POLITICS OF ABJECTION
The linguist, philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, projects a fascinating description of the cellular transformations that provide the very foundations of the biological processes of gestation driving the 'biosocial history' of the maternal project. A project and a 'history' Kristeva describes as a 'process without a subject', where the very meaning of the concept of the 'subject' and 'identity' is brought into question:
Cells accumulating, dividing, fusing, splitting, multiplying and proliferating
without any identity (biological or socio-symbolical); volumes grow, tissues
stretch, and body fluids change rhythm, speeding up or slowing down. Master-
Mother of instinctual drive. Material compulsion, spasm of a memory belonging
to the species, the same continuity differentiating itself that either binds together
or splits apart to perpetuate itself, with no other significance than the eternal
return of the life-death biological cycle.
Kristeva appropriates and re-defines Plato's conception of the chora, designating a site of undifferentiated being, connoting the shared bodily space of mother and child prior to the child's acquisition of language; and the child's sensation of continuity or fusion with the maternal body, which is experienced as an infinite space. In what Kristeva terms the 'semiotic', the newly-born child possesses no sense of itself as an identity separate from its mother; it therefore perceives no distinction between 'self' and 'other'. Devoid of language, its existence is regulated by a rhythmic flow of bodily desires, pulsations and bodily drives and impulses, mobile, fluid and heterogeneous; where opposites (subject and object, male and female, inside and outside, fascination and repulsion, life and death) merge together into a contradictory unity: archaic and potentially disruptive desires which are curtailed only through the arbitrary imposition of paternal law and the 'symbolic order' of language.
For Kristeva the maternal function subverts the traditional notion of a fixed division between active subject and passive object. Instead, pregnancy transforms the woman-as-subject into the passive object or effect of a series of uncontrollable bodily processes. The biological processes of gestation places women at the point where 'nature' intersects with 'culture', as a sort of 'inside-out' mediator between the internal and the external, such that the relationship between them is explained by their reciprocal connection, their unity; a unity of the opposition of the maternal body to itself which leads to a division of its unity and to a splitting of its flesh. Where the mother exists as a mere cipher or "filter" whose role is to fulfill the 'biosocial program' of reproducing the species; where, "to imagine that there is someone in that filter - such is the source of religious mystifications, the font that nourishes them." The childbearing woman is immersed in the corporeality of the maternal function, the subject of "physiological operations and instinctual drives dividing and multiplying her".
As a process the woman is subjected to, the experience of gestation and birth leads to a disintegration of the mother's self-image and symbolic identity and a confusion and subsequent reorganisation of the boundaries between self and other. This results in the mother internalising the split between self and other, producing a self-division accompanied by feelings of alienation and estrangement towards the foetus developing within her womb, which is experienced as an 'abject' 'other' inhabiting her body, akin to an invasive foreign organism or internal parasite:
Within the body, growing as a graft, indomitable, there is an other. And no
one is present, within that simultaneously dual and alien space, to signify what is
going on. 'It happens but I'm not there'".
An internal self-contradiction finally resolved in the birth of the child and the establishment of a maternal unity between mother and child. A unity Kristeva pictures as an "auto-erotic circle": an imaginary fusion of mother and child enclosed within a protective 'shell' (or "enceinte"), where distinctions between self and other, subject and object, are dissolved: "Narcissuslike, touching without eyes, sight dissolving in muscles, hair, deep, smooth, peaceful colours". This imagined unity is, however, a complex unity of opposites, a heterogeneous and ambivalent conglomeration of experiences involving mixed emotions associated with the processes of differentiation and separation; feelings of love and hate, pain and pleasure, desire and fear, fulfillment and loss:
Frozen placenta, live limb of a skeleton, monstrous graft of life on myself, a
living dead. Life....death....undecidable....My removed marrow, which
nevertheless acts as a graft, which wounds but increases me. Paradox: deprivation
and benefit of childbirth. But calm finally hovers over pain, over the terror of this
dried branch that comes back to life, cut off wounded, deprived of its sparkling
Kristeva explores themes that connect with the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein concerning the aggressive drives and body-destruction phantasies of children. Thus the developing child acquires an image of itself as an integrated 'whole', and not simply as a mess of conflicting sensations and fragmented body parts, through a traumatic and never fully completed process in which 'good' objects and pleasurable sensations are incorporated into the body ('introjected'), while objects and sensations perceived as 'bad' are expelled ('projected') out into the external world. A process that includes aggressive phantasies involving the murder, dismemberment and consumption of the maternal body. Phantasies which, when projected onto the mother, create in the mind of the infant traumatic experiences of bodily disintegration, accompanied by the image of a hostile mother as a terrifying figure who will eviscerate, devour and destroy it.
There is an interesting link between these psychoanalytical theories of bodily fragmentation and disintegration and historically archaic beliefs concerning the deformed and the monstrous. According to the ancient Greek natural philosopher and physician Empedokles, the evolution of "whole-natured forms" was preceded by a lengthy period when the earth was peopled by hybrids and mutant forms, "dream shapes" consisting of "separate parts which were disjointed". Empedokles describes this earlier world and its variety of polymorphously perverse forms and monstrous combinations with a certain horrified fascination:
Many foreheads without necks sprang up on the earth, arms wandered naked,
separated from shoulders, and eyes wandered alone, needing brows..........and
creatures made partly with male bodies and partly with female bodies, equipped
with shadowy limbs.
In paintings such as Virgin and Child with St. Anne, (1500-1510), and Mona Lisa, (1503), the artist Leonardo Da Vinci represents for Kristeva the identification of femininity with motherhood and the ideal of the Virgin, where the female body is divested of its material aspects and is transmuted through the development of a progressively formalised set of artistic conventions and practices into the spiritualised and reified figure of the 'phallic mother'. The maternal (phallic body) is represented as inviolate, distinct and whole, symbolising an established order that maintains secure and impervious boundaries separating and distinguishing the inside from the outside, the proper from the improper, order from chaos, and the spiritually aesthetic or beautiful from what is deemed abject and material.
For Kristeva this fantasy of the phallic mother consists of an idealisation that shields us from the threat of non-being, and the experience of nothingness and the collapse of identity: "If, on the contrary, the mother was not phallic, then every speaker (or 'subject') would be lead to conceive of its Being in relation to some void, a nothingness asymmetrically opposed to this Being, a permanent threat against, first, its mastery, and ultimately, its stability". Kristeva thereby concludes that the artist Leonardo Da Vinci is a dutiful "servant of the maternal phallus", and his paintings are expressive of "the eye and hand of a child, underage to be sure, but of one who is the universal and complex-ridden center confronting that other function, which carries the appropriation of objects to its limit: science ".
Kristeva challenges the Cartesian notion of the isolated, self-contained human being or 'ego', unmixed with others. She replaces it by the awareness that we exist as members one of another, as a system of surfaces that briefly intersect around a centre or constellation that dissolves, forming parts of a 'self' conceived as a 'subject-in-process' (or better still, as an open-ended 'work-in-progress'); a 'subject' both constant and fluid, immersed in a continuous process of formation and exchange, summation and integration.
This accords with Antonin Artaud's rigorous interrogation of the fragmented but transforming body, in art, literature and performance – combining chance and necessity, disintegration and reconstitution. Artaud's body-in movement attacks stasis in favour of the transcendence of regeneration. Painfully contorted, steeped in desire, combining, through vocal movements and screams, violent and erotic manipulations of the anatomy, Artaud produced in his gestural performances beautiful images of fracture and desire. Representation is here attacked in favour of a visceral, bodily immediacy – Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. The body comes before the word, and before the world:
The original conception of a dual or a divided universe, consisting of carefully demarcated distinctions and fixed oppositions, is an idea forcefully propounded and meticulously elaborated upon in the cosmology of the philosopher Plato, as outlined in his Timaeus, where he defines the primal dualism that underlies reality, and its subsequent division into two realms: an invisible, eternal realm of pure thought; and an visible, mutable realm of bodily sensations connected with the corporeal substance of nature. The invisible realm of thought is considered by Plato as primal and original. In the beginning there existed along side it the unshaped matrix of physical being - the chora, meaning 'space' or 'the nurse': "an invisible and formless being which receives all things and in some mysterious way partakes of the intelligible, and is most incomprehensible".
In-between these two realms is Plato's 'Demiurgus' who creates by 'making'. A metaphor for cosmogenesis taken from the activities of the artisan, who shapes things from dead stuff, and not from the reproductive processes of begetting and gestating. This concept of the cosmos as 'made' and not 'begotten' later emerges in Christian theology as the primary means of distinguishing between the generation of the divine in the Trinity, and God's creation of the world. The Platonic Demiurgos first shapes the space into the primal elements of fire, air, water, and earth, and then shapes these into the spherical body of the cosmos.
Plato conceptualises this sphere as a kind of living entity, without an inside or an outside, perfectly self-contained: "Nor would there have been use of organs by which it might receive its food or get rid of what it had already digested, since there was nothing that went from it or came into it". A universe, therefore, where organs of ingestion, digestion and excretion are unnecessary, for there is nothing else in existence, no 'other' to incorporate or excrete, nothing outside itself it could eat even if it desired to eat, in fact, nothing it could desire even if it desired. A perfectly self-sufficient universe complete unto itself: "By design it was created thus, its own waste providing its own food, and all that it did and suffered taking place in and by itself".
Plato's idea of the universe as some kind of living entity, is a theme taken up by the nature philosophy of Baron Friedrich von Hardenberg (pen name, Novalis), a leading poet and novelist of European Romanticism, who contends that when we look at what is generally regarded as inert matter we fall into the error that it has no consciousness at all. But it may well be that its consciousness is so fragmented and diffused that we can only understand it through rational systems of statistical organisation which the study of science as hitherto revealed as the so-called 'laws' of nature. This means that in the human knowledge of nature, nature perceives itself; and that the subject-object (male/female) relationship to nature is in fact nature's relationship to itself. A complex relationship indeed, where, to quote Novalis, "the organs of thought are the sexual organs of nature, the world's genitals". A conception of nature that the inveterate anti-Platonist Friedrich Nietzsche reacted to with disgust and revulsion: "The modern scientific pendant to a belief in God is the belief in the universe as organism: such belief makes me want to throw up".
Novalis continues: for him the process of self-knowledge is a natural and universal drive towards expansion and fulfillment, where the urge to know is identical with the urge to appropriate and ingest, where differences and distinctions are abolished, and the 'other' becomes the same as 'oneself': "How can a human being have a sensibility for something if he does not have the germ of it in himself? What I am to understand must develop organically in me; and what I seem to learn is but nourishment - something to incite the organism. Thus learning is quite similar to eating".
For Novalis the act of philosophising culminates in the 'kiss', an act symbolising the unity of subject and object. "Life, or the essence of spirit, thus consists in the engendering bearing and rearing of one's like. The human being engages in a happy marriage with itself, an act of self-embrace". Like the myth of the youth Narcissus, hopelessly in love and unwilling to separate himself from the beauty of his face reflected in a pool of water, his body gradually fading away, to be replaced by a flower. A jouissance involving a blissful acceptance of life's transience, and a willing immersion into the chaos of unformed matter into one all-encompassing unity. Leading to a pantheism like that of the heretic and philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who rejects the philosophical dualism and the principles of transcendence and sublimation of the established Christian order in favour of a God who is the immanent cause of all existence, where everything is considered alive and all things in the world are one, and what's in all things is God. A mystical and pantheistic view of Nature, an oceanic feeling of 'oneness with the universe', which, according to Freud, amounts to the restoration of an archaic infantile state of limitless narcissism, a condition articulated poetically by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who describes the world as "an immense Narcissus in the act of thinking about himself.".
In accordance with Kristeva's re-mix of themes and stanzas sampled from the Romanticism of Novalis, 'love', or the desire that is expressed in song, in the disposition to rhythm and intonation "makes individualities communicable and comprehensible"; makes nonsense abound with sense: makes (one) laugh. For Kristeva "The amorous and artistic experiences are the only ways of preserving our psychic space as a 'living system'" 'opening' up the individual's psyche to the point where the outside world of the other is no longer perceived as a threat but instead becomes a stimulus to adaptation, change and self-transformation, revealing the participating 'subject' as "a work in progress capable of auto-organisation on condition of maintaining a kind of link with the other. I have called this the amorous state".
To rediscover the intonations, the lyrical patterns, repetitions, and rhythms preceding the subject's establishment within the paternal (symbolic) order of language is to discover the voiced breath that fastens us to an undifferentiated mother, a semiotic motility, a playful polyvalence, released and restructured in the poetry of art. The discovery-in-utterance is also at the same time an act of losing, of distancing, of separating oneself from what has been discovered; it is an act of unknowing, a dissolution back into an active potential. The potentiality of the fragmented unity of the symbolic revitalised by energies borrowed from the prehistoric and archaic realms of the semiotic; a disruptive negativity involving a dialectical tension between dispersal and unity, rupture and completion, producing a 'fluid subjectivity. A 'subjectivity' of 'difference' where continuity is achieved through an ongoing process of transformation.
Accordingly, it is not the possession of a fixed 'truth' so much as the realisation of the 'known' so that it becomes the 'given', thereby not arresting reflection, but renewing and stimulating it. Novalis compares it to the ignition of a flame, a leaping outside oneself in desire and ecstasy: "The act of leaping outside oneself is everywhere the supreme act - the primal point - the genesis of life. Thus the flame is nothing other than such an act. Philosophy arises whenever the one philosophizing philosophizes himself, that is, simultaneously consumes (determines, necessitates) and renews again (does not determine, liberates). The history of this process is philosophy".
is the grinding of a multiplicity which flows out flames. And poetry,
which brings back order, first of all resuscitates disorder, disorder
with inflamed appearances; it makes appearances collide and brings
them back to a unique point: fire, gesture, blood, scream.
