Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence (By the Book)

Excerpt: Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence

Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence
Maggie Hennefeld, Nicholas Sammond, eds.
Duke University Press
January 2020

Not It, or,
The Abject Objection

maggie hennefeld
& nicholas sammond

The abject is the violence of mourning for an “object” that has always already been lost. —Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror

In the final analysis, oppressors must be reduced to sovereignty in its individual form: on the contrary, the oppressed are formed out of the amorphous and im­mense mass of the wretched population.
—Georges Bataille, “Abjection and Miserable Forms”

This volume springs from the existential fault lines that now characterize contemporary politics and culture, like weeds growing out of a crumbling sidewalk. Anony­mous internet trolls spew hate speech, neoliberal policies accelerate rampant inequality, climate change threatens irreversible catastrophe, as does au­thoritarianism worldwide, and traditional journalistic organs are frequently compared to varieties of putrid garbage. Abjection both drives and defines this moment. Yet, strangely, in the midst of this mad race to claim a rapidly diminishing higher ground, there accrues political value in emphasizing one’s own social persecution and economic dehumanization. While some of us are always already abjected—marginalized because of our race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, nationality—other self­-styled minorities, such as men’s rights groups and white supremacists, have attempted to co-­opt the rallying cries of the truly oppressed, claiming the status of the outcast. Every genuine lib­eration protest is now echoed by its scandalous inversion, exemplified by perverse chants such as “Blue Lives Matter,” “Affirmative Action for White Applicants,” or “Men’s Rights Are Human Rights.” If social authenticity is a currency that derives from a wounded identity, abjection is its lingua franca. In other words, many people normally associated with the dominant culture are increasingly claiming an abject status in order to adopt, ironize, and un­dermine the markers of marginalization by which damaging social and power hierarchies have traditionally been administered and enforced.

Though abjection is utterly ubiquitous in twenty­-first­-century politics, its theorization is too often itself abjected in critical humanities scholarship: it gets pigeonholed as either one more facet of the bad object of psychoanalysis, or as an outmoded offshoot of Enlightenment philosophies of class conflict (i.e., old materialisms). Indeed, the two most influential twentieth­-century theorists of abjection, whose works map tidily onto those debased fields, are undoubtedly Julia Kristeva and Georges Bataille. Kristeva has generatively defined the abject in Powers of Horror (1982) as “that which is cast out.” This abominable matter further comes to symbolize all the reviled forms of differ­ence by which meaning and identity are delineated in language and culture. Kristeva writes: “There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an ex­orbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the toler­able, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.”

In Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach to abjection and selfhood, the child, as it learns to identify as a sovereign subject, regards the products of its own body (and the bodies of others)—blood, snot, piss, shit, mucus, sperm, rot­ting flesh—as vile, disgusting, and in need of suppression, rejection, and regulation. The latency of such infantile abhorrence, as Bataille notes, has an irresistible political influence. For example, when the invocation of “Mexican rapists,” “nasty women,” and a news anchor accused of “bleeding from her wherever” can aid in restoring the ultimate sovereign white male subject, a robust, critical, and sustained engagement with the abject is absolutely nec­essary. Sadly, Donald Trump’s campaign, then his presidency, have given us daily (if not hourly) reminders of the toxicity of this dynamic between infan­tile narcissism and regressive nationalist politics.

Kristeva’s semiotic­psychoanalytic account of the abject—that unbearable excess that the ego will always scramble to reject—primarily concerns issues of subject formation, particularly the negotiation of boundaries between the child and its mother, or the corporeal regulation of the sovereign subject. In contrast, Georges Bataille emphasizes not the psychic training of the ego but the politics of the social. “Abjection and Miserable Forms” (1934), written during Hitler’s rise to autocratic power in 1930s Europe, focuses on the op­pression of the wretched masses by sovereign rulers. For Bataille, it simply does not matter if the individual ego has the will to cast out certain gross or reviled matter, because “general abjection,” he argues, is “wreaked by impo­tence under given social conditions.” In other words, abjection is imposed on the social body by a sovereign imperative, regardless of one’s developmental bodily discipline. He adds that “filth, snot, and vermin are enough to render an infant vile; his personal nature is not responsible for it, only the negli­gence and helplessness of those raising it.” Though written nearly fifty years before Powers of Horror, “Abjection and Miserable Forms” still offers crucial context for the structural theories of abjection and individual subjectivity that Kristeva would later articulate.

