September 19, 2021

“I Abject” – Julia Kristeva And The Colonial Gaze (Alyssa Putzer)

We have all built up walls, established boundaries, “Do Not Merge” lanes, rules and regulations that we set our lives up according to. We do this because the aspects of life that disrupt social order, that remind us of the horrors that exist beyond ourselves, are too much. Some of these walls, boundaries, rules, and borders have been established by other groups who believe they are bringing civility, salvation, “rightness” to a backwards society. These limitations remind us of our mortality, of the forbidden desires we all have, but work so hard to avoid. They are there, they are part of life, but they are not to be touched.

The horror, the shame, the disgrace, the taboo, the perverse – the situations, objects, and thoughts that we inherently separate ourselves from because they are too disgusting, too horrible, too distasteful to associate ourselves with – are the facets of our lives that we repel and reject. They are parts of ourselves that we cast off and separate from in an effort to maintain social order. According to Barbara Creed in The Monstrous Feminine, Film, Feminism And Psychoanalysis, they are the abject; “… where meaning collapses, the place where ‘I’ am not. The abject threatens life, it must be radically excluded from the place of the living subject, propelled away from the body and deposited on the other side of an imaginary border which separates the self from that which threatens the self” (69).

Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror describes the abject as “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (4) and the act of abjection occurs in the human state between subject and object – a liminal state of being in-between, not yet subject and no longer object. It is that which makes us feel helpless, and that which is “opposed to I” (1). The abject threatens our very conception of ourselves, specifically within a Euro-Christian context, in the reality we have created and the stability and boundaries that we have built and drawn and the language that we use to identify what makes us different, and what makes others, “Other.”

However, those aspects of ourselves and of our lives that we abject are also aspects that we are drawn to. They are a part of us, while also eliciting an often-physical reaction. Shame, nausea, disgrace, humiliation, disdain, fear, anger – feelings that do not occur until one encounters an Other who imposes their notions of what is right and what will eliminate those feelings of indignity. When one looks into the eyes of an Other and realizes for the first time that they are different, that they do not fit the standard that has been formed for what is appropriate within the society they exist in.

They realize that they have crossed the boundaries of what is right according to this standard, that they have merged into a lane that causes them shame and disgrace. And these traits that make one different from the Other, the characteristics that lead to feelings of self-hate, that cross the boundary of what is right – these are the characteristics and traits that are rejected. It is through what is rejected – through the boundaries that are crossed, the feelings of shame and disgust, the pieces of oneself that do not fit into society’s notion of “right” or “ethical,” and the barriers that are broken down ­– that one realizes their true self and their true self in relation to the standard set by the Other.

Though these aspects of “right” and “ethical” may be convoluted, theorists like Søren Kierkegaard and Frantz Fanon identify what is decent in terms of a very specific type of Other: The Euro-Christian and the colonial. Subjectivity and individuation of a subject are achieved by rejecting that which results in feelings of despair, shame, and otherness and, instead, assimilating to the dominant, Euro-Christian culture, through the use of language, as demonstrated by Fanon, and the Kierkegaardian notion of rejection of a non-Christian non-self, and by deploying Kristeva’s method of abjection for identity formation within the Euro-Christian power matrix.

Kristeva’s theory of abjection, according to Creed, is “a means of separating the human from the non-human and the fully constituted subject from the partially formed subject” (68). That which is abject does not respect rules or boundaries and is an aspect of the self that is both acknowledged and excluded. Kristeva emphasizes the importance of the abject in defining oneself and one’s life. Creed states that the excluded abject “… must, nevertheless, be tolerated, for that which threatens to destroy life also helps to define life” (69).

The abject exists just on the other side of the lines that we draw and the standards that are set and show just how precarious the rules of life are and the true lack of separation between the subject and that which is abjected. The line that separates the abject from the narrative we create “separates out the living subject from that which threatens its extinction… it is always there, beckoning the self to take up its place, the place where meaning collapses” (70). It is human nature to be afraid of the unknown or the aspects of the self that do not fit into societal norms, and the abject is just that. It is all that we push aside, and its ambiguity threatens the reality that we have created. We constantly desire to form meaning, and one of the ways that we do so is through language. The indistinctness of the abject pressures these meanings we create but is also deeply desired by the object. Kristeva states that:

We may call it a border: abject is above all ambiguity. Because while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it – on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger. But also because abjection itself is a composite of judgement and affect, of condemnation and yearning, of signs and drives. (9-10).