Poetry is the grinding of a multiplicity which flows out flames. And poetry, which brings back order, first of all resuscitates disorder, disorder with inflamed appearances; it makes appearances collide and brings them back to a unique point: fire, gesture, blood, scream.
According to Kristeva, we attempt to prevent the disruption and destabilisation of the socially determined and 'ideological' belief that we exist as unchanging subjects with fixed identities within an organised and static social order, by denying and excluding as unclean and disgusting anything that reminds us of our (material) corporeal natures. This dual process of denial (repression) and exclusion (projection) is, however, only ever partially successful. The presignifying traces of the chora: the maternal, corporeal desires that underlie the socio-symbolic order of signification, are forever irrupting as emotional affects, permanently threatening to destabilise the finite unity and autonomous, fixed, and singular identity of the 'ego' or 'subject'.
For Kristeva the whole affair revolves around the establishment of a series of demarcations and dichotomies between an "inside-outside", a "me-not me", and a "'not-yet me' with an 'object'". A theme initially explored by the Kleinian school of psychoanalysis:
Owing to these mechanisms (of introjection and projection) the infant's object
can be defined as what is inside or outside his own body, but even while outside,
it is still part of himself, since 'outside' results from being ejected, 'spat out': thus
the body boundaries are blurred. This might also be put the other way round:
because the object outside the body is 'spat out', and still relates to the infant's
body, there is no sharp distinction between his body and what is outside.
This brings into question the whole Cartesian 'inside' and 'outside' dichotomy. The cohesion and unity of the 'subject' or 'ego' is based upon its ability to distinguish itself from those objects that lie outside it. The ego's relationship to the outside world is explained by psychoanalysis through the processes of 'projection' and 'introjection'; processes that create the distinction between the internality of the 'ego' or 'subject' and the 'externality' of 'objects' residing in the world 'outside'. For both introjection and projection are mutually interdependent, one upon the other, both inside and outside each other at the same time; thus the inside is also on the outside, while the outside is both inside and outside too. The ego wants to 'introject', to bring 'inside' only that part of the external world with which it can identify. However, this very identification of the subject with these external objects puts the absolute externality of these objects in doubt. The question therefore arises: is it a part of the outside world that the subject wishes to introject, or is it merely a part of the subject itself; a part, moreover, which has to be 'projected' and externalised into the world 'outside' before it can be introjected 'inside'? A question (and a potential antagonism) first expressed in the language of the "oldest" instinctual drives - the oral - through the contrast between incorporation (eating) and expulsion.
Accordingly the 'ego' introjects and incorporates into itself everything that is 'good', and ejects from itself everything that is 'bad'. The boundary between subject (ego) and object (external world) is, however, somewhat paradoxical: the 'outside' is forged and maintained at the heart of the 'inside', and is kept 'outside' by the very living organism from which it is supposed to be separated. The limits of the ego's boundaries thus resembles a form similar to that of the mouth. Like the mouth (which is also a point of incorporation or 'taking in'), the ego's 'boundary' is not just a system of surfaces that divides inside from outside; it is also and equally a meeting of surfaces, a permeable interface, amounting to a blurring of boundaries.
For Kristeva, therefore, the mouth is both a place of entry and exit, one of the body's orifices that connects inside with outside, forming a vulnerable corporeal boundary or threshold that can easily be trespassed. The mouth can eat, kiss, suck, emit sounds, and produce language. In addition, cultures and religions elaborate complex taboos concerning food designated as 'unclean', setting the boundaries between what may or may not be legitimately consumed. According to Kristeva, "food is the oral object (the abject) that sets up archaic relationships between the human being and its other, its mother who wields a power as vital as it is fierce". A complex borderline between self and other, initially permeable, like the embryo in the womb, and, after birth, as the infant sustained by milk from its mother's breasts. However, in the process of accepting the gift of milk, we confront the realisation that we exist as the separate objects of our mother's desire. The infant's refusal to separate is expressed as physical nausea. This sensation of nausea not only exposes the complex relationship of sameness and difference between our mothers and ourselves, but also reveals the threat posed by the maternal space as the final collapse of distinctions between subject and object; the loss of identity and of an integrated sense of 'self ' which the contained body represents; and a slippage between opposites, suggesting an indivisibility of erotic attraction and repulsion which are held apart within the conventional binary division of sexual difference.
Like an hermaphrodite who combines the two sexes in one body (in accordance with Artaud's biography of the third-century transgendered Roman Emperor, Heliogabalus) a potential bisexuality of desires in which self and other cannot be fully separated. For Kristeva, "To believe that one 'is a woman' is almost as absurd and obscurantist as to believe that one 'is a man'". It is not the sexual difference between subjects that is important, so much as the sexual differentiation within each subject. The bisexual constitution of the child, the presence of masculinity and femininity within the same body, informs her view. The anorexic's refusal to eat can be explained as a desperate attempt to maintain the boundaries separating subject and object, reminding us of the bone beneath the skin, our mortality, and the materiality that necessitates our decay, while simultaneously expressing the attempt of an irrevocably divided subject to become united with itself; where the wholeness and integrity of the human body and of the unitary 'subject' is equated with holiness, and connected to the being and goodness of God - the Ideal: "To be holy is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual. Dietary rules and prohibitions merely develop the metaphor of holiness".
Eating dissolves the boundaries separating the self from the world, a process described by the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in his meditation on the mystery of the Eucharist: "Yet the love made objective, this subjective element becomes a thing, and only reverts once more to its nature, becoming subjective again in eating". Hegel describes his philosophy as "a circle returning upon itself, the end being wound into the beginning, a circle of circles", culminating in "the crowning glory of a spiritual world", the Absolute Idea, where spirit is reality and reality is spiritual. For Hegel the identification of the object with itself can be thought of as a unity of the opposition of the object to itself up to and including identity which leads to a splitting of its unity.
This dialectical notion of the self-motion of the object takes the form of an impulse, a vital tension, or, to borrow a term used by the medieval mystic Jakob Bohme, a 'qual' of matter. 'Qual' meaning an internalised pain or torture, an agony issuing from within; a quality Bohme considers as intrinsic to all material substance, which drives to action of some kind; an activating principle, arising from, and promoting in its turn, the self-movement and spontaneous development of a thing, in contradistinction to the development or movement of a thing derived from a pain or pressure inflicted from without. This dialectical notion of the self-motion of the object includes an identity of the object with itself such that the object is and is not, at one and the same time, and in one and the same relation, in one and the same state, which leads ultimately, by virtue of the internal dynamic of its 'qual' or agony, to its transformation into another object. The contradictoriness of this self-transformation of the self-moving object is logically overcome by admitting of the possibility of relating the self-moving object with itself as with 'its other', which appears as the identity of equal quantities, but of opposite sign.
For Julia Kristeva an androgyny or bisexuality seen as the traversing or transgression of boundaries, where the 'subject' no longer experiences sexual difference in 'essentialist' terms as a fixed opposition between 'man' and 'woman', but as a liberating process of sexual differentiation amounting to a perpetual alternation and confusion of 'subject-positions', eluding the totalising grasp, or the Aufhebung of the philosopher Hegel, which expresses his desire for a final resolution or synthesis of the opposed terms; where spirit unites with nature and indeed becomes its master because nature turns out to belong to spirit, to be nothing other than spirit, where, as Hegel writes, "nature is the bride which spirit marries". A reunion of opposites essentially identical, just like the marriage of Adam and Eve.
By rejecting the invasion of the body by external matter, and avoiding the consumption of food as an external 'pollutant', the anorexic - like a true philosophical idealist! - aspires to escape from the confused, mutable and brutish world of materiality towards a stabilised unity of identity, the Good and the Perfect, the Absolute Idea or Universal Subject, which is God: disembodied thought thinking itself. For the anorexic, therefore, "The ultimate self-abjective wish becomes the desire to completely eliminate 'flesh', to become 'pure'".
As an alternative to the transcendental ego of the Hegelian spirit, Kristeva opts for a disordered and lyrical 'subject-in-process'. This amounts to a dislocation of historical syntax such that history is experienced not as a narrative progression and sequential unfolding of a story-line or 'plot', in accordance with Hegelian notions of 'historical development' and inevitable 'progression' towards some climactic conclusion or final synthesis, but is instead pictured as a rhythmic drive that disrupts, opposes and threatens meaning and social order. A drive that destabilises the fixity and allocated subject-positions of the speaking 'I' or unitary 'subject', towards a more primitive and dynamic aggregation of pleasurable and erotic bodily sensations. A process of perpetual negation involving continual irruptions of powerful semiotic pulsations and drives, with the potential to break up the inertia and calcified rigidities (character armour) of routine behaviour patterns and the sclerotic deposits (cliches) of language habits, thus presenting a threat to such fixed signs of the symbolic order as paternal authority, the state, the family, private property, and propriety.
The polymorphously perverse desires and pulsating drives of the semiotic body are revealed in rhythmic flows, intonations, repetitions, and psychotic babble; where distinctions between reality and fantasy, male and female, 'self' and 'other', the psychological and the somatic, the 'subject' and the processes of history, are mixed and juxtaposed; like a poetic text where rupture and discontinuity predominate, and fragmentation replaces cohesion. A condition resolving itself in an 'impossible dialectic': a transgression and dissolution of boundaries; a hybridity and an androgyny, simultaneously enacting socially prohibited impulses while demanding their 'symbolic' repression, containment, ordered articulation and enunciation, in the organised form of a speaking 'subject'. A process culminating in the necessary curtailment and organised 'symbolic' articulation, codification and recuperation of an ambivalent and provisional 'unity' of opposed desires: "(appropriation/rejection, orality/anality, love/hate, life/death)". A condition described by Kristeva in the following terms: "She was a man; she was a woman.......It was a most bewildering and whirligig state to be in".
The 'abject' is a term employed by Kristeva to refer to a class of unspeakable phenomena excluded from our sense of social order, something that "disturbs identities, systems, orders. Something that doesn't respect limits, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the mixed". The 'abject' also includes whatever reminds us of our material natures, threatening to disrupt the notion of ourselves as individual subjects, with secure borders and an unchanging essence or inner 'core' of identity, unified and in command of ourselves and our environment. For Kristeva abjection is a complex mixture of yearning and condemnation, the proper and the improper, order and chaos, preserving "what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which the body becomes separated from another body in order to be".
Human beings therefore repress that which reminds them of their corporeality by categorising it as unclean and disgusting. This attempt at exclusion can only ever be partially successful. At moments when we are forced to recognise this, the reaction is one of extreme repulsion - what Kristeva calls an 'act of abjection'. Dirt, disorder and formlessness pose a threat to the body and its boundaries, in the form of a vital distinction between the inside of the body and its outside, the self from the space of the other. In other words, the fixing of limits and boundaries is bound up with the construction of the individual subject as a unified self, with a central 'core' of identity unique to each individual. Conceptualised as wanton materiality, the female body is perceived as a potential threat to this order, lacking containment and issuing filth and corruption from permeable boundaries, porous surfaces and indefinite outlines:
Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins. We should expect the orifices
of the body to symbolise its specially vulnerable points. Matter issuing from them
is marginal stuff of the most obvious kind. Spittle, blood, milk, urine, faeces or
tears by simply issuing forth have traversed the boundary of the body.
In addition, Kristeva describes the abject as possessing the qualities of Otherness, and the ambivalence of horror and desire. The abject is a polluting agent, defined against the boundaries it threatens. Excluded as unclean and improper from the logical and social order of the 'symbolic', its psychic structure can be traced, according to Kristeva, to a primary narcissism ; a narcissism laden with an hostility without limits, where the instincts of life and death merge together into a "violence of mourning for an 'object' that has always already been lost".
The lost object is the mother, and the unfulfilled desire for her is laden with unacceptable wishes of forbidden (polymorphously perverse) pleasures and drives (love/hate, life/death) that need to be sublimated. Like a taboo it is born out of primal repression which designates and excludes the mother's body as the non-object (or 'abject-object') of desire. According to Kristeva, this primal repression, which is pre-verbal (unspeakable), is displaced through a process of denial onto another object, a metaphor, through signification, symbolisation and sublimation (including fetishism and phobia). Thus the psychic and social mechanisms of displacing the abject are a transformation of the impossible object into a fantasy of desire, where the unspeakable is uttered through rhythm and song and the sublimation of artistic reproduction.
According to Kristeva "the existence of psychoanalysis reveals the permanence, the ineluctability of crisis" of "The speaking being (who) is a wounded being, with its discourse dumb from the disorder of love, and the 'death drive' (Freud) coextensive with humanity". In Beyond The Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud describes the death drive as "the most universal endeavour of all living substance - namely to return to the quiescence of the inorganic world". Like a river winding its way back to the sea, life is but a series of "complicated detours" or "circuitous paths to death". Freud's illustrations of this drive include the "momentary extinction" of orgasm, and a story of origins derived from "the poet-philosopher" Plato: "the hypothesis that living substance at the time of its coming to life was torn apart into small particles, which have ever since endeavoured to reunite through the sexual instincts".