Abjection Incorporated explores the tensions between (and beyond) these critical paradigms, presenting perspectives on a historical moment in which a meaningful distinction between the self­-disciplining subject who reviles gross bodies and the sovereign imperative that excludes wretched social masses is in constant threat of collapse. In this neofeudal moment epitomized by Donald Trump and a growing host of other tin­pot autocrats, in­dividual self­-governance and political sovereignty are understood by many as one and the same (consider how the president’s inflammatory tweets can carry greater political significance than his official executive statements). To this point, Trump’s ascent to sovereignty (or at least to the office of the Amer­ican presidency) has unleashed a firestorm of competing performances of abjection. For many, Trump and his followers embody the abject underbelly of a democratic body politic, the “deplorables.” In contrast, for Trump’s sup­porters, “draining the swamp” means cleansing government of soft­hearted progressives and moderate Democrats and Republicans—”cucks” and “basic bitches” in the language of the “alt­right”—rather than addressing endemic corruption. To paraphrase Judith Butler, Trump’s presidency delivers “the perfect ideological contradiction,” in that Trump has channeled rising popu­list anger over class inequality and the ongoing immiseration of the working poor under global neoliberalism and pinned it onto differences in culture, geography, and racial or ethnic identity. Perversely, the permanent struggle for equity and social justice has a nemesis in the violent bigotry that abjects a slew of cultural Others: women, people of color, immigrants, gays, trans folk .. the usual scapegoats of misogynistic white bigotry and structural racism. The Trump presidency, then, is a timely and painful illustration of how abjection has become central to the negotiation of social identity—both in one’s difference from the Other and in one’s estrangement from the self.

A key problem posed by this volume, and an existential issue in this po­litical moment, is how to distinguish between who gets to be a sovereign ego and who has to be abjected for that ego to feel (temporarily) secure in its own sense of self. Who is being sacrificed on behalf of the nostalgic, ethno­-nationalist wager to “Make America Great Again”? Amid mass dis­placements, deportations, perpetual war, environmental degradation, an em­boldened police state, and the declining prospects of well­-paying jobs for a shrinking middle class, the threat of abjection—of falling into a miserable place—remains a pervasive reality. Yet, at the same time, appearing to be socially abject, although strongly undesirable in daily life, can generate wide­-spread sympathy and even institutional redress—payback for what Wendy Brown has called “wounded attachments.” Being abject (or performing self­ abjection) often carries significant political capital. Like the charlatan cry­ing “fake news,” however, the wolf garbs itself in sheep’s clothing, seeking sympathy not as a perpetrator but as a victim—of an allegedly oppressive majority of minorities. Though cynically nihilistic, these tactics have the ef­fect of minimizing actual crimes and obfuscations, also making it extremely difficult (or at least mentally exhausting) to articulate the difference between the compulsory social abjection of minoritized others and right­wing oppor­tunistic appropriations of rhetorics of marginalization.

The essays in this volume strive to elucidate that vital distinction between involuntary abjection by dominant social forces, and performances of (self)­ abjection that proliferate with the withering of the neoliberal state. For feminist/queer and critical race theorists (such as Judith Butler, Mel Y. Chen, or Darieck Scott), the individualizing drive toward abjecting unwanted elements from the body politic intrinsically forms the basis of normative, white, patriarchal, and heterosexual iterations of the (unmarked) self, which underpin the sovereign subject. The exclusion of the abject shores up the defensive circumscription of the ego in its potential spectrum of social and corporeal identifications. In Bataille’s terms, “The imperative forces do not exercise their coercive action directly on the oppressed: they content them­ selves with excluding them by prohibiting any contact” with the Other (say, by building a wall). Although contact with the wretched masses is forbid­den to the sovereign subject, those masses, paradoxically, can never be elimi­nated. In fact, this “wretched population” must remain present as an object of disgust and fascination, and as an abject lesson that drives the individual oppressor’s maintenance of sovereignty and self­-rule.