Abjection is essentially a paradox of duality. Our desire as humans to be someone that we are not drives us to abject aspects of our selves that do not fit in our perceptions of the Other’s opinions and standards. It is a separation from oneself, and a rejection of behaviors that do not fit the standards set by the superego.

However, abjection is crucial for the formation of the ego and the process of differentiation and individuation. Kristeva often draws on Jacques Lacan and his concept of the “mirror stage” to explain the importance of abjection in identity formation. The mirror stage comprises the point in an infant’s life when they start to differentiate themselves from their mother and see themselves as an individual, a self. Prior to the formation of the ego, the infant cannot distinguish between themselves and the outside world until this stage – the mirror stage – takes place.

The infant looks in the mirror and sees their own image for the first time, but they do not just see their physical features, but their physical features in relation to their physical movements. They become their own being in relation to the world around them. According to University of Denver alumnus Timothy O. Inman in his dissertation entitled “Revolution in Religious Language: The Relevance of Julia Kristeva’s Theory of ‘Signifiance’ for Theology,” the infant

… comes face to face, so to speak, with an image of its body as a self-contained totality. Prior to the mirror stage, the infant’s experience of its own body is one of disjointedness, as the child’s psyche has yet to recognize the body as a self-contained unified vessel. (22).

Initially, individuation comes as a result of interacting with one’s self as an image, a reflection in the mirror. Eventually, individuation continues and becomes more precise through the development of language. When one is pre-linguistic, the experiences and traits that are abjected (horror, shame, trauma, etcetera), cannot be vocalized, despite the fact that one may detect the feelings associated with such experiences.

However, after the mirror stage and with the development of language, or logos, the feelings associated with trauma can be covered up and pushed aside because they can now be identified and named, allowing one to remove themselves from the trauma they have experienced. However, like a bad penny, that trauma will continue to appear, for “It is only after his death, eventually, that the writer of abjection will escape his condition of waste, reject, abject” (16). That which is abjected is a part of who we are and we are unable to escape it for as long as we are living. Our identities are those things that we reject, those things that cause us shame, those feelings that elicit a physical reaction of disgust.

It is no secret that, as humans, we have a desire to be someone we are not, to conform to standards set by an Other, and to jump on the bandwagon of trends. Whether it is projecting a self that we believe others want to see through social media profiles, embracing the notion of the ideal person through magazines and pop culture, or conforming to cultural norms. But no example of rejecting aspects of ourselves in order to follow the standards set by a more superior “self” – what I have been referring to as an Other – is more prominent than colonialism.

Colonialism is not only signified by the control of one superior power over a dependent group, but a feeling of inferiority by that dependent group. This is accompanied by a desire of the dependent group to change certain attributes, traits, and characteristics to become more like the colonizing group. Colonialism wreaked havoc on many peoples, one being the Indians who were colonized by the British in the 17th and 18th centuries. In a country as diverse, colorful, and varied as India, the sudden influx of Euro-Christians affected everything native Indians did, including the ways they practiced religion and engaged in religious rituals.

One example of this was the British colonials’ reaction to Tantric Hinduism, which is defined by Hugh B. Urban in his article “The Cult of Ecstasy” as “a form of spirituality that… not only affirms the divinity of the human self, but also seeks the union of sensuality with spirituality, material enjoyment with other-worldly bliss” (278). His broad definition explains that the goal of a Tantric practitioner is not to give up desires and longings, but to use them to better themselves and to help fuel their journey toward ultimate enlightenment. The Tantric practitioner believes that one cannot attain liberation without indulgence in everything the material world has to offer because everything that exists in the world is one with the non-dual cosmos created by the divine. The goal of Tantric practice is for the practitioner to receive self-acceptance, according to Urban.

