one has to comply to ensure
his/her subjectivity, and yet never quite succeeds in complying
with the norm which he/she is supposed to reiterate, (Quoted in
Ross 1997, p. 153) we can learn that, as Christina Ross explains:
Abject performances of the female body are
those where the failing to reproduce the norm
is

made

manifest,

where

the

specter

of

abjection is being played out. (Abject art and


literature) is saying to the viewer: this failure is
not necessarily unproductive, for it can have
the effect of complexifying the body. When
failing,

mortality,

catastrophe,

noise,

unpredictability, loss of control, non-originality,


and

contingency

become

the

prominent

components of the body, this means that a


major redefinition of subjectivity is at play, one
that seeks to displace the conception of the
subject as presence to the detriment of the
abjected female body, which represents lack
and absence, to a conception of the subject as
both

presence

and

absence,

pattern

and

randomness. (1997 p. 154)


Here we see how failure to comply with social norms can disrupt and
offset

traditional

conceptions

of

what

constitutes

subject.

Furthermore, this dualistic approach to order and disorder gives the


reader both a centered and rootless experience of the text. Theres
no fixed point of self but it exists & by writing you can somehow
chart that movement, explains Kraus to Dick. Maybe 1 st Person
writings just as fragmentary as more a-personal collage, its just
more serious: bringing change & fragmentation closer, bringing it
down to where you really are (p. 139).

Bad Sex
In I Love Dick, Chriss relationship to degradation and
defilement is mostly sexual. Towards the end of the book after her
meeting with Dick, she begins to recount her disappointing sexual
history:

Some random recollections: East 11th Street,


on the bed with Murray Groman: Swallow this
mother till you choke. East 11 th Street, in bed
with Gary Becker: The trouble with you is,
youre such a shallow person. East 11 th Street,
up against the wall with Peter Baumann: The
only thing that turns me on about you is
pretending youre a whore. Second Avenue,
the

kitchen,

Michael

Wainwright:

Quite

frankly, I deserve a better-looking, bettereducated girlfriend. What do you do with the


Serious Young Woman (short hair, flat shoes,
body slightly hunched, head drifting back and
forth between the books shes read)? You slap
her, fuck her up the ass and treat her like a
boy. (p. 178)
Some might consider Kraus to posses a weakness for men who
mistreat her: Whyd I used to get dressed up to go meet JD Austin
in the Night Birds Bar? So he could fuck me up the ass, then say he
didnt love me? (p. 87). Sex for Kraus, as we see in her other books,
is a tool she uses to understand herself in relation to the world. In
Aliens and Anorexia, Video Green, and her recent novel Summer of
Hate, her predilection for sadomasochistic sex (which I will discuss
in more detail later) problematizes the binary that she exposes in I
Love Dick. The experiences she details here are, while upsetting,
articulately reported as from someone reckoning for the first time
with the contradictions of female embodiment:
Before I got together with Sylvre Id usually
get dumped by guys as soon as they found
someone else more feminine or bovine. Shes
not like you, theyd say. She is a truly nice

girl. And it hurt cause what turned me on in sex


was believing that they knew me, that Id found
somebody to understand. But now that Ive
become

hag,

i.e.,

accepted

all

the

contradictions of my life, theres nothing left to


know. (p. 54)
Chris explains to Dick that sex for her previously was a way of
getting at something floating underneath the surface, pointing to
the psychological and physical boundaries that constitute the abject
(p. 54).
Sex with Dick is no exception. After Chris has left Sylvre,
Dick, who is experimenting with not saying no, invites her over for
dinner, which inevitably leads to sex. The morning after they sleep
together, they fight about the letter project: But you dont even
know me! he screams. Weve had two or three evenings! Talked on
the phone once or twice! And you project all this shit all over me,
you kidnap me, you stalk me, invade me with your games, and I dont
want it! I never asked for it! I think youre evil and psychotic! (p.
163). The real Dick later called the project a despicable exercise.
I want to own everything that happens to me now, Chris had told
him. Who gets to speak and why? she later says, is the only
question (p. 191).
Christine Smallwood suggests that In Krauss work, it is the
dysfunction itself, and her enervated, joyless, hollow voice, that
pleasures. The powers of horror to disgust or repulse are so often
defanged by the cultures hunger for female brokenness. And it is
there, in Krauss contention that her myth is not singular () but
exemplary of the female condition, that the real horror lies
(Smallwood 2012). Writing the personal, the bodily even, is
inherently problematic. Art supersedes whats personal, Chris tells
Dick. Its a philosophy that serves patriarchy well and I followed it
more or less for 20 years. That is: until I met you (p. 230). What she

is articulating here is not that art is not personal, but that the
personal is art because, as the famous saying goes, the personal is
political and art is a performance of the self in society. This strikes
Amelia Jones (and, I would argue, Kraus as well) as twofold, insofar
as she believes that all bodily experiences are invariably social, and
all political and social investments are necessarily, to a certain
extent, bodily (1998, p. 33).
Late in the book, Chris suggests that it is actually reading that
supersedes sex in its revelatory power: Reading delivers on the
promise that sex raises but hardly ever can fulfill getting larger
cause youre entering another persons language, cadence, heart
and mind (p. 207). Here it is suggested again that Dick is actually
a textual ideal, the perfect listener, a set of projected signs. From the
safe distance of her computer, Chris can expound upon her feelings
and thoughts and Dick, unlike the art critics and cultural theorists
who permeate her daily life as the wife of a public intellectual, he
will not condemn her, correct her, critique her, comment on her
physic, belittle her, or refuse her. Thus the gap between the man and
the myth (Dick is no such man) acts as a corollary to the historic
binary of woman as the passive embodiment of meaning, actively
negating her as an agent of choice.

A New Feminism?
The idea of the marginality of woman, says Kristeva, Is
actually a method whereby she is placed as an imaginary frontier
between rationality and irrationality (1999, p. 7). She continues:
Moreover, she is a spatial fantasy, a kind of boundary around a soft
terrine () when in idealized mode, the woman is an inherent part of
the inside; the part that protects and shields the symbolic order from
imaginary chaos (p. 7). What Kraus does in I Love Dick is to refuse
to play this role. She marches up to the border of the ideal and the
symbolic and pushes past it. Her desire (Lust in German), like all

desires for Freud, must be normalized in order to avoid abjection.


The serious contemporary hetero-male novel is a thinly-veiled
Story of Me, explains Chris to Dick. When women try to pierce this
false conceit by naming names because our Is are changing as we
meet other Is, were called bitches, libelers, pornographers, and
amateurs. Why are you so angry? he said to me (p. 72). By playing
with,

accusing

the

symbolic,

Kraus

calls

into

question

its

significance.
Kraus appropriates the male I and turns it on its head. She is
anything but disinterested, she is actively engaged and in her body,
writing down what is happening now, which is evident in her
insistence on the present tense and first person (Dear Dick, Im
sitting here at the West End Bar; I think our telephone call went
well last night; All Ive been thinking about is calling you). Like
the New Narrative writers, she writes directly from her gut,
transcribing the instant that is unfolding before her.
Chris quotes Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who once said, I
detest the idea that love between two persons can lead to salvation.
All my life I have fought against this oppressive type of relationship.
Instead, I believe in searching for a kind of love that somehow
involves all of humanity (p. 167). Here love mimics the writers
rebellion against singularity and individualism, with which she is
both

complicit

and

actively

fighting

against,

mirroring

her

relationship to patriarchy and capitalism. This absence/presence


duality points back to what I argue is the link between Bataille and
Kristevas abject. The body/mind is both an interior, narcissistic
universe and a social agent. One does not exist without the other.
This is precisely what Amelia Jones is talking about when she
accuses modernism of refusing to acknowledge how cultural
projects/objects are embedded in the social and not the individual
(p. 20). Michael Feher argues further: The body is at once the ()
actualizer of power relations and that which resists power. () The
situation therefore is one of permanent battle, with the body as the

shifting field where power constantly meets new techniques of


resistance and escape. (Quoted in Jones 1998, p. 22). In other
words, the body is not a fixed entity that struggles against powers
both within and without, it is in effect that which constitutes and
battles both.
Amelia