This volume plumbs that fragile and contested zone of permeability be­tween the wretched and the ruler. What are the murky affects, partial objects, and ambivalent attachments, we ask, that mediate between the sovereign ego and its teeming outside (or repressed inside)? In differing ways and to varying degrees, the essays in this volume offer case studies for delineating between cynical, voluntary self­-abjection, and involuntary social abjection. Abjection—properly understood, deployed, and critiqued—offers a contested but necessary instrument to resist the wholesale dismantling of civically in­clusive spaces, of democratic social practices and political institutions, and of economic processes that might foster equity—or, at the very least, less grossly unequal distributions of wealth, power, and resources. In other words, the abject and abjection have become pivotal terms in the accumulation, contes­tation, and deployment of power in twenty-­first­-century life.

Horrible Laughter at the Limits of Abjection

It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
—Bernie Sanders (in reference to Jeff Sessions’s
appointment as the US Attorney General)

Why does the spectacle of abjection so often provoke grim, morbid laugh­ter rather than demeaning ridicule or cynical mockery? We often describe genres of comedy that linger between referential horror and obscene farce as “dark,” “black,” “cringeworthy,” “gallows humor,” or sometimes “anticomedy” (jokes with bad taste and no apparent point). While these modes at their best resist “punching down” and making laughing stocks of already marginalized subjects, their social politics are also more complex than merely “punching up” by lambasting those with undue power, influence, or normative legiti­macy. Abject humor, then, engages the liminality of affect and the ambiguity of social relations by confronting the grinding operations of power with a perverse mixture of joy and dread. Abjection, as a state of being or as a ru­bric for critical reading, may lend itself to horror as well as to comedy, but its ultimate stakes are bigger than either. The abject objection derives from and contributes to an extremity of affect, a dislocation of the self, in which screams and laughter become indistinguishable, the sound of what Kristeva (following Jacques Lacan) calls jouissance. For her, “Jouissance alone causes the abject to exist as such. One does not know it, one does not desire it, one joys in it. Violently and painfully. A passion.”

A good example that helps tease out the multiple valences of abjection is the popular film Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017), a horror/satire allegory about the history of slavery and race relations in America. The film projects its social critique through an absurd lens that further sharpens its urgent political message. Peele depicts a racial dystopia in which black bodies are en­slaved not through forced labor or mass criminalization, but through fantas­tic neurosurgical body swapping. As one white character puts it, “Black is in fashion,” so the late­-capitalist mode of antiblack slavery turns on possessing the Other’s body in the most literal form imaginable: by placing one’s failing consciousness into it. Black bodies are auctioned off to elderly, disabled, or cosmetically abjected white consumers, while black consciousness is ban­ished to the “sunken place”: a free fall into an inner space from which one watches one’s own body continue to act as through a distant screen.

The abject objection lurks in the often reproduced tearful, silent gaze of the protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a look of mute terror and grief, as he realizes the utter banality of the horror he faces: that what happens in Get Out isn’t fantastic. It’s merely the logical extension of a long­standing tradition of physical, then cultural, appropriation—one that has always been rooted in the total, debased alterity of the black Other. The next logical step, argues Peele, rather than simply co­opting the art, culture, and lifeways of black people, is that white consumers occupy their bodies. The film is a parody of an abject white liberal fantasy of becoming black: to be inside a black body but to somehow remain white. The black body imprisons the black soul, and the white consciousness that inhabits it assumes the mantle of warden and beneficiary.

As with abjection itself, Chris’s look when he is compelled toward the “sunken place” appears neither comic nor horrific. His eyes glisten with tears, and in them we can see a reflection of something, perhaps ourselves. His face presents itself to the camera, to the audience, for the experience of the jouissance about which Kristeva writes—not merely joy nor horror nor any singular, nameable emotion, but a raw experience of the terrible pos­sibility of (not) being. Yet while Kristeva in her own racial formation would only imagine the audience for Get Out as white, Bataille might well see, in his notion of social abjection, the bottomless dread of that unrelenting structure of white supremacy and racial violence by other means. That horror has fu­eled African American comedy for generations, and it runs through the work of Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, Dave Chappelle, and Wanda Sykes, a humor in which laughter is always tinged with grief, horror, anger, and exhausted sadness at the implacability of that formation.

