Julia Kristeva and the Abject Grotesque

Julia Kristeva and the Abject Grotesque

Far in the distance the tugboat whistled; its call passed the bridge, one more arch, then another, the lock, another bridge, farther and farther … It was summoning all the barges on the river, every last one, and the whole city and the sky and the countryside, and ourselves, to carry us all away, the Seine too —and that would be the end of us.

-Celine, Journey to the End of Night

In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982), Julia Kristeva describes the process of abjection as a form of expulsion and rejection of the Other, which she ties to the historical exclusion of women. Neither subject nor object, the abject, or the state of abjection, is articulated in, and through, grotesque language and imagery. The process of abjection is, then, associated with deformed bodies and oozing bodily fluids: blood, pus, bile, faeces, sweat and vomit break down the borders separating the inside from outside, the contained from the released. Abjection is a state of flux, where ‘meaning collapses’, and the body is open and irregular, sprouting or protruding internal and external forms to link abjection to grotesquerie.

“On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject” (Powers 207 ). “Not a language of the desiring exchange of messages or objects that are transmitted in a social contract of communication and desire beyond want, but a language of want, of the fear that edges up to it and runs along its edges” (Powers 38 ).

How do we align such a vision of exclusion, abjectness, borderline breakdowns, fear and terror of the Other to the current world of refugees and the wars of nations: economic slavery, austerity, and the darkening hatred and recurrence of fascist tendencies in our time? How speak to that hunger at the center of the void, the lack, the want of which Kristeva’s notions of the comedy of the Abject speak? Have the refugees, as well as women, the LGBTQ community, and many other aspects of our planetary society and civilization become the excluded Other of which we are now faced with the impossible dilemma of either inclusions or expulsion? Maybe these excluded others view us morbid parasites feeding off the global excess, as creatures of grotesque proportion whose shadow worlds of thought and culture are but the fetid apertures of a dying body, a civilization on the edge of destruction, chaos, and apocalypse? It’s as if the open wounds of the world body we are seeing is connected to an ancient curse of civilization, one that stretches back into the hinterlands ten thousand years ago when the first cities began accumulating, hoarding, and guarding their agricultural harvests against the nomadic wanderers and raiders of the outer reaches. This notion still seems still to pervade the modern psyche, as if civilization from the beginning was shaped by a dark and terrible deed, a grotesque system of dominion, slavery, and exclusion that has ever since haunted the mindscapes of every nation on earth.

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Giambattista Vico on Poets


Poets were properly called divine in the sense of diviners, from divinari, to divine or predict. Their science was called Muse, defined by Homer as the knowledge of good and evil, that is, divination…. The Muse must thus have been properly at first the science of divining by auspices. . . . Urania, whose name is from ouranos, heaven, and signifies “she who contemplates the heavens” to take thence the auspices…. She and the other Muses were held to be daughters of Jove (for religion gave birth to all the arts of humanity, of which Apollo, held to be principally the god of divination, is the presiding deity), and they “sing” in the sense in which the Latin verbs camere and cantare mean “foretell.” – Giambattista Vico, Scienza Nuova