The Year of the Abject: Making Sense of Nonsense

31. XII 2021

Within the boundaries of what one defines as subject (a part of oneself) and object (something that exists independently of oneself), there reside pieces that were once categorized as a part of oneself or one’s identity that have since been rejected – the abject. (Julia Kristeva)

Unless we are consciously drawn to it, we, for the most part, are not fully aware of our saliva. It is part of our body, an utterly neutral liquid, which we produce and swallow continuously as long as we are awake. However, this is true only as long as it remains in our bodies. Imagine periodically spiting into a glass and attempting to drink it once it fills up. The very thought of this causes utter disgust. As soon as our bodily fluids have become alienated from us, they become abject.

Abject represents the taboo element of the self; it rejects and disturbs social reason and the communal consensus that underpins social order. The Indian caste of eunuchs represent a castrated remainder of a fully functional biological body, cast out, distanced, but not completely. In modern capitalism, the excluded segment of the population — those who fell through the cracks and can no longer be reintegrated into normal functioning of society – is the neoliberal equivalent of Indian eunuchs. Their proximity reinforces an anxiety that their destiny could become everyone’s prospect; their presence is a reminder how narrow the gap is between a comfortable middle class life and precarity.

We have an ambivalent relationship with the abject — we are both drawn to and repelled by it. The ambivalence and inherent dialectics of the concept is encapsulated in the very word, which can function both as an adjective/noun as well as a verb.

The verb to abject comes from the Latin abicere, which means to throw away or to cast out. The action of abjection refers to an impulse or operation to reject that which disturbs or threatens the stability of the self and is inassimilable. As an adjective, abject has two meanings: 1) Extremely unpleasant and degrading (living in abject poverty), and 2) Completely without pride or dignity (an abject apology). [1]

The abject functions both as a repulsive and as an attractive fixed point of subjectivity. The concept is at the same time constructive (in the formation of identity and one’s relationship to the world) and destructive (in what it does to the subject): Abjection, the operation to abject, is fundamental to the maintenance of subjectivity and society, while the condition to be abject is subversive of both formations. The key to this duality is that the abject is not fully exogenous.

The body of the excluded

The volume of humans that are made redundant by the global triumph of capitalism has grown so much that it exceeds the managerial capacity of the planet. They cannot be re-assimilated into the “normal” life pattern and reprocessed back into the category of “useful” members of society. (Zygmunt Bauman)

By its very nature, capitalism generates abject social bodies as a part of an excess population. Unlike criminals, social outcasts, homeless, illegal immigrants or general categories of aliens, who are transported beyond the boundaries of the enclosure of prosperity, the redundant white underclass has escaped the transportation and remains on the inside where economic balance and social equilibrium are sought. However, the longer the redundant population stays inside and rubs shoulders with the useful rest, the less the lines separating normality and abnormality appear reassuringly unambiguous. Assignment to waste becomes everyone’s potential prospect[2].

The white underclass represents the abject social body which cannot be completely objectivized but whose presence threatens the existing symbolic order. They cannot be fully reassimilated into normal life patterns and reprocessed back into the category of useful members of society — they lack the skills required for reintegration — but they cannot be discarded either; they carry a sense of entitlement as a constitutive element of the cultural and historical heritage that defines today’s America.

The abject lean on subject’s stability — their presence threatens the implicit culturally established boundaries of what is considered normal, causing the subject to feel vulnerable because its boundaries are under threat. The white underclass cannot be ingested or incorporated into the system — they are like bodily fluids that have departed the (social) body — appalling, but, at the same time, a part of the (social) body-image that carries a prospect of everyone’s destiny. The very thought of their reintegration, has becomes revolting, while, at the same time, they cannot be fully objectivized either.

The abject gambit

The abject hovers at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable, but is itself unassimilable which means that we have to contemplate its otherness in its proximity to us but without it being able to be incorporated. It is the other that comes from within (so it is part of ourselves) that we have to reject and expel in order to protect our boundaries[3].

The abject is a great mobilizing mechanism. While the state of being abject is threatening to the self and others, the operation of abjecting involves rituals of purity that bring about social stability. Abjection seeks to stabilize, while the abject inherently disrupts[4].

When the mass of the excluded increases to a size impossible to ignore, they trigger rituals of abjection, which work themselves into identity politics.The repulsion and efforts to distance from the excludedthe abjection – which reinforces the self-awareness of the social standing of regular folks, are in conflict with the attraction by the powers the abject population enjoys and exudes. They are the power bottoms in this relationship as they define the location, robustness and porousness of the boundaries of the enclosure. Fascination with the abject’s power pulls the viewers in, while they remain at arm’s length because of the threats the abject exert.

This makes the excluded a tool that drives the wedge between different social groups and prepares the population for political usage of the abject as leverage.

Objectifying minorities has been institutionalized in America since its inception — from slavery and Jim Crow to ghetto and hyperghetto, prisons, wars, opioids, and other tools of soft and hard marginalization. However, with the rise of the white underclass in the second half of the 20th century, American ideology has become highly nuanced around the questions of exclusion.

To a large extent, the Right wing has stuck to its white supremacists roots of yesteryear (either in a closeted form or explicitly) while centrists, both Left and Right, have shown greater initiative in modernizing the process. However, when it came to exclusion of the white underclass, the problem proved to be more difficult. Complicated by globalization, technology, the decline of American manufacturing, weaning off conventional energy sources and the general decay of demand for labor, low-skill jobs have been disappearing irreversibly, and the ranks of white underclass grew unstoppably together with their discontent.