The speculations of Freud on the nature of living substance at the time of its coming into being bears a resemblance to the theories of the biochemist Lynn Margulis on the origin of nucleated cells. According to Margulis, for millions of years before cells with nuclei appeared, living prokaryotes (cells without nuclei) dominated the Earth. Margulis contends that nucleated cells originated when non-nucleated bacteria devoured one another. Some of the bacteria that were eaten were not digested or destroyed, but somehow managed to survive and adapt to live inside their host predator cells as symbiotic organelles: little organs. Cells within cells utterly interdependent (endosymbiotic), forming stable, compound organisms - new wholes far greater than the sum of their parts. These compound organisms gradually evolved into fully fledged eukaryotes - living cells that possess a central nucleus suspended in cytoplasm: the whole wrapped in a cell wall, like the yolk of an egg surrounded by a protein sac, safely enveloped within a protective shell (an 'enceinte'). For Margulis, multicellular organisms such as ourselves are coordinated collective composites or colonies of cells, and each individual cell is likewise a composite of cooperating micro-organisms.
Margulis' theories intersect with Freud's own speculations about the history of living substance, with the added twist that for Freud this substance was originally a unity that has somehow been torn apart and is forever striving towards regaining this long lost unity in the form of an ever more complex "combination of the particles into which living substance is dispersed". Freud marvels at the seemingly insurmountable difficulties encountered by these early unicellular organisms - "splintered fragments of living substance" - in their first attempts at reuniting as multicellular entities, and the necessity "which compelled them to form a protective cortical layer.......by an environment charged with dangerous stimuli". For Freud it would appear that the colonies of cells that make up the multicellular organism collectively constitute a defence mechanism against a hostile external environment.
Then there is Freud's equation of life and death, the animate and the inanimate: "the hypothesis of a death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state". Perhaps this final state of entropic dissolution and restful oblivion is a return to the unity originally lost. Freud's answer to the question of life's purpose and direction appears endlessly circular, a ceaseless ebb and flow - "But here, I think, the moment has come for breaking off".
For Artaud the term 'cruelty' encapsulates the tight rapport between life and death:
Above all, cruelty is lucid, it is a kind of rigid direction, submission to
necessity. No cruelty without consciousness, without a kind of applied
consciousness. It is consciousness which gives to the exercise of every action
in life its colour of blood, its cruel touch, since it must be understood that to
live is always through the death of someone else.
The process "which makes mammiferous larvae into human children, masculine or feminine subjects" begins with the body of the newly-born infant, which is a seething mass of excitations, impulses and instinctual drives; a disorganised bundle of parts and sensations (the body 'in bits and pieces'), completely lacking in any sense of itself as a coherent, unified entity. Freud terms this the 'primary narcissistic' or 'polymorphously perverse' stage of infantile development: a stage with no sense of 'self', centring or organisation, where the desiring sensations ('libido') are diffused throughout the entire body, internally and upon the skin's surface. A strange blend of self-sufficiency on the one hand, mobility and dispersion on the other.
Gradually the infant begins to view itself as a coherent, unified being, distinct from its mother and its environment. This awareness of the difference between the self and the rest of the world is the foundation upon which the infant begins to acquire language. Language provides the infant with a means of articulating reality in a way that seems to realise its struggle for reintegration as a coherent subject. For Kristeva, however, both the infant's and adult's idealised representation of themselves as autonomous, whole beings is an illusion. The 'self' or 'ego' is 'in reality' fragmented and disjointed; and the sense of completeness, wholeness, and oneness characteristic of the imaginary, ideal self which we identify with and seek, exists as an unattainable fiction.
For Kristeva cultural production is implicated in an ideological process of constituting undivided subjects - in conformity with the controlling ego of traditional Western philosophy (a view enunciated by the philosopher Rene Descartes, who declares: '(I) think therefore (I) am'). The fractured, multifaceted, fragmentary and contradictory nature of the self is denied, and anything that threatens the illusory integrity of the ego and its borders is ruthlessly excluded as 'abject'. The classic realist text or painting plays its part in constituting the subject by inscribing the viewer or reader within the work itself, providing a place for the viewer or reader to occupy if 'he' or 'she' is to enter this ideal fiction of an integrated subject, and be entertained, basking in the illusion of possessing secure boundaries and a stable, fixed 'subject-position' (and sense of 'self').
If the classic realist text provides the reader with the illusion of stable boundaries and a fixed subjectivity and identity, for Kristeva the 'revolutionary' ('avant-garde') art of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries exploited the semiotic dimension of what Kristeva calls the signifying process. Mallarme, Joyce, and Artaud have shaken the existing configuration of the symbolic and given rise, in Kristeva's interpretation, to a theory of the subject in process: a subject equally constituted by symbolic and semiotic elements. The resulting subject exists as a rhythmic reverberation in the symbolic, a reverberation that connotes both union with, and separation from, the mother. According to Kristeva:
Artaud interrogated the established institutions in order to have done with
language and the unity of consciousness. He set up this tug of war with possibility,
where on the one hand there was the possibility of speaking to people who came
to hear him or of writing books, and on the other hand there was the experience of
non-sense, for example in the texts composed of glossololalia which mean nothing
and are totally explosive, which are no longer language but pure drive. So it was
this kind of balancing act that he was trying to sustain with regard to values –
whilst exposing himself in an immense rage against others and himself – that I was
examining and was attempting to go along with.
The notion of the infant's body as fragmented and fluid (the body 'in bits and pieces') corresponds to the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's 'pre-mirror' stage. For Lacan, the newly-born infant is not yet a complete human being: physiologically the nervous system is not yet fully formed, and socially language is still to be acquired. The infant is unable to differentiate itself from its mother or its surrounding environment. A condition described by Freud as resolving itself through a process whereby the child's disorganised desiring sensations gradually coalesce and become focussed on the mouth as the first in a developmental succession of organs of pleasure ('erogenous zones'). For it is through the mouth that the child makes contact with the principle object of desire - the mother's breast.
To the newly-born infant, the outer world with its infinite stimuli is chaotic, a chaos from which the sensations from its own body are a part. Ego and outer world, self and other, are experienced as a unity. All that is pleasurable belongs to an expanded ego, "which absorbs into identity with itself the sources of its pleasure, its world, its mother" With time, this changes. Sensations belonging to the outer world are recognised as internal to the body, while parts of the outer world which are pleasurable, such as the maternal nipple, are recognised as belonging to the world outside. In this way, a unified ego gradually crystallises from the primordial chaos of internal and external perceptions, and establishes boundaries separating itself from an outside reality. The ego thus becomes "a shrunken vestige of a far more extensive (oceanic) feeling - a feeling which embraced the universe and expressed an inseparable connection of the ego with the external world".
Freud's pre-Oedipal stage of the self-absorbed, narcissistic infant and Lacan's notion of the 'pre-mirror' stage share in common an understanding of the similarity between the infant's and the adult schizophrenic's manner of experiencing the world. Both experience a harmony without any boundary between ego ('self' or 'subject') and the outer world of 'external' 'objects'.
The onset of Jacques Lacan's 'mirror stage' marks the illusory and complex development of a separate ego formed as part of a narcissistic relationship between self and other, and the division of an androgynous whole into two symmetrical male and female images; torn halves that gaze longingly at each other across an abyss of difference that both joins and separates. Lacan uses the term 'imaginary' to denote the way in which the subject is seduced by this image of otherness (initially the mirror reflection of the body) and takes this image as a representation of the 'self'. In the mirror stage, the human being attempts to coordinate an amalgam of sensory and motor reflexes and responses via the establishment of a fixed and rigid 'Ideal-I', consisting of an imaginary, ideal image with which he or she will never coincide, and an 'I' that can never be realised. This ideal domain of the self-contained ego belongs to the symbolic order of language, of the Name-of-the-Father, of castration and the unconscious (an internalised authority Lacan describes as the 'ideal incubus').
Lacan contends that at the heart of the ego lies a complete void: "The ego is constructed like an onion, one could peel it, and discover the successive identifications which have constituted it". An inexhaustible search comparable to the endless labour of 'laying bare', 'extracting' and 'refining', involved in the process of revealing that seemingly elusive 'rational kernel' concealed somewhere beneath the superimposed skins - "of a certain crust which is more or less thick (think of a fruit, an onion, or even an artichoke)" - constituting the external, 'mystical shell' of Hegel's philosophy of the Absolute Idea. Referring to Hegel's system, Lacan concludes: "when one is made into two, there is no going back on it. It can never revert to making one again, not even a new one. The Aufhebung (sublation) is one of those sweet dreams of philosophy".
Freud discusses the formation of a bounded sense of self, of the 'ego', and the separation of the ego (subject) from the external world (object) as a process whereby:
objects presenting themselves, in so far as they are sources of pleasure, are
absorbed by the ego into itself, 'introjected'...........while, on the other hand
the ego thrusts forth upon the external world whatever within itself gives rise
to pain (the mechanism of projection).
According to Lacan, prior to the onset of the 'mirror stage', the child is completely devoid of any sense of itself as a 'unity', and lacks a fixed sense of itself as possessing a coherent 'identity' separate from whatever is 'other' or external to it. A transformation takes place however with the arrival of the mirror stage, when the child, like the legendary Narcissus, falls in love with the reflected image of itself, and identifies with this illusory 'other' as an ideal image of wholeness and 'subjecthood'. Lacan describes the mirror stage as the ineluctable unfolding of a drama:
The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from
insufficiency to anticipation - which manufactures for the subject, caught up in
the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a
fragmented body-image, manifested in dreams as the individual's aggressive
disintegration, in the form of disjointed limbs, or of those organs represented in
exoscopy, growing wings and taking up arms for intestinal persecutions - the very
same that the visionary Hieronymous Bosch has fixed, for all time, in painting, in
their ascent from the fifteenth century to the imaginary zenith of modern man.
A drama that commences with the infant's emergence from an undifferentiated state of insufficiency (a body in bits and pieces) into an orthopedic 'form' which is then 'finalised' in the fixed position of a unitary 'subject' in conjunction with the formation of a protective armour: the isolating "armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development". The armour of an alienating identity that compares with the carapaces of insects and the rigid, undifferentiated, automatic (and 'unfeeling') nature of their stimulus and response motor reactions towards the pressure of instinctual drives triggered by external events. For example, the 'ichneumonid wasp' (a group of several hundred related species of wasps) seeks out and encounters either a cricket or a caterpillar, paralyses the 'host' insect with its sting, and then inserts its eggs into the host's body. When the larvae hatch they eat the living, paralysed body of the host from the inside out - carefully avoiding the vital organs in order to extend the life (and agony) of the host for as long as possible lest its body decay prematurely, spoiling the meat .The entomologist William Kirby esteems the ichneumonid wasp most highly for its judicious husbanding of its economic resources:
In this strange and apparently cruel operation one circumstance is truly
remarkable. The larva of the Ichneumon, though every day, perhaps for
months, it gnaws the inside of the caterpillar, and though at last it has
devoured almost every part of it except the skin and intestines, carefully
all this time it avoids injuring the vital organs, as if aware that its own
existence depends on that of the insect upon which it preys!
With equal respect, the entomologist J. M. Fabre describes with horrified fascination and in meticulous detail how the lava of the Ichneumon dictate the movements of its cricket host:
One may see the cricket, bitten to the quick, vainly move its antennae and
abdominal styles, open and close its empty jaws, and even move a foot, but
the lava is safe and searches its vitals with impunity. What an awful
nightmare for the paralyzed cricket!
The ability and the calculated precision of the Ichneumon is not acquired through practice - it is an inflexible 'instinctual' response to external stimuli, a biological quality inherent in the wasp. As a matter of fact we know that the outstanding difference between human beings and their fellow animals consists in the infantile morphological characteristics of human beings, in the prolongation of their infancy. This prolonged infancy allows for a certain plasticity whereby the rigid motor responses of instinctual behaviour are superseded by the transmission of culture and the capacity to 'learn', adapt to and modify the external environment. This explains the traumatic character of sexual experiences not shared by our animal brethren and the existence of the Oedipus Complex itself which is a conflict between the instinctual drives of the Id and the demands of cultural adaptation, expressed as an internalised conflict between archaic and recent love objects. Finally the defence mechanisms themselves owe their existence to the fact that the human 'Ego' is even more retarded than the instinctual 'Id' and hence the immature 'Self' or 'Ego' evolves defence mechanisms as a protection against libidinal quantities which it is not prepared to deal with:
In man, however, this relation to nature is altered by a certain de-hiscence
at the heart of the organism, a primordial Discord betrayed by the signs of
uneasiness and motor unco-ordination of the neo-natal months. The
objective notion of the anatomical incompleteness of the pyramidal system
and likewise the presence of certain humoral residues of the maternal
organism confirm the view I have formulated as the fact of a real specific
prematurity of birth in man.
It is worth noting, incidentally, that this is a fact recognized as such by
embryologists, by the term foetalization, which determines the prevalence
of the so-called superior apparatus of the neurax, and especially of the
cortex, which psycho-surgical operations lead us to regard as the intra-
The theory of retardation is also put forward from another point of view by Robert Briffault:
It has been seen that the power of nutrition and of reproduction decrease
in the cell in proportion to the degree of fixation of its reactions, that is, in
proportion to its differentiation and specialization.....The higher the degree
of specialized organization and differentiation which the cells of the
developing being have to attain, the slower the rate of growth. Hence it is
that the higher we proceed in the scale of mammalian evolution, the longer
is the time devoted to gestation.
Even more important is the fact that, although the time of gestation is
thus lengthened, the rate of individual development becomes slower as
we rise in the scale of organization and the young are brought into the
world in a condition of greater immaturity.
