Subjectivity, Identity, Individuality
The first section of the volume, “Abject Performances: Subjectivity, Identity, Individuality,” redraws the line between social performances of abjection and the living bodies that produce and animate them. Each of the three essays in this section, by Michelle Cho, Rebecca Wanzo, and Maggie Hennefeld, explores a different aspect of performativity, locating its abject politics within economic, geographic, and intersectionally identitarian contexts. The constitution of the body politic through comedy is frequently gendered, too often by abjecting women (especially women of color), and thereby limiting or regulating their powers of comedic protest or resistance.
Michelle Cho considers one national inflection of these conjunctions between abject comedy and female corporeality in “Popular Abjection and Gendered Embodiment in South Korean Film Comedy.” Cho poses a notion of “the beautiful abject,” which she understands as “a new form of popular abjection” in which “gender transgression, made pleasurable as abject spectacle, signals both the endurance and the instability of patriarchal gender norms.” Drawing on the feminist and queer theories of Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, Kathleen Rowe, and Jane Park, Cho reads the ubiquity of female grotesque types (or gendered abject comedy) in South Korean media as a symptom of the crisis of masculinity in the nation’s militaristic patriarchal society. Looking at both domestic and international receptions of South Korean romantic comedies, such as My Sassy Girl (2001) and 200 Pounds Beauty (2006), Cho argues that “spectacles of abject excess disavow the actual violence of gendered abjection, as a fundamental condition of mainstream, late capitalist Asian modernity.” She thus extends the notion of abject comedy as constitutive of the social body politic to explore the gendered and racial mediation of international flows of commodity capital and cultural images.
In “PrecariousGirl Comedy: Issa Rae, Lena Dunham, and Abjection Aesthetics,” Rebecca Wanzo looks at two recent comedies, Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (2011–13) and Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012–17), both for their obvious differences (race) and for what they have in common: a predicate condition of abjection that situates the millennial woman in a state of being always already precarious. In these and several other recent gendered sitcoms, Wanzo notes, abjection is deployed to signal the protagonist’s precarity. (Contrast this, for instance, with Friends (1994–2004), in which a cast of underemployed and unemployed [white and stereotypically beautiful] characters live in relative luxury.) Yet for Wanzo, abjection is more than simply a sign of precarity; it is the very condition that drives the comedy of these series, even as it dooms their protagonists. “Inhabiting a world in which mobility is frozen—economically, politically, romantically,” Wanzo warns us, “these women’s bodies become sites of the modern mire of economic and intimate abjection.”
Maggie Hennefeld’s chapter, “Abject Feminism, Grotesque Comedy, and Apocalyptic Laughter on Inside Amy Schumer,” returns to the bodily violence popular in feminist satirical comedy. Hennefeld theorizes an “abject feminism” as a political response to the social contradictions between individual self-making and collectivist advocacy in contemporary popular feminisms. Given the inadequacy of recent arguments based in intersectionality to resolve this driving contradiction between identity and collectivity, Hennefeld claims, images of apocalyptic or world-shattering violence (spontaneous de capitation, cannibalistic self-petrification, and ritual mass suicide) provide impossible but necessary rejoinders to the impasses of feminist politics. Theorizing the gendered stakes of the distinction between abject comedy and carnivalesque unruliness, Hennefeld argues that abject feminist laughter provides a space “for acting out the contradictory meanings and ideals of gender identity and its shapeshifting relationship to feminist politics in the twenty-first century.”
Abject Bodies: Humans, Animals, Objects
The essays in “Abject Bodies: Humans, Animals, Objects,” by Yiman Wang, Rijuta Mehta, Meredith Bak, and James Leo Cahill, and the art of Mark Mulroney, focus on the dynamic between (non)human subject formation and the disciplinary paradigms that circumscribe it. Abjected bodies often serve as allegorical figures during tumultuous moments of national struggle. A case in point is found in Yiman Wang’s analysis of the brief resurgence of slapstick comedy during the 1950s in the People’s Repub lic of China (1949–66). In her chapter, “The Animal and the Animalistic: China’s Late 1950s Socialist Satirical Comedy,” Wang looks at two rarely discussed zoo-themed comedies, An Unfinished Comedy (dir. Lv Ban, 1957) and A Nightmare in the Zoo (dir. Shi Lan, 1956), a fictional film featuring a Chinese comic duo in the style of Laurel and Hardy. The latter film was condemned for physiologically repulsing its audiences with performances of animalistic slapstick and for producing dehumanizing satires of state officials. As Wang argues, the subsequent denigration and prohibition of such modes of comedy played a crucial role in “enabl[ing] the very formation of the socialist body politic.” Methodologically, Wang draws on an innovative range of theories of animality, comedic physiognomy, and political governance (from Bataille and Derrida to Cai Chusheng and Pang Zhaolin) to shed light on this forgotten archive of Chinese socialist film satire from 1956–57. She thereby teases out a “a strand of vexed inter(dis)course be tween the animal, the animalistic, and the socialist new human in the late 1950s cultural-political landscape,” arguing that the comedies unleashed “animalist specter(s)” that “continue to unsettle and haunt socialist projections of ideological purism.”