Jones

writes

that

body

art

confirms

what

phenomenology and psychoanalysis have taught us, that the subject


means always in relationship to others and the locus of identity is
always elsewhere (1998, p. 14). Chris desire, despite evidence to
the contrary, is grounded somewhere outside of Dick. It is actually
located within her female body, within this unspeakable need to
write down her experiences, what Hlne Cixous describes as the
other within (1983). The arteries of the hand and arm that write
lead straight to the heart.. (Kraus 1997, p. 137). Were constantly
confronted with the interior, which disrupts the border between
inside and outside.
When asked if her writing is geared toward women due to her
use of personal, sexually explicit material, Kraus explains that she
thinks that its the female I that summons up a gendered
response: What really fucks with everyones heads is when women,
gay men, combine graphic first-person sex stuff with quote-unquote
objective, analytic cultural thought. Theres a deep pity and horror of
female sexuality behind this, as if its this mushy botanical
subordinate thing at total variance with the dynamic integrity, the
masculinity of analytical thought (Frimer 2006)
Chris experience of love, though it may be displaced or
unrequited, is a kind of expulsion through which she confesses to a
profound love of the word. The commitment to write down her
feelings

at

all

costs,

(humiliation,

degradation,

isolation,

estrangement) demonstrates what it is that the state of the abject


can give to both the writer and reader. Dick ________s frustrations
are understandable, but only insofar as we can empathize with his
abjection, to which Chris has driven him by turning her own

abjection upon him. Dick, here, is a man turned into a symbol, a rolereversal from the traditional Oedipal structure, which horrifies him
because it disrupts everything he (and we) understands about the
systems which govern the world. Dick is a referent; he is the analyst
who sits in silence like Hegels ghost (Kristeva 1982, p. 30). The
production of the abject, as Christina Ross explains, threatens the
observers identity boundaries (p. 154). He wants to be a fully
embodied person, yet hes made abject. His identity has been
assigned for him, his existence reconfigured. In writing to Dick,
Kraus writes him into absence. In writing to his absence, she
produces her own excess (writes herself into existence).
Hal Foster highlights the following option for artists: to
reformulate this vocation, to rethink transgression not as a rupture
(attack on Lacans merge screen) produced by the heroic avantgarde posited outside the symbolic order, but as a fracture placed by
a strategic avant-garde positioned ambivalently within this order
(1996 p. 115). This serves not to break completely with the
patriarchal order, but to expose it in crisis, which points not only to a
breakdown but a breakthrough (Foster 1996, p. 115). I am
aiming here to examine a breakthrough that derives out of lack. I
Love Dick could be viewed as a longing for the lost phallus that is
recognized only after we begin to understand signs, but what it
becomes is a monument to the question of why we are so dependent
on those signs, and how funny and tragic it is when we understand
them differently:
Its the story of 250 letters, my debasement,
jumping

headlong

off

cliff.

Why

does

everybody think that women are debasing


themselves when we expose the conditions of
our own debasement? Why do women always
have to come off clean? The magnificence of
Genets great work, The Prisoner of Love, lies

in his willingness to be wrong: a seedy old


white guy jerking off on the rippling muscles of
the

Arabs

and

Black

Panthers.

Isnt

the

greatest freedom in the world the freedom to


be wrong? What hooks me on our story is our
different readings of it. You think its personal
and private; my neurosis. The greatest secret
in the world is, THERE IS NO SECRET. Claire
Parnet and Gilles Deleuze. I think our story is
performative philosophy. (p. 211)
Chris question that comes toward the end of I Love Dick is as
follows: Why is female vulnerability still only acceptable when its
neuroticized and personal, when it feeds back on itself? Why do
people still not get it when we handle vulnerability like philosophy,
at some remove? (p. 208). I think this question speaks directly to
the way in which her works function as both literature and critique.
Abjection is here both a position and a strategy; a discovery and a
strength. Chris the self-described cockroach, hag, the kike, the
repugnant, the bony, the psychotic, found a way through her love for
Dick to come to writing. It is the story of this reckoning in all its
performative horror that destabilizes conventional narrative and
thus makes meaning:
Because

Im

moved

in

writing

to

be

irrepressible. Writing to you seems like some


holy cause, cause theres not enough female
irrepressibility written down. Ive fused my
silence and repression with the entire female
genders silence and repression. I think the
sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical
inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all

else public is the most revolutionary thing in the


world. (p. 210)
Abject bodies are, according to Christina Ross, bodies that state
that this loss is not necessarily a death, a lack, or an absence from
oneself but a pattern indissociable from the randomness that has
shaped it (p. 166). Fiction, for Chris Kraus, gives an order to this
disorder of life. It is not an order that is governed by lack, nor one
that specifically engages in a blatant denial of the possibility of lack,
but actively employs her sense of lack to a creative end, thus giving
a kind of disordered order to her life. The systems that have failed
her are also the ones that have supported her and allowed her to
write. Capitalism, academia, patriarchy have all served her in the
sense that they brought her to writing.

Vomiting Prose: Dicks Response and the Response to


Dick
The book ends with the one (and only) letter from Dick. I say
one letter because although he sent one letter to Sylvre and one to
Chris, Chris letter turned out not only to be identical, but a
photocopy of the original written to Sylvre. I wont transcribe the
letter here, but let Anne-Christine dAdeskys review speak for it:
He misspells her name as Kris, and seems
mostly concerned with salvaging his damaged
relationship with Sylvre. He expresses regret,
discomfort,

and

anger

at

being

the

objet

damour in their private game and clearly hopes


they wont publish the correspondence as is. I
do not share your conviction that my right to
privacy has to be sacrificed for the sake of that
talent, he tells Lotringer. To Chris, he is more

curt, sending only a Xeroxed copy of the letter


he wrote to her husband. Its a breathtaking act
of humiliation, an unambiguous Fuck You
(Quoted in Kraus 1997, p. 268)
Despite the fact that Chris letters to Dick are on the subject of her
marginalization

and

the

marginalization

of

so

many

of

her

contemporaries and idols, Dicks reply reinforces Chris peripheral


position turning her into nothing more than a conduit for a
homosocial relationship between men (p. 268). Dick Hebdig (who
was later revealed to be the real Dick) called the book a
despicable exercise and beneath contempt (Zembila, 1998).
After the book was published in 1997, the critic David
Rimanelli reviewed it for Artforum. Here is an excerpt:
Chris Kraus' novel is a book not so much
written as secreted. () Psychic vomiting and a
flat

prose

style

shot

through

with

banal

dialogue are staples of a certain kind of


experimental

criture,

style

particularly

appealing to wannabe bad boys (and girls) for


its supposed rawness and lack of literary
affectation (Rimanelli 1997)
Rimanellis blatant dismissal of Kraus work as writing-in-quotationmarks is augmented by an explicit conflation of the bodily obscene
with womens criture. He goes on to describe his utter distaste for
the book in a manner that is impossible to describe as anything but
gendered. Words such as exhibitionism, spillage, tirades,
reeks all point to a kind of de-valorization of female writing by
equating it with what are considered obscene or degrading facets of
the female body. The words suggest an uncontrolled outpouring of
language likened to the abject secretions arising from the feminine

that the patriarchal subject seeks to distance himself from. Kraus


response from Dick after their night together confirms this: You
were so wet, Dick _____d said to me in the bar that Monday night
about the sex wed had on Thursday. Then I knew you never wanted
to have sex with me again (p. 171).
David Rimanelli is in good company, having inserted himself
into a cannon of male writers who condemn the writing of women by
conflating it with their obscene, wounded bodies. One notable
example is the letters of Gustave Flaubert to his lover, the poet
Louise

Colet.

Throughout

the

course

of

their

nine-year

correspondence, Flaubert incessantly denounced Colets writing by


conflating it with her maternal body. For Flaubert, as Janet L. Biezer
(1994) explains, Good style, valorized as male, is described as hard,
hairy, and muscular; it is alternatively likened to testicles, bodily
hair, and athletes biceps (p. 78). Womens fluidity, on the other
hand, seeps through writing uncontrolled, like mothers milk or
vaginal discharges (p. 78). Flaubert condemns Colets emotive and
romantic writing as an abject, formless secretion, while celebrating
his own writing for its (masculine) control and precision. Arent you
aware of how everything is being dissolved now, by letting go, by all
that is damp, by tears, by chattering, by milk. Contemporary
literature is drowning in menstrual flow (p. 81). Here again we are
confronted with the threat that the bodily, particularly the bodily
feminine, poses not only to the patriarchal order, but to the
discipline of writing itself. Flaubert ties the flow of Colets tears,
breast milk, and menstrual blood to that of her ink well, valorizing
male writing as stylized, centered, and controlled, and womens as
obscene, hysterical. Rimanelli evokes the same kinds of words that
call abjection to mind in order to further malign Kraus work,
suggesting that the 100 plus years separating Chris Kraus from
Louise Colet have failed to produce substantial progress in the
cultural attitude toward womens writing.