Social outcasts and minorities are relatively easy to objectivize. Permanently excluded – criminals, drug addicts, homeless – they have already been cast out. The residual, white precariat, which has always been perceived as a building block of this country’s social fiber, remains still on the inside, but unable to get reintegrated within the context of modern developments.

In a white dominated/ruled society the marginalization of the excluded white subproletariat has been a political hard sell. They grew in size and have acquired a sense of entitlement minorities never could. Their sudden political awareness, no matter how fragile, has become an expression of pleasurable transgressive desires. As a new center of social subjectivity, theydraw their power from this position, which serves as an inspiration for their own identity politics.

The emergence of 21st century Right-wing populism represents the biggest innovation on that terrain. Right-wingers now recognize the abject as a source of political leverage and, instead of exclusion, their program revolves around subjectivizing them. Voluntarily casting oneself as abject — identification with the white subproletariat – has become a quest for authenticity, aimed at acquiring a stigma in order to become a credible voice of the marginalized. This is the core of the modern populist abject gambit.

Poetic catharsis: Politics in the kingdom of unreason

Poetic catharsis is an impure process that protects from the abject only by dint of being immersed in it. (Julia Kristeva)

In past autocratic systems, leaders had their own eccentricities and aberrations (e.g. Stalin’s paranoia, Kim Jong-Il’s sadistic personality disorder or vindictive narcissism of countless number of dictators and autocrats), but societies, collectively, didn’t suffer from them — there was a variety of afflictions that coexisted without any coordination with their leader –people were depressed, anxious, indifferent, etc. while their leaders remained an idiosyncratic singularity. In contrast, in contemporary populism the leader is styled as an embodiment of collective afflictions – he becomes a performance artist who functions as a concentrated version of collective social traumas, grievances, and anxieties. He appropriates the collective paranoia towards the deep state, the sovereign citizens fetish, the second amendment fixation, tax evasion obsession… Self-abjection of the Western political Right is pseudo-authenticity at all cost: Racism, misogyny, denialism, antivaxerism, conspiracy fantasies, and other flat-earth derivatives channel widespread collective anxieties through their leader.

Perceived as a medium of grievance and spokesmen for collective traumas, politicians of the populist Right have been absolved of any accountability. Their biggest strength and their superpower is the absolute absence of any shame and embarrassment, even when faced with undeniable proof of their incompetence, lies, criminality and lack of an ethical backbone, no matter how obvious and damaging their culpability might be. They have been set free to establish new benchmarks of shamelessness, a unique political skill that always keeps them one step ahead of their political opponents, which has opened an entirely new political terrain never accessible before.

The Populist politics now function as poetic catharsis: Through mimicry with their constituents political leaders no longer lead but surrender, resulting in a fragile and shifty consensus that is reinforced with their each action. Their activity consists of looking for themes that create resonance points capable of producing the loudest reverberations. Politics becomes hyper-optimized — there is not a single spec of life that is not used as leverage – but, in that process, it loses its robustness, becomes thinly spread and fractures under tinniest of shocks.

The emergence of the rapidly growing white underclass and its irreversible marginalization in the last decades is beginning to get recognized as the fatal flaw of the American experiment, an outcome that is in conflict with its founding axioms and an evolving national trauma threatening to void it. Things have gone terribly wrong in the last 50 years — the accidental wounding of the American white malehood by the inner workings of neoliberalism has been the unintended consequence of capitalist progress[5] with which the system has not been prepared to deal with in any form.

The Right wing populism of the last decade has become the last desperate attempt to save this failing experiment regardless of costs. Defeated in the ballot box, the battle to save wounded white malehood has assumed a less conventional form. In its desperation it has escalated to a suicide mission whose contours were unambiguously underlined in the first week of the past year.

As much as the political center may want to distance itself from the white underclass and its populist political representation, the significance of that moment forces them to pause and rethink one more time whether they are really prepared to win this battle and write the obituary for the American experiment.

CODA

If 2017 was the year when unreason was set free, then 2021 is the year of its proliferation – it is everywhere and nowhere. There are no more individual GOP members or voices anymore, only the opaque background of unreason against which they perform a choreographed dance of non-overlapping sequential appearances on the center stage of political spectacle hoping for a moment of public attention to make the absurd palatable and promote abnormal as the facts of life.

The Right-wing political kabuki functions like a medieval mechanism of an astronomical clock on a church of unreason. The puppet-apostles of that church have a fixed position on a slow rotating carousel, parading through the window of shared reality in a mechanized procession, always one at a time, like luggage pieces on the conveyer belt of baggage claim from a flight which arrived without passengers, occasionally voicing their presence through monologues of nonsense, hoping that someone would notice them.

The mechanism of the rotating Apostles inside the Prague Astronomical Clock of the Orloj church

[1] Rina Ayra, Abjection and Representation: An Exploration of Abjection in the Visual Arts, Film and Literature, Palgrave Macmillan; 2014th edition (2014)

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted LivesModernity and Its Outcasts, Polity (2003)

[3] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press; Reprint edition (1982).

[4] Rina Ayra ibid.

[5] Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, Columbia University Press (2019)

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