Psychoanalysts Julia Kristeva and her predecessor Jacques Lacan have baffled graduate students for years due to their opaque and relentless psychoanalytical jargon seemingly dancing around concepts devoid of ubiety. Kristeva’s work seeks to carry on the psychoanalytic torch paved by the Freudian and Lacanian corpus to flesh out modes of experience in which one encounters that enigmatic Other which drives and occludes our understandings of reality.
In her book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Kristeva desires to question these modes of existence by connecting and expanding upon the psychoanalytic constellations such as ego, self, Other, and the Real. Her notion of the abject is a term which seeks to identify the landscape of repulsion and horror that are brought about by the crevices of reality that have failed to assimilate into any coherent, linguistic form. To this degree, abjection is the state of ambiguous disgust and fear which is the psychotic and physiological reaction to the approaching of Lacan’s concept of the Real.
For Lacan, there are three realms of our topographical psychiatry: The Imaginary, The Symbolic and The Real. Each domain compartmentalizes aspects of the self and through these connecting points we are able to navigate through both our psychological and social understandings of the internal and external realities.
The Imaginary is the domain of concepts, ideas and sensations which erupt from the Mirror Stage of infancy. When the child recognizes itself in the mirror for the first time, it becomes self-aware that its body is a finite entity; a separated and isolated being from the remainder of existence. The world as it appeared through the pre-mirror experience (all connected and all unified) is now fragmented. The self comes into reality but its tragedy rests in that the mirror constructs the self into that which is and simultaneously is not. The reflection is only a reflection but it is the primary and deceptive image from which we construct ourselves. The Mirror Stage is thus the eruption of existence into conscious landscapes buttressed on the reflective facade of the self displayed in the mirror. What occurs then is the concurrent isolation and induction of the child into the world of concepts and ideas. Meanwhile, this fragmentation of the self is one in which we attempt to reconcile throughout the remainder of our lives. From infancy we are split into images and experiences built upon a matrix of paradoxes and illusions.
The Symbolic Order is the world outside of ourselves, constructed through linguistic and semiotic formations. The Symbolic is thus the domain of signs by which society is organized one in which we are inducted into through language. It is the genetic makeup of the Superego which mediates our behavior and thoughts as the morally correct voice in our heads — the Jiminy Crickets in all of us. Signs are important here for this is the domain of semiotics where one is transformed into a “speaking subject” separated from the unconscious which bears with it the animal instincts of the Id.
Finally, Lacan’s Real is the ultimate landscape of reality and feeling where the totality of the Imaginary and Symbolic Order fail to compensate for the “remainder” of all symbolic products. What takes place in the act of symbolic enunciation is a transference of internal meaning into the linguistic formation constituted by predisposed, linguistic structures. During this process, some content is always lost and becomes the remainder or what pieces of meaning from one individual to another cannot be transferred. Not only does the receiver fail to grasp the remainder of meaning (post-linguistic transference) but so too does the sender fail to grasp what meaning he/she, in totality, is attempting to convey.
Thus, language fails both interlocutors. The meaning cut off by linguistic form is the Real. This being that which can be felt and perceived but may not be inducted into the symbolic realm. The Real is what has been excluded and still retained amongst the landscape of reality.
It is something primal, pre-language and untranslatable yet tugging at us constantly and disturbing the notion of self. To invoke Baudrillard, the symbolic constructs an illusion around us all and the Real is that which lies underneath, unobtainable due to the violent facade the symbolic creates through language.
To Kristeva, abjection is the feeling of approachment by which one comes into contact with the Real. It is the state where subject and object become blurred and the familiar and foreign are enmeshed. Its the realm of ambiguities and paradoxes where the symbolic cannot discern nature. The most common example is the sight of a corpse in which its form is that of a human but its state has now passed to another status that is foreign and repelling — an encounter with the Other and death. Thus, abjection is the experience of the Real and the accompanying horror that disperses away from symbolic understanding. Because it is outside of language it scares us, disgusts us and through its experiences it becomes quarantined off through the implementation of religion and taboo rites.
Human practices work around abjection and seek to produces borders to abstain from its encounter. Similar to Foucault’s biopolitics, Kristeva refers the maternal figure who demarcates the infant’s body by teaching he/she about the different orifices of the flesh. The body becomes its own symbolic figure through the mapping of where bodily excrement may be expelled. Thus the idea of purity and cleanliness is the objective of the human body in order to expel the abject, which in this case, is produced and released through personal, physiological locations.
Abjection is a depression occurring where the stitches of our reality become opened and the Symbolic Order we believe in is usurped. Kristeva builds abjection as the kernel to which culture revolves around and that is negation is how practices are built. However, as speaking subjects in a world of language (which is of itself flawed) we are bound to come into contact with the Real. When our notions of self are called into question, we can only look towards the Symbolic to stigmatize the abject experience. It is through this bordering of self that abjection can be occluded and made sense of. Yet, with every linguistic form, a remainder remains and it is that excess of the untranslatable which may eventually disrupt the concrete reality we believe to be absolute.
Editors note: Christopher will post part two of this piece in the coming weeks.