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Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection

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"Kristeva is one of the leading voices in contemporary French criticism, on a par with such names as Genette, Foucault, Greimas and others. . . Powers of Horror is an excellent introduction to an aspect of contemporary French literature which has been allowed to become somewhat neglected in the current emphasis on paraphilosophical modes of discourse. The sections on Céline, for "Kristeva is one of the leading voices in contemporary French criticism, on a par with such names as Genette, Foucault, Greimas and others. . . Powers of Horror is an excellent introduction to an aspect of contemporary French literature which has been allowed to become somewhat neglected in the current emphasis on paraphilosophical modes of discourse. The sections on Céline, for example, are indispensable reading for those interested in this writer and place him within a context that is both illuminating and of general interest." -Paul de Man


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"Kristeva is one of the leading voices in contemporary French criticism, on a par with such names as Genette, Foucault, Greimas and others. . . Powers of Horror is an excellent introduction to an aspect of contemporary French literature which has been allowed to become somewhat neglected in the current emphasis on paraphilosophical modes of discourse. The sections on Céline, for "Kristeva is one of the leading voices in contemporary French criticism, on a par with such names as Genette, Foucault, Greimas and others. . . Powers of Horror is an excellent introduction to an aspect of contemporary French literature which has been allowed to become somewhat neglected in the current emphasis on paraphilosophical modes of discourse. The sections on Céline, for example, are indispensable reading for those interested in this writer and place him within a context that is both illuminating and of general interest." -Paul de Man

30 review for Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection

  1. 4 out of 5

    Steven Godin

    ***1/2 As a post-modernist thinker, Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva believes that the only way one can relate to or understand the world is through the medium of language, and anything that is completely non-linguistic is literally unintelligible. In Powers of Horror Kristeva examines the notion of abjection through literature, she traces the role the abject has played in the progression of history, most notably in religion which she spends much time contemplating on. ***1/2 As a post-modernist thinker, Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva believes that the only way one can relate to or understand the world is through the medium of language, and anything that is completely non-linguistic is literally unintelligible. In Powers of Horror Kristeva examines the notion of abjection through literature, she traces the role the abject has played in the progression of history, most notably in religion which she spends much time contemplating on. Religion, according to Kristevea, is a natural response to the abject, for if one truly experiences the abject, they are prone to engage in all manners of perverse and anti-social behaviors. Therefore, religion creates a sort of buffer between one's mind and the abject and further represses them. She later turns to the work of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and the publication of 'Journey to the End of the Night' as an almost ideal example of the purgative, artistic expression of the abject. She begins though with what she calls a phenomenological investigation of the abject. In theory this simply means that Kristeva uses her personal experience, and the expressed experiences of others to get some idea of what the abject really is. In order to understand why the abject is not an object, one must under the post-modernist theory of language that Kristeva passionately subscribes to. Kristeva believes that the entire world, including one's self, is understood through language. It is the only lens through which we can see and understand anything. She closes her essay by noting that the usefulness of studying the abject can be found in its immense political and religious influence over the centuries. The institutions which wield power in the modern world, which she believes to be oppressive and inhumane, are built upon the notion that man must be protected from the abject. By facing the abject face-to-face one tears away the support of these institutions and embarks on the first movement that can truly undermine them. From the basic introduction, she delves into a more rigorous definition through different aspects of her subject matter, which in parts became far too complex and challenging for the likes of me. However, I was at least inquisitive, she got me thinking, even if some of her text did go about putting much strain on my grey matter. I'm sure this would go down better with the highbrow philosophy student or enthusiast. Difficult, but at least I stuck at it.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Gregsamsa

