The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Julia Kristeva Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1980)


‘Every year around Halloween—near the first of October, really, as I like to have a whole month for this—I tend to re-read old ghost stories by the like of M.R. James, folk tales of British corpse ways, and historical non-fiction about vampires from the Balkans. Halloween makes for a grand excuse for becoming immersed in things gothic, the dark and gloomy for a whole month or better. This year, I decided to focus on a less common but equally apt work in the canon of horror: the linguist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s classic work on abjection, Pouvoirs de l’horreur (Powers of Horror). Kristeva’s objective in this book-length essay is to address the role of abjection as a psychosocial property and a literary device. Coming from her background as a practicing psychoanalyst and also a pioneering linguist who wrote her Dr. d’État dissertation on the semiotic development of the early European novel, no one appears better poised than Kristeva to address this topic and she does a magesterial job. To me, the concept of a nuanced essay that explains via both theory and example the mechanisms of abjection in literature is something not only quite useful to the scholar but something that has been missing from how general scholarship of gothic literature, film noir, and a variety of other genre have been commonly approached.

‘Kristeva defines the abject as “To each ego its object, to each superego its abject. It is not the white expanse or slack boredom of repression, not the translations and transformations of desire that wrench bodies, nights, and discourse; rather it is a brutish suffering . . .”. She continues on this motif further explicating in poetic terms her vision, but the core point has been made: within the Lacanian framework, the abject is a central waypoint on the definition of the relation of the personal ego with the greater world; it is not just the presence of disgust or horror, but that entire gamut of suffering we encounter.

‘Kristeva later notes that “The abject is, for Dostoyevsky, the ‘object’ of The Possessed: it is the aim, and motive of an existence whose meaning is lost in absolute degradation because it absolutely rejected the moral limit (a social, religious, familial, and individual one) as absolute—God.” Therefore the abject is the fulcrum, it is that which we use as our compass of moral regulation by default. It is knowing when you’ve had too much to drink, or when someone is not a person you wish to invite to your party. However, it does not end there: the abject is also the horrors that via their totality and catastrophic nature cause a sense of awful wonder. A rocket hitting a multi-floor apartment tower, a bridge that fails and falls—cars, people, and all—into a cold river below, these are all things that are abject. When human design and the intent of malice come into play, the situation is even more dire and often more horribly enchanting. There is a photo from a school video camera of Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris stalking through the school with weapons in hand that I have seen republished in multiple articles about their murderous rampage: why should we tolerate seeing this, much less wish to see it? What is the draw of the obscene? It represents the horror: it shows us the murderers beyond any question of their acts or their evil nature. When we hear a ship has sunk, we wish to see the abject act—a ship, verily sinking—not an empty ocean of its aftermath.

‘Kristeva opens Powers of Horror with a general overview of what she means by the term “abjection” and how the “abject” and the process of “abjection” differ, plus a slight introspection into the history of the abject as a sociocultural phenomenon—covering with strong insight such aspects as how early Christian mystics delighted in the abject and how the concept of self-abuse and piety evolved in part from their views of abjection. Kristeva is careful to clarify the differences between the grotesque and the abject and how the abject can share in the material corpus of things that cause disgust but also transcends such a base emotional reaction. Working from there, she approaches a variety of oftentimes surprising literary examples, such as the works of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and through these works places the apex of the literary interest in the abject to run alongside the same timeline as the romantic era focus on the sublime and further into the modern era focus on psychological realism. As in her dissertation years before, Kristeva is highly adept at capturing all the verve of the carnival and grotesque in a write such as Céline plus the depth and scope of the variform abject she locates in literature.

‘Kristeva further delineates her view of the abject as “that experience, which is nevertheless managed by the Other, “subject” and “object” push each other away, confront each other, collapse, and start again—inseparable, contaminated, condemned, at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable: abject. Great modern literature unfolds over that terrain: Dostoyevsky, Lautreamont, Proust, Artaud, Kafka, Celine.”

‘What Kristeva demonstrates in her overall approach to the modern period is that these writers belong to a trajectory of acceptance of vileness alongside virile aggression and accelerated lack of confidence in a faith-based, morality-regulated society. We perhaps easily forget now how even Spinoza and Kierkegaard, who are considered essential to secular philosophy today, wrote within the guise of religion. They lived, after all, in a world of feast days, fast days, civil accord revolving around things holy while all that was not holy remained in civil discord unseen. Kristeva points to the abject as not however the absence of something—not, in example, famine due to a lack of harvest—but the precise presence of a matter of disgust or a means of arriving at disgust.

‘According to Kristeva, Jorge Luis Borges before her has already defined the abject and abjection—though not in those express words—as key to the crucial drive of all literature. Kristeva describes Borge’s declared objective of literature as “vertiginous and hallucinatory”, all tales told are after all “narratives of the infamous” and with Borges leitmotif of noir and reliance on the detective story’s tropes, abjection is rife in his works. Yet abjection does not negate hope: abjection, Kristeva explains, is the realization of disgust and the ability to process something from the point of being disgusting, repulsive, to the complexity of horror. While animals can be repulsed by something—a decaying corpse, in example—their response to such an incident is predicated on disgust more than horror. For the human, horror quickly pushes simple disgust out of the picture: a corpse unexpectedly encountered may be disgusting, but soon the primary raw emotion is one of horror and fear: why is there a dead body here, where it is unexpected? Is this a murder? Is the killer still on the loose? Could I be the next victim?’ — Mike Walker