But my aim here is not to accuse Rimanelli, Flaubert, or even


patriarchy as such, but to argue for the power of womens writing
not despite the flowing, leaky, secretions but because of them. I want
to contest the idea that a breaking down of the borders that
construct and govern our physical, social, and subjective spaces is
inherently negative; that to perform this breakdown is to favor a
more

fluid,

transgressive,

un-hierarchical

method

of

writing,

speaking, creating, and interpreting. I do not suggest that we do


away with structuralist or even the often male-dominated poststructuralist modes of thinking and writing, which I find to be
necessary and productive, but rather that bringing the self up to the
border of the order that the patriarchal symbolic represents allows
the two to coexist in a dialogue with one another. The abject
presents one means by which this dialectical operation can be
achieved.
Fluidity, substance, leakages are enigmatic of the female body
both symbolically and physically. She cannot contest the fragility of
her borders, evoked both by the breast milk and menstrual blood
that seeps from her body. According to Luce Irigaray, meaning is
solid, masculine, law-like, and therefore fluidity is that which averts
or threatens symbolic meaning (Suleiman 1990, p. 126). Dont cry,
she urges her (female) readers. One day we will succeed in saying
ourselves. And what we shall say will be even more beautiful than
our tears. All fluid (Quoted in Suleiman 1990, p. 126). Kristeva
additionally evokes substances (these bodily fluids, this defilement,
this shit..) which serve as the reminders of the disorder that the
abject represents; a place before meaning. Kristeva, as I have
explained, has been criticized for what certain theorists purport to
be her reduction of the abject to a definable thing when she
discusses substances. However, it seems abundantly clear to me
that substances are only the manifestation of what it is that the
abject threatens, which is the boundaries that govern our lives: It is
thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what

disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders,


positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite
(Kristeva 1982, p. 4). Kraus sin is not only that she was writing as a
woman, but that her writing was so ambiguous, so difficult to
classify (Miller 2012).
Upon reading Chris Kraus I Love Dick, David Rimanelli was
likely horrified by what he perceived as a lack of boundaries, an
uncontrolled outpouring of emotive text. This is, as we have seen, a
typical reaction to horror that constitutes a discontinuous subject. It
is a rebellion against the abject. What he failed to see is that the
impetus in writing such a text is rooted in the search for the self in
a world where the enunciation of that self is so endlessly nuanced
and fraught. Rimanellis privilege is that as a man he has no need to
rebel against the confines of structural narrative. But what he
misses is the bisexuality that resides in the subject who writes from
a place of desire, a desire to live oneself within, wanting the belly,
the tongue, the blood () traversed by lighting flows (Cixous 1975,
p. 76-78). This fluid, desirous writing that probes and provokes the
boundaries between inside and outside. Kraus herself interprets
criticism of her writing as a collective cultural unwillingness to
accept a female first-person narrative as anything but pathologized:
Writing I Love Dick, I understood that women
have been denied all access to the a-personal.
Look the I in Clines Journey to the End of
Night its an I thats scabrous and hilarious
and personally revealing. But is Journey read
as a confession? No, its one of the great books
of the 20th century. Its an idea I picked up
later

on,

writing

Aliens

&

Anorexia

chronicling the career of the philosopher


Simone Weil through the reception of her
writings. She was a crazy modernist like

Artaud, Celine, Bataille, but as a female her I


has been pathologized she cant get fucked,
shes manipulative and anorexic, shes ugly
and she dresses badly her I was never read
as universal and transparent. That, to me,
points towards this great disgust with femaleness. As if a revelatory female self cannot be
anything but compromised and murky. Its a
very

Catholic

word,

confession.

(Frimer

2006)
Here, Kraus is arguing that is not, in fact, the style of writing that
she employs that upsets, but the fact that the figure employing it is
female. For the maternal (female) body signifies the horror of the
initial separation.
More than a decade later, Kraus writes of her character Catt in
Summer of Hate (2012): A reviewer of her last book accused her of
giving him blue balls. If only shed attended an Ivy League school,
her work might have been read as serious cultural criticism, not the
punch line of the last dirty joke in the world (p. 98). Theres
massive cowardice in mainstream publishing, Eileen Myles once
said (observer.com, 2012). The lack of dirtiness, the lack of prosexuality, especially female sexuality. Theres such a blackout on
female writing. Its all good-girl stuff. Even the work that really gets
celebratedtheres something really safe about it. Its about not
making men uncomfortable. But no one thinks twice about making
women uncomfortable (2012).
Still, Chris/Chris Kraus maintains, even after the relationship
with Dick had ended, that he was the perfect listener who gave
her someone to talk to (Kraus 1997). In the end, perhaps it was that
spiral into her own abjection that actually saved her. Loving you
was like a kind of truth-drug because you knew everything. You
made me think it might be possible to reconstruct a life cause after

all, youd walked away from yours. If I could love you consciously,
take an experience that was so completely female and subject it to
an abstract analytic system, then perhaps I had a chance of
understanding something and go on living (pp. 235-236). And she
did. As if she, writes Eileen Myles, had the right to go right up to
the end of the book and live having felt all that. I Love Dick boldly
suggests that Chris Kraus unswervingly attempted and felt female
life is a total work and it didnt kill her. Thus when I Love Dick came
into existence a new kind of female life did too (Quoted in Kraus
1997, p. 15). To tell a story is an act of love, writes Kraus, The
teller reaches deep inside the listeners mind and offers rest and
order where there would otherwise be none. The fairy tale does not
deny the chaos of the universe. Rather, it offers the chance, the
possibility, that in a less than perfect world, it might still be possible
to do something thats good (p. 121).

A Schizophrenic Love Story


There is a theory that madness, like emotion,
results from a sensory overload. Information
floods in so fast that it is stripped of its
referents, its place in the system
Chris Kraus (2004, p.
213).
Although abjection is, as Deborah Caslav Covino suggests, an
intensely personal state of being, it is certainly also a metaphor for
the process of maintaining the social body (2004, p. 20).
Additionally, Amelia Jones highlights the position of the body as a
locus of a disintegrated or dispersed self, as elusive marker of the
subjects place in the social, as hinge between nature and culture
(2000, p. 13). Because the individual, personal body is always
necessarily a social body, as Gina Pane so eloquently reminds us,

stating that our bodies are, in fact, never really ours, I have tried
to illustrate several ways in which abjection has been theorized as
both

an

intensely

interior,

ego-driven

phenomenon,

and

simultaneously a rhetorical social practice.


As Elizabeth Grosz (1989) reminds us, the stability of our
subjectivity and speaking selves rely on our sexual drives
becoming linked through a process, to signifiers and, eventually,
becoming completely enmeshed in signification (p. 71). This
process allows the subject to participate in discourse, to enunciate
him/herself, and to develop a clear understanding of that which
constitutes self and other, becoming a bounded, unified whole (p.
71). However, we are confronted, confounded, and plagued by the
threat of its dissolution. What post-structuralism sought to do was to
upset this rhetorical inside/outside, self/other binary and look at the
systems and structures that organized it, reminding us that it is only
when we acknowledge the interconnectedness of multiple systems
and possible definitions of subjectivity that we can begin to conceive
of what it means to be a speaking subject today. In other words, we
cannot think about capitalism, feminism, queer theory, racism, the
prison system, mental illness, etc. as discontinuous, but as
heterogeneous and interconnected. This is where the schizophrenic
comes in.
Building

off

of,

out

of,

and

away

from

the

Lacanian

psychoanalytic tradition of 1960s France, Gilles Deleuze and Felix


Guattari proposed a new method of conceiving of capitalism,
psychoanalysis and fascism in their 1972 book Anti-Oedipus:
Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Contesting the hierarchical model
upon which both the Hegelian body and the global market are
based, they proposed a new theory of an anti-hierarchical desiring
machine that is in a constant state of production. Counter to
Batailles theory of the abject, this machine produces no waste due
to

the

constant

consumption

and

production

of

flows

and

multiplicities as produced and consumed by desire. This abstract

notions of multiplicities, flows, arrangements, and connections, the


analysis of the relationship of desire to the capitalist machine begs
Michel Foucault in the introduction to the book to ask several
questions: How does one introduce desire into thought, into
discourse, into action? How can and must desire deploy its forces
within the political domain and grow more and more intense in the
process of overturning the established order? (1983, p. xxi).
Like Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari preoccupy themselves with
fascism, but not only historical fascism but the fascism in our
heads and in our everyday behavior (p. xiii). This relates us back to
what Kristeva called the jouissive dialect of the slave to the tyrant,
the pleasure and pain that coexist in being dominated: the
pleasure of fascism. Counter to the Christian moralists who
sought out the traces of the flesh lodged deep within the soul
Foucault explains that Deleuze and Guattari, pursue the slightest
traces of fascism in the body (p. xiii). They seek to derive power
not, as psychoanalysts would have it, from Lack as such, but prefer
what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over
unities, mobile arrangements over systems (p. xiii).
While Kristeva sees abjection as a breakdown of borders both
incited by and theorized through flows that emerge from the body
(both

physically

and

psychologically)

within

the

Freudian

subconscious, Deleuze and Guattari favor instead flows that actively


work against the Oedipal structure, that which constitutes all that is
oppressive and is ever-present. Mark Seem elaborates: Oedipus is
everywhere. () Oedipus is belief injected into the unconscious, it is
what gives us faith as it robs us of power, it is what teaches us to
desire our own repression. (p. xxx) . Anti-Oedipus proposes desire
not as Lack, but as surplus, a surplus that is constantly flowing in
and out of us and everything around us. Anti-Oedipus seeks to
discover the deterritorialized flows of desire, the flows that have
not been reduced to the Oedipal codes and the neuroticized