When the British arrived, they were struck with fear at seeing the Tantric practices that some groups of Hindus engaged in. Hinduism itself was “backwards” enough, with their polytheism and idolatry. But adding in Tantra that embraced alcohol or drug consumption, sexual rituals, and other taboo practices only encouraged the colonizing British to try and right the wrongs of Indian culture. Colonizing Euro-Christians saw a distinct separation between the sacred and the profane, and many worldly desires that Tantric practitioners embraced (like drugs and alcohol) were seen as sacrilegious.

While the Christian British colonial believed in purity of the body and salvation through self-control and strict discipline, the Tantric practitioners seemed to believe the opposite. Tantrism is “the only spiritual path that actually accepts and affirms human beings as the creatures they truly are… who need to pursue and satisfy their hedonistic urges in order to be self-realized and self-fulfilled individuals” (299). It was precisely these urges that the British saw as barbaric. With their original plan of non-intervention into the native religious practices tabled, they decided to take strict measures against Tantric practices.

Euro-Christian missionaries saw the extreme rituals practiced by Tantrics and fought it, believing it was shameful, disgusting and undignified. Douglas Renfrew Brooks, as quoted in Urban’s article, calls Tantra the “‘unwanted stepchild in the family of Hindu Studies’” (273). The missionaries who carried out this view saw themselves as bringing light into an area of perpetual darkness that was obviously caused by Tantric practices.

By bringing Western notions of Christianity to India, they were, in a sense, saving Indians and bringing them out of the darkness they were engulfed in. Christianity raged aggressively during colonization and Hindus were often forced into conversion. They often used violence and trickery to lure Hindus into Christian churches in an effort to convert them and spread their influence. In fact, members of some Tantric ascetic sects in India were occasionally executed for their Tantric crimes. As time went on, some of these Tantrics rejected their practices to conform to a society that saw them not just as taboo, but as heretical, disgusting, and criminal.

These Hindu practitioners were pushed to the outskirts of towns, living as outcasts and looked down upon not just by the British intruders, but by the traditional Hindus, as well, who also took the path of abjection in an effort to become more British, believing the narrative being forced upon them that British was better; whiter was more beautiful; Christian was moral; Hinduism was backwards. Being Hindu, for many Indians, invoked a sense of shame and guilt and was something to be pushed aside and replaced with European-influenced home décor and a Bible.

The British colonials brought these ideas to India and attempted to not only abolish Tantra, but to reform Hinduism as a whole. According to Brian K. Pennington in his article “Constructing Colonial Dharma,” the British government wanted “the power to construct not just a representation of Hinduism but Hindu practice itself” (589). Tantra was singled out by the British as one of the native customs in need of reform because it was so removed from the Western, Euro-Christian standard. Evangelist missionaries imposed their Christian morals onto local Indians for fear of what they saw as criminal activity, as profanity, as something to be punished and removed and in an effort to “save” the doomed Indian.

And, in many cases, the “doomed” Indians began to see themselves as backwards through the lens of the colonizing British. They saw the privilege associated with the white Euro-Christians, the glamour, the lightness of their skin, their refined characteristic and many abandoned their Hindu faith and customs for a more British lifestyle. In fact, on an even larger scale, many Indian city names were even rejected and changed to names that were easier to pronounce for the colonizers to pronounce or that held significance to the new colonizers.

Examples include Bombay (originally and now officially changed back to Mumbai), Madras (originally and now officially changed back to Chennai), Bangalore (originally and now officially changed back to Bengaluru), Benares (originally Varanasi), and Calcutta (originally and now officially changed back to the original spelling, Kolkata). Bearing this in mind, I refer again to Barbara Creed’s quote about abjection as “a means of separating the human from the non-human and the fully constituted subject from the partially formed subject” (68).

Indians were seen as sub-human to the colonizing British – as a group that needed to be reformed and saved from their own taboo self-destruction. The new boundaries set by Euro-Christianity led to large-scale abjection as Indians saw themselves through the eyes of an Other and saw their own traits and practices as not aligning with what was staunchly believed by most of the world and by the colonizing power to be right and moral.

