Revaluing the abject
In lieu of my recent post on the transvaluation of the abject in Kristeva (here) I thought I’d provide some further background and examples to this approach to overturning moral idiosyncrasies of the status quo. The term ‘transvaluation,’ of course, was popularized by Nietzsche’s revolutionizing of ethics. Rather than take for granted preestablished judgments of what counted as good and evil Nietzsche began by asking new questions about assumptions that preceding philosophers had accepted as incontrovertible facts. His most famous and enduring example of this was in On The Genealogy of Morals, the resentment attitude of Christian morality. Nietzsche believed that religion on the whole, but Christianity in particular, resented excellence and had a strong antagonism against greatness. He attributed this predisposition for mediocrity to the conviction of priests that a certain leveling of human desires and passions was the equivalent of holiness. This happened historically, according to Nietzsche, by way of the weak resenting the powerful and subsequently interpreting meekness as a virtue in order to justify their lowly position rather than strive for greatness themselves. In other words, religion inverted traditional values of excellence and creativity since they couldn’t achieve such ends themselves. Therefore, what Nietzsche’s “transvaluation” of morality does, in a sense, is aright what has been previously been turned upside-down by malicious means.
Nietzsche’s example is perhaps the most abstract judgment of morality but serves as a useful tool in applying to more specific examples. Take Žižek’s example for instance. The penis performs the most base function, that of urination. Such expulsion of defiling fluids is as close as you get to the abject of human existence. On the other hand, the penis also functions as the most pleasurable organ in the body; the site of orgasm. Žižek’s point is that the same object in consideration is simultaneously valued and deplored in two extreme limits. (Although I cannot locate the exact quote in The Parallax View that I’m thinking of, his example is pretty simple—even if a bit obscene). Theologically this is akin to the cross of Christ. The hanging corpse of God from a tree is perhaps the most ignoble image imaginable, but for Christians it is paradoxically the most redemptive. The death of God enigmatically means the salvation of humanity. The point of both examples is to show how abject objects can simultaneously be exalted.
In one of my more favorite quotes by Deleuze and Guattari from A Thousand Plateaus F. Scott Fitzgerald is evoked as a figure who revalues morals.
Fitzgerald: Perhaps fifty percent of our friends and relations will tell you in good faith that it was my drinking that drove Zelda mad, and the other half would assure you that it was her madness that drove me to drink. Neither of these judgments means much of anything. These two groups of friends and relations would be unanimous in saying that each of us would have been much better off without the other. The irony is that we have never been more in love with each other in all of our lives. She loves the alcohol on my lips. I cherish her most extravagant hallucinations (pp. 206)
In this passage and the surrounding text Deleuze and Guattari argue for a simulacrum of Nietzsche’s “transvaluation”: what they name as “a new acceptance” and “a new happiness.” For them, what Fitzgerald undertakes in his opposition to the judgments of his friends and friends is an entirely different value criterion about his relation with Zelda. He cherishes the strain, and supposedly she does too. In other sections Deleuze and Guattari go so far as to measure despair, morose and breaking as successes. In all examples they are revaluing what is generally taken as contemptible.