territorialities, the desiring-machines that escape such codes as


lines of escape leading elsewhere (p. xvii).
Elizabeth Grosz describes the abject, after Kristeva, as the
result of the childs bodily boundaries being structured by the
circulation of drive energies that involves a impossible desire to
transcend corporeality (1989 p. 72). Here the childs body acts as a
cypher for the disordered, desiring body that Deleuze and Guattari
propose in Anti-Oedipus. Is it possible to consider abjection as a
desiring force, one that upsets and flattens out the order of things?
Can the abject give way to not only a Cixouxian bi-sexual jouissance,
but constitute one that actively engages disorder as a jouissive
means of production? Certainly, I would argue, it creates the
conditions through which this is possible.
Rosi Braidotti examines Deleuzes concept of becoming
woman as a process through which the subject attempts to
overcome dialectics () is to institute processes of becoming,
relational assemblages which cut across the markers of difference
(2014). Difference constitutes everything that is other. For
Kristeva and Deleuze alike (and Freud for that matter) this is the
mother, the homosexual, the schizophrenic, the Mexican, the African
American, anyone or anything that does not fit the norm. Therefor,
becoming woman (and, I would argue, becoming abject) presents
the possibility of freedom. Part of this process is living in the
present, and writing in it. Deleuze and Guattari would call this
becoming schizophrenic.
It is no coincidence that Chris begins to discuss schizophrenia
after she finally leaves Sylvre. For it is in the act of breaking free
that she as able to authentically inhabit her desire as a productive
force rather than a manifestation of her repressed longing to be
oppressed.

As

we

have

seen,

Chris

Kraus

writing

in

its

instantaneous elaboration activates a kind of multiplicitous narrative


that resists hierarchical readings. She herself calls it schizophrenic:
Im using you (Dick) to create a certain schizophrenic atmosphere,

OR life is schizophrenia, OR I felt a schizophrenic trigger in our


confluence of interests whos crazier than who? (p. 221). My
brain gets creamy with associative thought (p. 222). Kraus explains
that both capitalism and schizophrenia, according to Deleuze and
Guattari, are complex systems based on paradox in which
disconnected
rationalize

parts

operate

fragmentation.

according

Capitalisms

to

hidden

ethics

are

laws.

Both

completely

schizophrenic; i.e. theyre contradictory and duplicitous (p. 226).


Kraus stipulates that she feels that characters pass through
her when shes writing (Rumsby 2005), making it impossible to
reduce experience to a certain, fixed event. Like textuality, whose
meanings and manifestations are endless, so is the experience of
writing the self: there is not one fixed point. The self is a postmodern
amalgamation of many, but who are only accessible through the
abject

breakdown

that

produces

schizophrenic

flows:

Schizophrenics have a gift for locking into other peoples minds.


Direct

current

flows

without

any

spoken

language

()

schizophrenics can instantly situate a person: their thoughts and


their desires, their weaknesses and expectations (p. 231). She
continues:

Schizophrenics

arent

sunk

unto

themselves.

Associatively theyre hyperactive. The world gets creamy like a


library. And schizophrenics are the most generous of scholars
because theyre emotionally right there, they dont just formulate,
observe. Theyre willing to become the situated persons experience
(p. 231). Here Kraus documents the world breaking down from its
former solid and structured state as it dissolves into a borderline
space of disorder. The world, in the realm of the abject, offers desire
for that which is either lost or never was lost, to propel the subject
into a space of heightened meaning, where possibility supersedes
order. For Chris, loss of control, seepage, like Gina Panes blood
dripping from her feet, or Louise Colets milky prose, actively make
meaning instead of shutting it down (1999, p. 232). Even her body
becomes flattened out, de-territorialized, like Mona Hatoums Corps

tranger: Since knowing D. shed written in her notebook, my


eyes have moved into my ribcage. My bodys turned to liquid glass
and all the pieces fit (p. 236). Why? Because identifying so
completely with someone else can only happen by abandoning
yourself, the schizophrenic panics and retreats abruptly from these
connections. () Without the map of language youre not anywhere
(p. 233). The schizophrenic leaves the body, transcends himself,
herself, outside any system of belief (p. 233). The schizophrenic,
like the abject, is about non-belief. Like in schizophrenia, there is
nothing either objective or objectal in the abject (Kristeva 1982, p.
9). Because of this, the abject, like love is edged with the sublime
(1982 p. 11).
Braidotti argues that writing is positioned somewhere between
order and chaos: Writing is almost coextensive with the business of
breathing and living. It is an intransitive activity. () Writing is an
inscription into life, it is a way of formatting the intensity of life, a
method of of encapsulating the energies that surround you (2014).
Writing is the process that echoes the abject, fleeting, pre-linguistic
state of liquidity and decay from whence it came and using it to chop
down the boundaries that structure our oppression. Writing is a
continuous process of becoming that does not end in narcissism, but
allows one make you fundamentally not one (2014). The universe
that resides in our subconscious is articulated through writing to the
bodies and subconscious of others. It is for this reason that the
psychoanalytic subject is indivorcible from the social subject:
everything that is on the inside can and does come out. The
operations that mark and shape our identity internally are played
out externally, both through the barriers that are set in place, and
through the plasticity and malleability that does away with them.

Chapter Seven Aliens and Anorexia


The Emotions Outline of a Woman
In Aliens and Anorexia (2000), Kraus links anorexia, failure,
BDSM,

and

alien

invasion

in

order

to

problematize

the

patholigization of female emotions. The novel begins at the 1996


Berlin Film Festival where Chris (the main character) is premiering
her new film Gravity and Grace, based on Simone Weils book of the
same name. The book begins by detailing the humiliating situations
to which Kraus is subject during the festival, but as in I Love Dick,
we dont linger there for long. As soon as we begin to identify with
the characters struggles to assert herself within the male-centric
world of narrative filmmaking, she pulls back and gives a kind of
journalistic account of the structures that she sees as having formed
the experience of women today.
Aliens and Anorexia takes an even more deconstructive
approach to novel-writing than I Love Dick, with Kraus amassing the
stories

of

artists,

writers,

and

philosophers

with

sociology,

philosophy, Marxism, and, of course, her own personal history. She


criticizes capitalism, sexism, and the art market by exploring the
ways in which structural modes of thought, politics and artmaking
have annihilated space for the feeling subject: Very little has been
written within philosophy that treats emotion as an active state of
consciousness. Writing in 1948 in The Emotions Outline of a Theory,
Jean-Paul Sartre rejects this possibility. We are afraid, he writes,
because we flee. He says emotion is escape, escape from what? A
flight into a magical world that offers refuge from the need to act
responsibly. Emotion has no reality or integrity. Its a default; an
imaginary world constructed by a frightened individual (p. 111).
Certainly this can be true, but what, Kraus begs us to ask ourselves,
of the productive frightened body? Is this not an active abject
stance? Kraus expounds upon the power of the emotional, stating: I

think emotion is like hyperspace, a second set of neutral networks


becoming active in the body. () Sartre thinks that those who
experience

an

intolerable

situation

through

their

bodies

are

manipulative cowards. Its inconceivable to him that female pain can


be impersonal. And so, like all the female anorexics and mystics the
girl can only be a brat. She is starving for attention(p. 113).
Emotions act in congress with the abject. The power of the symbolic
is predicated on the mechanism of control and order. Emotions have
the danger of becoming boundless. As we saw in I Love Dick, the act
of emotions tumbling into the world, onto the page, the very act of
their utterance is already cause for panic. And no wonder. If the
order of the symbolic functions by evading the abject, then the most
terrifying thing is to expose it.
In Video Green, Kraus recounts the artist Jennifer Schlosbergs
project 78 Drawings of My Face, in which she compiled 78 folders on
people she met in art school, including friends, colleagues, teachers,
boyfriends, and strangers encountered in her first year at UCLA.
Chris Burden, famous for his provocative (and what some might call
abject) performance work which nearly always included an element
of self-harm or abasement, asked Schlosberg why she insisted on
making herself so scary (p. 58). According to Kraus, the only thing
that could shock a provocateur such as Burden is something so
publicly subjective. Art, he said, should not be based on social
interactions (p. 60). What might it be about the personal, emotional,
feeling woman in particular that is so horrifying? There is no
problem with female confession providing it is made within a
repentant therapeutic narrative. But to examine things coolly, to
thrust experience out of ones own brain and put it on the table, is
still too confrontational (p. 63). As Kraus experienced in the
aftermath of her publishing of I Love Dick, the reporting of a
womans experience of abjection is also too personal to be public.

