There is no theory of abjection without the trace of an agentive, embodied subject. Our commitment in this volume to rethinking the abject stems, in part, from our discomfort with the diminishing place of the subject in certain discourses in the critical humanities. The displacement or elimination of the subject in variants of affect theory, new materialisms, actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology (OOO), while important for theorizing life in an increasingly networked society, also effectively declares the subject largely irrelevant just at that moment when the possibility of laying claim to a sovereign subject status, and through it some degree of effective political agency, has been (grudgingly) extended to those generally described as its Other(s). At the risk of stating the obvious, this would include people of color, the poor (working or otherwise), women, queers, the differently abled—those who have been abjected in the name of securing the ongoing efficacy of an unmarked, transcendental subject. With the death of the subject and recession of the human, Jane Bennett argues in Vibrant Matter, “All bodies be come more than mere objects, as the thing-powers of resistance and protean agency are brought into sharper relief.” Bennett (like Gilles Deleuze, Brian Massumi, or Tony Sampson, for instance) draws on the metaphor of the network to explain this inextricable linking of all forms of bodies and matter. The abject has at best a tenuous place within this critical paradigm, because the counter-politics of abjection require the oppressive weight of actual and residual boundaries—divisions between self and other, between sovereign individuals and unruly masses—and would be obscured, if not eliminated, by the epistemic erasure of those boundaries. In other words, the abject exists in necessary opposition to the productive fantasy of the individual or social body as an agential or sovereign being: it erupts from the impossible fantasies and repressed violence underpinning that sovereign subject. The strands and nodes of the network, we argue, are spattered with blood, pus, and a simmering stew of corporeal excreta—or at the very least need to be viewed as such. In this vein, the abject has much to offer variants of new materialisms. It provides methodological traction for recognizing the productive ability of matter to connect us, yet in ways that avoid resurrecting the old specters of the desiring subject, the decisional sovereign, or agency grounded in an outmoded and unreflexive humanism. One need only look at the fierce ongoing debates today in the United States about who “matters” to appreciate the continued importance of the abjectly material, agentive subject—and the political urgency of its possibilities and effects.
The abject objections articulated in this volume provide a vital means of troubling both the sovereign subject and its problematic diminution in theories of networked society. The authors in this volume claim no unified stance on the relative value of the reported death of the subject, yet we argue that our turn toward abjection in this instance offers a middle way: a chance to engage productively with Deleuzian immanence and assemblage (what Erin Manning, returning to Deleuze’s original, has termed agencement) with out wholly discarding the subject, or the imperfect, uneven, and contingent agency produced in, around, and through it. New materialist scholars, such as Bennett, Massumi, Jussi Parikka, Nigel Thrift, or Sampson, have offered nuanced revisions to the trap of the overdetermined subject when it is located in networked social and new media environments. In theoretically distinct ways, they emphasize sociotechnical instances in which classic humanist subject-object relations do not obtain, or within which agency is better understood as a momentary accretion of immanence, rather than resident in discrete bodies (as in Get Out’s satirical dystopia). They position themselves between heuristics of distributed affect and constitutive violence. Varying in approach, each has described monadic formations in which a relatively ephemeral subject acquires agency at and through impermanent affective nodes. This model of the subject differs from the humanist notion of a stable and ongoing predicate entity that exists independently of its momentary net worked iterations.
Our description of new materialism(s), of course, oversimplifies a varied field of inquiry, the boundaries of which are often in dispute. More fluid versions of new materialism, for instance, are aligned with poststandpoint or inter-sectional feminisms, and they recognize the importance of questioning the primacy of the sovereign subject over other forms of collectivity and distributed cognition and affect. At the same time, however, such approaches note the inescapable systems of power and domination that are nonetheless maintained within the “posthuman” landscape. The withering of the nationstate, for instance, and with it the traditional foundation for the sovereign subject, goes hand in hand with the globalization of capital flows and the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands. Similarly, the matrix of affiliation and affect asserted by social networks such as Facebook or Twitter is predicated on economies of attention that harness the decentered subject in apparently involuntary, unremunerated, and (paradoxically) self-commodifying labor. As we have learned in the aftermath of the 2016 election, the status hierarchies developed, maintained, and contested through such social media—who earns more “likes” for their posts—are quite visible. Yet less visible is their value for data mining through devices as seemingly innocuous as a quiz that asks “which Smurf are you?,” the likes of which were mobilized by the Trump campaign to produce fine-grained voting maps and to target its message in precise (and politically effective) ways. Here the economy of “liking” and of recirculating (as in “retweeting”)—converting the violence of appropriation into transient tokens of affection—serves as an effective (albeit flawed) hedge, an ephemeral act of subjectivation that takes the place of sovereign subjectivity.