Julia Kristeva Official Site
Julia Kristeva @ Twitter
The Kristeva Circle
Introduction to Julia Kristeva, Module on the Abject
how to not mean what we can’t say
‘The Body Politic of Julia Kristeva’, by Judith Butler
A Bulgarian “portrait” of Julia Kristeva
Body/Text in Julia Kristeva: Religion, Women, and Psychoanalysis
Julia Kristeva : “L’humanisme ne sait pas accompagner la mortalité”
Correcting Her Idea of Politically Correct
Julia Kristeva: The Berlin interview!
Semanalysis. Engendering the formula
Give Birth or Write: Julia Kristeva Lectures on Feminist Philosophy
Embodied Language: Julia Kristeva’s Theory of Poetic Language and Tantric Buddhism According to Reggie Ray
Julia Kristeva’s Maternal Passions
Head Cases: Julia Kristeva on Philosophy and Art in Depressed Times
Podcast: Julia Kristeva interviewed by Umberto Eco
Buy ‘Powers of Horror’



On Julia Kristeva’s Couch

“New Forms of Revolt”

Julia Kristeva Philippe Sollers – Du mariage considéré comme un des beaux-arts

JULIA KRISTEVA entretien avec Frédéric Berthet 1976

Julia Kristeva (University of Paris VII Diderot) via Skype




DONATIEN GRAU — You’ve just published a book in which you return to the question of time. Why come back to it now?
JULIA KRISTEVA — We’re living at a time when time itself has never been more problematic. They say we’re at the end of time, the thermonuclear and ecological apocalypse at the end of History. And at the same time we are at the beginning of time — since with one “click” we are now able to access information pertaining to all of History. How should we react when time can be performed in this way? The answer is: we ceaselessly experience new beginnings, over and over. Time does not pass, it does not stop, it just keeps on starting over again and again. As Chairman Mao once said, you count on yourself alone. In counting on yourself, yourself is not in itself an identity, nor is it a personality or an individuality. It’s the ecceitas of John Duns Scotus, the “this,” the demonstrative pronoun that has the ability to rebound. It’s a permanent resurrection. On the condition, again, that you are able to create connections, which is not possible unless the motor of this personal pronoun is the connection of love, the transfer. This is how I understand Freud’s message: It all starts again with the transfer, you begin again. Besides, the goal of psychoanalysis is to help people create connections based on this initiatory new beginning, which initializes the transfer.

DONATIEN GRAU — For you the encounter is very important.
JULIA KRISTEVA — Who encounters whom? Because an encounter is a dual thing: I go to meet people, who have in turn chosen to come to meet me. The first people I met were Roland Barthes and then, through him Gérard Genette, who directed me to Philippe Sollers. This moment of germination was very important. At that time, Barthes was trying to explain that truth as a word is not taboo. I had read some of his writings, not much. When I attended their lectures, Genette and Barthes would ask me what I wanted to do, would ask about my thoughts on structuralism and Russian formalism. For me it felt a little out of date, because Mikhail Bakhtin had just been discovered, placing ideology in lieu of the subject and history in meaning. I was asked to give a talk about it at 44 rue de Rennes, where Barthes was giving his lectures. So whether I liked it or not, I positioned myself as the ancestor of post-structuralism by introducing two dimensions: subjectivity in language, and history through context, discussing how the novel as a genre emerged through carnival and religious texts. And in doing that, we breathed new life into semiology, taking it away from Ferdinand de Saussure, trying to build an interpretation of human practices other than Marxism, which reduces the meaning of history and the placement of individuals into production or reproduction. Neither Freudism nor Marxism, but the positioning of individuals in the flow of language. I also collaborated with the linguist Emile Benveniste. His theory of language seemed relevant to me because he was combining these two dimensions, which I then tried to translate into psychoanalysis. I do not use the word “semantics” and prefer to use “semiotics,” which is more oriented toward impulses and the unconscious, and “symbolism,” which returns us to the triangular meaning of the language sign: signifier, signified, referent.

DONATIEN GRAU — But since your work is also extremely contemporary, what is the contemporary meaning of these debates from the end of the ’60s and from the early ’70s? Is it still a distant landscape?
JULIA KRISTEVA — I think we are now experiencing a major repression, which corresponds to what I consider a weak moment of civilization. A weak moment in the civilization of the book, due to the explosion of the image with all the advantages it may bring — speed, fascination, communication — but also major toxicity. It is indeed the opium of the people: here I am sitting in front of my television, my computer screen, my iPhone, calming me and lulling me to sleep. We are living under the influence of various opiates. At the same time, in terms of language, there is the development of this hyper-connected, rapid web, most conducive to the homo horizontalis, thus diminishing the vertical dimension, which is the interior experience, the inner self, the psychic life. When it doesn’t wipe it out completely, it wipes out what Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls the flesh, a word I use in my own way: the flesh of the world, of language, of subjectivity. I call this particular dimension an asymbol, because through image, the web, and our hyper-connection, a censure of the essence of language is manifested, which doesn’t mean just one thing, but rather stands as a polyphony, a polysemy (a diversity of meaning). And this polysemy, because of the toxicity and rapidity, is reduced to utilitarian communication. The eradication of the depth of the sign and its polysemy is a terrible deficiency, a defect, carrying us far from the curiosity we used to have. Yet this curiosity persists as it did in the low times, in closed communities: university spaces, symposia, conferences, research in general. Here I am playing devil’s advocate, because it’s an invisible dimension in social life today — a discredited dimension, but one which I think exists. It often takes the form of microscopic or abstruse research, but it may well have general consequences if we are capable of approaching it in depth and translating it for greater communication.