The tension between laughter and terror that Peele mines presents two key facets of abjection, but they are not the only ones. The abject, in eliciting the nameless affect through which the sovereign subject emerges—as Thomas Lamarre reminds us in this volume—is not so much a stable heuristic as something illuminated in its situational specificity—legible only through its objects and practices. The film’s “off­color” or “dark” sense of humor refuses the spectator a comfortable position, a stable vantage point for disavowing the evident parallels between the film’s voyeurism of racialized bodies and its allegory of the “sunken place.” Laughter at screenings of Get Out is a scan­dal—a necessary but impossible mode of affective experience, provoked by horrifically comical situations just exaggerated enough to distort the trauma of their referential violence.

In this instance, then, abjection allows one to understand the already am­biguous category called “comedy” (is it a mode or a genre?) in its capacity to do far more work than simply elicit laughter. (This derives from the Aris­totelian presumption that laughter is always less than other, serious affects, and that laughter can only signify humor.) While laughter is often mistaken for a mere displacement of abjection, comedy itself is frequently devalued within the cultural hierarchies that ascribe authenticity or social relevance to a given genre or aesthetic mode. This is the case because comedy—no matter how graphically violent, offensively crude, or vividly grotesque—has the power to present even the most disturbing content as entirely unseri­ous. From the bawdy, sacrilegious play of the medieval carnival, to the brutal comic beatings celebrated by the Italian commedia dell’arte, to the spectacles of bodily explosion (decapitation, dismemberment, diarrhea) prevalent in children’s cartoons, there is nothing exceptional about finding ecstatic de­light in the abject genres of laughter. Now, however, “as both an aesthetic mode and a form of life,” Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai write, comedy’s “action just as likely produces anxiety: risking transgression, flirting with dis­pleasure, or just confusing things in a way that intensifies and impedes the pleasure.” In other words, comedy is not reducible to an escapist flight from the traumas of brutal reality, as in theories of the carnivalesque (Bakhtin), gallows humor (Freud), or benign violation (McGraw and Warren). When all culture increasingly appears to be in a state of permanent carnival, there is nothing particularly exceptional or liberating about subverting the exclusion of reviled matter. As comedy expands to encompass the anxious and the hor­rible, it signals the abjecting of a tidy poetics of being, of anything ever again being “just a joke.”

To dwell a bit longer on the collective trauma/avatar named Donald Trump, part of what has made his presidency so horribly compelling (though for many unsurprising) is his utter lack of conventional orthodoxy: his self-caricaturing persona, his gleeful replacement of standard Republican dog­whistle race baiting with indifferently inadvertent acts of overt racism, and the ease with which liberal laughter defers outrage or action in the face of his daily defile­ment of American political decorum: who would possibly take this buffoon seriously? When Congressman Keith Ellison first suggested, on ABC News in July 2015, that Trump might be the Republican nominee (let alone the next POTUS), his ominous prophecy provoked not cautious dread but incredulous laughter from his fellow panelists. (Kristeva reminds us, “Laughter is a way of displacing abjection.”) Yet, even while Trump’s casual statements elicit pure outrage and disgust—condoning white supremacy, denying climate change, and authorizing mass deportations of immigrants and refugees—laughter still adheres to him (and to the burgeoning cast of characters once close to him and now purged, from Sean Spicer to, as of this writing, Kirstjen Nielsen). As John Oliver put it in January 2017, “A Klan­backed misogynist Internet troll is going to be delivering the next State of the Union address. … That is not nor­mal. That is fucked up.” Defensive laughter against Trump (provoked by late­ night commentators such as Samantha Bee or Trevor Noah) thus oscillates between dismissive mockery and sheer outraged howling. As Walter Benjamin has written (also in the context of rising fascism and looming war), dreadful laughter can provide an inoculation against “mass psychosis.” In this vein, late-­night political satire, at its best, provokes modes of laughter more po­tent than simple outrage and mere disgust; at its worst, it incites the weary chuckling of a smug yet rapidly failing liberalism. Beyond relief or deflection, it helps frame the tangled and ever mobile line between the laughable and the horrible—yet always at the risk of anesthetizing a viewer exhausted by the onslaught of countless political outrages.

