The queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projected horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies.
Queer culture represents all that normative culture rejects, expels: those filthy practices and values that remind the norm-conformer of their humanity: "elaborating a public world of belonging and transformation. Making a queer world has required the development of kinds of intimacy that bear no necessary relation to domestic space, to kinship, to the couple form, to property, or to the nation."
Counterpublic: the queer world's fragility. --> Criminal (or abject) intimacies are not normalized, but used to form a counterpublic, or subculture: this can be related to anti-capitalism as well, in our discussion of community v. subculture, here we have Normative culture v. Queer culture, the latter not attempting to become "normalized" -- but counter-remaining abject, and finding fulfillment there.
Making pleasure dirty. A waste, a shameful product of bodily deviancy. "Sexuality" rather than private sex suggests a lifestyle contrary to norms and "hygienic" acceptability. Deviant sexuality is abjected, rejected, or candy-coated to sound cleaner than it is -- in order to do so, sexual acts must be denied.
border intimacies: Borderlands .. ?
...a tropism toward the public toilet (560). The mode by which Others become shit ..? Filthy sex invented safe sex: the ethic of the abject.
As I was re-reading the chapter "Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy," in Undoing Gender, (we read it way back when we were talking about the Abject) I began making all sorts of connections to what we've been reading and discussing lately: the ballistic body, sex in public, anti-assimilation, norms, anti-capitalism, etc. When I make these kinds of loose/unorganized connections as I read, I grab my post-its and start writing my half intelligible thoughts down and stick it to the page (sometimes I can't make any sense out of what I've written down in relation to what I re-read on the page) -- but I thought I could share the way my mind works for this engagement.
"What constitutes the Human... and what does not?"
-- a question for ethics: whose lives count as lives?
"We have all be subjected to violence: even if not individually (the ballistic body?)
The contest for:
"Whose lives are most livable?" : who's the most radical, the most marginalized, the most queer the most normal, the most valuable ... who sings The Saddest Music in the World?
Jean Genet once said that human existence is consummated only when you've descended to the worst, the lowest level possible in this society - that if you don't function perfectly, according to the standards of the times, you have to become a traitor.
I thought of this while I was reading Carole McDonnell's contribution to Mattilda's Nobody Passes, "Melchizedek's Three Rings" - she writes about being stifled by her white friends or colleagues when she confronts them with their privileges, usually indirectly, by pointing out various racisms in literature/media. We've said in class that "silence is violence" and McDonnell seems to be of the same opinion - but breaking the silence feels like treason, or violence against the comfortable privileged who might be upset if one of their precious classics (King Kong) actually turned out to be offensive to a great deal of people, or if the Little Mermaid promoted heteronormativity. I responded to this essay, and to the concept of "passing" or not passing in terms of betrayal - which becomes troublesome since betrayal takes place either way. In passing, I betray myself; in not passing, I betray others. But, as Carole McDonnell points out, the denial of people's experiences is a grand betrayal, too. She's criticized for frequently writing about mixed couples - "Can't you write about normal couples in regular same-race relationships?" (195) Yes of course she could, but why? Why deny your own experience - in order for norm-conforming people to continue to feel cozy? As McDonnell writes: "I suppose I should have challenged her, but the emotional fact is that when among the normal, the nonnormal person often forgets how different he or she is. An accusation or call to normality does the trick of getting the nonnormal person in line." In relation to Michael Warner's discussion of normal - the nonnormal person(s) is made to believe that normal is the grand achievement, the goal. But why do we want to be normal? Usually because we're told that normality is virtuous and abnormality is a vicious vice. Warner proposes that there is ethical value to be found in shit, in abjection, in "vice" -- because vice is often virtue. To the normal, abject (non)existence is obscene, filthy, profane, undesirable, threatening or even unhealthy, while normal is the sanitary safe zone: the magnificent experience - so, naturally, emphasizing the value of abject borderlands and outer limits troubles the normal and forces recognition of the filth of privileged pleasures.