    I have often wondered how long it takes to become desensitized to the material you're working with if your job is to analyze or otherwise handle stool samples. You know, like in a lab. I also wonder whether this desensitization is dependent upon a clinical context or if it would "adhere" to the material across a spectrum of other hypothetical situations. When on a roll, I also wonder if the desensitization is permanent: suppose your duties (sorry) change, does the desensitization degrade to extin I have often wondered how long it takes to become desensitized to the material you're working with if your job is to analyze or otherwise handle stool samples. You know, like in a lab. I also wonder whether this desensitization is dependent upon a clinical context or if it would "adhere" to the material across a spectrum of other hypothetical situations. When on a roll, I also wonder if the desensitization is permanent: suppose your duties (sorry) change, does the desensitization degrade to extinction over time? Does the matter's repulsive character reassert itself? Obviously if I wonder stuff like this there is something wrong with me. Psychoanalytic thinkers would likely locate the problem somewhere in that zone where the sexual overlaps with the parental, aka "the ick field." The word "abject" comes from the Latin roots ab ("away") and jacere ("to throw"), and I'm not bringing that up just to change the subject, but introduction of the abject always changes the subject. Ah, the subject. In books like this, terms like "subject" and "other" take on meanings quite foreign to their day-to-day usage. Take the usual sense of the gross, the repulsive, the degraded in the abject, haul along the Latin roots for "throw away" (or "make distant" or "define as other than yourself") and name yourself--the thrower--"the subject" and we're well on our way to getting at this book's premise. Remember: it's subject as in subjective, not as in topic. We don't come out of the womb making sentences or using reason. We have yet to form even a concept of "I." This comes later when we are introduced into the world of the Symbolic Order, where representations of stuff in the big World Out There appear in our brains as Images In Here. Until then we are an unboundaried everything everywhere, undifferentiated from all sounds, sights, smells, skins, sheets, and poop. Oh there's that again. Please accept my humblest apologies for bringing that up again and, while I'm at it, for seeming to condescend or instruct here. It's just that I want this review to be something other than shop-talk for folks already familiar with this stuff, preferring instead to invite along as many curious readers as care to drink the Kool-Aid check it out. I should make it clear as well that I'm no expert, and I certainly have not read this book in the original language as my French extends no further than the edges of a menu. Important to this book and all others in its field is the idea that the identity of things is not just maintained by what they are, but by what they are not. A thing's thingness must be delimited, and that boundary that excludes what it is not is a substantial element of its identity. For a thing to be conceptually isolated, if only to be named, there must first be stuff that it is not, and these things contribute to the definition not only negatively ("I am not you") but positively within a larger category ("We are people") that provokes distinction more than others in the first place ("This neck-tie is not an ascot" as opposed to "This neck-tie is not The Pyramids"). This seems obvious, but if we apply it to the subject it suggests that the conceptualization of other people as such precedes the formation of the "I." This idea is the basis of what is called Jacques Lacan's "Mirror Stage", a theoretical construct he did not invent but sure didn't mind taking credit for. Uses of the mirror stage have ranged from speculation about the formation of selfhood being dependent upon a baby literally seeing an actual mirror and realizing through this "other" self its own discrete selfhood, to broader theoretical constructs that hold any "others" (mom, dad, a nanny, the cable guy) as the mirrored concept of person that is then applied to the self. In either case the notion of the self coalesces around (and to some degree is conditioned by) representations originating from without, rather than emanating from within like how it feels. At least to me. The (Anal)ogy of the Turd Let's return to that repressed scene in the lab at the top as a way of discussing Kristeva's categories of The Real, The Imaginary, and The Symbolic Order; we are organisms; we consume, we metabolize; we poop; this the the irreducible material fact of the matter: This is The Real. The Imaginary is that mental phase, or that facet of conscious selfhood's structure, where we have representations in our minds of the things in the world around us, of things that are "other," but which have not been totally subsumed by and defined within the context of social consensus, language, law, science, etc. The orphaned turd, once of us, is now abject, viscerally other, yet unlike many other others it has no function; it has no place; it has no purpose: it is shit. In the context of a laboratory, however, it has found its way into the Symbolic Order. It has been assimilated into the structure of reason; it has been domesticated by function, place, and significance. It may still be a little gross, but no longer abject. Has it changed on the level of The Real? No, apart from whatever alterations it suffered being stored and processed (some settling may have occurred during shipping). That is my analogy. Don't blame Julia Kristeva for my turd thing. Exhibit, O: The Horror Ostensibly other, the abject is not quite of The Symbolic Order, nor quite of The Real, but lurks within the shadows of The Imaginary where it is best poised to pose a threat to the integrity of that membrane which is the slash (/) in I/Other. You really don't want stuff causing leaks in that slash, seriously. OK maybe now and then recreationally, but generally: no. That leads to confusion; it leads to madness; it leads to HORROR. So does Kristeva go straight for the horror? No, she dithers with thin demos of "abject" with Dosdoyevski (I'm worth nothing!) and Proust (Don't look behind the curtain!) and Joyce (it Say ain't so!) and Borges (Poverty is exhorbitant), and Artaud (We need not pretend that we're dead). If differentiation is the most fundamental act of cognition, then maybe our first such act is noticing the difference between mom-is-here and mom-is-not-here (but not our complicated idea of "mom," just a warm food-source presence filling eyes and mouth). This then poses the initial organizing structure of cognition as a scheme of fear and desire on an axis of presence and absence. Absence=I want (will I have it again?). Presence=I have (but I might lose it again). That's my theory, but Freudians take this presence/absence thing into that whole Oedipal castration business; how a child knows a