From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- The act of bringing down or humbling.
- "The abjection of the king and his realm."
- The state of being rejected or cast out.
- "An abjection from the beatific regions where God, and his angels and saints, dwell forever."
- A low or downcast condition; meanness of spirit; abasement; degradation.
The term Abjection literally means "the state of being cast off." In usage it has connotations of degradation, baseness and meanness of spirit.
In critical theory
In contemporary critical theory, abjection is often used to describe the state of often-marginalized groups, such as women, people of color, prostitutes, convicts, poor people, disabled people, and queer or LGBT people. In this context, the concept of abject exists in between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, something alive yet not. This term is used in the works of Julia Kristeva. Often, the term space of abjection is also used, referring to a space that abjected things or beings inhabit. William Apess used the term in the early 1800s in "An Indian's Looking-Glass For The White Man" to describe the plight of the Native Americans.
According to Kristeva, since the abject is situated outside the symbolic order, being forced to face it is an inherently traumatic experience. For example, upon being faced with a corpse, a person would be most likely be repulsed because he or she is forced to face an object which is violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject. We encounter other beings daily, and more often than not they are alive. To confront a corpse of one that we recognize as human, something that should be alive but isn't, is to confront the reality that we are capable of existing in the same state, our own mortality. This repulsion from death, excrement and rot constitutes the subject as a living being in the symbolic order.
This act is done in the light of the parts of ourselves that we exclude: that is, the mother. We must abject the maternal, the object which has created us, in order to construct an identity. This is done on the micro level of the speaking being, through her subjective dynamics, as well as on the macro level of society, through "language as a common and universal law." We use rituals, specifically those of defilement, in order to maintain clear boundaries between nature and society, the semiotic and the symbolic. This line of thought begins with Mary Douglas' important book, Purity and Danger, as well as in Kristeva's own Black Sun.
The concept of abject is often coupled (and sometimes confused with) the idea of the uncanny, the concept of something being "un-home-like", or foreign, yet familiar. The abject can be uncanny in the sense that we can recognize aspects in it, despite its being "foreign". An example, continuing on the one used above, is that of a corpse, namely the corpse of a loved one. We will recognize that person as being close to us, but the fact that the person is dead, and "no longer" the familiar loved one, is what creates a sort of cognitive dissonance, leading to abjection of the corpse.
The roots of Abject art go back a long way. Painters express a fascination for blood long before the Renaissance but it wasn't until the Dada movement that the fascination with transgression and taboo made it possible for Abject Art, as a movement, to exist. It owes a considerable debt to Antonin Artaud's "Theatre of Cruelty". Well before the Abject Art movement was given a name by the Whitney Museum, New York in 1993, the movement towards Abject Art had long been in existence.
It was preceded by the films and performances of the Viennese Actionists, in particular, Hermann Nitsch, whose interest in Schwitter's idea of a gesamtkunstwerk led to his setting up the radical theatre group, known as the Orgien-Mysterien-Theater which involved the use of animal carcasses and blood shed in a ritualistic way. Nitsch served time in jail for blasphemy before being invited to New York in 1968 by Jonas Mekas where he organised a series of performances which greatly influenced the radical New York art scene.
Other members of the Viennese Actionists, Gunter Brus, who began as a painter, and Otto Muehl collaborated on performances. The performances of Gunter Brus involved publicly urinating, defecating and cutting himself with a razor blade which had a powerful influence on later Abject Art from the 1980s and 1990s. Rudolf Schwarzkogler who committed suicide by jumping from a window in 1969 is better known for his photos dealing with the Abject. The growth of extreme performance art coincided with the radicalisation of politics in the late 1960s.
In the late 1960s Performance Art took off in New York. For a short period, Carolee Schneeman made performances that led to her inclusion in the 1993 show at the Whitney Museum of Abject Art. In the early 1970s Mary Kelly caused a scandal in 1976 when she exhibited dirty nappies at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. This was followed by the concentration on the abject which is implicit in punk rock and, in particular, the performances of Genesis P. Orridge and GG Allin which involved spit, piss, blood, semen and shit.
In the 1980s and 1990s, fascination with the Powers of Horror, the title of a book by Julia Kristeva, led to a second wave of radical performance artists working with bodily fluids including Ron Athey, Franko B, Lennie Lee and Kira O' Reilly.
The abject also began to influence the work of a number of mainstream artists including Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick, Gilbert and George, Robert Gober, Kiki Smith and Jake and Dinos Chapman who were all included in the 1993 Whitney show.
Other important artists working with abjection include New York photographers, Joel Peter Witkin, whose book Love and Redemption is made up entirely of photos of corpses and body parts, and Andres Serrano whose piece entitled Piss Christ caused a scandal in 1989 when it received $15,000 dollars of public funding.
Abjection in other works
According to Barbara Creed in Horror and the Monstrous Feminine a male's relationship with the mother and other females is complicated by the use of the feminine in horror and science fiction as we are forced to confront it as horrific and abject. Through an analysis of the film Alien (1979) and the female roles and representations, Creed explains how females are often related to the object of horror, be they as the object of horror or the object of the actual horrors' desire/hatred. The conclusion is that through monstrous representations of the female or the Mother, the audience is drawn into viewing them as abject rather than subject or object. The aliens themselves from the film in question are often described as having phallus-like appendages in the shape of their head and tongue, while maintaining an almost female form. Their interaction with the human crew takes on very abject roles as one crew member, a male, is forcibly impregnated (clearly as a product of rape) with an alien that eventually rips itself from the male 'womb' in a horrific scene of blood and gore. The process of a male being impregnated through the mouth with a creature that gestates -- in a being that has no womb -- and rips itself free in a shower of blood is one way in which this film abjectifies female roles.
Abjection is also a major theme of the 1949 work The Thief's Journal (Journal du Voleur) by French author Jean Genet. As a criminal outcast from society, during a fictionalised account of his wanderings through Europe in the 1930s, he claims to actively seek abjections as an existentialist form of 'sainthood.'