Mapplethorpe claimed that he investigated and discovered the complexities of his own sexuality by photographing the sexuality of others -- their open expression allowed him to uncover his own buried repression (or just introduced him to kinky ideas he'd never thought of before). The photographs featured in this collection depict a myriad of sexual fetishes: chain-and-leather theatrics, infantilization, sadomasochism, bondage, fist-fucking, fecalphilia, masturbation, mutilation, ritualistic torture, boot-sniffing, etc. Whether or not these pictures are pornographic is debatable; but that debate is utterly irrelevant. The viewer, despite their various stages of comfort or discomfort, cannot deny the grace and beauty of Mapplethorpe's photographic form -- the lighting and composition never fail to be visually arresting. And let's not forget the accenting decor: Gustav Stickley and Charles Eames chairs, an oriental rug, an antler end table, antique lamps and vases, even a Biedermeier bed. The convergence of kitsch taste with vulgarity plays with and distorts the borders between the sacred and the profane. One photograph, for instance, is set in a particularly up-scale, conservative living room and contains at its center two men, one sitting on a designer leather chair, bound in chains and accompanied by a leather-clad man standing above him holding a whip. The picture declares their dark sexual proclivities unapologetically in the midst of orderly cleanliness, giving to quotidian objects a curious abstractness and distance-- sadomasochism is presented here as quaint and lovely, suitable to appear in House and Home. Perhaps my favorite picture from this collection is that which also depicts two men: one stands adorned in black leather -- boots, pants, gloves, and a leather mask from which extends a pair of nipple clamps -- he is urinating into the mouth of a man kneeling before him with closed eyes, hands in tightly closed fists resting on his knees -- his body obscured by a shadow, only face and hands clearly exposed. The setting of their performance is meant to resemble either a dungeon or an abandoned basement. There is no doubt that we are underground, owing to the presence of a ladder leading to the only light-source, which is somewhere above and outside.
The subjects of these photographs reek of abjection. Apart from the one aforementioned photograph, these subjects are presented in abject seclusion: a basement, a storage closet, and unrecognizable, vacant spaces. For the people in these pictures, charged currents of sexual feeling are to be found in what is customarily deemed revolting, offensive or horrific -- in refuse, defilement, suffocation, torture and shit. Mapplethorpe's subjects find fulfillment in self-abjection -- in being that shit that so terribly offends, the defecated waste of a sacred human order: normality.
Smith, Jack. Flaming Creatures. 1962-1963. Film & Video: Jack Smith. UBUWEB. Web. 5 December 2009.
The setting of Jack Smith's avant-garde film, Flaming Creatures, is almost an inversion of the sensibility presented in Mapplethorpe's Pictures. Rather than taking place in a secluded basement, Smith's film is set on the roof of an apartment building in New York's Eastside. However, the location is never fully recognizable - the camera direction is so shaky, shots are arbitrarily over-exposed or too close to the subjects - to speak of a definite "setting" of this film is almost to negate its purpose: it doesn't take place anywhere. All is abstraction and horrific sensation; the world these "creatures" inhabit does not and cannot exist because it is unintelligible. Sontag says that in Flaming Creatures "there are no ideas, no symbols, no commentary on or critique of anything... Smith's film is strictly a treat for the senses." Like Henry Darger's paintings, Smith's film presents a realm of gender ambiguity, or intersexuality - either no one is male or female, or everyone is both. It's interesting to consider this film not only in relation to Mapplethorpe's photographs, but also in relation to Darger's drawings - Mapplethorpe came along over a decade after Smith made his film and was most likely influenced by his work, but Darger was working on The Realms of the Unreal at the exact same time as Smith, yet the two artists could not possibly have known of one another.
Not only does the film itself speak of Abjection, or perhaps attempts to exhibit abjection personified, but its reception at the time of its release in the early 1960s rendered the film (and the people involved in its production) abject. It was banned pretty much everywhere due to its "profane" nature - that is to suggest that the film displays unacceptable human behavior. This behavior, this ambiguity and ambivalence concerning gender and sexuality disrupts ontological givens - to relate it to Butler's discussion of the abject in Gender Trouble, these "Creatures" confound the boundary between the "inner" and the "outer," (the sacred and the profane) and are thus excreted: they embody the shit that they have become, flaming out in polymorphous joy.