The attempted eradication of Tantrism and anything Indian that did not align with Euro-Christian beliefs during British colonialism in India is only one example of how colonization can affect the subjectivity of the dependent group. The recognition of themselves through the eyes of the Other leads to the abjection of traits that do not match the traits of the colonial power.

Fanon also stressed this concept in Black Skin, White Masks, emphasizing the psychological effects of being the “inferior” race in France and the Euro-Christian-colonized French Antilles. Being a black man in a white colony, Fanon emphasized the importance of language in the subjugation of the black Antillean. Similar to the multi-dimensional nature of Hindu Indians under British rule who – Tantric or not – abjected that which made them different from the ruling class, the Black man “behaves differently with a white man than he does with another black man” (1). The duality of the Black man under colonial rule highlights the extreme consequences of colonialism that Fanon emphasizes.

The drive to reject that which makes one black and, subsequently, that which causes him shame and makes him inferior, the lesser man, is what brings him closer to becoming a better person in relation to the white man, the Other, as Fanon states that “The more he rejects his blackness and the bush, the whiter he will become” (2-3). According to Kristeva, abjection comes from the desire to become your opinion of the Other’s perception of you. Kristeva says that:

I experience abjection only if an Other has settled in place and stead of what will be ‘me.’ Not at all an Other with whom I identify and incorporate, but an Other who precedes and possesses me, and through such possession causes me to be. (10).

This correlates with Fanon’s drive to assimilate to the white man through the use of language. He states that “the more the black Antillean assimilates the French language, the whiter he gets – i.e. the closer he comes to becoming a true human being” (2). The black man’s identity becomes his likeness to whiteness; how close he can truly get without actually physically turning into a white man. The black Antillean knows that he will never become white, but through abjecting his black traits – his language, his accent, his mannerisms – he can become close enough to return to his family and community “radically transformed” (3).

The power of language cannot be understated in Black Skin, White Masks and its impact on not just the assimilation of the black man to the colonial culture, but to becoming a new, better, more refined man because that new man is closer to the white man, for “Among a group of young Antilleans, he who can express himself, who masters the language, is the one to look out for: be wary of him; he’s almost white” (4). This attempt to be closer to the white man by rejecting those traits that make one Black correlate with Kristeva’s method of abjection in that the black man rejects aspects of his self that bring about feelings of self-hate or shame.

As the colonized, the black man feels a sense of subordination, of being the lesser, the more primitive in relation to the colonizer, the white man. This sense of feeling subservient occurs because of the sense of shame that is forced upon him when “his reality as a man has been challenged” (78). Fanon goes on to explain the feelings the black man, the Malagasy, experiences when his sense of not just his manhood, but his personhood is altered due to feelings of shame and guilt thrust upon him by the white European:

I start suffering from not being a white man insofar as the white man discriminates against me; turns me into a colonized subject; robs me of any value or originality; tells me I am a parasite in the world, that I should toe the line of the white world as quickly as possible, and ‘that we are brute beasts; that we are a walking manure, a hideous forerunner of tender cane and silky cotton, that I have no place in the world.’ So I will try quite simply to make myself white; in other words I will force the white man to acknowledge my humanity. (78).

The way Fanon proposes that this acknowledgement of the humanity of the black man takes place is through language which, as I discussed earlier, is paramount to Kristeva’s method of abjection. To reiterate, the development of language occurs after Lacan’s “mirror stage” and the development of language, which allows one to cover up trauma, shame, and guilt. Fanon takes this one step further, pointing out that those feelings of shame, guilt, and self-consciousness that cause one to abject do not occur until language is developed and exchanged.

For Fanon, language plays a dual purpose. First, it is the black Antillean’s tool to become more “white” in order to be recognized as more human. In this case, the black man abjects his language because “To speak a language is to appropriate its world and culture. The Antillean who wants to be white will succeed, since he will have adopted the cultural tool of language” (21) and the Antillean also will pick up on the nuances of the white language – in Fanon’s case, French – as “a way of proving to himself that he is culturally adequate” (21).