Rijuta Mehta puts a sharp point on the role of abjection in political dis course, illustrating its crucial urgency to theories and aesthetics of state violence. In “Anticolonial Folly and the Reversals of Repatriation,” Mehta locates an abjection based in the process of nation formation, the inscription of social relations on the ground and on the bodies of those who suffered under the “follies of repatriation” in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh in the middle of the twentieth century. Comparing representations of women and men during partition in the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto and in photographs contemporary with those stories, Mehta suggests that the “new sovereign state produced an abject script not only for Manto’s comic irony, by naming it ‘unclean,’ ‘filthy,’ ‘taboo,’ and ‘disgusting’ under obscenity law, but also for native subjects, especially the women photographed in repatriation portraits between 1947 and 1956.” The “abject scripts” that Mehta considers are specific to the violent, painful, and unresolved tensions and experiences of state partition. Similarly, the comic irony that she locates in Manto’s work is tinged with the pathos of those violent and graphic productions of nation hood. Like other essays in this volume, Mehta’s readings of partition literature and photography forge productive and unexpected connections between theories of the abject and ironically absurd eruptions of state violence—such as the possibility of cosmic laughter at unbearable images of sexual assault and state brutality in post-partition South Asia.
Yet that which abjects is not always of the living; instead, it may refer to the basis of life in death, to the stillness by which we try to understand animation. Meredith Bak’s chapter, “Between Technology and Toy: The Talking Doll as Abject Artifact,” reverse engineers the uncanny creepiness of one of the all-time most popular children’s toys: the talking doll. The abject violence lurking in this allegedly innocent plaything derives from the toy’s oscillation between humanoid companion and cold, mechanical apparatus—it is a violence to the very idea of flesh. “Talking dolls encourage traditional nurturing doll play,” Bak claims, “but also often require the child to perform strange, violent, or invasive actions to trigger speech.” Bak historicizes the talking doll’s abject status through an analysis of patent records from the late nineteenth century to the present. Focusing on the technological devices used to record the doll’s cooing, gurgling “mama” and “papa” sound effects, she excavates a media archaeology of the doll’s morphing voice box technologies, from bellows and valves, to phonograph records and cylinders, to magnetic tapes and digital clouds. She argues that the talking dolls invite children to “engag[e] an ongoing power dynamic to nurture and provide care, but also to abuse and destroy. These conflicting impulses exemplify the ‘vortex of summons and repulsion’ characteristic of the abject.” By analyzing talking doll patents, Bak demonstrates that even primal abjection has its own intellectual and commercial genealogy, hence archival history. Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, Bak builds on foundational psychoanalytic readings of talking dolls (as uncanny object and transitional plaything), while opening them to alternative notions of time and historiography than those of the archaic unconscious.
James Cahill’s contribution also moves beyond the body—whether fat, animalized, or absurd—via the big toe, “the most human part,” according to Bataille. “Absolute Dismemberment: The Burlesque Natural History of Georges Bataille” theorizes the abject dialectics between animality and the human by finally giving the big toe its due as the very “threshold between human and animal life,” to assert an anti-anthropocentric critique of the lim its of humanism. First, however, Cahill accepts an unresolved dare (or even surrealist prank) laid down by the French intellectual Raymond Queneau: to imagine a dialectical, natural history based on the surrealist writings of Bataille. Cahill does so, he says, “in part for the pleasure of trying it, but also for the economy with which it draws together important strands of Bataille’s thinking about animality, aesthetics, abjection, and comic laughter, demonstrating their mutual entanglements in his thought, as well as their untimely productivity in [this] era of accelerated and often frightful metamorphoses, extinctions, exhaustion, and death on a planetary scale.” Looking at texts that predate Bataille’s 1934 essay on abjection, Cahill’s critical antics pose further challenges to the compartmentalization of humanities disciplines today—such as anthropology and natural history—making evocatively per verse use of G. W. F. Hegel’s notion of “picture thinking,” as the materialist filter for universal truth.
The volume then takes a break from the formal essay for a trip into an autobiography of abjection. Reporting from the trenches of vernacular objection in present-day cultural production, visual artist Mark Mulroney offers an interlude in which he graphically recounts his personal exploits in an abject education system. Sparing no detail, Mulroney depicts (in both word and image) a biographical narrative of his profound confusion at (poorly) mediated sex education, a disciplining made worse by its being delivered in a Catholic school. There, he was instructed in the meanings of his body and the bodies around him while the crucified Christ gazed down on him from the front of the room. Of that Christ, Mulroney ob serves, “Sure he was dead, but he was also very sexy.” (Consider yourself trigger-warned.) Mulroney’s art translates the eroticism of the martyrs into vernacular form—or, rather, updates the vernacular to account for the production of new Martyrs.