THE POWERS OF HORROR
“According to Julia Kristeva in the Powers of Horror, the abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. The primary example for what causes such a reaction is the corpse (which traumatically reminds us of our own materiality); however, other items can elicit the same reaction: the open wound, shit, sewage, even the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk … the abject… “draws me toward the place where meaning collapses”…. The abject thus at once represents the threat that meaning is breaking down and constitutes our reaction to such a breakdown … The abject has to do with “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” and, so, can also include crimes like Auschwitz. Such crimes are abject precisely because they draw attention to the “fragility of the law”.
More specifically, Kristeva associates the abject with the eruption of the Real into our lives. In particular, she associates such a response with our rejection of death’s insistent materiality. Our reaction to such abject material re-charges what is essentially a pre-lingual response. Kristeva therefore is quite careful to differentiate knowledge of death or the meaning of death (both of which can exist within the symbolic order) from the traumatic experience of being actually confronted with the sort of materiality that traumatically shows you your own death:
“A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does notsignify 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 corpsesshow 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.”
The corpse especially exemplifies Kristeva’s concept since it literalizes the breakdown of the distinction between subject and object that is crucial for the establishment of identity and for our entrance into the symbolic order. What we are confronted with when we experience the trauma of seeing a human corpse (particularly the corpse of a friend or family member) is our own eventual death made palpably real. As Kristeva puts it, “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life.” (Powers 4).