DONATIEN GRAU — Your revolutionary ideal was also very much part of the way you conceived your action back then…
JULIA KRISTEVA — Back, then, the revolutionary idea was still very much alive. Today, I think it is best embodied in the word “revolt.” When I arrived in France and found myself surrounded by young people interested in political revolution, I thought it was a whim, a passing fancy of the young bourgeois, and I interpreted it as a desire to know, an archaeological approach, including the Communist world. This is why we, along with Philippe Sollers, launched a study of Chinese civilization. We needed to appropriate the enigmas that surrounded us intellectually: knowing the past, where it comes from, that sense of tradition. And regarding China, which is often a problem when we are speaking of our “revolutionary” pasts, we would ask ourselves: is there a Chinese socialism, and if so, what does it look like? The real question was to determine if there is a Chinese individual. To all appearances, no, because he belongs either to a clan or to the Tao — he is diffused somewhere inside the flux of the world and social connections. His adaptability matters, not his identity. But inside this structure there is the positioning of the two sexes in Taoism. It is the beginning of a reflection on the role of the woman, which is very important in Chinese civilization, thus facilitating the consideration of psychic bisexuality.

DONATIEN GRAU — You mentioned psychoanalysis earlier, which seems to be an important form of knowledge for you.
JULIA KRISTEVA — Psychoanalysis is a form of awareness, but certainly not of knowledge. In Bulgaria, I knew the work of Russian formalists, I knew quite a bit about philosophy, but I did not know that much about psychoanalysis, because the training we had there at the post-doctoral level was oriented toward Hegel and phenomenology, but not at all toward Freud. On the other hand, my father, who was an extremely cultivated man, had the only translation of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, which was hidden in his library and which we didn’t show to others, because Freud was considered bourgeois science. So I knew very little about psychoanalysis, but Sollers took me to Jacques Lacan’s classes. I was pretty lost, fascinated by his rather surrealistic presence. I did however realize, as I was preparing my thesis on the avant-gardes, that the language I was dealing with, that of Mallarmé or Lautréamont, with its densities and its esoteric side, could not be interpreted only with the tools of stylistics, grammar, phenomenology, or structuralism, that instead I would have to approach it based on the experience of the subject, his or her construction and deconstruction in and through writing. I would need to confront episodes of depression or psychosis, which these people experienced in solitude or as part of revolutionary movements, for example in Lautréamont’s relationship to the Paris Commune. The result was that I decided I’d better get into analysis. I needed to do it to see it from the inside, hunkering down inside the alchemy of the verb, on the couch, and in French.

DONATIEN GRAU — Your work, from the 1980s onward, on the analysis of the states of the soul, seems very relevant today.
JULIA KRISTEVA — It seems to have had more echoes abroad than in France. I discussed feminine sexuality at lengths: I engaged again with the issues related to maternity, which except in a few rare texts, had been abandoned by the feminists. Feminists from Simone de Beauvoir’s generation were extremely wary of maternity, which they perceived as a form of slavery, the submission of the woman to the paternal phallus, etc. In doing so, they pushed aside a fundamental experience in the lives of women, and limited themselves politically, as well. Maternal eroticism is far from being halcyon. We may have ecstatic moments which facilitate the transmission of sensitivity and language, but there are also moments of extreme violence: the expulsion of the child, the child separating from his or her mother, the mother relating to the child, all sorts of trauma. Which is when I created this notion of abjection, for this time when one is not yet a subject, when there is not yet an object. In this interspace, there is both repulsion and fascination. This idea, which of course comes from psychoanalysis, helped me when I was approaching borderlines states, for example, the characters of Céline, his style, and his way of being, which for me were horrifying.

DONATIEN GRAU — You’ve never stopped redefining three domains: the question of the subject, feminist theory, and issues of love.
JULIA KRISTEVA — I have been deconstructing and reconstructing them for years, but based on personal experience, running up against places that are obscure or not sufficiently developed in Freudian and feminist theory. They now seem to be recognized as neuralgic points, especially in terms of language, meaning, and difference. They also became flash points, targets, not only in terms of erudite thinking, where my question is personal, epistemological — but also in terms of social connections.

DONATIEN GRAU — Which brings us to the question of politics, because your relationship with it is definitely skewed. You are not in the newspapers, but you seem often to take sides. How do you see your role as an intellectual in politics?
JULIA KRISTEVA — It’s difficult to say because I’m not a media-oriented person. In general, the intellectual is supposed to fertilize or place himself in the political field through the media, and many of them do. I do not feel I can do that. I’m not hysterical enough, in the positive sense of the word — meaning I don’t have the exuberance, the glibness, and the ability to seduce, or the conviction to do it. I’m more about being discreet and precise. And I’m not into political commitments either, because being committed means having a cause for which to fight. I think that the role of intellectuals is to detach themselves from any affiliation, to escape any temptation to ally themselves, to remain tangential — while not choosing isolation either.