One response to the ongoing operation of increasingly decentralized power is what Karen Barad has termed “agential realism,” the analysis of contingent and situational agency and subjectivity. Arguing for a fluid subjectivity that is inherently local and situational, Barad articulates “a theory which insists on the importance of constructed boundaries and also the necessity of interrogating and refiguring them.” For Barad, “boundaries are not our enemies,” because
As with Mel Y. Chen’s concept of animacies—a continuum of agencies from the seemingly inert to the human that is deeply imbricated in regimes of race, gender, sexuality, and class—this is a new materialism that decenters the subject without displacing it entirely. It is that ambivalent (or multivalent) subject and the ephemeral agency it gains at the boundary between subject and object (and ego and abject), the comic and the violent, between matter and being, that the essays in this volume explore. Our notion of agency is always partial, momentary, and sometimes only clearly intentional after the fact. It is an agency produced both by the constitutive violence of subjective and corporeal difference, and by the impossibility of ever erasing or normalizing the oppressive power of structural hierarchy.
In this vein, Barad and others (such as Chen) offer alternatives to overly reductive humanisms and to narrow new materialisms. They critique what they describe as excessively celebratory accounts of subject-object disruption, which they argue ultimately fail to articulate actual relations of power adequately, and many of which are enacted by privileged subjects. Such accounts may reveal interesting and significant assemblages of actants, but at the cost of abjecting others, of effacing power and its real and often local, individual, and human effects. Conversely, previous work by theorists of the abject in popular culture, such as Tina Chanter, Barbara Creed, or Carol Clover, too often risk stepping into a cul de sac of critical exegesis by imagining that merely gesturing toward and delineating processes of social abjection renders them somehow less effective. The implicit expectation in such works is that exposure to the harsh light of critical analysis will reveal the mechanisms by which privilege asserts itself through abjection. This has certainly been a conceit of comedy studies: to valorize the exposure of bodies marked as grotesque, abject, excessive, or corporeally debased (cf. Haggins, Kohen, Mellencamp, Rowe). Such ideological critiques, though crucial, inevitably reach a political impasse in their attempts to subvert the effects of abjection, producing a model of sovereignty that clothes the normative sovereign subject with the markers of exceptional identity, attaching a hyphen as a compromise.
This is exactly the argument that Jane Bennett poses in Vibrant Matter, a touchstone of new materialism for many. Attempting to move past what she sees as a stultifying negative dialectics, and working to articulate a model of agency distributed across a range of actants (some of which are human), Bennett critiques the vulgar Marxist notion of demystification—a belief in the evaporation of false consciousness in the face of dialectical thinking. Claiming that what “demystification uncovers is always something human, for example, the hidden quest for domination on the part of some humans over others, a human desire to deflect responsibility for harms done, or an unjust distribution of (human) power,” Bennett claims forcefully that “demystification tends to screen from view the vitality of matter and to reduce political agency to human agency.” “Those are the tendencies,” she avers, “I resist.” In Bennett’s vital materialism, agency extends also to nonhuman actors, wherein participation requires ceding notions of individual effectiveness or responsibility in favor of distributed affectivity.
This conceptual/theoretical move has the virtue of calling out or unseating sovereign subjects deeply imbricated in privilege, and of aptly modeling the monadological distribution of power and affect-as-power in and through networked social life. Yet it does so at the considerable cost of naturalizing the distribution of power through its accumulation in the hands of increasingly fewer sovereign subjects—and this, to put it in Bennett’s terms, many of the authors in this volume resist. To be a node in vibrant matter is to be part of a relatively undifferentiated mass, which for a theorist of abjection (such as Bataille and Kristeva) is to be the necessary Other to those who still lay claim to the increasingly rare and valuable privilege of sovereign individuality.
Such attempts to decenter the humanness of all forms of matter (both inert and corporeal) have the troubling potential to erase the violence bound up in the exercise of power. Privilege owes a great deal to hierarchies of sovereign subjectivity that predate and still underpin much of networked society. Which is to say, it’s a straight line from Gamergate to the altright presidency of Donald Trump, in which a billionaire could appeal to young white men (and 53 percent of white women) whose sudden experience of precarity, their fear of sharing or losing the seat of sovereignty, has translated into virulent rage and a fierce need to violently abject feminists, queers, immigrants, and people of color as Other.
