Powers of Horror – Kristeva

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Print.

In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva addresses the role of abjection in literary theory and in the realm of the psychosocial. Defined by Kristeva, abjection occurs as a response to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between the self and the other. She states, “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. ” Abjection works as a kind of moral compass as it occurs in moments of the perceived loss or rejection of the moral limit. Yet while abjection causes revulsion, it also inspires awe. As an example, I would suggest a car accident that passersby cannot tear their eyes from as they drive passed, despite the wreckage and horror of the scene. Alternately, as an example, would be the photographs of the 9/11 jumpers who, knowing they had no other means of escape from the collapsing buildings, elected to jump from their heights. I use these examples because, as Kristeva notes, the corpses causes abjection because it reminds us of our own materiality. Abjection, importantly, is more complex than disgust, however. While disgust may precede it, abjection occurs when we are pushed beyond disgust and must confront the collision of self and other. It is the most awful kind of empathy in which we see ourselves as other and are horrified by result. As Mike Walker notes, “the abject is localized in the horror of what has happened: a murder, an unexplained death, a body thrown out without proper burial. These are all things that understandably repulse us and likewise horrify us in their ability to occur in the first place.” That the abject can occur at all draws our attention, however, to a separation, a severing, or a repression. Kristeva refers to the moment in our psychosexual development when we established a border or separation between human and animal, between culture and that which preceded it. In other words, when we consciously separate ourselves into a “self” that is separate and distinct from the “other” the possibility for abjection also arises. Of additional importance are the ways abjection forces the real into our lives. If we consider that abjection begins during the mirror stage of development, perhaps abjection can be viewed at the stage in which the mirror is shattered as we gaze into it. Abjection is the traumatic experience of being actually confronted with the sort of materiality that traumatically shows you your own death, but it is reflected from the other.

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