However, that sense of shame in relation to the black man’s native language must come from somewhere, which is the second purpose that language plays to Fanon: language as the lens through which shame and self-hate are identified. Until one sees themself as an inferior being through the eyes of an Other, they have no standard in which to set themselves to. Until one is identified as different, wrong, strange, there can be no sense of self-consciousness.

Abjection cannot happen until one sees themselves through the perception of the Other, for “Every act of an Antillean is dependent on ‘the Other’ – not because ‘the Other’ remains his final goal for the purpose of communing with him… but simply because it is ‘the Other’ who asserts him in his need to enhance his status” (187). The black Antillean’s need to abject those traits which make him black and dedicate their life to being seen as white is driven from the action and recognition of this “Other,” in this case the white colonizer. It is through the eyes of the colonizer and the words that come out of their mouths that the black Antillean acquires the drive to reach a different level of prestige and personhood with the bar set by the white man.

Fanon references the Hegelian dialectic in this theory of linguistic and mutual recognition, stating that, “Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose himself on another man in order to be recognized by him… His human worth and reality depend on his other and on his recognition by the other. It is in this other that the meaning of his life is condensed” (191). Similar to Lacan’s mirror stage, Fanon is arguing that a man’s worth is determined by his recognition by another man. In this case it is the recognition of the black Antillean by the white colonizing Frenchman.

Individuation and the endeavor to reject parts of the self in order to acquire or make prominent the traits that one believes are superior cannot happen until there is mutual recognition between humans, and this mutual recognition happens through language, according to Fanon. He highlights this by referencing the recognition of the black man by a small child for the first time. The child reacts in shock and fear, yelling, “Look, a Negra! Maman, a Negro!” (93). This is the point Fanon points to that the black man feels shame and self-hate. He realizes that:

The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is wicked, the Negro is ugly; look, a Negro; the Negro is trembling, the Negro is trembling because he’s cold, the small boy is trembling because he’s afraid of the Negro, the Negro is trembling with cold, the cold that chills the bones, the lovely little boy is trembling because he thinks the Negro is trembling with rage, the little white boy runs to his mother’s arms: ‘Maman, the Negro’s going to eat me.’… All this whiteness burns me to a cinder. (93-94).

This recognition of difference makes the black man a slave to his appearance. Until the child points out this difference and reacts with fear, the black man just exists in a world with boundaries constructed by him. But through that verbal recognition of difference, the black man realizes his inferiority and feels “Shame. Shame and self-contempt. Nausea” (96).

The power of language in the recognition of the black man is the cause of feelings of embarrassment and self-hate. It leads to abjection by the black man, and those things that are abjected are what cross the boundaries that are set by society. The boundaries that are drawn in Fanon’s case are drawn by the Euro-Christian, who set the standard for what is right and what is human. When one realizes that they don’t fit these ideals is when abjection occurs, and a sense of individuation emerges – a sense that one is different and needs to find ways to conform to what society defines as proper. Colonialism, whether in India or the French Antilles has a proven history of causing large-scale abjection in order to individualize in accordance with the superior colonist. We can also see this Euro-Christian superiority play out in Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death.

According to Kierkegaard, the “sickness unto death” is despair – an endless cycle of unhappiness and frustration caused by an imbalance and misrelation in the body/spirit relationship. Kierkegaard’s claim is that “Despair is the misrelation in the relation of a synthesis that relates itself to itself” (15). This feeling of despair – this disconnection of the self to the self – can be compared to Fanon’s sense of shame in seeing the self through the eyes of an Other. And similar to the black Antillean’s yearning to become white by embracing Euro-Christian notions of superiority, like language, Kierkegaard believes that overcoming the endless cycle of despair is conforming to the European’s unwavering devotion to the Christian God.

This belief in God is the cure to despair, because “The believer has the ever infallible antidote for despair – possibility – because for God everything is possible at every moment” (40). Kierkegaard equates despair with sin, and he defines it as “intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair” (77). This assumes that only the pious Christian – namely the Euro-Christian – can escape despair because sin is a Christian concept. According to Kierkegaard, the Other is a devout, loyal, fervent Christian who rejects worldly desires and replaces them with a deep devotion to God in order to curb the everlasting cycle of despair.