In this first chapter, Michael Warner discusses the problem with "normalization" - the pressure for abject people or groups of people to prove their normality, that is, their rightful place within society. He shows how certain aspects of gay politics focus on the values of the "norm" - love and devotion - never mentioning or acknowledging sexual acts or shame: declaring that two committed people of the "same-sex" can love and live just like "normal" people. It's a denial of shame and a denial of autonomous identity: "we" are the same as "you" - we're vanilla, too. Warner advocates for an ethics of shame - an acknowledgement of all that is filthy, disgusting, unpleasant or painful (specifically deviant sex) - and rejects any notions of queer-assimilation. He discusses the division between dignified and deviant homosexuals - the dignified being ashamed of the deviant, for they wear their shame on their sleeves, thus becoming stigmatized, abject. Warner articulates the connection between the ethics of sexual shame and abjection quite accurately:
Sex is understood to be as various as the people who have it. It is not required to be tidy, normal, uniform, or authorized by the government. This kind of culture . . . has its own norms, its own way of keeping people in line. I call its way of life an ethic not only because it is understood as a better kind of self-relation, but because it is the premise of the special kind of sociability that holds queer culture together. A relation to others, in these contexts, begins in an acknowledgment of all that is most abject and least reputable in oneself. Shame is bedrock. Queers can be abusive, insulting, and vile toward one another, but because abjection is understood to be the shared condition, they also know how to communicate through such camaraderie a moving and unexpected form of generosity. No one is beneath its reach, not because it prides itself on generosity, but because it prides itself on nothing . . . And the corollary is you stand to learn most from the people you think are beneath you. (35)
The desire to be normal stems from a fear of abjection - a distain for the unknown, unintelligible: the devious, immoral, horrific terrors that disrupt order and create madness. The vile queer disturbs the dignified queer because the former reminds the latter of the shame of abjection.
"To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up."
-- Oscar Wilde; An Ideal Husband
Butler's discussion of legitimacy and bodies throughout "Doing Justice to Someone" in Undoing Gender intersects with and is relevant to abjection in that her explanation of David Reimer and his body reflects on many of the same principles and notions that concern the abject and the way in which people become abject.
I came across the Oscar Wilde quote in Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" -- the corresponding note under which she places this quotation discusses authentic versus staged camp. Her argument is that true camp does not know itself to be camp, it is excessive not because it finds its excess witty or parodic, but because it genuinely finds its excess necessary. To this, Sontag remarks: "Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful" (in Against Interpretation, 282). I make this connection to Sontag's "Notes" not due to any inherent connection between David Reimer's "unintelligible" body and camp taste, but because when I read these notes, by chance, in succession to Butler's discussion of the Reimer case, I drew a connection between "camping" and David's expressed knowledge of and subsequent adherence to what constitutes a normal or natural boy or girl. (This also seems to tie in with Butler's discussion of performance/performativity -- which I'll discuss in a minute). His knowledge of what determines intelligibility forces him to exaggerate recognizable male behavior, forces him to exhibit maleness in excess in order to convince others that he is not female. David's excessive exhibition of what makes one intelligible as a male body allows him to provide the corresponding evidence necessary to convince others of his maleness. I'm not arguing that his testimonies were not true or deeply felt, but I agree with Butler when she asserts that David is able to recognize "normal" male activity/desire and is then able to refute or expel any so-called "female" or "feminine" activities/desires he may naturally exhibit. He is able to display acceptable and legitimate male qualities in order to be accepted and legitimated as a male being. Each of David's self-descriptions relies on very superficial characteristics or tendencies of male-bodied individuals, and they are specifically formulated to convince legitimate persons (who hold the position of validating his legitimacy as a gendered body) that he is in fact legitimately male. He does this by asserting that he likes things that girls don't like, such as climbing trees -- something that many girls do in fact like to do, but that is typically associated with boys' behavior. He specifically states in one testimony that "girls don't like [hanging around with the guys and climbing trees and stuff like that]" (68), which is obviously a false statement. But David knows that according to the laws that govern acceptable gender, girls do not like these things and boys do. Therefore, he will be recognized as a boy if he says that he likes these things and does not like clothes designed for girls, etc. -- reminding the medical staff that these activities are exclusive to boys' behavior. It is entirely understandable that David would utilize his knowledge of what is intelligible in order to be allowed to comfortably inhabit his body -- to live. (To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.)
When we ask, what are the conditions of intelligibility by which the human emerges, by which the human is recognized, by which some subject becomes the subject of human love, we are asking about conditions of intelligibility composed of norms, of practices that have become presuppositional, without which we cannot think the human at all. (Butler, 57)
David's doctors questioned the ease to which David would be able to function in and be accepted by normative society because the primary signifier of a male body was absent: a phallus. However, they were not dissuaded by the notion that David could not be female bodied either due to vaginal absence. This was never about what was in David's pants, but what was not in David's pants. Y chromosome, male hormones, masculine presentation and (male) heterosexual desires aside, the body in question was deemed unintelligible due to "lack". Why would David's transition from living as a boy to living as a girl be easier or more acceptable given the aforementioned information pertaining to his biological structure?
