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Abjection and Self-identity

Kristeva describes abjection as ‘the repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck.’ Her account of the ‘abject’ has received a great deal of attention since the 1980s, in part due to high
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  1 Abjection and Self-identity:Towards a revised account of purity and impurity Abstract: Kristeva describes abjection as ‗the repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side andturns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck.‘ Her account of the ‗abject‘ has received a great deal of attention since the 1980s, in part due to high demand for theoretical attentionto themes of purity and impurity, which remain important in contemporary society. YetKristeva, in 2004, herself has noted that ‗m y investigation into abjection, violence and horror... picks up on a certain vacuum‘ , and other scholars have agreed that there is need forfurther work on what Campkin has described as an ‗under theorized‘ topic . This article will  begin by exploring the central line of criticism that has been made of Kristeva‘s concept of  abjection, before then considering an attempt by Goodnow to address these concerns througha re-reading of Kristeva. Goodnow‘s re-reading of Kristeva, together with some conceptualclarifications from Hegel, will point the way towards a more precise account of purity andimpurity. I shall contend that Kristeva‘s work  on social abjection sometimes hits upon apattern, which greater conceptual precision will be able to revise into a new social theory of when and why themes of purity and impurity are invoked in Western societies. It will beargued that impure phenomena are those in which heterogeneity is seen to disturb aqualitative homogeneity, taken to be basic; pure phenomena are those understood to be all-of-a-piece and as a result identical with their essence. Introduction Sennett (1970: 21) has observed that ‗the desire for purity can dominate the acts of people nolonger enmeshed in the substantive problems of religion‘, and Bauman (2000: 108) has urgedrecognition and analysis of  ‗our contemporary obsessive concern with p ollution and  purification‘. Among the most prominent approach to the analysis of such themes has beenKristeva‘s work on abjection. Kristeva describes abjection a s ‗the repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck. The shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery‘ ([1980] 1982: 2). Impurity characterisesmatter which ‗a certain ―ego‖ that merged with its master, a superego, has flatly driven... away. It lies outside, beyond the set, and does not seem to agree to the latter's rules of the game‘ ([1980] 1982: 3 -4). Kristeva believes that her account of abjection is in agreementwith the famous aphorism of the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966: 44) that ‗dirt is matter out of place‘. In Purity and Danger  Douglas suggested that impurity is associated with thatwhich is rejected from classificatory systems or the social structure, and that this rejection iscaused by an innate human desire for order. Kristeva asserts that therefore it is ‗n ot lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. Whatdoes not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite ‘  ([1980] 1982: 4). It is formed out of the ‗judgement and affect, condemnation and yearning‘ associated with the rejection of the material body by the emergent subject (1980 [1982]: 4,10).Kristeva suggests that the basic heterogeneous flux of existence is curtailed and delineated to form the ‗symbolic‘ order of mean ingful language and personal subjectivity,and that ‗the danger of filth represents for the subject the risk to which the very symbolic order is permanently exposed, to the extent that it is a device of discriminations, of  differences‘ (1980 [1982]: 69) . This curtailment and delineation of heterogeneity at the level  2 of language repeats, Kristeva argues, the subject‘s srcinal struggle as an infant to develop anautonomous identity vis-à- vis our mother: ‗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‘ ([1980] 1982: 10). Kristeva thus superimposes upon Douglas‘ structural-functionalist argument the proposal that what runs againstclassificatory systems or the social structure is impure because of its association with theearly, infantile period of human life before the distinction of subjects from objects, self frommother: ‗defilement is the translinguistic spoor of the most archaic boundaries of the self'sclean and proper body. In that sense, if it is a jettisoned object, it is so from the mother([1980] 1982: 74). Kristeva‘s description of abjection is evocative, and vast in scope. It promisesprofound insight on a range of important topics: the construction of identity; the operation of language; the meaning of negative emotions; the psychology of phobia; horror narratives as aliterary genre, the repudiation and oppression of outsiders, violence against women, inter alia . As a result, Kristeva‘s concept of ‗abjection‘ has been widely used in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Yet Menninghaus ([2001] 2003: 389-94) has suggested thatsince the late 1980s