Julia Kristeva Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection
Columbia University Press

Powers of Horror is an excellent introduction to an aspect of contemporary French literature which has been allowed to become somewhat neglected in the current emphasis on para-philosophical modes of discourse.’ — CUP

‘Kristeva is one of the leading voices in contemporary French criticism, on a par with such names as Genette, Foucault, Greimas and others. . . Powers of Horror is an excellent introduction to an aspect of contemporary French literature which has been allowed to become somewhat neglected in the current emphasis on paraphilosophical modes of discourse. The sections on Céline, for example, are indispensable reading for those interested in this writer and place him within a context that is both illuminating and of general interest.’ — Paul de Man



No Beast is there without glimmer of infinity,
No eye so vile nor abject that brushes not
Against lightning from on high, now tender, now fierce.
Victor Hugo, La Legende des siecles


There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful — a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.

When I am beset by abjection, the twisted braid of affects and thoughts I call by such a name does not have, properly speaking, a definable object. The abject is not an ob-ject facing me, which I name or imagine. Nor is it an ob-jest, an otherness ceaselessly fleeing in a systematic quest of desire. What is abject is not my correlative, which, providing me with someone or something else as support, would allow me to be more or less detached and autonomous. The abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I. If the object, however, through its opposition, settles me within the fragile texture of a desire for meaning, which, as a matter of fact, makes me ceaselessly and infinitely homologous to it, what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place_where meaning collapses. A certain “ego” that merged with its master, a superego, has flatly driven it away. It lies outside, beyond the set, and does not seem to agree to the latter’s rules of the game. And yet, from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master. Without a sign (for him), it beseeches a discharge, a convulsion, a crying out. To each ego its object, to each superego its abject. It is not the white expanse or slack boredom of repression, not the translations and transformations of desire that wrench bodies, nights, and discourse; rather it is a brutish suffering that, “I” puts up with, sublime and devastated, for “I” deposits it to the father’s account [verse au pere—pere-uersion]: I endure it, for I imagine that such is the desire of the other. A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is noth- ing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of non- existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safe- guards. The primers of my culture.



Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste, or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck. The shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery. The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me from them.

Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk—harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring — I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. “I” want none of that element, sign of their desire; “I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasize, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death, During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit. Mute protest of the symp- tom, shattering violence of a convulsion that, to be sure, is inscribed in a symbolic system, but in which, without either wanting or being able to become integrated in order to answer to it, it reacts, it abreacts. It abjects.

The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irre- mediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance. A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance — I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I perma- nently 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. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without border? That elsewhere that I imagine beyond the present, or that I hallucinate so that I might, in a present time, speak to you, conceive of you—it is now here, jetted, abjected, into “my” world. Deprived of world, therefore, I fall in a faint. In that compelling, raw, in- solent thing in the morgue’s full sunlight, in that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything, I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.

It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good con- science, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior. . . . Any crime, because it draws attention to the frag- ility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility. He who denies morality is not abject; there can be grandeur in amorality and even in crime that flaunts its disrespect for the law—rebellious, liberating, and suicidal crime. Abjection, on the other hand, is im- moral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles,* a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you.*. . .

In the dark halls of the museum that is now what remains of Auschwitz, I see a heap of children’s shoes, or something like that, something I have already seen elsewhere, under a Christmas tree, for instance, dolls I believe. The abjection of Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things.



If it be true that the abject simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes the subject, one can understand that it is experienced at the peak of its strength when that subject, weary of fruitless attempts to identify with something on the outside, finds the impossible within; when it finds that the impossible constitutes its very being, that it is none other than abject. The abjection of self would be the culminating form of that experience of the subject to which it is revealed that all its objects are based merely on the inaugural loss that laid the foundations of its own being. There is nothing like the abjection of self to show that all abjection is in fact recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire is founded. One always passes too quickly over this word, “want,” and today psychoanalysts are finally taking into account only its more or less fetishized product, the “object of want.” But if one imagines (and imagine one must, for it is the working of imagination whose foun- dations are being laid here) the experience of want itself_as logically preliminary to being and object—to the being of the object—then one understands that abjection, and even more so abjection of self, is its only signified. Its signifier, then, is none but literature. Mystical Christendom turned this abjection of self into the ultimate proof of humility before God, witness Elizabeth of Hungary who “though a great princess, delighted in nothing so much as in abasing herself.”

The question remains as to the ordeal, a secular one this time, that abjection can constitute for someone who, in what is termed knowledge of castration, turning away from perverse dodges, presents himself with his own body and ego as the most precious non-objects; they are no longer seen in their own right but forfeited, abject. The termination of analysis can lead us there, as we shall see. Such are the pangs and delights of masochism.