Infantile or fetal characteristics which are temporary in other animals therefore seem to have become stabilised in the human species. In Race, Sex and Environment, Marett makes bold as to speculate that the causes of human retardation can be traced back through psychology and the endocrine system to minerals available in the soil. According to Marett, "Lack of any structural material would seem in the long run likely also to result in a slow rate of growth". "Lime deficiency is thus thought to encourage femininity, and iodine shortage to favour fetalization. Yet since many of the aspects of youth and femininity are similar, it will not be easy to distinguish between the two possible causes of a similar state". Regardless of the validity of these conjectures, fetalisation or paedomorphosis are generally acknowledged as one of the processes whereby human characteristics have emerged in evolution.
The structural anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss focuses on the analysis of the 'synchronic' structures characteristic of 'cold' or 'primitive' societies designated as timeless and static, and permanently stabilised in the reproduction of one and the same cycle. In contrast, the 'diachronic' sequences of 'hot' or 'advanced' societies considered as evolving 'in history', involving processes of movement and change, seem to elude the grasp of Levi-Strauss' structural analysis. It appears that events already frozen in the historical past survive in our consciousness only as myth, for it is an intrinsic characteristic of myth (as it is also of Levi Strauss' system of structural analysis) that the chronological ('diachronic') sequence of events is irrelevant. The analysis of structures is strictly designed to determine how relations which exist in Nature (and are apprehended as such by human brains) are used to generate cultural products which incorporate these same relations. Against the philosophical 'idealists' who contend that Nature has no existence other than its apprehension by human minds, Levi-Strauss' approach is 'materialist': Nature is for him a genuine reality 'out there'. A Nature governed by natural laws which are accessible, at least in part, to human scientific investigation. But our capacity to apprehend the nature of Nature is severely restricted by the nature of the apparatus (the human brain) through which we do the apprehending. The structural analysis of 'primitive' myth, by carefully examining the classifications and resulting categories used in the processes of apprehending Nature, attempts to gain an insight into the workings of the 'universal' codes and structures that govern the mechanisms of our thinking.
On the face of it, Levi-Strauss' notion of a fundamental divide between 'myth' (the synchronic) and 'history' (the diachronic) seems to share an affinity with Julia Kristeva's perspective on the division between the cyclic or monumental time of motherhood and reproduction, and the linear, historical time of production and the symbolic discourse of language, considered as the enunciation of an ordered sequence of words. However, Kristeva transforms this division into a complex dialectical relationship and reciprocal interaction between a polymorphously perverse and chaotic semiotic realm, "detected genetically in the first echolalias of infants as rhythms and intonations" and the symbolic order and fixity of the speaking subject.
A division that compares with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's duality of the Dionysian element of raw chaotic sensual power versus the balanced order and organisation of the Apollonian aesthetic (and the synthesis of the Dionysian with the Apollonian in the culture of the ancient Greeks), or the philosopher Henri Bergson's duality of the spontaneous and creative flow of interpenetrating qualities which he terms 'duration', in opposition to the 'geometric' order of well-defined elements organised in accordance with definite rules. For Leon Trotsky the powerful flow is by its very nature a primordial rawness prior to any organised structure. Moreover, it expresses a protest against artificiality, a move away from the static rigidities and impositions of an outworn established order: "While in our uncouth Russia there is much barbarism, almost zoologism, in the old bourgeois cultures of the West there are horrible encrustations of fossilized narrow-mindedness, crystallized cruelty, polished cynicism".
In accordance with this view, civilisation establishes an elaborate code of distinctions, and these distinctions govern everything. As distinctions exhaust their power to distinguish, new ones are employed. The tendency is toward finer and finer discrimination and increasing attention to detail, to the point of decadence. A view taken up by Roland Barthes who contends that 'myth', like a parasite, saps the living energy of history:
For the very end of myths is to immobilise the world: they must suggest and
mimic a universal order which has fixated once and for all a hierarchy of
possessions. Thus, every day and everywhere, man is stopped by myths, referred
by them to this motionless prototype which lives in his place, and stifles him in
the manner of a huge internal parasite assigning to his activity the narrow limits
within which he is allowed to suffer without upsetting the world.
The civilising process is directed towards self-restraint, as Norbert Elias so clearly shows. The ways in which this restraint is marked - the specific forms, details, and nuances - give class culture its distinctive flavour at each point in history. Habituated and internalised, the emotional economy of social nicety creates thresholds of embarrassment that shift. Practices once considered perfectly acceptable, such as wiping the hands on the table cloth, are later experienced as disgusting. Nowhere is taste so vividly inscribed as on the body, which the good manners of polite society so systematically denies. The body in good taste is conceived as self-contained, whole and complete (or is discreetly altered to appear so). It derives from the values propagated by the European Enlightenment - reason, moderation, classical formality, individual autonomy, and monadic self-sufficiency. But there is also a grotesque body, which, according to Kristeva's study of Mikhail Bakhtin's work on the writings of Francois Rabelais, is "not a closed completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world. This means that the emphasis is on the apertures or the convexities, or on the various ramifications and offshoots: the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose". And it is the image of the prominent Jewish nose that the critical theorist Theodor Adorno considers as a focal point of difference contributing to the virulent hatred of the anti-Semite. The despised prominence of the persecuted Jew's nose is described by Adorno as:
the physiognomic principium individuationis, symbol of the specific character of
an individual, described between the lines of his countenance. The multifarious
nuances of the sense of smell embody the archetypal longing for the lower forms
of existence, for direct unification with circumambient nature, with the earth and
mud. Of all the senses, that of smell bears closest witness to lose oneself in and
become the 'other'. When we see we remain what we are; but when we smell we
are taken over by otherness. The trend to lose oneself in the environment instead
of playing an active role in it; the tendency to let oneself go and sink back into
nature. Freud called it the death instinct, Roger Caillois 'le mimetisme'. This urge
underlies everything which runs counter to bold progress, from the crime which is
a shortcut avoiding the normal forms of activity, to the sublime work of art. A
yielding attitude to things, without which art cannot exist, is not so very remote
from the violence of the criminal. Hence the sense of smell is considered a
disgrace to civilization, the sign of lower social strata, lesser races and base
According to Freud the replacement of smell by sight as the dominant and superior sense occurred at a stage in human evolution when "as a result of our adopting an erect gate, we raised our organ of smell from the ground". The adoption of an upright posture visibly exposed the vulnerability of the human genitalia, necessitating the development of a protective sense of shame associated with the emergence of an 'organic repression', ultimately resulting in the foundation of the family unit and civilised society. Freud associates the diminution of the olfactory sense with the "cultural trend towards cleanliness" resulting in general feelings of disgust directed towards bodily excreta. The residual coprophilic instinctual components of the body are in turn derided by society as perverse and incompatible with the norms of civilised 'human' behaviour and the refinements of culture. But the instincts remain active, which is why, still, "the excremental is all too intimately and inseparably bound up with the sexual". Accordingly, Freud concludes that the net effect of society's repression and sublimation of these bodily instincts can be detected in a general lack of sexual satisfaction and in a corresponding increased incidence of mental disorders and neurotic illness.
Julia Kristeva's celebration of ugliness as thematised in the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin and Charles Baudelaire, signifies an eruption of the sensual and erotic drives of the semiotic body in protest against its repression on the part of the rational ego, which belongs to the established order of the 'symbolic'. As such, the thematisation of ugliness represents a direct assault on enlightened subjectivity's horror of the unformed, its aversion in face of that which has escaped the levelling, identitarian stamp of 'civilised' life. The aesthetics of ugliness, therefore, reminds civilisation of a stage of development prior to the rational individuation of the species in face of primordial nature, the stage of its undifferentiated unity with nature, a moment of 'weakness' and 'vulnerability' civilisation has attempted to repress from memory. For civilisation is seized by an overwhelming fear of relapse into that primordial, pre-individualised state against which it struggled so concertedly to free itself that it has become tragically incapable of releasing itself from the rigidification of the ego synonymous with the principle of rational control. For in order to elevate itself above the level of a merely natural existence and thus arrive at self-consciousness as a species, humanity is required to subjugate its own inner nature, that is, become attuned to the renunciation of the instinctual drives of the semiotic body demanded by a 'reality principle' necessary for the level of cooperation required for the conquest and subjugation of external nature.
For Kristeva, the 'pre-symbolic' realm of nature is synonymous with the 'pre-symbolic' semiotic space/time of the child's initial fusion with and dependency upon the body of its m(other). The dialectic or process of self-consciousness which enables self-identity (the same) to distinguish itself from what is 'other', that is, the formation of subjective and objective identity, necessitates the denial and repression of this pre-symbolic state of fusion with the maternal body. The repression of the maternal body in turn provides the foundations for the social and symbolic mastery of nature, the body, of the non-identical, and of the heterogeneous. According to Kristeva, "Fear of the archaic mother proves essentially to be a fear of her generative power. It is this power, dreaded, that patrilineal filiation is charged with subduing". Yet, in the end, the rigidification of the ego required for this purpose is ultimately so extreme that the original goal of the process, the eventual pacification of the struggle for existence and the attainment of a state of reconciliation with nature, is eventually lost sight of; and the means to this end, the domination of nature, is enthroned as an end in itself. For once the 'subject' comes to perceive itself as absolute and its 'other', the maternal body of nature, as merely the stuff of domination, this logic ultimately exacts its revenge upon the 'subject', which has somehow forgotten that the 'other' is a moment internal to itself, in other words, that humanity, too, is part of corporeal nature and is consequently a victim of its own ruthless apparatus of control. A tragic dialectic ensues, whereupon "Man's domination over himself, which grounds his selfhood, is almost always the destruction of the subject in whose service it is undertaken; for the substance which is dominated, suppressed and dissolved through self-preservation is none other than that very life as a function of which the achievements of self-preservation are defined; it is, in fact, what is to be preserved".
Reason abstracts, and seeks to comprehend through concepts and names. Abstraction, which can grasp the concrete only insofar as it reduces it to identity, also liquidates the otherness of the other. By making ugliness thematic, the poetry of Charles Baudelaire gives a voice to those oppressed and non-identical elements of society anathematised by the dominant powers of social control that are commonly denied expression in the extra-aesthetic world. Baudelaire's poems articulate the right of the other, of the non-identical, to be. It accomplishes this task by rejecting the burden of the concept and returning to the word's forgotten, repressed meanings through the agency of metaphor. The significance of ugliness, the tendency toward the incorporation of increasingly ignoble, unrefined themes in art, in contrast to the consistently more exalted concerns of classical art, is clearly expressed in the title selected by Baudelaire for his major collection of poems, Les Fleurs de mal.
The notion that something ugly can be 'beautiful', that in fact in can be beautiful precisely because it is ugly, tests the boundaries of the permissible, opening up immense, previously untapped reservoirs of experience. Poking fun at those painters who find nineteenth-century dress excessively ugly, Baudelaire celebrates the black frock-coat and dress-coat as "the necessary costume of our time" expressing the intimate relationship of modernity with death: "The dress-coat and frock-coat not only possess their political beauty, which is an expression of universal equality, but also their poetic beauty, which is an expression of the public soul - an immense cortege of undertaker's mutes (mutes in love, political mutes, bourgeois mutes). We are each of us celebrating some funeral".
Baudelaire cites the example of the artist Constantin Guys, a spectator and collector of modern life's curiosities: "this solitary, gifted with an active imagination, ceaselessly journeying across the great human desert - the last to linger wherever there is a glow of light, an echo of poetry, a quiver of life or a chord of music; wherever a passion can pose before him, wherever natural man and conventional man display themselves in a strange beauty, wherever the sun lights up the swift joys of the depraved animal".
Julia Kristeva shares Charles Baudelaire's fascination with the combined figures of the dandy and the flaneur, the artist and the poet, keenly receptive and perfectly at home in the streets, drifting through the crowded boulevards, painting in colours and in words the sensory array and variegated experiences of modern life. The artist adrift, acutely sensitive to the sadness of loss and the inevitably of decay captured in the fading and fragile beauty of each fleeting moment; a sadness reflected in the momentary glance of every stranger briefly encountered while passing through the city's crowded streets. The wandering poet whose artistic creations disrupt the fossilised social conventions of the symbolic order by resurrecting through the colour and play of words the memory of the semiotic experience: a feeling of bliss and unity, an ecstatic dissolution of the boundaries and divisions that separate, a sensation of 'oceanic' oneness; feelings and sensations synonymous with that original state of fusion of the infant's body with the body of its mother. The restoration of a 'love' experienced as the extinction of otherness; a love that the art of poetry articulates through the agency of 'metaphor', or the 'marriage' of one object with another; an analogical mode of thinking defined by the poet Stephane Mallarme as the secret to the 'mystery' of poetic creation: "Herein lies the whole mystery: to pair things off and establish secret identities that gnaw at objects and wear them away in the name of a central purity".
The flaneur or dandy, immersed in the flux of each passing moment, produce themselves as objects of a continual aesthetic elaboration whereby their passions, their behaviours, and their very lives, become works of art in perpetual progress of formation. Charles Baudelaire, poet and dandy, exemplifies for Kristeva her notion of the 'subject-in-process', with "flowing locks, pink gloves, coloured nails as well as hair", who produces himself through the very act of writing his poetry. Poetry that dissolves and then merges objects together again into one harmonious unity of the senses: a 'synaesthesia' of the senses consisting in the disintegrated displacement and reassembled condensation of sensations fused together into a unity; a process amounting to the poetic re-enchantment of the everyday, familiar world. Poetry that evokes for Kristeva "that archaic universe, preceding sight, where what takes place is the conveyance of the most opaque lovers' indefinite identities, together with the chilliest words: 'There are strong perfumes for which all matter is porous. They seem to penetrate glass'".