father "has" something down there which mom "has not," is no matter for my speculation (see the dep't. of child and family services). I think there is a lot to get from Kristeva's work even if you don't buy a ticket to that psychosexual haunted house. So the subject/object thing is trembly with the tension between two dangers: to seal off into a regressive narcism, or to overidentify with scattered others for a fragmented ego. In the session section describing "borderline" patients, she notes symptoms of their speech which seem indistinguishable from Kristeva's own in translation, and makes assertions based on such symptoms without citing any studies, so this part seems like an elaborate rationale for confirmation bias, with no nod to controlling for such, but that's just me pressing a hard Anglo-American science waffle-iron on batter whose intended state is batter.... But what batter subject than one whose relationship to waffles commplicates the clean subject/object structure of selfhood and communication, both sides implicit with auto-destruction? Sorry. I'll stop. Semiotics has a pretty cut-and-dried conceptualization of the sign: (Object--mental image of object--Sound Image--standing for object [heard word]--Visual Version of Sound Image [print/writing]--motor skill representation, spoken and written). Oh but not the Freudians. No. They've got to load up the structure of signification with all this inherent gender stuff: sign, meaning, and discourse is the real of The Law of the Father, while all that indeterminate iffyness of the imaginary is all on Mom which nowadays makes us chuckle and shake our heads gently with an amused mutter: oh, those Freudians. How responsible were they for the 50's? So where's all the HORROR? Where the integrity of that slash (/) in the self/other mental construction is threatened by representations which collapse or disrupt the sign/referent template underpinning it. The material version of that slash (SKIN!) in turn becomes a representation of the inside/outside demarcation and assertions of selfhood bring forth all it contains, the juicy stuff: "Urine, blood, sperm, excrement then show up in order to reassure a subject that is lacking its 'own and clean self'." But how could she forget phlegm and bile? Someone needs to read her Burton. Whenever I see that stuff I'm like Eeyw that is seriously abject. What is the opposite of abject? Sacred. This would be a more intense example of things meaning what they do by what they do not. When mentally feeling my way about such matters, I like to switch stuff out: (a version of Roland Barthes' "commutation test") imagine pious believers bowing before a grand plinth holding up a revered brown coil of crap, or tourists lined up in an American museum to look at glass boxes containing the preserved vomit of our Founding Fathers. Or: diners becoming ill when they learn their soup had a cross dipped in it, or local disgust prompting a hotel owner to burn a bed after learning Ghandi had used it. OK much of my inner life is a Bunuel movie but I admitted something was wrong at the outset. Oh but here's the deal: the gross juicy parts that should reside on the inside this-side boundary of the Me/Other demarcation are realized as like totally icky Other (who is not grossed out by their own guts, snot, pus, etc?) right when the true real innerness is grasped for when that in/out distinction is troubled. So, see: the real tension is between our careful Me/not-me mental construct of selfhood and the abject within. Some nuns are used to recouping this misiteration by claiming self-abjection for the Sacred team, cheering for its triumph in the big Symbolic Order Finals coming up next Fall. But who will take an abject nun to the Homecoming dance? Eternity. Language. Nations. History. Etc. The glamorous flip-side of the sacred is of course the profane, and the possibility of ritual defilement is created by sacred prohibitions themselves through naming the excluded and/or symbolically expelling it in ritual purification. "Defilement is what is jettisoned from the 'symbolic system.' It is what escapes that social rationality, that logical order on which a social aggregate is based, which then becomes differentiated from a temporary agglomeration of individuals and, in short, constitutes a classification system or a structure." (her emphases) This is where things stray from Freud and into the distinctly Lacanian deal: it's all linguistic. Anyway, re filth: "A threat issued from the prohibitions that found the inner and outer borders in which and through which the speaking subject is constituted--borders also determined by the phonological and semantic differences that articulate the syntax of language." Yeah and but some such threateners (like poop!) contain no merely metaphorical contaminants (uh, e coli?) and present threats to the subject on the level of The Real like for real, a lesson learned long before science. Seems obvious, but... "...one question remains unanswered. Why does corporeal waste, menstrual blood and excrement... represent--like a metaphor that would have become incarnate--the objective frailty of symbolic order?" What amuses me about Lacanians, especially the main one, Jacques Lacan, is that they (and especially he) will go to great lengths trying to mimic the rhetoric and rigor of science but not notice the real thing when it's close enough to smell. Kristeva answers the above question with no banal bothering with a topic so small as germs and instead posits that the poop's threat comes from the ego being "threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside," while blood "stands for the danger issuing from within the identity (social or sexual); it threatens the relationship between the sexes withing the social aggregate and, through internalization, the identity of each sex in the face of sexual difference." See? So it's not about disease. It's about dis-ease. Interestingly, her pre-AIDS argument posits tears and sperm as non-threatening excresences, but I feel if she'd been born later the sperm-threat would involve Patriarchal Authority or somesuch rather than The Real reasons. She continues in this vein with subject headings that I want to make short-story titles: *Maternal Authority as Trustee of the Self's Clean and Proper Body *Semiotics of Biblical Abomination *Sin as Requisite for the Beautiful *Oedipus the King or Invisible Abjection This is all largely a rewrite of Freud's Taboo and Civilization, through a Lacanian syntacticization (hee hee, sorry) of self/other arrangements. The general themes: Societies seek clarity and stability by adhering to divisions and heirarchies ordered by purity/impurity binary concepts informed by gender, caste, and/or other differentiations I don't have room to go into. I could go on, trust me. The last third of this book has the most beautiful writing (in translation, anyway) but for that go to Kristeva on Proust, cuz here she just does it on Celine the Nazi. Haven't read him. Don't care to.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Keith