there has been high demand for new social theory on the topic of purityand impurity, and particularly in the spheres of Anglophone politics, academia, art andcultural production. These themes have great social importance, but have been inadequatelyand insufficiently theorised. This is a point that has also been made by Kristeva (2004: 155) herself: ‗My investigation into abjection,   violence and horror... picks up on a certain vacuum‘ (see also Krauss 1999). It is not a question which other scholars or ‗the media has bother  ed to develop... and yet it is truly of capital importance‘ ([1996] 2000: 20), and thus ‗this ventureinto the (admittedly) dangerous terrain of abjection earned me much support‘ ([1997] 2002: 161). However, Menninghaus has argued, this uptake of the concept of abjection has occurred in a way that has ‗reified‘ the theory, in order to circumvent Kristeva‘s claims that purity and impurity classifications are ‗universally and biologically grounded (in the maternal body)‘([2001] 2003: 390). This ‗reified‘ acc ount has been able to engage with themes of purity andimpurity  –  but does so, Menninghaus suggests, without an adequate theoretical basis. Thoughthis certainly does not apply to all researchers drawing on Kristeva, de Nooy (1998: 289) hasconcluded from her review of academic uses of  Powers of Horror    that in practice ‗the abject‘has tended to ‗become a catch - all term for ―yucky‖ stuff‘. Campkin (2007: 79) has concludedhis review of work on purity and impurity by asserting that ‗the topic as a whole has beenunder theorized‘. I will attempt here to advance our understanding of social classifications of phenomena as pure or impure, which Kristeva theorises with the concept of  ‗abjection‘. In attempting to advance our understanding of this topic I will begin by exploring the central line of criticism that has been made of Kristeva‘s concept of abjection , before thenconsidering an attempt by Goodnow (2010) to address these concerns through a re-reading of Kristeva. This re-reading of Kristeva will point the way towards a new theory of impurity.Building beyond Kristeva, I will suggest that her concept of ‗abjection‘ is polyvalent in a way that makes it interesting, but has hidden a fundamental pattern in social discourses invokingpurity and impurity. Not all phenomena that we classify as impure is in-between orambiguous, and not all in-between or ambiguous phenomena are impure. Rather, it will beargued, the impure is that which is constructed as deviating from an essential state of srcinary homogeneity. Locating impurity within ‘ a bjection’    3 Powers of Horror   presents a theory of the ‗abject‘ as ‗what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, thecomposite ‘ . Following the work of  ‗the British anthropologist Mary Douglas‘, Kristeva argues that defilement ‗ is what escapes that social rationality, that logical order on which asocial aggregate is based, which then becomes differentiated from a temporary agglomerationof individuals and, in short, constitutes a classification system or a structure‘ ([1980] 1982: 65); ‗the pure will be that which conforms to an established taxonomy; the impure, that whichunsettles it, establishes intermix ture and disorder‘ ([1980] 1982: 98). Abjection is identifiedwith defilement by Kristeva (cf. Bataille [1957] 2007: 121). Kristeva‘s subsequent definitions of  ‗ abjection ‘ have privileged its denotation of the impure and disgusting (e.g. Kristeva 2003:118). Likewise, the main use of the ‗abjection paradigm‘ of  Powers of Horror  by subsequentscholars and cultural producers has been specifically as a way to address the meaning of phenomena and forms of subjectivity devalued as impure (Young 1990: 145; Covino 2004).Subsequent theorists have taken as axiomatic that the abject is always impure because it transgresses boundaries and have maintained that Kristeva agrees with Douglas that theabject ‗is above all the ambiguous, the in -between, what defies boundaries, a composite resistant to unity‘ (Lechte 1990: 160);   ‗the monstrous or deviant is a figure of abjection in sofar as it trespasses and transgresses the barriers between recognisable norms or definitions ‘  (Braidotti 1994: 82-3); ‗abjection occurs whenever set borders are crossed and transgression takes place‘ (Wenk 2008: 51).Yet the logic according to which phenomena are specifically coded as impure    –  asopposed to other constructions like scary or contemptuous  –  is not Kristeva‘s focus and is notpinned down. The theme of impurity oscillates in and out of focus in Powers of Horror  whenshe mobilises the concept of ‗abjection‘. Abjection is taken to mean variously: impure,ineffable, disgusting, horrifying, illicitly desirable, outside of logic, rejected by classification,maternal, continuous (as opposed to discrete). It can be discerned that not all phenomenaconstructed as impure are despised, in-between, transgressive or ‗out of place‘    –  for example,graphite. Likewise not all ‗out of place‘ phenomena are impure    –  for example, a masterpiecein a junkshop. This is a criticism of the ‗dirt is matter out of place‘ approach by a longsuccession of subsequent scholars, including Douglas herself in her later reflections (see e.g.Tambiah 