Mikhail Bakhtin traces the historical process by which images of fundamental bodily processes like "eating, drinking, copulation, defecation, almost entirely lost their regenerating power and were transformed into 'vulgarities'". Thus a hierarchy is established between the high and the low, the official and the popular, the classical and the grotesque, the top and the bottom, the face and the body's nether regions. Bakhtin celebrates the festivities of the carnival and the antics of the carnivalesque as the symbolic inversion and cultural negation of traditional distinctions between the 'high' and the 'low', leading to the negation and inversion of established social and political cultural codes and norms.
The grotesque body of the carnival is the corporeal body of the multitude, associated with the 'low' and the base, with orifices that leak and drip, with impurity, disproportion, immediacy, and with the porousness and indeterminacy of abject materiality. This is the material body, the direct antithesis to the classically beautiful, ideal body, which is culturally defined as symmetrical, elevated, and refined. An ideal body conceptualised as a sealed, self-contained vessel, with a protective shell, or shield, serving to conceal (and deny) its material, corporeal aspect. A bodily ideal verging on the spiritual, symbolising a set of ordered and hierarchical relations serving to maintain secure and impervious boundaries separating vital distinctions between such designated terms as inside and outside, proper and improper, order and disorder, ugliness and beauty, the corporeal and the spiritual.
In contrast, Bakhtin and Kristeva celebrate the grotesque, lower bodily stratum, expressed in the antics of the clown and the frivolity of the circus, and in the folk imagery contained in Rabelais' joyful descriptions of the medieval carnival. Images of bodily satisfaction and sensual gratification preserved within the oral language traditions and festivities of the common people, and recorded in historical texts concerning antique satyric drama and ancient practices such as the Roman Saturnalia. A history that represents for Bakhtin and Kristeva the material principle of the body's resurrection as the location and promise of a utopian alternative. The 'primary processes', subterranean drives, rhythmic pulsions, and libidinal connections of the semiotic body continuously irrupting, subverting, destabilising, and threatening the rigidities and stases of a sociosymbolic order that in turn endeavours to recuperate and contain these potentially destabilising affects by incorporating them into its very structure, in what can only be described as a dialectical conflict and provisional unity of opposites.
For Julia Kristeva "The semiotic (body) is articulated by flow and energy transfers, the cutting up of the corporeal and social continuum as well as its ordering in a pulsating chora, in a rhythmic but nonexpressive totality". Mikhail Bakhtin's image of the grotesque body is Kristeva's semiotic body, the earthly element of the maternal womb, epitomising the cycles of life, death, and renewal, terror and delight, as it flowers into new life. For Kristeva and Bakhtin the world of Francois Rabelais is an ever-present memory, the return of the repressed, marking the temporary suspension of hierarchy and prohibition, and accompanied by the 'unofficial truth' of laughter and freedom from everything that oppresses and restricts; a topsy-turvy, inside-out, back-to-front world. A union of opposites where the top and the bottom change places, where the spiritual is displaced to the physical, and the superiority traditionally attributed to the mind is overthrown in favour of the 'lower' bodily processes of humanity's supposedly 'animal' functions.
This connects with Kristeva's exploration of the notion of transgression, where to break with conventional cultural boundaries of order and acceptability runs the risk of being designated as 'other' or 'abject'; where difference is associated with deformity, disease, formlessness, disintegration and decay; and where people considered as somehow indeterminate or marginal, that is, as a threat to a culture's definition of what constitutes its notion of secure borders, either geographically (ethnic minorities, refugees), or psychologically (the sexually transgressive, outsiders, the disabled, the sick, women), are liable to be victimised and persecuted in order to preserve an illusory sense of social 'order'.
Arguing against the type of abstract rationalism and 'monological' discourse that recognises only one kind of truth, Bakhtin's and Kristeva's celebration of the grotesque and the carnivalesque affirms the indeterminate, the intermixed, the paradoxical, and the ambivalent. For Bakhtin and Kristeva the grotesque body exists as a fluid, split, multiple self; an unfinished and desiring subject-in-process; a corporeal entity open to the processes of reciprocal interaction and exchange occurring in its surrounding environment. In contrast, the classical bodies of the bourgeoisie are described as closed, centred, symmetrical and homogeneous.
Threatening the symmetrical proportions of the classical body and the centrality of the self-contained ego, the 'grotesque' body expresses the supposed vulgarity of corporeality: the physicality and materiality of the 'grotesque' body marginalised and excluded from the privatised interior realm of the privileged and the culturally refined. Accordingly, the materiality of the grotesque and the vulgar is designated as 'other', occupying a low and dirty periphery or 'outside', which, in turn, guarantees a coherent identity to the 'inside'. Ironically, however, the identity formation of the monadic 'subject' is dependant upon this very 'other' which is excluded as an inferior object of disgust (and desire). Thus the 'ideal' realm of 'high' culture, rationalism and civilisation, is based upon psychical processes of disavowal, denial and projection, where it is always someone else who is possessed by the grotesque, never the 'self'.
Moreover, with the extension of the civilising process there arises the necessity for greater controls over 'lower' bodily functions and emotions, producing changes in conduct and manners which heighten the sense of disgust directed towards the direct expression of bodily needs, desires, and emotions. Mikhail Bakhtin builds his conception of the polyphonic 'multi-voiced' novel upon a fundamental break with this notion of a self-contained monadic subject, the narrative 'I' with a 'single voice'; instead, characters are conceptualised as nothing more than multiple points of view, a continuous intermixture, a dispersal and provisional reassembly of diverse 'subject positions'; culminating in the open ended freedom of Julia Kristeva's 'subject-in process. Accordingly, the separation of oneself, as 'subject', from others and the environment, as 'objects', this differentiation makes culture (the symbolic order of language) possible: "I am not part of the street - no, I describe the street. One splits off, therefore".
Kristeva approves of Bakhtin's determined opposition of "the explosive politics of the body, the erotic, the licentious and semiotic" against the "official, formalistic and logical authoritarianism whose unspoken name is Stalinism". A formalism, along with its attendant hierarchy, detected in the novels dissected by Leon Trotsky, the exiled opponent and critic of Russia's ruling, parasitic bureaucratic caste, lead and personified by Stalin:
The normal bourgeois novel has two floors: emotions are experienced only in
the bel-etage (Proust!), while the people in the basement polish shoes and take
out chamber-pots. This is rarely mentioned in the novel itself, but presupposed
as something quite natural. The hero sighs, the heroine breathes; it follows that
they perform other bodily functions too; somebody, then, has to clean up after
them. I remember reading a novel of Louys called Amour and Psyche - an
unusually sham and banal concoction, completed, if I am not mistaken, by the
unbearable Claude Farrere. Louys puts the servants somewhere in the nether
regions, so that his enamoured hero and heroine never see them. An ideal social
system for amorous idlers and their artists!
The inversion of hierarchy is celebrated in Artaud's description, in 'The Race of Lost Men', of the Tarahumara Indians and their inimical style of begging in the streets of Mexico. The Tarahumaras displayed an attitude of 'supreme contempt. They had an air of saying: "Since you are rich, you are a dog, I am worth more than you, I spit on you".
Julia Kristeva supplements the materialist dialectics of Marxism with psychoanalytical theories in an attempt to bridge the gulf separating the 'external', the 'objective' and the 'social' from the 'internal' processes of continual dissolution and reconstruction of the 'subject' conceived as a fluid entity. The result is Kristeva's 'subject-in-process', an inversion of the philosopher Louis Althusser's notion of 'history' as a 'process without a subject'. In this way we arrive at two antithetical systems which internalise and reflect one another's qualities:
On the one hand, we are presented with the view, espoused by Louis Althusser, of the individual as a 'sub-jected' social entity or 'object' of the social ('symbolic') order, allocated a fixed 'subject-position' objectively determined by the dominant mode of production. A process achieved through the mechanism of an ideology designed to constitute individuals as imaginary 'subjects' - centres of free initiative - of society, in order to assure their real subjection to the social order, as blind supports or victims of a 'closed system' where the worker as the occupant of a predetermined function or position is no longer individually differentiated as a 'work in progress', subject to the processes of change and renewal, but instead is compelled to operate within the rigidly circumscribed and narrowly specialised demands of their particular function and fixed subject-position without ever achieving the opportunity to open themselves up (amorously) to the 'other' as the creative and artistic being s/he potentially is.
On the other hand, we are presented with Kristeva's alternative of a 'living' or 'open system' combining the amorous and the artistic in the mutable form of the 'subject-in-process', conceived as an effective agent of social transformation, heterogeneous and open to the play of difference, exploded, multiple, and fluid, whose transgression of established boundaries is an expression of the jouissance embedded in the continuity of self and other that is repressed by the Law of the Father but is never totally destroyed. The organised stability and fixity of society and the 'subject' are revealed as based upon a somewhat tenuous symbolic control over the polymorphous pleasures and the dispersing impulses of the semiotic drives, which threaten apparent unities and stabilities with disruption and dissolution. There is thus a dialectical conflict and resolution of opposites at work; consisting, on the one hand, of drives and impulses belonging to the realm of the semiotic and the biological, and, on the other hand, of organised family and social structures belonging to the symbolic and the social.
The formalism of refined culture, and discourse designated as elevated, dignified and refined, feed voraciously upon, and are nourished and replenished by, the experiences of those designated as low and base, vulgar and exorbitant. Ironically, the socio-symbolic order of 'high' culture thrives upon, articulates, refines, codifies and preserves, in a coherent form, that very 'body' of impure and messy semiotic matter from which it seeks to cleanse itself. Accordingly, Kristeva explores relationships not only of production (cultural and technological), but also of reproduction (corporeality) - "survival of the species, life and death, the body, sex and symbol".
Julia Kristeva's fascination with the conflict, unity, and oscillation between such dualisms as sameness and difference, unity and dispersion, continuity and disruption, sexual desire and death, is an effective reworking and elaboration upon themes explored by the surrealist writer, Georges Bataille. Drawing upon the works of de Sade, Bataille writes of the fundamental link "between death and sexual excitement", adding, "In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation". In exploring the perverse and violent nature of sexuality, Bataille rigorously avoids any association or contamination of human eroticism with anything to do with what might be called purely spiritual concepts of ideal beauty, love or romance. Instead, Bataille revels in the connections he painstakingly establishes between eroticism and the more earthly concerns of ripeness and decay, the cycles of sexual expenditure, discharge and release, and 'abject' feelings of repugnance and disgust.
For Bataille "Eroticism springs from an alternation of fascination and horror", a fascination expressed in the seductive nature of the monstrous and the grotesque. The goal of course is the attainment of unity through the symbolic fusion of two individuals in a sexual embrace that collapses social boundaries and constraints while at the same time destroying for the participants the 'isolation' and 'self-contained character' of their 'normal' lives as 'discontinuous individuals'. An erotic union that completely breaks down the distinction of self and other through a process of the inside collapsing into the outside producing "a feeling of profound continuity", where the individual, who would normally regard themselves with the utmost importance and their sexuality, as a means, like any other, for their own satisfaction, become conscious of themselves from a biological standpoint as only a brief episode in a succession of generations, as merely a short-lived appendage to a germ-plasm endowed with virtual immortality.
Plato's Symposium recounts the ancient Greek myth of the Orphic Eros, simultaneously male and female. A perfect unity expressing the original harmony and unity of the universe:
In the beginning.............there were three sexes, not as there are now two, male
and female, but there was also a third which constituted a synthesis of the two
others..............It was 'androgynoid', i.e. man-woman, inasmuch as it had the
appearance and name of both the male and female sex.
According to Plato's account, as recounted by Aristophanes, this primeval race of androgynes, the ancestors of us all, were bizarre creatures with two faces looking in opposite directions, and with two sets of each pair of limbs: four arms, four legs, two heads, and two sets of genitals. Endowed with this remarkable collection of body parts, and with the back and sides of their bodies forming a perfect circle, they could move either forwards or backwards with incredible speed, rolling around performing cartwheels with the agility and athleticism of circus performers. Zeus, the primal father of the gods, threatened by the might, skill and strength of this race of androgynes, acted to diminish their power and self-sufficiency by splitting them in half "like a sorb apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair". Thus split into two halves, and forever driven by the desire for reunion, each half seeks the other half; a desire only partially and temporarily fulfilled in the unity of the sexual embrace - as if a person looking into a mirror were able to merge with their idealised reflection, becoming one with it. A coupling that allows the two separated halves of humanity an imaginary restoration of completeness and wholeness, which was ours originally before the onset of the male-female polarity.
This division of an original unity is analogous to the critical theorist Theodor Adorno's description of the relationship between high art and popular culture: "torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up". Or Kristeva's psychoanalytical reflections on the overt bisexuality of children: that is to say, a girl not only possesses an affectionate attitude ('object-choice') towards her father and an ambivalent attitude towards her mother, but at the same time she also behaves like a boy and displays feelings of jealousy and hostility towards her father and a corresponding affectionate and 'masculine' attitude towards her mother; a process through which 'female' 'subjectivity' is born. This corresponds with Freud's speculations concerning bisexuality and its role in the development of the male-female polarity; speculations that go back to the very origins of his psychoanalytical theories. For instance, in a letter to his friend and collaborator, the nose-and-throat specialist Wilhelm Fliess (who influenced him greatly on the topic), Freud writes: "Bisexuality! I am sure you are right about it. And I am accustoming myself to regarding every sexual act as an event between four individuals".
The ancient Greeks were keenly aware of the crucial importance of clearly defined boundaries as guarantors of human order. Women were regarded as individuals especially lacking in control of their own boundaries. The ancient Greek natural philosopher and physician Hippokrates attributes the difference between male and female to the following:
The female flourishes more in an environment of water, from things cold and wet
and soft.............The male flourishes more in an environment of fire, from dry, hot
foods and mode of life.