    Reading this book makes you feel like you're uncovering the darkest, most sinister secrets of the universe. In fact, I'm fairly certain I read somewhere that the first edition of Powers of Horror was bound in human flesh and inked in blood, but I might be thinking of something else. Admittedly, parts of it will be near-incomprehensible the first time through (unless you wrote your dissertation on Lacan, I suppose). But you'll more than likely be goaded into a second reading anyway by Kristeva's fuckin Reading this book makes you feel like you're uncovering the darkest, most sinister secrets of the universe. In fact, I'm fairly certain I read somewhere that the first edition of Powers of Horror was bound in human flesh and inked in blood, but I might be thinking of something else. Admittedly, parts of it will be near-incomprehensible the first time through (unless you wrote your dissertation on Lacan, I suppose). But you'll more than likely be goaded into a second reading anyway by Kristeva's fucking gorgeous writing. The final chapter alone justifies the work it takes to get through the preceding ten. I'm pretty much convinced at this point that the French language is syntactically incapable of rendering anything other than constant poetic beauty, even when translated. Lucky bastards.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Eirin

    One of the heaviest theory-books I've ever read; starting the first chapter I was ready to give up, but couldn't, due to the fact that I had to write a report on it. At times I felt like crying, especially after having dragged myself through fifty pages in six to eight hours and I felt like I'd understood nothing at all. But it was so gratifying to get through it. Kristeva's language is beautiful (even translated into English), so that made a lot of it almost delightful to read. Some of the theo One of the heaviest theory-books I've ever read; starting the first chapter I was ready to give up, but couldn't, due to the fact that I had to write a report on it. At times I felt like crying, especially after having dragged myself through fifty pages in six to eight hours and I felt like I'd understood nothing at all. But it was so gratifying to get through it. Kristeva's language is beautiful (even translated into English), so that made a lot of it almost delightful to read. Some of the theory went absolutely over my head, and some I thought were absolutely nonsense, but I actually enjoyed a lot of it. That which I understood and agreed with were so eloquently put I kept exclaiming "That's how it really is!". So all in all, pretty good, I think. And I managed to write that report.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Artifice Magazine

    The only real downside to this book is that reading it requires you to translate every damn thing from Freud to Makes-Sense. To be clear: there's a high amount of Makes-Sense in this book, but it requires you to read each instance of the word "phallus," for example, as "concept of the law," etc. I'd be interested in seeing what someone from a non-psychoanalytic background could do with the basic ideas in this book...

  6. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    Kristeva starts strong, with a fascinating idea-- the abject-- and then seems to signpost the way to some very interesting research, contrasting it with the sublime and relating it to the close relationship between the human ideal and the human body, and what happens when those two don't really sync up. Then she flushes that idea with a chapter of Lacanian jargon, pretty much the sole academic vocabulary that just reads in my mind as "Bullshit bullshit bullshit. Bullshit bullshit can Kristeva starts strong, with a fascinating idea-- the abject-- and then seems to signpost the way to some very interesting research, contrasting it with the sublime and relating it to the close relationship between the human ideal and the human body, and what happens when those two don't really sync up. Then she flushes that idea with a chapter of Lacanian jargon, pretty much the sole academic vocabulary that just reads in my mind as "Bullshit bullshit bullshit. Bullshit bullshit can also bullshit." And then, to a certain extent, she turns it around with an account of horror and prohibition in the Old Testament, how that relates to Judaeo-Christian and Platonic concepts. Then she takes it to even higher heights with this simultaneously adulating and excoriating criticism of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and it's one of the few pieces of literary criticism that reaches the brilliance of a Susan Sontag or a Walter Benjamin. So just ignore that crap in the middle, even if it's supposed to be a theoretical underpinning. The rest is great.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Carrie Lorig

    EAT THIS THING EAT IT AND BE COVERED IN YOUR OWN

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    Kristeva, like most of the French theorists of her era, is somewhat hit or miss: at times, as in her analysis of Proust or her work on the early novel, she's amazing. Other times, such as her own works of fiction, she's quite lackluster and some of her scholarship on the social psychology of contemporary Europe seems like overly obvious observations cast into florid language. In Powers of Horror though she's at her finest, drawing on her dual careers as a practicing psychoanalyst and a linguist. Krist Kristeva, like most of the French theorists of her era, is somewhat hit or miss: at times, as in her analysis of Proust or her work on the early novel, she's amazing. Other times, such as her own works of fiction, she's quite lackluster and some of her scholarship on the social psychology of contemporary Europe seems like overly obvious observations cast into florid language. In Powers of Horror though she's at her finest, drawing on her dual careers as a practicing psychoanalyst and a linguist. Kristeva's main thesis here is that what we call "horror" as a literary genre or a device in literature, film, or associated arts is really an outward manifestation of abjection, yet not the only manifestation of Lacanian abjection. Disjust, also, would be such a manifestation. The power of her work however is that she is able to connect the appeal of horror, of the abject, to the concept of the sublime in a way that finally investigates why we enjoy an attraction to things that would seem only to repulse any sane creature. That said, she could have taken things further: the book is slim in translation (I've yet to see the French original but have no reason to believe it was longer) and there's ample ground she could still cover. For one, the attraction of adolescents to horror—and let's face it, they are the primary horror genre demographic for films and to an extent for literature—is something I would like to see her examine, and for that matter, she could even look into the comparative biology of mammals to be either repulsed or attracted to various forms of danger. We tend to think that animals flee from danger or repulsion, but many are curious to a degree just as humans are, and any psychobiological connections someone as adept on the topic as Kristeva could draw might be very useful. Likewise, there are many more literary examples she could approach: it would not be hard to produce a 500+ page book from this topic at all. Kristeva's one of the greatest scholars of her generation, and she could—and should—mine this fascinating yet oft-overlooked topic of abjection further.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Neil and Elodie Goodman