Essentially different from “uncanniness,” more violent, too, abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin; nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory. I imagine a child who has swallowed up his parents too soon, who frightens himself on that account, “all by himself,” and, to save himself, rejects and throws up everything that is given to him— all gifts, all objects. He has, he could have, a sense of the abject. Even before things for him are—hence before they are signifiable—he drives them out, dominated by drive as he is, and constitutes his own territory, edged by the abject. A sacred configuration. Fear cements his compound, conjoined to another world, thrown up, driven out, forfeited. What he has swallowed up instead of maternal love is an emptiness, or rather a maternal hatred without a word for the words of the father; that is what he tries to cleanse himself of, tirelessly. What solace does he come upon within such loathing? Perhaps a father, existing but unsettled, loving but unsteady, merely an apparition but an apparition that remains. Without him the holy brat would probably have no sense of the sacred; a blank subject, he would remain, discomfited, at the dump for non-objects that are always forfeited, from which, on the contrary, fortified by abjection, he tries to extricate himself. For he is not mad, he through whom the abject exists. Out of the daze that has petrified him before the untouchable, impossible, absent body of the mother, a daze that has cut off his impulses from their objects, that is, from their representations, out of such daze he causes, along with loathing, one word to crop up—fear. The phobic has no other object than the abject. But that word, “fear”—a fluid haze, an elusive clamminess—no sooner has it cropped up than it shades off like a mirage and permeates all words of the language with nonexistence, with a hallucinatory, ghostly glimmer. Thus, fear having been bracketed, discourse will seem tenable only if it ceaselessly confront that otherness, a burden both repellent and repelled, a deep well of memory that is unapproachable and intimate: the abject.



Put another way, it means that there are lives not sustained by desire, as desire is always for objects. Such lives are based on exclusion. They are clearly distinguishable from those under- stood as neurotic or psychotic, articulated by negation and its modalities, transgression, denial, and repudiation. Their dynamics challenges the theory of the unconscious, seeing that the latter is dependent upon a dialectic of negativity.

The theory of the unconscious, as is well known, presupposes a repression of contents (affects and presentations) that, thereby, do not have access to consciousness but effect within the subject modifications, either of speech (parapraxes, etc.), or of the body (symptoms), or both (hallucinations, etc.). As correlative to the notion of repression, Freud put forward that of denial as a means of figuring out neurosis, that of rejection (repudiation) as a means of situating psychosis. The asymmetry of the two repressions becomes more marked owing to denial’s bearing on the object whereas repudiation affects desire itself (Lacan, in perfect keeping with Freud’s thought, interprets that as “repudiation of the Name of the Father”).

Yet, facing the abject and more specifically phobia and the splitting of the ego (a point I shall return to), one might ask if those articulations of negativity germane to the unconscious (inherited by Freud from philosophy and psychology) have not become inoperative. The “unconscious” contents remain here excluded but in strange fashion: not radically enough to allow for a secure differentiation between subject and object, and yet clearly enough for a defensive position to be established—one that implies a refusal but also a sublimating elaboration. As if the fundamental opposition were between I and Other or, in more archaic fashion, between Inside and Outside. As if such an opposition subsumed the one between Conscious and Un- conscious, elaborated on the basis of neuroses.

Owing to the ambiguous opposition I/Other, Inside/Outside—an opposition that is vigorous but pervious, violent but uncertain—there are contents, “normally” unconscious in neu- rotics, that become explicit if not conscious in “borderline” patients’ speeches and behavior. Such contents are often openly manifested through symbolic practices, without by the same token being integrated into the judging consciousness of those particular subjects. Since they make the conscious/unconscious distinction irrelevant, borderline subjects and their speech constitute propitious ground for a sublimating discourse (“aes- thetic” or “mystical,” etc.), rather than a scientific or rationalist one.