The abject has always concerned the fragility of boundaries between pleasure and disgust. “Spasms and vomiting protect me,” Kristeva claims. “I use them throughout my life, in my repugnance—the intermittent retching that will distance me from, and allow me to avoid, objects and extreme situations that I experience as menacing and dangerous: defilement, sewage, sordid ness, the ignominy of compromise, in-between states, betrayal. Fascination and rejection at the same time, abjection is the jolt that leads me into the abject but also separates me from it.”
Yet what are we, as parts of a social body, to do with our disgust? To give an intermediated example, actress of color Leslie Jones was singled out on Twitter in the summer of 2016 by sexist white supremacist fans of the original Ghostbusters (1984). When Jones fought back in the same forum, many on the internet were shocked and appalled by her retweets of the racist and misogynistic abuse that had been leveled at her. The only woman of color in a celebrity cast of female comedians, Jones was targeted by a coordinated campaign of vicious online harassment—abhorrent but sadly unexceptional compared with the hateful attacks that female public figures of color often encounter. Samantha Bee has succinctly described the gender politics of online participation: “Being a woman on the internet means receiving frequent bouquets of chivalrous offers to tear you in half … especially if you have the nerve to run for president, talk about politics on TV, or criticize literally any video game. In addition to demonstrating the habitual racist vitriol endemic to many spaces of networked discourse, Jones’s example also rein forces the point that hierarchies of subjectivity have their roots in an old materialism that is still very much alive.
The refusal to see an African American as fully American (or as fully human) is an old form of bigotry; the circulation of that bigotry across multiple platforms—from 4chan (and 8chan) trolls harassing stars of color to neo-Nazi marches protesting the removal of Confederate statues—represents a remediation of an all-too-familiar legacy of structural racism and institutional enslavement. To say that black lives matter, then, is to invoke a fraught material history in which African American slaves were fungible commodities in a system predicated on their circulation as objects, and on the denial of their status as subjects. Nicholas Mirzoeff invokes Jane Bennett’s notion of vital matter to make this point when he demonstrates how race can become especially symptomatic in the new materialist account:
Like Mirzoeff, who argues that the idea of vibrant matter effectively white washes the capitalist history of chattel slavery, many of the authors in this volume share a concern about the violent erasures that occur when matter displaces issues of subjectivity, (non)sovereignty, and human desire.
In many essays in this volume, such as those by Eugenie Brinkema, James Cahill, and Meredith Bak, abjection represents something more graphic and unsettling than vibrant: something between embodied vibrant matter speaking back and the return of the repressed. As Mirzoeff puts it, “My anxiety with the material, nonhuman and universalist turns in academic discourse is, then, how quickly we seem to forget all the work that has been done to establish how and why so many people have been designated as nonhuman and bought and sold as material objects.” The bodies and persons who have been abjected, enslaved, trafficked, and dehumanized argue for self-critical, subject-oriented materialist approaches to counter the erasure of their exceptional difference and violent expropriation. While such ideological critique inevitably runs the risk of reaching a political impasse in its attempt to subvert the effects of abjection, new materialist approaches often underplay the importance of the production and regulation of subject-object relations to dynamics of power in intermediated existence. The harassment of Leslie Jones is a case in point: the rise and fall of trending topics on Twitter perform the seemingly organic distribution and flow of affect, but for some the effect of the flow is anything but abstract—as when someone like Jones struggles to be a subject in that flow while suffering as the repeated object of its violence.
