Abject as disgust.
...refuse and 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. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit -- cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything.It is no longer I who expel. "I" is expelled. (Kristeva, 3-4)
Kristeva, Julia. "Approaching Abjection." Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. 1-31.
This book has been an invaluable asset for my research/though process around abjection. Although much of it is difficult at first to understand, once understood, it blows my mind -- over and over again. Notions of rejection, exile, filth -- it all consumes me. Much of my comprehension of this book is still only abstract fragments that resonate with me, but this chapter is one that I've read several times and have come to see concretely. Abjection is many things, all things -- there numerous branches and circles of abjection, and in this chapter, Kristeva explains several individuals' readings/experiences of abjection: Dostoyevsky, Proust, Joyce, Borges, and Artaud. Through each of these writers, abjection is discovered and uncovered in different forms. As Kristeva remarks, literature is the home of the abject, where the abject is revealed. In this opening introduction to this infinitely complex subject, Kristeva poses it in relation to various human enterprises: art, religion, politics, sex, history. Basically, this chapter is my launching pad for framing my further research and understanding of abjection.
Greenaway, Peter, writer/dir. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Perfs. Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Alan Howard, Richard Bohringer. 1989. Videocassette. Vidmark.
From the film's opening scene (in which a chef is stripped naked and brutally fed dog shit), humans are stripped of all substance and exposed for what they are: vile consumers of filth, food, sex and everything else. The film's title serves to describe the movie exactly and mislead entirely. Many critics at the time of its release drew these comparisons concerning the (satirically) descriptive title: Cook = civil servants and citizens; Thief = Margaret Thatcher's greed; Wife= Britannia; Lover= intellectual, leftist opposition. However, the simplicity of said allegory is somewhat insulting to the complexity of this film. Let me describe a few scenes: After the chef from the opening sequence has been humiliated to the thief's satisfaction, he is bathed by the cook. This sequence is beautifully filmed despite the close detail of dog shit being cleansed from the defeated man's skin -- accompanying this utterly vulgar visual is a boy singing a lovely operatic number, transforming this act of cleansing into a baptism. In fact, all the thief's victims are martyrs in their own right, and for his wife, martyrdom has become a lifestyle. Helen Mirren plays Georgia, the thief's (initially) submissive wife who is terrified of her dangerously disgusting husband, Albert. Every night is an exhibition of Georgia's humiliation as the thief showcases his wife for his friends, remarking on what a marvelous fuck she is, raucously groping her, squeezing her breasts and dumping various condiments and beverages in her food when she excuses herself from the table (all the while reprimanding his cohorts for their vulgarity, reminding them that ladies are present). While Albert preaches the importance of cleanliness and manners, he manages to be the filthiest, most ill-mannered person in the room. Georgia finds escape from the horror that is her life through Michael, a quiet intellectual -- who consumes books instead of food -- whom her husband despises and mocks. They have sex in the most uncomfortable and inappropriate of places: in a toilet stall, in the kitchen (where the cook is a jealous witness), in the meat room atop chicken feathers, in a freezer. At one point the lovers find themselves naked in a meat truck, full of rotting pig heads complete with maggots, where they lovingly embrace. Directly afterwards is their ritualistic cleansing, shot in the same manner as the chef in the beginning -- the music here is also beautifully scored, making it feel, again, as though we were witnessing a religious baptism. The sequences of events to follow are gloriously gut-wrenching and artistically grotesque. It ends with cannibalism.
Rather than reading this film as an allegory for Thatcher's England -- because it does, in fact, extend well beyond that -- I'm looking at it from the perspective of The Abject, being "what disturbs identity, system, or order. What does not respect borders, positions rules" (Kristeva (above), 4). Food, waste, and the corpse, the central domains of abjection, intersect in these films in a way that dissolves the border between the aesthetic and the unaesthetic, the normal and the abject. If pressed to remark on what this film is about I would have to say, consumption. Furthermore, eating and excreting. Further still, knowledge, shit and death. I'm interested in abjection in relation to all of these things. If you stripped Pink Flamingos from all its campy bad taste and made the same subject matter with the utmost seriousness, the result might look something like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. John Waters serves us filth with a sly grin, Peter Greenaway with uncompromising rage. Sex and food are constantly juxtaposed, serving to signify, along with knowledge, three of our prime human appetites. Sex is what the thief desires and cannot possess. Knowledge is what the thief abhors. Food is what the thief loves and gorges himself on (everything in his world is equated to eating). Love and knowledge are inaccessible to the Powerful -- all Power knows is eating and excreting. The abject are those who experience love and knowledge (and through which are washed clean, renewed), and because they do are expelled. The tableau of the nicely decorated corpse, "the utmost of abjection," is at once fascinating and grotesque -- Albert has threatened to kill and eat Michael -- he's satisfied the first half of his threat, and Georgia makes sure he completes it. The metaphorical consumption is transformed into a literal one at the horror banquet, where the tyrant is compelled to eat his enemy. The patriarch's words are thus turned against him -- Eating that which has been "excreted" is what was threatened, what was asked for, and what is served. The thief delights in humiliating weaker persons -- this man of Power reduces people to shit and is now forced to consume it. And we've seen how much he likes to gorge himself.
Miller, Willam Ian. "Orifices and Bodily Wastes." The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. 89-108.
This chapter in what appears an utterly fascinating book, The Anatomy of Disgust, examines the grotesqueries of the body and explains why they are "disgusting." He distinguishes divisions of disgust by two variants: bodily invasion (the erogenous zones), and spiritual invasion (the sensory organs). Miller's first orifice for investigation is the eye -- discussing the horror of its penetrance and penetrability (its ability to see as well as be seen). Since the eye is the only portal through which the human soul can be probed, its penetrability is a frightening fact. He emphasizes that the eye is the only human orifice which emits a substance of non-disgust (ie, tears). It is also the only bodily emission that requires an explanation. Ears are discussed next, then the nose, but the mouth offers a turning point, a connection between the bodily and the spiritual. The mouth serves both visceral and sexual hungers. It also connects anatomically to its opposite primary function, and produces a substance, even before digestions, equal in disgust as its other end. Miller asserts that "chewed food has the capacity to be even more disgusting than feces." He goes on to discuss the disgust produced by the remaining human orifices, their gendered implications and their hierarchal order.
Miller's discussion of what constitutes disgust, why we find these things disgusting and how the inescapability of bodily disgust and the differences among bodies and their various disgusting secretions has been remarkably enlightening for my dissection of abjection. I read this right after watching and discussing Greenaway's film, and the parallels between the two were immediately, yet abstractly, understood. Miller draws attention to disgusts' reinforcement of misogyny, and I would posit that it serves to reinforce various other prejudices and phobias. This ties in with the figurative eating and excreting discussed above concerning Greenaway. Eating is selective, but all things are reduced to the same substance via the digestive process, and expelled as shit -- including the finest delicacies. The realm of the disgusting is remarkably inclusive. Abjection, suggests Kristeva, and the spasmic, gagging revulsion which marks it, is the impulse to "vomit up myself" ((above), 3) -- the body's rejections, excretions, emissions, are rejections of the abject self. Except tears.