    In Pouvoirs de l'horreur Kristeva explores abjection, a condition which is fundamental in the formation of identity, where the "abject" subject acts in a transgressive revolt of the Oedipal (sexual) identity and of the sexual specificity. Closely related to narcissism, abjection can thereby be equated to Lacan's mirror formation, and women, not men, are even more structurally closer to abjection throughout their lives. Abjection for women is an ongoing struggle, one that brings into play (or pla In Pouvoirs de l'horreur Kristeva explores abjection, a condition which is fundamental in the formation of identity, where the "abject" subject acts in a transgressive revolt of the Oedipal (sexual) identity and of the sexual specificity. Closely related to narcissism, abjection can thereby be equated to Lacan's mirror formation, and women, not men, are even more structurally closer to abjection throughout their lives. Abjection for women is an ongoing struggle, one that brings into play (or plays within?) borderline states. For Kristeva, abjection is that which can be experienced as disgust (le dégoût), the body's reaction, phobic or revolting, against the polarization of fusion and separation. Questions of identity, boundary crossing, and exile, Pouvoirs de l'horreur, states that the abject subject prevents the return to the archaic maternal figure, for it revolts itself against the boundaries that separates it from her. The abject, one can suppose, is the melancholic transition between the pre-symbolic mother to the identification with the father (in the symbolic). Reading this book helped form, in part, the subject of my Pages Arrachées, for she is just as torn, and rebellous, and yet attracted to those abject boundaries as the abject subject in formation.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Arnie Rodriguez

    After reading some of the reviews here I was a little worried that I was not going to like this "essay". Kristeva is one of my favorite scholars so I took the plunge and bought it. I must say that I really enjoyed reading it. I challenge anyone to read this and not come away with a new perspective. Some of the negative reviews have focused on how challenging the book is to read. I did not find this to be true at all. The theory itself is not challenging but rather the translation is. Leon Roudie After reading some of the reviews here I was a little worried that I was not going to like this "essay". Kristeva is one of my favorite scholars so I took the plunge and bought it. I must say that I really enjoyed reading it. I challenge anyone to read this and not come away with a new perspective. Some of the negative reviews have focused on how challenging the book is to read. I did not find this to be true at all. The theory itself is not challenging but rather the translation is. Leon Roudiez (who died in 2004 I believe) translated several of Kristeva's works and I did enjoy reading those but the translation he did for this book seems a little off. There were too many instances where the translation was repetitive, felt embellished and was just plain wordy. I found myself having to re-read some sentences as a result. Other than the translation issue (I am sure Kristeva could write an entire book on translation theory), I consider this to be one of Kristeva's best works.

  11. 4 out of 5

    David Williamson

    I’m a little nonplussed here, after reading two pages I thought this was going to be a good read, a slow read, but a good one. After the two pages my enthusiasm, interest, and attention wandered all over the place. I couldn’t find an argument, so I ventured on in search of pathos, after not really giving much kudos to any of the readings to writers I am very fond of – Dostovesky, Proust, Celine – I skim read the rest looking for anything of interest. After spending several years reading Fr/>