Food and Feminist Subversion


Food

loathing

elementary

and

is

perhaps

most

archaic

the

most

form

of

abjection.
Julia Kristeva (1982,
p. 2)
One of the principal instances where abjection emerges is
surrounding the appearance, consumption, and expulsion, indeed
the summation of the subjects experience of food. Kristeva recalls
the skim on warm milk as her primary reference to the power of
abjection:
When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin
on the surface of milk harmless, thin as a
sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring
I experience a gagging sensation and, still
farther down, spasms in the stomach, the
belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body,
provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat,
cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along
with

the

sight-clouding

dizziness,

nausea

makes me balk at that milk cream, separates


me from the mother and father who proffer it.
(1982, p. 3)
Here, food loathing is what separates child from mother and father,
who now constitute two facets of the symbolic. The consumption of
food for a child will become a process of purification, the excrement
showing what the subject casts aside in order to purify itself from
defilement. Even the avoidance of food can be a defense against

abjection, as made manifest in different fasting rituals for religious


purposes.
Oral disgust is the most archaic form of abjection, explains
Elizabeth Grosz (1989, p. 74). It is the childs rejection of the
symbolic, for the expelling, spitting out the food, it is in fact
expelling, rejecting the boundary between it and the world (p.
74). It is its own boundaries, its skin and proper self, that the child
contests, the very foundation of I. It is the refusal of the limits of
the self, an attempt to be reunites with the mother and what
Kristeva would later call worlds flesh (Kristeva 2001). The refusal
of the food offered by the mother is not only a rejection of the
mother but also of the self, mimicking the battle that constitutes the
situation of the borderline patient: I expel myself, I spit myself out,
I abject myself within the same motion through which I claim to
establish myself (Kristeva 1982, p. 3). Is the rejection of food
indeed a rejection of the symbolic? Lets examine this possibility in
a close reading of Kraus Aliens and Anorexia.

The Case for the Anorexic


The more you think, the more impossible it is to
eat. The panic of altruism, tripping out on content,
anorexia:

all

three

are

states

of

heightened

consciousness, described as female psychological


disorders
Chris Kraus (2000, p.
135)
The most compelling parts of Kraus book are the connections
she draws between her own experiences and the larger social
spectrum. In Aliens and Anorexia, Kraus contemplates the link
between her personal experiences with self-starvation to those of the
philosopher Simone Weil. Coupling biographical research with

personal

anecdotes,

Kraus

ponders

and

problematizes

the

construction of the tragic, hysterical anorexic. Through detailing


Weils revolutionary life as a thinker, political organizer, and writer,
Kraus examines the ways in which Weils body was used against her
in her social circles. Her homeliness and androgyny (which Chris
identifies with, giving frequent reference to herself as ugly) gave
her contemporaries such as Georges Bataille cause to dismiss her,
and later for her biographer Claude Maurice to make the outrageous
assumption that ugliness is the greatest unhappiness in a woman
(Kraus 2000, p. 27). But Kraus is interested in the potential of the
anorexia as a subversive tool, one that actively resists the bodily
complacency of female-ness. Its inconceivable she says, that
female pain can be impersonal. Can an anorexic, rather than being
a victim, act as a body in revolt? Can the abjection of oneself by
refusing food be a position of power?
Elizabeth Grosz (1994) suggests that anorexia is, in fact, a
modern day form of hysteria, a malady that is most often made
manifest in women, due to the quite constrained concept of what
Lacan calls the imaginary ideal that is culturally imposed upon the
female ego as that very ego is in the process of constituting itself, or
to a more extreme end, as a way of performing the absence of
representation (pp. 187-189). Grosz is firm in her argument that the
ego is not bounded by a natural body, because a natural body is, in
fact (as Judith Butler has articulated elsewhere) Continually
augmented by the products of history and culture, which it readily
incorporates into its own intimate space (p. 189). This paradigm
actively produces a severance between normal and abnormal, ugly
and beautiful, symbolic and abject.
Because the ego conceives of itself in relation to the Other (the
other here being both other bodies and the body of the subject
reflected back upon itself in a mirror as a projected ideal), the
imaginary body serves as a map of meaning through which the
subject negotiates its own body into a cultural norm or ideal (p.

190). This explains why hysteria or anorexia hold such potential for
becoming epidemics. The individual fantasy becomes a collective
fantasy as the subject visualizes itself in relation to the outside,
which comes to be defined by cultural imperatives (p. 190).
However, anorexia is, according to Grosz, arguably the most stark
and striking sexualization of biological instincts; the anorexic may
risk her very life in the attainment of a body-image approximating
her ideal (p. 190). Anorexia can, she explains, be a kind of
mourning for a pre-Oedipal (i.e. pre-castrated) body and a corporeal
connection to the mother that women in patriarchy are required to
abandon. Anorexia is a form of protest against the social meaning of
the female body. Rather than seeing it simply as an out-of-control
compliance with the current patriarchal ideals of slenderness, it is
precisely a renunciation of these ideals (p. 190). If hysteria is an
act of resistance that refutes the linguistic, or patriarchal, then
anorexia can be viewed as a form of protest against and resistance
to cultural investments defining what the body proper is for
women (p. 187).
Kraus proposes Simone Weils anorexia as both a spiritual
communion with the divine and an act of bodily solidarity with the
working class with whom she aligned herself. Resisting food became
an act of protest against the privileges associated with the
bourgeoisie.

Her

negotiation

of

her

self

and

ego

was

indifferentiable from the bodily experiences of the laboring class; the


corporeal border whose job it is to separate the internal from the
external, in rearticulated in relation to the divine. Self-definition or
self-constitution becomes progressively impossible when the ones
libidinal investment in the lives of others becomes so intense that
the barrier that separates the two breaks down. Anorexia, in
addition to being a revolutionary act, becomes a means by which the
subject can engage in a bodily revolt against the symbolic by
producing what Judith Butler calls a constitutive outside (1993, p.
3). Weil is depicted as a woman for whom anorexia functioned as a

kind of rebellion that was at once feminist, political, and revelatory


in and of that it represented solidarity with the working class.
Industrial work (Weil) realized, excludes any feeling of solidarity,
and even any idea of resistance. Passive abjection merely confirms
ones condition (p. 6). Weil was actively abject.
As we learned in I Love Dick, The others body explains
Grosz, provides the frame for the representation of ones own. In
this sense, the ego is an image of the bodys significance or meaning
for the subject and for the other. It is thus as much a function of
fantasy and desire as it is of sensation and perception; it is a taking
over of sensation and perception by a phantasmic dimension. This
significatory, cultural dimension implies that bodies, egos, and
subjectivities are not simply reflections of their cultural context and
associated values, but are constituted as such by them (Grosz, pp.
188-189).

Anorexia

is

kind

of

sexualization

(a

mode

of

renunciation) of the eating process, a displacement of genital


sexuality. The body becomes bloated, extended as the biological
reality of the body becomes thinner and more frail (p. 189).
The phallus, which for the boy constitutes his relationship to
the threat of castration, for the girl represents a form of nostalgic
fantasy for her pre Oedipal and pre-castrated position which Grosz
sees as best embodied by the anorexic who clings to (this memory)
as the only period in which the female body is regarded as whole and
intact (p. 191). Here, Grosz is referring to the fact that after the
child evolves into the symbolic/narcissistic phase, his identification
with the mother is not as a unified person, but a subject with parts,
each of which serve a purpose, or what Melanie Klein has termed
the good breast, bad breast object relation. Thus the anorexics
refusal of food is thus an act of mourning.
As much as Kraus rejects the evaluative process of naming the
anorexic female as a brat who is starving for attention, her
documentation of her own struggles with anorexia drift dangerously
back into that paradigm: For six weeks I was starving, I could feel

my cells contracting. Starving turns into panic. My greatest hope is


that I might find the perfect food: a freshly picked leaf or red of
Boston lettuce, grown in season, lightly dressed in homemade
vinaigrette. A single crabs leg served with drawn butter in a dirty
waterfront caf beside a trailer park in Maryland near the bay (p.
144). Or: If Im not touched it becomes impossible to eat. Its only
after sex, sometimes, that I can eat a little (p. 147).
As with Chris struggle with Crohns disease, unhappiness
seems to be the trigger of anorexia making it a compulsion more
than a consciously subversive act. I see the act of writing in this case
to take the place of starvation, that it is the articulation of the
experience that constitutes the subject to a greater degree than
anorexia has the possibility to do. Anorexia is a malady experienced
by girls, and its still impossible to imagine girls moving outside
themselves and acting through the culture. According to Kraus,
society is founded on (the) belief that a well-adjusted, bounded
sense of self is the only worthy female goal (p. 141). She continues:
So long as anorexia is read exclusively in relation to the subjects
feelings towards her own body, it can never be conceived of as an
active, ontological state. () Female acts are always subject to
interpretation. We dont say what we mean. Its impossible that the
female subject might ever simply try to step outside her body,
because the only thing that irreducible, still, in female life is
gender (p. 142).
Anorexia stages a battle against abjection. To question food is
to question everything, Kraus writes, To question food is to
recognize the impossibility of home (p. 145). The anorexic body is
in a state of mourning for that which it needs but is horrified by: I
need food but am rejecting it and everything at the most cellular
level. I feel it in my cells: Im starving. Daily life turns into a terror
as soon as you start doubting food(p. 139). Kristeva herself grounds
this action in the realm of the abject:

Since the food is not an other for me, who


am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit
myself out, I abject myself within the same
motion through which I claim to establish
myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant
one, but one that they ferret out, emphasize,
evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts
sprawling; it is thus that they see that I am in
the process of becoming an other at the
expense of my own death. During that course in
which I become, I give birth to myself amid the
violence of sobs, of vomit. (1982, p. 3)
Here, Kristeva articulates what Grosz does, stating that it is in this
abject childhood state of not quite yet a subject that the anorexic
seeks to reenter by self-starvation. It is a mourning for the moment
of ridged subjectivity, before fluids had a definition that could even
be called violent or abject. Anorexia is not an evasion of a socialgender role; writes Kraus, its not regression. It is an active
stance: the rejection of the cynicism that this culture hands us
through its food, the creation of an involuted body (p. 163).