A simple answer would be -- owing to the one-sex model. David does not have a "complete" male body, therefore he must be its other, its opposite. Anything not wholly and unquestionably male must be other -- female. Recall Butler's example of Aretha Franklin's declared feelings of natural womanhood in Gender Trouble, she remarks, "One is one's gender to the extent that one is not the other gender, a formulation that presupposes and enforces the restriction of gender within that binary pair" (30). Thus, David's doctors and parents attempt to make David, or now Brenda, "feel like a natural woman" by denaturalizing his maleness. "Man" is defined here by what does not constitute a "man": lack of phallus constitutes a non-male body, and since male and female bodies are the only two intelligible and legitimate bodies, David must therefore have a female body, despite his "feeling" male: "The articulation 'I feel like a woman' by a female or 'I feel like a man' by a male presupposes that in neither case is the claim meaninglessly redundant" (GT, 30). What David actually has is an abject body -- a body that exists outside of intelligibility because of its deformity, a body in danger of societal revulsion and expulsion, as well as a body that attracts uninvited attention and study. I think it was Kate Bornstein (probably in Gender Outlaw) who compared attention given to trans-sexual and trans-gendered persons in the media to the attention given to "freaks" at carnivals. This speaks to undeniable pleasures derived from regarding beings excluded from the category of the human, and -- given the spectators are themselves legitimate -- scrutinizing malformations and making assessments about the bodies on display. The sense of superiority over the illegitimate body conjoined in varying proportions with the titillation of fear and aversion makes it possible for moral scruples to be lifted, for cruelty to be enjoyed. (I feel, in reading Butler's account, that the doctors involved in David's case did in fact enjoy humiliating David -- regardless of whether they viewed their methods of research "humiliation" -- I am sure they did not -- they seem to have been operating under the assumption that science trumps civility.) Consider the lengths David's doctors went to convince him that he was, or at least could be, female -- the countless occasions he was forced to strip naked to be gawked at and scrutinized by the eyes of strangers, and asked to simulate sexual acts with her brother. The methods used to conduct research and scientific study in this case were absolutely tantamount to sexual assault. We see in this example the way in which "Others become shit" -- the way in which Others' lives are negated by fascinations to novelty. Abjection, in this case is seen not in normative society's expulsion of David's body, but in the medical field's treatment of David as a non-human -- denying him common courtesy and respect in the name of scientific research.
... "what, given the contemporary order of being, can I be?" This question does not quite broach the question of what it is not to be, or what it is to occupy the place of not-being within the field of being. What it is to live, breathe, attempt to love neither as fully negated nor as fully acknowledged as being. (UG, 58)
David's body exists somewhere between normal and abject -- it resides in a "borderland", not fully expelled, not fully accepted.
Most astonishing, in a way, is the mutilated state that these bodies are left in, mutiliations performed and then paradoxically rationalized in the name of "looking normal" ... it would be better for the child to look normal, even when such surgery may deprive the person permanently of sexual function and pleasure. (UG, 63)
The initial argument for David's sex-change was that he would be able to function more naturally in society as a female than as a male -- however, the truth of the matter is that he would only appear as a normally functioning female in a normative society, despite all of his (normative) "male" impulses suggesting the opposite. See, it makes no difference what exists inside a person, for a person to be intelligible as a human being, all relevant information about that person is determined from what is written on the body: the unrecognizability of one's gender = the unrecognizability of one's personhood (UG, 58).
[David] is the anonymous -- and critical -- condition of the human as it speaks itself at the limits of what we think we know. (74)
...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)
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.
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.