  12. 5 out of 5

    Keith Wilson

    There is a psychological mechanism that isn’t very well known yet is involved behind the scenes in many emotions. It plays a part in disgust, revulsion, repugnance, aversion, distaste, nausea, abhorrence, loathing, detestation, horror, contempt, weird, outrage, terror, fear, fright, panic, dread, trepidation, hatred, hate, abomination, execration, odium, antipathy, dislike, hostility, animosity, ill feeling, bad feeling, malice, animus, enmity, aversion, shame, humiliation, mortification, chagri There is a psychological mechanism that isn’t very well known yet is involved behind the scenes in many emotions. It plays a part in disgust, revulsion, repugnance, aversion, distaste, nausea, abhorrence, loathing, detestation, horror, contempt, weird, outrage, terror, fear, fright, panic, dread, trepidation, hatred, hate, abomination, execration, odium, antipathy, dislike, hostility, animosity, ill feeling, bad feeling, malice, animus, enmity, aversion, shame, humiliation, mortification, chagrin, ignominy, embarrassment, indignity, discomfort and repugnance, among others. Really, just about any negative emotion has this mechanism involved. What is this mysterious power behind the curtain of so many intense, uncomfortable emotions? It’s called abjection. It is the subject of Julia Kristeva's book, The Powers of Horror. Abjection is what happens when there is a breakdown of the distinction between self and other. It’s necessary for your development into an independent, functioning human being. To illustrate abjection at its most elemental, do this simple thing. Get a glass of water. Spit in it. Now drink it. If you’re like most people, you’ll be grossed out just by the thought. You have spit in your mouth all the time and frequently swallow it; but, by expelling it from your body, you make it an object apart from you; sort of. It’s not like any other external object because before you spit it out, it was a part of you. You had no trouble with it then and you would have no trouble drinking the water before you spit in it, even though the water was not a part of you, an other. After you expelled the spit, it became other; but a special kind of other, an other that has been abjected. Try to drink it again and the concepts of self and other become all mixed up and confused. That’s when the trouble begins. You would have the same trouble if you watched someone else expel their spit into a glass and tried to drink that. Even though it’s not your spit, it’s still spit, an abjected thing. No one wants to drink something abjected by anyone. The psychological mechanism is there for a reason. Its purpose is to help you differentiate. Differentiation, another psychological mechanism, is the lifelong process of changing from a cell in your mother’s body to becoming an independent and distinct human being. At every stage of this process, there’s a whole lot of abjection going on. For instance, when you were a baby, you likely sucked milk from your mother’s breasts. Think about doing that now as an adult. It turned your stomach a little, didn’t it? In this case, the act of sucking milk from your mother’s breasts has been abjected. Abjection is what drives and confirms differentiation. It’s there, too, when, after a certain age, your mother wants to dress you in certain clothes, but you have your own stuff; when your father wants to know how your date went last night, but it went so well that you don’t want to tell him; and when you think about moving back home and sleeping in your old bed with the Spiderman pillowcases. If you are horrified at the thought of wearing clothes your mother picked out for you, telling your father about your sex life, and living once again in your childhood home, it’s because you have differentiated yourself. You have abjection to thank for that and abjection to face if you try to turn back. When you know about abjection, it’s not hard to find yourself abjecting all over the place. Think about any part of yourself you would really rather not have. Let’s say you hate your big, soft belly. If you could just cut it off and remove it, you would; but what you settle on doing is exercising and trying to eat right, but mostly just hating it. Of course, you will not only hate your belly, you’re going to hate other people’s big bellies, too. The person you’re going to hate the most, and be the most abjected by, is going to be that big, fat person, eating an ice cream cone, waddling down the street. You’re going to think that person is disgusting. What are you disgusted by? You’re looking at an abjected version of yourself. It’s not hard to see how abjection can be implicated in all kinds of bad thoughts and behavior. Intolerance and prejudice, narrow-mindedness and bigotry, prudishness and hypocritical self-righteousness all have their roots in abjection. But, before you abject your abjection, thank it for what it does for you. It shaped you into the unique individual you are. If you look at abjection closer, there’s more to see. The abjected has a weird kind of grip on you. You find it difficult to turn away. An accident on the highway is an example. Emergency vehicles, wrecked cars, injured motorists, lifeless corpses are all things you don’t like to see. Why then do you slow down to see them? It’s the abjection. Emergency vehicles, wrecked cars, injured motorists, lifeless corpses are all abjected objects. Because you can see yourself as part of an accident, you’re drawn to it even though you dread the thought. You have an affinity for it, despite your disavowals. To be precise, you are ambivalent regarding your abjected objects. You experience both a revulsion from and attraction towards them at the same time. Abjection, an exception to the distinction between self and other, is a puzzle to be solved. Who doesn’t like a good puzzle? The reason for this ambivalence is because differentiation is not the only good thing to be pursued. In the epic journey you are on from being an egg, indistinguishable from your mother, to an adult, you are becoming someone who can change things to suit you. That’s all well and good, but wouldn’t it be better if things just suited you from the beginning? It did suit you in the beginning when you were a fetus, swimming in your mother’s womb, all your needs provided before you even knew you had them. While there is a pull to become independent, there is an almost equal pull back to the womb. At times, the pull in the womb’s direction is stronger. This pull towards the womb is another psychological mechanism, but we won’t get into that now. That’s a whole other can of worms that will require at least another post to explain. How can you mitigate some of the harmful effects of abjection? For instance, how can you reduce your belly without hating your belly and all those who have big bellies? Drink that glass of water with your spit in it and you’ll demonstrate to yourself how. If you were to succeed, you would do so by telling yourself it’s all right and forcing it down. Do that repeatedly and, in time it’ll be no big deal. It’s not that you’ll learn to relish spit, but you’ll be able to drink it if you needed to. This is how garbage men and sewage workers come to tolerate their jobs, how a nurse can clean your wound of pus, and how a shrink can listen to hours of crazy talk without going crazy himself, most of the time. How does this work with the belly? Instead of making your belly an abjected belly, one you’re ashamed of; make it a respected one. It’s not your belly’s fault it’s big; it’s just doing what bellies do. Appreciate it for its ability to expand to contain everything you put in it. That’ll go down as easy as spit, but it’s true; your belly is a wonderous thing. When you learn to cherish your belly, maybe you’ll learn to take better care of it; maybe not. The point is, you don’t have to hate your belly for it to get smaller. You just have to eat less. When I was about five, my parents took me on a trip to New York City. We did all the usual tourist things, but what I remember best was my first sight of a man with a missing leg, struggling to get through the subway turnstile. I had nightmares of that image afterwards. I had never seen an amputee before and I was horrified in the same way you might be if you slowed down to look at an accident. Yes, you’re right; I was abjecting. Do I still feel this way when I see an amputee? Of course not. I’ve gotten used to it. Not so much that I don’t notice when someone is missing a leg; but to the extent it doesn’t give me nightmares. I have claimed this abjection; not as something fully a part of me, but as an abjection. I have created a third class. Where there was once me and not me; now there’s me, not me, and abjected me on the border of me with only one leg, stuck in the turnstile. When you get right down to it, abjection is an immature psychological mechanism, useful in beginning stages of differentiation, but less useful thereafter. It was good when it turned you away from your mother’s breast and made you interested in eating solid food, but when it gets you repulsed by anyone with a big belly, including yourself, the side effects start to outweigh the benefits. The problems abjection causes are really the problems that are created whenever we only have two categories in which to sort things. Having two categories is twice as good as having one, in which everything is a single, undifferentiated mass, but it’s not as good as having many categories in which you can capture subtle differences. In other words, recovering from abjection involves recognizing that the world is more gray than black and white and the border between what is you and not you is not as solid as you’d like. Keith Wilson writes about the intersection of psychotherapy and philosophy in his blog series, The Reflective Eclectic

