Dealing with the abject

For most, the abject–the despicable, impure, loathsome, defiled–is that which crushes and gags us. The abject is what we balk at, but it is also what we jettison, expel and separate from ourselves . Vomit, feces, blood, the Other. It includes all that infects life with filth and interferes with our routine narcissism. For the pyschoanalytic, it is that which we repress. But what is philosophy’s role in insuring purity? For Julia Kristeva, passing on the lesson of Aristotle, it is a transvaluation by rhythm and song (see the Poetics).

What is involved is a purification of body and soul by means of a heterogeneous and complex circuit, going from “bile” to “fire,” from “manly warmth” to the “enthusiasm” of the “mind.” Rhythm and song hence arouse the impure, the other of mind, the passionate-corporeal-sexual-virile, but they harmonize it, arrange it differently than the wise man’s knowledge does. They thus soothe frenzied outbursts… (Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, 28)

Kristeva is not the most easily read I will be the first to admit, but the content of the work makes up for the obscurity. Kristeva’s “poetic purification“, so to speak, is not an act of ridding the impure of the self–an impossible task that nonetheless makes up culture–but rather of rearranging it in repetition and harmonizing the abject through refrain. In other words, difference does not constitute lack but can be unified in a greater whole from its “original impurity.” It is re-evaluated a second time. Her analogy of music is especially poignant in that individual notes in a melody, while aberrant stand-alone, form a “heterogeneous and complex circuit” that smooths the frenzied. The cathartic process of Kristeva is certainly more harmonious wisdom than the run-of-the-mill abject phobic.


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