Many of the insights I've gleaned from Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands were expressed in the drawing I presented yesterday, but I want to expand on her discussion of choice and self-abjection. This is primarily discussed in the second chapter -- up to this point, she's explained the exile of her culture from mainstream, American, White culture -- and here she speaks of her exile from not only her own culture but from her family, her home. In the section titled "Cultural Tyranny," Anzaldua argues that we know what is normal from the culture; culture teaches us the "dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable" (16), such as female subservience, the importance of being chaste, and the inescapable fate of motherhood. She argues that culture would like us to believe that we, humans, are limited -- our identities, our nature -- and have no room to evolve, to create ourselves, or, in essence, to breathe freely. Everywhere we look we are constrained. The so-called half-and-half Anzaldua mentions confronts normative cultures with possibilities -- and this ties in quite nicely with the chapter we read this week in Undoing Gender -- and culture is terrified of these possibilities. They want to keep the "deviants" buried, out of view; they want us to believe that there is a defect with the "half-and-half" -- as if all of us are not all half and half ourselves:
half and halfs are not suffering from a confusion of sexual identity, or even from a confusion of gender. What we are suffering from is an absolute despot duality that says we are able to be only one or the other. It claims that human nature is limited and cannot evolve into something better. But I, like other queer people, am two in one body, both male and female. I am the embodiment of the hieros gamos: the coming together of opposite qualities within. (19)
That's kind of what I was asking when I asked: how can the abject and the "normal" co-exist without borders? How I read this is -- we, all of us, are "they"s -- we are two, not one -- or one with two parts. Not even one part male, one part female -- we're just not an either/or. We're composed of various ands and buts -- we hold contrasts and contradictions inside... and outside.
Anzaldua's discussion of the double-meaning of homophobia really resonated with me as well. Not just the fear of homosexuality, but the homosexual's fear -- or any abject's fear -- of going home, of being rejected, spat on, excreted, exiled, or killed (metaphorically as well as literally). Returning to the question I posed, once again, I guess I was thinking of power -- because in my explanation and discussion of abjection, I constantly find myself dichotomizing -- them vs. us. And I've aligned myself with the abject. The language I've used, the way I've used it also suggests that they are wrong, and it's we who are right. I've only reversed the opposition -- making us better than them. Is that productive? I don't know that it is -- and that's why I'm wondering if these oppositions can ever cease being oppositions. Does the one necessarily have to top the other? In my mind the abject is better. More real. More existent. More legitimate. And that's the problem I'm facing now -- will there always be borders wherein both sides must always compete for the higher position, and only one can have it? Must people always relate to one another sadomasochistic-ly? Can we ever return home (or be ourselves when we get there)?
Here, Sara Salih discusses the criticism directed against Butler's difficulty and the ethical justification for Butler's difficulty. I wanted to look at the issues of criticism against difficulty (anti-intellectualism, if you will) in relation to "othering", rejection or abjection. Difficulty is recognized by what is not difficult, what is, perhaps, somewhat populist. In other words, difficulty defines the borders for reasonably coherent texts -- just as the abject defines the borders of acceptability. Butler's defense of her difficulty is that difficult writing allows readers to experience new understandings -- transcending their own ignorance in order, not only to gain new knowledge, but develop previously unexplored avenues of understanding and experiencing the world. The abject represent those unexplored avenues, modes of understanding too abstract or "difficult" for matrix conformers, which makes it easy for matrix outliers to be dismissed as incomprehensible shit.
v. Identity, sex, and the metaphysics of substance
Judith Butler begins the fifth section of her first chapter in Gender Trouble with questions relating to "identity". Her discussion becomes particularly relevant to the abject when she poses the questions, "To what extent is 'identity' a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience? And how do the regulatory practices that govern gender also govern culturally intelligible notions of identity? (23). If identity is prescriptive, rather than descriptive, it has to cite, as points of reference, recognized "identities" -- such as male or female. Since the recognized modes by which persons are identified trace gender to biological sex, and desire to biological sex, the possible combinations of gender "identities" are limited to those of the heterosexual matrix. Here is where the abject begins to find relevance. Butler writes,
Inasmuch as 'identity' is assured through the stabilizing concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality, the very notion of "the person" is called into question by the cultural emergence of those 'incoherent' or 'discontinuous' gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined (23)
So these "incoherent" or "discontinuous" gendered beings -- those whose genders do not conform to the (biological) sex = gender/performativity = (heterosexual) desire are unintelligible genders and thus abject persons. It may appear in my discussion of prescriptive identity that the abject are defined by being outside the borders of this formula of recognized gender identity; on the contrary, Butler's stance is that the abject serve to define the borders of acceptability by demonstrating the unacceptable.
There also exists an interesting correlation between the abject and Butler's discussion of Herculine Barbin: "Herculine is not an 'identity,' but the impossibility of an identity" (32). Here is the logic as I follow it: This body is not found on the matrix, therefore it cannot exist. Although, Foucault does not deny the existence of Herculine's gender, per se, he acknowledges that this gender identity exists somewhere down the rabbit hole, in "a world of pleasures in which grins hang about without the cat" (qutd. in Butler, 32). There too, perhaps, is where the abject are found, can exist and be recognized. (Much later on in Gender Trouble, Butler speaks of the abject in terms of Inner and Outer worlds and, citing Kristeva, speaks of the abject, the outer, as the inner's shit -- so in relation to the "rabbit hole" ... never mind.)