p.s. Hey. ** Chris dankland, Hi, Chris! Cool, cool, I’ll hit that link and find out. There are a number of composers/music guys who were dismissed as New Age years back who have been reassessed or whatever as, I don’t know, serious Minimalists. Yeah, you kind of need to be the right space and into altering your usual attention span’s tempo to enjoy Ozu. One of his work’s strengths ultimately. Zac and I are batting ideas around for our next film. We started with ideas about the film’s structure and style because we want it to work differently than ‘PGL’. ‘PGL’ is very driven by dialogue. The story/narrative is basically erased, and the story gradually appears via what is said but without any conventional story-building devices. We’d like the next film to be driven more by the visuals with the dialogue being less of the story’s generator, if that makes any sense. This weekend we started talking about possible central story ideas, and we have a kernel of something. We plan to develop that kernel into something more clear during August so, ideally, we can start working on the script as soon as ‘PGL’ is finished. Thank you a bunch for asking. How was your weekend, etc., man? ** Wolf, Wolfer! (as in ‘wolfing’ down one’s food). Nah, none of that music is in the public domain. Little is anymore. Everyone wants money, and the expired stuff is getting pretty snapped up by people who knows the law’s loopholes. There you go, i.e. about your dream, yes. Spooky cool. Whoa, if our resident dream expert Bernard is around, he must be in analyzing heaven. My weekend was totally doable thanks to the dreamy fall-like weather. I hope yours was post-doable by which I guess I mean amazing? ** David Ehrenstein, Thank for the Ozu wisdom. My favorite is ‘Late Spring’. ** Steevee, Hi. If you saw the Robert Wilson opera, the numbers thing would be more interesting, I think. But that is a point where one realizes the music is a soundtrack. David and now you are pretty much the only people I’ve ever seen/read talk about Ozu as gay and to read his work through that filter. Odd. I don’t know Amebix’s music. If it resembles Tau Cross, I guess I’ll dig in. Huh, unless I’m blanking, I don’t think I’ve done a Mario Bava Day on the blog? I’ll check. If not, I’ll do one pronto, internet resources willing. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. Did you hear/read that someone flipped out at Beyond Baroque the other night and stabbed another member of the audience, apparently very seriously? That’s so hard for me to picture. If Ozu was in fact gay, his focus on the family unit doesn’t surprise me. Many great artists focus on things that are impossible for them to inhabit and which they find fascinating thereby. I don’t think I know that ‘Shotgun’ piece by Terry Riley. That sounds incredible. I’m going to snag that post-haste. Thank you, sir. ** Sypha, Hi, James. I like the new album a lot. My favorite track on first listen is ‘Black Hole’, but the album’s lovely in general. Murdering genres is almost alway a good idea, or I guess I mean splintering and mutating them. ** Alistair, Hey, A! My weekend was a bit of all right. And yours? Yes, we’ve finished the color grading. Now, apart from random odds and ends-type work to do with the end credits and English subtitles and so on, we’re free until the beginning of September when we’ll start doing the sound editing and mixing for probably three weeks. Then the film will be finished. That image I posted on Facebook isn’t a still from the film. When you’re doing color grading, there’s one tool that you use to isolate special areas of the image so you can correct the color in those parts only. The tool makes the image look psychedelic-ish, and the image I put on FB shows that temporary effect The film doesn’t look like that. It looks relatively realistic. So very excited to get your book! And major congratulations on finally, finally getting your citizenship. I sure wish the US was more worthy of you. Lots of love from Parisian me. ** S., Makes sense, but I suspect the mouse loves millions of guys. That’s his job. Cody is writing and co-starting a small company that will make and sell yoga mats. So you did go see Ace! He sounded like Earth?! Holy moly. I didn’t know that about karate moves, but, yeah, makes a bunch of sense. Are you supposed to fantasize you’re holding a sword when you do the moves? ** H, Hi. My pleasure about the Ozu show, and I’m very glad that it got you thinking. Oh, very good luck with the sudden relocating. I hope it’s infinitely non-stressful, as impossible as that probably is. No, I still haven’t started the Duvert, but now that I’m newly not swamped with film work, I plan to, as soon as today possibly. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! We are of the same mind about what we need to hear from the outside world about our work and what is ultimately less helpful. So great! Really nice about the chill day with your brother. Did you guys get up to any adventuring over the weekend at all? So sorry that you have had heavy heat to deal with. We have bizarrely perfect weather right now, but they say the heat will come rushing back next weekend. I can’t even imagine how exhausting those meetings must be, but, yes, you’re doing a lot of good, I’m utterly sure. My weekend was low-key, as I had assumed and hoped. Work, email, blah blah. Hung out with Zac. I live two blocks from Concorde, which is where the Tour de France reached its conclusion yesterday, and I walked down in hopes of looking at the finale, but there were a zillion people there, and I saw nothing but the backs of heads, although I did hear the sound of speeding bikes, which was kind of nice. It’s a new week! How has yours started? ** Jamie, Jousting Jamester! I’m good. My weekend was pleasant. I did indeed like your screenplay idea. I’ve been thinking about it off and on ever since. In our script for ‘PGL’, we didn’t talk about the tone explicitly, although I think we did try to write it in such a way that the tone and atmosphere was pretty apparent from the description and dialogue? Brutal but correct: interesting. Good combo. Family stuff, urgh. If it’s any comfort, whenever I speak to my sister, who is my only family member I ever communicate with basically, she always tells me endless stories of what’s happening with her, and then there inevitably comes a point at the end of the conversation where she realizes she hasn’t asked a thing about me, and then she’ll say, ‘And how are you?’ And then I’ll give her a starter sentence of what I’m doing, and then she’ll say, after an awkward, uninterested pause, ‘Oh, so you’re fine. I have to go, I’ll talk to you soon.’ Urgh. Ha, your friend Kate is a real pre-planner. If she really wants to book advance tickets — probably not all that necessary — then, yes, I would like one, and I think Zac wants to come too, so if she could get us both tickets, we will pay her back at her convenience. Excited already! I hope your Monday causes you to feel like you’re lounging in a very expensive spa. Love both coagulated and non-coagulated, Dennis. ** Misanthrope, I did it again?! Okay, now what Bruce Lee meant makes total sense. Nice thinking there. I just have zero interest in seeing ‘Dunkirk’, and you just reinforced my disinterest. I have had a feeling that Harry Styles would be good in it. Nice. ** Jeff J. Hi, Mr. Jackson. Thank you. Yes, I think his later color films are great too. That’s a very beautiful outcome of your Ozu film screening. That just goes to show you something, I don’t know what exactly, but something very important. Like I said, zip interest in ‘Dunkirk’ until I’m next trapped on a plane flight where the other options stink. Weekend highlights? Hanging out and having new film talk with Zac. Standing in a giant crowd ‘watching’ the end of the Tour de France. Seeing posters that said the new ‘Planet of the Apes’ movie opens in a week. Running into one of the performers in ‘LCTG’ (Nicolas Hau) after not seeing him for ages. The cool, occasionally rainy weather. Document Journal asked if I would be interested in having a conversation with Eileen Myles for the magazine (yes). That might be the highlight reel. How was yours, eh? ** Okay. I realized the other day that I very rarely spotlight theory/philosophy books here, and I begin to rectify that with today’s spotlight on Kristeva’s seminal book. See you tomorrow.


