Julia Kristeva in conversation with Sylvère Lotringer
Translation by Jeanine Herman
SL: I’d like to start with the notion of the abject in your work. Power of Horror was published in France about fifteen years ago.
SL: But the notion has only penetrated the United States rather recently.
SL: It would be interesting to know, then, how the abject is situated in relation to your earlier work and to everything that followed. In sum, you have always sought to animate, to fluidify structures, beginning with the notion of chora, of semiotic, of intertext. You have always brought [directed] a lot of attention to filth, psychosis, ambiguity, strangeness. How did you come to attempt to theorize the notion of the abject?
JK: At the time I’d started working on a writer who had always appealed to me and for whom I had a hard time finding the right orientation [who I had a hard time categorizing?]: Céline.
Often, as it happens to me in theoretical work that is apparently [seemingly] very conscious [lucid] and very serious, it is in the somewhat crepuscular, somewhat anguished [anxious] moments between two dreams that I remember asking myself the question, why, after all, am I interested in this Célinean experience? What is it that pains me and at the same time appeals to me and that I have such a hard time conceptualizing? And it was in this sort of climate [state] that the word abjection appeared to me, almost sprang up. I felt this word corresponded to [fit] Céline’s compromises with fascism, nazism, and all the horrors that we know.
But more profoundly, it was a word that was a crossroads, a bridge, and that took into account [accounted for] Céline’s interest in borderline states: idiocy, rot [rottenness], people’s violence, anger that links the little boy to his mother on the London bridge, being mired in vomit, all sorts of phenomena that have to do simultaneously with disgust and fascination.
And then [as a last resort?] I also had the feeling that this word abjection accounted for [took into account] what you just mentioned, namely my interest in the fluid states of structures. And this, in terms of language, strictly speaking.
Because Céline’s language, as he says, aims at emotion, or to use another of his expressions, “the opera of the flood.” And I think that in this metaphor of the opera of the flood there is at once the sublime and the extreme threat that the word abjection subsumes [encompasses] in a way.
So, given the immense weight of this word, I obviously didn’t want to limit myself [it?], and while I had the impression that it was right for experiences like Céline’s, I tried to make it transparent, manageable [maneuverable], and to make a concept of it.
And so starting from there, I began to examine certain things in the history of rhetoric, and even in the history of religion. For after the word is allowed to echo [resonate], it immediately summons the idea of catharsis, for example. Aristotle tells us that the arts are purifications. But the question is: what are we purifying ourselves of in the arts? And here again the word abject returns. Aren’t the arts precisely the means of purifying ourselves, since this is the word that the great authorities of the history of thought like Aristotle use. To purify oneself, precisely, has to do with [pertains to] the order of the abject. In a parallel way, one might think religions, which are often [with their] rites of purification, aim at the abject.
And starting from these observations, I tried two approaches. I investigated the anthropological history of religions. That was the first approach. The second was Freudian thought. As far as the anthropology of religions is concerned, you notice rather quickly that many anthropologists recently have thought of religions [religion] as defenses [a defense] against defilement [stain, taintedness]. And when one asks what defilement is, what it consists of in these states or in these substances, and to suppose oneself defiled, two logics emerge.
The first is that these are unclean states, so to speak, but what this means is that these are borderline states or mixtures. For example, to be clearer, food taboos: Jewish and Hindu [taboos] consider [certain] substances [to be] impure that are not hygienically impure, but that exist between two identities. For example, there are animals that have elements, paws or other attributes, that are thought to be attributes of beings who inhabit the earth. These are animals that inhabit the water, but have the attributes of animals that live on land. In other words, they find themselves straddling land and sea. And starting from this crossroads situation, this non-respect of the land-sea separations, let’s say, [separations] of the attributes that belong to two categories, these animals would be considered impure. So one sees that the idea of defilement [taint] in fact concerns a non-respect of structure.
SL: What is mixed, basically.
JK: Ultimately [As a last resort], what is hidden [hides] behind this non-respect of the structure, is often the maternal. Maternal power as being probably what falls [comes?] from the socius. When a social link is established, when a symbolic understanding [agreement] is made [arrived at], it is often to the detriment of those who are excluded and, to begin with, probably, in most societies, women, insofar as they represent natural or ideological forces considered threatening. Or a matriarchal power that is also felt to be threatening in relation to paternal power.
So the first part of my investigation was oriented toward the history of religions and these two figures of abjection, that is, the maternal and the mixture of structure. Then, I posed the question from a Freudian point of view, as I said earlier, and I realized that in a certain number of clinical states that we see now, and that we perhaps a bit hastily refer to as “borderline,” the subjects are neither in the classic category of neurosis nor in the more or less classic category of psychosis, but find themselves between two chairs in a way, and what characterizes them is an extreme fragility of their boundaries. By that I mean corporeal boundaries, for example, the skin, which becomes the locus of different symptoms and somatizations. This can also be different places, borders, or frontiers, of the body, the different orifices, the mouth, sexual organs, the anus, but also ears, eyes, etc. And also the limits [boundaries] between the self [ego, moi] and the other. The borderline [person] is often extremely sensitive to all sorts of threats and challenges to his integrity in terms of the other. Without going as far as psychotic persecution, without going as far as autistic withdrawal, he creates a sort of territory between the two, which he often inhabits with a feeling of unworthiness or even deterioration [indignity or even rot], which is a sort of physical abjection, if you like.