Chapter Eight At the Border Between Life and


Death
Chris Kraus Narratives of Sadomasochistic Sex
In a world in which the Other has collapsed, the
aesthetic test- a descent into the foundations of
the symbolic construct amounts to retracing
the fragile limits of the speaking being, closest
to

its

drawn,

to

the

bottomless

primacy

constituted by primal repression. Through that


experience, which is nevertheless managed by
the Other, subject and object push each other
away, confront each other, collapse, and start
again inseparable, contaminated, condemned,
at

the

boundary

of

what

is

assimilable,

thinkable: abject.
Julia Kristeva (1982,
p. 18)

In an interview, (Rumsby 2005) Kraus highlighted to several


points of crossover between BDSM sex practices and murder in
terms of intimacy and anonymity, each of which have fascinated her
in both her literary and video work. S/m, she says, is a very intense,
complicit contract between two people and it is kind of a mobile
portable intimacy against the backdrop of complete anonymity
within a large city (Rumsby 2005). Krauss 1987 video How to
Shoot a Crime is composed of real crime scene footage shot by a
friend

working

for

the

NYPD

spliced

with

interviews

with

dominatrixes. And what is sadomasochism, she asks in Video


Green, If not an enactment of urban displacement? Beyond the
junk-bond boobs in black leather corselets of early MTV, its a desire
to be someplace, to be locked in an intractable complicit transaction

that takes place firmly in time (Kraus 2004, p. 210). Here, I will
examine the use of S/m in Kraus fiction as a defense against
abjection. I want to reflect upon S/m practices as a performative
jeux wherein the personal battle between the symbolic and semiotic
is played out, and to consider the possibility that it is the act of
writing and not sadomasochism that constitutes the most powerful
articulation of abjection.
The sociologist Staci Newmahr explains that despite the fact
that it is nonconformist in many ways, S/m play negotiates multiple
boundaries, (it) is constructed and processed through and alongside
cultural filters that compel conceptual acrobatics in order to make
sense of their experiences and their enjoyment of them (Newmahr
2011, p. 142). Newmahr posits that one of these conceptual moves
that lies at the heart of SM is the desire to turn the experience of
violence into something nobler, a cypher for the rhetorical action
of acquiring and relinquishing power (p. 143). This discursive
operation mimics the negotiation that constitutes the abject, namely
the dialogue between the symbolic and the semiotic. However, some
participants, unable to envision a reconciliation between the
violence of S/m and the erotics of sex prefer to see it as either one or
the other, but not both. Newmahr here problematizes the idea that
S/m is separable from violence, aiming rather to engage in a
dialogue with the realm of the erotic, and that of the socio-sexual,
reiterating that one cannot see S/m and, for example, homicide,
rape, and spousal abuse, and animal cruelty as discontinuous
entities and must be cognoscente of the overlaps between the two
(p. 143). . Kristeva would certainly agree. For it is the Freudian
conceit that we all have, within us, the animalistic and perverse that
is in constant battle with the egoic self, and perversion, violence,
and sadomasochistic behavior are merely instances when the
perversion takes over. This perversion is linked to anality, when the
defilement of the anal and animalistic is not overtaken by the genital
proper (2012).

Newmahrs book focuses in particular on edgework, a


controversial sub-group of the S/m community that engages in
particularly brutal activities that push boundaries that walk the edge
between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, sanity
and insanity, and order and chaos, of self and the environment (p.
155). Edgework, as a theatricalized performance of violence within
the confines of a safe environment, engages the social, practical,
erotic, and psychological facets of the participant. It is a negotiation
between boundaries: If total chaos includes emotional chaos (for
example, overwhelming rage or fear, nervous breakdowns, or other
instances of freaking out), then control of ones emotions and of
ones actions is the source of the order at the other boundary.
Viewed this way in which order is control of the self the
boundary between order and chaos is negotiates in any situation in
which most people would regard these feelings as so intense as to be
uncontrollable. Edgework thus becomes applicable to the realm of
the emotional and psychological () (because of its necessity to)
negotiate extreme emotional and psychological boundaries (p. 160).
A theatrical performance of the battle negotiated between the
structured symbolic and the chaotic semiotic, S/m serves as a way of
acting out the bodys defense against abjection. I now want to
examine this process as it is explored in Kraus novels.
In Torpor (2006), after leaving her husband Jerome and
moving to Los Angeles, Kraus character Sylvie begins giving
blowjobs in the parking lot behind the House of Pies, finger-fucking
on a strangers couch, and is henceforth amazed how completely
sex annihilates the need for context (2006, p. 281). The dissolution
of identity in anonymous sex provides the character with the tools to
disassociate herself from reality within the context of pleasure. In
Aliens and Anorexia, she elaborates on this point, stating: It isnt
chemistry or personality that counts, its what you do. This is a
quantum leap beyond modernisms ethos of transgression in which
eroticism arises from disgust. Disgust implies duality; requires

context. But now that theres no longer any meaning in the


landscape,

it

is

possible

to

fabricate

desire

anywhere.

The

technology of S/m transforms neutrality into context (2000, p. 124).


Suddenly, the processes wherein Chris, for example, was robed of
her power and agency in oppressive relationships is acted out
without romance, thus giving her agency in her own denigration.
She likes the lack of ambiguity. In her essay Emotional
Technologies (2003) she explains that in the world of neoconceptual, disinterested artists and collectors that comprise the
city of Los Angeles, the only experience that comes close to the
totalizing effect of theater (now) is sadomasochism (2004, p. 85).
Kraus explains that there is no experimentation in BDSM: Thats
why

like

it.

Character

is

completely

preordained

and

circumscribed. Youre either top or bottom. There isnt any room for
innovation in these roles (p. 86-87). However, the attempt to avoid
the abject by playing out scenes of degradation manifests as a need
to control the state of jouissive pleasure. Its a state of stupor, the
numbing effects of which are made evident by her switch to the third
person:

She was trying to become a writer. Since


shed never been especially creative, the only
way that she could think to do this was to
transcribe the pictures in her head. She found
that sometimes in the darkened room, the
pictures moved outside her head and into her
entire body, and these, she realized, were the
good times. This was what she sought. (p. 87)

Kraus has said elsewhere that Torpor was written in the third person
because it was her most personal book. If the personal can only be
dealt with through some remove, it explains not only the impulse to

use the third person in writing, but perhaps the impulse to engage
with S/m. S/m is a cypher for romantic relationships, but unlike
ordinary sex it is not a metaphor for love (p. 98). Having failed
at romantic love Kraus sees the performance of S/m as a
mechanism through which she can control the ways in which she has
been made abject by her circumstances, (1997) allowing the
documentation of these exploits serve as humorous feminist
commentary:
Hed instructed me to undress at 7:30 and
kneel, naked, by the phone. Sometime within
the

next

half

hour

hed

call

with

more

instructions. The phone rang at 7:59 and well,


I found this pretty fucking witty. How many
times have I, has every heterosexual female in
this culture, spent evenings mooning around
our

houses

and

apartments,

physically

stripped bare and on our knees while waiting


for his call? (2003, p. 95)

In Aliens and Anorexia, Kraus describes her exchanges with


Gavin, a film producer who works in Africa with whom she
engages in sadomasochistic sex over the phone and exchanges long,
epistolary emails. Like Dick, Gavin represents a receptacle, an
image-screen upon which to project an amorous narrative of female
subjectivity. She ponders whether her relationship with Gavin might
help her to learn something about narrative (p. 94). Dear Africa,
Well, now Im lying on the cellar floor, blanketed, hands tied, but
feeling very blissful, open, because Ive just come two or three times
while you were completely dominating me. Your voice was so
specific, grounded and precise; it gave me something to hold onto as
I moved outside my body. Until you took the plastic rod, hit my
breasts and stomach, flipped the chair and whipped my ass &

shoulders, I never quite believed that S/m was what you wanted.
Thought you were just playing with signs.. (p. 95). But the pleasure
doesnt last long: And then theres a lot of sadness feeling so
abandoned and exposed. Its like the world is flat & what lies around
the edges of it is a hyperspace of dense emotion w/ sadness at its
core (p. 96).
We get the sense that this sadness is, in fact, what is at the
root of the majority of Kraus characters S/m experiences: With
every slap I moved a little deeper down inside myself, associating
this hurt to all the other hurts Ive known and witnessed (Kraus
2004, p. 101). We can recall the scenes in I Love Dick where Chris
recounts the stories of the numerous men who have belittled,
abused, and finally left her. S/m perhaps seems like the perfect cure:
a method through which the subject is in complete control of their
abjection (which, as we have seen, is contrary to the entire premise).
For Chris, it is Gavins sexual pleasure that takes precedence;
second only to her desire to experience the excitation of seduction:
The purpose of these emails, in fact, of all
pornography, is to turn him on and get him off.
And when I do this, Gavin rewards me promptly
with a call. But I also want for him to fall in
love with me, i.e., find me the most adorable
and intriguing creature. Therefor I experiment.
How much is it possible to reveal without
abandoning the point, the main event? Can
seduction,

i.e.,

referencing

of

shared

perceptions and experiences in a phenomenal


and social world, augment the masturbatory
objective of the text? Gavins take on this is less
complex () It occurs to me, the emails that
Im writing him take place somewhere in

between

the

genres

of

psychological

narrative and the picaresque. (p. 94)