According to Hippokrates, the condition of dry stability characteristic of the male body is something never attained by the female physique, which remains cold and wet all its life. Due to her innate wetness, women were considered more prone than men to liquefying incursions upon the integrity of their bodies and minds, especially those of love and emotion which were thought to be particularly endangering forms of wetness. The emotions associated with female eros were regarded as especially liquid and liquefying, acting to soften, loosen, melt and dissolve physiological and psychological boundaries which men prided themselves on being able to resist.
The clean and proper body for the (male) social subject is therefore based on the exclusion of 'abject' substances that threaten to break boundaries, on the principle of identity without intermixture, the condemnation of hybrids, and an obsessive fear of the threat of undifferentiation. Fluids attest to the undignified material attributes of a bodily existence: to the body's permeability, its vulnerable dependence on an outside, and to the precarious division between the body's inside and its outside; and the ever present danger of its complete collapse into this outside (which is what death represents).
Female sexuality is regarded as an uncontainable flow, associated with what is unclean and contaminating (such as the menstrual flow), with infection, disease, and decay. Liquids are devoid of shape or form. Bodily fluids flow, seep, and infiltrate; their control is a matter of perpetual uncertainty. For Julia Kristeva:
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................ Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection,
disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the
ego threatened by the non- ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death.
Artaud celebrates the gestural immediacy and vitality of a theatre that will obliterate the 'spiritual':
a theatre of blood,
a theatre where at each performance
will be won
In reality, the theatre is the birth of creation.
That will happen.
The artist Jana Sterbak's Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic,(1987), an installation consisting of approximately fifty pounds of ageing meat (flank steak) organised by the National Gallery of Canada and presented in Ottawa in 1991, visibly portrays the relationship of meat with the female body as an object of consumption. The decaying meat combined with images of rotting fruit and vegetables, and flowers long past their bloom, suggests the cycle of fertility, birth, ripeness and decay, with its attendant intimations of human mortality. The work plays with the binary distinctions of wet and dry, animal and human, inanimate and animate, body and garment, interior and exterior, life and death. The fifty pounds of decaying meat enclosed within the space of an art gallery also recalls Theodor Adorno's discussion of the unpleasant undertones associated with the German word for museum ('museal', 'museumlike') and its phonetic association with the word 'mausoleum', where "objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship are in the process of dying. Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. Art treasures are hoarded in them, and their market value leaves no room for the pleasure of looking at them".
In response to Sterbak's installation, the newspapers Toronto Sun and Ottawa Sun launched a negative campaign against the 'wastefulness' of the exhibition. This included a digitally manipulated image of the flesh dress alongside a recommendation from the editors urging the readers to cut the image out and then mail it to the curator responsible for the exhibit - Diana Nemiroff (address supplied) - suitably smeared with the most disgusting materials possible. Over two hundred readers responded. Some of the mailed images were smeared with excrement, and the gallery's mailroom staff were obliged to sort and open all incoming mail with rubber gloves for weeks on end.
The negative reaction to Jana Sterbak's installations suggests that her flesh dress did not accord with conservative tastes and was perceived as a transgression threatening certain
acceptable boundaries. The sheer corporeality of Sterbak's installation shocked a conservative viewing public, and suggests numerous implications. In her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams writes:
People with power have always eaten meat. The aristocracy of Europe consumed
large courses filled with every kind of meat while the laborer consumed the
complex carbohydrates. Dietary habits proclaim class distinctions, but they
proclaim patriarchal distinctions as well.............The sexism in meat-eating
recapitulates the class distinctions with an added twist: a mythology permeates
all classes that meat is a masculine food and meat-eating a male
activity.................Women........are more likely to eat what are considered second-
class foods............vegetables, fruits, and grains rather than meat.
The words 'matter' and 'material' come from the Latin word 'materia' . But 'materia' is derived from 'mater' , meaning 'mother'. The material out of which everything is made is, as it were, a mother to it. Male and female are matter and also mater, flesh of their mother's flesh - the male in the early embryonic stages of his development is originally a female, too; and then becomes a variation or possibly even a mutation of the female. Whatever man is, however, woman is not; and with this imposition of the principle of sexual opposition comes the gradual historical definition of man as monopolising all the human skills and abilities, with an emphasis on thought as dominating, and altogether more noble and important than woman conceptualised as the half-formed, imperfect opposite.
This hierarchy of mind over body is duplicated in the hierarchy of male over female, humans over animals. It is also duplicated in the class hierarchy of rulers over workers. In ancient Greek society slaves were the human tools from whom wealth was extracted through exploited labour, preserving aristocratic leisure and culture for the rulers. For Adorno, all 'pure culture' is based on the freedom of mental pursuits and their radical separation from the necessities and constraints of physical labour. The ancient slave-owning Athenians despised work, and held their slaves in contempt. Yet the rulers suffered an uneasy conscience which they dispelled by projecting it upon their slaves, thereby confirming the abject 'baseness' of physical labour.
Accordingly, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle both assert the primacy of disembodied mind or intellect over the 'base' physicality of the sensate, corporeal body. A philosophy organised around two gendered concepts: form and matter. Form is defined as masculine, and is regarded as active, rational, and superior. Matter is designated as feminine, and is regarded as passive, chaotic, and inferior. We therefore have two essentially different worlds confronting one another with no passageway in-between them. A dualism that leads to the splitting of the human being into a divine immortal soul and an earthly corruptible body, degrading the fecund and ever-changing corporeal world of nature into abject materiality. A polarisation or split between the flesh and the spirit, the carnal and the divine, masters and slaves; and a division of the sexes in which men are associated with the divine qualities of spirit and transcendence while women are associated with an inferior and degraded material realm encompassing the body, flesh, carnality, nature, and the earth.
The violence implicit in this philosophy is expressed in the form of a hierarchy that asserts the superiority of men and the mind over an inferior realm encompassing women, slaves, and corporeality, in a chain of being that stretches from immaterial mind or Logos at the upper end of the hierarchy, to unformed matter at the lower end. This fetishisation of disembodied intellect is expressed in Aristotle's demotion of women to mere passive material receptacles of a spiritually transcendent male potency. According to Aristotle, woman "is matter waiting to be formed by the active male principle. Of course the active elements are always higher.......and more divine. Man consequently plays a major part in reproduction; the woman is merely the passive incubator of his seed.......the male semen cooks and shapes the menstrual blood into a new human being". The female herself is a result of a maternal failure in this process of formation, in which the female as matter is left incompletely formed by the male potency. A potency synonymous with pure thought as spiritual, dominating, and altogether more noble than woman as the half-formed, material opposite.
The Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus accentuates this hierarchy of ideal form over formless materiality, rational thought over bodily sensuality. For Plotinus, Absolute Being, or the One, is a realm of light and intelligibility distinct from the confused darkness and multiplicity of materiality. The divine soul is imprisoned within the body and the sensory world, an evil from which it endeavours to free itself in its eternal quest for reunion with the Absolute. Matter, isolated from the beneficial influence of the Ideal Principle, is described as "ugliness, utter disgracefulness, unredeemed evil".
For the Neoplatonists, the material, corporeal world represents a descent, a falling away, from a primordial unity with the One: it is efflux, detritus. There is also an association with the phallus in this ancient philosophy:
The secret phallus of philosophy, the one that transpired in Plotinus' discourse
as a metaphor of the One............As the male organ of generation, the phallus is
therefore essentially logos or source of the logos: rational power, or intelligible
reason......the integration of rational power and the phallus.......The masculine
organ is spiritualized, idealized, to the point of becoming a sign of intelligence.
The philosopher Karl Marx, commenting on the social conditionality of the scientific discoveries that find application in technology, includes in a footnote the following question: :
A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of
the 18th century are the work of a single individual. Hitherto there is no such
book. Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature's Technology, i.e., in
the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as
instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the
productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social
organisation, deserve equal attention?
Darwinian science investigates the following question: At what point in their biological evolution did our anthropoid ancestors acquire their present, quite human hands, which have exercised such a remarkable influence in promoting the success of the human 'intellect'? The philosophical 'materialist' would argue that they were probably formed due to certain peculiarities of the geographical environment which made useful a physiological division of labour between the front and rear limbs. Accordingly, the development of the human intellect appeared as the consequence of this division and became in their turn the immediate reason for the appearance of humanity's artificial organs, the use of tools. These new artificial organs furthered the development of the human intellect, and the successes of the 'intellect' again reflected themselves upon the organs.
A lengthy historical process emerges, in which cause and consequence are constantly alternating. Thus human society adapts itself to nature, and strives towards equilibrium with it by extracting energy from it through the process of social production. In the process of adaptation, human society develops an industrial technology (a 'second nature') consisting of an artificial system of organs - prosthetic enhancements designed to extend the range and capabilities of the human organism. Developments that progressively eliminate the distinction between subject and object, culminating in the final union of "the human essence of nature" with "the natural essence of man". Freud agrees: "Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent". An optimism contradicted by Christian Bok who predicts a very different vision of a near-future where the corporeal substance of the human organism is progressively extinguished and then superseded by the externalised artificial exoskeleton of its technology: "As Alfred Jarry observes, 'the machine is born of the ashes of the slave'. Like a dangerous supplement, every machinic tool augments, then replaces, the anthropic limb that wields it. Each limb that constructs a limb for itself risks not self-emendation but self-amputation".
In conjunction with the accelerated development of cybernetics human beings and the natural environment increasingly fuse as part of a self-regulating system as information-exchanging internal elements. While this cybernetic sociobiogeosystem is self-regulating, its internal elements (humanity and nature), taken separately, progressively lose their capacity for independent self-regulation. Nature exists no longer as something external but is progressively internalised as a component of a self-contained technological system. Humanity and nature prove to be mere sub-systems of a universal cybernetic sociobiogeosystem. This amounts to the realisation of a technology 'confronting' nature to a technology incorporating it. A technology encompassing and transforming not only the natural environment but humanity as well. "The human cortex is the most complex material organisation that we know; the machines it engenders are extensions of it; the network they will form will be like a second and even more complex cortex" ultimately superseding the first, resulting in a conclusive "final blow to humanity's narcissism". Reflecting upon the magnitude of these technological developments, and its possible impact upon the human form, the performance artist Stelarc concedes that the impact will be 'traumatic', where the human body as 'subject' will be reborn as a designed artefact or 'object': "the body is traumatised to split from the realm of subjectivity and consider the necessity of re-examining and possibly re-designing its very structure".
A technology fully self-contained, subsisting on its own wastes; a condition predicted by Karl Marx when he writes that as science and technology progress, they will be able "to throw the excrements of the processes of production and consumption back again into the circle of the process of reproduction", and that, he suggests, "without any previous outlay of capital, creates new matter for capital". The transition from simple mastery and utilisation to maximum optimisation and reproduction resulting in a complete reconstruction (not only systemised but integrated) of all scientific and technological activity. The fusion of beauty, fashion and function, art and industry, the senses and the machine, collapsing the distinction between the senses and their objects, inside and outside.
Simultaneously, through technology and its link to art and sensation our unconscious is in the process of reconstructing itself in bits and pieces outside us. Technology breaks down the unconscious and then recombines it in forms that restructure the 'external' world. Just as the technical world and the world of commodities and objects become anthropomorphic, so the human world becomes technomorphic. What follows is the neotechnic adaptation of technology to biology: "instead of mechanism forming a pattern for life, living organisms begin to form a pattern for mechanism". Leading to a confusion or blurring of traditional distinctions between the animate and the inanimate, suggesting links between Freudian and Marxist theories on the nature of fetishism. Thus, Freud's definition of the sexual fetish as an inanimate object invested with the sexual appeal of a human, combined with Marx's analysis of the commodity fetish as possessing human characteristics: "far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will".
We can no longer confine ourselves to the customary thesis that the object exists outside the subject and that the subject transforms the object. When we examine the history of humanity's evolution as a whole, experience coincides with activity and merges into the aggregate of social practice. The concepts of practice and sensation reflect different aspects of the interaction of subject and object that are a unity.
In other words, the concept of practice characterises the interaction of subject and object from the side of its continuity, while the concept of sensation illustrates this interaction from the side of its intermittency, lack of continuity, and discreteness. It is often argued that humanity's central position is ensured in subjective idealism at the price of losing the subject's connection with the real world, and reducing it to an aggregate of sensations. The most extreme type of this variant of anthropocentricism is solipsism, which denies the existence of all other people. Conversely, we are presented with the danger of a 'materialist' homofundamentalism positing maximum penetration of the object by the subject in order to achieve a maximum convergence of the 'subject' with the 'external' 'real' world.
Humanity is, as it were, shaping its environment, and indeed, the environment of a given generation of people is largely the product and results of preceding generations. Differentiation of the interaction of the subject and object, the pulsations, drives and echolalias of the semiotic underlying the static forms of language and culture (the order of the symbolic), makes it possible to disclose certain features involving the accumulation and transmission of experience and culture in human society in contrast to the biological laws of the transmission and relay of life from generation to generation. If the chaotic, polymorphous drives of the semiotic were not objectified in material and linguistic (symbolic) form as 'its other', yet differing from the drives themselves as their 'quiescent' or objectified result, the transmission and accumulation of socio-cultural and historical experience would be impossible.
