Julia Kristeva‘s concept of abjection includes everything that is identified as Other in a dominant western cultural context: unrepresentable, archaic, primary, pre-linguistic, semiotic, unclean, ambiguous, maternal. What is defined as abject, does not respect borders, positions, rules and by this, it disturbs system or order by making it unstable.
The abject can be experienced in three different ways: (1) as dirt (i.e. corporeal changes and their climax – death, (2) in sexual difference (i.e. the female/feminine body and incest) and (3) by food taboos or repulsion. All those pillars of abjection represent the border or ritualised beginning of culture (i.e. order, civilisation, system, logic, masculinity) from nature (i.e. chaos, darkness, devouring, maternal, emotions).
The ultimate bearer of dirt is the human body and by keeping it clean (e.g. showering, bathing, using deodorants and perfumes, wearing clean clothes), the body becomes civilised (disciplined, moderated, composed). Mary Douglas has compared (hu)man body with the (male) society; both of them strive to the stability, unchangeability, rigidity, orderliness and cleanliness. If body would remain permanently clean (i.e. the same), it would not age and die. Yet everybody dies and every system is vulnerable and permeable at its margins. Body margins are its caveats and openings (mouth, eyes, ears, nose, belly button, rectum, genitalia, urethra) that render body as inescapably leaky and dirty – everybody must shit, piss, sweat. Some cry, ejaculate, menstruate and produce milk. The more are body openings and their fluids are postulated as dirty, the more the society aims to be homogenic, pure and close-minded – to distant itself from dirt. And it is the female body that is branded as inherently dirty due to its unpredictable leakage and production of body-specific fluids (menstruation, breast milk, vaginal mucus), accompanied by extra openings (vulva, urethra). Because more fluids exit a female body, the more ‘dirt’ can enter it.
The sexual difference (female – male) is another basis to experience abjection where male body is understood as universal and female as deviant or Other. The cause for a man’s attraction and repulsion against the female body is its difference – breasts and vagina at most. Yet that’s not all. Childbirth is defined as an ultimate abjection and the grotesqueness per ce that embodies a duality of personhood (Self plus Other or mother and child). The process of giving birth is the climax of abjection; a state of in/out, Self/Other, life/death, horror/beauty, of liminality and no self-control. An image of a woman giving birth resembles to the borderless flesh explosion that reiterates man’s somatophobia and fear for losing his (body) control.
The third aspect of abjection is food loathing – what is edible (healthy, nutritious or necessary) is culturally imposed. Food becomes abject when the boundary between nature and culture is crossed. For example, overripe fruits/vegetables (resembling to decay), unwashed food (possibility of the contagion), food that falls on the floor, food pulled out of a garbage can (close to the litter makes it impure), body excrement (eating boogers, scabs, blisters, drinking urine or covering yourself with menstrual blood). The ultimate taboo that combines all three abjections (food-dirt-desire) is mother’s milk. Mother’s milk gives life, is infant’s first food that is literally forced on her/him/they and she/he/they is the only person, allowed to drink it.
Food represents a constant repetition of a need to survive or live and at the same time a chance to rebel against the authority (i.e. parents: primary mother and/or secondary father), who has in the past decided for us what, when, how and where to eat. Without food, the body withers away and becomes the climax of an abjection – a corpse.
Here are some randomly chosen examples from contemporary western cultures that can be described as abjection illustrations:
- horror movies, filled with corpses, bodily waste, reproductive (i.e. maternal) bodies allow viewers to take pleasure & displeasure while watching them,
- ban of nipples, pubic hair and menstruation in social media sends us a message that particulars and fluids of female body are taboo,
- storm chasing as premeditated (cultured) pursuit of the weather condition (nature); its unpredictability arouses contradictory emotions (fear and excitement, esprit and paralysis) in a storm chaser,
- veganism as a dietary and ethical abstaining from eating animal products can be understood as rebellion against meat-eating patriarchal order that fuels on aggression and bloodshed and by not eating animal corpses, a person refuses to eat the abject.