With this in mind, one can argue that Kierkegaard conforms to the Euro-Christian conception of what is right and what is human. The Pagan – the non-believer – must adopt a Christian lifestyle and the notion of the moral right: what one must do, as ordered by God, in order to live an ethical life and escape despair. According to Matthew Gerhard Jacoby in his article “Kierkegaard on Truth,” the division between Christians and Pagans is paramount to what he defines as truth. Jacoby states that, “In Kierkegaard’s distinction Christianity is truth in so far as it facilitates the reconciliation of the relationship between man and God, and paganism is untruth insofar as it seeks to escape from this relationship” (31). This further intensifies Kierkegaard’s theory of subjectivity through unwavering belief in God.

Using Kristeva’s method of abjection and Fanon’s analysis of the relationship between the colonized black Antillean and the white Frenchman, those who follow Kierkegaard’s notion of subjectivity through Christianity would likely abject those traits that cause them despair – those that make them a non-Christian and, therefore, a non-self – in order to conform to the Euro-Christian notion of right that Kierkegaard emphasizes. This would equate to anything that does not fit the traditional Euro-Christian mold that is often spread like a virus through colonialism.

Traits, characteristics, and aspects of one’s life that do not fit that mold should, through a Kierkegaardian lens, be rejected for the Euro-Christian idea of what is right and what will eliminate despair, shame, and self-hate. This will allow them to achieve true subjectivity through their constant striving to attain an ethical life through a willful relationship with God. It is through abjection, for both Fanon and Kierkegaard, that one rejects part of oneself while also finding another part, for “The time of abjection is double: a time of oblivion and thunder, of veiled infinity and the moment when revelation bursts forth” (9). This revelation that Kristeva refers to is what I believe to be the Euro-Christian standard.

The prevailing, superior worldview that was thrust upon others as right, just, moral, and ethical. It embodies both Kierkegaard’s theory of the discovery of subjectivity through a fervent, ever-developing relationship with God, as well as Fanon’s demonstration of the power of colonialism on the Antillean black man and his longing to do what he can to be viewed as more white and, therefore, human. The French Antilles and India are two examples of the influence that colonialism has over the subjectivity of the colonized, and Fanon notes “that this same behavior can be found in any race subjected to colonization” (9).

Colonialism is the ultimate example of relationality between a group of people and an invading Other. This inferior-superior relationship between a colonist and a colonizer creates the perfect storm for recognition and the realization of the self as different, as sub-human, as lesser. It is not until this relationship happens – a seeming, large-scale mirror stage – that one engages in Kristeva’s method of abjection to eliminate, reject, and cast aside the parts of the self that do not coincide with the Other’s notion of what is right.

The Other draws the borders of what is true and what is human, and the parts of one that are abjected are the parts that do not fit within these newly drawn boundaries. They are the parts that are subjected to one of the 21st century’s top buzzwords: White Savior Complex. They are the parts of us that we do not even recognize until we see them through the eyes of an Other, until we identify what their perceptions of us are and feel that gnawing need to conform to those perceptions.

They are the parts of us that react – whether emotionally or physically or both – to those side-eye glances, the switch to the other side of the road, the whispered comments and make us realize that we are, in fact, different. Suddenly, those characteristics that we did not realize were different becoming glaringly obvious, and the borders and boundaries and societal norms that we had drawn for ourselves are erased and replaced with a new set of boundaries and standards set by a more powerful, a more correct, a more moral Other. We abject to become an Other ourselves.

We violently dispel those things that break down the limits we have set on ourselves or that society has instilled in us. The recognition of and by the Other is a powerful force in our individuation, in identifying horror, trauma, shame, guilt, and self-hate, and in turning ourselves inside-out and abjecting ourselves to achieve subjectivity.

I abject myself with the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasize, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see the “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death, During that course I’m which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit. Mute protest of the symptom, shattering the violence of a convulsion that, to be sure, is inscribed in a symbolic system, but in which, without either wanting or being able to become integrated in order to answer to it, it abreacts. It abjects. (3).

Alyssa Putzer is a graduate student at the University of Denver and CEO of Light Roast Media. She serves as marketing editor for The New Polis.

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