Kinaesthetic sensations unite various sensations in the integral image of an 'object' as distinct from the experiencing 'subject', which is an important aspect of the living organism's attempts at differentiating itself and maintaining its internal coherence and integrity in relationship to its surrounding environment. For example, among single-celled or unicellular organisms, the protozoa, there exists two regions: an outer, clear and relatively homogeneous layer, or ectoplasm, forming a barrier separating the protozoic cell from its surrounding medium or environment; and an inner 'core' or endoplasm. The outer ectoplasm consists of a plasma membrane or 'skin', which forms a permeable and mutable boundary allowing for the diffusion of materials into and out of the cell. In particular, protazoa readily change their shape by protoplasmic flowing into forms exceedingly diverse allowing for the permutation and realisation of every possible form; a complicated mix of polymorphic life cycles including parasitism and a variety of variations in reproduction and sexual differentiation, complicating and bringing into question the very concept of 'individuality' in the protazoa just as it does in plants and animals.
In accordance with Julia Kristeva's interest in "the 'open systems' of which biology speaks concerning living organisms that live only by maintaining a renewable identity through interaction with another", these unicellular organisms are fluid, mobile and increasingly complex, moving towards increasing the differentiation of their internal components and the diversity and dissemination of their external forms and relationships in the course of ontogenesis and phylogenesis. However, as in all animals and plants, the reproduction and proliferation of protozoa is dependent upon cell division.
The two most common types of cell multiplication in the single-celled protozoa are binary division and budding. Binary division involves the division of the cell into two essentially equal daughter cells that grow into replicas of the parent, making each half into a whole. The dissolution and extinction of the original parent cell is followed by differentiation in the daughter cells, such that the daughter cells are essentially two new organisms. In contrast, 'budding' allows the parent cell to retain its continued existence as a separate entity while producing by division one or many daughter cells. Sometimes the bud is nearly as large as the parent, so the result is nearly the same as binary fission except that parent and offspring can be distinguished; but usually the bud is much smaller, less differentiated, and gradually assumes the form of the parent after freeing itself from the parent's body. In some species of protozoa the buds arise on the surface of the parent; in others the buds are nurtured as developing 'embryos' inside invaginated chambers from which they escape at 'birth'.
For Julia Kristeva the body's boundaries are in a continual process of production and transformation. There is a constant interchange between the subject and the world in the ways in which the body's boundaries shrink or expand, incorporates objects into itself, or expels impulses and substances emanating from within. Relations between the body and its surrounding environment are blurred and confused - the outside environment is not distinct from the body but is an active internal component of its 'identity'. The borders of the body are not fixed or confined to its anatomical 'container', the skin. The boundaries are extremely fluid and dynamic, and there is an ongoing interchange between inside and outside.
The plasticity of our conceptions of the body and its boundaries is indicated by what many social scientists are currently describing as a pandemic in what they call 'body dysmorphic disorder'. People suffering this disorder feel that their bodies are somehow incomplete or imperfect. The illness generally manifests itself in the form of the more common eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa; but there are also patients with an obsessive desire to acquire extra body parts, or to have otherwise healthy limbs surgically removed because they perceive them as somehow ugly, abject, or extraneous.
According to Dr Joseph Rosen, Associate Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Centre, New Hampshire, our limbs are intimately connected to neural networks or maps within our brains which possess the capacity to contract or expand. When we have a limb amputated, it takes considerable time for our neural map of that limb to contract or fade (hence the phantom limb effect). And if we acquire an extra body part, our neural map expands accordingly. For Dr Rosen, this discovery opens up infinite possibilities for the reconstruction of the human body.
Dr Rosen believes, with surgical techniques now in existence that can rearrange rib bones and stretch torso fat, that within five years he will be able to create wings for the human body. Although we would lack the ability to fly, we would resemble angels, and our wings, hanging flaps of boned tissue, would possess full sensation. He is also currently developing methods of equipping the human body with tails and enhanced hearing . In response to criticisms at a conference of plastic surgeons last year, Dr Rosen posed the question:
Why do we only value the average? Why are plastic surgeons dedicated only
to restoring our current notions of the conventional, as opposed to letting people
explore, if they want, the possibilities?............Human wings will be here; mark
my words............If I were to give you wings, you would develop, literally, a
winged brain. Our bodies change our brains, and our brains are infinitely
There is also, however, the danger that the human intellect, increasingly divorced from the body and reproductive nature, will become sterile. In order to be an effective organ of domination, thinking transforms itself into a self-sufficient, automatic process, becoming like the machines which itself produces so that eventually the machines will replace it. The computerisation of labour includes those activities which pose as purely conceptual. Whether this results in the eventual merging of body and machine into some kind of hybrid - that is, whether the body will take on the qualities of the machine (the 'cyborg') or whether the machine will take on the qualities of the human body ('artificial intelligence') remains uncertain. Artificial-intelligence proposes formal patterns as the be-all and end-all of intelligence: where the virtual mind, finally divorced from the body and nature is transformed into an information processor. For the critical theorist Olive Schreiner this final sterilisation of thought from contamination with abject materiality might be a problem:
Will humanity at last break out into one huge blossom of the brain - and die?
Like one of those aloes, which grow for three hundred years, then break out
into one large flower at the top of their stem and die!
The internal coherence, integration, and completion of the human 'subject' is based upon a subject/object divide such that the image of external objects forms a secure foundation for the stability and fixity of the 'subject', and ultimately the definite wholeness and static stability of the 'object' itself. As such, our perception of external reality consists of mentally visualised images of an aggregate of sensations built up and then crystallised into 'objects'.
Accordingly, if we consider humanity as the 'formed' result of a succession of generations, of a 'history', then we must consider the sensory aggregates and mental images that make up our current notions of reality to be the end result of aggregations of sensations and mentally visualised images accumulated by countless preceding generations; an accumulated wealth of information passed on and incorporated into the 'subject's' 'own' 'individual' experience. An anti-humanism that dispenses with the notion of the individual 'subject' as the sole author or originator of ideas in favour of a 'geological' and historical conception of human knowledge consisting of accumulated deposits and sedimentary layers of experience, life and language borrowed from a succession of generations.
An anti-humanism complemented by the theories of the mineralogist and crystallographer Vladimir Vernadsky, who argues for an end to the distinction between biology and geology, giving detailed descriptions of life as a type of mineral, its cellular structures fusing, splitting and proliferating, coalescing and disseminating, merging and diverging; and his analysis of the endless process of biomineralisation of living organisms, or rather, organic minerals, as they eke out and assimilate into their physical structures, and then leak out and environmentalise, minerals temporarily borrowed from the earth.
Accordingly, Vernadsky reproduces his History in ultra-materialist order: the earth, micro-organisms, plants, articulated skeletons, animals, and finally 'humanity', in a perpetual reference to the reciprocal interactions between animate and inanimate matter. For Vernadsky "Life is not life but rock endlessly rearranging itself under the sun".
An anti-humanism akin to Julia Kristeva's, Roland Barthes', Louis Althusser's, and Michel Foucault's notion of the 'subject-individual' as merely the ensemble of material and social relations mediated by history and the material, concrete processes of language; and their debunking of the essentialist notion of the 'subject-author' as the sole originator of ideas. According to Michel Foucault:
This thin surface of the original is populated entirely by those complex mediations
formed and laid down as sediment in their own history by labour, life and
language so that what man is reviving without knowing it, is all the intermediaries
of a time that governs him almost to infinity.
An objective law is a boundary separating the possible from the impossible. Rudolf Carnap stresses that a law generalising empirical facts or more particular laws formulated earlier provide the answer to why a particular phenomenon is possible. If we cease to recognise this kind of explanation as the basis of 'laws', we arrive at the liberating (and 'pataphysical') science of imaginary solutions, where 'everything is possible in the world', which is equivalent to the statement 'nothing is impossible in the world'.
Natural 'laws' are therefore not final, once and for all dividing the possible from the impossible, and the 'laws' themselves are mutable, and possibly even cyclic. This connects with Julia Kristeva's notion of the maternal body as a space or location where the apparent stasis of cyclical or 'monumental' time exists in combination with the dynamics of a linear or 'developmental' time consisting of genealogical and grammatical changes and mutations. Rudolf Carnap duly hypothesises:
The actual world is a world that is constantly changing. Even the most
fundamental laws of physics may, for all we can be sure, vary slightly from
century to century. What we believe to be a physical constant with a fixed value
may be subject to vast cyclic changes that we have not yet observed.
The inner logic of the development of science and technology - the drive to penetrate further and deeper into matter - is leading in fact to a discrepancy with the corporeal needs of the vehicle of science itself, namely, humanity; this, moreover, is not a refined need of some sort, but a grossly palpable need to survive in a technically reconstructed environment. The inanimate once seemed the immutable basis of changing life, fixed once and for all. But now, under the impact of technology, the biosphere's inanimate parameters themselves are becoming considerably disordered.
For "natural science to lose its abstractly material - or rather, its idealistic - tendency, and become the basis of human science", it has to set broader aims than simply the intensified growth and consumption of matter, energy, and information. As technology becomes ever more powerful, becoming an end in itself, the fragility of nature is exposed, and its destruction becomes a real possibility, wiping out the very material foundations of the being of humanity itself. For we are witnessing a transition from an environment developing in a pro-anthropic direction to one taking an anti-anthropic path that could result in the destruction of all 'organic' forms of life. The transition through infinite accumulation of wastes is a form of losing the biosphere's qualitative definiteness, a form of transmutation into something opposite.
Norbert Wiener looks at the problem in accordance with the laws of thermodynamics:
As entropy increases, the universe, and all closed systems in the universe, tend
naturally to deteriorate and lose their distinctiveness, to move from a state of
organisation and differentiation in which distinctions and forms exist, to a state
of chaos and sameness.
In relation to the species Homo-sapiens this means that we are hastening the process of entropic dissolution by introducing regressive and chaotic elements into the environment. This has lead some theorists to the proposition of humanity's parasitic essence in relation to nature. Jean Dorst, for instance, compares humanity with "a maggot in a fruit", or "a moth in a ball of wool", gnawing away "at his habitat, while exuding theories to justify his existence". A complete abjection "where man frightened, crosses over the horrors of the maternal bowels" and is completely engulfed in a technology parasitically consuming the corporeal body of maternal nature. The human species transformed into a "great greedy parasitic worm, blind and degenerate, snug in excrement, isolated in a seething mass of eroticised abjection, which he substitutes for the other. The secret life of Technocratic Man".
In response to a technological and disenchanted view of nature as just so much dead stuff, narrowly quantified in accordance with the laws of computation and utility as simply raw material for profitable exploitation, and the implacable imperatives of a technology and its impetus towards the wholesale subjugation of nature, like "some huge engine which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up - impassively and unfeelingly - a great and priceless Being", Julia Kristeva opts for an interpretation of Marxism based upon a combination of production and reproduction; and a labour process centred upon the libidinal intensities of the corporeal body as the underlying form for the realisation of a qualitative, reciprocal, non-utilitarian, aesthetic, and eroticised relationship between subject and object, humanity and nature.
Accordingly, Kristeva defines productive activity and the labour process along the lines of reproductive sexuality as a relation between the worker's body and the body of nature, involving an expenditure or discharge of human energy. Humanity and nature are therefore considered as two equally necessary halves of a single entity. The union of the two is considered by Kristeva as an act of love, where subject and object are conjoined through the dynamics of the forces and relations of production, in combination with psychic processes of introjection and incorporation, osmosis and identification. Where, in place of the existing model of economic production, with its notions of scarcity, an asceticism of labour, and its emphasis upon an endless accumulation of surplus value, Kristeva asserts the need for the construction of a new 'science' of economy based upon notions of reciprocity, of the gift, expenditure, bodily enjoyment, play, unification and communion, expressing an awareness of the shared possession of a common substance. Kristeva illustrates her proposition with a quotation from Marx: "As William Petty puts it, labour is its (wealth's) father and the earth its mother".
In occupying a position of political opposition and criticism towards the established sociosymbolic order, Kristeva samples, combines and re-mixes ideas extracted from a variety of sources. These include the theories of psychoanalysis in combination with the philosophical systems of Hegel, Marx, and Lenin. For instance, Kristeva displays an interest in the theory and application of dialectical materialism when she writes "the Hegelian conception of negativity already prepares the ground for the possibility of thinking a materialist process".
For Kristeva the dialectical method serves to connect any two opposed terms or positions; it functions to unite, or to separate and divide, thus undermining stable unities. A dialectic that consists of an open-ended, continuous flux, a continual becoming that abolishes all classification, culminating in the disappearance of strict lines of demarcation. An all-pervasive dynamism, where the distinction between the container and the contained becomes irrelevant. Where seeing, thinking, dreaming, and writing are interrelated; and the subject of writing and the subject who writes alternately fuse and fission, in conjunction with a materialised process of creation involving the inseparability of object and subject, and multiple juxtapositions and dislocations of texts involving the fusion of seemingly unrelated themes. A poetic process that obliterates limitations and classifications, producing poetry that evolves not in accordance with any regular progression; but instead, through the recurrent use of metaphors and motifs, coheres. And where the body ceases to be circumscribed by barriers that artificially separate the self from the other, or from the external world.
The nature of this dialectical and materialist conception of the world as a continual process of movement and change, perpetually in conflict with the encrustation of the mechanical in the living, and the tendency towards sterility, inertia and rigidity symptomatic of the sociosymbolic order, is succinctly defined by Kristeva with a quotation from Lenin: "The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts is the essence of dialectics". Everything is, therefore, to be understood as a unity of contradictory or opposed elements; everything, in the language of dialectics, is a unity of opposites. It is the insistence that change must eventually confront the finite elasticity of all things and all structures, effecting a fundamental transformation of their very nature. Accordingly, beneath the appearance of every seemingly stable and unified thing there lies constant tension and opposition.