1969; Thompson 1978; Douglas 1997; Valeri 2000: Navaro-Yashin 2009).Likewise not all phenomena that we use as a constitutive outside for our sense of self treatedas impure (for instance Kristeva does not situate Purity and Danger  as impure in moving tosurpass it), and certainly not all impure phenomena are deployed as constitutive outsides. Kristeva‘s   concept of ‗the abject‘ makes a significant, incisive point in discerning thatexceptions to social and cognitive norms do tend  to be classed as impure, and that they mayoften also serve an important function as the constitutive outside through which these normsoperate and are naturalised. But the concept of ‗abjection‘ is too polyvalent to precisely mapsuch purity and impurity discourses. The oscillating relationship between impurity and the concept of ‗the abject‘ is therefore a potential problem. Nor does Kristeva return to address this issue. Where Kristeva‘s later texts have discussed the abject they have generally reiterat ed rather thanelaborated upon her account of impurity in The Powers of Horror    as the ‗anomalous‘ withinan ‗identity, system order‘, whilst making other important theoretical innovations. In Tales of  Love [1983] 1987) and  Black Sun ([1985] 1989), Kristeva emphasises that abjection is onlyactivated when the subject feels unable to incorporate their experiences or symbolise themand distinguish them consciously from the self; however, the account of abjection itself remains unchanged from Powers of Horror  . Thus in  New Maladies of the Soul ([1993] 1995:118-119), Kristeva enthusiastically re- affirms Douglas‘ analysis of rules and transgressions, referring her reader back to The Powers of Horror  for her full argument on this matter. In The  4 Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt  ([1996] 2000: 21), Kristeva describes her account of thearchaic relation with the mother as the primary meaning of the abject as in full agreement with Douglas‘ ‗first rule‘ of impurity: ‗the impure is that which does not respect boundaries‘.She states that ‗the second rule, which does not exclude the first but is often concealed by it, ultimately sees the impure as the maternal‘ (see also [1997] 2002: 163; Clément & Kristeva [1998] 2001: 94-6; Kristeva [2005] 2010: 12-3, 160-1, 184-191). Goodnow ’s re-reading of Kristeva  An attempt to critically clarify Kristeva ‘s account of  abjection has recently been presented byGoodnow (2010), which points the way towards a more precise understanding of defilement. Goodnow applies Kristeva‘s work to the analysis of contemporary New Zealand cinema,critically considering her concepts in this light and in the light of a creative but rigorous reading of Kristeva‘s texts themselves. Goodnow is in agreement with the analysis presentedabove when she states that it is necessary to achieve a ‗differentiation‘ of ‗the abject‘, as ‗theconcept is otherwise too general to be fully useful‘ (2010: 33). Goodnow argues that Kristeva ‗offers a two -part argument. The first is that horror resides in threats to the boundaries thatordinarily regulate the social order: boundaries, for instance, between the living and the dead,human and animal, human and alien, male and female. The experience of these threats is the heart of our encounters with ―the abject‖.‘ This is the structuralist aspect of Kristeva‘s position in Powers of Horror  , weighed down by the debt to an account from Purity and  Danger  that even Douglas herself has subsequently disavowed as too static and imprecise (cf.Fraser 1992: 188; Butler 1993: 244; Douglas 1997). The ‗second part of the argument is thatall threats to boundaries cannot result in an equal sense of horror‘ , and that attention isrequired to the precise processes through which the abject serves as the constitutive outside of identity in situated practices (2010: 28). This second, post-structuralist aspect of Kristeva‘s argument regarding the abject, however, does not receive as salient an exposition in Powersof Horror    or Kristeva‘s other works (see also MacCannell 2003). Rather than attending to ‗various forms of the abject. The concern is more with universals‘ (2010: 58). A key worry of  Goodnow‘s is that if the abject is defined as that which ‗disturbs identity, system, order‘ thenthis does not ‗enable us to say whether  the emotion that results will be one of horror or one of   panic, suspicion, aggression, or amusement‘ (2010: 33). Impurity is not the only possiblecharacterisation of anomalous phenomena. For example, Goodnow identifies that ‗the wiping out of gender diffe rences need not be horrific‘, such as ‗in films in which men dress aswomen‘ (2010: 42). She therefore finds ‗gaps‘ in Kristeva‘s theory of ‗the abject‘ (2010: 141).Attempting to grapple with this second part of  Kristeva‘s argument, Goodnow turns her attention to Kristeva‘s use of the concept of ‗order‘. She notes that Kristeva follows Douglas in treating impurity as produced by an innate human aversion to the ‗in between, theambiguous‘ within a given ‗order‘ , because of its association with an archaic period of merger with the mother before there were boundaries between self and other. However,Kristeva uses the term ‗order‘ almost exclusively when aligning her discussion with