Powers of Horror: Julia Kristeva and the Concept of the Abject
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Powers of Horror: Julia Kristeva and the Concept of the Abject

The abject is a complex psychological concept developed by Julia Kristeva in her book Powers of Horror

The abject is a complex psychological concept developed by Julia Kristeva in her book Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection (1980). The term abjection literally means ‘the state of being cast off’.

According to Kristeva, a newborn child must enter the social order and by recognising itself as separate from the mother. This is challenging because the child has grown inside the womb placenta and fed through an umbilical cord. In order to recognise itself as a separate individual the child has to establish a psychological distinction between itself and the mother. This is achieved by rejecting everything associated with the maternal body – blood, the placenta, the umbilical cord and so on. These elements are cast out; they become abject, or vile and disgusting. Kristeva calls this the ‘mapping of the clean and proper self’. The clean surfaces of the body are contrasted with the abject elements and this permits the formation of an individual identity.

The abject marks the moment when we separate ourselves from the mother, when we first recognize a boundary between the self and the other. We must abject the maternal, the object which has created us, in order to construct an identity. This means that on a subconscious level the maternal is horrifying.

Kristeva argues that we have a fear of the abject throughout our lives. The abject consists of all the things that threaten our sense of cleanliness and propriety. It includes anything vile or disgusting, like the interior workings of the body, bodily fluids or waste. Kristeva argues that being forced to face the abject is inherently traumatic. For example, she says that encountering a corpse is repulsive because you’re forced to face an object which has been violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a person, a subject. A corpse reminds us that we are ultimately just organic matter that will rot away. Kristeva writes:

Refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. (Powers of Horror, p3).

Barbara Creed uses Kristeva’s theory of abjection in her analysis of the science-fiction horror film Alien (1979). She argues that the film represents the female as horrific and abject. Birth is depicted as a horrifying process. The process of a male being impregnated with a creature that gestates in a being that has no womb and rips itself free in a shower of blood is one way in which this film abjectifies female roles. Alien is about humans being forced to confront the abject which they have tried to suppress. The first scene has the crew waking up from hyper-sleep.

The crew has been cryogenically frozen for the voyage back to Earth. The ship’s computer wakes them up and in a sense gives life to them. The hypersleep vault is a uterine or womb-like space, but it is thoroughly clinical and sanitized. This suggests that in the future birth is managed by technology; it is a controlled, clean and painless process. There is no blood, trauma or terror. The scene in the hypersleep vault suggests that in the future birth has been sanitized and sterilized. Technology has been used to banish the abject. However, the alien, with its monstrous reproductive cycle and horribly visceral nature, forces us to confront the true nature of humanity as abject and organic.

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Comments (7)

Yep I can see where this theory was used in Alien but I don't agree with it at all. Blood, bodily fluids, death, decomposing are part of our belonging to our world. I would hate to be like a robot and it can take most of your life to 'find yourself!' and how would a baby cope with no fluids from it's mother? no breast feeding? I think this woman is very sad.

Indeed a fasinating theory and subject. I have never heard of this concept before but thinking about it, it certainly does make sense. I can see how Alien relates to this subject matter but never would have thought of it before. Fantastic write as always Michael! Sorry I'm out of vote but will buzz this up.

the theory is garbage, I would never use it in my practice. It does make for a good horror film though

It's certainly true that abjection has been used in misogynistic and anti-feminist ways in horror films like Alien and The Exorcist, but I do think the theory goes a long way to explaining our fundamental unease with the interior workings of the body, bodily fluids and corpses. It's true that all human cultures I know of have highly ritualised ways of abjecting or thrusting corpses out of the social order.

But in all religions and cultures, blood is very important. Good work, Michael.

Good reading

Interesting article, I am one for horror even if it's peaking through hand over my eye's for some upcoming scarey scene!! Two thumbs up :)

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