Irigaray, Luce. "Approaching the Other as Other." Luce Irigaray: Key Writings. London: Continuum, 2004. 21-27.
French Feminist/Cultural theorist, Luce Irigaray discusses the acceptance of difference as an important initiation for a new culture in many of the essays contained in this book. In this essay, she specifically focuses on the issue of the mystery of the "other" and impulsive "othering". From her standpoint, mystery and fascination lead to a transcendence of boundaries separating you from I -- or seeing differences between people as inherently "foreign". Her suggestion is that certain societal structures and pedagogies have conditioned people to view the world through a separatist lens: you versus I; them versus us; object versus Subject. She discusses notions of equality in relation to otherness; the other's acceptance by the dominant and the problems that lie therein. One of her main arguments in the section within which this essay is contained is that dialogue is the crucial element in dichotomous relations. She takes a theological approach to these discussions and posits in this essay that the attribution of 'you' to God-the-Father prevents women from engendering the divine, positioning them as other.
Irigaray's discussion is interesting in relation to Abjection in that it draws from religious configurations of divinity and the unprecedented, yet accepted "maleness" of the Christian God, leading to not only the othering of women/"femaleness" but also their degradation. I thought religion created an interesting border between normative/acceptable societies and the abject. In relation to the heterosexual matrix, presupposed "natural" relations between sex, gender, and desire are reinforced throughout the Christian bible (as well as other religious texts) - which produces one possible point of origin for an intelligibility of normal versus abnormal, or acceptable versus unacceptable.
Bersani, Leo and Ulysse Dutoit. "Merde Alors." Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poetics of Heresy. Ed. Beverly Allen. Saratoga, CA: ANMA Libri & Co., 1982. 82-95.
This essay is primarily a discussion of Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom and Pasolini's Salo. Much of the discussion centers around the subject of shit - as a substance, but also people as shit, people's relation to shit, shit as a substance of enjoyment, of shame. (Oh, yeah, and then there's coprophagia.) All of this is centered around the subject of the libertine in Sade and what is termed "a-symmetrical" sexuality (heterosexuality) and the libertine's view of it as a defect in nature owing to the undesirability of the female sex. Thus the basis of sadomasochism - discussed at length - and the nature of a desire to violate or be violated, where the fantasy is death. One of Pasolini's characters is also used as an avenue through which to posit the possibility of transgressing the sadomasochistic law of order.
Reading this essay from the perspective of Abjection, I find the examination of shit and enjoyment quite invigorating. Thinking about the relationship between normativity and abjection, there is an interesting connection (albeit far-fetched) to sadomasochistic desire. Looking at this essay in relation to Judith Butler's use of Kristeva's theory of the abject --boundaries that exist between "inner" and "outer" worlds that make Others shit (GT, 182) - Others become shit because it is enjoyable for the Inner world to dominate the Outer. However, in converging Kristeva's theory of abjection with Sade's libertine fantasy, the Outer would, in turn, have to enjoy becoming shit, which is problematic. But Pasolini's Salo does provide much more useful fodder from which to draw a logical connection.
"Salo": Yesterday and Today. Dir. Amaury Voslion. Perfs. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Claude Biette, Ninetto Davoli. 2002. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2008.
This documentary recounts the impact of Salo upon its release in 1975, the public's reaction, as well as the filmmaker's intentions in making the film. The rare interview footage of Pasolini is particularly informative, as his explanations help dissect the enigma that is Salo. Pasolini explains the central metaphor of the film - the relationship between power and its subjects - and its function in human relations in contrast or comparison to the power relations of Fascism. He also discusses how power reduces the human body to a commodity, power's anarchaic characteristics, and the arbitrary standards power demands.
Pasolini offers some fascinating insights on the relation of sadomasochism and social structures - which interested me in its connection with the preceding essay, but also independently. Pasolini talks about power's "annulment of the personality of 'the other'" and the cultural genocide of nonconformists, which ties in with the discussion of abjection. Rather than viewing the abject as societal shit, Pasolini suggests that the abject represent death to the Fascist power-heads/libertines. Salo can be viewed almost as a potential visualization of Kristeva's metaphor as well.