the priorwork in anthropology, and at times notes in Powers of Horror  the term as characteristic of thestructuralist approach she adopts from Douglas (e.g. [1980] 1982: 91). Goodnow identifiesthat ‗order takes a variety of forms‘, and not all of them , when breached, are generative of themes of impurity. Illustrating her point using Kristeva‘s text Strangers to Ourselves ,Goodnow notes a ‗difficulty‘ in that foreigners are considered ever to undermine ‗order‘ and‗boundaries‘, but are not always represented as impure . Discussing Horse in the film Crush , Goodnow notes that ‗Horse is presented as a character with the same complexity and thesame style as the lead female: a daring equality‘ and that for viewers ‗this representation of a  5 Maori character places before them a multidimensional character who can only be for them a stranger‘. Pondering t his figure, Goodnow (2010: 66, 75) is led to criticise the imprecision of  Kristeva‘s argument about abjection as that which transgresses ‗order‘ , such as ‗boundaries‘  between self and other. For example, she suggests that ‗placing the analysis of strangersunder the general umbrella of defining ‗self‘ and ‗other‘‘ means that ‗the category of ‗the other ‘ now becomes extremely broad‘ and loses focus on constructions of impurity.Goodnow identifies that not all strangers are impure, though they do indeed breach theinternal and external boundaries of a society. This is a point that Kristeva ([2004] 2006: 63)herself appears to have ceded, and is in line with other research on the figure of the stranger(Cheng 1999; Bauman 2000; Karakayali 2006).A range of other scholars across sociology and the humanities have also articulated,like Goodnow, significant concern regarding the concept of ‗order‘ as an analytical tool. Forexample, in The Kingdom and the Glory ([2007] 2011) Agamben argues that ‗order is anempty concept, or, more precisely, it is not a concept‘. It does not have a substantive meaning itself, but rather ‗produces a displacement of the privileged place of ontology from thecategory of substance to the categories of relation and praxis‘ ([2007] 2011: 105 -6). By this,Agamben means that the term can refer to classificatory activity in general (e.g. ‗iseverything in order?‘) or classifications that correspond to the dictates of an essential truth (e.g. ‗ put th e items in this list in order‘). As a result,   discourses on ‗order‘ serve to hinge claims about present practices with assumptions about the true nature of the world. Theyassess immanent existence  –  such as the state of society  –  in terms of its correspondence witha tacit, imputed model. In doing so, particular phenomena can be picked out as disordered onthe basis of smuggled assumptions; c onsider, for instance, discourses such as ‗law and order‘or ‗psychological disorder‘. Garfinkel (2002: 118-9, 245) makes a parallel argument toAgamben in  Ethnomethodology’s Programme ,   distinguishing  between ‗order‘ and ‗order*‘.The former refers to the imputed ‗autonomous, endogenous, essential‘ truth from which phenomena may diverge, whereas the latter refers to the multiplicity of practices with theirparticular methods, truths, logics, coherences, etc. So on the one hand we have a specific meaning of order as correspondence with ‗essence‘, and on the other we have a generalmeaning of something which is in some, quite flexible, way ‗coherent‘.  Another example is the work of Bauman (2001: 35, 53), who has situated Douglas‘concept of ‗order‘ and her thesis that ‗dirt is matter out of place‘ as playing a pivotal role forhis overall sociological project. Indeed, Hetherington (1997: 57) has proposed that it is through the ‗work of Bauman... that the whole iss ue of social order has become a live one again‘ in the social sciences. Yet Bauman has been unclear regarding what he means by the term ‗order‘ (Law 1994: 84). Bauman has variously defined ‗order‘ as: the correspondence of  the world with any particular valued classificatory system; a perfect correspondence of theworld with any imputedly-natural regularity or law; or a correspondence of the nationalpopulation with the dictates of Western Reason. In fact, Bauman has admitted that he is quiteaware of this problem. In Postmodernity and its Discontents , Bauman (1997: 8) admits that he treats ‗sweeping the floor and stigmatizing traitors or banishing strangers‘ as stemmingfrom ‗the same motive of the preservation of order‘. Yet in fact , he states, these should beseen as quite different acts. He stated that the reason why he conflated them is his debt to Douglas‘ Purity and Danger     –    a theory he then described as unduly ‗universal‘ and‗extratemporal‘ (1997: 8). He has conceded that whilst Douglas‘ work offers g reat insights,her paradigm that ‗dirt is matter out of place‘ also has drawbacks which he must continuallydo his best to mitigate in his writings. Criticising the way that this approach reifiesclassification processes, Bauman (1992: 54) suggests that the focus on boundaries andtransgression is flawed and inadequate as a theory of purity and impurity. For instance, heechoes other critics in noting that not all ‗matter out of place‘ is impure: a masterpiece in a
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