Abject Aesthetics: Structure, Form, System
The final section views abjection in aesthetic terms. The essays in part 3—by Nicholas Sammond, Eugenie Brinkema, Thomas Lamarre, and Rob King— approach the abject as a vital critical category for understanding the fraught relationship between pleasure and violence—in all its forms and surface guises. First drafted before the 2016 elections, these essays excavate the abjected objections long simmering just beneath the surface of American political life and cultural values. They help us understand how abjection has long been incorporated in and by the national body politic.
In “A Matter of Fluids: EC Comics and Vernacular Abjection,” Nicholas Sammond explores the circulation of immanent and persistent wartime traumas—both the nightmarish residues of World War II and the unthinkable and unremitting possibility of nuclear war—in Cold War–era pulp comics, especially in Mad magazine. Sammond discusses how romance, horror, and satire comics and magazines mobilized the abject in their images (especially those of corrupted flesh, blood, spit, and sweat), as well as through destabilized graphic designs. He argues that in their insistent repetition they formed objections to an increasingly pervasive domestic authoritarianism that marked the early days of the Cold War. Sammond notes that vernacular media such as comics translated the extreme abjection of an already heavily constrained postwar femininity into blatantly misogynistic social commentaries—even though media makers imagined that misogyny as an incisive critique of normative performances of gender and social repression during the Cold War. “Life in the vernacular,” Sammond claims, “plowed the furrows of the banal, offering in the mundane and repetitive themes of love, sex, and death a riotous rebellion against a postwar project that could only imagine … a deathless fantasy of love in the service of the future.”
In “Spit * Light * Spunk: Larry Clark, an Aesthetic of Frankness,” Eugenie Brinkema demands that we see abjection as form, refusing to assimilate the abject’s graphic excess into the symbolic order to which (in some accounts) it stands as Other. Closely reading the cinematic and photographic work of Larry Clark through the lens of radical formalism, Brinkema insists on moving beyond “the canon of signs of abjection,” which mistakes that which is abjected for the act of abjection. Instead, she argues for a critical practice that relinquishes “the easy ascription of abjection to things presented to the eye and mind, thrown in the path of the subject as a nameable, precise sensual content—the definite article of that sticky load, this maimed corpus.” For Brinkema, rather than incorporation, the more productive move is to argue for “abjection’s notion of downcasting, lowering, casting off to describe a formal language of uncluttered openness, sincerity, simplification, clarification, a brutalizing of visual language through a paring down to a radical program of exclusion.
The abject, in this formulation, presages an eruption, whether into laughter or violence (or laughter as violence), wherein the expulsive force of abjection is often preceded by a disease, a sense of irritation. Thomas Lamarre looks at manga comics for teenage girls, such as The Wolf Girl and the Black Prince (Hatta Ayuko, 2011–), surveying their meticulously administered worlds for how they inflect and refract abjection. “A Series of Ugly Feelings: Fabulation and Abjection in Shojo Manga” mounts a detailed critique of Kristeva’s “weight of meaninglessness” through what Sianne Ngai calls the “ugly feelings” that haunt popular Japanese shōjo manga, comics marketed primarily to female adolescents. “Ngai stresses how difficult it is to determine whether ugly feelings are resistant or acquiescent in political terms,” Lamarre argues, “precisely because they are not object oriented.” He analyzes the “objectless feeling of irritation” that arises in encountering manga, both through its depiction of interspecies roleplaying scenarios, and in the diffusion of the story across different serial media. Focusing on manga’s formal heterogeneity, Lamarre argues provocatively that the irritation that serialization inspires “generates a feedback effect that allows for the conveyance of abjection, as information for the series,” and in this case is “the noise whose amplified feedback makes the Wolf Girl series into a self-organizing multimedia franchise system.”
Last but not least, Rob King disentangles two terms that might at face value be taken as synonymous: the abject and the absurd. “Powers of Comedy, or, the Abject Dialectics of Louie” examines the tension between absurdist flight and abject self-degradation in the short films and television shows of the comedian Louis C. K. King focuses on C. K.’s self-authored, autobiographical FX sitcom, Louie (2010–15), from its initial reception through the recent revelations about C. K.’s offscreen behavior and his attempted apologies for that behavior. Beginning with C. K.’s short films from the 1990s, such as Ice Cream (1993) and Hello There (1995), King locates the absurd in Louie as the dialectical other to the standup comedian’s routine self-exposure (grotesque irony noted) through abjection. Rather than viewing the abject as underpinning a comedian’s own truth-telling authenticity (a familiar account adopted by John Limon, Rebecca Krefting, David Gillota, and others), King argues that C. K.’s use of the absurd reorganizes the horror of abjection into a new modality in American comedy: abject-absurd dialectics. Drawing primarily on Deleuze’s argument for opposing trajectories of sense and nonsense in The Logic of Sense (1969), King argues that, “in Louie, absurdist fantasy ... is an interiorized response to an externalized abjection that seeks to sublate it in thought, to find refuge in an absurdist imaginary that galvanizes the self against the sickening lure of abject states of affair or filthy objects.” By invoking the absurd as spectral other to the abject, C. K. avoids the redemptive reading of abject comedy, wherein simple naming of the abject gestures toward regulating the body politic and restoring a conservative and rational order.
The Aftermath of Abjection
Abjection as a heuristic, as a mode of incorporation, as an objection, goes beyond either laughter or horror and cuts to the radical imbrication of these seemingly opposed affects. Methodologically, abject objection is not simply about demystifying the misogyny in horror films, nor just about articulating the affect that motivates the self-loathing comedian. Indeed, limiting studies in abjection to comedy repeats the error of a previous generation of scholars who confined them to horror. This is not merely a generic or modal claim; it is an argument about the timely utility of the concept of abjection and the abject across a range of disciplinary boundaries. Each essay in Abjection Incorporated points to a multivalent understanding of abjection as a social, political, and aesthetic operation designed to separate those who are or should be from those who are not or should never be, and more recently to provide perverse cover for those who feel their own sovereign subjectivity suddenly threatened by the mere acknowledgment of the Other. As the chapters in this volume vividly detail, the idea of abjection—the sovereign reinforcement of the self or the social body through the charged, violent, and perversely pleasurable denial of the other—far from fading, has increasing currency today. The effects of this abjection are very real, though they often unfold in images and events that seem altogether unreal. Laugh, cry, gawk, quake, shudder, or freeze in terror—these encroaching imperatives of abjection can and should continue to produce renewed energies for collective refusal and resistance: for saying “no” instead of always insisting “not I.” The abject objection demands more of us than quietude, acquiescence, and incorporation. It is a challenge, asking us who the hell we think we are.