Or, to put it in Butler’s terms, the bodies that matter—those abjected to secure the sovereignty of the dominant minority—form an abject objection to their erasure by new materialisms. More than a backlash against their abjection, this is the result of a principled objection. When Jones was castigated for retweeting the most offensive of the slanders against her to underline their offensiveness, she revealed the violence by which intermediated subjects are repeatedly stripped of their agency and sovereignty. Darieck Scott, in his discussion of gay African American men in literature and in social life, asks, “Is this question [of the role of abjection and domination in racialization] ultimately best focused on identifying those elements of that experience, that history, which tend toward the overcoming and surpassing of domination and defeat?” That is, if one is still actively abjected, does a heroic recounting of moments of resistance to that abjection really get at the ways in which being abject, and not overcoming, transcending, or denying it, may be a form of resistance? Discussing abjection as lived by American gay black men, he continues, “What can the historical, inherited experience of … enslavement and what it might have taught, conscious and unconscious, provide for us by way of useful lessons or templates?” This is an urgent claim for future scholarship in fields that intersect with and complement the critical study of race and oppression. The point is not simply, following Mirzoeff, to delimit the materiality, the mattering, of race and its erasure in new materialisms and elsewhere (though that is important). It is also to explore in rigorous detail the productivity of those moments of abjection. As Scott puts it, “Within human abjection as represented and lived in the experience of being-black, of blackness—we may find that the zone of self or personhood extends into realms where we would not ordinarily perceive its presence; and that suffering seems, at some level or at some farf-lung contact point, to merge into something like ability, like power (and certainly, like pleasure) without losing or denying what it is to suffer.” When one is the thing abjected, rejected in defense of the security of others (of their need to be other than Other), that abjection is not without the possibility of a perverse form of agency. Living such contradictions—simultaneously as an admittedly contingent subject and as a castoff to ensure the (greater) subjectivity of one’s “betters”—cannot be corrected through simple demystification. Nor can abjection be subverted easily by disrupting the boundary between subject and world—by becoming disruptively present as subject. Rather, only by walking that border, tracing its variations between agent, self, and other—between boundary, interior, and exterior—may one call into question, even for a moment, the transitory and ephemeral subjectivation of the nodal, networked, and indeterminate self of the new materialist age. Expanding on and moving past Kristeva, Chen describes this as “a clashing embodiment of dignity as well as of shame.” The abjected agent, she argues, is rich in affect, imbricating “high stature and base animality, the blendings embody an intensity, a fraught collision be tween humanity and ‘zeroness.'” For Chen, abjection does not simply organize subjectivity; it also creates the potential for an affinity with the abjected, with the animal materials that have just been cast off at the ground zero of subject production.
Some might object that to explore abjection, particularly in psychoanalytic terms, is not new—not in the paradigm-shifting way in which new materialisms are new. Yet, by definition, novelty has never been the point for the return of the repressed. Novelty as a value is a hallmark of late capitalism and, in the case of human (academic) commodities, of the neoliberal (approaching neofeudal) imperative to embrace rather than deny one’s commodity status, to update, upgrade, and adopt early and often. In the networked age, we offer ourselves up as willing objects, rejecting subjective agency in favor of being the “LinkedIn,” “searchable,” and ultimately fungible agents of a cloud based sovereignty. The point of the abject stems from its urgency: it is useless except inasmuch as it helps to produce those subjects that are supposedly no longer relevant.
The Road to Abject Incorporation Is Paved with Negative Critique
Critiques of the abject in art, media, and popular culture often describe the act of abjection as punitive and isolating—the maintenance of social norms through the agency of the ego. Each essay in this volume is dedicated to moving beyond that valuable but narrow conception to consider the ways in which the abject may be summoned and deployed as an objection—a means of preemptively producing exceptional difference to undermine the stability of normative discourse. Taking in a variety of topics in visual and material culture, from talking dolls to postwar graphic media to standup comedians, the contributors to this volume share a common interest in moving the abject and abjection beyond the narrow confines of the psychoanalytic (and especially the even narrower defile of the mother-child dyad), the punitive, and the exclusionary. Building on the foundational theories of abjection outlined by Kristeva and Bataille, they rethink these unconscious-oriented approaches by examining an intermedial and interdisciplinary range of texts. Above all, they pursue the productive disruption that may follow the dissolution of boundaries between the real and the feigned, the subject and its objects, the sublime and the profane, out of which abjection forms the space for an objection. They do not attempt to recuperate the comic from the violent, nor to cordon off violence from the laughable, but to explore their common (and generative) threat to the self, and to the social body.
Because these tensions between the state and its sovereign subjects figure so centrally to our account of the abject objection, it seems appropriate to open this book with Sylvère Lotringer’s “The Politics of Abjection,” an excursus on George Bataille’s 1934 essay “Abjection and Miserable Forms.” For Bataille (and for Lotringer), abjection is not simply constitutive of culture through the individual, but also derives from and contributes to larger operations of sovereign subjectivation and social immiseration. For any oppressive ruling class to understand itself as justly sovereign, it must find its abject Other among the masses of the oppressed, and thereby demarcate the filth and decay from which it is inherently different (yet to which it is necessarily related), through means that are seemingly benign but manifestly cruel. This act of imperative exclusion is neither inherently comic nor directly violent. Rather, it becomes a graphic inscription of the relations of power on the social landscape. “Abjection results not from a dialectical operation,” Lotringer explains, merely “feeling abject when ‘abjectified’ in someone else’s eyes, or reclaiming abjection as an identifying feature.” Instead, he argues, it happens “precisely when the dialectics break down.” This broken dialectic, then, be comes the condition of possibility for the abjected masses to object to sovereign rule and to assert the autonomy of their social existence.