  1. David Saä Estornell

    Uff. this was huge. uff…

  2. h

    Hello, been reading Kristeva’s Time and Sense (on Proust) and Black Sun this summer, so it’s nice to explore the post in time. I regret Kristeva work and its elemental ideas do not resonate well with my thoughts and tendencies, but, since my move to nyc, I’ve been rediscovering its special virtues and endurance. Thanks for your kind words on my impending move. It’s fine. Having a room to move in is a fortune for my immigration status. (Nyc is very hard on foreigners and more so nowadays.) And the room is located in an old, quiet black community neighborhood, so I’m already feeling serene to live there. But less time in working, hanging out, etc. to sort things out. Glad your color work is well done, and excited that you will do sound work soon. I’ve been learning that sounds are so essential in films. It’s like tone of poetry. Sounds (together with colors) can create very different riddles of filmic feelings. It’s been my study focus. Look forward to reading your thoughts on the Duvert, and upcoming conversation with Eileen Myles.

    • h

      Apologies for the mixtures of casual and stiff words. I interact with different kinds (temperaments, ages, etc.) of people lately, so a little confused in choosing a right tone for audience.

  3. David Ehrenstein

    Julia Kristeva Mon Amour! Imagine being married to Phillipe Sollers –talk about “abjection”!

    Groucho in “Duck Soup” : Look at Chickolini, a pitiable object”
    Chico: “I object!”

    Back in the early 80’s, during my major L.A. gay pub-crawling days I met a number of Japanese men. They were all married and love to come to L.A. to enjoy the sex found far more furtively at home. Every one of them were familiar with Ozu and every one of them declared that Ozu’s gayness was common knowledge in Japan. Unlike them Ozu never married. But almost all of his late period films involved weddings. He accomplished on screen what he was unwilling to do in actual life.

  4. New Juche

    Hey Dennis

    How are you? Good to read above that you and Zac are starting to plan a new film. And a visually driven one. I’m good, a bit better. Had to give a lecture at a conference for work recently, and the physical effort was exhausting but it went very, very well. Gained some useful allies. And Apichatpong was there. And now about to head down to the capital for a couple of weeks, for a mixture of work and pleasure. Hopefully more of the latter. I’m well into Suttree now, enjoying it. Never thought I would like McCarthy. I’m still looking in here every day. Hope all continues to go well,



  5. steevee

    Jonathan Rosenbaum referred to Ozu’s gayness in a review of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, linking it to Jacques Demy’s inability to express his bisexuality at the time. And that high school note about him loving another boy is pretty notorious.

    Well, Amebix basically sound like early Killing Joke filtered through hardcore and metal, with a vaguely occult WICKER MAN-style vibe to it all. As I said, if you’ve heard the new Tau Cross album, it’s quite similar, probably because the two bands share the same singer.

    A Mario Bava day would be great. Considering that his career as a director spans less than 20 years, he was amazingly prolific, and he has been credited with inventing the Giallo genre. The print of LISA AND THE DEVIL I saw Saturday night was absolutely beautiful, if slightly worn. I hope the new restoration of KILL, BABY..KILL! currently touring American theaters makes it to France as well. (The film was a big influence on Fellini’s TOBY DAMNIT.) His film BAY OF BLOOD was basically completely ripped off and vulgarized by FRIDAY THE 13TH 10 years after it was made. He’s most famous for a black-and-white film, BLACK SUNDAY, but his use of color is almost always extremely expressive, even in films that aren’t particularly interesting themselves.

  6. Sypha

    I wanted to read this book while during my research period for “Harlem Smoke” but sadly never got around to it. One of these days…

    Ha ha, I figured you’d like “Black Hole” as it’s probably the most noise rock of the bunch. But thanks for listening to it.

  7. David Ehrenstein

    Jacques was on the verge of going beyond bisexuality at the end. he had fallen in love with Davis Bombyck, a Hollywood producer of some note (see his imdb listig) who had had met during the shoot of “Lady Oscar” He was planning to go so far as to leave Agnes. But then both Jacques and David got AIDS and died. I’ll never forget a party in L.A. that David threw for Jacques. Jacques and I sang “Autrefois J’ai aime une femme” a capella together.
    Just before he died David gave me the Frederic Pardo poster for Garrel’s Nico vehicle “Le Berceau de Cristal” It’s one of my proudest possessions

  8. Dóra Grőber


    I’m just dropping by to say a quick hi. I spent my day at Anita’s and I’m pretty tired by now (even though we literally just sat and talked all day). But. But. She read my book and we discussed it and her remarks were really useful. I had a few doubts and she understood perfectly why and where I had them and her feedback was truly helpful in clearing them up.
    Your low-key weekend sounds lovely, even if the Tour de France only offered the sound and not the visuals.
    And how was today on your end? What happened? I hope you’re well and everything’s great there!!