Emotional Technologies (2003) follows Kraus character into the
dark state that likely drove her to seek out sadomasochistic sex in
lieu of conventional romance: When the carpenter boyfriend, who
shed seriously considered impoverishing herself to marry, dumped
her for a woman he described as a really nice girl, her truck flipped
over on an icy highway in the desert. For half an hour she was
trapped inside the cab, feet forward like an astronaut. She thought
she wasnt an animal. () Shortly after this she decided she was
much too old for conventional romance (p. 94). This animality that
she equates with a certain lack of control comes up again later in
the essay: She needed to find words to delineate this thing that
moved inside her body like a small, buried animal. She knew it
would take a long time to get the animal out and sometimes she
wondered if shed die before she did this (p. 88). Kraus found those
words as a writer, for the abject is what beckons the subject ever
closer to its edge, towards corporeality, animality, materiality
those relations which consciousness and reason find intolerable
(Grosz 1989, p. 73). In the end, the goal of offsetting the abject by
attempting to control her defilement by engaging herself as an
active agent reads as a series of failed attempts to undermine the
exact thing that makes her such a good writer. Perhaps the
characters sacrifice themselves for the sake of a good story. For the
abject, though it may be dodged by technologies is always grounded
in emotions. It is actually her words, those signs that fought through
repression and trauma and darkness that came through on the other
side, reborn.

Mourning and Fascism: Rage against the Symbolic

At the doors of the feminine, at the doors of


abjection, as I defined the term earlier, we are
also, with Celine, given the most daring X-ray
of the drive foundations of fascism. For this
indeed is the economy, one of horror and
suffering in their libidinal surplus-value, which
has been tapped, rationalized, and made
operative by Nazism and Fascism.
Julia Kristeva (1982, p.
155)
The idea of death the artist Penny Arcade says to Chris Kraus
in Video Green, is very small and hard, but if somebody is holding
your death with you, the death relaxes, if fluffs up and expands and
reveals itself to you. Were all afraid of death. But ever since I was
very young, I had this idea that your death is always with you. Its
not something that shows up at the end of your life. We walk with
our death () death is a screen for your life to be projected onto in
its entirety (Kraus 2004, 68). Death is a theme in Kraus writing
that either serves a peripheral function, haunting the borders of her
characters psyches, or, in such books as Torpor, serving as one of
the central themes. Lets examine Kristevas formulation of abjection
and the death drive in her reading of the French novelist Cline,
contrasting it to the experience of Jerome in Torpor.
Kristeva explains that, referring back to Freud, we all have
both an erotic drive and a death drive. When, during adolescence,
the need to believe is satisfied, the death drive is subsumed into the
subconscious. This does not mean that the subject will not to
continue to negotiate with the perverse, but its erotic, reproductive
drives will propel its subjectivity. However, in the situation where the
subject has not satisfied the ideal wish, the ego is threatened and
subject falls into a psychotic or schizophrenic state. This process is
either experienced like a void or darkness or as a violent compulsion

that is linked to pleasure (Kristeva 2013). She believes this process,


which is a negotiation of and with the realm of the abject, is best
exemplified in the writing of the French novelist Cline, who became
a fervent proponent of the Nazi movement. Clines adherence to
Nazism was on the one hand, an ego that drowns in the whirl of its
objects and its language and, on the other, the identifying
prohibitions an unbearable, untenable, disintegrating one, which
causes him to be (p. 136). Kristeva, taking Cline on as a pseudopatient, psychoanalyzes the perverse darkness that lead him to
desire others oppression and obliteration.
Cline takes his perverse mourning and fashions it into antiSemitism. Cline, writes Kristeva, believes that death and horror
are what being is, () a universe of borders, seesaws, fragile and
mingled identities, wanderings of the subject and its objects, fears
and struggles, abjections and lyricisms. At the turning point between
social and asocial, familial and delinquent, feminine and masculine,
fondness and murder (1982, p. 135). Cline wanted another Law
that could stand in for the constraining and frustrating symbolic
one, religion and its lawful counterparts, abstraction, reason, and
adulterated power (p. 178). Here, he needed another Law to save
him from abjection: Fascism. There is an idea that can lead nations.
There is a law. It stems from an idea that rises toward absolute
mysticism, that rises still without fear or program (p. 178). His aim
is a fusion of family, nationality, race, and body, where they
harmoniously (absorb) their differences into a kind of sameness
that would be obtained by means of a subtle drifting, a scansion, a
punctuation that would relay but without interrupting a replica of
primary narcissism (p. 178). Kristeva sees anti-Semitism as
performing the same role as religion a quest to purify the abject in
the

self.

Nazism,

contrary

to

the

self-purification

rituals

of

Christianity for example, operates through the purification of a race


(i.e. extermination of another race). It performs the function of a
parareligious formation, providing the sociological thrill, flush

with history, that believers and nonbelievers alike seek in order to


experience abjection (p. 180). One may suppose, warns Kristeva,
consequently, that anti-Semitism will be the more violent as the
social and/or symbolic code is found wanting in the face of
developing abjection (p. 180). She sees the Clines fear of the Jews
as a heterogeneous counterpart to the Oedipal fear of the feminine:
It is on account of being such an unbearable
conjoining of the One and the Other, of law
and Jouissance, of the one who Is and the one
who Has that the Jew becomes threatening.
So, in order to be protected, anti-Semitic
fantasy relegates that object to the place of
the abject. The Jew: a conjunction of waste
and object of desire, of corpse and life,
fecality and pleasure, murderous aggressivity
and the most neutralizing power () the Jew
becomes the feminine exalted to the point of
mastery, the impaired master, the ambivalent,
the border where exact limits between same
and other, subject and object, and even
beyond these, between inside and outside,
and disappearing hence an Object of fear
and fascination. Abjection itself. He is abject:
dirty, rotten. And I who identify with him, who
desire to share with him a brotherly, mortal
embrace in which I lose my own limits, I find
myself reduced to the same abjection, a
fecalized,

feminized,

passivized

rot:

the

repulsive Celine. (p. 185)


Clines desire to distance himself from the Jews acts as a corollary
to his desire to distance himself from the feminine, the maternal,

and the memory of the inaugural loss. This is the opposite of the
character of Jerome in Torpor, who seeks to reconcile his fear of the
abject corpse through an assimilatory process: merging death with
life.
Torpor (2006) is the story of Sylvie and Jerome, a married
couple traveling from New York across the former Soviet block to
adopt a Romanian orphan. A devastating account of the events that
preempt the dissolution of a marriage, Torpor serves as a fitting title,
signifying a state of physical or mental inactivity, lethargy, inaction,
slowness, weariness, and even lifelessness, as exemplified in the
beginning of the book: Post-punk, pre-grunge, the United States
stands behind its President to Support Our Troops somewhere in a
Persian Gulf sandstorm. Sylvie and Jerome have never felt so
alienated. Because the world itself is now unfathomable, the only
complexities that really count are small moments of domestic life
(p. 18). Sylvie is an experimental filmmaker whose floundering
career has her sequestered in upstate New York playing the role of
housewife to the reluctant Jerome, a Columbia professor and author
of a popular post-structuralist journal on culture, art, and philosophy.
The couples imminent separation haunts the entire book.
As a child survivor of the Holocaust, Jeromes principal
preoccupation is with death; it is this preoccupation that governs his
life. The character engages with both the traumatic mourning of the
lost Object and with the histrionic trauma incited by it. In fact, in
Torpor, Jerome explicitly discusses Georges Bataille in the novel in
similar terms as Lotringer does in his interview with Kristeva,
explaining that in order to be sacred, the sacrificial victim had to
will his immolation, but the Jews were sacrificed precisely because
they were no longer human (p. 31). The abjection of Nazi crime,
Kristeva explains in Powers of Horror, echoing Jeromes statement,
reaches its apex when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes
with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death:
childhood, science, among other things (p. 4). This is certainly true

for Jerome, whose life is propelled by death: he teaches classes


about it, writes articles about it, interviews morticians he has, we
learn, succeeded to a very great degree in his ambition to be dead
(p. 29).
Jerome,
melancholia.