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    Gave up around the halfway point. The good stuff reminded me of Anzaldúa's Borderlands. The rest was Freud. Unfortunately, there was a lot of Freud. I gave up when JK started referencing non-European cultures' gender dynamics... without acknowledging that some of those cultures include non-binary genders. Whether she wasn't aware of that information or left it out because it didn't fit her argument, I have no idea. Another reviewer mentioned that once you get past this middle but, the good stuff Gave up around the halfway point. The good stuff reminded me of Anzaldúa's Borderlands. The rest was Freud. Unfortunately, there was a lot of Freud. I gave up when JK started referencing non-European cultures' gender dynamics... without acknowledging that some of those cultures include non-binary genders. Whether she wasn't aware of that information or left it out because it didn't fit her argument, I have no idea. Another reviewer mentioned that once you get past this middle but, the good stuff comes back and her critiques become as brilliant as Sontag's--I've never read Sontag, but exploring her work sounds like a better use of my time at this point.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Vehbi Görgülü

    A challenging book that compasses the detailed analysis of abjection within the context of psychoanalysis literature, religious cultures and contemporary art. Kristeva extends her distinction of abjection between semiotic and the symbolic that she theorized in Revolution in Poetic Language. In Powers of Horror, she further explores abjection, and its relation with the authority of religion, morality, politics, and language that comes through the repression of horror of the abjected body.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Whitney

    First read in 2008: "Beautifully written and completely impossible to understand at times. I still don't get why sperm isn't abject...I don't know. If you like reading about poop, this is the book for you." Much more comprehensible after reading the Girard, Freud, Lacan, and Bataille she's referencing.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Maud

    Well, I did it.

  17. 5 out of 5

    tasha

    once again, jared, 19

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ibtihal Mahmood

    I became interested in the "abject" after I started reading the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, where "abjection" was the first entry, and Kristeva's phenomenal and insightful work was referenced in the definition. In this essay, Kristeva contrasts Lacan's "objet petit a." She writes, "It is not the white expanse or slack boredom of repression, not the translations and transformations of desire that wrench bodies, nights, and discourse; rather it is a brutish suffering that, "I" puts up wit I became interested in the "abject" after I started reading the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, where "abjection" was the first entry, and Kristeva's phenomenal and insightful work was referenced in the definition. In this essay, Kristeva contrasts Lacan's "objet petit a." She writes, "It is not the white expanse or slack boredom of repression, not the translations and transformations of desire that wrench bodies, nights, and discourse; rather it is a brutish suffering that, "I" puts up with, sublime and devastated, for "I" deposits it to the father's account [verse au pere—pere-uersion]: I endure it, for I imagine that such is the desire of the other." Religion and art, says Kristeva, are two ways of "purifying" the abject. She concludes her essay by revealing the importance of the abject in its ties to politics and religion; the most powerful - yet inhumane and oppressive - institutions built on the notion that we must be protected from the abject.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Basila Hasnain

    Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. Is it aphorism or poetry or philosophy ? or is it magnificence of a mind that can weave a pattern of logic so unique and complex. How can I be without border? abject is a friend who stabs.... I can quote so many things from the book as if it was a long poem a Romantic Ode Cant get myself to praise any less. Its the kind of work you keep reading and never want to chuck it to anyone and yet wish everyone would know what it feels like reading Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. Is it aphorism or poetry or philosophy ? or is it magnificence of a mind that can weave a pattern of logic so unique and complex. How can I be without border? abject is a friend who stabs.... I can quote so many things from the book as if it was a long poem a Romantic Ode Cant get myself to praise any less. Its the kind of work you keep reading and never want to chuck it to anyone and yet wish everyone would know what it feels like readings it It is the kind of book I cant critique , because am in love with it , like Woolf's novel I cant lay it out but I can assure absolute Love :)

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ietrio

    This is a cute piece of literary navel gazing. There is no meaning in the conventional sense. Only a long list of empty emotions in which both author and translator do their best to illustrate that vague feeling devoid of reason. It is the metallic taste of Heminguay's oysters, only Kristeva has no idea what she is looking for, so she remains vague and wordy. From one side it is a very interesting flight less through the mind, and more through the entrails of the author. From another it is a poo This is a cute piece of literary navel gazing. There is no meaning in the conventional sense. Only a long list of empty emotions in which both author and translator do their best to illustrate that vague feeling devoid of reason. It is the metallic taste of Heminguay's oysters, only Kristeva has no idea what she is looking for, so she remains vague and wordy. From one side it is a very interesting flight less through the mind, and more through the entrails of the author. From another it is a poorly executed draft that needed a lot more polishing before sending it to the publisher.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    If you're able to get past all the Lacanian psychoanalytic gobbledygook and what seems to me to be a very casual understanding of the cultures of several indigenous people groups (I don't have any background on any of the said groups, so I can hardly be critical of Kristeva, but her tone and the sources from which she draws are red flags), there are some very interesting things said about abjection and the self in this book. I look forward to incorporating it into my own research.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Johnny