  9. Jamie

    Hi hi, Dennis! How was your Monday? Mine’s been more than a tad shitty with annoying animation/work stuff, suffice to say we have a completely new plan and all those months of work were pretty much a waste of time. Hope yours was tons better.
    How nice that Zac’s coming to Parc Asterix too! That’s lovely that we’ll get to meet him. I messaged Kate today and she’s looking into a family ticket. I’ll let you know what’s happening.
    Your sister sounds a lot like someone I know, who I find extremely hard work and tend to avoid. And she’s the only one that you talk to? I sometimes say I’m giving up on my family, but Hannah won’t let me. She’s a good influence, I guess.
    I’m super happy that my screenplay idea has gone through your mind a bit. That’s a good sign, surely. I’ve been having a lot of fun working on it. It feels alive. I just told it to Jonathan and he said ‘Oh, that’s a good ending!’. I’m going to try and evoke as much tone as possible in passing whilst describing the plot. The characters are mostly cypheric, except one, so there’s not much of a character arc going on. Hmmmm, maybe that needs a rethink. Ta for the tip.
    Julia Kristeva makes me feel dense, or at least the excerpt here makes me feel dense. I can very very vaguely grasp what she’s talking about though, and I think I like it, so I’m going to try and get a copy of this from the Uni library and read it very slowly. Yay to more posts of this ilk as I need to get smarter. Thanks for the very interesting post.
    So, what gives? How are you enjoying your leisure time, if it is such a thing?
    I hope Tuesday has you feeling like you’re in a hot-air balloon festival in which all the balloon are in the shapes of animals.
    Batty love,

  10. S.

    i think dylans a fan… slowhanded

    karate is weird learned from samuri war arts but open handed or using farm implements. the body becomes samuri like the body a sword… the arms become a sword to do blocks just as you would block with a sword follow through push pull they didnt have swords just as the ninjato has no historical proof. i keep kristeva close to top of my piles of books shes fresh in some ways. i love the horrific myself. thought i saw her in a fish restaurant in paris one time. big man pig man charade you are. i guess the abject goes back to the origins of language holy unclean then to association and permutation ratman to lil hans finally and when it has all gone so far you leave that big jewish cock to its place

  11. David Ehrenstein

    A good many years ago, back in the pre-net era of the ‘zine, The Husband and I created one called “Soon.’ We only got out (barely) one issue. Now he’s having it reprinted along with the never-published second issue which includes an article by yours truly about Julia Kristeva and Spike Jones

  12. steevee

    I just finished and turned in my Alan Clarke article. I hope my editor is OK with the fact that I went over my word limit due to the fact that I had so much to say. I think people may have an incomplete vision of Clarke due to the fact that SCUM, THE FIRM, MADE IN BRITAIN and RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO are his films that have received the widest circulation. The first three are excellent films – I like RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO somewhat less – but they’re basically conventional narratives. Clarke was also capable of making work as formally and politically radical as Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Akerman (a visible influence on some of it), Peter Watkins and Jean-Marie Straub/Daniele Huillet, and my article focuses on those films, such as ELEPHANT, CHRISTINE and CONTACT. Of the 8 films I’ve seen from the 16 playing in the retrospective beginning at Anthology Film Archives on August 4th, I’d say CHRISTINE (which plays on a double bill with ELEPHANT) is the clear masterpiece and one of the best films I’ve ever seen about heroin addiction. Yet it’s not an overt anti-drug film, and it adopts a blank and flat tone towards the subject that emphasizes the subtly insidious repetition and routine of addiction rather than its dangers. I have the feeling that when this aired on the BBC in 1987, it pissed off tons of people who wanted it to give teenagers a “just say no” lecture. Have you ever seen it? Clarke’s directorial style and approach here is a weird bridge between Akerman and the Bela Tarr of DAMNATION and SATANTANGO.

    • _Black_Acrylic

      Hi steevee, I love Christine so much and I cannot wait to read your article.

      • steevee

        My article comes out some time during the first week of August. Obviously, I will post the link here. It’s 1,100 words long, and while that’s over my word limit, I hope my editor understands.

  13. Misanthrope

    Dennis, Yes, you did it again. Introduced me to something/someone about which/whom I was totally unaware. Oh, and this day too. 😮

    You know, the more I think about Dunkirk, the more I realize I didn’t like it very much at all. The further away from it I get, the more I don’t like it.

    Harry was good. Doesn’t surprise me. I’ve always said he should act. Very talented fella. Very passionate guy. I’ve followed him for a few years now and just can’t find one bad thing about him. From everything I’ve read, a really bright, funny guy who cares a lot about others and is open to and accepting of everyone. I actually have a friend from HS who was on a conference call with him (my friend owns a marketing firm) and said Harry couldn’t have been nicer or more gracious and that he’s very bright. Be interesting to see if he does something else in film.

    So a question: you ever think about doing some acting yourself?

  14. Jeff J

    Hey Dennis – Enjoyed this Kristeva day. This book got on my radar a few years when it featured in a book by… Kate Zambreno, I think? I still haven’t read it yet, so this post was a nice prod and reminder.

    Similar to last summer, there have been lots of intense storms and power blackouts happening – this weekend we were hit by a few. It put a slight damper on the weekend which involved seeing some old friends, checking out a cool new local synth band High Cube (think early Cluster + vocals), and finalizing mixes for my music project with friends.

    Speaking of music, ever since Pitchfork sold itself to Conde Nast a number of months back, I’ve been finding the site increasingly less engaging in terms of layout and a creeping tilt toward movie and celebrity articles that have almost nothing to do with music. Have you had that experience too?

    Other part of my weekend was spent going through scattered notes that I’ve been making here and there for the past 5-10 years for something that might be a new novel (or maybe several), trying to collect the notes in one place and wrap my head around the various images and impulses. Hoping to figure out a way into the project and not let my scribblings to myself turn into quicksand. So a pretty abstract question for a very specific endeavor, but just in case — you have any general advice about prepping for a project, knowing when it’s time to start actually drafting vs. experimenting with various forms, voices, structures, etc?

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