The focus is therefore not on the outward appearance of stability and permanence, but on the underlying reality of internal conflict and permanent movement. Where the unity of subject and object, and the relativity of the antithesis between matter and consciousness, is expressed in Lenin's declaration: "We must dream!". "Man's consciousness", Lenin contends, "not only reflects the objective world but creates it". And he points out that the idea of the ideal turning into the material is a very profound one, for we are constantly witnessing complicated processes of the material being transformed into the ideal and of the ideal being transformed back into the material. These complicated and contradictory mutual transformations of the material into the ideal and vice versa demonstrate the relativity of the contrast between spirit and matter. According to Lenin, human consciousness is therefore not simply "a reflection in a mirror but a complex act.......which includes the possibility of an imaginative flight from life; and, even more, it includes the possibility of a transformation of the abstract concept into an imaginative fantasy (which ultimately = God)".
Karl Marx also appreciates the allure of fantasy expressed in the "youthful and fantastic dream" of Hegelian philosophy, and he aspires to bring reality into harmony with that idealised image of a world that philosophy had hitherto realised only in thought. In a spirit of optimism, he proclaims that the world "has not yet become clear to itself. It will then turn out that the world has long dreamt of that of which it had only to have a clear idea to possess it really". For Julia Kristeva dialectical theory equally applies to Freud's interpretation of the 'dreamwork'. Particularly in the way that dream symbols, through the processes of condensation (metaphor) and displacement (metonymy), can say one thing and, at the same time, mean the opposite. Freud's 'Dream-work' provides Kristeva with "a theoretical concept that triggers off a new research" that places the dream in opposition to the prosaic world of conscious activity, providing an alternative model of production, a "playful permutation" whereby things a given a new form.
Accordingly, Kristeva incorporates Freud's definition of the dream as the symbolic fulfillment of desires denied satisfaction in the real world, along with the inevitable conflict that ensues between, on the one hand, the body's demands for a pleasurable satisfaction of its desires and, on the other hand, a disagreeable reality that obstructs the gratification of these desires. A conflict ameliorated through the construction of an interior world of 'phantasy', described by Freud as a kind of nature reserve where humanity's unfulfilled desires are protected, providing the blueprints and building blocks for the construction of a new reality to replace the old.
A process where the subject-positions of 'normalcy' and 'psychosis' merge together in the common goal of transforming reality in accordance with the wishful constructions preserved in phantasy. Resulting in two different approaches: in practical action directed towards the outside world designed to achieve the remoulding of objective reality in favour of erotic desires previously denied (Freud's "alloplastic adaptation"); or in a 'psychotic', philosophically idealist approach, concentrating upon passive, internal changes, amounting to the construction in thought of an ideal reality as a substitute for the partial or complete denial of the existence of the real external world (Freud's "autoplastic adaptation").
Kristeva forcefully proclaims the notion of art as constitutive of the subject, rather than constituted by the subject:
It's necessary to see how all great works of art – one thinks of Mallarme, of Joyce,
of Artaud, to mention only literature – are, to be brief, masterful sublimations of
those crises of subjectivity which are known, in another connection, as psychotic
crisis..........It is, very simply, through the work and play of signs, a crisis of
subjectivity which is the basis of all creation, one which takes as its very
precondition the possibility of survival
Julia Kristeva's analysis of the painter Giovanni Bellini's ideological and cultural (or 'symbolic') articulation of the mother/child relationship, includes a detailed examination of the psychological, social, economic, historical, and artistic practices that together combine to determine the 'personality' of the painter Giovanni Bellini as a historical 'subject', grappling with the artistic dilemma of representing the unrepresentable - the shared bodily space of mother and child. According to Kristeva:
an artistic practice...not only operates through the individual (biographical
subject)who carries it out, but it also recasts him as an historical subject - causing
the signifying process that the subject undergoes to match the ideological and
political expectations of his age's rising classes....One cannot understand such
practice without taking its socio-economic foundations into account; nor can one
understand it if one chooses to reduce it solely to these foundations thereby
bypassing the signifying economy of the subject involved.
Kristeva's essay on Bellini is a project that incorporates and recombines semiotics, psychoanalysis, Hegelianism and Marxism to produce a 'semanalysis' that provides "dialectical logic with a materialist foundation - a theory of signification based on the subject, his formation, and his corporeal, linguistic, and social dialectic". Accordingly, Kristeva opts for a form of (Marxist) historical materialism involving a subtle and complex appreciation of the relations between the forms of social consciousness (and the signifying practices of the cultural 'superstructure') and their material and economic basis. For Kristeva society consists of a complex and dynamic system of interacting elements, each influencing the other - a system where the economic factor is the determining one only in the 'last instance'. A complex unity and mutual interchange of distinct, necessarily related but relatively autonomous practices, where the signifying practices that make up the cultural superstructure actively influence the material basis from which they arise, forming an organic whole. One in which the 'symbolic order' of the 'superstructure' - culture, politics, ideology, language - and the corporeal (the 'semiotic') are treated as specific instances of a complex totality, articulated upon each other and upon the economy. Where, to quote the philosopher Louis Althusser:
The economic dialectic is never active in the pure state; in History, these
instances, the superstructures, etc. are never seen to step respectfully aside when
their work is done, or when the time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter
before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road to the
Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the 'last instance'
According to Kristeva: "Love replaces narcissism in a third person....Hence, 'God is Love': it is for this very reason that he does not exist, except to be imagined as child for a woman". Kristeva's emphasis on the social primacy of love is therefore completely at odds with the type of 'vulgar' Marxism that would compare copulation to the drinking of a glass of water: a the concept of love and life is de-romanticised and disenchanted to the point where it loses its poetry, and is rendered purely instrumental. Kristeva is therefore opposed to a type of Marxism that reduces love and sex, the amorous and the artistic, to the biological and the economic by stripping away the cultural accretions that tend to glorify and preserve a passionate and lyrical relationship to existence. A Marxism that reduces everything cultural directly to its economic basis; a type of Marxism also opposed by Lenin:
This "glass-of-water-theory" has made part of our youth completely crazy. Its
advocates contend that it is Marxistic. No thank you, for such a Marxism which
makes all phenomena and all changes in the ideological superstructure of society
derive directly and immediately from its economic basis. Things are not as simple
as all that................To try to reduce these ideological changes, divorced from
their context with the total ideology, to the economic basis of society would be
rationalism, and not Marxism. Surely, thirst demands to be quenched. But will a
normal individual, under normal circumstances, lie down in the gutter and drink
from a puddle? Or even from a dirty glass? What is more important than anything
else is the social side. Drinking water is an individual act. Love requires two
people and may result in a third life. This fact contains a social interest.
The ancient Greeks developed their thought around beliefs concerning body heat, and its role in determining the differentiation of the sexes. Foetuses well heated within their mother's womb were born as males; foetuses lacking heat were born as females. The female was a creature "more soft, more liquid, more clammy cold, altogether more formless than were men".
The philosopher Aristotle investigated this inequality of heat, and drew a connection between menstrual blood and sperm: menstrual blood was cold blood, sperm was cooked blood. Sperm was superior as it created new life; menstrual blood was considered inferior as a substance passive and inert. For Aristotle, the male possessed the principle of movement, action and creativity; in contrast, females he defined as identical with the formless passivity of flesh and materiality.
Aristotle also investigates the role of heat in the development of melancholia. According to Kristeva:
Aristotle breaks new ground by associating melancholia with heat, considered
to be the regulating principle of the organism. This Greek conception of
melancholia remains alien to us today; it assumes a properly balanced interaction
of air and liquid. Such a white mixture of air (pneuma) and liquid brings out froth
in the sea, wine, as well as the sperm in man. Indeed, Aristotle links melancholia
to spermatic froth and eroti, with explicit references to Dionysus and Aphrodite.
The melancholia he evokes is not a philosopher's disease but his very nature, his
ethos. It is what strikes the first Greek melancholy hero, Bellerophon, who is thus
portrayed in the Iliad: 'Bellerophon gave offense to the gods and became a lonely
wanderer on the Aleian plain, eating out his heart and shunning the paths of men'.
Self-devouring because forsaken by the gods, this desperate man was condemned
to banishment, absence, void.
Aristotle's association of heat with the melancholic disposition of male philosophers and heroes, his conception of blood as either cooked or uncooked, and the role of blood and body heat in determining the differentiation between the sexes, relates to an even older tradition which ascribes "the bones to the male principle and the flesh to the female". In accordance with this tradition, bone marrow is derived from semen, which is cooked blood, while the fat in flesh is derived from uncooked blood, which is cool and female.
In The Raw and the Cooked, Claude Levi-Strauss explores the binary opposition between Nature and Culture, and the function of cooking as a universal means by which raw Nature is transformed into Culture. The ancient differentiation between flesh and bone, hot and cold, blood cooked and uncooked, male and female, is analogous to Levi-Strauss' notion of experience as organised along the lines of binary opposites. Accordingly, Aristotle's conception of the female as 'uncooked' equates women with Nature, while his conception of the male as 'cooked' equates men with Culture.
The philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel represents nature as the 'alienation' and abject degradation of the Absolute Idea or Spirit. Hegel provides a lengthy and detailed description of the processes through which this Absolute Spirit incorporates itself into the objects of the material world for the purpose of self-realisation, culminating in a climactic resolution to the conflict between spirit and materiality, mind and body, subject and object. According to Hegel, the anatomical distinctions between male and female exemplifies a hierarchical principle privileging activity over passivity, and productive form over chaotic materiality. Hegel thus attaches considerable importance to the anatomical distinction between the testicle, the ovary and the clitoris, with the female genitalia considered as an inside-out version of the male: internalised, hidden and enclosed, rather than outward and exposed. A fact that represents for Hegel an interior-exterior barrier that determines the difference between Being-For-Itself from Being-In-Itself, and the distinction between human, conscious existence and the existence of mere things. Nature (as female) is conceived as a lifeless, dispersed mode of existence awaiting the purposeful, projective activity of the (male) Spirit to bring it to fulfilment. A trace of the ancient conception of the active male principle as synonymous with the bone is expressed in Hegel's declaration: "The being of Spirit is a bone".
Thus for Artaud:
you have to be somebody,
to be somebody,
you have to have a BONE,
and not be afraid of showing the bone,
and losing the meat in the process
The philosopher Karl Marx, expressing his impatience with Hegelianism, declares philosophy to stand "in the same relation to the study of the actual world as onanism to sexual love". In his own words, he puts Hegel's philosophy "on its feet" by recognising that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its by-products. Henceforth, Hegel's self-realisation of the Spirit is replaced with the notion of a progressive, historical development of the material forces of production. A history where the 'humanity' of "man's relation to nature" can be gauged by "the relation of man to woman". In this respect it is interesting to compare Marx's (philosophical materialist) attempt to stand the absolute idea of Hegel's philosophy "on its feet" with the relentless materialism expressed in Georges Bataille's essay "The Big Toe", where he concludes that "Human life entails, in fact, the rage of seeing oneself as a back and forth movement from refuse to the ideal, and from the ideal to refuse - a rage that is easily directed against an organ as base as the foot".
In her article 'Thin is the feminist issue', Nicky Diamond quotes the actress Jane Fonda, her body honed down and stripped away through bodybuilding, declare: "I like to be close to the bone". Like the world champion female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, who posed for a series of black and white pictures by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe titled
Lady: Lisa Lyon,(1983), Jane Fonda's desire 'to be close to the bone' suggests an attempt at containment, a fixing of boundaries and the removal of 'fat' as excess, surplus matter in an attempt to realise the ideal of the essential, integral self. The achievement of this ideal of closeness to the bone means that the skin surface that forms the body's outside tightens and enfolds itself around the skeleton that forms the body's inside. While the philosophical idea may be that of the container and the contained, there may also be an allusion to certain psychoanalytic theories of an early 'skin-ego', conceptualised as a 'psychic envelope'.
Marx's exploration of the 'anatomy' of society leads to his assertion of the determining role of the material, economic 'base' in shaping the cultural and ideological 'superstructure'. This connection of cultural forms to an underlying material, economic structure is further explored in the writings of the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. In a rather curious passage from The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci employs the female body as a metaphor to illustrate a more complex understanding of the relationship between base and superstructure against a Marxism that treats culture as simply an epiphenomenal reflex of the 'economic':
We cannot say, with regard to the human body, that the skin (and the type of
beauty prevalent at a particular time) is mere illusion and that the skeleton and
anatomy are the sole reality; however, for a long time something similar has been
maintained. Questioning the role of the anatomy and the functions of the skeleton
does not mean claiming that men........can live without them. Continuing the
metaphor, we can say that it is not the skeleton (in the narrow sense) which makes
one love a woman, but we understand how much the skeleton contributes to the
grace of her movements, etc.
Julia Kristeva's study of motherhood expresses an excess that converts the order of the patriarchal family into a disorder that blurs the boundary between narcissism and object-love, verging on the breaking of the incest taboo. Amounting to a re-activation of the relationship between the maternal and the sexual - from the vantage point of the mother and her retention of (or return to) some of the characteristics of infantile sexuality, rather than that of the child and his/her development toward heterosexual 'normalcy'. An androgynous or same-sex embrace, an asexual union that breaks down the distinction of inside/outside, in so doing revealing the process of the inside turning into the outside producing a hybrid. The liminal space of hybridity, where gender and cultural differences touch, abolishing the binary oppositions and distinctions that account for the divisions of gender: Artaud's 'Body-Without-Organs' – the achievement of non-personalised and uncodified desires, disintegrating normalised identities; a movement of constant desire, which relentlessly opposes all systematic organisation.
Despite my autism, you have got under my skin. I am bereft, and suffer the torments of the damned.