So, starting with these phenomena, one could add experiences like phobia, or other psychoanalytical symptoms. So from there, I thought that what had appeared to me as abject was a particular state of the subject, where the frontier between the self [ego, moi] and the other was not radically opposed [different]. This could be an archaic state of the subject in the midst of constituting himself. There is more and more talk of the interest in so-called pre-Oedipal stages of the structuring of the individual. Everything that has to do with narcissism, or even before. One could also think on a synchronic level of situations that are not from early childhood, but from adult life where the limit [boundary] between the self [moi] and the other is constantly put in danger, put into question. And I proposed, starting from that, to call these states “unclean” [impropre] where identity is not yet distinctly ordered [nettement propre], where it feels constantly threatened. And I obviously play here with the notion of defilement [taint], but it is the question of individuation that is in fact being addressed. So I thought I would call them “abjects,” playing on the fact, which in French is possible (perhaps less so in English), that in these situations of abjection, we could not yet speak of subject and object, but of this in-between state that I have just tried to carve out [elucidate]…
We could perhaps call this an abject. And that these states, far from being simply pathological or exceptional, are perhaps endemic. And it is against this sort of structural uncertainty which inhabits us that perhaps religions are mobilized, at once in order to recognize them and to defend ourselves against them.
And by extending this reasoning, I thought that most esthetic experiences, and probably also those that concern modernity with the experiences of modern art, the identity of language, the identity of a representation, the identity of a narrative, the identity of a theme, everything that has to do with the order of the propre [one's own? ordered? specific? clean?], therefore, in the figurative sense, is questioned. And all these experiences touch on these states of the abject—neither subject nor object.
SL: You raised a number of problems that I would like to return to. The first is the reference to Céline.
SL: You immediately spoke of his compromises with fascism.
SL: What really struck me, since I look at this in my own way as well [since I study these things, too], is that I see all these modernists like Bataille, Artaud, etc. as these agents within fascism. I was struck by the fact that the notion of the abject, both in your work and in all the discussions around the notion of the abject in the United States has remained completely abstract, whereas Bataille elaborated [developed] his notion of the abject in the explicit context of fascism. I’m referring to the few pages that he wrote and that were published in volume two of his Complete Works [Oeuvres Complètes]. They are part of “Essais sociologiques” and of his attempt to write an essay on French fascism, on the notion of fascism itself.
JK: Absolutely, absolutely.
SL: Now in your reading of Bataille, you did not consider this [account for this] at all, any more than the discussions that took place around [in the context of] the review October, where all sorts of prominent people [leading figures, luminaries of] in art criticism expressed themselves on the notion of the abject. And it is a fact that this concept is perhaps not definable in the framework of only one context but that this concept was elaborated by Bataille both in “La Structure psychologique du fascisme” in 1933 and in these few pages on Les Misérables and in the texts of 1934, all that was put aside. And coming from Céline—Céline and fascism—it would have been really obvious to return to those aspects developed by Bataille and you did not do that.
JK: I cannot respond [answer, explain] why Batailleans or those who have anything to do with Bataille at all [in any way] do not establish the relationship. I think that there were some colloquia recently where Bataille’s proximity to fascism was often questioned. Some even thought there was a complicity, which I do not believe. Others pointed out the extreme profundity of his reasoning which hunts down [tracks down] the beast in the furthest depths of psychological recesses, precisely, and of our fascist potentialities: if we are susceptible to abjection, we are perhaps susceptible to fascism. The finger has to probe the wound as deeply as possible.
But as far as I am concerned personally, I perhaps have a certain modesty [reticence], perhaps unconscious, toward attacking [taking on] two great figures of the same period who, in effect, had very different links with the compromises of the time. I am not really thinking of Bataille, who did not appeal to me when I was working on Céline, but of Blanchot. And I remember that when I was working on the press of the period in order to see in what context the Célinean compromise was situated, I had come across articles by Blanchot that were virulently antisemitic. Especially in terms of Léon Blum. This was before Jeffrey Melman’s book. I remember having photocopied these articles and handing them out to students, everyone was absolutely shocked, embarrassed, especially me, insofar as for me, despite Blanchot’s complicities with fascism at the time, which were much clearer in him, moreover, than in others, he remains a great figure.
And so, I somehow removed the figure of Blanchot from this investigation, and I oriented myself toward Céline more explicitly, perhaps because he offers a certain ease to researchers, insofar as he wrote absolutely spectacular and revolting pamphlets and he never really retracted them. Thus, he exposes himself in a way to a clearer stance [lays himself open to a clearer position/stand].