    Kristeva situates the historical fear of 'the abject' within judeo-christian mythology and further illustrates her vision with support from literature, namely the work of french novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The last third of the essay is dedicated to a discussion of Céline's writings, but the theory preceding her analysis should benefit anyone interested in queer theory, deconstruction, the horror genre, or any of their intersections.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    3.5 An Essay on abjection? More like a fancy excuse to talk about your favourite author for literally half of the book. The first half was helpful, interesting and beautifully written, if not easy to read. The rest was an analysis of Celine. I would have found it a lot more helpful had she used different authors to proof her point. But oh well.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Raelene

    Abjection: an incredibly complex, compelling, difficult and compelling idea. Kristeva's text is equal ponderously dense and incredibly beautiful and yields overwhelmingly insightful details at every (re)reading.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Leonard Pierce

    If I could recommend one book on literary theory to people who aren't otherwise interested in the field, it would probably be this one. Moving, thoughtful and well-written; it can change the way you experience reading.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Steve Owen

    An interesting spin on the uncanny's darker cousin, abjection.

  27. 4 out of 5

    sologdin

    gotta love the progression of abomination to sin to fascist celine.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Miguel

    Kristeva's Powers of Horror delivers a powerful vision that repudiates the criticism of postmodern and psychoanalytic viewpoints of difference and negativity. Kristeva takes aim at the fallacy that disillusion of identity would result in a radically homogeneous space. Take, for instance, the black and white episode of The Fairly Odd Parents where all the characters are reduced to grey blobs, without identity, utterly indistinguishable and interchangeable. This is a mischaracterization of these theories. This Kristeva's Powers of Horror delivers a powerful vision that repudiates the criticism of postmodern and psychoanalytic viewpoints of difference and negativity. Kristeva takes aim at the fallacy that disillusion of identity would result in a radically homogeneous space. Take, for instance, the black and white episode of The Fairly Odd Parents where all the characters are reduced to grey blobs, without identity, utterly indistinguishable and interchangeable. This is a mischaracterization of these theories. This mischaracterization is based on the premise that identity is, in fact, what distinguishes people when it is in fact simply giving a name to (and, in turn, homogenizing) those things that distinguish people. Kristeva offers the image of an anti-identitarian world of radical heterogeneity. Identity is the straightening tool. Identity is the homogenizer, the remover. Theories of negativity ask people to step radically out of line rather than exchange their individuality for convenience. It is, in fact, the identitarian logic of liberal humanism that seeks to produce indistinguishable, interchangeable subjects. Liberal humanism offers a future where differences are recognized and then dismissed as irrelevant, are noted, written down, categorized, archived and summarily treated as curios and meaningless data. The things that separate us are the things that identity can never name. Desire, repression, and abjection. Abjection, almost literally, is that which distinguishes one individual from another. As Kristeva outlines abjection as one of her primary theoretical interests in this text, she defines it in several ways which are incompatible with each other. Kristeva discusses the removal of that which the social order cannot abide, the process by which the abject is abjected as 'abjection'. However, she also considers abjection to be the superegoic force that turns a subject away from the abject. If the abject is somehow dangerous, the drive to turn away from it is a superegoic intervention into the subject to protect 'physical' or mental health depending on the circumstance. Reconciling these two definitions is not easy, but perhaps not necessary. Simply thinking of both as dimensions of abjection and having a relationship to the construction of the social order is crucial. Kristeva also offers powerful accounts of psychoanalytic case studies and literature itself. At the text's conclusion, Kristeva writes, "literature as such represents the ultimate coding of our crises, of our most intimate and most serious apocalypses" (208). There is much to mine beyond these meta-concerns, too. Kristeva articulates a certain kind of anti-identitarian feminism that is a welcome intervention in contemporary conversations surrounding gender. Abjection is an important principle that can guide through the various terrains Kristeva masterfully navigates.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    The notion of abjection is absolutely brilliant and, since being introduced to it, I see it everywhere. This book certainly formed my ideas on it and there are several moments of brilliance contained within it. There were definitely some things I could have done without, namely the analysis of Céline's works. I found that unhelpful and a bit pointless, and mostly skimmed it. I also sometimes found her writing style frustrating - the amount of commas! She feels the need to clarify almost every wo The notion of abjection is absolutely brilliant and, since being introduced to it, I see it everywhere. This book certainly formed my ideas on it and there are several moments of brilliance contained within it. There were definitely some things I could have done without, namely the analysis of Céline's works. I found that unhelpful and a bit pointless, and mostly skimmed it. I also sometimes found her writing style frustrating - the amount of commas! She feels the need to clarify almost every word she uses. Or: she, meaning Kristeva, feels, that is, experiences an emotion or desire, the need, and not a want, but a need, to clarify, to explain, to elucidate, almost, and by almost I of course mean not all, every word, or turn of phrase, that she uses, or, rather, writes. See how frustrating that is!!! I understand that that's the way of theorists but it's so frustrating to extract her meaning sometimes. Despite those frustrations, I love the theory of abjection and her work on it is incredibly important.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jesús Escobar Sevilla

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. An insightful rumination on the avowed conceptions of the abyect and sin. It seems to me, mostly, that the chapters on filth and sin were the most useful, but, I was not lured in the main. With the benefit/disgrace of hindsight, some of Kristeva s ideas have been too prevalent in current literature. I'd recommend it on scholars working on the body and with an interest in advancing knowledge of psychoanalysis.

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