contrary
According

to

Cline,

to

experiences

Kristeva,

the

melancholia

is,

abject

as

like

the

experience of abjection, an extreme sense of the loss of the mother


in separation experienced by the speaking being (Lechte, p. 77).
And as with abjection, the melancholic person continually reexperiences the wound of separation and his/her trauma is not
repressed (p. 79). The melancholics experience is dominated by
affect. Bordering on a living death, this is also a way of not dying, of
not taking ones own life, but of surviving, of even keeping going
within the frame of a difficult, but not impossible, life (p. 79).
Unable to reconcile his experience of abjection, Jerome perversely
seeks to merge death with life.
Georges Batailles formulation of sexual perversion stipulates a
jouissance of abjection while the victims of, for example, antiSemitism, cannot push away the contagion of things abject (1999,
p. 27) The victim is both valorized and condemned, like in
Christianity (Kristeva and Lotringer, p. 28). Anality is summoned
during the formation of the ego proper setting up what Kristeva
terms the Thing (Kristeva 1989, p. 15). The melancholic person is
he who extols the boundary where the self emerges () fails to
summon the anality that could establish separations and frontiers
() and sinks into a dis-eroticized and yet jubilatory anality
(Kristeva 1989, p. 15). The death drive is a tendency to return to
the inorganic state and homeostasis (p. 16). Freud suggests that
the speaking being, beyond power, desires death (p. 20). This
negates the possibility of desire; it no longer exists, it becomes
dissolved in a disintegration of transmission and a disintegration of
bonds (p. 20). In sadomasochism, the erotic drive and the death
drive meet in a discursive dialectic, offering the speaking subject the

opportunity to both experience the erotic pleasure and revert to the


perversion constituted by anality. It is in this melancholic state of
homeostasis that we encounter Sylvie and Jerome.
We can clearly see the sadomasochistic pleasure that Jerome
takes from his obsessive preoccupation with death as linked on a
psychoanalytic level to Clines preoccupation with the delights of
fascism. Each revert to a kind of perversion as a means of defense.
However, Jeromes sadomasochism is preoccupied with actual loss
(death), while Cline is concerned with the symbolic loss (abjection).
What is termed in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia as
schizoid parceling is a process of fragmentation that acts as a
defense against death by eroticizing it.
Jeromes internal struggles with his repressed memories
manifest themselves in dialogues with his wife. In a conversation
with Sylvie wherein she suggests that one could, contrary to
Adornos assertion7, hypothetically write about the camps if, as
Maurice Blanchot offers, they employ a language that is deprived of
power. Jerome is livid: Blanchot was not a Jew! () The camps
were blood and shit. () Blanchot had not idea of how it felt to be a
dirty Jew, despised and banned from using public pools. He could
only look at horror from a distance (p. 32). Jerome finds that he can
only experience these events by proxy. He revels in the texts of the
modernists (Artaud, Bataille, Weil), in whom he sees a prescience of
horror () Its as if these people had experienced alone and in their
bodies, events that would be massively played out a decade later (p.
33). Sylvie encourages him to complete his work-in-progress about
the War, entitled The Anthropology of Unhappiness, which he never
does. Abjection haunts the borders of Jeromes well-structured
obsession with death: His head was filled with images of starvation,
suffocation, scenes of torture, medical experiments in which a
human head is grafted onto someone elses body, like a funny Mr.
7 Adorno famously wrote in his 1949 essay, "Cultural Criticism and Society," that
to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric. See Theodore Adornos
Prisms, 1982.

Potato Head. () Jerome knew how much worse the worst could
be (p. 184).
Sylvies mourning is, rather, bound up in the psychic void
that Kristeva locates in the castration complex (1989, p. 82). Even
though a woman has no penis to lose, it is her entire being body
and especially soul that she feels is threatened by castration. As if
her phallus were her psyche, the loss of the erotic object breaks up
and threatens to empty her whole psychic life. The outer loss is
immediately and depressively experienced as an inner void (1989 p.
82). The speaking subject thusly feels the convergence of the
psychological and social effects of Oedipus bearing down on her, and
her meaning is contingent on her proximity to the phallus.
When they met Sylvie was entranced by Jeromes intellectual
stoicism Sex with others before was rough done specifically to
hurt her and make her powerless. But when Jerome touches her, he
becomes impossible to locate. His absence turns her on: its like he
is an instrument of something far outside himself (p. 69). But after
three abortions, each more painful than the first, Sylvie realizes that
his absence is actually what is causing the marriages demise. Do
you really think youve accomplished enough to have a child? he
says to her. I thought you were a feminist. The baby, Sylvie
realizes, is a symbol for what deep down shes always known. Her
life will never have a value of its own, apart from her achievements
(p. 73). Later on, she contemplates the ritual of the wives Balinese
kings who, after the death of their husband, dove off a plank into a
fire where they were burned alive. Sylvie finds this practice very
beautiful. Because, as she so earnestly tells Jerome, its an
enactment of the principal that human life acquires value only when
it has meaning. If these womens lives have been defined exclusively
through their relation to the king, upon his death their lives no
longer have symbolic meaning. Their ability to invest themselves
completely within this symbolic order creates a meaning. Does it
matter how this meaning is derived? (p. 120).

The grief of the War will always hang over me, thinks Sylvie,
The War affects everyone it touches. Long after the events
themselves, the effects will linger. And these effects live on by
breeding other causes (p. 56). Eventually, after their fools errand
to procure an orphan fails and their tiny dog Lily dies, Sylvie leaves
Jerome. The end of Torpor brings us back to Dick, and back to
writing: In the months before she (Sylvie) left Jerome, shed started
writing love letters to a man who didnt love her. In LA she continues
writing to this man, and then she just continues writing (pp. 280281). As it turns out, despite the trauma and misery where abjection
often settles itself, it is through writing that the Sylvie activates and
enunciates that abjection, coming back to life renewed, reborn:
The abject shatters the wall of repression and
its judgments. It takes the ego back to its
source on the abominable limits from which, in
order to be, the ego has broken away- it
assigns it a source in the non-ego, drive, and
death. Abjection is a resurrection that has
gone through death (of the ego). It is an
alchemy that transforms death drive into a
start of life, of new significance. (Kristeva
1982, p. 15)

Conclusion
The abject cannot be readily classified, for it
is necessarily ambiguous, undecidably inside
and outside (like the skin of milk), dead and
alive

(like

the

corpse),

autonomous

and

engulfing (like infection and pollution). It


disturbs identity, system and order, respecting
no definite positions, rules, boundaries or
limits. It is the bodys acknowledgement that
its boundaries and limits are the effects of
desire and not nature. It demonstrates the
precariousness of the subjects grasp of its
own identity.
Elizabeth Grosz (1989,
p.74)
In the past days, as I have been completing this text, my
German husband sat down and began to read it. But what is
abjection? he asked, intrigued and confounded, I cant find an
exact translation. I smiled. How do I explain? Because abjection, as
we have seen, is so many things. It is an experience, an event and its
effects, a result of discourse, a negotiation, an expulsion, an
exclusion, a liquidation, a disordering, a rebirth.
In the pages prior, I have attempted to map out and define
abjection in all its complexity and elucidate instances in art and
literature where I see its tempestuous power most effectively played
out. From the prolific artwork of Carolee Schneeman and Gina Pane,
to the effulgent narratives of Chris Kraus, I have sketched out ways
of approaching abjection as productive, enigmatic, revelatory. Lastly,
I have also tried to leave its indefinability to meander through my
words, to allow the effervescent calling of its boundlessness to
permeate that which is meant to be definable, nameable.

What, Kristeva asks toward the end of Powers of Horror, is


the point of emphasizing the horror of being? For abjection is the
other facet of religious, moral, and ideological codes on which rest
the sleep of individuals and the breathing spells of societies (p.
209). Is it to tear away the veil of the communitarian mystery? (p.
209). Is it because we have lost faith in One Master Signifier? (p.
209). At the end, she believes it is likely about personal journey:
It is the quiet shore of contemplation that I set
aside for myself, as I lay bare, under the
cunning orderly surface of civilizations, the
nurturing horror that they attended to pushing
aside by purifying, systematizing, and thinking;
the horror that they seize on in order to build
themselves up and function? I rather conceive it
as a work of disappointment, of frustration, and
hollowing probably the only counterweight to
abjection. While everything else its archeology
and its exhaustion is only literature: the
sublime point at which the abject collapses in a
burst of beauty that overwhelms us. (Kristeva
1989, p. 210)
It is in celebration of Kristevas words and the art and writing of
those genius thinkers who made their way into my text that I,
myself, collapse in that burst of beauty. Because perhaps abjection is
really that exhaustive search for the Thing that you cannot write or
negotiate or name, but love all the same.

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