The essays in this volume go well beyond the distancing laughter of de­ferred abjection by lingering in zones of contamination—between repudia­tion and redemption—wherein attempts at abject defacement recoil back onto the sovereign subject. While some laughter thrives on disavowing its own fascination with the abject, other affects refuse that narrow exclusionary logic—not simply displacing abjection, but confronting it head­-on. Many es­says in this volume take up the tipping point where the abject becomes funny, playful, solicitous, and irresistible; others examine how the violence of repul­sion is further shaped by unlikely absurdities, unexpected horrors. Above all, the essays in this volume treat the comic as important and significant, but as only one facet of the abject.

Yet a moment’s reflection on the abject in comedy may not only help to trace its ubiquity in the current cultural landscape, but also to offer a way into abjection in other modes, other affects. Concisely put, even laughter has its Other. Comedy, as it has been conventionally defined, involves the reversal of expectations by playing on misperceptions between appearance and reality. Something about the image of a paradigmatic ideal assaulted by its own car­nal, degrading physicality—such as a pompous and dapper gentleman falling into a mud puddle—provokes irresistible laughter. As Alenka Zupančič puts it (invoking Lacan’s famous argument that the madman who believes he is a king is no crazier than the king who also believes he is a king), “What is really funny and makes us laugh most … is not simply that the baron falls into the puddle but, much more, that he rises from it and goes about his business as if nothing had happened.” He acts as if his very baron­ness requires that he ignore the mud on his all too human body. Beyond the dangers of failing to recognize the potential for physical violence inherent in absurd nonsense, thus blinding ourselves to its real political perils, the social dynamics of how incongruous bodies become funny are extremely complex.

Classical theories of comedy generally view laughter as a means of regu­lating social relations of power. In Henri Bergson’s well-known definition of the comic, laughter functions as a “social corrective” by cruelly or callously deriding those whose behavior appears out of step with the pace of modern life—because their bodies strike laughing observers as overly mechanical, rigid, or thing-­like. In contrast, in recuperative theories of laughter (such as the carnivalesque), dejected, vile, and grotesque bodies revolt against their own exclusion and therefore become the basis of contagious laughter and collective refusal. Yet, scholarship on grotesque comedy similarly strips the body of its abject instability by locating exceptional difference in a transpar­ently subversive (and necessarily temporary) power. The carnality of comical abjection resides between these two familiar paradigms: between a disciplin­ary trap and a subversive escape. It represents a volatile effect, unleashed from the impossibility of consigning excessive comicality to either total dis­cipline or momentary subversion. Bodies (both real and social) signify, and abjection’s business is to get rid of that which muddies the sign, to differenti­ate between signal and noise. Comedy revels in the noise (uncanny spectacle, graphic corporeality, violent imagery), emphasizing its messy entanglement with the signal (i.e., with plain language)—their constant raveling and un­raveling.

Recent scholarship on comedy and difference has focused on theorizing the ambiguities of comical affect, particularly the ambivalences of comedic pleasure in relation to the liberating performance of self­-abjection. In Ngai’s critique of affective labor and neoliberal capitalism, for example, she asserts “the zany” as a significant aesthetic category of post­Fordist production. In zaniness she finds the quirky exuberance and eccentric warmth that often drive the production of affective labor in allegedly “dematerialized,” flexible, and networked economies of value. In this vein, studies of gender and humor (M. Alison Kibler, Rebecca Krefting, Linda Mizejewski), race and satire (Bambi Haggins, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Glenda Carpio, Mel Watkins), and ethnicity and laughter (Gayatri Devi, David Gillota, Robert Stam) have proliferated in response to the recent explosion of comedies about corpo­ real identity and socioeconomic marginalization. Feminist comedians have been emboldened to celebrate their own difference through graphic slapstick (Ilana Glazer, Bridget Everett, Leslie Jones), biting self­referential stand­up (Margaret Cho, Tig Notaro, Maria Bamford), and defiant confessional litera­ture (Lindy West, Roxane Gay, Gabourey Sidibe). Yet, at the same time, these women are predatorily harassed with ad hominem scorn and online death threats. Again, debates about whether grotesque bodily display is liberating or shaming are no longer adequate in a climate of permanent carnival and rampant transgressive discourse.