That said, I will take this opportunity to say it more clearly than I did in Samuraïs, the book on Céline that for me, by going through [by examining] abjection, and thus enlarging [magnifying, broadening] the question, nevertheless aims at explaining certain aspects of fascist ideology—obviously not all, but certain ones—well, it was very misunderstood in certain circles in the United States, and I think of the articles in The Nation that were devoted to this research, and according to which it appeared that I absolved Céline. As if by the fact of proposing an attempt at understanding, one covered up the crimes, which seems completely aberrant to me.
Perhaps that indicates that in the United States, certain circles—I don’t know what it is, if it’s journalists or academics, but it must be both [there must be some of both]—imagine that it is through repression, or censorship, or through a sort of protestant veil, like that, opaque thrown over these phenomena or simply through a cry of moral revolt, one can get rid of these phenomena. That is not at all my point of view.
SL: Nevertheless, you had no problem referring to Freud, for example, but you devote very little space to Bataille, who is the author of the notion, the first in fact to have elaborated it.
SL: And moreover you make a rather specific commentary on [you comment rather specifically on] certain passages of his texts, on “L’Abjection et les formes misérables.”
But “L’Abjection et les formes misérables” was essentially a reflection—to start with, a reflection—on fascism, the forces on which fascism relied, the imperative act that defined a certain fraction of the population, even a fraction of the proletariat, as abject.
So there is a whole performative definition of abjection, which makes it so that [at the same time?] this abjection was defined in a given historical context, but as you point out yourself in your passage on Bataille, or a little bit further in the passage on Mary Douglas, that this escapes [itself] from the historical context since this re-explores [takes up], if you will, different positionalities [positions, stances] according to [depending on] history.
The fact remains that your analysis of Bataille is nevertheless rather ambiguous, I would say, insofar as you see something there—these miseries of the forbidden, as you call it—you see the production of the abject which relies on [having to do with] the weakness of the forbidden [interdit, prohibition?]. “The incapacity,” I’m quoting your Bataille passage here, “the incapacity to assume with sufficient force the imperative act of exclusion.” Now in the context of Bataille himself this imperative act is not at all weak. It is, on the contrary, extremely strong, because it is the very act through which fascism is constituted. It is, on the contrary, the power of the forbidden [interdit]. And the incapacity that certain—I won’t say classes—but certain elements have that he calls the “miserables” to defend themselves from it.
Hence [there is] a sort of slide in your analysis which makes it so that you make Bataille slide to the side of the mother, whereas in fact all of Bataille’s analysis refers to the production of a rather patriarchal structure, that of the sovereignty, that of the state, etc., which in order to constitute itself needs phenomena of rejection [vomiting? expulsion?], exclusion, etc., which constitutes the abject as such.
Whereas the abject is not, according to Bataille, a particular substance, and which can be phenomenologically described as such, all that is rejected from the body, etc. The abject, in fact, is a construction. The abject is defined by the rejection, the exclusion that is made of it, and that interests me very much, too, because not only in the context was Bataille referring to this lumpenproletariat which in fact does not even get to the state of organization into a party, a working class, and therefore cannot be integrated into the phenomena of struggle and subversion, but also this will define the very gesture of the fascists or Nazis through which they defined classes, races, etc., as abject, and thus produced them as [made them?] abject. Therefore there is this idea that you manipulate, it’s there, and the ambiguity itself I think is part of the notion, which at the same time that you present abjection as elements of substance, you see, it’s somewhat what the people at October reproached you for, for thematizing abjection, of making it a substance, of making it an essence, etc. And at the same time, abjection results from an act of expulsion.
JK: Yes, well, there are a lot of things in what you say. I’ll answer in two parts. I had the feeling that in Bataille’s reflection [thought] there was an ambiguity I did not want to enter into, precisely in order not to center my commentary on Bataille’s thought, for it deserves it, and that would have been a completely separate job.
This ambiguity consists of the position of the law and the prohibition [interdict] in Bataille. There is on the one hand, it seems to me, an appeal for sovereignty to exist, and he needs this sovereignty in order to oppose himself to bastard forms of “sovereignty” in quotation marks which would be tyrannies, of which the fascist, who would oppose himself to these tyrannies by a symbolic sovereignty, that, for example, of an esthetic or mystical performance. And on the other hand, there is precisely the rejection of a bastardized law, which would be the prohibition [interdict, the forbidden] on the social and political level. It is something very subtle in Bataille that rejoins his ambiguity between Hegel and Nietzsche. He uses the dialectic the fecundity of which he recognizes, and at the same time he rejects it to fall back on a Nietzschean perspective more.
This interview comes from an issue on the abject of More & Less, an arts and theory journal edited by Sylvére Lotringer while he taught at the Pasadena Arts Center.