Feminist scholarship on affect and emotion has repeatedly refused to con­sider laughter with the same degree of nuanced complexity offered to other ambiguous expressions of emotion. Instead, many of these works, such as Sara Ahmed’s Cultural Politics of Emotion and The Promise of Happiness, con­sider only the negative feelings: pain, hate, fear, disgust, shame—with “love” as the ultimate horizon of collective affirmation. Ahmed glosses over laughter, she explains, because communal laughter has a coercive element that may force bodies into false and constrained senses of affective intimacy: “When we are laughing, we are facing each other; our bodies are mirroring each other. I might hear the joke, and when I register what has been said, I might find that I do not find it funny, or even that I find it offensive. When I hear the joke, it becomes a crisis … if I stop laughing, I withdraw from bodily intimacy.” Since “affect” refers not to an individual state of experience but to a shared economy of intimate circulation, for Ahmed laughter and humor stem from unequal structures of feeling. Like Ngai’s notion of the neoliberal mandate to happiness (or what Berlant has theorized as “cruel optimism”), laughter com­pels a bodily response and is imagined to be coercive on this register.

Even the joys of whimsical laughter are not beyond these gift economies of affect as reciprocity and obligatory participation. As Ahmed argues in “Feminist Killjoys,” “To revitalize the critique of happiness is to be willing to be proximate to unhappiness. . . . There can even be joy in killing joy. And kill joy, we must and we do.” This raises a paradox of joy and its relation to violence: Does “killing joy” necessarily exclude the affects of joy, par­ticularly laughter? To invoke Bataille in “The Practice of Joy before Death,” “There are explosives everywhere which perhaps will soon blind me. I laugh when I think that my eyes persist in demanding objects that do not destroy them.” Bataille’s fatalistic joy is a far cry from the manipulative forms of capitalist happiness that Ahmed and Berlant (and others) have critiqued. Abject laughter—not the laughter that displaces abjection, but that embraces contamination—is part of the wager of this volume. Laughter, we argue, has the power to shatter the coercive constraints of prescribed happiness by launching the feeling subject toward the threshold of abjection. There, comedy gives way to a range of raw, ineffable experiences, in which the precarity of our sovereignty punctuates its value.

Abject comedy plays on the failure of laughter to prop up the faltering boundaries of the ego, or to erect a safe distance between the laughing subject and the comic object. Laughing in relation to the abject is not a mechanism of disavowal (as in callous or cynical laughter), but an experience of radical openness to the simultaneous necessity and permeability of all boundaries and borders. (There is no such thing as a truly closed border, since even sov­ereign borders must also leave themselves open to the privileged bodies and the multifarious forms of capital and traffic that have license to cross them.) Abjection often returns—resisting displacement—in forms that may be vio­lent and gruesome, and just as often, surprisingly funny. Part of Bataille’s project to dismantle the abject formations of authoritarian politics involved significant experimentation with the intermingling of seemingly incom­patible feelings, such as joy, anguish, pleasure, violence, poetic sacrifice, out­ rage, and disgust.

This volume builds on that crucial project, confronting the abjection of difference by channeling its uncertainties of affect and instabilities of expe­rience. The title of this volume, Abjection Incorporated, goes beyond the in­ entional agency of a single sovereign subject, taking up the immanence of collective refusal—when a deliberate displacement by abjection is embraced and absorbed—incorporated—at the very moment of exclusion and repudia­tion. At the same time, “incorporation” is a pun on the freewheeling cultural capital that now accrues from performances of social marginalization. On both fronts, it is crucial to rethink the relationship between pleasure and vio­lence, acceptance and rejection, that awaken the ongoing task of critique: to resist the compulsive and unthinking disavowal contained within every act of abjection—and to confront the uncontained messiness lurking at all levels of culture, society, and politics.